Future of Schools

One-time standout Warren Township school now needs an overhaul

Once a star school, Warren Township’s Sunny Heights Elementary spiraled downhill over the past two years, but the district is hoping a grant can help turn it around.

Sunny Heights touted an “A” letter grade from the state in 2011 and was featured in an Indianapolis Star story as one of just five in the state to receive a top grade despite high percentages of students who are poor, learning English as a second language or in special education.

But for the past two years, the school has received a “D,” which the district blames on a revolving door of leadership and staff, as well as problems with discipline and math. The district submitted an application Tuesday for a federal school improvement grant that administrators hope will help, but the chances of getting it are slim — only two to eight schools in the state receive it every year.

“To receive a school improvement grant, the district really has to be committed to making some dramatic improvements to a school,” said Lee Ann Kwiatkowski, Warren’s assistant superintendent of school improvement who recently joined the Indiana State Board of Education.

The grant stems from federal poverty aid that is administered by the Indiana Department of Education. The school should learn if its application is approved at the start of the school year.

Sunny Heights qualifies because it is one of about 300 “priority” or “focus” schools, designated for extra state scrutiny for low test scores and poor state A to F grades. If it wins the grant, Sunny Heights would be eligible to receive up to $2 million per year for five years. But the district only asked for a little more than $2 million total.

“We really tried to look at what was absolutely necessary,” Kwiatkowski said. “We also had to look at sustainability. You don’t want to hire a bunch of people and then at the end of the grant, not be able to keep them.”

She said the biggest problem at Sunny Heights is a lack of consistency.

“We’ve had staff turnover at that school,” she said. “We’ve had a couple of different principals at that school. So I would point to the lack of stability that we’ve had with the leaders and with the staff.”

In the last few years, one principal retired and another was a rookie.

“Often when you have schools that have some challenges, like the discipline issues that we have at Sunny Heights, we have staggered achievement,” Kwiatkowski said. “If you have an experienced principal, they can address the fluctuation better.”

So Warren looked to one of its top principals — Steve Foster — for help.

Foster spent the last four years at Creston Intermediate Academy. When he took over in 2010, it was rated the equivalent of a “D.” But last year, it received an “A” from the state. Nearly 90 percent of its students passed the math section of the ISTEP and 85 percent passed the English/language arts portion, above state averages.

Foster said his main focus, regardless of whether Sunny Heights receives the grant or not, will be on student behavior.

“I’m really about changing behaviors as opposed to just being punitive,” Foster said. “This is just an observation, but I think we’ve been focusing here at Sunny Heights on some of the wrong things — we’ve been working hard, but we’ve been focusing on the wrong things. How do we help students?”

If he does receive the grant, though, he has some ideas in mind.

He wants to build a STEM lab using a Project Lead the Way curriculum that would allow the school to add that to the students’ arts rotation every week. He also wants to add some new technology to the classrooms, such as interactive projectors and white boards.

Because the school’s math scores are low, he would also like to hire a full-time math coach — an expert mathematician that would co-plan with teachers to help improve instruction — and a life skills coach — a counselor who would work with students to improve their behavioral problems, he said.

Stonybrook Middle School, also in Warren, received the same grant last year, so the district has seen the kind of impact it can have on a school. Stonybrook’s state letter grade jumped from a “D” to a “C” last year, said Pam Griffin, Stonybrook’s principal.

Griffin said the grant helped provide extra support in reading and math.

“It would have taken us longer to get to where we are,” Griffin said.

Griffin said she was also able to add intervention classes to students’ schedules. So now, instead of someone stepping in to help students who are falling behind from time to time, they have 50 minute classes every day that are focused entirely on giving them an extra boost.

Stonybrook faces a lot of the same problems Sunny Heights does — low math and reading performance, discipline problems and high poverty. And not every student is on the same page.

The grant money helped the school pay for the technology and training required for a blended learning environment — a strategy that splits student time between independent work on a computer and teacher-led lessons.

Kwiatkowski said Sunny Heights will try the blended learning model, too. The district wants to expand it to all of its elementary and middle schools within the next three years.

 

First Person

We’re a middle-class black family. Here’s why we’ve skipped our local schools for now.

PHOTO: Saratu Ghartey

When we bought our two-family brownstone in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn over 10 years ago, we were childless professionals unconcerned with the state of the area’s schools. Today we have an almost-4-year-old son eligible for pre-kindergarten and school options are a daily worry.

Our neighborhood is rapidly gentrifying, but the public schools lag behind, with no obviously good choices available. While some newcomers — mostly white parents — seem willing to take a chance on these works-in-progress schools, we feel we have little room for error. After all, we are raising a little black boy in America.

