closure fight

In stunning rebuke, oversight board rejects two of de Blasio’s school closure plans

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Protesters gathered last week at the education department's headquarters to protest the city's closure plans.

An oversight board rejected two of the de Blasio administration’s proposed school closures and voted to postpone a third after an emotional hearing that stretched into Thursday morning — a stunning rebuke by an education panel that typically rubber stamps the mayor’s policies.

The vote by the Panel for Educational Policy came around 2 a.m. Thursday after more than seven hours of testimony from well over 100 parents and elected officials. The panel signed off on the city’s plans to shutter 10 other schools — the largest single wave of closures since de Blasio took office in 2014.

But the board’s decision to block the other closures raises fresh questions about the education department’s criteria for closing schools, and suggests that officials may face a higher bar in future when seeking approval for such controversial moves. The mayor appoints the majority of the panel’s 13 members, who typically green light the city’s proposals.

In this case, the panel faced intense pressure from supporters of the low-performing schools, which are part of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s $582 million school-turnaround program. They argued that the schools were actually showing signs of improvement but needed more time in the program.

“I believe that this vote and this decision is premature,” said City Councilman Mark Treyger, the chair of the council’s education committee, at the hearing. “School closures can rip a community apart.”

Education department officials have said the schools had either shed too many students or were too low performing to be viable. When deciding which struggling schools to close, officials say they consider the schools’ test scores, attendance, graduation rates, classroom instruction, leadership, and the school’s “overall trajectory for success.”

Still, some community members say that the city has not made it clear when schools perform poorly enough in any of those areas to warrant closure. Instead, many have complained that their schools were arbitrarily chosen for closure while other struggling schools were spared.

The two closures the panel blocked are both Queens schools in de Blasio’s “Renewal” improvement program: M.S. 53 Brian Piccolo and P.S./M.S. 42 R. Vernam. An education department spokesman said those two schools will remain open next year. The panel voted to postpone a decision on a third Renewal school that had been slated for closure, High School for Health Careers and Sciences in Manhattan.

P.S./M.S. 42 had attracted especially vocal responses from parents and elected officials, who were puzzled by the school’s inclusion on the closure list because it has made gains on its test scores and quality reviews  — even outperforming a number of other Renewal schools.

Weeks before the vote, City Hall rescinded one of the closure proposals, citing community pressure. The move inspired advocates at some of the other schools to keep making their case. While it’s unclear what motivated the panel’s “no” votes, they faced strong pressure to closely scrutinize the city’s plans before signing off.

The panel did approve the closure of five other schools in the Renewal program, an effort to rehabilitate the city’s lowest-performing schools with extra social services and academic support. While critics have called the program a misguided attempt to save schools that should instead be replaced, the schools’ supporters have argued that they were not given enough time to turn around since the program launched three years ago.

Including Thursday’s closures, there will be just under 50 schools remaining in the Renewal program, down from an original 94. (Twenty-one schools are being phased out of the improvement program after making progress.)

Thursday’s vote came just hours after news broke that Miami school superintendent Alberto Carvalho will replace retiring schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, overshadowing a hearing that some parents and educators had hoped would draw attention to the city’s closure plans.

The meeting’s tone was reminiscent of similar public hearings under de Blasio’s predecessor, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who moved to close dozens of schools and drew fierce protest from local communities. On Wednesday, dozens of people testified against the city’s plans, while audience members interrupted the proceedings with chants of, “Save our schools!”

Here is a list of schools that will officially be closed at the end of this school year. (The oversight panel also approved five school openings and one truncation.)

The five Renewal schools the city will close:

  • P.S. 50 Vito Marcantonio (District 4)
  • Coalition School for Social Change (District 4)
  • New Explorers High School (District 7)
  • Urban Science Academy (District 9)
  • P.S. 92 Bronx School (District 12)

The five other schools to be closed:

  • KAPPA IV (District 5)
  • Academy for Social Action (District 5)
  • Felisa Rincon de Gautier Institute (District 8)
  • Urban Assembly School for Wildlife Conservation (District 12)
  • Eubie Blake School (District 16)

call for more

Almost half of Detroit district schools don’t have a gym teacher. Next year, that may change.

Students during PE class at Lyn Knoll Elementary School in 2016 in Aurora, Colorado. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

Since 10-year-old Hezekiah Haynesworth moved to his new school in the Detroit district, he’s always up out of his seat, talking to classmates and getting into trouble.

His mother, Victoria, says he wasn’t always like this. She believes he has nowhere to burn off excess energy because Bagley Elementary doesn’t offer students enough time for gym class or recess.

