Looking back

The year that was: Looking back at 2010's education headlines

It’s the last day of 2010 and we’re flipping back our calendars to the very beginning for a look at the education goings-on of this past year and what they bode for the future. That is, tomorrow.

January

The year began with a 20-day race through public hearings on the city’s plans to close 19 schools. At Beach Channel High School, Jamaica and Columbus high schools, in front of Mayor Bloomberg’s house, Metropolitan Corporate Academy, and other schools (but not Kappa II), teachers, parents, and students rallied against the closure plans. Yet the mayoral appointees on the citywide Panel for Educational Policy, at a meeting that lasted until 4 a.m., voted to approve closing all of the schools.

Meanwhile, in Albany, legislators were negotiating changes to state law that would improve the state’s chances in the Race to the Top competition, which offered millions of federal dollars in exchange for education reforms. Gov. Paterson proposed eliminating the charter school cap altogether, in accordance with the Obama Administration’s preferences, and lawmakers spent the day of Race to the Top’s deadline trying — and ultimately failing — to reach an agreement. The state submitted its bid anyway, initially refusing to release it and ultimately revealing a host of long-shot promises and bizarre furniture requests.

Other changes were afoot in Albany. Because of our reporting, the state reversed a policy that barred charter schools from giving priority in admission to students identified as English language learners.

Back in New York City, it was mostly business as usual, with a new round of budget cuts, the fifth in two years, an impasse in union contract negotiations, and yet another reorganization of how schools get support from the central administration.

February

The shortest month was long on conflict. First, the teachers union sued to stop the 19 school closures that were approved in January. We looked at what would happen to their teachers — hint: the group of teachers without positions, known as the Absent Teacher Reserve pool, would swell — and to their students.

A second front opened over whether to tie teacher evaluations to student test scores, something national union president Randi Weingarten said she could support and local United Federation of Teachers president Michael Mulgrew initially said he couldn’t. When the city unveiled a new tenure process that would use test scores, the UFT immediately put up a legal challenge, arguing that the city had violated the union’s contract. Tying test scores to teacher evaluations wasn’t in the city’s list of contract demands (which were accidentally released about this time) but it might as well have been. Topping the list: flexibility in firing.

And communities in Harlem, the Lower East Side, Queens, and Red Hook were divided by vicious fights over charter school siting.

March

New York State was named one of 16 Race to the Top finalists but went home empty-handed, just as it had been expected to. Officials vowed to try again in the competition’s second round.

Also entering round two: The school closure showdown. High school decision letters went out late because of the court battle. Two days after decision letters were sent to students the State Supreme Court ruled the closure votes “null and void”, finding that the city hadn’t followed the complex state law governing school closures. We explained the implications, which included the placement of some students at schools the city said were too bad to keep open.

That’s not to say that the city and union couldn’t agree on anything. In fact, they worked on a deal to close the rubber rooms. And together they quaked at the doomsday budget being floated in Albany, which would have slashed $400 million from the city’s schools.

In other news: the number of teachers without positions decreased. New York State’s NAEP reading scores stayed flat and the city’s graduation rate went up. NYU historian Diane Ravitch’s book about came out and so did our own Elizabeth Green’s New York Times Magazine article on making a better teacher. The city restricted bake sales and parents protested, yelling, “Viva el cupcake!”

April

April was the month the Department of Education eliminated its division of teaching and learning and announced a major push toward online education. It was also the month that lawyers for the city revealed their argument for why the school closures should go through as planned: At least we tried to follow the rules.

Michael Mulgrew won his first full term as UFT president in a landslide vote but met some up-and-coming adversaries in the group Educators 4 Excellence, formed to lobby against “last in, first out” layoff rules.

The city announced it would close rubber rooms by the end of the year but it didn’t reach any agreement with the union on other contract issues, including “last in, first out.” We judged the rubber room timeline too optimistic.

We visited one school where classes felt like rubber rooms of their own and met students from several other schools who had defied the odds.

Looking toward Race to the Top’s second round, the State Senate introduced a bill to double the number of charter schools, while Harlem Senator Bill Perkins held his own heated charter school hearings.

May

The charter cap bill zipped through the State Senate but stalled in the Assembly. After a month of delay, legislators hashed out a last-minute deal to more than double the charter cap to 460. But questions remained about how other components of the new charter school law would be implemented.

