safety dance

Only four New York City schools now on state’s ‘persistently dangerous’ list

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Mayor Bill de Blasio

The number of “persistently dangerous” schools in New York City dropped dramatically this year, with only four city schools on the list in 2016.

That’s the fewest since the list was created, down from 27 last year, according to information released by the state Monday night. Statewide, just five schools made this year’s list, down from 32 last year.

The city’s education department touted the news as a success — their second chance to celebrate this week after Friday’s announcement that city students posted big gains on state tests.

“We’ve made critical progress as demonstrated by the reduction of persistently dangerous schools in New York City, underscoring the dedication and tireless work of teachers, counseling staff, administrators, and school safety agents,” said Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña in a statement.

A state education department official said the agency had provided the persistently dangerous schools more support than ever before, including more than 70 trainings for school staff, along with guidance on how to accurately report incidents. The state also required each school to come up with an action plan to reduce incidents that threaten school safety.

“There is literally nothing more important than the safety of our students,” said education department spokesman Jonathan Burman. “The State Education Department has been working closely with districts throughout the city and state to help improve the climate in our schools and we will continue to work with them to make sure New York’s schools are safe havens for all.”

School safety has been a flashpoint in Mayor Bill de Blasio’s larger school improvement strategy. He has urged schools to hand out fewer suspensions — eliminating the practice entirely for the city’s youngest students — and backed the use of options like counseling and peer mediation instead. Last month, the city trumpeted city data showing a reduction in the number of suspensions and school crimes.

But some educators have criticized the mayor for removing suspension as a tool for keeping classrooms safe while offering limited training on how to implement alternatives like restorative justice. Meanwhile, critics like the pro-charter group Families for Excellent Schools, have argued the mayor’s policies have made students less safe, pointing to state data showing violent crime in schools is on the rise.

“The goal of Mayor de Blasio’s school climate reforms should be to make our schools actually safer — not merely make them look safer,” said Jeremiah Kittredge, CEO of Families for Excellent Schools. “This unprecedented drop in the number of persistently dangerous schools warrants scrutiny and skepticism, since there has been no evidence to date to suggest that it should have declined.”

The state determines which schools are “persistently dangerous” by weighing the proportion and severity of incidents against the number of students enrolled at a specific school. But that metric has been repeatedly called into question. In May, the Board of Regents discussed changing the way the state classifies safety incidents to make the metric more accurate, though state officials said the tracking system has not yet changed.

The New York City schools that made this year’s list are P.S. 111 in Queens, P.S. 213 and P.S. 306 in Brooklyn, and P.S. 207 in the Bronx. None of those schools immediately responded to requests for comment, but we’ll update this story if they do.

Under federal law, students at “persistently dangerous” schools have the right to transfer at any time. It also taints the schools’ reputation, and makes it hard to recruit new students, said Noah Gotbaum, a member of a Manhattan education council that had a “persistently dangerous” school — P.S. 191 — in its district. (The school has now been removed from the list.)

The experience for that school was a “nightmare,” he said, and the metric for determining which schools end up on the list is deeply flawed. At P.S. 191, for instance, a student throwing a ball at another student was logged as assault with a weapon, he said.

“In this case, it was very clearly a miscalculation, a misdesignation,” Gotbaum said. “I just hope they revise the system because this shouldn’t happen.”

awards season

For the first time in two decades, New York’s Teacher of the Year hails from New York City — and West Africa

PHOTO: New York State Education Department
Bronx International High School teacher Alhassan Susso, center, is New York State's 2019 Teacher of the Year.

An immigrant from West Africa who teaches social studies to immigrant students in the Bronx is New York State’s newest Teacher of the Year.

Alhassan Susso, who works at International Community High School in Mott Haven, received the award Tuesday, becoming the first New York City teacher to do so since 1998.

As the state’s Teacher of the Year, Susso will travel the state to work with local educators — and will represent New York in the national competition at a time when federal authorities are aggressively seeking to limit immigration.

A decorated teacher with significant vision impairment since childhood, Susso came to New York from Gambia at 16 and had a rocky experience at his upstate high school, which he chronicled in an autobiography he published in 2016. Assuming that he would struggle academically because he was an immigrant, even though English is the official language of Gambia, his teachers assigned him to a remedial reading class. There, he found a compassionate teacher who was attentive to the diverse needs of her students, who came from all over the world.

