back to the future

NYC will keep key aspects of Renewal schools ‘indefinitely,’ even as the turnaround program nears likely end

PHOTO: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office
Mayor Bill de Blasio meets with faculty at Automotive High School, a Renewal school.

Dozens of low-performing schools in Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Renewal turnaround program will continue to receive extra social services and larger school budgets, even as the city is expected to phase the program out.

The education department has spent roughly $750 million on pairing struggling schools with nonprofit organizations that provide extra counselors and other social services; boosting their budgets; and offering extra academic help including leadership training and coaches to help improve teaching.

But the fate of the turnaround program is unclear, leaving school staff wondering whether this flood of resources could soon evaporate. And while the city appears poised to wind down the Renewal program, which has shown mixed results at best, the backbone of that strategy will remain in place, according to multiple sources, including a senior education department official.

Specifically, the 71 schools that are currently in the turnaround program will be allowed to keep their “community school” designations, which include partnerships with nonprofits that offer services such as mental health counseling, dental clinics, and extra counselors who troubleshoot problems that can keep students away from school. They will also maintain their current funding levels, which increased by thousands of dollars in some cases when they were assigned the “Renewal” label in 2014.

The partnerships with community organizations and funding will continue “indefinitely,” according to the senior education department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“This is great news” for the community organizations that partner with schools across the city, said Robin Veentstra-VanderWeele, the chief program officer at Partnership with Children, which serves as the nonprofit partner in eight city turnaround schools. “Community schools are really a three to five year strategy. Given that we’re now really hitting a three-and-a-half year benchmark, we’re just now poised to see the positive outcomes.”

Allowing those schools to keep those resources suggests that city officials are likely to continue a main element of their turnaround efforts. 

“We believe in investing in our schools,” education department spokeswoman Danielle Filson wrote in an email. “As the Chancellor said in September, we’re not planning to reduce the number of community schools.”

But even advocates of the approach have acknowledged that additional social services may not boost student achievement on their own, raising questions about the education department’s future approach to improving academic performance at struggling schools.

The current Renewal program does include some academic interventions, replacing school curriculum, for instance, and adding new teacher training — though it has not caused significant increases in test scores or graduation rates to date.

De Blasio has said the Renewal initiative, which was initially described as a three-year effort, has reached its “natural conclusion.” And one principal, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said school leaders have been told that Renewal is being phased out.

“The thing that’s crystal clear is there is no year five,” the principal said of the Renewal program, which is currently in its fourth year. (A senior education department official disputed that, saying a formal decision has not yet been made.)

Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza, who initially said the Renewal program does not have a clear “theory of action,” has not yet laid out his own strategy, though he has previously signaled that the city would not scale back its investments in struggling schools, a point of view of his office reiterated again on Thursday. And, as in previous years, it is likely the city will merge or close some of the remaining Renewal schools this winter, decisions that could reveal how successful the city believes its own turnaround efforts have been.

Of the 94 original schools, 14 have been closed, nine have left the program after being merged with other schools, and city officials said 21 have shown sufficient progress to slowly ease out of the program.

Aaron Pallas, a Teachers College professor who has studied the Renewal program, said it is possible the city will not continue to operate a separate turnaround program that is explicitly geared toward struggling schools, especially given how vulnerable the program has been to criticism.

“The chancellor hasn’t said much of anything that is suggestive of a comprehensive strategy,” Pallas said. “The big question I think for the schools that are not merged or closed: What comes next?”

devos watch

Obama-era discipline rules should be scrapped, Trump school safety commission says

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

Trump administration officials say it’s time to reverse Obama-era guidelines meant to curb suspensions and expulsions, especially for students of color.

The federal school safety commission recommends the move in a report released Tuesday, saying that efforts to address racial disparities in discipline may have made America’s schools less safe. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is expected to rescind the guidance soon, notching a victory for the conservative campaign to link school discipline reforms with unsafe schools — a connection that remains questionable.

“One of the things that the commission was concerned with was the recurring narrative that teachers in the classroom or students in the hallway and on campus were afraid because individuals who had a history of anti-social or in some instances, aggressive, trending toward violent, behavior were left unpunished or were left unchecked,” a senior Trump administration official told reporters Tuesday. “So that is the first move that the report makes, to correct for that problem.”

The school safety commission’s 177-page report also recommends:

  • More access to mental health services for students
  • Various approaches to school safety, which could include considering “arming some specially selected and trained school personnel”
  • More training around how to prepare for an active shooter

Those conclusions come from a commission formed after a school shooter in Parkland, Florida left 17 dead in February. Chaired by DeVos and composed of just four members of President Trump’s cabinet, the commission has hosted a series of hearings and courted controversy by avoiding discussion of gun control measures.

While the report lauded states and schools using techniques such as positive behavioral interventions and supports to tackle student misbehavior, the commission stopped short of calling for more federal funding for such initiatives.

Scrapping the school discipline guidance is a particularly notable move. That guidance was issued in January 2014 by the Obama education and justice departments, and it told school leaders to seek out alternatives to suspension and other penalties that take students out of the classroom.

It also noted that black and Hispanic students were suspended much more often than other students, and that suspensions were correlated with higher dropout rates and lower academic achievement. Significant, unexplained racial disparities in discipline rates could trigger a federal review into whether a district had violated civil rights law, it warned.

To civil rights leaders, this was an effort to address racism in schools. To conservatives, it represented government overreach. In schools where suspensions were reduced without alternatives, the guidance encouraged misbehavior to go unchecked, they argued.

