Yasmeen Khan is a reporter covering education. You can find her stories on the air and on SchoolBook.org, WNYC’s education website.
After being caught in a dispute between the Bloomberg administration and the teachers' and principals' unions this summer, two dozen struggling schools are trying to move forward.
"We're turning things around," said Robin Kovat, a social studies and law teacher at Sheepshead Bay High School in Brooklyn. "But the perception - I don't know how to turn that around."
The city targeted the schools for closure in an effort to reopen them with new names and to replace many of the teachers and principals. The city planned to use this "turnaround" model to secure $30 million in school improvement grants.
The unions sued the city, saying the plan violated their contracts. A judge sided with the unions, but the city had already put their plans into motion, asking some 3,000 teachers to reapply for their jobs, hiring only some of them back, and then eventually having to tell all the teachers that they were, in fact, entitled to their old positions.
Kovat, who lives in the same neighborhood as the high school, said parents of current students and incoming ninth graders came up to her frequently during the summer, crying, to ask about the fate of the school. Many, she said, felt that their children would not be able to get a good education at Sheepshead Bay.
"The fact that the school had failing statistics, everybody printed that," she said of the press coverage. "How can you turn something around when nobody is talking about any successes?"
Kovat noted that the school earned recent accolades in a moot court and mock trial competition, a citywide research proposal competition and a stock market competition.
Still, the school received a "D" in all categories of its most recent city progress report, including student progress, student performance and school environment. Like the other 23 schools on the city's list for closure this summer, Sheepshead Bay is also on the state's list of "priority" schools, meaning it ranks in the bottom five percent of schools in the state when it comes to graduation rates and test scores.
There is intense pressure, Kovat says, to change those outcomes.
The school is working with the non-profit education group Diplomas Now, which offers teacher training and coaching, provides curricula that accelerate reading and math and helps make structural changes in the school, such as dividing students and teachers into "small learning communities" that each have a different academic focus.
Matt Wernsdorfer, a member of the Diplomas Now "implementation support team", said the organization also provides direct services in the form of tutoring and mentoring by City Year members. City Year is a non-profit that brings college-age mentors into needy schools.
City education officials say they plan to release an update on the 24 schools in October, including staffing changes, enrollment projections and details of the new directions the schools are taking. They also note that some of the schools will have a Quality Review as soon as this fall, in order to identify how they are struggling. The Quality Review is another evaluation of how well the school supports student achievement, and the education department considers the review when proposing schools to close each year.
In an effort to set the schools on a new course quickly, all 24 schools are getting extra city money though not as much as the $30 million they may have received in school improvement grants. The schools are now sharing $18.2 million. Each school gets a base amount of $500,000, plus more funds based on the schools' enrollment.
At Alfred E. Smith Career and Technical Education High School, Evan Schwartz, the school's new principal, is using the extra funds to help pay for professional development for teachers, an advisory program for ninth and tenth grade students and after-school and summer programs for students to finish automotive coursework.
Schwartz, who took over as principal in August after nine years at the Bronx School of Law and Finance, said many students take extra classes to try to earn national certification in automotive technology. That has sometimes happened at the expense of students passing core subjects, he said, and the school's graduation rate has suffered.
Enrollment has dropped at the school to about 500 students, down from about 650 last year, Schwartz said. The lower enrollment has also led to a smaller school staff. Some teachers left for different positions, and he excessed three teachers. But Schwartz says he has a plan.
"I created four keys of success for this school," he said.
First, improve instruction. Second, identify students who are over-age and under-credited, and help them find better settings.
"There are tons of alternative schools and transfer schools and G.E.D. programs that would better serve these students," Schwartz said, adding that he has some registered 21-year-old students who have yet to show up to school this year.
Third, Schwartz's plan is to aggressively recruit strong students "to get the word out that Alfred E. Smith is back."
Fourth, revive the spirit of the school.
"This school has a rich, rich history and a history of success," he said. "And we need to capture that and bring that back."