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Charter Co. Gets A 3rd Year At Clemente
by Melissa Bailey | Sep 5, 2013 7:31 am
Posted to: Schools, The Hill, School Reform
New Haven has renewed a contract with a charter management organization to keep running a public school in the Hill for another year amid inconclusive test-score results.
The renewal marks the start of a high-stakes third year in a “turnaround” experiment. A $2.4 million federal School Improvement Grant (SIG) through which New Haven has been paying Renaissance is set to dry up at the end of this academic year. The school district will have to work with Renaissance to figure out how to continue the relationship, and how to pay for it.
Clemente serves over 500 kids in grades pre-K to 8 school at 360 Columbus Ave. It remains a public school with unionized teachers inside the school district. As part of a school-reform experiment, New Haven pays Renaissance $800 per student to manage the school.
The school board last week also renewed its contract with Domus, a social services agency in Stamford, to continue running Domus Academy, a middle school for troubled kids who struggle in mainstream schools. Domus is entering its fourth year running that school.
Both schools are among the city’s “turnaround” experiments aimed at overhauling failing schools. They’re a key part of a New Haven’s school reform effort, which has tried a variety of approaches to improving the bottom-performing schools.
“In both cases, we’re pleased. They’re important parts of our portfolio,” said schools Superintendent Garth Harries.
Harries said Clemente saw gains in school climate its first year, then promising test results the second. “They have a long way to go, but we’re happy with the relationship [with Renaissance] so far,” he said.
Behind The Numbers
When New Haven tapped Renaissance to take over Clemente, the school was in bad shape. It had been on the federal watch list for failing schools for nine years, the longest in the district. Renaissance in 2011 became the first for-profit company to take over a New Haven school. The company’s two top executives specialize in revamping failing charters and traditional public schools.
When it came to Clemente, Renaissance replaced the principal and added two assistant principals; replaced three-quarters of the teachers; and set about tackling unruly behavior and setting new expectations.
The company’s contract with New Haven schools laid out a number of goals. The school district gave Renaissance three years to get more kids attending school, more parents attending report card nights, and higher “rates of satisfaction” on the “school climate” survey. And it set numeric goals based on student test scores.
The jury’s still out on the specific goals Renaissance set. The school had pledged for 75 percent of students to make more than a year’s progress on the Degrees of Reading Power tests; Renaissance President Rich O’Neill said the school still hasn’t computed individual kids’ progress on those tests from last year. And another goal—to make “safe harbor” according to the federal No Child Left Behind Act—was made moot when the state switched to a different way of grading schools.
Clemente’s academic gains appeared slow to materialize. In the first year, scores on the Connecticut Mastery Tests dropped: The number of kids scoring at goal (at grade level) on the tests fell from 22.4 to 18.6 percent from 2010-11 to 2011-12; the number scoring “proficient” (a lower standard) also declined from 44.9 to 42.1 percent. Renaissance’s second year looked more promising: Scores rose by 1.4 points in “at goal” and 2.1 points in proficiency, as scores fell across the district and the state.
O’Neill said those overall figures don’t tell the whole story about how the school is improving.
First, he said he doesn’t trust the test scores that served as a baseline before Renaissance took over.
He claimed there were “irregularities” in the past test scores that were tough to explain. When Renaissance took over, he said, “over a dozen students talked to administrators and teachers telling us how different the testing environment was from the year before.”
He said he never found evidence of cheating but remains suspicious about the historical scores. “I don’t buy it,” he said.
“I’ve not heard him or anyone make allegations of cheating there. Obviously we would take that very seriously,” Superintendent Harries later replied.
“Irrespective of where we set the baseline, we are a long way from performing at Clemente at the levels that we would want them to. I’m less interested in a point here and a point there of baseline [scores], and more interested in a long-term trajectory of really high performance of students in that neighborhood.”
Second, O’Neill said, the school actually made “tremendous” gains its second year that are hidden in the data.
Overall, from 2011-12 to 2012-13, the school made a lot of progress towards closing the gap between Clemente and the rest of the district on the CMT, O’Neill said. The school closed that gap in 22 reported areas in math, reading, or writing, he said. (The number of 3rd-graders scoring “at goal” and “proficient” at math are considered two different “reported areas.”) The gap remained steady in six reported areas, and widened in nine areas, he said.
