The real impact of being named a failing school will become clear next Monday.
The Board of Regents plans to vote on regulations governing failing schools — which includes two elementary schools in Schenectady, a school in Amsterdam, and schools in Albany and Troy.
Schools get onto the failing list when students perform poorly on the state standardized tests. The test scores must be in the bottom 5 percent of schools in the state, with no improvement, or the school had graduation rates below 60 percent for the past three years.
A new state law passed this year says those schools can be taken over by a receiver if they don’t improve within two years. Schools that are “persistently” failing must improve within one year to avoid a receivership. But the law left many questions. The Regents will decide what counts as enough improvement to avoid a receivership and what powers the receivers will hold.
The state Education Department has received so much feedback on its original draft regulations that it plans to propose revisions for Monday’s meeting, according to spokeswoman Jeanne Beattie.
“Recently, for example, over 100 individuals participated in a session on the draft regulations hosted by the department,” Beattie said. “As a result of the feedback, department staff expect to offer revisions to the regulations for consideration by the Regents in June. But it would be premature to speculate on the regulations’ details at this time.”
In the draft, the regulations appear to give Amsterdam a break, school officials said. Tecler Arts in Education Magnet School has been labeled by the state as “failing,” but the school’s improvements in recent years are already enough to keep it from going into receivership, Superintendent Thomas Perillo said.
“We are not on their radar for receivership, because of the significant gains the building has made in recent years,” he said.
Perillo was also pleased that the draft regulations include new powers for superintendents.
“I think that’s a good start,” he said.
Superintendents of failing schools would have the same powers as a receiver in the one to two years prior to a receivership. Those powers could include overruling the school board — on any topic except their own employment contract — and firing up to half of the staff.
But the power to terminate so many teachers is worrying the Alliance for Quality Education. The Alliance is a coalition of parents, community members and grassroots organizers that lobby for smaller class sizes, more school funding, more pre-K programs and other educational issues.
The alliance said that even if receivers chose not to fire half their school’s teachers, the staff would feel threatened.
“That is a recipe for disaster if it’s not used carefully,” said Executive Director Billy Easton. “They’re not going to collaborate, they’re just going to be looking out for their own back.”
He added that he thinks teachers aren’t to blame for poor student achievement, arguing that the school improvement plans should start with an intense look at the surrounding community.
Many problems outside the school affect students, from evictions to hunger, he said.
“A full community-needs assessment might identify the problems,” he said. “Then you can craft a solution that will actually work for people.”
In Rochester, where the University of Rochester is taking over the failing East High School, the new leadership used both methods.
Superintendent Stephen Uebbing required all the teachers to reapply for their jobs. He ended up hiring back more than half of them.
But he also spent 14 months getting community feedback to develop a new plan for the school.
“It’s not a simple faucet you turn on,” he said of getting the community involved. “You really have to work hard at it.”
The 1,700-member student body is now being divided into small groups of eight to 10 students. They will meet daily to discuss anything: study habits, financial problems, their health, Uebbing said.
The goal is for their adviser to figure out who needs help, while the students feel like members of a community that needs them and thus choose to come to school more often, he said.
“In a big school, when someone doesn’t show up, no one notices,” Uebbing said. “When you don’t show up to an eight- to 10-person group, people notice. They’re expecting you.”
As for other failing schools, Uebbing said leaders must be given at least the next year to create an improvement plan and then more time to implement it.
“If this legislation is to have any chance of success, appropriate time for planning and preparation is critical,” he said in a letter he submitted to the Regents. “Without the planning time, we would fail.”
Easton is hoping the Regents will go further and not only give districts more time but also require every school district to complete the type of in-depth plan that was developed for East High.
“They engaged everyone,” he said. “If someone comes up with a solution in the central office, it may be well-intentioned, but it may not work for people.”
He noted that every school faces different problems.
In Schenectady, for example, Lincoln Elementary School faces such high transiency that many students are there for just one year. The school is on the failing schools list.
Superintendent Laurence Spring is planning an initiative to stabilize his students’ homes by distributing information on how to avoid eviction and where to get help, among other steps.
Some school districts have also allowed students to stay in their school for multiple years, even after they move out of the attendance zone, Easton said.