The city planned for $750 million in cuts to schools and massive teacher layoffs, the nitty-gritty of which we explained. Education Secretary Arne Duncan stopped in New York City (and altered his itinerary at the request of the teachers union) to call for a federal schools bailout.

The city looked for extra change by charging schools for lunches that students left unpaid and permitting schools to fire parent coordinators.

The State Education Department and the teachers union inked a deal to tie teacher evaluations to student test scores; the city pushed back against the court ruling barring its school closures; and State Senator Eric Adams told baggy-panted students to Stop the Sag.

June

We read the state’s bulked-up second-round Race to the Top application so our readers didn’t have to. The state promised to replicate city initiatives; meanwhile, the city promised the feds it would “turn around” a host of struggling schools.

Mayor Bloomberg cut teacher raises to save money and prevent teacher layoffs— postponing speculation that layoffs would happen to 2011 — and teachers rallied against budget cuts. Devising their 2010-2011 budgets, principals started excessing teachers. Also shedding numbers: The schools kept open by court ruling, where we revealed that the city had discouraged enrollment.

We said goodbye to the rubber rooms and DOE press secretary David Cantor and hello to hip-hop Regents prep. The city and union ended the school year fighting over when the next one would begin: The city tried to delay the first day of school until after Rosh Hashanah, which fell during the week after Labor Day, but abandoned the plan, blaming the union.

July

Bad news abounded in July. The state admitted that test standards had been too low for too long. Thousands of students had been misled into thinking they had proficient skills, and once standards were raised, the proportion of city students passing the state reading tests dropped by more than 25 percent. After years of announcing gains, Mayor Bloomberg was left scrambling for a message. The city promised extra attention but not extra money for struggling students.

Also falling short: The city’s appeal in the school closure legal fight. An appeals court upheld the ruling barring the closures, though the city said it would stay the course on opening new schools.

New York State ended the month a Race to the Top finalist for the second time, but with improved prospects for winning. And the city started getting ready to adopt toughened, national curriculum standards.

August

City and state officials went to Washington, D.C., to pitch the state’s Race to the Top application and brought home about $700 million in school funds, of which about $300 million would go to the city. The federal “edujobs” bill sent about $200 million — and hope for a layoff-free year — to New York City.

Otherwise, the month was about as boring as a fifth-grader’s summer homework. Breaking the monotony: Chancellor Klein threatened to use emergency powers to expand a Lower East Side charter school (but didn’t), and protesters distressed by lower state test scores derailed the month’s Panel for Educational Policy meeting. We also revealed that a Brooklyn charter school was holding classes in illegal space and dug up 1974 footage of Muhammad Ali’s visit to PS 41.

September

The school year started — and then started again — with too many teachers (though too few in classrooms), not enough kindergarten spaces, and scheduling problems. We live-blogged the first day of school, traveling with Chancellor Klein to all five boroughs.

During September, we met the Independent Budget Office’s new education watchdog, teachers who built their own data systems to make up for problems in the city’s, and fans — and foes — of the education documentary “Waiting for ‘Superman.'” The city quietly released lower progress report grades based on diminished test scores. We learned some bad news — just half of the year’s summer school students were promoted — and some good news: City students reversed a trend and posted an SAT score boost.

We also got a hint of the policy issues that would define the school year: more budget cuts, major problems on the value-added teacher data reports, and changes to tenure policy, for which Mayor Bloomberg promised new rules, the union be damned.

October

In collaboration with WNYC, we launched “The Big Fix,” a reporting project about the city’s various efforts to fix failing high schools. Christopher Columbus High School in the Bronx escaped the chopping block only to start the school year with a stripped down budget, growing needs, and students who mostly wanted to be there. William Grady High School banked on a new principal for needed improvements. And officials at Chelsea Career and Technical Education High School moved student by student toward a higher graduation rate.

Aiming to avoid more legal problems, the city started laying the groundwork for school closures early.  It closed out the month with 47 schools on the at-risk list and conflict with the teachers union over whether the city had tried to help them or neglected them. The city didn’t improve its relationship with the union when it said it would flout an agreement and release individual teachers’ value-added scores. The union immediately headed to court to halt the release.

The state told districts how to spend their Race to the Top spoils, we looked into the chancellor’s school visit history, and Eva Moskowitz got permission to open a charter school on the Upper West Side. The GothamSchools team found time during this busy month to travel to North Carolina for its first wedding (mine!).