In other highlights: Comparing last year’s fifth-graders with fourth-graders the prior year, the number of kids scoring “at goal” in math jumped from 21.3 to 34.9 percent; those scoring “proficient” or above jumped from 53.2 to 62.8 percent.
The same group of kids jumped from 15.6 to 42.1 percent “at goal” in reading, and from 24.4 to 60.5 percent in proficiency.
“These are enormous gains,” he said, speaking by phone from New Jersey.
The tests are administered to kids in grades 3 to 8. O’Neill said poor scores in 3rd grade—which reflected overall struggles statewide—and plummeting scores in 7th and 8th grade sank the school’s overall averages.
O’Neill said the school suffered from a lack of support from New Haven’s school district central office in several areas. Clemente faced bureaucratic roadblocks in firing a struggling teacher, and was forced to retain that teacher for a second year, which directly affected the grades that saw steep declines on the tests, O’Neill said. The school recruited talented new teachers, only to see them take jobs in other towns because the district stalled in hiring them. And other teachers—including two of the school’s most talented—got transferred to other schools without Renaissance’s prior knowledge.
Renaissance’s complaints about a lack of support from New Haven, and a lack of clarity about the district’s and Renaissance’s roles, are flagged in a state audit about SIG schools—click here and scroll to page 6 to read more. The audit states that the conflicts were smoothed out in Year 2.
Harries confirmed he had discussed the complaints with O’Neill.
In the case of the struggling teacher, Harries said the school failed to follow the guidelines for the new teacher evaluation process. In the past a school could fire a non-tenured teacher as long as it gave notice before a contractual deadline. Under the new teacher evaluation process, that’s not enough: The principal or assistant principal needs to follow extra steps, including holding a mid-year conference with the teacher.
“In this case they didn’t go through the steps. No one wanted this teacher to come back, but the integrity of the process necessitated it,” Harries said. The teacher, who was not tenured, was fired the following year. “When you operate within a system, there are levels of accountability”—for teachers, but also for those who evaluate them, Harries said.
Harries acknowledged Renaissance’s other staffing concerns. He said that they’re not unique to Clemente, and that the district has to look at the system as a whole.
“We know that hiring in the district is and can be a challenge,” he said. “Broadly across the district, our hiring for teachers happens more slowly than we would like.” And “specialist staff sometimes get reallocated based on shifting needs,” he said.
“Those are challenges district-wide that I think we as a district are attentive to, and need to be working on not just for Clemente, but for all of our schools.” He said “sometimes partnership schools—they will tell you things more bluntly than sometimes your own staff” will, which can be a good thing.
He added that “obviously the folks on Renaissance are highly focused on the performance of that one school,” but the district needs to “balance” the needs of Clemente “against the needs of the portfolio as a whole.”
O’Neill said he expects the school will do better on standardized tests this year. Clemente has been focusing intensively on the Common Core State Standards—new national standards that are sweeping the nation, and will likely result in New Haven changing its standardized tests this year. “I expect we’ll do better relative to the state and the district because we have been focused on Common Core,” he said.
Harries noted that the district sets annual goals in its contract with Renaissance, leaving open the option of ending the partnership in any given year, but is more focused on long-term goals: Harries said the turnaround process typically takes three to five years.
In an interview in her office last week, Clemente Principal Pam Franco gave a few more reasons she believes the school is on the upswing.
“Discipline, climate and culture here is outstanding,” she said. “We have discipline policies in place. There’s a lot of follow-through.”
School climate surveys, filled out every year by parents, students, staff and teachers, back up her claim that the climate is improving.
In the second year of a turnaround, 73 percent of students reported feeling “safe,” an increase of 8 percent over the prior year.
Before Renaissance took over, parents rated the school in the bottom category (“needs improvement”) in three of five categories on the surveys: academic expectations, collaboration and communication. They gave the school the second-lowest ranking (“satisfactory”) in the other two categories, “engagement” and “safety and respect.”
In 2013, at least 83 percent of parents responded favorably in all of those categories. And 90 percent of parents said they believe “order and discipline are consistently and fairly maintained at this school.”
Mom Maureen Cox (pictured at the top of this story picking up her 1st-grade son, Montez) said she’s happy with the school.
“I like the school. I like the teachers. I like the principal. I like how they discipline the children”—including her son, she said. “It works.”
