A Reprieve: Staffs in the Turnaround Schools Have a Year to Prove That Bloomberg/Walcott Were Wrong.

“This was always about an arm-wrestle between the Department of Education and City Hall on one side and the UFT on the other,” said Eric Nadelstern, a former top department official who retired last year and said he thinks the schools should be closed. “The only thing worse than the original plan was the decision at this juncture for reversing the original plan. This throws everything into chaos.” from Gotham Schools

Arbitrator Buchheit’s decision sustaining the union in the court-ordered “turnaround school” arbitration was not a surprise. For a decade Gracie Mansion has interfered in the education decision-making process seeking to burnish the reputation and legacy of the mayor. The “turnaround” strategy, a ruse to collect 50 million in federal dollars simply did not pass the “smell” test. Changing the name of a school does not a new school make.

The Mayor and the Department have continually refused to confront the core question.

How do you intervene before stumbling schools fail?

John Balfanz, John Hopkins, and Pedro Noguera, New York University, two of the leading scholars in the country agree that there is a “tipping point;” some schools are so dysfunctional that school closings are required.

There are a range of strategies that have been successful in “turning around” stumbling, not yet dysfunctional schools. Unfortunately the Department management system does not intervene until a school is at the abyss.

I served on numerous New York State Schools Under Registration Review (SURR) teams. Jefferson and Taft and T. Roosevelt and Canarsie were dysfunctional and dangerous. The decision to close the schools was correct; the larger question of why the schools were allowed to deteriorate was never explored at the city level.

The answer would be unpleasant. The old Board of Education and the current Department of Education supported a triage strategy. Schools would be “saved” at the expense of schools that would be sacrificed.

Low achieving, dangerous, “undesirable” kids were assigned to the triage model schools, sometimes along with ineffective teachers, to “save” the remainder of the schools.

It was a cruel and desperate strategy.

Park West and Wingate should not have been closed. Park West was redesigning using the John Hopkins Talent Development Model and Wingate had an exemplary caring staff. The politics du jour was school closing, not a balanced look at school effectiveness.

The NYS SURR reports were aggregated every year. The major reason for a poor performing school was always “a lack of leadership at the school and district level.” The reports also cited the lack of a coherent curriculum and mediocre instructional practices.

The “turnaround” model that city selected, in my view, had little chance of success. To decide that schools should be managed/supervised by a superintendent, a network leader and an external not-for-profit almost guarantees the schools will continue to stumble.

Gershwin (IS 167), one of the 24 turnaround schools, is across the street from one of the most violent housing projects in the city. The neighborhood is ruled by gangs and the school requires a talented leader and is a prime candidate for a community school model with wraparound services. Changing the name of the school, the school leader and half the staff is a farce.

Sheepshead Bay has been plagued with one inept principal after another. John Dewey High School was a highly innovative model high school that has become a neighborhood high school attracting students was major educational deficits.

What is the evidence that the new principals will be any more effective than their predecessors?

New Dorp and Hillcrest High Schools redesigned into small learning communities are prospering. Both schools had the key ingredient – highly effective, experienced principals.

Eric Nadelstern avers that the twenty-four “turnaround” schools should have been closed.

Simply closing schools and replacing them with small schools is not an answer. While graduation rates have risen college readiness metrics are depressing, and, one wonders if the increases in graduation rates are credit recovery driven.

While they may appear to be better than the schools they replaced I fear they are beginning to replicate the schools they replaced.

The ill-conceived trompe l’oeil strategy was rejected by the arbitrator.

The staffs in the twenty-four schools are exultant. After months of uncertainty it appears that they will be returning, at least for a year.

The cheering should be short-lived.

Staffs in the revived “turnaround” school must avoid blaming “difficult” kids, absence of adequate funding, poor management; these are not excuses, they are realities that must be overcome.

The just-released Education Trust report, “Building and Sustaining Talent: Creating Conditions in High-Poverty Schools That Support Effective Teaching and Learning,” offers concrete suggestions. Randi Weingarten summarizes the findings of the report,

Building a culture of collaboration and shared responsibility among teachers, principals, and administrators; focusing on continuous professional development for teachers; and ensuring teachers have the time, tools, and trust they need to improve teaching and learning are essential ingredients to building strong public schools and a quality teaching force.

The bottom line according to Education Trust co-author and director of teacher quality Sarah Almy said is  “… we have to be intentional about creating the kinds of supportive working environments in our high-poverty and low-performing schools that will make them more attractive to our strongest teachers.”

