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?”

upheaval

Frustrations over principal turnover flare up at IPS School 43

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
School 43

It began with a tame slideshow presentation about hiring a new principal at School 43. But the Wednesday night meeting soon spiraled into a venting session — as parents and teachers pleaded with Indianapolis Public Schools to send in more staff.

Bakari Posey, the principal of School 43, departed for another job last week in the latest upheaval at the school, which is also known as James Whitcomb Riley. The assistant principal, Endia Ellison, has taken over in an interim capacity, as the district searches for a new leader for the school, which has faced significant turnover in recent years.

“This school needs help,” said Natasha Milam, who has three children at School 43, which serves about 450 students in prekindergarten to eighth-grade. “We need you all to listen. And we need you all to hear us.”

Milam, who volunteers at the school, said that because the building does not have enough staff to handle behavior problems, students are suspended far too often — meaning students are at home doing chores or getting into trouble, instead of in class learning.

Many in the neighborhood had hoped Posey, who is from the community, would be able to turn the school around after the previous two school leaders left their posts just months into the job. But under Posey’s leadership, the school continued to struggle on state tests, with just 7 percent of students passing both the math and English exams last year.

And after two-and-a-half years on the job, Posey left and began working this week as assistant principal at Fall Creek Valley Middle School in Lawrence Township. In an email Thursday, Posey said that he left because he thought the position in Lawrence would help him grow professionally and it was closer to his home.

Posey also disputed the picture of School 43 as a campus in crisis. He said this school year, there hasn’t been “turmoil in the school in regards to student behavior,” suspensions were down, and the campus has been “very calm.” (Suspension numbers could not immediately be verified.) He also said that Indianapolis Public Schools provided “great support” to school staff.

Nonetheless, parents and teachers’ at the meeting Wednesday said the school has serious problems.

Ryesha Jackson, a 4th-grade teacher who has been at the school a little over a year, said there are not enough staff to help with student discipline problems. That makes it hard for educators to teach, she said.

“We have fights almost every day,” Jackson said. “I guess my question is, ‘What are we doing right now to support teachers?’”

School 43 is a neighborhood school, on the north side of the district. More than 75 percent of students there are black, and almost 70 percent come from families with incomes so low that they are eligible for free or reduced-price meals — about the district average.

Indianapolis Public Schools interim Superintendent Aleesia Johnson said district and school leaders would work together to develop a plan to address the urgent problems at School 43.

“But what I can’t give you right now is the plan for that help,” she said. “That takes time and coordination with the school staff.”

The district is gathering input about what school community members are looking for in a principal before posting a listing, officials said. Finalists will be interviewed by committees of parents, community members, and school and district staff. The goal is to name a new principal by April.

Also at Wednesday’s meeting was a small contingent from the IPS Community Coalition, a group that is often critical of the Indianapolis Public Schools administration, particularly the district’s partnerships with charter schools.

Michele Lorbieski, a resident from the north side who ran unsuccessfully for the Indianapolis Public Board with the support of the coalition last year, said the district cannot just rely on the next principal to fix the school.

“What I’d hoped to hear tonight was what the school district was doing to put things in place to stop this revolving door of principals,” she said.

District officials did not directly address why turnover has been so high among principals at School 43. But Brynn Kardash, a district official who recently began working with the school, said that the central office is doing more to support it this year.

School 43 was added this year to the transformation zone — an effort to help troubled schools that includes dedicated support and regular visits from a team at the central office, said Kardash, the district’s executive director of schools for the zone. Educators in the zone get additional training, extra planning time, and help analyzing student data, she said.

“The goal is to really support Ms. Ellison in work that she’s doing,” Kardash said, “which then leads to, hopefully, teachers feeling that support in the classroom.”

technical difficulties

This personalized learning program was supposed to boost math scores. It didn’t, new study finds

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
A student at I.S. 228 in Brooklyn does online work through Teach to One, a program that grew out of the iZone.

A program that Bill Gates once called “the future of math” didn’t improve state test scores at schools that adopted it, according to a new study.

The research examines Teach to One, a “personalized learning” program used in schools across 11 states and which has drawn support from a number of major funders, including the Gates Foundation, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, and Netflix co-founder Reed Hastings. (Gates and CZI are also funders of Chalkbeat.)

At five schools in Elizabeth, New Jersey, students who used Teach to One didn’t improve any faster than similar students who didn’t use the program, even after three years. The results underscore the limited evidence for claims that such technology programs can dramatically improve student learning, even as they have become magnets for philanthropic dollars.

“The original aspirations, that Teach to One programs were going to have huge positive effects on math scores — we can rule that out with these studies,” said Jonah Rockoff, a Columbia professor who studied an earlier iteration of the program.

Teach to One says its approach is designed to help students steadily learn math skills, regardless of how unprepared or advanced they are. Students spend time on a computer as well as with a teacher and working in small groups. Students receive individualized schedules each day based on their progress, and a computer program adapts the curriculum to students’ strengths and weaknesses in the form of a “playlist.”

New Classrooms, the organization behind Teach To One, suggests that the Elizabeth results aren’t the full story.

It points to a separate analysis released this week that looks at a broader group of schools — 14, from several districts — that used the program. That study shows Teach to One students making above-average gains on a test known as the MAP, which is taken on a computer with questions changing as students answer correctly or incorrectly.

New Classrooms co-founder Joel Rose suggested in a statement that those computer-adaptive tests capture something that state tests can miss: students’ progress.

“What seems to be emerging is a real tension in math between approaches focused on long-term academic growth and state accountability systems,” he said.

Rockoff said there might be something to New Classroom’s argument that the study using adaptive test is better able to showcase students’ gains. “If [students] are at a grade four level but they’re in grade six, teaching them grade four material is going to hurt them on the state test,” he said.

But the author of the second study, Jesse Margolis, and a number of other researchers who spoke to Chalkbeat note that it cannot show whether Teach to One caused any of the students’ gains, though — a major limitation.

“While this study cannot establish causality, it is encouraging,” Margolis wrote. (The New Jersey study is better able to establish cause and effect, but it also has limitations and does not rely on random assignment.)

The New Jersey study isn’t the first to show that Teach to One didn’t improve test scores: so did Rockoff’s 2015 report on three New York City middle schools that looked at both state and MAP tests.

One possible explanation is that Teach to One is helpful to students in some places but not others. Margolis said his study examined the same five Elizabeth schools as the Columbia study and also found minimal gains there, but that schools elsewhere seemed to see larger improvements.

Researcher John Pane of RAND, a leader in studying personalized learning, says the results are important to understanding a field with limited research to date.

“Because we have so little evidence on personalized learning,” he said, “every data point can be helpful for us to start triangulating and piecing together what works and what doesn’t work.”