The bungled "turnaround" strategy of Long Island City HS: Who really is responsible for this mess?

Panel for Educational Policy meeting, April 26, 2012
Last Thursday, April 26, in another long, highly emotional meeting that stretched late into the evening, the Panel for Educational Policy voted to close 24 schools and put them in “turnaround” mode, one of the federal models  for school “improvement” in which the entire teaching staff is fired and is forced to reapply for their jobs. The city is doing this, despite the fact that the state may deny them the federal funds that are supposed to be the “reward” for this model.
 In defending his decision to close these schools in general, and in particular to close Long Island City, as compared to Grover Cleveland HS, which was taken off the “turnaround” list at the last minute, Chief Academic Officer Shael Suransky explained:
… that the schools post some very different data points. At Long Island City, for example, only 11 percent of parents responding to a city survey said the school is doing well, he said. (Long Island City had a massive scheduling debacle earlier this year, and the department is replacing the principal it installed just last year.) 
Long Island City students, arriving at school
He didn’t mention that Grover Cleveland HS is also the alma mater of NYS Assembly Education Chair of Cathy Nolan, a fierce critic of these proposals. 
But let’s provide a little history and context here:
 Long Island City HS is a very overcrowded school, with a large number of English Language Learners(14%) and students with disabilities (14%) ;  41% of the latter group in segregated classes. 
In addition, in Oct. 2010, the school was on a list of struggling schools with very high class sizes in which DOE promised the state to reduce class size, as part of their Contract for Excellence plan.  
Here is what InsideSchools said about the school in 2010:  when it first landed on the DOE’s list of “transformation” schools:
In an effort to boost academic performance, the Department of Education named Long Island City High School a transformation school in 2010. Under the terms of the $1.8 million federal grant, which requires new leadership at transformation schools, the 17-year-principal, Williams Bassell, stepped aside and Maria Mamo-Vacacela, formerly an assistant principal for math, was named interim acting principal. Basell was named as a “mentor” to the new principal and continues to work full-time in the school. …
To accommodate the huge enrollment, students come to school in four shifts, some beginning as early as 7:00 a.m. The lockers are not used: Because there aren’t enough to go around, nobody is assigned to one.  To help the transition to high school, 9thgraders are placed in groups of 130 students and four teachers. In 10thgrade, students are placed in one of eight theme-based Small Learning Communities (SLC), which have replaced the ability-based Personal Learning Environments. One student acts as a “leadership liaison” to each SLC.
What else were the plans to improve the learning environment? According to the Comprehensive Education Plan for 2011-2012, students with disabilities and ELLS were to be assigned a commercial online learning program called Castle Learning.
Here is what the school was supposed to do to boost parent involvement: “Parent Coordinator will designate time in the Parent-Teacher Association Meetings for APs to discuss the format and importance of Regents Exams. APs will use the periodic assessments to generate a mail merged letters giving parents and students detailed feedback on student performance on the assessments.”
Here is what their "Strategies for attracting Highly Qualified Teachers" consisted of:
o Administrative staff regularly attends hiring fairs to identify and recruit highly-qualified Math teachers.
o The pupil personnel secretary will work closely with the network HR point person to ensure that non-HQT meet all required documentation and assessment deadlines.
o Mentors and/or master teachers are assigned to support struggling and non-highly qualified teachers.
They also intended to offer extended day – one of the prescribed “transformation” strategies, although there is very little research showing this strategy works for at-risk students.  Even the CEP admits the school has had little success with these programs in the past.
Historically, after school programs for ELLs at LICHS have been very sparsely attended and ELL attendance to the school's general Saturday Academy has also been low. Saturday academies run six Saturdays at the end of each semester from 8:00am to 11:00am. By creating a special ELL section of the Saturday Academy focused on Regents Prepartion [sic] and College Readiness the intent is to create a welcoming environment that intentionally uses instructional techniques proven to work with ELLs, including the MEAL paragraph for scaffolding writing.
[Apparently, the MEAL paragraph means: “To help writers understand how to craft clear and effective paragraphs, writers should remember this formula: MEAL. This stands for Main idea, Evidence, Analysis, and Link.]
The CEP also mentions in passing “smaller learning communities”: “The teachers of the ninth grade advisory classes are provided with a curriculum and have weekly meetings in their small learning community teams.”
Now, as mentioned above, the DOE decided to replace the 17-year principal with an inexperienced principal in the fall of 2011. 
What else happened?  The year before, in 2010-11, Long Island City had 3300 students, despite a school target cap of 2100 students.  That means the school exceeded the target cap by 1200 students, with a utilization rate of 157%.
In 2011, the educrats at Tweed sent 208 more students than the year before, meaning the school this year has a population of 3508 students – exceeding its cap by 1398 students, and with utilization rate of 166%!  
So DOE took this severely overcrowded and struggling school, replaced the experienced principal with a new principal,  sent the school more than 200 additional  students.
Not surprisingly, instead of reducing class sizes, as DOE had  promised the state, class sizes rose sharply. 
