rise up

With new ‘Rise’ schools, de Blasio tiptoes through a school-closure minefield

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, center, announced which schools would join the Rise program at a press conference on Monday.

For nearly 20 New York City schools, the news was grim on Monday morning: The city would be moving to close them, shrink them, or combine them with another school.

But for others, Monday’s announcement was a long-awaited boost. Twenty-one schools were named Rise schools, a new designation meant to indicate their progress under Mayor de Blasio’s School Renewal turnaround program.

Officials say that Rise schools will retain the extra social services that had been provided for students and their families, while other extra support will be reduced over time. The Rise program will operate independently, but stay connected to the Renewal one. And the Rise schools will be held accountable for continued improvement, but face less intense scrutiny.

It’s a middle ground that could help answer questions that have vexed the de Blasio administration since it unveiled the program in 2014 as a three-year intervention: What comes after year three? Specifically, can the city reward improvement by freeing the schools from intense oversight without undercutting their progress by pulling out support? And how can the city help schools it labeled as struggling to rebrand so they can attract new students?

“Rise schools are the Renewal schools that have been graduated and promoted,” Chancellor Fariña said Monday. “They will be moving into a different sphere.”

The Rise schools are in four boroughs and include schools like DreamYard Preparatory School in the Bronx, which is still struggling to push its graduation rate over 70 percent, and I.S. 528 Bea Fuller Rodgers School in Upper Manhattan, where fewer than one in five students passed the state math and English tests.

But overall, the city says the schools are on an upward climb, with proficiency rates on state English tests jumping an average of 15 percentage points and attendance rates jumping 4 points since the 2013-14 school year. (At the same time, however, the state made tests easier to pass and also made it easier to earn a diploma over the last three years.)

Aaron Pallas, a professor at Teachers College, called Rise a smart political move for Mayor Bill de Blasio.

“Graduating schools on the grounds that they were successful allows the mayor to declare victory,” he said. 

Despite making gains, students at Rise schools fall below the city average on test scores. About 22 percent of students passed the state English exam and about 17 percent passed math. Citywide, those numbers are significantly higher, with a little over 40 percent passing English and just under 38 percent passing math. The graduation rate for Rise schools — which stands at almost 73 percent — is closer to the city’s projected average at 74 percent. (The city cautioned this number is preliminary and subject to change.)

The Rise program may allow the city to provide these schools — which still need help to maintain and further their gains — with extra support, while allowing them to shed the stigma of being in the city’s Renewal program. Even as the city showered these schools with millions of dollars over the last three years, convincing families to send their children to them was a challenge. Throughout the program, the schools struggled with enrollment, losing thousands of students.

Rise schools will remain “community schools,” a signature piece of de Blasio’s turnaround strategy in which schools are hubs for social and medical services. The schools will also enjoy an expedited roll-out of Equity and Excellence initiatives, including support for computer science, literacy, algebra, and Advanced Placement.

Principal Kyesha Jackson, who runs P.S. 67 in Brooklyn, said she is both excited to maintain the support provided by Renewal and lose the label. Under Renewal, she was able to purchase an online program that assess where students have learning gaps and provides access to lessons that target the area in which a student needs work. She also purchased an electronic literacy program that allows students access to 3,000 books, she said.

Those initiatives and others that she says were integral to improving her school will remain, but when families are researching the school, they will no longer see that it is designated as a struggling school.

“That stigma that a Renewal school is a failing school would be taken away,” she said.

Critics, including longtime de Blasio foe StudentsFirstNY, have pointed out the relatively low rates of students passing state tests at Rise schools.

But at least so far, principals remain hopeful that the new title — coupled with a high level of continuing support — will make a difference.

“We’re not yet where we want to be. But we really are a school on the rise,” said Miles Doyle, principal of Orchard Collegiate Academy in Manhattan at Monday’s press conference. “I welcome this new designation as a Rise school.”  

Christina Veiga contributed reporting.

404 not found

Sayonara, SESIS: New York City to scrap its beleaguered special education data system

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat

New York City is scrapping a special education data system that has frustrated educators since it launched nearly a decade ago.

The troubles of SESIS, as the city’s Special Education Student Information System is called, are well known. Since its launch in 2011, the system — which required over $130 million to build — cost the city tens of millions of dollars in settlements, at times malfunctioned more than 800,000 times a day, and made it difficult to track whether students with disabilities are getting the services they need.

Education department officials said they have been able to “stabilize” the system in recent years. But they also have concluded that an entirely different system is needed. On Friday, they announced that they would phase SESIS out and replace it with something new — at a cost and on a timeline that is not yet clear.

The announcement comes on the eve of a City Council hearing set for Monday where council members say they will press for more transparency about special education.

“It was originally designed as a document management system,” Lauren Siciliano, the education department’s Deputy Chief Operating Officer, said about SESIS. “Think more of a filing cabinet right now as opposed to being able to follow a student through the process.”

Special education teachers often spent hours navigating a maze of drop-down menus — inputting data such as whether they met with a student and for how long — only to experience error messages that erased their answers.

