revolving door

Three years in, more than half of principals in New York City’s turnaround program have quit or been replaced

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Boys and Girls High School has seen two principals depart since the Renewal program started.

Nearly 60 percent of schools in Mayor Bill de Blasio’s signature school-improvement program have undergone leadership changes since the program started, according to city data, significantly higher than the 35 percent citywide turnover rate over the same period.

Some of that turnover is intentional: Because de Blasio has opted to revive struggling schools rather than replace them with new ones, a key improvement strategy is to change their leadership. It’s also crucial to have strong leaders running schools in the $383 million “Renewal” program since the job requires coordinating the longer school days, new classroom materials and partnerships with social-service providers that come with it.

But leadership churn can also cause problems. Research suggests it can be especially harmful to low-performing schools, contributing to higher rates of teacher turnover and lower student achievement.

At the same time, the pressure of turning around a low-achieving school on a tight timeline has prompted some principals to leave the system on their own accord, leaving vacancies that can be hard to fill.

“If you think that the leader of a school is not effective then you have to replace them,” said Jason Grissom, a researcher at Vanderbilt University who has studied principal turnover in multiple states. “But then you’ve created a turnover event which can have downsides in the short term. It’s tough for a district.”

Of the 78 current Renewal schools, 45 have seen at least one leadership change — including ten with new principals this fall.

Aimee Horowitz, the superintendent in charge of the Renewal program, said she is not concerned about the rate of leadership turnover, adding that local superintendents weigh their options carefully when replacing principals.

“That’s always a balancing test,” Horowitz said. “We have to think about whether the new principal is more likely to impact change than the principal who is leaving.”

City officials would not say how many Renewal principals were replaced because their superintendents determined they were ineffective compared with the number who retired or quit for other reasons. But regardless of why principals ultimately leave, the education department must convince new leaders to take their place, running schools that are under intense pressure to improve.

At times, the city has resorted to unorthodox staffing arrangements to fill principal vacancies in Renewal schools with leaders they believe will be successful. In one unusual example, the education department coaxed a principal to run Boys and Girls High School, a Renewal school, without giving up his post running a separate higher-performing school — an arrangement that later fell apart.

But as the Renewal program has become more established, Horowitz said, it has been easier to find principals to take on the demanding role partly because word has spread that those schools get extra funding, social services, and support staff.

Several new Renewal principals previously were Renewal program staffers, though Horowitz declined to offer a number.

“We’re past the point of having to convince people to take the position at Renewal schools,” she said. “They’re aware that they’ll be supported.”

Principal Geralda Valcin said she was excited to begin leading a Renewal school, despite the tough task of steering the school back on track. About a year and a half ago, she took over the Coalition School for Social Change in Harlem — which had one of the highest dropout rates in the city — after completing the city’s now-shuttered Leadership Academy training program.

One of the biggest challenges, she said, was raising expectations of teachers and convincing veteran educators who had “been doing the same thing the same way” to adopt new teaching methods.

“I felt like I was stepping into a situation where my predecessor and I had different views,” she said. “You have to take what’s working and figure out the rest.”

Finding effective principals to run the city’s lowest-performing schools has been a persistent challenge.

Under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the education department closed many lower-performing schools, and tried to entice talented leaders — sometimes with offers of salary bumps — to open new small schools where they could start from scratch and hire new teachers.

To create a pipeline of principals, that administration also launched the Leadership Academy, a fast-track training program to funnel leaders from various fields into high-need schools with the promise that they would have lots of freedom in choosing how to run their schools.

Still, the Leadership Academy only ever met a fraction of demand, and officials later stepped back from the practice of offering bonuses, finding that it did not seem to draw more effective leaders.

Under Mayor Bill de Blasio, the city has ratcheted up the amount of experience required to become a principal, and has eschewed the school closures and new school openings that gave principals a chance to start fresh. Instead, the city has bet on giving existing schools more resources and principals more specific instructions on how to revamp floundering schools.

