all eyes on you

De Blasio hails ‘rebirth’ at Boys and Girls HS, whose new leader has made big changes

PHOTO: AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews
Mayor Bill de Blasio visited Boys and Girls High School, a Renewal school, in March 2015.

After a turbulent year at Boys and Girls High School that was marked by a high-profile leadership change and intense official scrutiny, Mayor Bill de Blasio told this year’s graduates on Thursday that their accomplishment represented a “rebirth” for one of the city’s most troubled schools.

Ninety-three Boys and Girls students graduated on Thursday, double the number expected to earn diplomas at the start of the year, de Blasio said. But even as he celebrated their accomplishments and commended the school’s new principal, Michael Wiltshire, urgent questions hung over the school, including whether it could reverse its steadily declining enrollment and how it will continue to raise its strikingly low graduation rate.

“I want you to know the eyes of the city are on you,” de Blasio said at the school’s graduation ceremony Thursday, where the girls wore white caps and gowns and the boys wore red. As if to prove his point, two opposing education advocacy groups sent out dueling statements Thursday after de Blasio’s speech to either praise or condemn the city’s efforts to rehabilitate Boys and Girls.

After the school’s outspoken principal left the school in October after publicly clashing with the city over its improvement plan for the school, Wiltshire agreed to take over. The city wooed him there with a bonus and a new title that let him keep oversight of the high-performing Brooklyn high school he’s run for many years, Medgar Evers College Preparatory School.

He faced a formidable challenge at Boys and Girls. The school had a 42 percent graduation rate last year — 26 points below the city average and 10 points under the average of schools in de Blasio’s “Renewal” improvement program, which includes Boys and Girls. It had gone so long without making gains or enacting a turnaround plan that it was one of just two schools last year to earn the state’s “out of time” label, forcing the city to make drastic changes that included requiring all staffers to reapply for their jobs.

A joint Medgar Evers-Boys and Girls choir performed at Thursday's graduation.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
A joint Medgar Evers-Boys and Girls choir performed at Thursday’s graduation.

Wiltshire moved quickly. He added an extra period to the school day so students could take more classes, and hired Kaplan to offer test preparation courses. Since Boys and Girls offered few advanced classes, he let top students take classes at Medgar Evers (“I was not with you for most of my senior year — I was at Medgar,” salutatorian Oliver Gaussaint said in his speech Thursday). He also raised expectations for both the students and staff, telling athletes they had to “pass to play” and ordering struggling students to attend tutoring, several students said Thursday after graduation.

“He made us strive harder,” said graduate Gail Romain, adding Wiltshire’s higher expectations also rubbed off on teachers. “The approach everyone had toward us was different — everyone strived harder for us to be the best we can be more than they normally did.”

Considering the state’s closure warning, Wiltshire entered the school with a mandate to make rapid gains.

One of his first actions was to encourage about 30 students who were significantly behind academically to transfer to schools designed to catch them up. (Overall, the school shed nearly 100 students this year, with its enrollment falling from an adjusted 580 students in October to 487 today, officials said.) Some students and staffers said Thursday that those students could not have graduated without the help of an alternative high school program, but others said that struggling students were urged to leave even if they could have caught up at Boys and Girls with extra help.

Sherried Velez said a staffer called her after Wiltshire’s arrival and urged her to sign off on a transfer for her son, David Lewis, who was 20 years old and needed to pass several Regents exams this year to graduate. She declined and he remained at Boys and Girls, where he got tutoring and was able to earn a less rigorous “local” diploma, she said. (The state has eliminated the local diploma option for students who entered high school more recently.)

“If you fought back,” she said after Thursday’s ceremony, “they couldn’t push your child out.”

Wiltshire and an education department spokesperson did not immediately respond to requests to comment on the incident. However, Assistant Principal Andrea Toussaint said that, in general, students who were encouraged to transfer were sent to programs where “they got exactly what they needed.” She pointed to one student who transferred to an alternative program, where he was able to graduate this month and secure a full scholarship to a community college.

