the choice

Denver school board picks district-run programs to take over low-performing schools

PHOTO: Eric Gorski
Parents pick up their children at Amesse Elementary, one of two schools that will be restarted.

Low-performing Amesse Elementary in far northeast Denver will be taken over next fall by leaders from nearby McGlone Academy in an effort to improve academic achievement.

In a rare split vote, the Denver school board voted 6-1 Monday to place a program called the Montbello Children’s Network at Amesse starting in fall 2018. Proposed by McGlone leaders with input from Amesse teachers and families, the network would seek to replicate the success that once-struggling McGlone has had in boosting its own students’ learning.

McGlone and Amesse are located less than a mile apart in the Montbello neighborhood and serve a similar demographic. Nearly all of Amesse’s 470 students this past school year were low-income children of color, and 63 percent were English language learners.

Board member Rosemary Rodriguez was the sole no vote. She said that while she believes the Montbello Children’s Network will be successful, her vote was meant as encouragement for local charter school network STRIVE Prep, which was also vying to take over Amesse.

Other board members also praised STRIVE, which currently operates 11 schools in the city. But they noted the high level of community support for the Montbello Children’s Network, including the blessing of a community group assembled to review the options for Amesse.

“We’ve made some tough decisions on this board over the years and this ranks right up there for me, but for very different reasons,” said board member Happy Haynes. “This is one of those tough decisions where you describe it as a good problem to have.”

Board member Lisa Flores said she suspects some will see the board’s vote as an endorsement of district-run schools like McGlone over charter school networks like STRIVE. But she said that would be a mistake in a school district that embraces collaboration alongside competition; in her view, she said, charter schools and district-run schools have pushed each other to be better.

In a separate vote, the board unanimously chose to place at low-performing Greenlee Elementary in west Denver next fall a program called the Center for Talent Development at Greenlee. It was proposed by the current principal and seeks to continue recent gains.

The votes bring to a close a process outlined in a new school closure policy that calls for using a strict set of criteria to either close for good or “restart” chronically low-performing schools. The rollout of the policy was rocky, and concerns about fairness and community involvement surfaced during the competition to take over the schools designated for restart.

Superintendent Tom Boasberg said at Monday’s meeting that the district will learn from its first experience with the policy, which is among the strictest in the country. But in a sentiment echoed by several board members, he said the process showed that for students in long-struggling schools, “there are exceptional opportunities” waiting for them.

bus breakdown

Facing his first crisis, Carranza fired a top official. But can he fix New York City’s yellow bus system?

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza rode a school bus to P.S. 377 in Ozone Park, Queens, on the first day of the 2018-2019 school year.

Just days after responding to the city’s school bus crisis by firing a top official and reassigning another, schools Chancellor Richard Carranza put his staff on notice that when things go wrong they better act quickly — or he will find someone who will.

“When things don’t go right I expect a sense of urgency to serve our community,” Carranza said in an interview with Chalkbeat Monday. “And if we can’t make it happen, then we’ll make sure that there are people in place that will make it happen. It’s really that simple.”

Problems with the city’s school bus services are not unusual, especially at the start of the school year. But since the start of classes, the city’s school transportation hotline has seen a 17 percent increase in calls over the same period last year. And revelations about drivers who were not properly vetted, buses arriving late, students trapped on hours-long routes crisscrossing the city, or buses simply not arriving at all have dominated the opening weeks of Carranza’s first full school year, splashing across the front page of the Daily News.

Last week, after deeming the situation “unacceptable,” Carranza fired Eric Goldstein, the CEO of school support services responsible for transportation, school food, and the public school sports league. Carranza also reassigned Elizabeth Rose, who had been CEO of school operations and a top deputy under former Chancellor Carmen Fariña, to focus solely on transportation contracts.

Carranza said Monday that a broader shakeup to the $1.2 billion-per-year bus system, which serves roughly 150,000 students, two-thirds of whom have disabilities, could be coming.

“As we understand more fully how [the Office of Pupil Transportation] in particular operates, I wouldn’t be surprised if there aren’t some more changes,” he said. Leading that effort will be Kevin Moran, a former borough field support director who will now serve as a senior advisor to Carranza on transportation — while the city searches for a permanent leader.

The busing problems are the first significant test of Carranza’s leadership during a crisis since taking the helm of the nation’s largest school system last April. So far, Carranza’s response has echoed his reaction to much larger issues such as school segregation — that he’s interested in systemic fixes and doesn’t want to excuse the issue just because it has bedeviled past chancellors. Under changes made by Carranza’s administration, school bus drivers will undergo the same background checks and have investigations handled by the same education department unit as other schools staffers.

But so far, his response to the crisis has drawn mixed reactions from some advocates, observers, and education department insiders.

Maggie Moroff, a disability policy expert at Advocates for Children, said busing issues often linger through much of the school year. In the past, the education department has reacted defensively, fixing bus issues in individual cases when advocacy groups get involved but rarely pledging to overhaul the system, she said.

