With changes in leadership and funding, the splashy 'iZone' reaches a crossroads

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Nearly 370 schools are part of the city's personalized learning programs, known collectively as the iZone.

Schools that are part of the city’s Innovation Zone have experimented with 60-student classrooms, online courses, and computer algorithms that assign work to students. The four-year-old set of programs, known collectively as the iZone, have enlisted hundreds of city schools, app developers from across the country, and the technology titans Amazon and Google.

But the splashy Bloomberg-era initiative is at a crossroads.

The head of the iZone left the education department soon after the new schools chancellor arrived this year, and its three other top officials departed last month. Meanwhile, federal grants that have helped fuel the costly programs are drying up.

Still, the iZone projects already underway in schools — online and self-paced learning, as well as design competitions — are continuing, as department officials are quick to point out. “We’re happy to say that the iZone is not going anywhere,” said Krista Werbeck, the iZone’s new executive director, who noted that more schools than ever will offer online learning through the iZone this year.

But some educators and iZone proponents point out that on the occasions when Chancellor Carmen Fariña talks about innovation, she refers to a new school-experimentation program she created with the teachers union — not to the iZone. With that new program, the departures, the end of some funding, and the de Blasio administration’s focus on initiatives like pre-kindergarten, some have questioned whether the iZone will lose some of its stature.

“I’m waiting to see where the iZone’s going,” said Scott Conti, principal of New Design High School, an iZone school. With the new administration, he added, “I don’t know if innovation is going to be a priority.”

After pursuing system-wide changes for years, former schools chief Joel Klein formed the iZone in 2010 as a way for individual schools to experiment with new approaches, especially ones that involve technology and tailoring instruction to meet students’ needs. Since then, the iZone has grown from 81 member schools to nearly 370 schools today.

Some of the best-known iZone initiatives center around technology, such as School of One, which uses algorithms to create personal “playlists” of math activities for students based on their abilities. But iZone schools have also experimented with longer days, student-designed classes, and courses that allow students to progress at their own pace. Still, at least 80 percent of iZone schools use its online learning tools.

The programs haven’t been universally praised. The city has estimated before that the iZone would cost $50 million in public and private funds over several years — a price critics say is unjustified. Officials have pointed to surveys that show some iZone students developed research skills and became more motivated, while researchers have found mixed results at schools participating in School of One. (Disclosure: Chalkbeat rents office space from New Classrooms, the nonprofit that grew out of School of One.)

Earlier this year, iZone CEO Andrea Coleman, a former ed-tech consultant and nonprofit executive, stepped down to join Bloomberg Philanthropies, the former mayor’s charitable foundation. Last month, three more top iZone directors left the education department: Steven Hodas, Megan Roberts, and Seth Schoenfeld. Since January, the iZone has shed 10 staffers — or more than a quarter of its employees — though officials said many will be replaced.

A teacher at New Design High School in 2011 works with students on laptop computers provided by the iZone.
PHOTO: Rachel Cromidas
A teacher at New Design High School in 2011 works with students on laptop computers provided by the iZone.

The churn comes after Fariña dissolved the office that had housed the iZone and moved it to another division. Some officials had lobbied to put the iZone under the oversight of the department’s new “chief strategy officer,” where they hoped the office’s experiments might influence system-wide changes, or even under the technology chief at City Hall, according to two former department officials. Instead, the iZone was shifted to the school-support division under Senior Deputy Chancellor Dorita Gibson.

At the same time, the federal Race to the Top grant money that helped finance iZone’s launch and expansion ran out in June. Two other federal “Investing in Innovation” grants worth millions of dollars that iZone won will expire next year.

Meanwhile, Fariña and United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew embedded their own innovation program, called PROSE, in the new teachers contract. Participating schools are freed from certain contract rules to make approved changes, such as extending their school days — something schools in the past have done through iZone’s school-redesign project.

“It seems that innovation in the current administration is expressed more through PROSE — and we’re definitely paying attention to that,” said William Frackelton, principal of Soundview Academy for Culture and Scholarship in the Bronx, an iZone school that is planning to join PROSE. In fact, about 40 percent of the schools that were admitted into PROSE are iZone schools, officials said.

These shifts at the department, along with Fariña’s public silence about the iZone, have convinced some people that the initiative’s role under the new administration will be diminished.