November

Not much happened in November. We threw a party. And Joel Klein shocked the city (and most of his own deputies) by announcing his resignation after eight years as chancellor. Jaws dropped even further when Bloomberg announced that Cathie Black, a publishing executive with no experience or apparent interest in education, was his pick to take Klein’s place. We joined the scrum of journalists analyzing Black’s preparedness, Bloomberg’s mysterious search process, and the circumstances of Klein’s abrupt departure.

Parents, teachers, voters, and lawmakers took a stand against Black’s appointment, but Gloria Steinem gave her okay. That wasn’t enough for a special state panel convened to consider whether Black should receive the waiver required for non-educators to become chancellor — a majority of its members voted against her. City and state officials worked through the Thanksgiving weekend to reach a deal that would let Black become chancellor as long as a DOE official, Shael Polakow-Suransky, became her second in command in charge of academics. The next week, Black made her first visit to a city public school since her appointment.

Rupert Murdoch, Joel Klein’s new boss, bought Wireless Generation, a major education technology company based in Brooklyn. Looking forward, it’s unclear what Klein’s relationship will be with the company. But that’s for the future. For the past, here’s our take on Klein’s career at the DOE.

In non-Cathie Black news, Andrew Cuomo, no friend of teachers unions, was elected governor, but union-backed candidates won many other races. A preliminary budget brought back the specter of teacher layoffs, this time 6,100 in 2011. The city said it missed its rubber room deadline for just 16 teachers. And new, lower high school progress report grades came out, but some schools got higher grades that paved the way for them to stay open.

Then, bedbugs struck.

December

Where was Cathie Black? The DOE wouldn’t say, so we joined the NYC education press corps in calling on the city to reveal her whereabouts. We found her on the phone and on TV, but not at any low-performing schools.

Parents and elected officials filed lawsuits to block Black’s appointment. But during the year’s last days, a State Supreme Court judge dismissed all three of the suits, clearing the way for Black to take over on January 3, the first day of school after the winter recess.

Black’s first piece of business — assuming there’s no remaining fallout from a riot over bathroom access at Murry Bergtraum High School — is likely to be presiding over the latest round of school closures. The city finalized its intentions to close 26 schools, fewer than the maximum number possible but still the most in any year. Mulgrew promised a serious fight over the closures, suggesting the city might see a repeat of 2010’s school closure showdown in 2011.

There’s much more to look forward to in 2011, from changes to the way school safety data gets reported, continued sparring over teacher data reports, a new tenure process for new teachers, and, if Klein’s final missive is to be trusted, a push to address the ATR situation. The city is also looking at more federally mandated turnarounds next year, although federal reforms could be in jeopardy as the balance of power shifts in Washington. If nothing else, we can at least count on a musical performance featuring the PS 22 chorus during the Oscars in February.

You made it to the end of 2010! Have a happy New Year’s Eve and we’ll see you back here on Monday.

first steps

Superintendent León secures leadership team, navigates evolving relationship with board

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Superintendent Roger León at Tuesday's school board meeting.

As Newark’s new superintendent prepares for the coming academic year, the school board approved the final members of his leadership team Tuesday and began piecing together a roadmap to guide his work.

The board confirmed three assistant superintendents chosen by Superintendent Roger León: Jose Fuentes, the principal of First Avenue School in the North Ward; Sandra Rodriguez, a Hoboken principal who previously oversaw Newark Public Schools’ early childhood office; and Mario Santos, principal of East Side High School in the East Ward. They join three other assistant superintendents León selected for his team, along with a deputy superintendent, chief of staff, and several other officials.

The three assistant superintendents confirmed Tuesday had first come before the board in June, but at that time none of them secured enough votes to be approved. During last month’s meeting, the board assented to several of León’s leadership picks and to his decision to remove many people from the district’s central office, but it also blocked him from ousting several people.

This week, Board Chair Josephine Garcia declined to comment on the board’s reversal, and León did not respond to a request for comment.

What is clear is that the board and León are still navigating their relationship.

In February, the board regained local control of the district 22 years after the state seized control of the district due to poor performance and mismanagement. The return to local control put the board back in charge of setting district policy and hiring the superintendent, who previously answered only to the state. Still, the superintendent, not the board, is responsible for overseeing the district’s day-to-day operations.

During a board discussion Tuesday, Garcia hinted at that delicate balance of power.

“Now that we’re board members, we want to make sure that, of course, yes, we’re going to have input and implementation,” but that they don’t overstep their authority, she said.