Mom Liza Lopez just transferred her 5th-grader, Leilanyz Ruiz (pictured) to Clemente from Columbus Family Academy. She said she was seeking a school where kids’ behavior is more under control. After the second day, she said she was satisfied so far.
“They’re more strict over here than over there,” she said of Clemente.
Students are “not so loud” at Clemente as they are at Columbus, said Leilanyz.
Principal Franco said the school’s next challenge will be to increase parent involvement. The school has no functional PTO, she said.
Finding The “Right Team”
Franco said the school is improving in another area: Building and retaining a talented, happy staff.
In taking over the school, Renaissance reinterviewed all teachers who wanted to stay and replaced 75 percent of the staff. Teachers were pushed out because of special rules in the teachers contract for turnaround schools; those who weren’t asked back were guaranteed jobs elsewhere in the district. New teachers were asked to make a two-year commitment to the school.
After Renaissance’s first year, the school lost four teachers—including one of its most talented, who left for a new turnaround school, High School in the Community.
After Renaissance’s second year, Clemente saw significant turnover. Franco fired three non-tenured teachers. Another teacher transferred to teach younger kids at Strong School. Another left to join Teach For America.
On school surveys, teacher professed dissatisfaction: Only 48 percent said they’d “recommend” the school to their peers.
This year, seven of 36 teachers are new to the school. Two are filling new positions as the school adds a fourth- and a fifth-grade class. Clemente is also experiencing a lot of internal movement: Five teachers are transferring within Clemente to teach different grade levels, all voluntarily, according to Franco.
Before coming to New Haven, Franco started three charter schools, and took over one failing charter school, as a principal in Florida. Franco said turnover is par for the course for a new school experiment.
“In any start-up,” it takes time “to find the right team,” she said. She estimated it takes about three years in an elementary school and five in a middle school.
The team in place this year “is the best team” Clemente has had, she said.
For its $800-per-pupil fee, Renaissance has supported the school in various ways. It manages the three school leaders, helps provide professional development for teachers, and offers proprietary data-tracking tools that staff can use.
Franco and her assistant principals (technically called the “achievement specialist” and “operations specialist”) work directly for Renaissance. They are not part of the New Haven administrators union. Their salaries are paid by New Haven public schools, on top of the $800-per-pupil fee. Staff from Renaissance visit the school at least twice a week, and are on the phone with school leaders “every day of the week,” according to O’Neill.
“We do a huge amount of support,” he said.
Renaissance has devised “over 500 discrete tools, trackers, and protocols,” that it brings to schools to support staff, O’Neill said.
For example, Renaissance has “our own very detailed, proprietary academic database” which takes student test scores, sets individual goals for kids, and tracks their progress towards those goals.
The company is about to roll out a new discipline tracking system, he added. The software tracks not just suspensions and expulsions, but every time a kid gets in trouble. The software aims to help staff identify “chronic disrupters”—“kids who are generating greatest number of behavioral issues.”
Each of those students will then be assigned an adult in the building, a “case manager,” who will work with that child to “decrease the volume of aberrant behavior within a month.”
Beyond Year 3
O’Neill founded Renaissance in 2006 after working for nine years for Edison Schools Inc., a school management company that morphed into EdisonLearning Inc. Since 2000, O’Neill and his business partner, Dominique Taylor, have directly managed nearly 30 turnaround schools, including charters and traditional schools in Delaware, Pennsylvania, Maryland, South Carolina and Massachusetts, O’Neill said.
Renaissance currently has 10 employees and manages two schools: Clemente and the Central Jersey Arts Charter School in New Jersey.
The main source of money paying Renaissance, a federal School Improvement Grant, is set to dry up at the end of the year.
Harries said he’s happy with the work so far: “The school’s making progress. To that extent, the partnership is accomplishing what we want it to accomplish.” But the a key question—“what’s the long-term relationship?”—remains unresolved.
O’Neill said he hopes to continue running the school into Year 4 and beyond.
“It would be a shame if we left the district. We don’t want to,” he said.
Renaissance’s original contract with New Haven Public Schools includes an option to renew a third time, into the 2014-15 school year. O’Neill said his company would hope to find “multiple funding sources” to pay for Year 4. In Year 5, he said, the company would work to reduce its per-pupil fee.