Hodas, one of the iZone directors who recently left, had been connecting schools with ed-tech companies, in one instance through a competition to design math apps for classrooms that drew 200 submissions. He had hoped to expand those efforts into system-wide changes to the way the education department partners with tech companies, what he considered “phase two” of his work, according to a recent article on the website EdSurge. But Hodas didn’t think that would be possible under the new administration, the article said.

“I didn’t have a lot of confidence that we were going to have the political support to get those changes for Phase 2,” Hodas, who is now a practitioner-in-residence at the University of Washington Bothell’s Center for Reinventing Public Education, told the website.

Still, Hodas said he expects existing iZone projects to continue, as did Schoenfeld, another director who left. Schoenfeld told Chalkbeat that he is confident his work will be carried on and is eager to see where the new leadership steers the iZone.

“What level of success and impact it will have on the system will be determined in time,” Schoenfeld, who said he left the department to pursue a new job opportunity, added in an email.

A student at I.S. 228 in Brooklyn does online work through Teach to One, a program that grew out of the iZone.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
A student at I.S. 228 in Brooklyn does online work through Teach to One, a program that grew out of the iZone.

Department officials said their focus this year will be on spreading iZone tools and practices to more schools, and noted that schools are participating in two new “challenges” this year, where educators get tools and support to tackle specific school issues. (Those challenges were launched by two of the directors who have since left.)

They also said that iZone staff members have advised the officials carrying out PROSE, such as by helping select the first batch of participants. Both programs have a role to play in schools, said Cynthia Warner, the innovation office’s chief of staff.

“The work is complementary,” she said. “It’s not meant to be a substitution.”

Several principals said they have not yet seen any changes to the iZone beyond the loss of the directors, some of whose positions may now be combined, they said. For now, they are taking advantage of both iZone and Fariña’s new experimentation program, though they are ready to adapt, said Brooke Jackson, principal of the NYC Lab School for Collaborative Studies, an early iZone high school.

“If PROSE is going to be where Carmen’s focused,” she said, “then I think that’s where schools will likely focus.”

End of an era

Longtime deputy chancellor Kathleen Grimm to retire

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Department of Education Deputy Chancellor Kathleen Grimm (left) at a City Council hearing to discuss the department's five-year capital plan in March 2014.

Kathleen Grimm, the deputy chancellor for operations and a fixture in the Department of Education under four chancellors, is stepping down, Chancellor Carmen Fariña announced Wednesday.

Grimm oversaw a sprawling portion of the department, including the offices overseeing safety, school support, school food, athletics, space planning, enrollment, human resources, and construction. The only official to have remained in a top post at Tweed since the beginning of the Bloomberg era, Grimm saw her responsibilities expand even further under Fariña, who moved some offices under Grimm when she shrunk the department’s cabinet.

“It is with deep personal regret that I announce a leave pending retirement of Deputy Chancellor Kathleen Grimm, an esteemed colleague who has worked tirelessly to create safe, nurturing environments in which all of our students can learn and thrive,” Fariña said in an email to department staff members.

Grimm, a tax lawyer, was brought on in 2002 for her budgeting and finance expertise and experience in navigating city and state bureaucracy. She had previously served in the state comptroller’s office and the city finance department.

Over her 14-year career at the Department of Education, Grimm preferred to stay behind the scenes, but was thrust into the spotlight when changes to school bus routes, budget cuts, and space planning made headlines.

Her oversight of the city’s transportation of students meant she faced fierce criticism when repeated changes to bus routes angered parents and City Council members. Her oversight of the capital budget and the Blue Book, which sets guidelines for school space use, also made her a frequent target of class-size reduction advocates, who often said the city’s calculations did not reflect reality.

But Grimm was revered within the department for her calm under pressure. She frequently defended the school system in front of the City Council, bearing the brunt of then-education committee chair Eva Moskowitz’s relentless criticism of the city’s toilet-paper offerings in 2004 and, more recently, testifying at hearings on toxic lighting fixtures and school overcrowding.

“Cool and effective, Kathleen stayed for the full twelve years of the Bloomberg administration and did a tough, unglamorous job with distinction,” Klein wrote of Grimm in his memoir “Lessons of Hope.”

