closing argument

With enrollment likely to plummet, city moves to close Bronx school where student was fatally stabbed

PHOTO: YouTube/NYC Mayor's Office
Mayor Bill de Blasio addressed reporters after the stabbing at the Urban Assembly School for Wildlife Conservation in the Bronx in September.

The Bronx school where a student fatally stabbed one classmate and seriously wounded another in September is among the 14 schools the New York City education department is seeking to shutter, officials announced Monday.

An 18-year-old student was charged with stabbing the two boys in the middle of a class at the Urban Assembly School for Wildlife Conservation using a switchblade knife — the first time a student was accused of killing another inside a city school in over two decades. Soon after, reports emerged that about disorder and chronic bullying at the school, including one incident that reportedly led one student to attempt to commit suicide.

It’s a remarkably rapid implosion for a school that isn’t among the city’s very worst performers academically and still serves nearly 500 students, unlike many of the small and long-struggling schools facing closure. (Find the full list of proposed changes here.) A chaotic school culture and ineffective leadership in the wake of the stabbing, officials said, in addition to concerns about future enrollment, led to a determination that it could not be saved.

In the wake of the stabbing, just five students applied to attend the high school next year as their first choice, Chancellor Carmen Fariña said Monday.

“When you start looking at things like that, the message is written for you,” she said.

City officials announced they will shutter the Urban Assembly School for Wildlife Conservation along with 13 other schools. Nine of the schools are in the city’s “Renewal” program, a turnaround initiative that aims to flood struggling schools with additional resources. Urban Assembly School for Wildlife Conservation is one of five schools outside of the program that will be closed.

Last school year, just 13 percent of Wildlife Conservation’s middle-school students met the state’s proficiency bar on English tests and 5 percent did on math — compared to 41 percent and 33 percent citywide, respectively. The high school fared better, with 75 percent of students graduating in four years, one percentage point above the city average.

Soon after the fatal stabbing of the 15-year-old student, Matthew McCree, a grim picture emerged of a school in crisis. On surveys, only 55 percent of students said they felt safe in the school’s hallways, bathrooms, locker rooms, or cafeteria.

Abel Cedeno, the student charged with the stabbing, said in interviews and through family spokespeople that other students at the school had taunted him with racial and homophobic slurs. He pleaded not guilty to manslaughter charges in November.

City officials said Monday that they had tried to revamp the school — which serves grades 6 to 12 and shares a building with an elementary school — by adding safety agents, increasing training for staff members, and installing a new principal. However, students sought to leave in droves: As of last Friday, roughly 45 students had transferred out of the school since the stabbing, officials said.

The Urban Assembly, a nonprofit that helps run 21 mainly career-focused schools across the city, is committed to helping students transition into new schools, said its CEO Kristin Kearns Jordan. Network officials will help students transfer to a different Urban Assembly school if they choose, she said.

Kearns Jordan, however, declined to comment on the school’s current safety. That is “really a DOE responsibility,” she said.

“We are obviously saddened by this closure. It’s heartbreaking for students, for families,” said Kearns Jordan. “We are going to do everything we can to support them through the rest of the year.”

Clarification: A previous version of this story said that just five students applied to attend the high school next year. In fact, only five students applied to the school as their first choice. 

Christina Veiga contributed reporting.

red ratings

Closure is still an option, but a new approach will let struggling Denver schools make their case

PHOTO: AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post
Students in kindergarten on the first day of school at McGlone Academy.

Denver schools with persistently low test scores will have to present detailed improvement plans this fall, but they no longer face automatic closure or replacement.

The Denver school board on Monday night agreed to a more flexible process for intervening in struggling schools. The changes mean the board will have more options and more discretion.

The process also seeks to give greater weight to information about a school’s culture, the demographics of the students it serves, and how school staff support those students socially and emotionally. In past years, school closure decisions were based overwhelmingly on academic factors, such how students fared on state literacy and math tests.

Ten low-performing schools are eligible for intervention this year (see box). The board is set to vote in December and January on which actions to take at each school.

Schools eligible for intervention:
John F. Kennedy High School
West Leadership Academy
Collegiate Preparatory Academy
STRIVE Prep – Excel
Girls Athletic Leadership High School
Lake Middle School
DSST: Cole Middle School
Compass Academy
McGlone Academy
Stedman Elementary School

How to improve struggling schools is a key question for urban school districts across the country. However, Denver Public Schools stands out nationally for adopting a policy in 2015 codifying that it should “promptly intervene” when a school is persistently underperforming and coming up with guidelines that set a clear path to school closure.

But the rollout of the policy was rocky, with critics attacking both the premise that closing struggling schools is good for students and the process the board used to do it.

The idea to change the process was first proposed in June by board member Lisa Flores. She cited several reasons, including frustration from teachers and parents who complained the board wasn’t considering the positive aspects of their schools, and a feeling among board members that the bright-line rules didn’t allow them to exercise their judgement.

Two other board members, Jennifer Bacon and Angela Cobián, spent the past several months working with district staff to come up with a new process. They presented it at a work session Monday night, and all the board members in attendance gave their approval. The 2015 policy will remain the same, but the guidelines for carrying it out will be different.

“I do not think the ‘why’ has changed, and the ‘why’ is incredibly important: It’s about serving our children and serving our children well,” board president Anne Rowe said.

The old guidelines were strict but simple. They said that if a school earned the lowest rating on the district’s color-coded quality scale, denoted by the color red, for two years in a row, and its students did not show enough academic progress on the most recent state tests, the school would be designated for closure or replacement.

