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.”

moving on up

Jeffco on track to move most of next year’s sixth-graders into middle school buildings

PHOTO: Denver Post file

Jeffco Public Schools is moving forward with plans to put the majority of its sixth-graders in middle schools instead of elementary schools starting next fall, a shift district officials say will both better utilize building space and ease what can be a rough transition for kids.

The change, announced more than a year ago, will bring the state’s second largest school district into alignment with how most Colorado districts split up elementary and middle school.

Jeffco will continue to operate models that break that mold, including longstanding K-8 schools and a newer experiment with 7th through 12th grade schools officials say has shown promise.

Some critics continue to voice concerns about the plan, including questioning the cost and comparing that to what they say will result in a questionable benefit for students’ educations. District officials, however, say parents are getting their questions answered and educators are hearing fewer concerns than before.

The issue has come up at forums for school board candidates running this fall, and Jeffco staff last week at a regular board meeting updated the school board.

Marcia Anker, who started in July as the district’s sixth grade transition coordinator, said that some Jeffco schools individually started asking to make the change more than 10 years ago. Some individual middle schools had already been allowed to start enrolling sixth graders.

District officials say they estimate 3,355 students due to be sixth graders next year will be attending a middle school in 2018-19 instead of staying in an elementary school.

Many of the players involved in the initial discussions to move sixth grade out of elementary schools aren’t in the district anymore, including former superintendent Dan McMinimee.

Current district leaders say it was a conversation that began with district officials who oversee use of buildings, but that the decision wasn’t driven by building concerns.

Still, building use is a factor. Tim Reed, executive director of Jeffco facilities said middle school buildings in Jeffco were designed to hold three grade levels and have been underutilized.

“I think the conversation has always been about what’s best for students,” Reed said. “There was a recognition that there was significant underutilization in our middle school buildings. This was a way to accomplish two things including to better utilize middle schools.”

National research on middle school grade configurations has not been keen on sixth through eighth grade models. One study comparing students in sixth through eighth grade schools to students in schools that are K-8 schools found that student test scores weren’t different, but found more negative perceptions among students in traditional middle schools.

Jeffco board members and staff who have touted the benefits that sixth graders will see in a middle school point out that students will get a chance to start exploring their career interests with elective classes and have more time to develop relationships with staff in the middle schools.

Karen Quanbeck, interim chief school effectiveness officer and a previous middle school principal in the district, said at last week’s board meeting that two years with students is not enough.

“It seems like you’re welcoming them and in the blink of an eye you’re sending them off to high school,” Quanbeck said.

But some schools will need to continue with the seventh and eighth grade model for at least one more year. Because the empty middle school seats aren’t evenly spread throughout the district, some schools will require expansions to make room for new sixth graders.

The school board has already approved the funding to build a $10 million addition to Drake Middle School and a $4.5 million addition to Dunstan Middle School to accommodate the changes. Another $2 million in reserves will be used to make minor fixes at five other schools.

Three schools — Ken Caryl, Creighton and Summit Ridge — will delay their transition to the new model because the district estimates it needs to find another $15.5 million to add eight classrooms to each school.

Two years ago, in a bid to help lift student achievement, the district merged some schools to create two seventh-through-12 schools: Alameda and Jefferson junior and senior high schools. Those schools will retain that model.

Principals at those schools say they are seeing small benefits from the change. Though the neighborhoods are traditionally higher in poverty and mobility, Anker said that principals tell her students are staying in the school at a higher rate than before.

Still, Anker said one model is not better than another.

“Matriculation models that offer the fewest transitions are what benefits kids,” Anker said.

While there may be some benefits to having every Jeffco middle school offer the same grades — for instance, so parents choosing different schools across the district have consistency — the cost of doing that would also be prohibitive, Anker said.

“We also value the differences in our communities,” Anker said.

The district in the coming months will need to find a way to fund the remaining middle school expansions. Officials also will help some sought-after schools decide if they will cut down the number of seventh and eighth graders they enroll, or ask for help to build out space as well.

vegetarian options

Want your Brooklyn school to go meatless on Mondays? Here’s your chance.

PHOTO: Helen Richardson, The Denver Post

Goodbye, ground beef and popcorn chicken. Hello, crispy tofu and roasted chickpea tagine.

Starting next spring, 15 Brooklyn schools will begin “meatless Mondays” — an effort to make school lunches and breakfasts a little healthier and friendlier to the environment, officials said Monday.

The city has not yet picked the schools that will participate in the pilot program, and an education spokeswoman said the city will make decisions based on interest and public input. (Whether the city is prepared for a barrage of requests from health-minded Park Slope parents is another matter.)

The announcement comes less than two months after city officials made lunch free for all students regardless of income. Monday’s press conference was held at Brooklyn’s P.S. 1 — one of three district schools that only serves vegetarian fare — and drew Mayor Bill de Blasio, schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams.

“Cutting back a little on meat will help make our city healthier and our planet stronger for generations to come,” de Blasio said in a statement, adding that meat will no longer be served at Gracie Mansion on Mondays.

You can read more about the program here.