The teachers and supervisors in the twenty-four turnaround schools cannot simply return to blaming each other, the kids or the neighborhood. They must strive to “build a culture of collaboration.”

If teachers believe that “status quo ante bellum” has returned they are sorely mistaken. The decision of the arbitrator is a reprieve, they have an opportunity to turnaround their own school, they must seize the day, or, the arbitrator’s decision will only delay the inevitable.


10 responses to “A Reprieve: Staffs in the Turnaround Schools Have a Year to Prove That Bloomberg/Walcott Were Wrong.

  1. No collaboration will overcome huge overcrowding w/ schools at 100% or over, class sizes at 30 or more, and large and disproportionate numbers of kids who are overage and way behind when they enter HS. The only thing that will improve results to the extent demanded by the mayor — which means four year graduation rates above average — is cheating on the data through credit recovery etc. By promulgating this line, you are buying into the arguments of those who want to blame poor results on the teachers and the admins at the schools, who are not given the tools they are needed to succeed.


    • Once the DOE began the process of centrally placing kids, the statistical game began. Want to close a facility and send the latest “darling” ( should I say hatchling) new school to use the building? Send the existing school needy, or dysfunctional, or group home, or IEP driven kids there, watch the school stats drop, declare the “failure” of that institution, and you are good to go with the new hatchling. In addition, by using the “new school loophole” (their stats are buried for a few years), the systems chiefs, like Nadelstern, look good for enough time to move on to another job. Bloomberg wanted to tilt the stats in his outgoing years– that’s what this blizzard of closings was to accomplish. If you want kids to each learn to his/her potential, you must devote the compensatory time for each child to remedy his educational issues, and stop the September to June railroad. As long as a student ultimately masters a subject, how long he takes should not be important, unless it’s not about education-but money!


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  4. Peter:

    I think you are wrong. These turnaround schools have become dumping grounds for the dysfunctional student that are not taken by the Bloomberg small schools and lack of resources, overcrowding, and poor management is a fact not an excuse.

    Effective teaching requires the proper tools to run a classroom and when these tools do not exist, no matter how collaborative the staff and students are, the result is very evident.


  5. I get tired of the buzz words “failing school”. Usually it means the author has stopped thinking before they began. There are indeed failing students and social-demographically, these are pretty much the same students identified in the Coleman Report in 1965. At our turnaround “failing school” the principal sent out teachers to report on New Dorp HS’s success in turning around that school. I was not entirely surprised that teachers returned with glowing reports of small academies, new scheduling and other reforms. What they all missed was that New Dorp has an entirely different student social-demographic than our school. New Dorp students are one third Asian, two thirds female, and 8% special ed with 30% of those physical. Our HS has 98% Black or Hispanic, less than one half female, and 18% special ed with only 5% of those physical. Not really the same student bodies. The whole educational reforms of the DOE, the charter school movement and even the Obama administration is to play “pass the potato” so they can claim an individual school’s success while the system as a whole does not change or gets worse. Indeed it’s similar to Wall Street’s sub-prime mortgage bubble and supported ideologically by the same folks. All very sad for the students who really need and deserve better but unfortunately I do not have space to detail the effective reforms that have been proven to work but are not being instituted. .


  6. Lehman had some great and caring teachers and strong departmental collaborative teams. Two new principals later and none of that matters; all they want is for us to jump through their hoops, with lousy results. Now with the ‘turnaround’, many of the good teachers left and many of the remaining good ones that wanted to stick it through to help were given rejection notices. How could this be a model for success? Five months? Stick a fork in it; it’s done now.


  7. Chaz and others.

    Some chools in the same peer group as the turnaround schools, i.e., schools with similar demographics, silimar numbers of spec ed, ELLs, etc., get better results. In my experience the difference is school leadership. Leaders who can harness the creativity and dedication of their staffs. Leadership texts would call it distributive leadership. In too many schools the leaders are slaves to data to the exclusion of actually leading both the staffs and the students, or, seek to lead with threat and intimidation.

    Once upon a time in the distant past a winning football coach became the principal … maybe we should revisit.


  8. Excellent article, which should be sent to all media outlets in NY. I am living proof of the points the writer put forth. There are many high schools that do not deserve to be closed. We are being phased out right now. The DOE ensured our fate by sending us students that other schools rejected. They were never dangerous, however. DOE orchestrates the.outcomes it wants.


  9. kab – the experiences of students in phaseout schools like yours need to be recorded. phaseoutschools.wordpress.com


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