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.”

temporary reprieve

Parents score a temporary victory in slowing the closure of a small Brooklyn elementary school

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Protesters gathered at the education department's headquarters to protest a recent set of closure plans.

A judge blocked the closure of a small Brooklyn elementary school Thursday — at least for now.

Three families from P.S. 25/the Eubie Blake School filed a lawsuit in March backed by the public interest group Advocates for Justice, arguing the city’s decision to close the school was illegal because the local elected parent council was not consulted.

Brooklyn Supreme Court judge Katherine Levine did not make a final ruling Thursday about whether the closure plan violated the law. But she issued a temporary order to keep the school open while the case moves forward.

It was not immediately clear when the case will be resolved or even if the school will remain open next year. “We are reviewing the stay and will determine an appropriate course of action once the judge makes a final decision on the case,” education department spokeswoman Toya Holness wrote in a statement.

The education department said the school has hemorrhaged students in recent years and is simply too small to be viable: P.S. 25 currently enrolls just 94 students in grades K-5.

“Because of extremely low enrollment, the school lacks the necessary resources to meet the needs of students,” Holness wrote. The city’s Panel for Educational Policy, a citywide oversight board that must sign off on all school closures, voted in February to close the school.

But the school’s supporters point out that despite low test scores in the past, P.S. 25 now ranks among the city’s top elementary schools, meaning that its closure would force students into lower-performing schools elsewhere.

“Why close a school that’s doing so well?” said Leonie Haimson, the executive director of Class Size Matters and one of the lawsuit’s supporters. “It doesn’t make sense to me.”

The lawsuit hinges on a state law that gives local education councils the authority to approve any changes to school zones. Since P.S. 25 is the only zoned elementary school for a swath of Bedford-Stuyvesant, the department’s plans would leave some families with no zoned elementary school dedicated to educating them, forcing students to attend other district schools or enter the admissions lottery for charter schools.

That amounts to “effectively attempting to change zoning lines” and “unlawfully usurping” the local education council’s authority to determine those zones, according to the lawsuit.

But even if the education department loses the lawsuit, the school’s fate would still be uncertain. The closure plan would theoretically be subject to a vote from the local education council, whose president supports shuttering the school.

Still, Haimson hopes the lawsuit ultimately persuades the education department to back away from closing the school in the long run.

“My goal would be to get the chancellor to change his mind,” Haimson said. “I don’t think the future is preordained.”

Future of Schools

Four school leaders hope to bring innovative ideas to Indianapolis education

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Brandon Brown introduces four new innovation school fellows.

Hoping to jumpstart innovation in Indianapolis education, four experienced educators will spend a year or more developing new models for schools.

The educators were chosen from among 39 applicants for fellowships from the Mind Trust, a nonprofit that supports district-charter partnerships. This is the fifth round of innovation fellowships, which give leaders one to two years to prepare to launch or takeover schools in Indianapolis Public Schools.

The fellowship includes an annual salary of about $100,000, benefits, and support for creating new schools, such as visits to other schools, training, and legal assistance. The package for each fellow is worth approximately $200,000 per year.

The city has 16 innovation schools, and they enroll about 20 percent of the students in Indianapolis Public Schools. They are under the umbrella of the district, but they are managed by outside charter operators or nonprofits, and most of the teachers are not employed by the district nor do they belong to the teachers union. The Mind Trust has been instrumental in the creation of innovation schools, and the vast majority of the schools were founded with support from the nonprofit.

The innovation fellowship winners include two people from Indianapolis and two recruits from other cities. But in a sign that the nonprofit’s leaders have become more cautious in their choices, all four have years of experience in education.

Brandon Brown, CEO of the Mind Trust, said that’s by design. About four early innovation fellows never ended up opening innovation schools. But all of the recent winners have either opened schools or are on track to open them, he said.

Candidates are much more likely to be successful, he said, if they have the entrepreneurial spirit to create their own nonprofits and win community support — and have experience in education.

“There’s this notion that if you’re a great entrepreneur, you don’t have to have the unique skill set to know education and [yet] you can go operate a school,” Brown said. “We’ve learned that that’s a very rare thing to see.”

While the winners have all worked in established schools, however, Brown said they are trying new models.

Tihesha Henderson, principal of School 99, won a fellowship to develop a school designed to meet the social and emotional needs of students. She will take a yearlong leave from her current job and hopes to return and transform School 99 into an innovation school.

Henderson envisions a school that adjusts to meet student needs, whether through therapy, small classes, or classroom redesign. School 99 already has significant flexibility, but as an innovation school, Henderson would be able to change the school calendar and set teacher pay, she said.

“We don’t have to be the status quo,” she said. “We can branch out and do some things differently, but it all comes back to — are we meeting out kids needs?”

The other fellows are Alicia Hervey, dean of student development for Christel House Academies; Kim Neal, managing director of secondary education for the charter school network KIPP DC; and Brandy Williams, an expert in special education from New Orleans.

Although innovation schools are considered part of Indianapolis Public Schools, they also often have charters through the office of Mayor Joe Hogsett. The collaborative nature of the schools was on display at the announcement Thursday, where Hogsett, Superintendent Lewis Ferebee, and Brown all spoke.

The innovation schools, said Ferebee, are part of a broader district strategy to give principals more flexibility to run their schools.

“We hire great leaders, get out of their way and give them the space and agility to make decisions about academics [and] operations to better serve our students and our families,” he said.

The city’s reputation in the education community is helping it attract educators from across the country, said Hogsett.

“They know our city is one where they can make a difference,” he said. “Indianapolis welcomes their passion with open arms.”