The day after: What we learned at last night's turnaround hearing

A teacher from Lehman High School testifies at Thursday's Panel for Educational Policy meeting. The panel voted to close and reopen Lehman.

Here are seven things you should know about last night’s Panel for Educational Policy meeting, in case you don’t have time to read the live-blog we maintained for more than six hours as the panel weighed whether to approve “turnaround” closure plans for 24 schools.

1. There’s a new form of school closure in town. Usually, when the Department of Education decides to close a school, it embarks on a multi-year process of phasing out the old school and phasing in a new school, or multiple new schools, in its place. The department has used this process well over 100 times in the last decade and has said it results in stronger student performance. This process is what the panel okayed in February, when it signed off on plans to close or shrink 23 schools.

Turnaround is a little different. It speeds up the process so phasing out and in happen at the same time, essentially overnight. It remains to be seen whether years of transition or rapid change can be judged to be more effective at boosting student achievement. The city turned to turnaround this year to make schools eligible for federal funds. But if the city determines that turnaround has advantages over phase-out, the city could use it again in the future.

2. But turnaround isn’t really as new as Mayor Bloomberg made it out to be. On the dais, Chancellor Dennis Walcott said that a panel resolution to prohibit turnarounds was inaccurate because it stated that the reform initiative was unknown in New York City. In fact, Walcott said, the city has used turnaround before –  but to a lesser extent. They also have never called their reform efforts turnaround, a term that comes from the Obama administration’s school reform vocabulary list.

What they have done is close low-performing schools and open new ones in their place that serve all of the same grades and students. When that has happened, in some elementary and middle school overhauls, the principals of the new schools have been bound to hire from the old schools’ staff in accordance with the same clause in the city’s contract with the teachers union that the city is invoking in the turnaround schools.

Walcott pointed out that one of his deputy chancellors, David Weiner, had actually overseen a turnaround school when he was the principal of the now-closed P.S. 314 in Sunset Park. Weiner closed down the school and reopened it as P.S. 503 The School of Discovery.

“I want to change the misinformation that’s saying it hasn’t been done,” Walcott told Dmytro Fedkowskyj, the Queens representative who authored the resolution. “It has been done.”

3. A hearing just isn’t the same without the UFT’s involvement. In the past, the union has chartered buses from all over the city to PEP meetings to make sure the full range of opposition is represented from teachers working in schools being affected by panel votes, and organized dissent has resulted. But this month the union not only cancelled the buses, it sat out of the panel meeting entirely, creating a scattered presence of teachers who attended on their own initiative.

Close to 100 teachers and supporters were at the union’s rally earlier in the day, but the vast majority of them went home after drying off at the union headquarters. Without a critical mass of people, the teachers who did trek to Prospect Heights sometimes found their messages lost amid the sea of organized charter school supporters who turned out to testify on co-locations up for a vote.

In fact, only a fraction of the schools on the turnaround list were represented at all, and only one representative of the seven middle schools at risk — a principal who would be replaced under turnaround — spoke out. Only about two dozen students attended and parents were even less plentiful.

The largest and most contingent at the meeting came from two charter school networks, Democracy Prep and Success Charter, who both brought buses of supporters to back co-location proposals before the panel. For a time during the public comment period, one could forget that turnaround was on the agenda at all.

4. But we haven’t heard the last from the union. Just days after Mayor Bloomberg announced the turnaround plan in January, UFT President Michael Mulgrew left little doubt about how the union planned to respond. “If the Department of Education tries to implement changing these schools from their current status, we will be taking appropriate legal action,” Mulgrew said at the time.

Last night, we saw that the union is dotting all its i’s in preparation for a lawsuit.

Vice President Leo Casey was the only union official to appear at the hearing after most stayed away to protest the panel’s pro forma votes. Why did he make the trek to Brooklyn? “I just want to make an official objection for when we sue them,” Casey said.

A union official said this morning that a lawsuit would not be filed today. The official would not say whether the union had a timeline for lodging a legal complaint.

5. Panel members aren’t just sitting silently before they vote. Critics often mock the panel’s mayoral appointees as “puppets” who do little besides keep their seat warm and wait until it’s time to vote “yes.” The mayoral panelists all voted yes in accordance with Mayor Bloomberg’s wish, doing little to curb the criticism.

But in a departure from the norm, a majority of the mayoral appointees were visibly grappling with the proposals before them.

“I know the panel members want us to engage,” said the first mayoral appointee to ask a question, Jeffrey Kay. Kay asked Deputy Chancellor Marc Sternberg to repeat some of the key points of the proposal: “Outside of the change of the name of the school and the possible elimination of poor teachers, what else is this program going to do?”

Sternberg was patient, but he also seemed weary as he rehashed the policy points that had already occupied the panel for five hours. “I’ve already said some of this,” Sternberg began.

After hearing Sternberg’s explanation, Kay expressed disbelief that anyone would oppose turnaround and criticized Manhattan representative Patrick Sullivan for calling the plan “barbaric.” Sullivan in turn chided Kay for not understanding some of the complexities of the proposal.

