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.”

Future of Schools

How this Indiana district realized counselors weren’t spending enough time counseling

PHOTO: Denver Post file

About a year ago, the counselors in the Beech Grove school district made a discovery: They were spending less than half of their time on counseling.

Instead of meeting with students one-on-one or in small groups, they were spending most of their days on routine tasks, such as overseeing lunch, proctoring exams, and filling in for secretaries.

When they realized how much time those other tasks were taking away from counseling work, it was “an eye-opener for everyone,” said Paige Anderson, the district college and career coordinator.

The counselors began tracking their time as part of a planning grant from the Lilly Endowment, a prominent Indianapolis-based philanthropy. In 2016, the foundation launched Comprehensive Counseling Initiative for Indiana K-12 Students, a $49 million effort to improve counseling in Indiana. Experts say meaningful counseling can help schools support students as they navigate problems both at home and in the classroom. (The Lilly Endowment also supports Chalkbeat. Learn more about our funding here.)

What Beech Grove staff members learned during their planning process is already changing their approach to counseling, said Trudi Wolfe, a counselor at Central Elementary School, who was instrumental in applying for the Lilly grants. Now, administrators are taking on more tasks like proctoring tests. And one intermediate school hired a new counselor.

“The schools will take counselors and meet the needs of the school,” Wolfe said. “Part of the process is helping administrators understand, school counselors need to be doing school counseling.”

Last month, the endowment announced its second round of implementation grants, which awarded about $12.2 million to 39 schools and districts. Beech Grove will receive $259,727 to redesign its counseling program to focus on the social and emotional needs of students, with the largest chunk of that money going to staff training.

The aim is to develop a strategy for handling the trauma that students face at home, said Wolfe. Over the past 10 years, the number of students in the district who are poor enough to get subsidized meals has risen by about 25 percentage points to 72 percent of students.

Beech Grove has also been affected by the opioid crisis, said Wolfe. “We have kids living with parents who are dependent on drugs, and they are not meeting the needs of their children.”

Those growing challenges mean that it is essential for counselors to have a plan for helping students instead of just meeting the needs of each day, Wolfe said.

Counseling is an investment that can have long-term benefits. After Colorado began an initiative to hire more school counselors, participating schools had higher graduation rates, increased enrollment in career-and-technical programs, and more students taking college-level courses. A 2016 report found that by keeping students from dropping out, the Colorado program saved taxpayers more than $319 million.

But in Indiana schools, counselors often have large caseloads. In 2014-2015, Indiana had an average of 543 students per counselor, above the national average and significantly higher than the American School Counselor Association recommendation of no more than 250 students per counselor.

Hiring more counselors alone is not enough to create stronger school counseling programs, said Tim Poynton, an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston who studies counseling. They also have to spend their time on meaningful counseling work.

“You need more school counselors. That’s necessary, but it’s also not sufficient,” said Poynton. “If you hire more school counselors, and you have them doing lunch duty and things that basically you don’t need a master’s degree in school counseling to do, then you’re not going to see those important metrics move.”

When schools were applying for the Lilly Endowment grants, many reported that counselors were focused on urgent social and emotional challenges and struggled to help students plan for the future, according to the endowment.

Those challenges can have ripple effects, making it harder for school staff to tackle long-term goals such as ensuring that students sign up and meet the requirements for the state’s scholarship program, 21st Century Scholars.

If counseling is done well, most students will be prepared to go to college, even if they do not seem interested when they are in high school, Poynton said. But when counselors are dealing with urgent problems, they have significantly less time to devote to college preparation, he said.

“In urban schools, school counselors are often focused on getting students to school and meeting their immediate needs,” Poynton said. “In the higher-performing suburban schools, where the students and families don’t have those same kind of issues or concerns, the emphasis is almost entirely on the college-going process.”

In a statement from the endowment, Vice President for Education Sara B. Cobb said the response to the Lilly grants shows increased awareness of the crucial need for counseling programs.

“We are impressed with how school leaders have engaged a wide variety of community partners to assess the academic, college, career and social and emotional needs of their students, and respond to them,” Cobb said.

The Lilly grants are going to a broad array of schools, and they are using the money in different ways. At Damar Charter Academy, which educates students with special needs, few students earn traditional diplomas or have good options for higher education. That’s why school staff plan to use the $100,000 counseling grant they received to build relationships with employers and create training programs for skills such as small engine repair, automotive maintenance, landscaping, and culinary arts, said Julie Gurulé, director of student services.

“If we can commit to getting them the skills they need while they are with us,” she said, “they will be able to go out and gain meaningful employment, and … lead the kind of lives that we all want to.”

These are the districts and schools in Marion County that received counseling grants. (Find the full list here.)

  • Beech Grove City Schools $259,727
  • Damar Charter School $100,000
  • Metropolitan School District of Decatur Township $671,300
  • Purdue Polytechnic Indianapolis High School $100,000

more digging

Kingsbury High added to list of Memphis schools under investigation for grade changing

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Kingsbury High School was added to a list of schools being investigated by an outside firm for improper grade changes. Here, Principal Terry Ross was featured in a Shelby County Schools video about a new school budget tool.

Another Memphis high school has been added to the list of schools being investigated to determine if they made improper changes to student grades.

Adding Kingsbury High School to seven others in Shelby County Schools will further delay the report initially expected to be released in mid-June.

But from what school board Chairwoman Shante Avant has heard so far, “there haven’t been any huge irregularities.”

“Nothing has surfaced that gives me pause at this point,” Avant told Chalkbeat on Thursday.

The accounting firm Dixon Hughes Goodman is conducting the investigation.

This comes about three weeks after a former Kingsbury teacher, Alesia Harris, told school board members that Principal Terry Ross instructed someone to change 17 student exam grades to 100 percent — against her wishes.

Shelby County Schools said the allegations were “inaccurate” and that the grade changes were a mistake that was self-reported by an employee.

“The school administration immediately reported, and the central office team took the necessary actions and promptly corrected the errors,” the district said in a statement.

Chalkbeat requested a copy of the district’s own initial investigation the day after Harris spoke at the board’s June meeting, but district officials said they likely would not have a response for Chalkbeat until July 27.

Harris said that no one from Dixon Hughes Goodman has contacted her regarding the investigation as of Thursday.

The firm’s investigation initially included seven schools. Kingsbury was not among them. Those seven schools are:

  • Kirby High
  • Raleigh-Egypt High
  • Bolton High
  • Westwood High
  • White Station High
  • Trezevant High
  • Memphis Virtual School

The firm’s first report found as many as 2,900 failing grades changed during four years at nine Memphis-area schools. At the request of the board, two schools were eliminated: one a charter managed by a nonprofit, and a school outside the district. The firm said at the time that further investigation was warranted to determine if the grade changes were legitimate.

The $145,000 investigation includes interviews with teachers and administrators, comparing teachers’ paper grade books to electronic versions, accompanying grade change forms, and inspecting policies and procedures for how school employees track and submit grades.

Since the controversy started last year, the district has restricted the number of employees authorized to make changes to a student’s report card or transcript, and also requires a monthly report from principals detailing any grade changes.