Our school district has been in a state of neglect for years — its version of a school board was defunct until recently; student enrollment has dropped significantly, with many schools under-enrolled; and the students perform in the bottom 10 percent of the entire state on exams. The parents have voted with their feet — less than a quarter of Bed-Stuy’s children actually attend their zoned school. The students that do remain in-district mostly attend the newer charter schools, which have made inroads by focusing on a back-to-basics, traditional curriculum.

Young families like ours who have invested in Bed-Stuy’s homes are now facing the challenge of finding a suitable school. Private schools seem like an easy answer, but tuition can begin as high as $40,000, if spots are even available. So the new wave of local parents began to organize, a group formed, and a plan emerged to adopt one or two neighborhood schools in order to advance them from within. Then tensions grew — black vs. white, old timers vs. new timers, middle class vs. lower income, progressive vs. traditional — and the movement fairly quickly hit some pretty big rocks. Long-time neighborhood leaders and civic organizations felt the new group was ignorant of their own efforts regarding the schools and did not value them as partners. Some even felt the newcomers were out of line by naming the group after the neighborhood, especially since they were viewed as only wanting to fix the schools “for their kids.” And the newbies made some unfortunate tongue-slips, both privately and in public, further feeding the resentment.

I paid attention to the little movement, marveling at these mostly white parents who would send their kids to schools with dreadful scores in the middle of what was not so long ago a rough neighborhood, schools where their kid would likely be the only “other” in the room. Most of the middle-class black parents I knew were not willing to take that risk. It is all well and good to say that you will send your kid to a majority low-income, low-scoring school because you believe in public schools, and you are not a snob, but the stakes are higher for black kids. Disparities in academic achievement begin early for black children, and they persist.

And then there is the slippery issue of school culture, which begins to matter around the third grade, when kids start to decide what their values are, who they want to be like, what is “cool.” Many middle-class black parents are concerned that their children will fall into the wrong crowd, lose focus on academics, and begin to veer off the path their parents followed to success. This is a terrifying preposition for these parents, who may have seen firsthand the results when promising cousins failed to graduate high school, or dropped out of college, or made a wrong turn into the criminal justice system.

For all these reasons, many black middle-class parents seek financial aid at prestigious prep schools, or squeeze into small apartments in better school districts, or move to mostly-white suburbs to benefit from the school systems there.  We, however, wanted to see if we could keep our son in the diversity of New York City, in a quality public school. We were willing to consider the improve-your-school movement, but we also wanted to check out the more established Brooklyn public schools.

We visited seven pre-K options in total (four within our district) and it was illuminating. At some schools, we saw troubling things — signs declaring that children not picked up on time would be taken to the local police precinct, a principal who consistently used improper grammar during an open house, tour guides who explained that the kids sometimes watched videos rather than going outside at recess. Some schools simply suffered from a general air of tiredness.

But we found other schools more encouraging. At an established progressive school that prioritized low-income kids in its admissions, the library was bursting with books, there was robotics lab, and the teachers were seasoned and passionate about their social studies curriculum, which took an in-depth look at a different country each year. A “Unicorn” school just a neighborhood away was defying the odds and producing academically strong students while maintaining its majority black enrollment, with an unspoken theme of “black excellence.” I found an old law school classmate of mine serving as PTA president there, and many of our professional black friends have children enrolled.

We also observed big differences in schools’ priorities that seemed to map to what kinds of students they served. In New York City as in many places, Hispanic, African Americans and Asians apply to progressive schools at lower rates than whites, partially because there is a concern that progressive education does not work for black kids. On the tours we noticed that the majority-black schools were focused on “college readiness” and literacy “basics,” while “whiter” schools were heavy on progressive elements — project-based learning and child-led inquiries.

We also discovered that in more affluent neighborhoods after-school care options can be nonexistent. None of the pre-K centers by my workplace in lower Manhattan offered onsite after-school programs. This is not very tenable for a two-income home like ours.

And of course, we saw evidence of the segregation that has been so well documented in the city’s public schools. As soon as we crossed the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan, there were many fewer black and brown faces.

In the end we put the Unicorn school and the well-established progressive school as our top two choices on our lottery application.  The Bed-Stuy options just felt like too much of a gamble — the movement too new, some of the schools a bit too far gone, and a few of the locations rather dodgy.

The lottery ultimately assigned us our fifth choice, an in-district school with a young principal who has a lot of energy and ideas. But the school has a long way to go academically, and we were nervous, especially after our attempts to find other families attending the program failed. By August we were stressed out waiting for the waitlists to move, and I began calling the schools to check on where we stood. When I learned there was an open spot in one of the lower Manhattan programs by my office — a lovely little program in the same building as a new school on the waterfront — I snatched the spot. We had visited the site but ultimately not listed it high because of the commute and because it was only a one-year option (the pre-K spot does not lead to any priority preference for kindergarten in that school or district). Now, however, we felt it was a better backup while we waited for Unicorn school to come through. It never did. There were 200 kids on the waitlist for pre-K, and no one gave up a slot.

