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Cathie Black's school visits take her to the good, skip the bad

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Chancellor-designate Cathie Black visited Medgar Evers College Preparatory School today.

More than a month after being named the next schools chancellor, Cathie Black has yet to see the system at its most troubled.

Black has been to 13 schools, making stops in each of the five boroughs and in schools at each grade level. The majority of schools she’s visited have earned either an A or a B on their annual progress report, meaning they are in no danger of being closed for poor performance. She has been to five “C” schools, none of which are on the city’s “to-be-closed” list.

Asked today if she thought she was getting a “realistic” view of the city’s schools, Black said she had.

“I’ve been to the South Bronx, and that’s about as realistic as you can get, and I felt the same thing,” she told Daily News reporter Rachel Monahan. “The principal has been there for four years. And I asked if [the school] looked like that four years ago, and she said no it did not look like that. So that comes from leadership.”

Black visited Medgar Evers College Preparatory School today, a high school in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, that admits students based on their middle school test scores and other academic measures. Nearly all Medgar Evers students graduate with a Regents diploma and some go on to top universities. President Obama praised the school back in July for giving its students the opportunity to earn college credits at the Medgar Evers College of The City University of New York before they graduate from high school.

Department of Education officials allowed only four reporters to enter Medgar Evers with Black today. Descriptions of the visit were provided by Sharon Otterman of the New York Times.

Black visited four classrooms today, spending 45 minutes at the school and chatting with students as she passed through. In a Mandarin class, students sang her a welcome song and performed a dance with bands of colored cloth.

“Some of you may not know this, but I have been in magazine publishing, and we have a company in Shanghai and Beijing, and we publish seven magazines in China,” Black told the class.

“It’s been very exciting to see the growth in China. So maybe someday one of you will have a good job at a magazine in China. Good luck to you all, and keep studying,” she said.

Administrators at the school said they were proud to have boosted the graduation rate from 60 to 95 percent in the last decade. They said they wished Black had spent more time in the school.

“That was the speed of light,” said Assistant Principal Delroy Burnett of Black’s visit.

Medgar Evers Principal Michael Wiltshire said he didn’t have time to thoroughly explain his school’s philosophy to Black. But he hoped she would walk away remembering his school as one “that believes in the total education of the child,” he said.

“It’s not just the academic development of the child; it’s the holistic development, where we take into consideration the total child. That I think is what the city lacks,” Wiltshire said. “They’re not talking about the total education of the child; they’re talking about test prep.  We’re not into that.”

Black will officially become chancellor on January 3. Asked how she planned to spend the holiday, she replied: “Studying.”

List of schools Black has visited:

PS 172K Beacon School of Excellence: Sunset Park, Brooklyn. The school has shown success with its large population of ELL students and was one of the first schools Klein visited when he became chancellor. Progress report grade: A

PS 109X Sedgwick: Morris Heights, Bronx. For her first visit to a public school as chancellor designate, Black went to P.S. 109, an elementary school with a large population of Latino students who’ve recently immigrated and are not fluent in English. Progress report grade: A

PS 111Q Jacob Blackwell and PS 78Q: Assemblywoman Cathy Nolan chose these two schools in her district for Black to visit. Both of them have a majority of low-income students and are ethnically diverse. Blackwell got a C on its most recent progress report and P.S. 78 got a B.

PS 33M Chelsea Prep: Last week, Black spent an hour at this elementary school in Chelsea with Times’ reporter Susan Dominus. She chatted with students and suggested that the school hold a “pet day,” so everyone could bring their pets to school. Later, she noted this was not a very practical suggestion.   Progress report grade: A

PS 185K Walter Kassenbrock: Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. This elementary school routinely posts high test scores and has become very popular, so it now has to manage an overcrowding problem. Its gifted and talented program is being phased out. Progress report grade: C

PS 71X Rose Scala: Pelham Bay, Bronx. A K-8 school where about half the students qualify for free or reduced lunch. Roughly 60 percent of its 3rd graders passed the state’s math and reading tests last year, which was about the citywide average. Progress report grade: C

PS 329K Surfside and I.S. 239K Mark Twain: Coney Island, Brooklyn. Surfside is a K-5 school where the majority of students are low-income and minority. It has few students who are learning English, but has a high percentage of special education students. About 44 percent of its 3rd graders passed the state’s math and reading tests last year. Progress report grade: C. Mark Twain is a nearby selective middle school that admits students from all over the city and sends many of its students on to the specialized high schools. Students audition for the school’s art, music, and dance programs and take written tests for other subject areas like science and creative writing. Progress report grade: A.

Hillcrest High School: Jamaica, Queens. A large high school that reorganized itself into seven programs in 2006, Hillcrest has a four-year graduation rate of 69 percent, which is higher than the citywide average. Like many high schools in Queens, it is overcrowded. Progress report grade: C.

