Mayor Bill de Blasio summoned reporters to one of the city’s most troubled schools Tuesday to tout progress it has made under his watch, and insisted that other long-struggling schools in his new $150 million turnaround program are making similar changes that will lead to academic gains.
Since a veteran principal took over Boys and Girls High School this fall, it has lengthened the school day and added advanced classes while watching its attendance rate rise and more seniors get on track to graduate, officials said at the school in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. Other schools in the “Renewal” turnaround program have added Saturday classes, sent teachers to training workshops, and formed partnerships with nonprofits, the officials added.
“The Renewal Schools effort is happening right now,” de Blasio said, “and it’s building out every day.”
The press conference comes as de Blasio faces pressure from state lawmakers who are reviewing his turnaround program as they consider extending mayoral control of the city’s schools, and from Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who wants to let outside groups take over struggling schools across the state.
It also follows a Chalkbeat New York report Friday showing that some of the 94 Renewal schools have received limited support since the program launched in November, even as high-priority schools like Boys and Girls have been heaped with extra resources and oversight. De Blasio and the other officials did not refute that report Tuesday, but said certain schools required more urgent attention than others and that the rest will get more personalized help over time.
“Schools are getting the support they need based on their individual needs and we will continue to build that out as we become more and more aware of the needs,” said Aimee Horowitz, a superintendent who has worked with 14 high-priority struggling high schools since the start of the school year. She was named executive superintendent of the Renewal program Tuesday, expanding her oversight to all 94 of those schools, in addition to all of Staten Island’s high schools.
The state last year singled out Boys and Girls and another long-struggling Brooklyn institution, Automotive High School in Greenpoint, as “out of time” to improve. That designation and pressure from the state education department led the city to take drastic steps to turn around the schools, such as no longer sending new students to the schools mid-year and forcing their entire staffs to reapply for their jobs.
The city also recruited seasoned principal Michael Wiltshire to take over Boys and Girls under an unusual agreement that let him become principal of two schools; he continues to oversee the high-performing Brooklyn school he has led for years, Medgar Evers College Preparatory School.
Since Wiltshire’s arrival, the school has added an extra class period each day, after-school and Saturday tutoring, and more arts and Advanced Placement courses, officials and students said. One senior, Salomon Djakpa, said he is now taking four AP classes, which were not available before.
As a result of these changes, students’ Regents exam scores edged up in January, and 90 seniors are now on track to graduate this year, compared to just 40 students last semester, they said. The signs of growth come after years of academic stagnation under the previous administration, city officials pointed out.
“I’m really proud of what’s happening here,” said senior Marlon Glynn.
Another step Wiltshire took was to help about 30 students who were far behind academically transfer to alternative high schools, which some students and parents saw as an effort to counsel out students who could drag down the school’s graduation rate. (Wiltshire said Tuesday that no students were “thrown out” and that just 15 students transferred out after he arrived, but Assistant Principal Andrea Toussaint said about 30 did.) Wiltshire also set up a high-school equivalency program within the school for 39 seniors with very few credits who were unlikely to graduate, he said.
The new placements were a better fit for students who had floundered in traditional classes, the administrators said. But the changes also mean that those struggling students will no longer count towards the school’s graduation rate, officials confirmed.
“We wanted to make sure that every child had an appropriate placement,” Toussaint said, adding that many of the students had no way of graduating without the help of a special program or school. “It really doesn’t make sense to keep the child here if they’re 19 and have seven credits and no Regents exams.”
Automotive has also seen gains, particularly in the share of students earning the expected number of credits, officials said. And other high-priority schools that were in an early turnaround effort that was folded into the Renewal program have also made some improvements in attendance, student credit-earning, and test scores, Horowitz said. (Five of the six schools mentioned in a City Hall press release Tuesday were in that early effort, called the School Achievement Initiative.)
But other schools in the Renewal program have not received the same level of support as those schools, administrators and teachers at four schools recently told Chalkbeat.
Those schools said they had only met with program officials once so far, had not been given specific goals for the year, and had not been assigned teacher or principal coaches. Meanwhile, de Blasio has emphasized that Renewal schools that do not make academic gains within three years could be closed.
Officials said Tuesday that superintendents have already visited every Renewal school, and that the department will soon start producing weekly reports on each of them. All of the schools have been able to send some staffers to various types of training.
Fifty-four of the schools have already added extra learning time in the mornings, afternoons, or on weekends, and all 94 will get the additional class period next academic year, officials said. And new principals have taken over seven of the schools since the program started, they added.
But they also acknowledged that not every school has received the intensive support yet that has helped some of the high-priority Renewal schools make quick improvements.
For instance, only some have been sent principal mentors or school-based coaches to work with teachers. And the staffers at Boys and Girls and Automotive are the only ones who have to reapply for their jobs this year. (Chancellor Carmen Fariña explained that “there’s an even greater sense of urgency” at those schools because of their state designation.)
De Blasio said all schools will eventually get certain resources, such as the extra class period and a range of health and social services for students and their families. But others may get different or additional types of help depending on their needs.
“Some things will be common to every school in the Renewal School effort,” he said. “Others will be tailor-made to the specific school.”