New York State School Boards Association

Superintendents named receivers seek 'demonstrable improvement'

by Cathy Woodruff

On Board Online • August 10, 2015

By Cathy Woodruff
Senior Writer

Superintendents in 17 school districts around New York are gaining a new title this summer: "Receiver." Many of the school turnaround strategies they plan to employ under the state receivership law, however, are familiar ones.

"There is nothing in here that is a surprise," said Marguerite Vanden Wyngaard, superintendent of the Albany school district. "All the things in the receivership law are things we know we need to do. We need to extend the school day. We have to differentiate learning better so that we can concentrate on a variety of needs for students. We know that the community school model is effective for providing medical and mental health services. We have bits and pieces of those things already in place."

But the title of receiver communicates a sense of urgency, superintendents told On Board.

"I see receivership as a key lever, right now, to galvanize our community," said Nicole Williams, superintendent of schools in Poughkeepsie. She said her new title of receiver of two schools communicates the need for teachers, community members and district leaders to redouble their efforts.

"This is an opportunity," agreed Vanden Wyngaard. "We have the opportunity to build these partnerships for our kids and families and to change dramatically how we instruct students. We have an opportunity to engage in professional development to help our staff continue to strengthen itself. We have an opportunity for staff that wants to work in a different location - and do really difficult work - to join that team."

Statewide, the goal is to turn around 144 schools that have been deemed to be "struggling" or "persistently struggling" because of low test scores, lackluster graduation rates and other factors.

The deadlines for results are ambitious. The receivership law gives superintendents two years to turn around struggling schools and a year to turn around persistently struggling schools using a range of turnaround strategies designed to yield "demonstrable improvement."

If the State Education Department is not satisfied with the progress, the management and operations of the schools could be turned over to an outside, independent receiver. In discussions of the receivership law, this consequence has been referred to - imprecisely - as a potential "state takeover."

SED officials held a two-day meeting with superintendent receivers, board members and other stakeholders in July. They took many questions about what will constitute "demonstrable improvement" and how the state will decide which next steps are appropriate.

The schools in receivership all have a history of being flagged by the state for heightened scrutiny and attention under other governmental programs. Previous labels have included "priority schools," "schools in need of improvement" and "schools under registration review."

Most of the schools are located in urban districts, and they typically serve large percentages of students from low-income neighborhoods.

"Many of our students come to us traumatized by life's dilemmas," said Vanden Wyngaard, the Albany superintendent. "It's very difficult to learn when life has handed you as many lemons as it has handed many of our children."

In New York City, schools Chancellor Carmen Farina will serve as the receiver of 62 schools. Buffalo has 25 schools in receivership. Five of the schools are on Long Island and the rest are scattered among upstate cities.

Superintendent-receivers who spoke with On Board acknowledged that their views regarding the value of their new receivership powers are colored, at least in part, by whether they will have access to any new funding.

For the 20 schools identified as "persistently struggling," meaning that they have been placed in some type of negative accountability status for at least 10 years, the designation comes with some cash. Superintendents in those seven districts are expected to receive a share of the $75 million set aside by state lawmakers to help pay for turnaround efforts.

But schools that are merely "struggling" aren't slated to receive any of that money. One is Schenectady, where two schools are designated as struggling. Superintendent Laurence Spring said he considers lack of sufficient funding to be the largest obstacle to expanding school improvement initiatives encouraged by the receivership law.

The pressure for quick results is another. For instance, he said the district is in the process of converting one of the troubled schools - Lincoln Elementary - into a community school, and has renamed it Lincoln Community Elementary. "But it takes a long time to create a community school," Spring said. "So a community school is not a really good match when you want to turn it around in two years."

One option available to receivers under the new law would be the power to re-staff a school by dismissing the entire instructional staff and requiring those interested in continuing to re-apply. At least half of the new school's staff would have to be hired from among the old staff, as long as those individuals are deemed qualified.

No thanks, Spring said. "That, I think, is a really risky lever to pull," he said. "These are kids living in poverty already, kids who are living with trauma already. To take away all the adults in a school environment who care about them - there would be a lot more lost than I think was intended."

In Albany, where a middle school is persistently struggling and two other schools are struggling, superintendent-receiver Vanden Wyngaard said re-staffing measures encouraged by the law could be useful tools. But she expects that will be accomplished through transfers between schools, retirements and routine turnover, rather than layoffs.

Vanden Wyngaard said the first step will be building a culture that embraces greater flexibility.

"One can have many strategies for how to go about doing something, but if your culture is not open to the possibilities, then it's going to keep hitting up against itself," she said. "As one of my colleagues says all the time, culture will eat strategy for breakfast."

She said she expects Albany administrators and staff to look for unconventional ways to extend the time students spend with their teachers, including variable work schedules. The principal at Hackett Middle School - the district's "persistently struggling" school - already has been working on ways to extend the school day, she said.

In Poughkeepsie, which has a struggling high school and struggling middle school, Superintendent Nicole Williams noted that school improvement is far from a new priority. She points with pride to an intensive focus on literacy that earned Poughkeepsie a spot on the program at this summer's Model Schools Conference in Atlanta. She reeled off other initiatives including peer tutoring, participation in the state's P-TECH early college high school program and student internship opportunities through a new partnership with the Dutchess County Chamber of Commerce.

Like other districts in receivership, Poughkeepsie is planning public hearings and preparing to form the new community engagement teams required by the receivership legislation.

Already, it's become clear that the district needs to be more "transparent" in its communication with community members, Williams said. A recent step in that direction, she said, was as simple as taking time to explain a technical term, "cohort," when discussing graduation rates.

"We are on the right trajectory," Williams said, and "we can ratchet up those practices under receivership, certainly." She added that she "would welcome additional resources" to help support the district's ambitious plans.

Spring, the Schenectady superintendent-receiver, questioned what assumptions legislators and the governor held when they created the receivership law.

"The state is expecting these schools to make things dramatically different in a short period of time when all the state is threatening them with is a bigger stick," he said. "That supposes that people in these schools have not been sufficiently scared to do what they need to do. I just don't think that's true."

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