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New York City Mayor Unveils Plans to Fix Failing Schools

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio on Monday pledged $150 million—along with intensive supports for teachers, principals and students—for 94 of the city's lowest-performing schools as part of his administration's long-awaited plan to transform such schools. 

The mayor made the announcement at the Coalition School for Social Change in East Harlem—one of the schools that meets the criteria for such an overhaul—during an impassioned speech that was heavily critical of previous administrations' approaches to struggling schools, and that accused his predecessors of engaging in outright neglect at times.

And although he promised reinvestment in troubled schools, de Blasio did not rule out shutting down chronic underperformers—a signature policy of his predecessor, former Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg—if the schools did not improve with the additional supports.

"We will literally move heaven and earth to help them succeed, but we will not wait forever," he said.

If improvements were not made within three years, the schools that did not measure up could face closure, he said. 

Many of the initiatives that are part of "The School Renewal Program" (or as de Blasio put it in his speech, his "No Bad Schools" Plan) are already underway at 23 schools.

The 94 targeted schools are on the list because of low academic performance over the last three years.

Each will become a "community school" that will  focus on meeting the needs of the "whole child," including the social and emotional needs of students. That will include providing services such as mental health counseling, dental services, eye care and other nonacademic supports for students, de Blasio said.

Community schools, he said, had ways to identify students' needs  and address them early, when they can have substantial impact on students. 

Students in the targeted schools will receive an extra hour of instruction each school day, along with additional afterschool and high-quality, academically-focused summer programs.

The schools will benefit from an infusion of guidance counselors, social workers and academic intervention specialists, according to the city. The PTAs at those schools will also be strengthened, and opportunities for parent engagement will be ramped up.

He stressed accountability for teachers, principals and schools. 

Teachers will be given professional support, mentoring opportunities and coaching to help improve their classroom practice, and de Blasio promised that staffing changes would be made at schools that don't improve.

"We will invest, but we will hold teachers accountable as well," he said.

The same will be true for principals, who will also be provided with mentors and coaches and face removal if their schools do not improve. The roles of community superintendents will be expanded to help support principals.

Schools must develop a renewal plan by next spring; reach specific targets in the 2015-16 school year, including improvements in attendance and teacher retention; and show significant academic attainment by the 2016-17 school year.

If they don't reach those benchmarks, possible actions include turning larger schools into smaller ones, and closing and replacing schools, according to the city.

De Blasio said that any closures that occur under his watch will not be done "as casually" as they were done in the past.

The plan builds on Chancellor's Carmen Fariña's five pillars for school improvement, which are based on research from the University of Chicago. She detailed those tenets in an interview with Education Week last month.

The administration's plan to transform its worst performing schools was originally due to New York State Department of Education in July, but the city requested and received an extension through Nov. 7.

The mayor—and by extension the education department—had been criticized by both supporters and detractors for being slow out the gate to publicly articulate a plan to fix the city's failing schools.

Fariña pushed back against the criticism, saying that while a plan had not been publicly announced, the administration had been working since the summer to provide support for teachers, principals and students in struggling schools. 

In anticipation of the mayor's announcement on Monday, Families for Excellent Schools, an education group that represents parents but is strongly pro-charter, sent out a statement calling for a "bold" response to the failing schools crisis, which it says impacts 143,000 students. The group asked for the city to give those parents the option to transfer their children to better schools.

Once the speech was over, Jeremiah Kittredge, the executive director of Families for Excellent Schools, said: "The mayor's plan is too small, too slow, and too timid to help 143,000 students trapped in failing schools. Instead of empowering parents to choose better schools today, the Mayor's plan invests three more years and far more money in a broken system that is bound to fail."

The speech was as much a vision of de Blasio's education platform as it was further repudiation of the education policies of previous mayors and chancellors, notably former mayor Bloomberg. He also returned to his "Tale of Two Cities" campaign theme from last year.

He said these schools were neglected, starved off resources, and when they failed, they were abruptly closed, adding insult to injury.

He also called on the community to request additional funding from Albany to see through some of those programs.

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