“One thing nobody in the charter management business has figured out is how you can sustain the school once you have created the positive environment—at a lower cost than you had initially,” he said.
At the Lowell Community Charter Public School in Massachusetts, an 800-student failing school Renaissance kicked off a “turnaround” process that earned praise from the state education chief. The company left after one year, but left the people it had put in place to run the school.
Principal Franco said she aims to stay at the school in upcoming years to continue the turnaround.
“We’re pleased” with the progress so far, she said. “We are on the uphill. We are out of the ditch and we are moving up.”
Domus is entering its fourth year running Domus Academy. The Stamford-based social services agency operates on a year-by-year contract to run the school.
Superintendent Harries said he’s pleased so far with their progress, in particular with feedback on school climate surveys.
The school takes kids who struggle in traditional school environment; they arrive with high levels of trauma and special needs.
The school, which serves grades 6 to 8, has only 48 kids. It’s hard to draw too many conclusions from the aggregate data, including test scores, because of the tiny sample size.
Craig Baker, the chief education officer for Domus, oversees Domus Academy and two other schools in Stamford. He said Domus Academy has made “considerable progress” getting kids engaged in school.
Overall daily attendance last year was 82 percent, he said. “For us, that’s significant,” because many kids who come to Domus skipped school at least half of the time in their previous schools.
Baker said the school is doing better at retaining staff.
After the first year, “we experienced a considerable amount of turnover,” Baker said. The school replaced its principal, and lost about half of its 10 staff members, most of whom were rookies.
Now the staff is becoming more stable, Baker said. “We have a core of staff members now—close to 50 percent who have been with us for two years or more.”
“We’re rally happy with what we’ve been able to accomplish over the three years,” he said.
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Charter schools don’t perform as advertised, but try getting their advocates to admit that
byLaura ClawsonFollow forDaily Kos Labor.
Charter Schools have not surpassed the results in conventional public schools, at least according to reports in the NY Times.
The privatization of governmental functions should be of concern.
The people who want “government to be small enough to drown in a bathtub” must love this trend.
Why don’t we take the money we put into busing kids into improving neighborhood schools?
If we had sufficiently integrated neighborhoods, we would not have had to have busing.
It was well intentioned, but maybe it’s time to re-evaluate the outcomes.
“The school had pledged for 75 percent of students to make more than a year’s progress on the Degrees of Reading Power tests; Renaissance President Rich O’Neill said the school still hasn’t computed individual kids’ progress on those tests from last year.”
Why not? Isn’t this specific “test data” the agreed evaluation of the performance of this for-profit company? Who are they going to blame for failing to do this? This is beyond belief!
No wonder the “edupreneurs” are flocking to New Haven! The superintendent will praise and pay your company very well even if you don’t meet your agreement.
A third year on this juicy contract? $800 x 500 students = $400,000 plus generous salaries for “achievement specialists” and “operations specialists”? And this is all on top of what New Haven pays per pupil? Holy profits, batman!
I predict Mr. Harries will somehow “find” money in his budget to keep paying this for profit company next year. Isn’t it bizarre that Renaissance offers to magically “lower” their $800 per pupil fee when the federal grant expires this year?
They don’t have an active PTO after two years? How can that be? A K-8 school with no parent teacher organization? What kind of school is this?
@Threefifths and @Dwightstreeter - keep ringing the alarms. We have a big fire here. Do you notice Supt. Harries calls our schools his “portfolio”? Money is so clearly calling the shots. This is just the beginning of New Haven’s “Urban Education” campaign run by the corporate elite.
I wholeheartedly agree that the privatization of our schools is a clear and present danger to all of us, our republic and our way of life.
However, everyone must begin to see that this privatization take-over has been aided and abetted by NHPS BOE and administration.
The charter invasion could not take place without the tacit approval of our public school bureaucratic administrators.
This is, and always has been, about high salaries, lavish pensions, and little accountability for those above the classroom.
People must wake up and demand that public education funds go to the classroom first.
As it is now, the funds are allocated to those above the classroom.
And teachers need to start asking their union managers about why they are not leading the way to end this bulls*it teacher evaluation program and this insane standardized testing regime.
They can only scr*w us if we continue to let them.
