De Blasio, Bloomberg’s Prodigal Son

The NYC Renewal School program has been just another de Blasio let-down, although this time the victims of public policy failure are the children. In 2014, NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio announced another facet of his political platform — cultivating equity in public schools. A marked policy departure from his predecessor, former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s, controversial practice of closing underperforming schools, de Blasio announced a plan to champion and reinvest in the city’s public schools. His plan? To avoid closing schools at any cost. On paper, the plan was both revolutionary and completely rational. Instead of disinvesting in and closing schools with higher needs and starting anew, like Bloomberg did, de Blasio wanted to infuse 94 of these struggling schools with funding, health services, and outside resources to keep them afloat.

This practice of concentrating resources onto struggling schools, which de Blasio called Renewal schools, is not novel and has been rolled out in districts across the country with mixed results. At the announcement of the Renewal Plan, the NYC pedagogical community was hopeful about de Blasio’s intervention plan but remained wary about the enactment and implementation process. Though its conception was well-intentioned and grounded in great pedagogical reformative practice, the rollout of the Renewal School Program in NYC public schools was regrettably executed, causing the downfall of the program, thus returning the city to the days of systemic school closings.

Protesters gathered at the DOE headquarters fighting against another round of school closures.

Mayor de Blasio actively made policy decisions to continue the program despite internal knowledge of the Renewal Plan’s deficiencies. Just a year after the announcement, the efficacy of the program was already being questioned internally. The New York Times obtained a 2015 memo from the Department of Education to the Mayor saying that over a third of the schools participating in the Renewal Plan were highly unlikely to meet the goals –which have never been publicly released– of the program. To end or amend the program at that time would have been a big political failure for de Blasio. The plan was diametric to Mayor Bloomberg’s educational policy plan and could have positioned de Blasio as an innovator and a progressive in city and national politics. So, Mayor de Blasio chose to march on with his plan, unmodified in the wake of these warnings. Nine anonymous city staff members disclosed to the New York Times that they knew within the first year that the Renewal Plan was doomed to fail. Over two years, a quarter of the schools involved in the program ended up closing, and over fifty schools remained in the program, benchmarks still unmet, at the planned 2017 deadline. This is an unexpected turnout for a plan whose creator claimed that closing schools was his last resort.

On the financial front, cost projections for the Renewal plan were wildly inaccurate. To begin with, $773 million were spent from the plan’s 2014 announcement to the end of the 2018 school year, over five times the originally estimated cost of $150 million. De Blasio failed to incorporate feedback from city employees working on the program and to intervene at schools for which the Renewal plan was clearly insufficient as a measure of intervention. He chose to sink more money into a ill-fated plan that underestimated the time that tangible change takes.

The experience of being a Renewal School was confusing at both the in-school and administrative levels. The tactics used in the program were untested and rebuked by some experts. The goals of the program were not made public, making it difficult to define what a good or bad school even was in de Blasio’s eyes. Over half of new hires for the 2015-2016 school year at over a dozen Renewal schools did not return the next fall. Furthermore, over half of principals at these schools have been replaced. Principals of Renewal schools expressed frustration at the obscurities in the plan’s hierarchy. They did not know who they were reporting to, causing a sort of trickle-down confusion to the teachers, and ultimately the students.The process was confusing for superintendents as well, who were now asked to oversee Renewal schools on top of their fifty plus caseload. Another memo obtained by the New York Times said that the Department of Education was suggesting changing the benchmarks of the program to make the academic goals easier to reach, thus allowing more Renewal schools to be labeled a success. The first meeting between principals and community school directors took place a year after the program begin, causing confusion regarding how to build a community school, and what a community school even is.

The chaos experienced within the program reveals how ill-prepared the city was to undertake a change like the Renewal plan. Miscommunication was experienced at every level of the process. People, and schools, simply cannot meet expectations if they do not know what they are expected to become.

Despite the roll-out issues, the aspirations and approach of the Renewal plan remain honorable. The issue of educational gaps in demographic factors of race and wealth are deep-rooted ones that a single policy should not claim to fix. A report by the RAND Corporation showed that attendance and graduation indicators have increased throughout the course of the program, showing marginal improvement. That lagging test scores are being used as a metric to measure growth and efficacy of the program calls into question the effectiveness of standardized tests at measuring educational goals.

Yet, the program in practice remains flawed. Structural issues plague the Renewal schools at the school-, district-, and city-wide levels. Good intentions cannot compensate for a lack of progress. A dubious approach to education should not persist past recognition of its flaws. Further investment in a sub-par program does not make sense when there are thousands of children and millions of dollars at stake.  

Change is needed for NYC public schools, that much is certain. NYC students lag behind those of the country as a whole. Mayor Bloomberg’s practice of closing schools left poor, black, and brown children at risk for inferior educations. Mayor de Blasio was right to recognize a need for change, and devised the Renewal plan — a novel program to create community schools and double down on monetary and resource investment. Unfortunately, his Renewal plan failed to perform and existed for far too long, continuing the practice of school closings, and exacerbating the very iniquities he set out to fix.

Looking past the astronomic monetary cost, we are left with the question of human cost. The schools slated for the Renewal Plan were targeted because they were already failing their students. The plan abandoned them further. It subjected students to tactics that, according to the Mayor himself, were untested and goals that were overly ambitious. Which children have been victims of this prideful plan? Whose educations were compromised? Though the plan failed, New York City must reassess, regroup, and learn from its mistakes as quickly as possible.

The Mayor’s team, as they have control of New York City Schools, must conduct interviews and run analyses on the schools that improved, stagnated, and closed, pinpoint the differences between the three, and come up with a new plan for New York City public schools. The process has already begun in the form of a post-mortem of the Renewal Program. The DOE has pinpointed a few interventions that were especially significant in reversing the course of these failing schools. These strategies include: a strong principal, data-centered approaches, community-school partnerships, on-site teacher coaches, clear guidance from superintendents, and increased emotional support for students.

The new plan can be similar to the Renewal Program, but it must not repeat its mistakes. Rollout should be less problematic, with clear instructions for every actor involved, from superintendent to classroom teacher. Finances must be transparent, to allow for accountability. Goals must be clear and measurable, yet holistic, so everyone involved can understand how to succeed in this program.

The new plan must develop new strategies to incorporate these indicated success factors. Furthermore, the idea of racially-conscious pedagogy and community-school partnerships is paramount. The reality is, the students affected by the outcome of the Renewal Program, by design, are Black and brown. So, in this journey to find a solution, Black and brown voices must lead the way. We cannot look at schools and students in a vacuum; we must understand that context is crucial. There should be Black and brown people at the helm of this process, at both the city and school level. The importance of a good, culturally competent education cannot be overstated. Teachers and members of the community should be representative role models for students. We must demonstrate to all children, but especially Black and brown kids, that their education matters, and that the course of their lives matter outside of political and economic agendas.

By Sithara Kumar

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *