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Restart or Reflux?

May 22, 2011

By Carol Boyd

Last week the New York City Department of Education (DoE) announced the names of the 22 persistently low achieving (PLA) schools chosen to implement Restart, one of the four models authorized under the federal School Improvement Grants (SIG) guidelines. Schools that are selected for Restart are eligible to receive up to  $2 million per year in SIG funds for a period of three years.  Under the Restart model, schools will be under the management of education partner organizations (EPOs). If done well, Restart could be a real opportunity for struggling schools to finally get the guidance and supports they have needed for  years. Unfortunately, thus far the Restart process looks more like a recipe for failure.

On Thursday May 19th, representatives of the DoE met at Brooklyn Borough Hall to brief potential bidders for the EPO awards about the Restart process (link to audio recording here). It is common knowledge that turning around the lowest-performing schools is one of the most challenging endeavors in public education, and cannot be successful without-depth planning, consensus-building and research. However, in typical “haste makes waste” fashion, the DoE intends to have bidders submit their proposals by next Friday, May 27th. The DOE plans to notify vendors within 2 weeks of their submittals, or by June 10th. According to the Request for Proposals, EPOs will begin delivering services on July 1st, and when the new school year begins in September, the three-year clock for transformation of these schools will be ticking. At this breakneck pace – almost entirely over the summer when parents, students, teachers and other staff are mostly out of contact with each other – EPOs cannot build the strong foundation for change that these schools need. Given the severe reductions in State funding for NYC schools, many feel that Restart is not a genuine school improvement effort, but a cash cow that will used to plug holes in the City’s impending deeply reduced education budget without creating sustainable school transformation.

Historically, the Restart or conversion process has involved turning a district public school into a charter school.  The 22 Restart schools will remain district public schools and the law requires that EPOs be not-for-profit organizations (although representatives from Touro College and publishing giant Houghton-Mifflin were in attendance at the vendor meeting). The DOE claims there is “no current success model” in existence for implementing this type of school restart. In fact, while the federal Restart model is extremely new, there are non-profit organizations in New York City and nationally (such as Strategic Learning Initiatives in Chicago) — as well as districts like Charlotte-Mecklenberg, NC — that are trying school turnaround with some success. With the right central coordination and support, these models could be replicated in New York City.

Parents, students and staff at the PLA schools who are wondering who their EPO will be will have to wait. Until official award notification, bidders are under a “gag order” and must abstain from contact with the designated Restart schools.  This restriction might be seen as a justifiable means of thwarting insider trading, except that some of the prospective bidders, such as New Visions for Public Schools, currently are school support organizations.

Given the inordinate number of proposed teacher layoffs and the ending of school on June 28th for students and most staff, who will assist schools with the selection of their “perfect match” EPOs?  Will school leaders be forced to fly solo hoping for a fistful of dollars to salvage the academic futures of their students?  Will the EPOs be chosen solely by school principals who the EPO may then replace? The DoE is once again forging ahead in the absence of a viable plan, and as parents and the public have stated numerous times in the past “failure to plan is a plan to fail”.  Last year, scores of parents and elected officials gathered on the steps of Tweed Courthouse to proclaim that our schools were in a state of distress and desperately needed a comprehensive plan for improvement, a coherent effort to Save Our Schools (SOS). But the DOE’s notion of S.O.S. continues to be “same old stuff”.

Earlier this week, new schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott referred to the recent second filing of a lawsuit by the NAACP, UFT and others as a shame and a disservice to the city’s students. The real shame is the continued perpetuation of the myth that real school reform is happening in our schools.  As many of the t-shirts worn by participants at last week’s May 12 rally proclaimed: “ Education mayor, really?”  No wonder that so many of our children think that dropping out and copping out are the basis for creating a legacy.

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