blast from the past

Harkening back to earlier era, struggling New York City school fights closure but faces long odds

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Kevin Morgan, the Parent Association president at P.S./M.S. 42, is leading a fight to keep the Rockaway school open.

A decade ago, teachers picketed P.S./M.S. 42 R. Vernam in Rockaway, Queens and declared the campus unsafe. Parents said the building was in horrible shape — some areas reeked of urine — and they petitioned the education department to close the school and start over.

But when Mayor Bill de Blasio took office, he had a different idea: Rather than shut its doors, he would revamp it. After three years in de Blasio’s “Renewal” improvement program, which injects troubled schools with academic supports and social services, P.S./M.S. 42 appeared to be making progress: Its test scores and quality reviews have steadily improved. Enrollment, while lower this year, has mostly been stable.

So when the education department announced plans last month to shutter P.S./M.S. 42 and 13 other low-performing schools, many in the school community were shocked.

“We think that this is a mistake,” said Donovan Richards, the local city councilman who said that when he met with schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña shortly before the announcement, far from declaring the school a lost cause, she praised its recent strides and discussed ways to celebrate them.

“You have this glimmer of hope and turnaround in the building,” he added, “and yet we’re reversing the progress.”

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Parents used to complain about poor conditions at P.S./M.S. 42, which has since built a new addition.

Now, parents, teachers and local political leaders are vowing to fight its closure. The coalition has launched an aggressive social media campaign, printed highlighter-yellow T-shirts declaring the school “strong and united,” and planned rallies at the school and in Albany, where the school’s supporters traveled Tuesday to make their case to state lawmakers.

On a recent morning, Kevin Morgan, the school’s parent association president, went to his local congress member’s office to appeal for help, and brought in a motivational speaker to inspire students as they drafted essays in defense of their school.

“It’s not fair,” he said. “They need to rethink what they’re about to do. How is this going to affect these children?”

The fight puts the mayor in the uncomfortable position of defending the closure of a low-performing school despite signs of improvement and vocal opposition from some parents — a scenario he railed against when running to replace then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg. At the time, de Blasio blasted Bloomberg for disregarding the will of parents in his zeal to shutter and replace troubled schools without first giving them a chance to rebound.

Now, after investing $582 million in a program meant to offer bottom-ranked schools the second chance he said they had been denied, de Blasio finds himself coming to the same conclusion as his predecessor: Some underachieving schools simply can’t be resuscitated — at least not quickly enough — so better to pull the plug and start fresh.

“After a serious effort, we do not think, with their current structures, they can make it,” de Blasio said on NY1 the day the closures were announced. Still, he defended the turnaround effort, saying that, without it, “we would have continued to see closures without an honest effort to fix the problem.”

In the case of P.S./M.S. 42, the education department is proposing to replace it with two new schools — an elementary school and a middle school — in the same building.

It’s likely they will serve many of the same students as the school they’re supplanting, though some parents worry the new schools may deploy admissions criteria that will screen out some of P.S./M.S. 42’s current students. An education department spokesman said the new schools would not turn away any P.S./M.S. 42 students. The new schools may also employ many of the same teachers, under a contract rule that says at least half the positions in replacement schools must be offered to teachers at closed schools who apply and hold the right qualifications.

P.S./M.S. 42 boosters hope the new schools never have a chance to open. But they face long odds: Under de Blasio, very few schools on the chopping block have managed to escape.

Last year, the Panel for Educational Policy — an oversight board where the majority of members are appointed by the mayor — signed off on all of the city’s proposed closures. Even when parents at J.H.S 145 in the Bronx mounted a campaign to keep the middle school open, only five of the 13 panel members voted against its closure.

The city’s plan to shutter P.S./M.S. 42 follows a yearslong, grassroots effort to save it.

Today, one of the leaders of that campaign is an unlikely champion: a parent named Queen Makkada, who called for the school’s closure in 2010 when her two children went there. At one point, her daughter was attacked by a group of boys, and students were known to roam the hallways unsupervised.

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Queen Makkada says P.S./M.S. 42 has struggled in the past, but is now showing improvement.

“We literally had first graders cutting class,” Makkada said. A joint city-state report from 2011 said teachers there “demanded little” from students and parents complained about unchecked bullying among students.
Makkada says things began to turn around when the current principal, Patricia Finn, took over about seven years ago. Finn did not respond to a request for comment.

The principal smoothed over relations with teachers, who have filed far fewer grievances under her than the previous administration, according to their union. And she forged relationships with skeptical parents, Makkada said. Last year, 90 percent of parents who responded to a school survey said the principal works to build community.

