Between State-City Tensions Lie Plans to Improve Schools

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A New York Times article on Wednesday reports on the tension between City Hall and the state's top education officials, centered on the sharp criticism by the Board of Regents chancellor, Merryl H. Tisch, over some of the city's policies.

One of the main flash points between the city and the state has been the way the city was spending the $60 million in federal grants that are meant to help turn around 44 of its struggling schools. Earlier this month, Dr. Tisch questioned whether the city was spending the money wisely. In fact, she has indicated that some of it, at least, may have gone to waste.

"Many of these schools stand to gain $6 million over the course of three years," she said in a recent interview. "Clearly how that money flows, when it flows and to who it flows is a really very significant, significant part of how we make our plans. We cannot be in a position where we send good money after bad."

Dr. Tisch said she wanted sound educational plans that would change the culture of the schools. Her views are much like those of critics who claim the Bloomberg administration's push to open hundreds of small new schools has had a negative impact on large comprehensive high schools. She said many of these schools were now "warehouses" of low-performing and special education pupils.

"Certainly the pattern for failure was set through, I think, questionable enrollment procedures," she said. "And I believe that the city has said to us that they are addressing the enrollment procedures, they share our concerns about the money being used well and they expect to get back to us quickly."

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and the schools chancellor, Dennis M. Walcott, rebutted Dr. Tisch’s criticisms, with Mr. Walcott saying that "no one has done more to close warehouse-style schools and drop-out factories than the Bloomberg administration."

But the underlying issue remains: what is the city doing with the $60 million? Will money alone provide what it takes to turn around schools where just about half of the students graduate on time, and where very few among them are considered to be ready for college once they graduate?

The city has a plan to help the 44 troubled schools, which is spelled out in a 2,300 page document approved by the state. The schools are using two different change models. One is called transformation, which typically involves a longer school day and more professional development, and may involve replacing the principal and part of the school's staff.

The other one is called restart, and involves bringing in an outside educational organization to run the school.

One of the things that has troubled Dr. Tisch is that some of these organizations have yet to sign the formal agreements that would give them control of the schools. The Education Department says these educational partners are working with the schools in the interim.

She and the state's education commissioner, John B. King, visited two of these schools last month: Automotive High School in Queens and Washington Irving High School in Manhattan.

Washington Irving is using the transformation model. Its principal is staying put; city officials have said that although he has only been there two years, he has already made improvements. The school's share of the federal grant this year is $1.2 million.

According to plans approved by the state, Washington Irving will spend $100,000 over three years on professional development -- in other words, additional training -- for its teachers, working with some of the same groups that trained teachers at another transformation school, Chelsea Career and Technical Education High School, which made progress this year.

The school will spend $147,000 to extend the school day and offer literacy coaching for immigrant students who are not proficient in English, as well as those who receive special education services, through a program called High Schools That Work. There is also $142,000 set aside over three years to boost the salaries of two master teachers, one in math and one in English. Washington Irving got an F on its latest progress report and fewer than half its students graduate on time.

Automotive High School, for its part, is a restart that has taken on a partnership with New Visions for Public Schools. It has a new interim-acting principal who will report to New Visions. According to the state plans, it will "conduct an audit of existing instructional, discipline, operations and pedagogic systems present at Automotive High School together with past and existing reform strategies."

Automotive will work with the group Turnaround for Children on behavior and discipline. Its grant is for $950,000 this year, and these improvements are supposed to be more dramatic than those taken last year, when Automotive was a transformation school. Its four-year graduation rate is about 54 percent.

Dr. Tisch, in her comments, also wondered whether it made sense to give some of the federal money to schools the city may close for poor performance.

Washington Irving is one of them. The others are Herbert H. Lehman High School and Grace Dodge Career and Technical Education High School, which are both in the Bronx and just began receiving the grants this fall.

"I believe that we should not be sending money into any school that was put on the list for closure," she said. "I think the city could find better use for the money in schools that they don't intend to close."

The city has yet to make any decision about closing the struggling schools.

Dr. King, the state's education commissioner, told the Daily News editorial board that he would consider sending the money back to the federal government if there wasn't a good plan for the schools.