meet the new bosses

City picks new leaders for two of its most troubled high schools: Boys and Girls and Automotive

Mayor Bill de Blasio spoke in 2015 with Automotive High School Principal Caterina Lafergola, who later left the school. Automotive is one of eight schools where teachers have had to reapply for their jobs in recent years.Now, teachers at two more schools will have to do the same. (Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)

A Bronx assistant principal will take over Brooklyn’s troubled Boys and Girls High School, officials said Monday, over the objections of some staffers and alumni who had rallied behind a different candidate.

Grecian Harrison, an assistant principal at Alfred E. Smith Career and Technical Education High School for the past 13 years, will become interim-acting principal of Boys and Girls, which has emerged as the face of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s high-stakes effort to revamp the city’s lowest performing schools. The school’s previous principal decided abruptly last month to leave less than two years after the city recruited him for the job.

Officials also announced Monday that Automotive High School, another long-struggling Brooklyn institution, will get a new principal: Kevin Bryant. Bryant currently runs Frances Perkins Academy, a tiny school that shares a building with Automotive but boasts a far higher graduation rate.

Automotive has faced setbacks similar to Boys and Girls: The state has labeled both schools “out of time” to make drastic improvements, and Automotive’s principal also recently left the flailing school. Both schools are part of de Blasio’s “Renewal” improvement program, which infuses low-performing schools with extra resources and classroom support.

“These are the right principals to continue the hard work of turning a school around,” Chancellor Carmen Fariña said in a statement. “I know they’ll be strong instructional leaders and support students, teachers, and families.”

The decision at Boys and Girls comes as a major disappointment to some staffers and alumni who had thrown their support behind Allison Farrington, the popular principal of a small high school housed inside Boys and Girls’ campus. Last month, representatives of Boys and Girls’ teachers, parents, and alumni signed a letter to Fariña backing Farrington and two other candidates — but not Harrison — and asking for a greater role in the selection process.

Beyond allowing them to submit their recommendations, the selection process had given those groups “no real voice in determining who the next principal will be for this historic educational institution,” the June 27 letter said. Ultimately, the city rejected their recommendations and opted for Harrison, who most recently oversaw the ninth grade, social studies department, and physical education at Smith.

On Saturday, Brooklyn City Councilman Robert Cornegy wrote Fariña asking her to postpone any announcement until she had reconsidered “the community’s request” to appoint Farrington. He added: “I believe it is grossly unfair to the BGHS community to select an instructional leader from outside the community,” according to the letter, which was obtained by Chalkbeat. (Cornegy’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but he has previously said he would be “pissed off” if he was not able to participate in the selection process.)

The education department’s hiring rules authorize superintendents to choose interim-acting principals, though the chancellor must approve them. After that, a committee of parents, students, and union representatives must have an opportunity to interview at least three principal candidates before the superintendent makes a final decision. In the case of Boys and Girls and Automotive, the city entered into an agreement with the teachers and principals unions that requires principal candidates at those schools to apply to an additional committee as well.

David Bloomfield, an education professor at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Grad Center, said it appeared the city had adhered to the rules and the agreement in appointing Harrison as an interim-acting principal. However, he said that by not discussing the decision ahead of time with people at the school, the department may have made it harder for Harrison to unify the school community around her.

“By acting in what appears to be a high-handed manner,” he said, “they are hobbling their own candidate.”

Education department spokeswoman Devora Kaye said Superintendent Michael Alcoff met with the Boys and Girls community before making his selection “to discuss how seriously he was taking this process,” and added that he will continue to meet with them.

Once the premier high school in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Boys and Girls has declined precipitously in recent years. Since 2010, its enrollment has plummeted by 85 percent, and its graduation rate remains 20 points below the city average.

Its previous principal, Michael Wiltshire, raised the school’s on-time graduation rate 8 points, to 50 percent, and sharply reduced the number of suspensions it gave out. Harrison now faces the daunting task of maintaining those gains while stabilizing the high-profile school, which shed three-quarters of its teachers last year.