On Wednesday, Fariña offered her own praise. “As a senior member of my leadership team, Deputy Chancellor Grimm has provided a strong foundation for our most critical initiatives, including Pre-K for All, Community Schools, and our expanded school support and safety services,” she said.

Grimm’s chief of staff Elizabeth Rose will take over as interim acting deputy chancellor during a search for Grimm’s replacement, Fariña said.

year in review

In first year as chancellor, Fariña counts on fellow educators to drive changes

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Chancellor Carmen Fariña speaks to superintendents and principals overseeing the city's designated renewal schools.

To understand how things have changed since Carmen Fariña became schools chancellor, consider where she has chosen to be on roughly 200 occasions this year, often five times per week: in schools.

She uses the hour-long visits to find model schools that other educators can tour and to size up principals, noting whether teachers seem surprised to see their bosses (a sign they aren’t poking into classrooms enough) and if the principals bring any deputies along for the tours (a hint they know how to delegate). She inspects students’ writing and asks the principal to show her a strong teacher in action and a weak one.

Twelve months into her stint leading the nation’s largest school system, Fariña’s attention to such details seems misplaced to some critics, who worry that it comes at the expense of big-picture thinking and suggests a shift away from the greater autonomy that principals gained under the previous administration.

But to her many admirers, the visits reflect a belief that even in a system of 1.1 million students and 75,000 or so teachers, change can happen school by school and classroom by classroom when educators are empowered, without the seismic policy shakeups that seemed to occur routinely under her recent predecessors. As Fariña, who has spent nearly half a century working in schools, likes to say, “The answers are in the classroom.” In other words, this is educator-driven education reform.

“There’s a sense,” said Alison Coviello, principal of P.S. 154 in the Bronx, “that we’re all in this together.”

When Mayor Bill de Blasio pulled Fariña from semi-retirement last January, she decided that she would have to roll back the Bloomberg-era policies she disagreed with even as she put her own into place: To “undo while [she’s] doing,” as she told Chalkbeat earlier this year.

And that’s just what she’s done. She downsized the office that helped create new schools — a signature Bloomberg initiative — while resurrecting the department devoted to teacher training. She re-empowered superintendents, who were marginalized under Bloomberg, and insisted that would-be principals and superintendents both spend more years in schools (a rejection of the Bloombergian idea that talent trumps experience). And she axed the Bloomberg policies that tied student promotion to test scores and assigned schools letter grades as she launched her own signature program, which sends educators to visit successful schools to pick up ideas.

That program, called Learning Partners, exemplifies Fariña’s approach. It is educator-led, cooperative, and subtle, allowing Fariña to spread her ideas through proxies rather than edicts.

“We have gotten more schools to change practices not by mandating, but by collaborating,” she said in an interview Monday. “I could have said across the board, ‘Every middle school needs to do X, Y and Z.’ And we didn’t do that.”

She also helped forge new contracts with the principals and the teachers unions, which had given up on negotiating with the previous administration. The teachers got a big payout in the contract (though not big enough to satisfy everyone), while Fariña was able to embed time for training and interacting with parents into teachers’ weekly schedules (at the cost of student-tutoring time, which was repurposed). Cynics charged that the city secured the contracts by giving into most of the unions’ demands, but Fariña argues that they were the product of her collaborative approach.

“What we got out of those contracts,” she said, “probably would not have been possible without that kind of partnership.”

She also helped the mayor fulfill his promise to get 53,000 four-year-olds into classrooms.

“How could I forget?” Fariña said. “Pre-K!”

For all that she has already done and undone, Fariña has a big year ahead of her. On Monday, she ticked off a few of the biggest items on her to-do list.

First, she must help de Blasio add the 20,000 additional pre-kindergarten seats he has promised, even as charter schools demand more space of their own. Then, she must turn two of his most ambitious plans into reality: to convert nearly 130 schools into service hubs for students and their families, and to turn around more than 90 low-performing schools.

That last task will be especially daunting. Rather than shut down chronically underachieving schools or replace their staffs, Fariña has proposed lifting them up through a mix of supports for students and coaching for educators. That is a big gamble, which Fariña made clear at a meeting Monday with the leaders of those struggling schools.

“I’m holding you even more accountable,” she told the principals. “Because I went out on a limb, as did Mayor de Blasio, and said, ‘We’re not closing schools. We’re giving everybody a second chance.’”