“All the stakeholders had to come together and change it,” Makkada said. “These parents went through the process to improve a failing school.”

At the same time that parents were getting more involved, the school facilities were getting an upgrade. In 2011, a gleaming new addition was built onto the building, and there are plans for a new $7 million playground, according to the city councilman.

The Renewal program, which launched in 2014, marked a new wave of investment in P.S./M.S 42. A community-based nonprofit — Family Health International, which goes by FHI 360 — brought much-needed mental health supports for students, including one-on-one counseling. The school day was extended by an hour. And the school has launched several initiatives aimed at improving school culture, including training students to help resolve conflicts among their peers, parents said.

Since 2014, the school has received improved “quality review” ratings from official observers, and its test scores have ticked upwards. In fact, elementary students at P.S./M.S. 42 earned higher scores on the state English and math tests last year than the average among Renewal schools that the city is keeping open. Its middle-school students perform just below that average.

And enrollment, a key factor that chancellor Fariña says the education department considers when recommending closures, grew by dozens of students the first few years of the program. This past year, its population declined to just over 660 students — but that’s still higher than before becoming a Renewal school.

Given the progress, parents don’t understand why their school is targeted for closure.

“This is ripping everything apart,” said Morgan, the parent-association president.

But despite the recent improvements, the majority of the school’s students still are far behind where they should be.

Only 17 percent of elementary students and 14 percent of middle schoolers passed last year’s state English tests — compared with 40-41 percent of students citywide. In math, 14 percent of elementary students and 6 percent of middle schoolers passed the tests, compared with 42 percent and 33 percent citywide.

Meanwhile, a stubbornly high share of students are chronically absent, despite a major push by the city to boost attendance at Renewal schools. More than 45 percent of P.S./M.S. 42 students miss 10 percent or more of the school year, compared to 36 percent among all Renewal schools and about 26 percent among all city schools, according to the education department.

“This decision to propose a school closure was made based on a careful assessment of the school community as a whole,” Aciman, the department spokesman, said in a statement. He added that community engagement is an important part of proposed closures, and said officials will respond to parents’ questions and concerns.

Officials will hold a public hearing at the school on Jan. 10, before the Panel for Educational Policy votes Feb. 28 on whether to approve the city’s closure plans.

Among the P.S./M.S. 42 parents who will ask the panel to spare the school is Willard Price.

He said teachers have given his son, William, extra help in math and handwriting, and principal Finn has invited him to eat lunch in her office when he felt overwhelmed by the cafeteria. Now, William earns high marks on his report cards and would like to remain at P.S./M.S. 42 for middle school, his father said.

“I think that’s messed up, trying to close the school,” William said. “This school is the only school I ever liked.”

New tools

Eight things to know about Detroit’s big math and reading curriculum shift

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn

The countdown is on: In five months, elementary and middle school teachers in the Detroit district will be teaching from all-new curriculum.

District leaders are scrambling to train teachers and prepare families for the switch to new reading and math teaching materials for grades K-5 in reading and K-8 in math. It’s a massive undertaking, and the first time in years Detroit is changing curriculum at this scale.

The move means that students, including many who are years behind grade level, may struggle with materials more difficult than what they are used to. But the district’s leaders are optimistic about the changes, given that the materials will be replacing a curriculum that was exposed as woefully unaligned to state standards. That meant information the state expects students to know was missing.

Parents, students, and teachers likely have questions about what’s coming. Here’s what we know about the new materials and what we’ll be watching for in the months ahead.

1. What are the new curriculums?

In math, students will now use a curriculum called Eureka Mathematics. Eureka is published by the nonprofit Great Minds. It’s also been known as EngageNY, and is a popular choice designed to align with the Common Core standards.    

In reading, students will use a curriculum known as EL Education K-5 Language Arts. That was created by an organization called Open Up Resources.

Both are open-source, which means they are free and available online. That means teachers and parents can check out a lot of the content for themselves, on the Eureka Math website and  the EL website.

2. Are the materials any good?  

Some think so. The reading curriculum received the highest score ever given to a K-5 English Language Arts curriculum by EdReports, a curriculum grading guide. It also got top scores for usability and its alignment to standards for every elementary grade.

An 18-district study by Mathematica Policy Research found that novice teachers using EL Education’s K–5 Language Arts curriculum and receiving specific training were more likely to focus on asking higher-order thinking questions than other novice teachers.

District leaders are banking on the investment to boost reading scores. The stakes are high because, starting in 2020, third-graders won’t be allowed to advance to the fourth grade if they aren’t reading at grade level. If that policy were in place last year, up to 90 percent of city third-graders would have had to repeat the grade.