“As a proud Brooklyn and Bed-Stuy native, I am committed to building on the progress and continuing to improve student achievement at Boys and Girls High School,” she said in a statement released by the education department.

Bryant faces a similar challenge. Automotive’s four-year graduation rate was even lower than Boys and Girls’ last year: 46 percent, compared to the city’s 70 percent average. It now serves just 380 students — only slightly more than Boys and Girls’ 340 — at a time when Fariña is closing or consolidating very small schools.

However, in a slight glimmer of hope, the state recently removed the school from its list of “persistently struggling” schools.

“I look forward to working to strengthen instruction, increase student support, and improve outcomes at Automotive High School,” Bryant said in a statement.

Frances Perkins’ graduation rate climbed from 46 to 73 percent under Bryant, officials said. His new role will be “master ambassador principal,” meaning he will continue to oversee some aspects of Frances Perkins even as he tries to revamp Automotive.

Wiltshire, the former Boys and Girls principal, held a similar role but struggled to simultaneously run two schools. In leaving Boys and Girls, he has returned to overseeing just one school.


Colorado schools are getting a major bump in the state’s 2018-19 budget

Students waiting to enter their sixth-grade classroom at Kearney Middle School in Commerce City. (Photo by Craig Walker, The Denver Post)

Colorado’s strong economy has opened the door for state lawmakers to send a major cash infusion to the state’s public schools.

As they finalized the recommended budget for 2018-19, the Joint Budget Committee set aside $150 million, an additional $50 million beyond what Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper had asked for, to increase funding to schools.

“We believe this is the most significant reduction in what used to be called the negative factor since it was born,” said state Rep. Millie Hamner, the Dillon Democrat who chairs the Joint Budget Committee.

Colorado’s constitution calls for per pupil spending to increase at least by inflation every year, but the state hasn’t been able to meet that obligation since the Great Recession. The amount by which schools get shorted, officially called the budget stabilization factor, is $822 million in 2017-18. Under state law, this number isn’t supposed to get bigger from one year to the next, but in recent years, it hasn’t gotten much smaller either. 

But a booming economy coupled with more capacity in the state budget created by a historic compromise on hospital funding last year means Colorado has a lot more money to spend this year. In their March forecast, legislative economists told lawmakers they have an extra $1.3 billion to spend or save in 2018-19.

The recommended shortfall for next year is now just $672.4 million. That would bring average per-pupil spending above $8,100, compared to $7,662 this year.

Total program spending on K-12 education, after the budget stabilization factor is deducted, should be a little more than $7 billion, with the state picking up about $4.5 billion and the rest coming from local property taxes.

The budget debate this year has featured Republicans pressing for more ongoing money for transportation and Democrats resisting in the interest of spreading more money around to other needs. The positive March forecast reduced much of that tension, as a $500 million allocation for transportation allowed a compromise on roads funding in the Republican-controlled Senate. That compromise still needs the approval of the Democratic-controlled House, but suddenly a lot of things are seeming possible.

“We knew we were going to have more revenue than we’ve ever had to work with,” Hamner said of the status at the beginning of the session. But that presented its own challenges, as so many interest groups and constituencies sought to address long-standing needs.

“The fact that we’ve been able to reach such incredible compromises on transportation and K-12 funding, I think most members will be very pleased with this outcome,” Hamner said. “Where we ended up is a pretty good place.”

The big outstanding issue is proposed reforms to the Public Employees Retirement Association or PERA fund to address unfunded liabilities. A bill that is likely to see significant changes in the House is wending its way through the process. The Joint Budget Committee has set aside $225 million to deal with costs associated with that fix, which has major implications for teachers and school districts budgets.

The Joint Budget Committee has also set aside $30 million for rural schools, $10 million for programs to address teacher shortages, and $7 million for school safety grants.

The budget will be introduced in the House on Monday. Many of the school funding elements will appear in a separate school finance bill.

Going forward, there is a question about how sustainable these higher funding levels will be.