Now, Susso is playing that role at his school. International Community High School, part of the Internationals Network for new immigrants, has a special program for students who did not receive a formal education before coming to the United States.

“Alhassan Susso exemplifies the dedication and passion of our 79,000 New York City teachers,” city Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza said in a statement. “Using the obstacles he’s overcome and lessons he’s learned in his own life, Alhassan has changed the trajectory of students’ lives and helped them pursue their dreams.”

New York City teachers make up nearly 40 percent of the state’s teaching force but have won the Teacher of the Year honor only six times since 1965, the last in 1998. This year’s winner had a strong chance of ending the two-decade shutout: Two of the three finalists teach in the Bronx. In addition to Susso, Frederick Douglass Academy III chemistry teacher William Green was up for the award.

regents roundup

Regents support a new way of evaluating charter schools and soften penalties for schools with high opt-out rates

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Chancellor Betty Rosa, center, at a recent Board of Regents meeting.

New York’s top education policymakers tentatively approved new rules Monday on two hot-button issues: the penalties for districts and schools where many students opt out of state tests — and how nearly 100 charter schools across the state will be evaluated.

Here’s what you need to know about the new policies that the state’s Board of Regents set in motion.

Potential penalties for high opt-out rates were softened

After criticism from activists and parents within the opt-out movement and pushback from the state teachers union, the Regents walked back some of the consequences schools and districts can face when students refuse to take state exams.

Among the most significant changes, which state officials first floated last week, is that districts with high opt-out rates will not be required to use a portion of their federal funding to increase their testing rates.

“I do not ever want to be the person who takes money away from children,” State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said.

The regulations are part of the state’s plan under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act and stem from a federal mandate that 95 percent of students take the state’s annual reading and math exams.

The Regents tweaked other rules requiring schools to create improvement plans if they fall below the 95 percent threshold. Schools with average or higher test scores will not have to come up with those plans.

Still, some parents who support the opt-out movement and who attended Monday’s meeting said the changes don’t go far enough and that schools with lower test scores should also be exempt from coming up with plans to boost participation rates.

“There’s still so much left to be addressed,” said Kemala Karmen, a New York City public school parent who attended the meeting.

The new regulations will likely not have a major effect in New York City, where opt-out rates have remained relatively low. Although New York State has been the epicenter of the test-boycott movement — with roughly one in five students refusing to take the tests, according to the most recent data — less than 4 percent of the city’s students declined to take them.

The Regents unanimously approved the changes, although their vote is technically preliminary. The tweaks will still be subject to a 30-day public comment period and will likely be brought to a final vote in December.

New criteria for evaluating charter schools

The Regents also narrowly approved a new framework for evaluating the roughly 100 charter schools that the board oversees across the state, 63 of which are in New York City.

The new framework is meant to bring charter schools in line with how the state judges district-run schools. Under the new federal education law, the Regents have moved away from emphasizing test scores as the key indicator of a school’s success.

In keeping with that shift, the new charter framework will require schools to have policies covering chronic absenteeism, out-of-school suspension rates, and other measures of school culture to help decide whether they are successful enough to remain open.

And while the new framework does not spell out specific rates of chronic absenteeism a school must fall below, for example, it does explicitly add those policies to the mix of factors the Regents consider. (Officials said that test scores and graduation rates would still remain among the most important factors in evaluating charter schools.)

At Monday’s meeting, discussion of the charter framework prompted broad complaints about the charter sector from some Regents. The state’s framework for evaluating charters was last updated in 2015; the board has added several new members and a new chancellor since then.

The current board has repeatedly sent mixed messages about the sector, approving large batches of new charters while also rejecting others and raising questions about whether the schools serve a fair share of high-need students.

“We’re giving money away from our public schools to charters,” Regent Kathy Cashin said, emphasizing that she believes the state should more deeply probe when students leave charter schools and survey families to find out why.

Charters receive some freedom from rules governing most district-run schools, but in exchange the schools are expected to meet certain performance benchmarks or else face closure.

State officials said the new framework does not include new standards for how New York judges enrollment and retention. Under the current rules, schools must enroll a similar number of students with disabilities, English learners, and low-income students as other nearby district schools. If they don’t, they must show that they’re making progress toward that goal.

Ultimately, the new framework was approved eight to five in a preliminary vote and will be brought back to the full board for approval on Tuesday.