The administration also apparently went to great lengths to help get students to graduation. Two staff members said they were told students had until June 24 — one day before graduation, and after teachers had entered final grades — to make up work in order to pass classes they were in danger of failing.

Other questions loom over the school’s coming year.

One is whether it will be able to attract enough new students to stay afloat, a major challenge for a school whose enrollment plummeted from 2,300 in 2010 to under 500 today. Officials said applications are up, with 154 students applying this year compared to 97 last. But a teacher said only 65 freshmen have enrolled so far.

Another question is who will work at the school. Under state pressure, the city and teachers union agreed to a rehiring plan that required all Boys and Girls employees to reapply for their positions if they wanted to work at the school next year. Those who are not rehired by the committee, which includes city and union representatives, will be sent to other Brooklyn high schools with job openings. Some staffers said Thursday they had not yet been notified about the committee’s decision, but expected to by Friday, the last day of the school year.

After the mayor spoke at Boys and Girls’ graduation ceremony, valedictorian Salomon Djakpa gave his speech. After arriving in the U.S. from Senegal his freshman year, Salomon went on to earn a 94.29 grade-point average, to play varsity soccer and volleyball, and finally to win a full scholarship to Cornell University.

“My family and I migrated to the United States approximately four years ago in search of a dream,” he told the audience. “I took with me the shirt on my back, the fire in my belly.”

hurdle cleared

Indiana’s federally required education plan wins approval

PHOTO: Courtesy of the Indiana Department of Education
State Superintendent Jennifer McCormick greets elementary school students in Decatur Township.

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has signed off on Indiana’s federally required education plan, ushering in another era of changes — although not exactly major ones — to the state’s public school system.

The U.S Department of Education announced the plan’s approval on Friday. Like other states, Indiana went through an extensive process to craft a blueprint to comply with the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which was signed into law in 2015.

“Today is a great day for Indiana,” state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick said in a statement. “Our ESSA plan reflects the input and perspective of many stakeholders in communities across our state. From the beginning, we set out to build a plan that responded to the needs of Hoosier students. From our clear accountability system to our innovative, locally-driven approach to school improvement, our ESSA plan was designed to support student success.”

The federal government highlighted two aspects of Indiana’s plan. One is a pledge to close achievement gaps separating certain groups of students, such as racial and ethnic groups, from their peers by 50 percent by 2023.

Another is a staple of other states’ plans, as well: adding new ways for measuring how ready students are for attending college or starting their careers. Indiana education officials and lawmakers have made this a priority over the past several years, culminating in a new set of graduation requirements the Indiana State Board of Education approved late last year.

Under Indiana’s plan, high schoolers’ readiness will be measured not just by tests but also by performance in advanced courses and earning dual credits or industry certifications. Elementary school students will be measured in part by student attendance and growth in student attendance over time. Test scores and test score improvement still play a major role in how all schools are rated using state A-F letter grades.

In all, 35 states’ ESSA plans have won federal approval.

Advocates hope the law will bring more attention to the country’s neediest children and those most likely to be overlooked — including English-learners and students with disabilities.

Indiana officials struggled to bring some state measures in line with federal laws, such as graduation requirements and diplomas.

Under the state’s ESSA plan, A-F grades would include these measures (see weights here):

  • Academic achievement in the form of state test scores.
  • Test score improvement.
  • Graduation rate and a measure of “college and career readiness” for high schools.
  • Academic progress of English-language learners, measured by the WIDA test.
  • At least one aspect of school quality. For now, that will be chronic absenteeism, but the state hopes to pursue student and teacher surveys.

The last two are new to Indiana, but represent ESSA’s goal of being more inclusive and, in the case of chronic absenteeism, attempting to value other measures that aren’t test scores.

Because the Indiana State Board of Education passed its own draft A-F rules earlier this month — rules that deviate from the state ESSA plan — it’s possible Hoosier schools could get two sets of letter grades going forward, muddying the initial intent of the simple A-F grade concept parents and community members are familiar with.