According to the DOE class size reports, class sizes surged from an average of 26.8 in the fall of 2010 to 31 in the fall of 2011.  (We believe that both these figures probably underestimate the actual class sizes, as a result of systematic errors in DOE’s reporting method, but never mind.) 
Here is a chart showing what class sizes have been in core academic subjects at the school over the last few years, according to the DOE official figures, compared with state averages.  
What else happened? The school switched around students' schedules in November!  See Lindsey Christ's excellent reporting on this: NY1 Exclusive: Long Island City High School Community In Uproar Over Scheduling Debacle and her follow up story, Federal Program Blamed For Long Island City High School Scheduling Chaos:
Last week, 120 class sections were cut out of the schedule. Four course offerings were canceled entirely, meaning 900 students attended two months of classes in courses that no longer exist. All 3,500 students were given new class schedules with different teachers. The school blames the transformation program...
A "small learning community" at DeWitt Clinton HS
“There were a lot of things that weren't broke that they wanted fixed, and sometimes that causes more problems that really have to be fixed. And it's been a difficult time dealing with people from Washington feeling that they know better than the people on the ground,” said teacher Ken Achiron.
The grant required replacing the school’s longtime principal, who teachers say dealt well with the complicated scheduling, and also called for the school to be divided into smaller "learning communities."
Then, early in April, the DOE took the school out of “transformation” mode, put it in “turnaround” mode, and replaced the new principal, this time with the network leader:
The city’s choice to take over is Vivian Selenikas, Long Island City’s current network leader…. Selenikas led the High School for Arts and Business in Queens from 2003 to 2007 and will replace Maria Mamo-Vacacela, who does not actually have to be removed under turnaround rules. 
So to “transform” a school the principal needs to be removed, but not to “turn” it around?  One also wonders why the network leader was chosen to lead this school, given that it had remained in chaos throughout the fall; clearly her support had proven insufficient to prevent its severe problems.  (Selenikas was also involved in a controversial move in 2007 to fire the respected director of an anti-domestic violence program in East Harlem, a move that was questioned by the Councilmember Melissa Viverito, as well as community activists.)
LIC HS students at school closure hearing; credit GothamSchools
Here is a description of the recent closure hearings at Long Island City HS in Gotham Schools:
As a Queens network leader, Selenikas is no stranger to the large high school on Broadway, which required help from her and other Department of Education officials last year to resolve massive scheduling problems….But many parents say they are worried that the city is not planning adequately for turnaround. Some say they are wary of the abrupt leadership change, which would be the third in less than four years….
Selenikas said she would lead the creation of several new Small Learning Communities, including an academy for freshmen, and possibly an arts-focused community and a sports-focused community that would integrate the school’s many electives and clubs. She also wants to add more Advanced Placement classes to the 18 already on offer…Selenikas was more vague about her plans for the more nearly 100 LICHS teachers whose jobs would be placed in jeopardy this summer if the turnaround begins. …. The hiring committee will include Selenikas, two members picked by the teachers union and two members picked by the city.
So here the supposed "fix" for next year is even more Small Learning Communities, or are they supposedly redoing them all over again?  And what do small learning communities mean, in a vastly overcrowded school with large class sizes?
1. Facilitative & distributive leadership
 2. Dedicated teaching, learning, & support teams
3. A data driven system of accountability
4. Rigorous curriculum & instruction for all students, centered on a unifying focus 
What that means aside from a lot of buzzwords, I have no idea, but it certainly does not mean smaller classes.  Indeed, as apparently happened at Long Island City HS this year, creating Learning Communities can lead to even larger classes, because one of the assigned periods for each teacher became an “advisory,” rather than an academic class.  

Now remember, at the PEP meeting last week, Suransky explained his decision to close the school was based upon the fact that 11% of parents didn’t believe the school was doing well.  Of course the parents are angry and dissatisfied! Wouldn’t you be if your child had been rescheduled into new classes in November?  But whose fault is this, the teachers, or DOE and the network leader?
Rally for Long Island City HS Credit: GothamSchools
If Suransky and/or Selenikas had been doing their jobs, why did they allow the school to devolve into chaos in the first place?  Who is really responsible for this sorry mess, the teachers who are now being fired, or DOE for sending even more students into a vastly overcrowded school, imposing a model that led to larger classes, and failing to provide the support that an inexperienced principal needed to properly devise student schedules? 
And is it possible for anyone to believe that replacing up to half the staff at the school over the summer will help solve these problems, instead of making them worse?  The whole theory behind this is unbelievably absurd.
Note: similar stories could be told most of the other NYC “turnaround” schools as well.  See my testimony before the Assembly Education Committee here.  In nearly every case, the DOE is directly responsible for the fact that these schools are struggling; and has demonstrably failed in their duty to deliver a quality education to NYC children.  Truly, if there were any justice in the world, it would be the educrasts at Tweed who should be fired, and a committee of parents and educators established to decide which ones might be rehired, instead of the staff at these schools.
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