“It does put more pressure on the general fund,” Hamner said. “If we see a downturn in the economy, it’s going to be a challenge.”

outside the box

Program to bring back dropout students is one of 10 new ideas Jeffco is investing in

File photo of Wheat Ridge High School students. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Jeffco students who drop out will have another option for completing high school starting this fall, thanks to a program that is being started with money from a district “innovation fund.”

The new program would allow students, particularly those who are older and significantly behind on credits, to get district help to prepare for taking a high school equivalency test, such as the GED, while also taking college courses paid for by the district.

The idea for the program was pitched by Dave Kollar, who has worked for Jeffco Public Schools for almost 20 years, most recently as the district’s director of student engagement.

In part, Kollar’s idea is meant to give students hope and to allow them to see college as a possibility, instead of having to slowly walk back as they recover credits missing in their transcripts.

“For some kids, they look at you, and rightfully so, like ‘I’m going to be filling in holes for a year or two? This doesn’t seem realistic,’” Kollar said. “They’re kind of defeated by that. As a student, I’m constantly looking backwards at my failures. This is about giving kids something like a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Jeffco’s dropout rate has decreased in the last few years, like it has across the state. At 1.7 percent, the rate isn’t high, but still represents 731 students who dropped out last year.

Kollar’s was one of ten winning ideas announced earlier this month in the district’s first run at giving out mini-grants to kick-start innovative ideas. Kollar’s idea received $160,000 to get the program started and to recruit students who have dropped out and are willing to come back to school.

The other ideas that the district gave money to range from school building improvements to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act at Fletcher Miller Special School, from new school health centers to a new district position to help work on safety in schools. One school, Stott Elementary, will create a “tinker lab” where students will have space and supplies to work on projects as part of the school’s project-based learning model.

The Jeffco school board approved $1 million for the awards earlier this year. It was an idea proposed by Superintendent Jason Glass as a way of encouraging innovation in the district. This spring process is meant as a test run. The board will decide whether to continue investing in it once they see how the projects are going later this spring.

Officials say they learned a lot already. Tom McDermott, who oversaw the process, will present findings and recommendations to the board at a meeting next month.

If the board agrees to continue the innovation fund, McDermott wants to find different ways of supporting more of the ideas that educators present, even if there aren’t dollars for all of them.

That’s because in this first process — even though educators had short notice — teachers and other Jeffco staff still completed and submitted more than 100 proposals. Of those, 51 ideas scored high enough to move to the second round of the process in which the applicants were invited to pitch their ideas to a committee made up of Jeffco educators.

“We’re extremely proud of the 10,” McDermott said, but added, “we want to be more supportive of more of the ideas.”

McDermott said he thinks another positive change might be to create tiers so that smaller requests compete with each other in one category, and larger or broader asks compete with one another in a separate category.

This year, the applicants also had a chance to request money over time, but those parts of the awards hang on the board allocating more money.

Kollar’s idea for the GED preparation program for instance, includes a request for $348,800 next year. In total, among the 10 awards already granted, an extra $601,487 would be needed to fund the projects in full over the next two years.

Awards for innovation fund. Provided by Jeffco Public Schools.

The projects are not meant to be sustained by the award in the long-term, and some are one-time asks.

Kollar said that if that second phase of money doesn’t come through for his program, it should still be able to move forward. School districts are funded per student, so by bringing more students back to the district, the program would at least get the district’s student-based budget based on however many students are enrolled.

A similar program started in Greeley this fall is funded with those dollars the state allocates to districts for each student. So far, eight students there already completed a GED certificate, and there are now 102 other students enrolled, according to a spokeswoman for the Greeley-Evans school district.

But, having Jeffco’s innovation money could help Kollar’s program provide additional services to the students, such as a case manager that can help connect students to food or housing resources if needed.

And right now Kollar is working on setting up systems to track data around how many students end up completing the program, earning a high school equivalency certificate, enrolling in a college or trade-school, or getting jobs.

Helping more students on a path toward a career is the gold standard, he said, and what makes the program innovative.

“It’s not just about if the student completes high school,” Kollar said. “It’s are we making sure we are intentionally bridging them into whatever the next pathway is?”