“Maybe if you had actually read the plans” you’d understand it better, Sullivan said. Sullivan was one of several panel members to request the city’s application to the state for federal turnaround funding, and he had spent the days before the meeting poring over more than 800 pages of plans. The city barred the panel members from discussing the applications publicly because they are not final.

Judy Bertgraum, who was appointed earlier this year, said that in her 30 years of working in education in Queens schools, many of the schools on the turnaround list had long been struggling. “The issue with these schools have been there” for years, she said. “I see this as an opportunity that’s never come before. This doesn’t come very often.”

Joan Correale, who became a panel member just in time for the meeting, said her daughter’s Bronx high school had undergone something like turnaround. The process led to principal turnover, but in the end the school was a better place, she says. (Correale had previously served on the panel as the appointee of the Staten Island borough president.)

And Brooklyn’s Gitte Peng said she wanted to know what the DOE’s communication plan was for making sure students and parents understood all of the changes that were about to take place over the next several months. “One concern is the potential for confusion on the part of kids and parents in the community for what next year will bring,” she said.

6. The city thinks good teachers are worth millions of dollars. Deputy Chancellor Marc Sternberg emphasized that point after multiple panel members, including Fedkowskyj, expressed disbelief that principals would choose to jeopardize their chances of winning millions of dollars in federal funds. Schools are eligible for the funding only if they replace 50 percent of teachers who have been on staff for more than two years, a quota that DOE officials have repeatedly said principals are not required to follow.

“Our direction to them is hire the best possible staff as they can and if that means they are hiring more than 50 percent of their staff then that’s exactly what they should do,” Sternberg said again at the meeting.

Fedkowskyj challenged that talking point. He said he could envision a scenario where principals, lured by money for their schools, would justify a decision not to rehire teachers in order to reach the 50 percent benchmark.

Sternberg quickly interjected and said the money should have no bearing on hiring decisions, even if one teacher stands in the way of reaching the 50 percent quota.

“Any principal that turns down one talented educator, they are making the wrong decision,” Sternberg said.

7. Here are the schools that will undergo turnaround:

Alfred E. Smith CTE High School, Bronx
August Martin High School, Queens
Automotive High School, Brooklyn
Banana Kelly High School, Bronx
Bread & Roses Integrated Arts High School, Manhattan
Bronx High School of Business, Bronx
Flushing High School, Queens
Fordham Leadership Academy, Bronx
Herbert Lehman High School, Bronx
High School of Graphic Communication Arts, Manhattan
I.S. 339, Bronx
J.H.S. 22 Jordan L Mott, Bronx
J.H.S. 80 Mosholu Parkway, Bronx
J.H.S. 142 John Philip Sousa, Bronx
J.H.S. 166 George Gershwin, Brooklyn
John Adams High School, Queens
John Dewey High School, Brooklyn
Long Island City High School, Queens
M.S. 126 John Ericsson, Bronx
M.S 391, Bronx
Newtown High School, Queens
Richmond Hill High School, Queens
Sheepshead Bay High School, Brooklyn
William Cullen Bryant High School, Queens


Colorado schools are getting a major bump in the state’s 2018-19 budget

Students waiting to enter their sixth-grade classroom at Kearney Middle School in Commerce City. (Photo by Craig Walker, The Denver Post)

Colorado’s strong economy has opened the door for state lawmakers to send a major cash infusion to the state’s public schools.

As they finalized the recommended budget for 2018-19, the Joint Budget Committee set aside $150 million, an additional $50 million beyond what Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper had asked for, to increase funding to schools.

“We believe this is the most significant reduction in what used to be called the negative factor since it was born,” said state Rep. Millie Hamner, the Dillon Democrat who chairs the Joint Budget Committee.

Colorado’s constitution calls for per pupil spending to increase at least by inflation every year, but the state hasn’t been able to meet that obligation since the Great Recession. The amount by which schools get shorted, officially called the budget stabilization factor, is $822 million in 2017-18. Under state law, this number isn’t supposed to get bigger from one year to the next, but in recent years, it hasn’t gotten much smaller either. 

But a booming economy coupled with more capacity in the state budget created by a historic compromise on hospital funding last year means Colorado has a lot more money to spend this year. In their March forecast, legislative economists told lawmakers they have an extra $1.3 billion to spend or save in 2018-19.

The recommended shortfall for next year is now just $672.4 million. That would bring average per-pupil spending above $8,100, compared to $7,662 this year.

Total program spending on K-12 education, after the budget stabilization factor is deducted, should be a little more than $7 billion, with the state picking up about $4.5 billion and the rest coming from local property taxes.

The budget debate this year has featured Republicans pressing for more ongoing money for transportation and Democrats resisting in the interest of spreading more money around to other needs. The positive March forecast reduced much of that tension, as a $500 million allocation for transportation allowed a compromise on roads funding in the Republican-controlled Senate. That compromise still needs the approval of the Democratic-controlled House, but suddenly a lot of things are seeming possible.