Megan Moskop, a former special education teacher at M.S. 324 in Washington Heights, said she once encountered 41 error messages in two hours. What’s more, she said, the system didn’t reflect the experiences she had with her students.

“At the end of the day, I would be expected to go in, mark that they are present, mark whether they made progress toward a goal,” Moskop said. “It’s very standardized.”

It is not yet clear how quickly the education department will phase SESIS out. Officials said the city would begin a multistage process of identifying a vendor to create a new system by the end of March, then would ask for more detailed plans by the end of 2019. An official purchasing process would happen after that, Siciliano said, meaning that construction of  a new system will not begin for well over a year. Families and educators would be consulted throughout, officials said.

Linda Chen, the department’s chief academic officer, said a new system would lead to tangible improvements for students with disabilities.

“I do think that if we have clear and reliable visibility into the data it would absolutely allow us to better serve our students,” Chen said.

Flaws with SESIS have made it difficult to know how well the city is serving students with disabilities. Because the system was not set up to communicate with other city databases, city officials have had to manually tabulate data across systems. And the annual reports that show whether students are receiving required services may not be accurate because of the system’s flaws, officials have warned.

The system’s glitches also made the user experience so cumbersome that teachers had to spend time on nights and weekends entering data. An arbitrator eventually ordered the city to pay over $38 million in teacher overtime.

Additionally, the system has sparked legal action. Former Public Advocate Letitia James filed a lawsuit claiming that SESIS was to blame for some children not receiving services as well as lost Medicaid payments. Between 2012 and 2015, according to the IBO, the city collected $373 million less in Medicaid reimbursements than officials projected.

Some advocates said that given SESIS’s troubled history, it makes sense to find alternatives.

“There has to be a strong data system in place,” said Maggie Moroff, a disability policy expert at Advocates for Children, a nonprofit advocacy organization. “We are eager to see a better system to be put in place, but are really worried about that transition period.”

Advocates have also pushed the city to make the data SESIS tracks directly available to parents.

“We will absolutely be looking at that,” Siciliano said.

next steps

Charter schools racing to find new buildings as district ends their leases

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Escuela Avancemos will move to a new building.

At least two Detroit charter schools are racing against the clock to find new buildings for more than 500 students next fall after the city district decided not to renew their leases.

It’s the latest move in an ongoing effort by the Detroit Public Schools Community District to get out of the charter business, and it means another bout of uncertainty for schools that enroll hundreds of children in Detroit.

Leaders of GEE-Edmonson Academy and GEE-White Academy face the daunting challenge of finding new buildings before the start of the next school year. Another school, Escuela Avancemos, already found a new building. More schools, including Rutherford Winans Academy, have leases that expire this year, but their representatives did not return requests for comment on whether their lease was renewed.

Most students at the two schools run by Global Educational Excellence (GEE) walk every day, Superintendent Michael Conran said. If a new building can’t be found in those neighborhoods, the school’s would face new transportation challenges, casting doubt on their ability to maintain their enrollment.

“We were clearly not anticipating that the leases would not be renewed,” Conran said. “That news came pretty late, I believe it was after the New Year. That’s quite a notification to the boards in such a short period of time.”

The challenges for these schools don’t end there. The district could also decline to renew their charters for the GEE schools when they expire in June, potentially forcing them to find new backers as well as new buildings.

More than one charter school has already jumped ship. Escuela Avancemos, a small school in southwest Detroit, will begin the coming year in a new building and with a new authorizer, Central Michigan University. Officials had begun searching for a new building even before they were notified last month that their lease would not be renewed.

“For the protection of our school, we’ve had to take matters into our own hands to guarantee our future,” said Sean Townsin, principal at Escuela Avancemos.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti made clear soon after he took the helm of the district in 2017 that he believed the district’s resources should be channeled toward its own students, not toward charter schools.

He reiterated that position last year when the district severed its ties with a three-school network of charter schools, forcing it to scramble to find new buildings and a new charter. Parents were forced to choose between an extraordinarily long commute to the new site and making an unwanted switch to another school. Enrollment was cut in half.

Supporters of the move pointed out at the time that those schools had been district schools until they were spun off by state-appointed emergency managers. In a city with lots of school options and few quality schools, they argued, some consolidation is necessary.

Most charters in Detroit are overseen by Michigan’s public universities, but 10 schools are supervised by the Detroit district.

A handful of those schools also rent their school buildings from the district, putting them in a particularly vulnerable position should the district decide that it would rather not support charter schools — its chief competitors for students and state funding.

In a statement about those schools, Chrystal Wilson, a spokeswoman for the district, said the the charter schools could eventually be replaced with district schools.

“Now that we have the leadership to rebuild the district, we need to review and maximize our property assets. This means possibly re-using currently leased schools for new DPSCD schools, replacing older buildings with high repair costs, or adding a school in an area where facility usage and class sizes are high where another traditional public school does not exist. We understand and accept if district charters are leaving for other authorizers.”

No matter the district’s plans, Conran said the Global Educational Excellence schools would continue trying to serve students.

But he asked for transparency from the district and time to plan.

“I’m just simply waiting to hear from DPS any decisions they anticipate making in as timely a manner as we need to make sure we can continue to support these students and their families,” he said.