“We get a lot of students at this time of year who have not been to school yet because they don’t have a bus,” Moroff said. “It’s exciting to hear the chancellor say, ‘it’s unacceptable and we’re going to do something about it.’”

But overhauling the bus system will be a massive undertaking, partly owing to the technical complexity of ferrying students to schools with different schedules, shifting rosters of students necessitating new routes — but also because the system is dependent on a rough-and-tumble web of private bus companies. (Goldstein, the support services CEO who Carranza fired, reportedly faced down the CEO of a bus company who confronted him with a loaded pistol during contract negotiations in 2010.)

Eric Nadelstern, a top education department deputy during the Bloomberg administration, said Carranza may be underestimating the bus system’s complexity and the value of keeping leaders with deep knowledge of it.

“Goldstein at the very least understood where the pitfalls were,” Nadelstern said, adding that removing a leader in the middle of a crisis may prove unwise. “I don’t think there’s anyone else in the system who has that knowledge or capacity.”

The Bloomberg administration attempted an overhaul of the bus system in 2007, hiring private consultants in an attempt to make it more efficient. That effort turned out to be a flop, the New York Times reported, “leaving shivering students waiting for buses in the cold and thousands of parents hollering about disrupted routines.” Klein eventually apologized but largely defended the reorganization at the time, saying, “I never think that the pain is worth it. On the other hand, I don’t think there’s any good time to make these changes.”

Others, including one current education department administrator who spoke on condition of anonymity, said they worried that Carranza wanted to show he was taking charge of the situation by making heads roll without immediately addressing the underlying problems.

But while Carranza admitted he does not yet have a full explanation of why the school bus system has repeatedly fallen short, he said he is committed to a longer-term solution.

“My understanding is this goes back at least decades,” Carranza told Chalkbeat. “There are some systemic issues that I don’t want to put a band-aid on, I want to actually find the root cause and fix.”

inner circle

With Earth, Wind and Fire tune, Chicago’s first chief equity officer announces new job

PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons
Earth, Wind and Fire in 1982

It’s little surprise that the public announcement of Chicago’s first chief equity officer, Maurice Swinney, came over Twitter. Last Friday, he announced his new job with an animated image of the iconic disco band Earth, Wind, and Fire performing the tune that made Sept. 21 famous.

Like his boss, Chicago schools CEO Janice Jackson, Swinney comes from the ranks of spirited Chicago principals and has an affinity for the social media platform. Swinney, the principal of Tilden Career Academy in Fuller Park on the South Side, now moves up the ranks to a cabinet-level job, and will head the four-person Equity Office with a $1 million budget.  

Jackson told Chalkbeat over the summer that the equity chief’s primary focus in year one would be how to narrow gaps in test scores and academic achievement between black and Latino students on one hand and their white and Asian peers on the other.

Priorities would include diversifying the district’s workforce, ensuring resources are distributed equitably across the district, and supporting efforts to award more contracts to minority- and woman-owned businesses. But the schools chief also emphasized then that it was too early to chart a course for the new equity office before filling the job.

Read more: Chicago forges ahead with a teacher experiment

Before moving to Chicago in 2012 to lead Tilden, Swinney was an associate principal at St. Amand High School, a majority-white school in Ascension Parish, Louisiana.

The choice signals growing attention from Chicago Public Schools’ central office on the issue of neighborhood schools. Last week, the district announced that neighborhood schools would get first priority in a new investment: expanding International Baccalaureate programs.

Tilden, whose student population is mostly black and Latino, is a struggling neighborhood school that illustrates many of the inequities so pervasive in the school system. It has fewer than 300 students in a building built for 2,000. Slightly more than half of its students graduate, compared with the district’s five-year rate of 78 percent. One in three enrolls in college.

Swinney’s appointment comes at a time when neighborhood schools are being squeezed by school choice, with students increasingly leaving their ZIP codes to attend schools across the city. Tilden is among a group of high schools that face additional pressure, with declining enrollment and newer charters and other options nearby.

Plans to open a South Loop high school are just the latest threat. Chicago’s Board of Education is set to vote on a boundary proposal Wednesday that would lop off attendance in its northern zone.  

On Friday, Jackson sent a letter announcing Swinney’s promotion to district staff. The letter touted “historic gains” at the school district but acknowledged “that an opportunity gap persists for some students,” that demands the district examine itself to identify and root out inequity “whether in resources, staffing, academic supports, social and emotional supports, or access to high-quality programs.”

She noted that Swinney, who has led Tilden since 2012, has been recognized for his emphasis on social emotional learning and postsecondary success by the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research’s To And Through Project, which focuses on ensuring students enroll in and finish college.

Jackson’s letter to staff stressed that, beyond the new equity office, every educator in the city shares “a collective responsibility” to build a diverse workforce for the district and increase equity in resource allocation for all students and schools.