Under state rules, the board is expected to develop district goals and policies, which the superintendent is responsible for acting on. But León — a former principal who spent the past decade serving as an assistant superintendent — has his own vision for the district, which he hopes to convince the board to support, he said in a recent interview on NJTV.

“It’s my responsibility as the new superintendent of schools to compel them to assist the district moving in the direction that I see as appropriate,” he said.

Another matter still being ironed out by the board and superintendent is communication.

León did not notify the full board before moving to force out 31 district officials and administrators, which upset some members. And he told charter school leaders in a closed-door meeting that he plans to keep intact the single enrollment system for district and charter schools — a controversial policy the board is still reviewing.

The district has yet to make a formal announcement about the staff shake-up, including the appointment of León’s new leadership team. And when the board voted on the new assistant superintendents Tuesday, it used only the appointed officials’ initials — not their full names. However, board member Leah Owens stated the officials’ full names when casting her vote.

The full names, titles and salaries of public employees are a matter of public record under state law.

Earlier, board member Yambeli Gomez had proposed improved communication as a goal for the board.

“Not only communication within the board and with the superintendent,” she said, “but also communication with the public in a way that’s more organized.”

The board spent much of Tuesday’s meeting brainstorming priorities for the district.

Members offered a grab bag of ideas, which were written on poster paper. Under the heading “student achievement,” they listed literacy, absenteeism, civics courses, vocational programs, and teacher quality, among other topics. Under other “focus areas,” members suggested classroom materials, parent involvement, and the arts.

Before the school year begins in September, León is tasked with shaping the ideas on that poster paper into specific goals and an action plan.

After the meeting, education activist Wilhelmina Holder said she hopes the board will focus its attention on a few key priorities.

“There was too much of a laundry list,” she said.

early dismissals

Top Newark school officials ousted in leadership shake-up as new superintendent prepares to take over

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Incoming Newark Public Schools Superintendent Roger León

Several top Newark school officials were given the option Friday to resign or face termination, in what appeared to be an early move by incoming Superintendent Roger León to overhaul the district’s leadership.

The shake-up includes top officials such as the chief academic officer and the head of the district’s controversial enrollment system, as well as lower-level administrators — 31 people in total, according to documents and district employees briefed on the overhaul. Most of the officials were hired or promoted by the previous two state-appointed superintendents, Cami Anderson and Christopher Cerf, a sign that León wants to steer the district in a new direction now that it has returned to local control.

The officials were given the option to resign by Tuesday and accept buyouts or face the prospect of being fired by the school board at its meeting that evening. The buyouts offer a financial incentive to those who resign voluntarily on top of any severance included in their contracts. In exchange for accepting the buyouts, the officials must sign confidentiality agreements and waive their right to sue the district.

Earlier this week, León submitted a list of his choices to replace the ousted cabinet-level officials, which the board must approve at its Tuesday meeting. It’s not clear whether he has people lined up to fill the less-senior positions.

It’s customary for incoming superintendents to appoint new cabinet members and reorganize the district’s leadership structure, which usually entails replacing some personnel. However, many staffers were caught off guard by Friday’s dismissals since León has given little indication of how he plans to restructure the central office — and he does not officially take the reins of the district until July 1.

A district spokeswoman and the school board chair did not immediately respond to emails on Friday about the shake-up.

Some staffers speculated Friday that the buyout offers were a way for León to replace the district’s leadership without securing the school board’s approval because, unlike with terminations, the board does not need to sign off on resignations. However, it’s possible the board may have to okay any buyout payments. And it could also be the case that the buyouts were primarily intended to help shield the district from legal challenges to the dismissals.

León was not present when the staffers learned Friday afternoon that they were being let go, the employees said. Instead, the interim superintendent, Robert Gregory, and other top officials broke the news, which left some stunned personnel crying and packing their belongings into boxes. They received official separation letters by email later that day.

The people being ousted include Chief Academic Officer Brad Haggerty and Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon, who oversees enrollment. Also included are top officials in the curriculum, early childhood, and finance divisions, among others, according to a list obtained by Chalkbeat.

In addition to the 31 being pushed out, several assistant superintendents are being demoted but will remain in the district, according to the district employees.

There was concern among some officials Friday about whether the turnover would disrupt planning for the coming school year.

“I don’t know how we’re going to open smoothly with cuts this deep,” one of the employees said. “Little to no communication was provided to the teams about what these cuts mean for the many employees who remain in their roles and need leadership guidance and direction Monday morning.”