The de Blasio administration will end the Department of Education’s controversial Renewal program aimed at reforming struggling schools and shift to a more-decentralized effort, a change one education expert was cautiously optimistic about.
Though 94 schools participated in the $773-million initiative when it launched in 2014, just 21 have seen enough progress in areas such as graduation rates, college readiness, attendance and test scores to be phased out of the program and designated as “Rise” schools. Nine schools have merged, and 14 have closed.
Grads Up, Structure Skewed
In a report on the decision to end the program, the DOE highlighted a sharp increase in the average graduation rate (from 52 to 72 percent) and halving the number of suspensions at Renewal schools. But it also revealed weaknesses in the plan’s design, including the fact that Principals had to report to both the Office of Renewal Schools and District Superintendents, often resulting in conflicting demands and frustration.
“I am convinced it was the right road to go down, and I’m convinced now that we have a structure that can continue to take the lessons we learned and act on them,” the Mayor said at a Feb. 26 press conference.
The Renewal program also, he noted, put an end to the Bloomberg administration’s practice of closing failing schools and replacing them with smaller schools.
“When you look at what happened before, the previous policy was destructive,” Mr. de Blasio said. “It was a policy to close first, and ask questions later, and a lot of schools got closed, and it cost tremendous disruption in communities. A lot of kids suffered because they were left in the transitional years without support.”
The de Blasio administration has faced criticism from some education advocates who believed the initiative wasn’t doing enough to transform failing schools.
Some Beyond Salvation
The Mayor admitted that the DOE knew that the program might not save every school. “Some schools had gotten to a point where even with investment it could not be turned around,” he said. “They's either gotten too small or there were reputational problems, but we are not shocked, unfortunately, that by the time this administration came in and tried to engage some of these schools, some of them were at a point where a good-faith effort just wasn’t going to be enough.”
On the other hand, parents and staff who advocated for Renewal schools that have been shuttered argued that the de Blasio administration did not give them enough time to make progress, pointing to research showing that turnaround efforts take five years to be effective.
David Bloomfield, a Professor of Educational Leadership, Law, and Policy at Brooklyn College, said that the writing had been on the wall for a while for the troubled program.
'Elements OK, But...'
“It was a political solution to an instructional problem,” he said during a phone interview. “The individual elements of Renewal weren’t bad, they just weren’t enough.”
Mr. Bloomfield pointed to key gaps in the initiative, including the fact that it didn’t change enrollment standards or address class sizes.
Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza, who restructured the DOE to address some of the bureaucratic problems affecting the program a few months after he stepped into the position last year, noted that the agency did not always step in quickly to address administration problems at Renewal schools.
“Quite frankly, some schools didn’t have the right leader,” he said at the press event. “This is no way something negative against the Principals that were in place, but not every Principal is a turnaround Principal, and not every Principal can be in any particular school. You have to match the skill set with the needs of the community, with the needs of the school, and the job at hand.”
Came With a Stigma
The Mayor and Schools Chancellor also noted that the stigma of being labeled a Renewal deterred some students from attending these schools.
The DOE will shift to what it is calling a “Comprehensive School Support” strategy, which will continue supporting the 71 remaining Renewal and Rise schools and an additional 124 schools with increased professional development and investments in restorative justice practices.
“Instead of a centralized team that does Renewals, or designating schools as Renewals, we’re going to deal with schools within their district,” Mr. de Blasio explained.
Council of School Supervisors and Administrators President Mike Cannizzaro said that the union planned to work closely with the DOE to develop new turnaround approaches. “There is much to learn from schools within the Renewal program. The practices that led to successful turnaround should be closely analyzed and, where appropriate, duplicated in underserved schools,” he said.
Mr. Bloomfield believed that the new strategy could help. “It’s possible that if elements of Renewal are enhanced under Comprehensive School Support, it could be successful,” he said.
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