Tuesday, December 19, 2017

DOE announces more Renewal school closings without ever having giving them a real chance to succeed

Chancellor Fariña announced yesterday that the closure or merger of 15 more Renewal schools, to add to the 18 that were previously closed or merged.  

This means 33 Renewal schools of the original 94 have failed to improve sufficiently since the program began in 2014.  Forty six of the Renewal schools will remain in the program for another year.  The list of schools, including an additional five to be closed that were never in the Renewal program, is here.

This record of failure is no surprise to many of us who have criticized the DOE's plans for the Renewal schools since the program began in 2014. Despite the city's promise to the state to focus their efforts on reducing class size in these struggling schools, only three of the Renewal schools capped class sizes last year at the appropriate levels designated in the city's original Contract for Excellence plan  -- no more than 20 students per class in grades K-3, 23 in grades 4-8 and 25 in high school.

Moreover, 70 percent of the Renewal schools continued to have maximum class sizes of 30 or more, and about half did not reduce class size by even one student per class. The DOE's failure to take any demonstrable steps to reduce class sizes in the Renewal schools was cited in our class size complaint filed in July with the State Education Department, demanding that the CFE law be enforced. 

The obliviousness of the administration on this issue was revealed during City Council hearings on the Renewal program in May 2015.  Julissa Ferreras, chair of the Finance Committee, asked Chancellor Fariña, "Can we talk about class size in these schools? Because it seems to me that you know while we are implementing a lot of resources and support...what is the average class size?"

Fariña responded that class sizes weren't too large in elementary schools, and in any case, the more important steps she had taken was to hire more "specialists" in these schools.  When Ferreras asked how large the classes were in middle and high schools, Fariña said the following:

"The middle schools overall I would have to say is about 29 and in the high schools it depends on the subject areas... I would say most of these schools unfortunately because they are renewal schools do not have large class sizes because enrollment hasn't been as high as it should be."  (pp. 33-35 of the transcript here.)

Renewal middle and high schools unfortunately do not have large class sizes?  Moreover, 29 students per class is clearly excessive for a struggling middle school faced with possible closure - especially when the state public school average is about twenty in these grades.

Instead of capping class sizes in these schools, the DOE spent about $40 million per year on consultants and bureaucrats to oversee the Renewal program, many of them with records marked by scandal and incompetence, as well as millions more on wrap-around services to create "community schools." Though perhaps of value in themselves, these services do little to improve students' opportunity to learn or teachers ability to teach.  As Eliza Shapiro of Politico writes:

Over three years and half a billion dollars later, it seems clear that the de Blasio administration has not yet cracked the code on how to substantially improve underperforming schools...That’s why advocates for community schools have long fretted that de Blasio’s insistence on linking his school turnaround plan with community schools could compromise their mission. Community schools were never intended to be part of a school improvement plan; the model creates the conditions for learning, but it is not designed to actually improve academics. With the Renewal program’s fate in question, it’s unclear if other cities will take on the community school model if it increasingly looks like an extremely expensive political gamble.

The contrast with an earlier NYC school reform effort is stark.  When Rudy Crew headed DOE, he created a special program called the Chancellor's district for  the city's lowest-performing schools. He consulted the research and used common sense by capping class sizes in these schools at no more than 20 students per class in K-3 and 25 in the higher grades, as well as taking other measures.  The program was widely hailed as a success, but when Joel Klein took over as Chancellor, he disbanded the district.  Lessons learned?  Apparently none to this day-- to the tragic detriment of NYC children.

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