Sorry to get street but talking academia-fided ain’t working.
posted by: Tom Burns on September 6, 2013 2:08am
Where is the privatization in New Haven? That happens in other big cities, not here. Domus has 48 students(big deal) and Clemente is our one test case-we need to give them 4 or 5 years and then see where Renaissance stands—Pam Franco is an excellent administrator and has made great strides in leading Clemente—the excuses sited by Mr. O’Neill are a bit disturbing, for there are no excuses——only results—and Standardized Test scores must not be the standard—and is not the Standard in New Haven—No real educator would agree to that simple—invalid measure of a school or it’s teachers or it’s students—-anyway—things have improved a bit at Clemente and I wish all in that school community the best—for they are the test case—our only test case—To Brutus, my pal—Our TEVAL program and it’s built in protections and checks and balances is second to none-Bullshit is what they used to do and is prevalent in most districts throughout America concerning Teacher evaluation—our program design is practically perfect—how the program gets administered is a work in progress and we need to work to perfect it, but even with it’s imperfections, it has no match. You certainly can’t be even remotely familiar with it if you think it is BS—and going back to Clemente and its for profit business leaders—having them here is only a win-win scenario—if they do a great job, we may choose to replicate it-and if they don’t, then they have shown what a joke the Charter/privatization movement really is—all the stars are aligned for us to do great things and we already have—This Union is the strongest one in standing up against the proliferation of standardized testing and the privatization of our public school system—Not here—Not Ever—Tom
(1) the privatization in New Haven is not only Renaissance and Domus but also Achievement First. this proves to me that privatization is clearly present here in New Haven.
(2) standardized test scores are a difficult metric for teacher evaluation for a number of reasons: (a) how to account for cohorts (b) how to account for who is doing the teacher evaluations (c) how to determine what percent of student lack of achievement is due to the individual teacher or to the school environment or the child’s home environment and this is just to name a few. Standardized test scores are a way for managers to control their workers who incidentally the unions are supposed to protect, but I digress.
(3) I know from experience that administrators protect their own rears before anything else and will defame and slander good people to protect their 6 figure incomes. And, I also know that if the mayor and his appointed superintendent want the union’s support then those in power get that support. Now I am not saying that people are evil, what I am saying is that this eval system is still BS and expediency no longer cuts it. Watch the Ct Supreme Court ruling on the Vallas case to see the shifting political winds on education policy and its players. Then watch Pryor and Adamowski and even Malloy’s bid for re-election.
(4) I would like to give all unions a piece of advice. The time to truly represent the workers (and in this context, the teachers are the workers+the administrators are the managers) is now. People are waking up to the fact that teachers have been used and abused for far too long.
(5) I suppose one could say that all I have is speculation and opinion. And, I would agree until enough people like me achieve some semblance of power and then powerless opinion becomes powerful choice.
Peace. And choose well.
The point is, when the monies go to the private/publicly funded schools, many of these are built on the backs of the impoverished. The parents may believe their kids are getting a better education, but many of these charter schools are staffed with teachers who do not have teaching degrees or certifications. Teach for America is built on the backs of the poor, and their “teachers” move on to jobs in government, or up the administrative ladder, or go into politics to further push the agenda to break down public education for profit. Its sickening. Teach for America is a tool, as are vouchers, as are charter schools. Its a failed experiment, largely. It causes segregation. It allows untrained staff to teach kids, oftentimes subjects they know not how to teach. Who cares? Many of those “teachers” will be gone in a year or two. By the time these kids grow up, they’ll be able to work at Walmart, for the Walton family, part time, without benefits, because they won’t be able to think critically or offer anything else to society since they will have been taught which bubble to fill in. People need to wake up privatization is on the way here in New Haven.
I dint know why anyone would be surprised that Tom Burns is once again cheerleading for the district. Domus and Clemente are in bad shape. Notice that the article didn’t tell you how many parents completed the survey. Also notice the following:
1) school system pays more than half a million for the private company to manage
2) once the Sig money runs out, they will have to be on operating budget, unless the district uses Alliance Grant money (if they are an Alliance district).
3) they claim to have hundreds of data tracking tools, but haven’t measured student growth this year? CMT scores have been out for a few weeks.
4) this company has a troubling track record
5) of course Harries will stay with them- as a Broad alum, he favors privatization
6) I could comment more on Burn’s statement if it were somewhat coherent and logical.