IS 75R Frank Paulo: Staten Island. A middle school where about a quarter of the students are low-income and students in all grades score above the citywide averages on the state’s math and reading tests.  Progress report grade: B

Medgar Evers College Prep: Crown Heights, Brooklyn. A 6-12 school that admits high performing students from all over the city. Students have access to more AP classes than your average high school can offer, and many graduate having already earned college credits. Progress report grade: B

PS 376K: Bushwick, Brooklyn. An elementary school where nearly all the students come from low-income families and most are Latino. P.S. 376 has a gifted and talented program and it also has a large number of students who are recent immigrants and don’t speak English. Progress report grade: B.

Photos taken by Ed Reed of the mayor’s office:

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To and Through

Newark’s post-grad paradox: More students are entering college, but few earn degrees

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
Newark Mayor Ras Baraka wants 25 percent of residents to have college degrees by 2025, up from 19 percent today.

When it comes to college, Newark faces a good news-bad news paradox.

More students than ever are graduating high school and enrolling in college, according to a new report. Yet fewer than one in four Newark students earns a college degree within six years of graduating high school — leaving many with limited job prospects in a city where an estimated one-third of jobs require a four-year college degree.

Now, city officials are promising to build on the report. They want to ramp up the rigor of high-school classes and create more early-college programs to increase the odds of students entering college and leaving with a degree.  

“How do we teach our children to perform — to graduate?” Mayor Ras Baraka asked at a press conference Wednesday to mark the official release of the report of Newark students’ college outcomes. “We got them in the door,” he said of students who attend college. “Now how do we make them stay?”

The city’s plans, to which Superintendent Roger León is lending his support, reflect a growing recognition that simply getting students into college is not sufficient — and can even backfire if they drop out before graduation, leaving them with college debt but no degree.

Until recently, the charge given to high schools in Newark and across the country was to foster “college-going cultures.” And these efforts showed promising results: On average, 51 percent of Newark Public School students who graduated high school between 2011 and 2016 immediately enrolled in college, up from 39 percent who did so between 2004 and 2010, according to the report by the Newark City of Learning Collaborative, or NCLC, and Rutgers University-Newark’s School of Public Affairs and Administration.

But entering college didn’t guarantee its completion. Of those students who started college straight after high school, only 39 percent earned a degree within six years, the report found.

As a result, educators and policymakers have begun to think harder about how to help students “to and through” college — to ensure they actually earn degrees. Toward that end, Baraka and the NCLC — which includes roughly 40 colleges, schools, nonprofits, and corporations — has set a goal of 25 percent of Newark residents earning college degrees or comparable credentials by 2025.

Today, just 19 percent of Newark adults have associate degrees or higher — compared to 45 percent of adults across New Jersey and 40 percent nationally.

Superintendent León, who began overseeing the city’s schools on July 1, said his main strategy for supporting these efforts will be to expose students to challenging work early on.

“If we don’t do something dramatically in classrooms to improve instruction and make it rigorous,” León said after Wednesday’s event, then students are “getting into college but they’re not completing it.”

Source: “Post-Secondary Outcomes of Newark High School Graduates (2011-2016)” report. Note: The four-year rate is an average of the classes of 2011 to 2013. The six-year rate is from the class of 2011. Graphic: Sam Park/Chalkbeat

For starters, León said he wants high schools to offer more college-level classes. In the 2016-17 school year, just 21 percent of Newark students were enrolled in one or more Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate classes — compared to 42 percent of students statewide.

He also vowed to raise the quality of instruction in the district’s traditional high schools. Only 14 percent of their graduates earn college degrees within six years, compared to 42 percent of graduates from the city’s selective magnet schools, the report found.

To do that, León said he will create specialized academies within the traditional schools modeled on the magnets, which have specialized themes such as science, technology, or the arts. The academies, which will partner with colleges, will most likely feature admissions criteria similar to those of magnet schools, which select students based on their academic and attendance records, León added.

And, for the first time, all ninth-grade students this academic year will take the Preliminary SAT, or PSAT, León said Wednesday. An additional 1,100 eighth-graders who passed at least one of their seventh-grade PARCC exams will also take the PSAT when it’s administered on Oct. 10.

Since 2016, the district has provided the PSAT to all 10th and 11th-grade students. But León said that giving the test to younger students will focus their attention on college and help identity those who are ready for advanced classes. The PSAT is designed to help students prepare for the SAT, which is used in college admissions, and to qualify for National Merit Scholarships.

The district, which was under state control for 22 years until February, is getting some assistance in its effort to improve students’ college outcomes.

For instance, KIPP, the national charter-school network with eight schools in Newark, is sharing its strategies for helping students choose the right college with guidance counselors at three district high schools.

And the higher-education institutions in the Newark City of Learning Collaborative, including Essex County College and Rutgers University-Newark, plan to create more “dual-enrollment” programs that allow high-school students to earn college credits, said NCLC Executive Director Reginald Lewis.

“We’re all going to do a better job,” Lewis said, “of making sure that once Newark residents get in our doors, that we help them persist.”