Marc Sternberg, a former deputy chancellor in the Bloomberg administration who previously ran a struggling school in the Bronx, said it is hard to improve troubled schools if their leaders leave quickly or have limited autonomy.

“We are asking some very courageous people to do an impossible job,” said Sternberg, the director of K-12 education for the Walton Family Foundation. (Walton is one of Chalkbeat’s funders.)

“Throw in principal turnover — where the vision-keeper is rotating,” he added, “and you’ve got the inevitable confusion and slippage that that generates.”

Still, some teachers in Renewal schools said principal transitions have brought positive changes.

At J.H.S. 8 in Queens, also called New Preparatory Middle School, one veteran educator said the school’s former principal was disorganized, sometimes sprang new programs on teachers at the last minute, and at one point used a rotating cast of long-term substitutes instead of hiring new teachers. (The former principal did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)

But after assistant principal Katiana Louissaint took the helm this fall, morale started improving, said the teacher, who asked to remain anonymous. After a recent round of parent-teacher conferences, teachers stuck around to chat with each other, a rarity under the former principal.

“At the end of the night,” the educator said, “the teachers weren’t running for the door.”

pushing back

State’s most drastic school intervention plans won’t work, say Memphis board members

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Shelby County Schools board member Stephanie Love

School board members in Memphis are pushing back on the state’s plan to intervene in two low-performing schools.

In their first public discussion of an intervention plan outlined this month by the Tennessee Department of Education, members of Shelby County’s board of education said they aren’t convinced the most drastic recommendations will work for Hawkins Mill Elementary and American Way Middle schools.

The state has recommended closing Hawkins Mill because of its low enrollment and poor academic performance. American Way is on the state’s track either for takeover by Tennessee’s Achievement School District or transfer to a charter organization chosen by Shelby County Schools beginning in the fall of 2019.

But school board members said they’d rather move both schools to the Innovation Zone, a turnaround program run by the local district which has had some success since launching in 2012.

And Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said he wants to keep Hawkins Mill open because the Frayser school is in its first year under his “critical focus” plan to invest in struggling schools instead of just closing them.

“I would prefer to stay the course,” he told board members Tuesday evening. “I don’t think the board should be forced to close something by the state.”

Whether local school leaders can make that call is up for debate, though.

The intervention plan is the first rolled out under Tennessee’s new tiered school improvement model created in response to a 2015 federal education law. State officials say it’s designed for more collaboration between state and local leaders in making school improvement decisions, with the state education commissioner ultimately making the call.

But Rodney Moore, the district’s chief lawyer, said the state does not have the authority to close a school if the board votes to keep it open.

Both Hawkins Mill and American Way are on the state’s most intensive track for intervention. The state’s plan includes 19 other Memphis schools, too, with varying levels of state involvement, but only Hawkins Mill and American Way sparked discussion during the board’s work session.

Until this year, Hawkins Mill was one of the few schools in the Frayser community that hadn’t been under a major improvement plan in the last decade — unlike the state-run, charter, and iZone schools that surround it. But last year, Hopson’s “critical focus” plan set aside additional resources for Hawkins Mill and 18 other struggling schools and set a three-year deadline to turn themselves around or face possible closure.

School board members Stephanie Love, whose district includes Hawkins Mill, said that timeline needs to play out. “I am in no support of closing down Hawkins Mill Elementary,” she said. “We have what it takes to fully educate our children.”

PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier
Protests over the state takeover of American Way Middle School in 2014, which is in Rep. Raumesh Akbari’s district in Memphis, motivated her to file legislation designed to limit the power of the state’s Achievement School District.

American Way Middle has been on the radar of local and state officials for some time. In 2014, the state explored moving it to the ASD, but that didn’t happen because the southeast Memphis school had higher-than-average growth on student test scores. American Way has not kept up that high growth, however, and Chief of Schools Sharon Griffin considered it last year for the iZone.

