2011-2012 progress report (part 3)

City slowly backs up shifted rhetoric on parents, needy students

Like the Bloomberg administration’s schools reform efforts, our series tracking the city’s progress toward fulfilling its recent education policy promises started last month with teachers and schools. Now we are turning toward the students and families they serve.

It’s a shift that city officials also made in the last year. For nearly a decade, the Department of Education’s approach to helping needy students focused largely on creating excellent new schools and closing ones that don’t work. But its policies drew fierce criticism that families were shut out of decisions and that some student groups had not benefited from years of initiatives.

Last year, the first that Chancellor Dennis Walcott led in full, city officials announced some changes to its approach, introducing policies aimed at helping students and parents. Concrete actions have been slow to come, but we found that the department is slowly plugging away at creating programs to back up last year’s rhetoric shifts. (Each promise is in bold, followed by an explanation of how far the city has come toward meeting it.)

On students:

  • The city will study high schools that graduate black and Latino students at high rates to find out what they are doing right. (Mayor Bloomberg’s Young Men’s Initiative speech, August 2011)
    The study is the intended outcome of the Expanded Success Initiative, the flagship education program of Mayor Bloomberg’s recent effort to help black and Latino young men. The three-year, $24 million program got underway in June, when the city named 40 schools to monitor as they pioneer new college-readiness strategies funded with grants of $250,000 each.
  • The city will decrease the concentration of high-need students in some schools. (Communication with the state, June 2012)
    Responding to pressure from State Education Commissioner John King, the city quietly embarked on a pilot program to distribute students who enroll during the school year and summer over a wider swath of schools, despite steadfastly maintaining that high concentrations of needy students do not make it harder for schools to succeed. The city gets about 20,000 new high school students, called “over-the-counters,” each year, and they have traditionally wound up in a small number of struggling schools. Last year, about 800 of them went to 54 high schools that have not usually accepted midyear arrivals. But many schools still receive few or no over-the-counter students, while others complain they receive more than they can handle.
  • All city high schools, even those with selective admissions processes, will accept students with disabilities. (Directive to schools, June 2012)
    The department set aside spots at dozens of selective schools and opened them to students with disabilities in the second round of high school admissions this spring. But the department has never disclosed how many students were admitted as a result, even when asked. And about a third of the new seats at a popular middle school in Brooklyn remain open after the city set them aside for students with who require special education services.
  • The city will lobby for a state law to help students who are undocumented immigrants attend college. (March 2012)
    Despite city advocacy, the New York State Dream Act didn’t make it to a vote before the legislative session ended in June. Undocumented students received some additional security — but not college funds — when President Barack Obama announced changes to immigration policy in June so that students who would have been eligible for relief under the Dream Act would not have to fear deportation.

On parents:

  • A “Parent Academy” will ramp up parent engagement. (Chancellor Walcott’s “Partnering with Parents” speech, October 2011)
    Since Walcott announced that the city would open a Parent Academy like one in Charlotte, N.C., city officials haven’t said much about the plan. But work has been happening behind the scenes: The city contracted Long Island University to run the academy and in August placed job ads for a “Parent Academy Project Director.” No programming has yet been announced, but in recent weeks, a website quietly went up that invites parents to apply for the “inaugural class.” The main site advertised on that page, NYParentAcademy.org, is not yet live — but that could change next week, when the city has a full agenda planned for its annual Parents as Partners Week.
  • A new section on the department’s website will give more information for parents. (“Partnering with Parents” speech)
    The internal Department of Education website launched the same day. So far, the site has a back-to-school guide and information on new curriculum standards, sex education, and resources for special education and English language learner students.
  • The parent coordinator role will be enhanced. (“Partnering with Parents” speech)
    Parent coordinators have long run interference between schools and their parents, putting out fires and making sure families get important news. But Walcott said they should be trained to more often lead programming in their schools, with the goal of galvanizing families about college preparedness. So far, the department has compiled some resources on a portion of its website for parent coordinators. Officials say they will announce ways in which the role is evolving next week during the Parents as Partners events.
  • The city will convene a task force of parents and parent coordinators to give advice to middle schools. (“Partnering with Parents” speech)
    Department officials say the advisory committee is up and running, with a total of 15 parents, principals, parent coordinators, and representatives from local nonprofits. The committee met three times in the 2011-2012 school year to brainstorm ideas for supporting middle schools, according to the department.
  • The city will pilot “partnership standards” in 10-15 schools, then use them to measure schools citywide.  (“Partnering with Parents” speech)
    Actually, 26 schools from around the city piloted the standards, which Walcott described as “characteristics that make schools effective at getting parents involved in their students’ success.” But if and how the standards will be implemented citywide is unclear, as is whether the city plans to follow through on assessing how well individual schools are meeting the standards.
  • The city will help parents learn what ratings their children’s teachers received. (Bloomberg’s WOR Radio Interview, June 2012)
    Bloomberg vowed to have school administrators call parents and guardians of every single student in the school system — who number about 1 million — to let them know when they can request to see their teachers’ evaluations in accordance with a new state law. But since there still are no new evaluations, there has been no opportunity to follow through.

first steps

Superintendent León secures leadership team, navigates evolving relationship with board

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Superintendent Roger León at Tuesday's school board meeting.

As Newark’s new superintendent prepares for the coming academic year, the school board approved the final members of his leadership team Tuesday and began piecing together a roadmap to guide his work.