Time crunch

In victory for teachers union, Newark superintendent scraps longer hours for low-performing schools

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
Superintendent Roger León at Hawkins Street School, one of the schools that will lose its extended hours.

Newark’s new superintendent is eliminating a program that extended the hours of struggling schools, which the teachers union has long attacked as ineffective and unfair to educators.

Teachers at roughly 30 schools will no longer receive $3,000 annual stipends for the extra hours, a provision written into the current teachers contract, which extends to 2019. Instead, all 64 district schools will get extra funding for before and after-school programs, Superintendent Roger León said in an email to employees on Tuesday.

The changes will go into effect Monday, Sept. 10, resulting in new hours for the affected schools just days after the new school year began. The district is still working to adjust pickup times for students who are bused to school, according to León’s email. A few of the schools will phase out their extended hours later in the year, the email said.

“We will not continue to do the same things as before and be surprised when the results do not change,” León wrote, adding that cutting the extra hours would save the district $5 million.

In an interview with Chalkbeat Thursday, León said the move is intended to create more uniformity among schools and the services they provide. Now, all schools will get additional money to pay for programs outside of the regular school day, which schools can tailor to their individual needs, though students who are struggling academically will continue to receive “intensive” support, he said.

“Ultimately, the idea would be by October having completely different after-school and before-school programming that meets the needs of each respective school,” León said.

The extended time was first included in the teachers contract in 2012 as part of a larger improvement plan for the targeted schools, which was developed by Cami Anderson, Newark’s former state-appointed superintendent. The plan also designated some low-performing schools as “renew” schools, where teachers had to reapply for their positions and work longer hours.

Anderson also closed some schools and gave principals new hiring authority. Both actions left dozens of tenured teachers without positions, so Anderson created a fund to pay those teachers to perform support duties in schools. In 2014, that fund for “employees without placement” cost the district $35 million out of its nearly $1 billion budget, though by last year the fund had shrunk to $8 million for about 100 unassigned teachers, according to officials.

León said in Tuesday’s email that he was also eliminating the fund, which he said would save the district another $6 million. The teachers union president said he believed all the unassigned teachers now have placements, but the district did not respond to a request to confirm that.

León is also removing the “renew” and “turnaround” labels from low-performing schools, citing their “progress and student achievement,” according to the email.

“I applaud everyone’s efforts at renew or turnaround schools and acknowledge what has been accomplished,” he wrote.

Now that León has abolished his predecessors’ school-improvement program, he will be expected to create his own. Many schools remain mired in poor performance, even as the district overall has made strides in recent years.

When the teachers union agreed to the extended hours in its 2012 contract with the district, it was hailed nationally as a major breakthrough in efforts to revamp troubled schools. But even as the union agreed last year to keep the provision in its current contract, union officials have assailed the turnaround effort as a failure.

NTU President John Abeigon told Chalkbeat on Thursday that the program had been a “scam” and “nothing more than extended childcare.” He added that the stipend teachers received amounted to about $7 per hour for the extra time they worked.

In 2016, a district-commissioned survey of 787 teachers at schools with extended hours found that two-thirds of teachers at schools where the extra time was spent on student instruction said the time was valuable. But in a survey the union conducted in April, the 278 teachers who responded gave the extended hours low ratings for effectiveness in boosting student achievement.

Some teachers in the union survey praised the longer hours, saying their schools used them effectively to lengthen class periods, run after-school clubs, or allow teachers to plan lessons or review student data. But others said the extra time was squandered, leaving staff and students exhausted with little evidence of improved student outcomes to show for it. (Students’ pass rates on state tests stayed flat or declined at most “renew” schools in the first years of the program.)

The union also has complained that many teachers felt compelled to work the extra hours because those who refused to could be transferred to different schools. Under the terms of the original extended-day agreement, teachers were required to work an extra hour per day and attend trainings during the summer and some weekends.

In León’s email to employees, he said every extended-day school had set different work requirements and “none are consistent with the original design.” The longer days may also be contributing to high teacher turnover in those schools, he wrote, adding that principals of schools with regular hours told him they did not want to extend their hours.

Abeigon, the union president, applauded León’s decision to scrap the extra work hours.

“He came to the conclusion that we expected any true educator to reach: that the program was not working and was never going to work,” he said.

León said Thursday that he is now working on a new turnaround program. Once it’s ready, he promised to share the details with affected families before publicly announcing which schools are part of it — an effort to avoid the student protests that erupted when Anderson identified her “turnaround” schools.

He also said he was still considering whether he would ever close schools that fail to improve or to reverse their declining enrollments. Anderson’s decision to shutter nearly a dozen long-struggling schools continues to fuel resentment among her critics even years later.

“I think the whole idea of how much time does a school get to correct itself is a very important one and I’m going to need to be really reflective on it,” León said. “I’ve seen what closing schools does with people who do not feel that they were aware of it or a part of fixing it.”