The state board’s A-F changes include other measures, such as a “well-rounded” measure for elementary schools that is calculated based on science and social studies tests and an “on-track” measure for high schools that is calculated based on credits and freshman-year grades. Neither component is part of  the state’s federal plan. The state board plan also gets rid of the test score improvement measure for high-schoolers.

While that A-F proposal is preliminary, if approved it would go into effect for schools in 2018-19.

The state can still make changes to its ESSA plan, and the state board’s A-F draft is also expected to see revisions after public comment. But the fact that they conflict now could create difficulties moving forward, and it has led to tension during state board meetings. Already, the state expected schools would see two years of A-F grades in 2018. If both plans move forward as is, that could continue beyond next year.

Read: Will Indiana go through with a ‘confusing’ plan that could mean every school winds up with two A-F grades?

Find more of our coverage of the Every Student Succeeds Act here.

turnaround

Aurora recommends interventions in one elementary school, while another gets more time

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

Aurora school district officials on Tuesday will recommend turning over management of some operations at one of their elementary schools to an outside management company.

The school, Lyn Knoll Elementary, is located in northwest Aurora near 2nd Avenue and Peoria Street and serves a high number of students from low-income families, with 4 percent of students identified as homeless. The school was one of three Aurora schools that earned the lowest rating from the state in 2017.

That rating automatically flags the school under a district process for school interventions. The process directs district officials to consider a number of possible improvement plans, including closure or turning the school over to a charter school.

Lyn Knoll has had good rankings in recent years before slipping dramatically in the past year, a change that put it on the turnaround list. The district did not recommend intervening at Paris Elementary, even though that school has been in priority improvement for years and will face state sanctions if it has one more year without improvement.

Annual ratings for Lyn Knoll Elementary

  • 2010: Improvement
  • 2011: Improvement
  • 2012: Performance
  • 2013: Improvement
  • 2014: Priority Improvement
  • 2016: Performance
  • 2017: Turnaround
Colorado Department of Education

The board will discuss the recommendation on Tuesday and vote on the school’s fate next month. In November, four union-backed board members who have been critical of charter schools won a majority role on the district’s school board. This will be their first major decision since taking a seat on the board.

In September, Superintendent Rico Munn had told the school board that among January’s school improvement recommendations, the one for Paris would be “the most high-profile.” A month later the district put out a request for information, seeking ideas to improve Aurora schools.

But in a board presentation released Friday, district officials didn’t give much attention to Paris. Instead, they will let Paris continue its rollout of an innovation plan approved two years ago. Officials have said they are hopeful the school will show improvements.

The recommendation for Lyn Knoll represents more drastic change, and it’s the only one that would require a board vote.

The district recommendation calls for replacing the current principal, drafting a contract for an outside company to help staff with training and instruction, and creating a plan to help recruit more students to the school.

Documents show district officials considered closing Lyn Knoll because it already has low and decreasing enrollment with just 238 current students. Those same documents note that while officials are concerned about the school’s trends, it has not had a long history of low ratings to warrant a closure.

In considering a charter school conversion, documents state that there is already a saturation of charter schools in that part of the city, and the community is interested in “the existence of a neighborhood school.” Two charter networks, however, did indicate interest in managing the school, the documents state.
The district recommendation would also include stripping the school’s current status as a pilot school.

Lyn Knoll and other schools labeled pilot schools in Aurora get some internal district autonomy under a program created more than 10 years ago by district and union officials.

Because Lyn Knoll is a pilot school, a committee that oversees that program also reviewed the school and made its own recommendation, which is different from the district’s.

In their report, committee members explained that while they gave the school low marks, they want the school to maintain pilot status for another year as long as it follows guidance on how to improve.

Among the observations in the committee’s report: The school doesn’t have an intervention program in place for students who need extra help in math, families are not engaged, and there has not been enough training for teachers on the new state standards.

The report also highlights the school’s daily physical education for students and noted that the school’s strength was in the school’s governance model that allowed teachers to feel involved in decision making.

Read the full committee report below.