The board confirmed three assistant superintendents chosen by Superintendent Roger León: Jose Fuentes, the principal of First Avenue School in the North Ward; Sandra Rodriguez, a Hoboken principal who previously oversaw Newark Public Schools’ early childhood office; and Mario Santos, principal of East Side High School in the East Ward. They join three other assistant superintendents León selected for his team, along with a deputy superintendent, chief of staff, and several other officials.

The three assistant superintendents confirmed Tuesday had first come before the board in June, but at that time none of them secured enough votes to be approved. During last month’s meeting, the board assented to several of León’s leadership picks and to his decision to remove many people from the district’s central office, but it also blocked him from ousting several people.

This week, Board Chair Josephine Garcia declined to comment on the board’s reversal, and León did not respond to a request for comment.

What is clear is that the board and León are still navigating their relationship.

In February, the board regained local control of the district 22 years after the state seized control of the district due to poor performance and mismanagement. The return to local control put the board back in charge of setting district policy and hiring the superintendent, who previously answered only to the state. Still, the superintendent, not the board, is responsible for overseeing the district’s day-to-day operations.

During a board discussion Tuesday, Garcia hinted at that delicate balance of power.

“Now that we’re board members, we want to make sure that, of course, yes, we’re going to have input and implementation,” but that they don’t overstep their authority, she said.

Under state rules, the board is expected to develop district goals and policies, which the superintendent is responsible for acting on. But León — a former principal who spent the past decade serving as an assistant superintendent — has his own vision for the district, which he hopes to convince the board to support, he said in a recent interview on NJTV.

“It’s my responsibility as the new superintendent of schools to compel them to assist the district moving in the direction that I see as appropriate,” he said.

Another matter still being ironed out by the board and superintendent is communication.

León did not notify the full board before moving to force out 31 district officials and administrators, which upset some members. And he told charter school leaders in a closed-door meeting that he plans to keep intact the single enrollment system for district and charter schools — a controversial policy the board is still reviewing.

The district has yet to make a formal announcement about the staff shake-up, including the appointment of León’s new leadership team. And when the board voted on the new assistant superintendents Tuesday, it used only the appointed officials’ initials — not their full names. However, board member Leah Owens stated the officials’ full names when casting her vote.

The full names, titles and salaries of public employees are a matter of public record under state law.

Earlier, board member Yambeli Gomez had proposed improved communication as a goal for the board.

“Not only communication within the board and with the superintendent,” she said, “but also communication with the public in a way that’s more organized.”

The board spent much of Tuesday’s meeting brainstorming priorities for the district.

Members offered a grab bag of ideas, which were written on poster paper. Under the heading “student achievement,” they listed literacy, absenteeism, civics courses, vocational programs, and teacher quality, among other topics. Under other “focus areas,” members suggested classroom materials, parent involvement, and the arts.

Before the school year begins in September, León is tasked with shaping the ideas on that poster paper into specific goals and an action plan.

After the meeting, education activist Wilhelmina Holder said she hopes the board will focus its attention on a few key priorities.

“There was too much of a laundry list,” she said.

early dismissals

Top Newark school officials ousted in leadership shake-up as new superintendent prepares to take over

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Incoming Newark Public Schools Superintendent Roger León

Several top Newark school officials were given the option Friday to resign or face termination, in what appeared to be an early move by incoming Superintendent Roger León to overhaul the district’s leadership.

The shake-up includes top officials such as the chief academic officer and the head of the district’s controversial enrollment system, as well as lower-level administrators — 31 people in total, according to documents and district employees briefed on the overhaul. Most of the officials were hired or promoted by the previous two state-appointed superintendents, Cami Anderson and Christopher Cerf, a sign that León wants to steer the district in a new direction now that it has returned to local control.

The officials were given the option to resign by Tuesday and accept buyouts or face the prospect of being fired by the school board at its meeting that evening. The buyouts offer a financial incentive to those who resign voluntarily on top of any severance included in their contracts. In exchange for accepting the buyouts, the officials must sign confidentiality agreements and waive their right to sue the district.

Earlier this week, León submitted a list of his choices to replace the ousted cabinet-level officials, which the board must approve at its Tuesday meeting. It’s not clear whether he has people lined up to fill the less-senior positions.

It’s customary for incoming superintendents to appoint new cabinet members and reorganize the district’s leadership structure, which usually entails replacing some personnel. However, many staffers were caught off guard by Friday’s dismissals since León has given little indication of how he plans to restructure the central office — and he does not officially take the reins of the district until July 1.

A district spokeswoman and the school board chair did not immediately respond to emails on Friday about the shake-up.

Some staffers speculated Friday that the buyout offers were a way for León to replace the district’s leadership without securing the school board’s approval because, unlike with terminations, the board does not need to sign off on resignations. However, it’s possible the board may have to okay any buyout payments. And it could also be the case that the buyouts were primarily intended to help shield the district from legal challenges to the dismissals.

León was not present when the staffers learned Friday afternoon that they were being let go, the employees said. Instead, the interim superintendent, Robert Gregory, and other top officials broke the news, which left some stunned personnel crying and packing their belongings into boxes. They received official separation letters by email later that day.

The people being ousted include Chief Academic Officer Brad Haggerty and Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon, who oversees enrollment. Also included are top officials in the curriculum, early childhood, and finance divisions, among others, according to a list obtained by Chalkbeat.

In addition to the 31 being pushed out, several assistant superintendents are being demoted but will remain in the district, according to the district employees.

There was concern among some officials Friday about whether the turnover would disrupt planning for the coming school year.

“I don’t know how we’re going to open smoothly with cuts this deep,” one of the employees said. “Little to no communication was provided to the teams about what these cuts mean for the many employees who remain in their roles and need leadership guidance and direction Monday morning.”