“We knew we were going to have more revenue than we’ve ever had to work with,” Hamner said of the status at the beginning of the session. But that presented its own challenges, as so many interest groups and constituencies sought to address long-standing needs.

“The fact that we’ve been able to reach such incredible compromises on transportation and K-12 funding, I think most members will be very pleased with this outcome,” Hamner said. “Where we ended up is a pretty good place.”

The big outstanding issue is proposed reforms to the Public Employees Retirement Association or PERA fund to address unfunded liabilities. A bill that is likely to see significant changes in the House is wending its way through the process. The Joint Budget Committee has set aside $225 million to deal with costs associated with that fix, which has major implications for teachers and school districts budgets.

The Joint Budget Committee has also set aside $30 million for rural schools, $10 million for programs to address teacher shortages, and $7 million for school safety grants.

The budget will be introduced in the House on Monday. Many of the school funding elements will appear in a separate school finance bill.

Going forward, there is a question about how sustainable these higher funding levels will be.

“It does put more pressure on the general fund,” Hamner said. “If we see a downturn in the economy, it’s going to be a challenge.”

outside the box

Program to bring back dropout students is one of 10 new ideas Jeffco is investing in

File photo of Wheat Ridge High School students. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Jeffco students who drop out will have another option for completing high school starting this fall, thanks to a program that is being started with money from a district “innovation fund.”

The new program would allow students, particularly those who are older and significantly behind on credits, to get district help to prepare for taking a high school equivalency test, such as the GED, while also taking college courses paid for by the district.

The idea for the program was pitched by Dave Kollar, who has worked for Jeffco Public Schools for almost 20 years, most recently as the district’s director of student engagement.

In part, Kollar’s idea is meant to give students hope and to allow them to see college as a possibility, instead of having to slowly walk back as they recover credits missing in their transcripts.

“For some kids, they look at you, and rightfully so, like ‘I’m going to be filling in holes for a year or two? This doesn’t seem realistic,’” Kollar said. “They’re kind of defeated by that. As a student, I’m constantly looking backwards at my failures. This is about giving kids something like a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Jeffco’s dropout rate has decreased in the last few years, like it has across the state. At 1.7 percent, the rate isn’t high, but still represents 731 students who dropped out last year.

Kollar’s was one of ten winning ideas announced earlier this month in the district’s first run at giving out mini-grants to kick-start innovative ideas. Kollar’s idea received $160,000 to get the program started and to recruit students who have dropped out and are willing to come back to school.

The other ideas that the district gave money to range from school building improvements to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act at Fletcher Miller Special School, from new school health centers to a new district position to help work on safety in schools. One school, Stott Elementary, will create a “tinker lab” where students will have space and supplies to work on projects as part of the school’s project-based learning model.

The Jeffco school board approved $1 million for the awards earlier this year. It was an idea proposed by Superintendent Jason Glass as a way of encouraging innovation in the district. This spring process is meant as a test run. The board will decide whether to continue investing in it once they see how the projects are going later this spring.

Officials say they learned a lot already. Tom McDermott, who oversaw the process, will present findings and recommendations to the board at a meeting next month.

If the board agrees to continue the innovation fund, McDermott wants to find different ways of supporting more of the ideas that educators present, even if there aren’t dollars for all of them.

That’s because in this first process — even though educators had short notice — teachers and other Jeffco staff still completed and submitted more than 100 proposals. Of those, 51 ideas scored high enough to move to the second round of the process in which the applicants were invited to pitch their ideas to a committee made up of Jeffco educators.

“We’re extremely proud of the 10,” McDermott said, but added, “we want to be more supportive of more of the ideas.”

McDermott said he thinks another positive change might be to create tiers so that smaller requests compete with each other in one category, and larger or broader asks compete with one another in a separate category.

This year, the applicants also had a chance to request money over time, but those parts of the awards hang on the board allocating more money.

Kollar’s idea for the GED preparation program for instance, includes a request for $348,800 next year. In total, among the 10 awards already granted, an extra $601,487 would be needed to fund the projects in full over the next two years.

Awards for innovation fund. Provided by Jeffco Public Schools.

The projects are not meant to be sustained by the award in the long-term, and some are one-time asks.

Kollar said that if that second phase of money doesn’t come through for his program, it should still be able to move forward. School districts are funded per student, so by bringing more students back to the district, the program would at least get the district’s student-based budget based on however many students are enrolled.

A similar program started in Greeley this fall is funded with those dollars the state allocates to districts for each student. So far, eight students there already completed a GED certificate, and there are now 102 other students enrolled, according to a spokeswoman for the Greeley-Evans school district.

But, having Jeffco’s innovation money could help Kollar’s program provide additional services to the students, such as a case manager that can help connect students to food or housing resources if needed.

And right now Kollar is working on setting up systems to track data around how many students end up completing the program, earning a high school equivalency certificate, enrolling in a college or trade-school, or getting jobs.

Helping more students on a path toward a career is the gold standard, he said, and what makes the program innovative.

“It’s not just about if the student completes high school,” Kollar said. “It’s are we making sure we are intentionally bridging them into whatever the next pathway is?”