the bronx plan

Bronx schools to get “innovation funds” as part of big New York City investment in the borough

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Mayor Bill de Blasio met with students from South Bronx Preparatory in Feb. 2018.

New York City’s proposed contract with its teachers union covers the entire city, but all officials seemed to want to talk about Thursday was the Bronx.

We know there is so much more that can be done for the children of the Bronx and of the schools of the Bronx,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said Thursday at a press conference announcing the contract deal.

“Schools in the Bronx had been historically underserved,” said Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza.

The new contract creates what officials are calling “The Bronx Plan,” through which 180 schools will be able to pay an extra $5,000 to $8,000 to educators who take hard-to-fill positions. Two-thirds of the schools will also give educators a formal role in decision making. Both elements echo ideas that the city has tried out before but fell short of expectations.

Schools that qualify for the pay incentive will be identified this fall, and, contrary to the plan’s name, could include some in other boroughs. Officials said the plan was named for the Bronx’s challenges, which include low student performance and persistently high teacher turnover. The borough’s six districts all have turnover rates in the top third in the city, according to the union.

The plan represents an unusual focus on a single borough in citywide bargaining — and a repudiation of the city’s previous, top-down efforts to improve long-struggling schools.

“We’re going to move education by listening not just to teachers, but to parents and school communities about what they need,” said United Federation of Teachers chief Michael Mulgrew.

A contract that focuses particular attention in one area over others is “very unique,” said Maria Doulis, vice president of the Citizens Budget Committee, a nonpartisan watchdog of city and state finances. But, she said: “It’s also probably appropriate and long overdue.”

“Usually in labor contracts what prevails is a standard of uniformity,” she said. “But I think, especially in a city that spends as much on education as New York, you want to be targeting resources to the schools that need them ”

With the pay incentives, the city hopes to attract highly qualified educators — and keep them — where they’re needed most.

“The key to great schools is great teachers,” de Blasio said. “You have to make sure they are where the need is greatest. This is what allows us to do that.”

Bronx parent activists, including those in the New Settlement Parent Action Committee, have clamored for the city to address the borough’s staffing challenges.

“I had an experience with my son where he had a new teacher every week in math. That doesn’t help students,” said Esperanza Vazquez, the mother of a 12th-grader who is a member of the action committee. “They have to be teachers who are highly qualified, with experience, to teach our children.”

The city does not plan to tie the incentive pay to teachers’ effectiveness at boosting students’ test scores. Mulgrew emphasized on Thursday that the new program is “not merit pay” — a third rail for unions. (A merit pay program in place between 2007 and 2010 offered bonuses for teachers who boosted their students’ scores, but teachers routinely chose to distribute the money across their whole schools, and the city abandoned the initiative after a study found “no impact on student achievement.”)

It’s unclear how much the borough’s staffing challenges have to do with teacher pay. Student poverty presents many hurdles for local schools that can make teaching in them taxing, and some neighborhoods are poorly served by public transportation, making them hard to reach for teachers who live elsewhere. The incentive amount “is about what it would take to get me to go back to the Bronx,” one teacher wrote on Twitter.

Referencing a pot of federal funding that is dedicated to schools with many needy students, the teacher added: “I will be completely frank in saying my job is much less difficult now that I work in a (still Title I!) school in Manhattan.”

It’s also unclear how widely the city expects the new incentive option to be used. Under the the terms of the expiring contract, the city could offer higher pay to all teachers at a “hard-to-staff” school, but the option was used at only one school, according to the city education department.

One difference in the new rules: the higher pay can go to only some teachers at the schools, depending on what they teach.

Another difference, according to the city: the second prong of the Bronx Plan, which calls for 120 schools to become “Collaborative Schools” where educators and community members pursue homegrown solutions to local challenges.  

Mulgrew said he’s “not as optimistic as others” that the extra pay alone will make a big difference. More important, he said, is school culture and leadership — which the Collaborative Schools plan is meant to address.

“To me, you get tied to a school because you love the kids and you love the culture of the building,” he said. “I think the other parts of the plan are what’s going be the determining factor of whether this is successful or not. It will not be based on the differential.”

In those schools, the city says teachers and community members will be given “a substantial voice” in decision-making, with a focus on using data to zero in on school needs. Committees of six to 12 members (half appointed by the principal and half picked by the school’s union chapter leader) will choose strategies to improve performance, staff retention, and school climate.

Each school will quality for an annual $25,000 “innovation fund,” and the committee will decide how to spend it.

“These schools will now have this ability to come up with their plan,” Mulgrew said. “A school community comes together and says, ‘All right, we understand the challenges we’re facing. We understand the children in our community. This is what we’d like to do.’”

Other city efforts to give struggling schools extra money or empower schools in order to improve them haven’t had the dramatic impact that was promised. Most notably, the current Renewal program gave low-performing schools far more money than the Bronx Plan would, along with academic support. But the initiative has not driven the dramatic gains the city promised.

And the city’s last contract with the union created a program known as PROSE that allowed teams of teachers and administrators to tweak the union contract at more than 100 schools, creating flexibility around scheduling and other provisions. The union described the program remarkably similar language as Collaborative Schools, saying PROSE would “empower” teachers and acknowledge that “the solutions for schools are to be found within school communities. De Blasio called it “reform on a grand scale,” but the changes pursued were modest and an analysis by a group critical of the mayor’s efforts found no test score payoff.

Mulgrew acknowledged that Collaborative Schools are meant to replicate aspects of PROSE and defended the program as effective.

“I  walk into a PROSE school and say, ‘Is this a school where I want to teach?’ he said.  “These are schools, by and large, that I would want to teach in and people are happy in.”

It’s unclear why collaboration with people outside of the school would need to be baked into the city’s contract with the teachers union. Already, many schools in the Bronx and elsewhere work closely with families and community groups, involving them in programs and planning.

Union officials say the contract is the most effective tool they have to make change in the city, so it makes sense to use collective bargaining to tackles issues even beyond pay, benefits, and work conditions for teachers.

The Bronx plan is already being debated among the union members who will be asked to ratify the contract.

“The idea of the majority of resources being used in the Bronx is going to make me vote no,” one teacher, Christopher Theodore, wrote on the union’s Facebook page Thursday night. “Resources have to be distributed evenly. To think that the other boroughs don’t need the same assistance is short sighted and unfair to a lot of kids who need access to better resources.”

Another teacher, Allyson Robley, responded with an analogy from the classroom. “The Bronx as a borough has historically been underperforming so they need the most support,” she wrote. “While giving equal help sounds sounds good, it’s not fair. Do you give the same support to all of your students? No! The struggling students receive the most intensive instruction.”

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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.