A school could also be closed or replaced if it earned a red rating in the most recent year and either a red or an orange rating, the second-lowest on the scale, in the previous two years. The ratings, released each fall, are largely based on state test scores.

Denver gives extra money — as much as $1.7 million over five years — to its lowest-rated schools in an effort to help them improve before interventions are necessary.

The new process is more complicated. It calls for red-rated schools to write an improvement plan with input from teachers and parents. That plan can pull heavily from the “unified improvement plan” every Colorado school must already submit to the state education department each year per state law.

A committee of district staff members, community members, and outside experts that could include retired district principals will evaluate the plan’s strength, as well as data about the school’s academics and culture.

Based on that evidence, plus interviews with school leaders and their supervisors, the committee will recommend an intervention to the superintendent. The superintendent will then make a recommendation to the school board, which will vote on it.

Using previous guidelines, the board voted in 2016 to close one elementary school, Gilpin Montessori, and replace two others, Greenlee and Amesse. In 2017, the only school that met the criteria was a charter school that decided on its own to close.

Under the new process, the board could still vote to close or replace a school that earned back-to-back red ratings. But it has other options, too. It could decide to put the school on a “one-year performance plan,” meaning the school would have a year to show improvement. Or it could choose a “two-year performance plan with one-year monitoring,” which would give the school two years to improve with a formal progress check after one year.

Those same options, ranging from a two-year plan to closure, would also apply to schools that earned an orange rating and then a red one. In that way, the new guidelines are harsher than the old ones, which required two years of orange ratings before a red rating.

The new guidelines also call for the board to intervene in a whole other set of schools: those whose ratings drop from one of the top three colors on the scale — blue, green, or yellow — down to red in a single year. Schools with such a “precipitous drop” would be put on either a two-year or a one-year performance plan, but they wouldn’t face closure or replacement.

Some board members struggled at first to understand the new rules. In explaining them, Cobián and Bacon referred to a graphic that illustrates the changes. Here’s the graphic:

Source: Denver Public Schools

The decision-making timeline is quicker for schools with multiple years of low ratings than it is for those that experienced a precipitous drop. Schools with multiple years of low ratings have until Nov. 12 to submit their improvement plans. The evaluation committee is scheduled to make its recommendations in early December, and the board is set to vote Dec. 20.

The schools in that category this year include two district-run schools, Stedman Elementary School and Lake Middle School, and one charter middle school, Compass Academy.

Schools that experienced a drop in ratings this year have until Dec. 10 to submit their plans. Recommendations are due in early January and the board is set to vote Jan. 24.

Those schools include three charters — STRIVE Prep – Excel High School, Girls Athletic Leadership High School, and DSST: Cole Middle School — and four district-run schools: John F. Kennedy, West Leadership Academy, and Collegiate Preparatory Academy high schools, and McGlone Academy, which serves students from preschool through eighth grade.

A school program developed by McGlone leaders was actually chosen last year to take over low-performing Amesse Elementary, which was one of two schools the board voted to replace under previous guidelines. McGlone was rated yellow last year but fell to red this year.

public comment

Chicago sets community meetings on controversial school inventory report

Chicago Public Schools is hosting a dozen workshops for community members focused on a controversial report about local schools that offers an unprecedented window into the assets — and problems — in certain neighborhoods.

The district published report, called the Annual Regional Analysis, in September. It shows that, in many areas of the city, students are skipping out on nearby options, with less than half of district students attending their designated neighborhood schools.

The school district and Kids First, the school-choice group that helped compile the report, maintain that the analysis is meant to help guide investments and empower communities to engage in conversations about their needs.

The report divides the school district into 16 “planning regions” showing where schools are, what programs they offer, how they are performing, and how people choose among the options available.

The meetings will start with a presentation on the report. They will include small-group discussions to brainstorm how Chicago Schools can invest in and strengthen schools. The first workshop is scheduled for Wednesday at Collins Academy High School.

While the school district has touted the detailed report as a resource to aid planning and community engagement, several groups have criticized the document and questioned the district’s intent.  The document has sparked fears among supporters of neighborhood schools that the district might use it to propose more school closings, turnarounds, and charter schools.

The parents group Raise Your Hand, the neighborhood schools’ advocacy group Generation All, and the community organizing group Blocks Together penned a letter recently scrutinizing the report’s reliance on school ratings, which are based largely on attendance and test scores.

“Research has shown that test scores and attendance tell us more about the socioeconomic status of the students’ communities rather than the teaching and learning inside the school itself,” they wrote. Chalkbeat Chicago first reported about the analysis in August after obtaining a copy of it. Yet, the document has sparked fears among supporters of neighborhood schools that it could be used to propose more school closings, turnarounds, and charter schools.

Here’s a list of the 12 community workshops, all of which all begin at 6 p.m.:

West Side Region: Oct. 17, Collins Academy High School

Greater Lincoln Park Region: Oct. 18, Lincoln Park High School

Greater Calumet Region: Oct. 22, Corliss High School

South Side Region: Nov. 7, Lindblom High School

Greater Stony Island Region: Nov. 8, Chicago Vocational Career Academy

Far Southwest Region: Nov. 13, Morgan Park High School

Far Northwest Side Region: Nov. 14, Steinmetz High School

Greater Milwaukee Region: Nov. 15, Wells High School

Greater Stockyards Region: Nov. 19, Kelly High School

Pilsen/Little Village Region: Nov. 26, Benito Juarez Community Academy

Greater Midway Region: Dec. 6, Curie Metropolitan High School

North Lakefront Region : Dec. 11, Roger C. Sullivan High School