Bagley Elementary is one of 49 schools in the district without a gym teacher. Out of the 106 schools in the district, only 57 have at least one certified, full-time physical education teacher, according to data obtained by Chalkbeat.

The district employs 68 certified full-time physical education teachers for its student population of 50,875. More than 15,000 Detroit schoolchildren attend a school without a full time physical education teacher.

In Michigan, there are no laws requiring schools to offer recess. As for physical education, schools are required to offer the class, but the amount of time isn’t specified, which means some kids, like Hezekiah, might only go once a month or less.

“He’s had behavior issues, but if he had the gym time there’s different activities he would do to burn off energy,” she said. “They would get that anxiety and fidgetiness out of them.”

Haynesworth might get her wish. Superintendent Nikolai Vitti announced earlier this month that there’s money in the budget to put gym teachers back in schools, along with art and music teachers and guidance counselors next school year, though the budget plan has not yet been approved.

“Not every student is provided an opportunity for physical education or gym” right now, Vitti said at a meeting earlier this month.

The district has almost 200 teacher vacancies, and giving schools money for a gym teacher doesn’t mean a school will be able to hire one.

But Vitti said he has several efforts in the works, like more recruiting trips and better hiring practices, to address the difficulties of finding and bringing in new employees.

Detroit is not the only district that has cut back on physical education teachers in recent years. At a time when schools are heavily judged by how well students perform on math and reading exams, some schools have focused their resources on core subjects, cutting back on the arts and gym and cutting recess to make more time for instruction and test prep. But experts say that approach is short-sighted.

Research on the importance of physical activity in schools has reached a consensus — physical education improves children’s focus and makes them better students.

“Available evidence suggests that mathematics and reading are the academic topics that are most influenced by physical activity,” according to a 2013 federal report.

The link between physical education and improved reading is especially important for the Detroit district. Educators are working in high gear, in part pushed by Vitti, to prepare for the state’s tough new law that will go into effect in 2020, requiring third-graders who don’t read at grade level to be held back.

This year, the Michigan Department of Education has started to include data on physical education in schools into its school scoring system, which allows parents to compare schools. A separate score for physical education might push schools to hire physical education teachers.

Whether the state’s new emphasis on gym class or Vitti’s proposal to place a gym teacher in each district school is enough to put physical activity back in the schools is unclear, but Hezekiah’s mom Victoria desperately hopes it happens.

Hezekiah is given 45 minutes to each lunch, and if he finishes early, he’s allowed to run with the other children who finished early. If he doesn’t eat quickly enough to play, Victoria says she can expect a call about his disruptive behavior.

“I used to think that my son was just a problem — that it was just my problem,” she said. “But it’s a system problem. They don’t have the components they should have in the school.”

See which schools have gym teachers below.

Out of the game

The businessman who went to bat for apprenticeships is out of Colorado’s governor’s race

Democratic gubernatorial candidates Donna Lynne, Noel Ginsburg and Cary Kennedy at a candidate forum hosted by the Colorado Association of School Boards. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

Noel Ginsburg, an advocate for apprenticeships and a critic of Colorado’s teacher effectiveness law, has withdrawn from the Democratic race for governor.

Ginsburg, a businessman who had never run for office before, always faced a tough road to the nomination. He announced Tuesday that he would not continue with the petition-gathering or assembly process after his last place finish in the caucus, where he got 2 percent of the vote.

In an interview with The Denver Post, Ginsburg said, “I don’t believe I have the resources to be fully competitive.”

Just last month, Ginsburg released an education platform that called for the repeal of Colorado’s teacher effectiveness law, the signature legislative achievement of former state Sen. Mike Johnston, also a candidate for governor.

Ginsburg runs CareerWise, an apprenticeship initiative of Gov. John Hickenlooper that allows students to earn money and college credit while getting on-the-job experience starting in high school. His platform called for expanding apprenticeship programs and getting businesses more involved in education.

He also promised to lead a statewide effort to change the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights to allow the state to retain more revenue and send much of it to schools. He said that schools, not roads, should be the top priority of Colorado’s next governor.

Ginsburg will continue at the head of CareerWise, as well as Intertech Plastics, the company he founded.

Johnston, U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, and Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne have all turned in signatures to place their names on the ballot. Former Treasurer Cary Kennedy, who has the endorsement of two teachers unions, is not gathering signatures and will need at least 30 percent of the vote at the assembly to appear on the ballot. Kennedy finished in first place at the caucus earlier this month.