A blunt warning from Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia

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State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia released the names last week of 144 New York public schools that are either “struggling schools” or “persistently struggling schools” as of July 2015 — these are the lowest-performing schools in the state. The announcement came in conjunction with a trip she made to Rochester and Buffalo. 

Fourteen Rochester schools made the list. Four of them are persistently struggling schools: Charlotte High School, East High School, Monroe High School, and School 9. Buffalo's list is longer: 20 are struggling and five are persistently struggling.

But the list is only part of Elia’s message to parents, teachers, and school officials in the region. The real thrust of Elia’s public relations tour was to talk about receivership and state takeover of schools. The Buffalo News’ Tiffany Lankes summed up Elia’s blunt words to the Buffalo school board in a recent article, “Education Commissioner to Buffalo: Fix your schools or I will.”

Elia was referring to a new state education law that allows her to place failing schools in receivership, initially with superintendents, whose job it is to turn them around. Superintendents only have a year to show significant improvement, but they also have increased authority to make sweeping changes in those schools, such as staffing and operational changes. And under the law, superintendents have the ability to override objections to their plans from school boards — the elected entities that hire and supervises superintendents.

If the superintendents’ plans don’t work, Elia could turn to the school boards and instruct them to find an outside receiver. In Buffalo, however, she said that someone will come in under her authority to fix the five persistently struggling schools, according to the Buffalo News article.

Elia didn’t level the same type of threats while she was in Rochester. That may be because plans are already under way to address each of the persistently struggling schools. Superintendent Bolgen Vargas said late last year that he intends to close Charlotte. The University of Rochester has taken over management of East High School. And School 9 and Monroe both have turnaround plans involving increased instruction time.

Monroe, for instance, will open its doors in early August instead of September.

Still, the state data concerning these types of schools is revealing. With few exceptions, nearly all of the schools are in urban districts serving mostly economically disadvantaged minority students. Many of these schools are deeply segregated, often working with large numbers of English language learners and special education students.

For instance, 91 percent of the students at Buffalo’s Elementary School of Technology – one of the persistently struggling — are poor.

Hempstead High School on Long Island has a white student population of just 1 percent.

The real question in all of this is whether receiverships will work and how. The SED in its reform efforts has made some pretty public belly flops lately. There have to be some superintendents and school board members around the state saying to themselves: "if Elia and the SED think they can do a better job, then go for it!" Maybe it’s time for the bureaucrats in Albany to be held accountable.

But that dare is likely wasted because Elia probably doesn’t mean that the state will literally run these schools or fix them. She knows better. She’s almost certainly referring to converting at least some of them to charters.




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