Eureka Mathematics is currently the highest scoring math curriculum on EdReports that provides material for grades K-8. (EdReports has faced some criticism from groups like the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics in the past, and made changes in response.)

The curriculum has also faced criticism from parents frustrated with confusing homework and some educators who say it pushes students too fast.

3. How many districts use these materials?

Because both curriculums are open-source — and so don’t require district contracts to use — it’s hard to know the exact number of districts or schools that use them. But the creators of EL Education’s literacy curriculum say it is in use in 44 states and D.C., and Eureka Math claims to be the most widely used math curriculum in the country.

Duval County Public Schools in Jacksonville, Florida, where Vitti served as superintendent until last year, used both, and he credits them with helping to raise the district’s standing on the national exam.

4. How were they chosen?

The curriculums were chosen by a committee of 113 Detroit educators, 88 of them teachers. The educators on the committee spent weeks reviewing and comparing options, then voted on their favorites.

5. What will they cost?

Both the English and math curriculums are open source, which means they are free and available online, but the district opted to pay for books and teacher training. Those will cost $7.1 million in total, with $5.3 million of that devoted to the reading curriculum.

Teachers will be paid for time spent training over the summer.

6. How does the English curriculum work?

For one, it provides a script for teachers to use, with suggestions on what to say during instruction.

“It’s not scripted because it assumes teachers can’t do it without a script,” said Jessica Sliwerski, chief academic engagement officer at Open Up Resources. “Rather, it’s meant to be a thinking teachers curriculum,” with prompts to help teachers get students engaged.

Brandy Walker, a fifth-grade teacher at the Foreign Language Immersion and Cultural Studies School, said she likes the script. “It tells you exactly what to do,” she said. “I can’t wait for the fall to start using the English curriculum, and see how test scores are going to go up.”

Whether other teachers feel the same way may determine the reception to the curriculum in schools across the city.

7. What about the content of the English lessons?

For students in grades K-2, there’s a daily one-hour lesson paired with a one-hour “lab” and a one-hour block of phonics instruction.

For students in upper elementary grades who are reading independently, the new English curriculum focuses on multicultural novels.

“There are all kinds of culturally relevant stories and informational texts as well,” said Deborah Hunter-Harvill, a school board member.

8. What does the math curriculum look like?

The content will vary widely from kindergarten to eighth grade. But in general, the Eureka curriculum is known for diving deep on fewer topics in each grade and for requiring students to show that they can solve problems in different ways.

9. How will these new materials work for students who are learning English or just struggling with the content?

Both curriculums include “scaffolding” support — specific methods teachers can use to adjust their instruction.

Eureka Mathematics incorporates notes in the margins of teacher texts for each lesson explaining how to help specific learners, including English language learners, students with disabilities, students performing above grade level, and students performing below grade level.

Chalkbeat Detroit wants to hear your questions. Fill out this form to ask a question related to the new curriculum and we will do our best to answer it in an upcoming story.

making plans

Push to curb academic segregation on the Upper West Side generates a backlash — and support

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
District 3 is floating a plan to boost academic diversity in middle schools, including Wadleigh Secondary School.

A plan to make it more likely that higher- and lower-performing students on the Upper West Side go to middle school together is stoking divisions among some families there.

Officials in District 3 are pushing a plan to offer at least a quarter of seats at the district’s 16 middle schools to students whose state test scores suggest they are not proficient in reading and math. Ten percent of admissions offers would go to students scoring at the lowest level, and another 15 percent would go to students scoring just below the proficiency bar.

The change would have dramatic effects at some of the district’s schools, according to a city analysis, while other schools would see their student population change less.

Most likely to be shaken up by the proposal, if it goes into effect: The expectation in the district that high test scores — achieved most often by the district’s middle-class students — should guarantee families their top choice of middle schools.

“A lot of people are afraid of change,” said Maria Santa, whose daughter attends a district elementary school that few middle-class families choose. “I don’t think people are going to stand for this.”

Indeed, the proposal has drawn sharp criticism at some of the public meetings that the education department is holding to inform parents and drum up support. An NY1 report about one meeting, held at P.S. 199 during the school day Tuesday, featured parents who pushed back strongly against the proposal, saying their kids would be shut out of the most sought-after schools.

“You’re telling them, ‘You’re going to go to a school that’s not going to educate you in the same way you’ve been educated: Life sucks!’” one woman shouted.

But many of the district’s elected parent leaders are on board, as are other local parents. So, too, are principals in the district, who say the move could protect their schools after the city barred them from seeing how students ranked them on their applications.