This month our son started pre-K at the program in lower Manhattan. It’s early days but we are impressed so far. The teachers and administrators are warm, professional and prepared. We receive regular communications from the program — starting in the weeks leading up to the first day of class. The other families are racially diverse — white, black, Asian, South American, multiracial —although I cannot yet tell how socioeconomically diverse they are (the neighborhood is fairly affluent but there are some “commuters” like us). The important part is everyone is friendly. And of course, all the 4-year-olds are adorable.

So in the end, I guess we chickened out on the neighborhood school experiment, at least for pre-K. We have friends who did enroll in the “adopted” schools, and we are watching carefully. Kindergarten is a whole new application process, and our son likely cannot stay in lower Manhattan because he does not live in the school’s zone. So we will be back in the game shortly.

Saratu Ghartey is an attorney who lives in Brooklyn.

Test Results

Newark’s PARCC scores inch up, setting baseline for new superintendent

PHOTO: Sol de Zuasnabar Brebbia/Getty Images

Newark students made process on the state English tests this spring, while growth stalled on the math tests, according to results released by the district. The results provide a new baseline that the district, which is back under local control after decades of state oversight, will likely be judged against in coming years.

Just over 34 percent of Newark students who took the 2018 PARCC English tests met or exceeded state expectations — a 3.1 percentage point increase over the previous year. Students in grades 3 to 11 took the computerized tests; every grade except for fifth and eighth made gains in English.

In math, 23.2 percent of students hit the state’s benchmark. That is 0.6 percentage points higher than in 2017 — a smaller growth rate than in previous years. The results were uneven: While some grades made gains, students in grades 3, 6, and 8 saw declines, as did students who took the geometry test.

Statewide, 55 percent of students met grade-level expectations in English and 42 percent did so in math. Students must score at a level 4 or above on a 1-5 scale to be considered performing on grade level.

In February, after 22 years of state control, Newark’s local school board was put back in charge of the district, just weeks before students sat for the tests. The results will now become the yardstick against which observers will measure student progress under local control and assess the new superintendent, Roger León, a veteran Newark education who took over in July.

“We have a lot of work to do,” León said at a board meeting in August where officials shared some highlights from the results. (Chalkbeat filed a public-records request to get the district-wide pass rates.)

In a recent public radio interview, León added that the test scores show that teaching needs to improve.

“The instruction in the classroom can’t be the same,” as it has been, he said on WBGO. “Because our student achievement data is suggesting that that’s not really good.”

State policymakers are currently debating the future of the PARCC tests, which students first took in 2015. Gov. Phil Murphy has vowed to replace the controversial tests, but some lawmakers have expressed concerns about his plan.

The state sent this year’s PARCC results to districts, which have shared them with families, but it has not yet posted them online. Last year, they were available to the public on Sept. 28. A state education department spokesman said Wednesday that he expects the school and district-level results to be posted “in a matter of days.”

After the results were published last year, Newark sent out a press release touting the district’s progress. The release noted that Newark made larger gains in math and English than the state overall. This year, the district’s gains were larger than the state’s in English but smaller than the state’s in math.

Newark’s test scores have become the site of a proxy battle between critics and defenders of the controversial policies that transformed the district in recent years. Under former state-appointed superintendents Cami Anderson and Christopher Cerf, some neighborhood schools were shuttered, more charter schools were opened, and a new teachers contract that tied teacher pay partly to student test scores.

Last year, a team of Harvard researchers tried to measure the impact of those changes. They found that Newark students’ annual growth on the state tests initially declined after the reforms kicked off in 2011. By 2016, however, students were making greater gains in English than they had before the reforms. In math, their growth was no better or worse than before the changes.

Whatever factors drove Newark’s test scores to where they are today, Superintendent León will now be expected to move them higher. Indeed, along with perfect attendance, León has set a goal of every student passing the state tests — an impossibly high bar that no large urban district has ever cleared.

As León tries to boost scores, he must contend with wide achievement gaps between groups of students. For instance, on the English tests, white students outperformed black students by 26 percentage points, general-education students outperformed special-education students by 29 points, and English-proficient students outperformed those still learning the language by 26 points.

“We actually have a strategy on how to reduce the gap and improve achievement,” León said at the Aug. 28 board meeting. “We’re not afraid of the data.”

Graphics by Sam Park.