That argument is expanded in the safety commission’s report.

“When school leaders focus on aggregate school discipline numbers rather than the specific circumstances and conduct that underlie each matter, schools become less safe,” the report says. It cites a survey from the AASA, The School Superintendents Association, with comments like, “There is a feeling that by keeping some students in school, we are risking the safety of students.”

(AASA’s advocacy director, who praised some aspects of the report, says those comments represented a minority view.)

There’s limited research evidence that cutting back on suspensions made schools less safe, though teachers in multiple districts have reported that they have been hamstrung by new restrictions. One study in Chicago found that when the district modestly cut down on suspensions, student test scores and attendance actually rose as a result. There’s also not much known about how effective alternatives, like restorative justice, have been either.

The report also argues that guidance rests on shaky legal ground by relying on the concept of “disparate impact” — meaning policies that are neutral on their face but have varying effects on different races can be considered discriminatory.

Meanwhile, the report says, disparities in discipline rates may not have to do with discrimination at all, but “may be due to societal factors other than race.” It also says “local circumstances” may play a role in behavior differences “if students come from distressed communities and face significant trauma.”

“When there is evidence beyond a mere statistical disparity that educational programs and policies may violate the federal prohibition on racial discrimination, this Administration will act swiftly and decisively to investigate and remedy any discrimination,” it says.

The Obama-era guidance didn’t require schools to adopt specific policies, and rescinding it won’t require districts to make changes, either. But a change could influence school districts’ decisionmaking.

That’s likely to harm students of color and students with disabilities, former Obama education secretaries Arne Duncan and John King said in a statement.

“Today’s recommendation to roll back guidance that would protect students from unfair, systemic school discipline practices is beyond disheartening,” they said.

Read the entire report here:



Matt Barnum contributed reporting.

funding battle

Defiant, Cuomo invites ire resisting more New York State funding for schools

PHOTO: Philip Kamrass/Office of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo
Governor Andrew Cuomo during his 2018 State of the State address.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo once again laid the responsibility of equitable school funding on local districts Monday, earning the nickname “Ebenezer Scrooge” from an advocacy group and kicking off what could be a contentious fight over education spending.

In a speech to the New York City Bar Association, Cuomo released his legislative priorities for the first 100 days of his new term as governor. He devoted a small portion of his comments to education, immediately sparking anger from his critics.

Cuomo directly placed responsibility for funding schools on local districts, saying the money is “not fairly distributed by them.” He pointed to a law he pushed to pass last year that required school districts to compile a report on how state funding is distributed among schools.

“The truth is the poorest schools do not receive any more funding than the richer schools from their local districts,” Cuomo said. “And that, my friend, is a critical injustice because the poorer schools have a great need that needs to be funded.

Then, Cuomo called the foundation aid program — designed to send extra dollars to high-needs school districts — and the 1993 lawsuit filed by New York City parents that laid the groundwork for foundation aid as “ghosts of the past” and part of “a political game.”

“The question is the local distribution of aid,” Cuomo said. “That’s what we have to focus on if we’re actually going to move from political pandering to progressive policy. It’s a question of math and theory, not philosophy and political posturing.”

Advocates say the state still owes the education department about $4 billion in foundation aid funding. The state halted funding under the formula during the recession. In 2017, Cuomo proposed changing it to a level that advocates described as a “repeal.” But Cuomo’s proposal could not overcome these advocates’ opposition and failed to pass.

“Cuomo is the Ebenezer Scrooge of public schools, starving children of much needed resources and state funding,” said Jasmine Gripper, legislative director for the union-backed advocacy group Alliance for Quality Education, in a statement after Cuomo’s speech.

The problem, Gripper said, is that under Cuomo, the “state doesn’t provide enough funding to meet the growing needs that result from growing poverty and increased numbers of English language learners.”

A Chalkbeat analysis of New York City’s school funding data found there are funding disparities, which can amount to thousands of dollars per pupil, between schools, largely because of the Fair Student Funding Formula that sends more dollars to schools with hard-to-serve students, like those with disabilities or those from low-income families.

Some educators, including school principals, argue this formula does not go far enough to address school inequities — holes often filled by rich PTAs.

In the past, some scholars have questioned whether spending more money on schools necessarily results in sufficiently better outcomes for students. But a new review of the research suggests that additional money can play a role in student academic performance. But how that money is spent also likely matters.

The state Department of Education recently proposed a $2.1 billion increase in school funding, most of it tied to boosting foundation aid dollars. The state teachers union and Alliance for Quality Education lauded the Board of Regents’ proposal.

Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Teachers Federation, said it’s “time to take the politics out of state resources for education,” adding that low-income students have been “shortchanged for years” by the state formula.

As they have in the past, state education policymakers also endorsed a $4.9 billion, three-year phase-in of the money many argue is still owed under foundation aid.

“As we said when we released our proposal last week, all children should have access to a high-quality education regardless of their race, where they live or where they go to school,” said Emily DeSantis, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Education. “We look forward to working with the legislature and the executive to achieve this for all New York’s children.”

With more progressive Democrats in the Senate who campaigned on boosting education spending, Cuomo’s comments could signal a contentious budget fight ahead. Lawmakers must hash out a budget pan by April 1, and Cuomo’s budget proposal is expected in January.

Lawmakers don’t typically grant the full funding request from state policymakers. Last year, for example, legislators approved $1 billion in more funding for education, which was still more than half a billion dollars less than what the Board of Regents asked for.