That change, announced in June, was the city’s effort to eliminate strategic tricks that weren’t in middle school directories but were known by savvy parents and consultants that some families hire to guide them through the admissions process.

But in District 3, one of three Manhattan districts currently using “revealed rankings” in middle school admissions, principals said they actually used information about how much students wanted to go to their schools to engineer more diverse student populations.

“What first choice allowed us to do is fairly distinguish between [students], because anyone could list us first,” said Marlon Lowe, principal of Mott Hall II in Morningside Heights. “We would interview you, we would get to know your scholar and we would make a serious, thoughtful decision based on many variables.”

Mott Hall II’s admissions process resulted in a relatively diverse student population – but other schools in the district are segregated by race and achievement level.

About 87 percent of admissions offers at J.H.S. 54 Booker T. Washington, for example, went to students who earned top scores on state tests, and about 60 percent of students are white. At P.S. 149 Sojourner Truth, a pre-K through 8th grade school where more than 60 percent of students are black, just 6 percent of offers went to students who earned high test scores.

“We are not offering all students equity and access across all the district,” said District 3 Superintendent Ilene Altschul. “We need to do something.”

At one recent meeting, Altschul hastened to reassure parents who might worry that top-scoring students will have a tougher time getting into the most coveted schools. She admitted that fewer families would get their first pick under the plan — but she said the percentage of students who are admitted to one of their top three choices should remain about the same.

A simulation based on application data from 2017 suggests there could be significant changes, especially in schools that attract top-scoring students. At West End Secondary School, the number of students with the highest test scores would fall 19 percentage points, resulting in 66 percent of all students earning top test scores. But at P.S. 180, which has middle school grades, the simulation found that just one more high-performing student would be offered admissions under the new plan.

That’s a product of how families are ranking the schools, said Kristen Berger, a parent who has been leading the district’s diversity efforts as chair of the parent council’s middle school committee. Higher-scoring students just aren’t ranking schools where a majority of students have lower test scores, she said. It may also be harder to change the makeup of K-8 schools, Berger said, since many students chose to stay through middle school.

“The most crucial component to this is to give serious consideration to a wide range of schools,” Berger said. “It’s a big step, I definitely recognize it… but in the long run this is better for our children.”

Some members of the district’s elected parent council said that reality means the city needs to do more than just reserve seats for lower-scoring students.

“This is not remotely enough,” Daniel Katz, who sits on the council, said about the projected change at P.S. 180. “The number of impacted children at these schools is basically non-existent.”

Another council member, Genisha Metcalf, raised concerns that the proposal could steer more families away from schools that currently serve many low-performing students.

“If we want to see true diversity,” Metcalf said, “the plan needs to both include how do we get students into those highly sought-after schools, and, how do we ensure that the schools people are considering undesirable are not in an even worse spot.”

Education department officials have long made it clear that grassroots support is critical to pursuing any diversity efforts. (New Chancellor Richard Carranza has indicated he is more open to pushing for integration than his predecessor, Carmen Fariña, who said changes to schools’ demographics should happen “organically.”)

A previous plan to make District 3 middle schools more economically diverse died after parents and principals rallied against it. In 2016, Altschul proposed setting aside 30 percent of seats at each middle school for low-income students, but wasn’t able to build support for the change.

Now, Altschul has won over principals, but parents are airing concerns. At a recent public meeting, one father stood up to ask whether his son’s teachers will get extra help if more students with low test scores are admitted to his school.

He was echoing a concern that has come up repeatedly at selective schools, where parents worry that any changes to admissions could water down instruction. While research suggests that academic integration generally benefits all students, some research shows that when the gulf among students is too wide, neither high- nor lower-performing students are better off.

“That’s my biggest concern,” said the father, whose son attends the Computer School and who declined to be quoted by name. “With more challenging kids in the class, you’re putting on much more stress” on teachers.

Some middle-class families say they’re prepared to embrace the changes, even if their own children might face a tougher path to their first-choice middle school. Nicole Greevy, who has a child in third grade in District 3, acknowledged it may take time for the plan to have a noticeable impact in schools, but she called it a “terrific start.”

“I think diversity benefits everyone,” she said. “I did not have a classmate who was African American until I got to college and that was a failure on the part of my schools. I want my child to have a better experience than I did.”

If Altschul formally proposes the changes to the education department and it gets city approval, the changes would go into effect in the 2019-20 school year — the same time when the citywide middle school changes will be implemented. She said the change is needed to help boost performance for all students.

“This is the work we really need to do around closing the achievement gap,” she said. “Integrating students across all levels is really what’s essential. It really does strengthen learning for all students.”