At a Williamsburg high school, Mayor Bill de Blasio touted progress in education and asked Albany legislators to renew mayoral control of New York City schools so he could have the opportunity to implement his education plan.
That plan, according to de Blasio, would give schools identified as failing three years to move in the right direction. After that three-year period, they would be closed.
“We believe in helping individuals reach their potential,” de Blasio said at Automotive High School last week. “We believe in helping schools reach their potential.”
To reach that potential, de Blasio pointed to his “Renewal School” initiative, exemplified here by Automotive High School, one of 94 such schools participating in the program.
The renewal program brings in new leadership to refocus a failing school and adds different initiatives, sometimes including an extra period of instruction, more afterschool care and programs, summer school programs, new and expanded career and technical offerings and having every teacher reapply for his or her position.
The final initiative is an attempt to weed out teachers who don’t belong in the profession or teaching in New York City.
“These teachers want to teach the toughest to reach kids,” de Blasio said. “A lot of our educators walk towards the toughest challenges.”
Since de Blasio has taken office, 309 teachers that the administration feels don’t belong have been moved out of the city or into other professions.
“Only the best need apply,” is the mantra for the administration.
Automotive High School, once called a “warehouse” for failing students, is one of those 94 schools looking to bring in strong leadership and make sure all of the teachers and administrative staff are working on the same page.
The school has expanded their afterschool programs, added an additional period of instruction, created more summer school classes and added new career and technical classes in law.
It’s given students like Joshua Harding, once nicknamed “Trouble” and now headed to college in a few months, a chance and environment to thrive. Harding said before the changes the school was more about gangs - which he admittedly had a problem with as a freshman – than it was about learning, but new Principal Caterina Lafergola made significant changes.
“Principal Lafergola made some changes that improved the environment both inside and outside,” he said.
Those changes included afterschool programs like football and boxing, Saturday school and a counseling program called Rites of Passage.
“Through Rites of Passage, a select group of students and I connect with a male mentor who supported us academically, as well with issues we face as young men of color,” said Harding.
These programs made a huge difference for Harding, who will attend Virginia Union University in the fall as a biology major.
“I never had a group of administrators that cared for me,” Harding said. “I was on the road to failure. I did not see myself where I am now a few years ago.“
Since the school became part of the program, the number of juniors and seniors on the track to graduate has jumped 11 percent, attendance has risen 83 percent to the highest it's been in a decade, gang activity and violent incidents are down, and more parents are engaged.
This is part of the greater strategy by the de Blasio administration and Schools Chancellor Carmen Farina to invest in public education.
“We want to strengthen our traditional public schools,” de Blasio said.
Farina said that extending mayoral control of the schools and letting de Blasio implement his plan, instead of closing failing schools, is the best thing for students like Harding.
“When you close a school, men like Joshua have to start the cycle all over again,” Farina said. “When you use the word renewal, it means very simply that you’re starting fresh.”
The $150 million Renewal Program was launched in November and is overseen by Aimee Horowitz. Since the launch, 54 schools have added extra instructional time and academic intervention teams have been deployed to overhaul curriculum and course offerings.
This spring, every Renewal School will begin its transformation into a community school to “help overcome barriers to learning with counseling, mental health and family supports,” according to a release from the mayor's office.
The reaction has not all been positive however, as a group called Families for Excellent Schools says a federal school improvement grant is to thank for Automotive High School’s success, not the Renewal Program.
"If Mayor de Blasio wants to tout progress his schools have made under the Renewal Schools program, he should not stage his events at 'out of time' schools and mislead New Yorkers,” Jeremiah Kitterage, chief executive officer of Families for Excellent Schools said.
Should New York State renewal mayoral control of city schools?