Board member Miska Clay Bibbs, whose district includes American Way, was opposed to both of the state’s intervention options.

“What you’re suggesting is something that’s not working,” Bibbs said of the ASD’s track record of school turnaround based on its charter-driven model.

Bibbs added that any improvement plan for American Way must be comprehensive and offered up a resolution for consideration next week to move the school into the iZone next school year.

“We can no longer be: change a principal, tack on an extra hour. It has to be a holistic approach,” she said, adding that feeder patterns of schools should be part of the process.

Turnaround 2.0

McQueen outlines state intervention plans for 21 Memphis schools

PHOTO: TN.gov
Candice McQueen has been Tennessee's education commissioner since 2015 and oversaw the restructure of its school improvement model in 2017.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has identified 21 Memphis schools in need of state intervention after months of school visits and talks with top leaders in Shelby County Schools.

In its first intervention plan under the state’s new school improvement model, the Department of Education has placed American Way Middle School on track either for state takeover by the Achievement School District or conversion to a charter school by Shelby County Schools.

The state also is recommending closure of Hawkins Mill Elementary School.

And 19 other low-performing schools would stay under local control, with the state actively monitoring their progress or collaborating with the district to design improvement plans. Fourteen are already part of the Innovation Zone, the Memphis district’s highly regarded turnaround program now in its sixth year.

McQueen outlined the “intervention tracks” for all 21 Memphis schools in a Feb. 5 letter to Superintendent Dorsey Hopson that was obtained by Chalkbeat.

Almost all of the schools are expected to make this fall’s “priority list” of Tennessee’s 5 percent of lowest-performing schools. McQueen said the intervention tracks will be reassessed at that time.

McQueen’s letter offers the first look at how the state is pursuing turnaround plans under its new tiered model of school improvement, which is launching this year in response to a new federal education law.

The commissioner also sent letters outlining intervention tracks to superintendents in Nashville, Chattanooga, Knoxville, and Jackson, all of which are home to priority schools.

Under its new model, Tennessee is seeking to collaborate more with local districts to develop improvement plans, instead of just taking over struggling schools and assigning them to charter operators under the oversight of the state-run Achievement School District. However, the ASD, which now oversees 29 Memphis schools, remains an intervention of last resort.

McQueen identified the following eight schools to undergo a “rigorous school improvement planning process,” in collaboration between the state and Shelby County Schools. Any resulting interventions will be led by the local district.

  • A.B. Hill Elementary
  • A. Maceo Walker Middle
  • Douglass High
  • Georgian Hills Middle
  • Grandview Heights Middle
  • Holmes Road Elementary
  • LaRose Elementary
  • Sheffield Elementary
  • Wooddale High

These next six iZone schools must work with the state “to ensure that (their) plan for intervention is appropriate based on identified need and level of evidence.”

  • Sheffield Elementary
  • Raleigh-Egypt High
  • Lucie E. Campbell Elementary
  • Melrose High
  • Sherwood Middle
  • Westwood High

The five schools below will continue their current intervention plan within the iZone and must provide progress reports to the state:

  • Hamilton High
  • Riverview Middle
  • Geeter Middle
  • Magnolia Elementary
  • Trezevant High

The school board is expected to discuss the state’s plan during its work session next Tuesday. And if early reaction from board member Stephanie Love is any indication, the discussion will be robust.

“We have what it takes to improve our schools,” Love told Chalkbeat on Friday. “I think what they need to do is let our educators do the work and not put them in the situation where they don’t know what will happen from year to year.”

Among questions expected to be raised is whether McQueen’s recommendation to close Hawkins Mill can be carried out without school board approval, since her letter says that schools on the most rigorous intervention track “will implement a specific intervention as determined by the Commissioner.”

Another question is why the state’s plan includes three schools — Douglass High, Sherwood Middle, and Lucie E. Campbell Elementary — that improved enough last year to move off of the state’s warning list of the 10 percent of lowest-performing schools.

You can read McQueen’s letter to Hopson below: