Chancellor Carmen Fariña told the City Council's education committee on Monday that her year-old Renewal program for struggling schools is beginning to bear fruit. She said chronic absenteeism in the 94 schools is down by three percentage points.
"You can't learn if you're not there," she said, to emphasize the importance of attendance.
Schools in the Renewal program get an hour more instruction each day. They are also receiving holistic services that target the whole child, under what's called a Community School model. Each is paired with a community-based organization that can provide wraparound services such as social workers and enrichment activities, or even a food pantry if necessary.
Fariña said many of the Renewal schools have sent staff members to knock on families' doors, in order to encourage getting involved in their child's education and school activities. Some of the schools have English as a Second Language courses for adults along with GED classes, Zumba and yoga.
In addition, Department of Education staffers are visiting the buildings to ensure they have the right leaders and teachers for their students. The renewal schools tend to have higher than average populations of English Language Learners, students with special needs and children in temporary housing. The chancellor said each school has been partnered with a director who can provide support for instruction.
Fariña also reiterated her willingness to shake up leadership or even close a school if it doesn't meet academic benchmarks throughout the three-year Renewal program. She said she's already removed one principal.
"There's no way we're going to wait three years in schools that need more interventions or just aren't going to make it," she said, adding that her staff members are constantly looking at student performance.
Education Committee chairman Daniel Dromm noted that class sizes have not been reduced in 38 percent of the Renewal schools, according to the group Class Size Matters. Fariña said some schools have been able to provide students with more attention by adding more teachers to the classes.
Council members asked few hard questions. They largely support the Renewal program championed by Mayor Bill de Blasio. It marks a sharp break from former Mayor Michael Bloomberg's preference for closing struggling schools and replacing them with smaller new schools or charters. The city spent $150 million in the first year and has committed an additional $135 million for the next two years.
Some critics, including New York State Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch, have questioned whether the city is giving lagging schools too much time to show improvements. A recently released study by NYU researchers found validation for Bloomberg's approach.
The group Families for Excellent Schools, which consistently opposes de Blasio's reforms, said, "Today, the Chancellor was clearly unable to prove any academic progress in failing schools, more than a year after Mayor de Blasio first announced the Renewal Schools program."
However, one principal, Edgar Lin of M.S. 22 in the Bronx (which was visited by WNYC recently), told council members his school has met its math and English targets for special education and English Language Learner students. He also said his attendance rate shot up from 85 percent last year to more than 92 percent this year.
The Department of Education said the overall percentage of students in Renewal schools meeting the state’s bar for proficiency increased by 1.2 points in English and 0.6 percent in math, among the 63 out of 94 schools with testing grades.
Representatives from unions representing teachers and principals chimed in with their own support for the program. But the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, which represents the principals, said his union is working with the city to reduce the "plethora" of new accountability measures, because the schools are already on a state watch list. Seven of them could be taken over by an outside receiver, appointed by the state education department, if they don't make improvements by June.