safety first?

FDNY crackdown on fire hazards leads to removal of hallway art

Art on the walls makes a school environment beautiful, happy and bright – right? According to the FDNY, art on the walls can also make a school dangerous.

Last year, the fire department stepped up its inspections of public school buildings, adding the public buildings unit to three others that check into whether schools are meeting fire codes. Schools were warned if more than 20 percent of their wall space was covered with flammable materials such as paper and cloth, a frequent situation in a system where principals and students have long been encouraged to plaster hallways and classrooms with student work.

In total, FDNY cited approximately 1,500 violations in schools, and 500 of them were quickly fixed, according to an FDNY spokesman.

This year, the Department of Education gave principals a heads-up that the policy would continue. Although no policy has actually changed, principals were reminded of the specific fire code parameters this week, and the DOE is working with the FDNY, school facilities staff and the principals union to ensure compliance with the 20 percent rule, said Marge Feinberg, a DOE spokeswoman.

Many principals were caught off guard by the inspections and were worried about how their schools would be affected, said Chiara Coletti, a spokeswoman for the principals union.

“Some principals have expressed concerns to us that their schools will become very sterile-looking because the creative output of their children is very important, so they are trying to find some kind of balance,” she said.

Fourth-grade teachers at a Brooklyn elementary school said they returned to their classrooms this month September to find that the clotheslines that they had previously used to hang student work across the ceilings had been taken down. Although teachers have found ways to work around the crackdown, classrooms “just don’t look as bright and welcoming,” one teacher said.

But school and FDNY officials said aesthetic objections were no match for safety concerns.

“It’s not just about art,” said Jim Long, an FDNY spokesman. “It’s about the overall safety of the environment for students and teachers to work in.”

“Schools are proud of their students’ work and we’ll work with them to help them safely display it,” said Feinberg. “But our collective goal must be to ensure the safety of our students.”

In the letter to principals this week, Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott assured principals that they would not be penalized if their schools display scaled-back decorations. The full letter is below.

9.7.11 NOTICE: ALL PRINCIPALS Displays of Student work in Hallways and Public Areas

Many of you are aware of the new FDNY unit which began inspecting schools last school year. The unit is charged with enforcing the Fire Code of the City of New York and pointing out violations of the code. Principals, as the persons in charge of the building, were asked to sign as the recipient for violations. The ISSUED TO line on these violations uses the building address or school number and does not use the name of the principal or person receiving the copy.

This year the FDNY will be asking you to sign only for violations for items under your control. You will be asked to sign for violations for Public Assembly Space overcrowding (when the space is programmed for more persons than the occupancy permit allows) or seating and table arrangement that is different than shown on the approved plans. You will be asked to sign for violations issued for corridor obstructions such as the placement of furniture in the path of egress.

We have worked with the FDNY, OSYD, and DSF to get approval for recording Fire Drill information in OORS. You will be asked to sign for violations if this is not done.

Violations for display of flammable materials in excess of the Code allowed limits will also need to be signed for by the Principal. The DOE and the FDNY have reached an agreement regarding these display that should go for to ease your concerns. The Fire Department is enforcing the Code regulations related to displays of flammable materials (paper and cloth are key examples) in corridors. Corridors are required to be free of obstructions and hazards to allow students and staff to safely exit the building in an emergency. The NYC Fire Code regulations limit the displays using flammable materials to not exceeding 20% of the gross wall area of the corridor. The FDNY Bureau of Fire Prevention understands the importance of engaging interest by displays of student work. The FDNY will accede to displays exceeding 20% of the wall area with certain provisos.

1) Displayed work must lay flat against the wall. Items protruding from the wall are not acceptable.

2) No flammable materials may be hung from the ceiling or suspended across the corridors. These types of displays expose a greater area for ignition. Further, heat banks up against the ceiling in fire situations and displays of this type present a critical hazard in a fire.

3) Freestanding flammable displays extending into the corridor, such as papier mâché trees, are not acceptable as they present potential problems during an evacuation. This type of display can be pushed into the path of egress and impact persons using the corridor.

4) There should be no floor to ceiling hangings in the corridor.

5) The amount in excess of 20% should be reasonable and done in moderation. The FDNY approval of amounts in excess of 20% should be looked on as a limited license, not carte blanche.

These limits have been clearly explained to those persons responsible for rating you, your school, and your programs. Your ability to work within the limits, and to use your and your student’s creativity to maximize the impact of the available areas, will be taken into consideration. You should rotate the displays, and review how best to present student work. It is not the amount of student work exhibited, but rather the quality of the work and the demonstration of process in the display that is critical.

Specific questions may be addressed to Volkert Braren at the Division of School Facilities. His email address is [email protected].nyc.gov.

 

the aftermath

What educators, parents, and students are grappling with in the wake of America’s latest school shooting

Kristi Gilroy (right) hugs a young woman at a police check point near the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School where 17 people were killed by a gunman in Parkland, Florida. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

It’s hard to know where to start on days like this.

The shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, that left 17 people dead on Wednesday has elicited both terror and anger — and raised debates that are far from settled about how to keep American students safe.

Here are a few storylines we noticed as the country again grapples with a tragic school shooting:

1. You’re not wrong to think it: There have been a lot of mass shootings, and many recent ones have been especially deadly.

Data on school shootings specifically, though, is notoriously murky. As the Atlantic recently noted, varying definitions can contribute to either “sensationalizing or oversimplifying a modern trend of mass violence in America that is seemingly becoming more entrenched.”

But by NBC News’ count, 20 people have been killed and more than 30 have been injured in school shootings this year. That’s a lot — and more news organizations are now trying to keep a careful tally.

2. The consequences of traumatic events like the shooting at Stoneman Douglas are likely to be felt for some time.

A number of studies have found that violent and traumatic events in and outside of school do real damage to student learning, as we’ve reported — particularly among students who are already struggling. Here are some resources for teachers who need to talk to their students about trauma.

3. The tragedy is already renewing debates over whether or how to arm teachers.

Education Week gathered some of those calls from politicians Thursday. “Gun-safety advocates say that teachers can’t safely and quickly move from the mindset of teaching to being asked to fire a gun at an active shooter,” the story also notes.

This doesn’t even get at the debate about whether anyone should have access to the kind of gun the shooter used. Students from the district, for their part, told Broward schools chief Robert Runcie Thursday “that the time is due for a conversation on sensible gun control,” the Miami Herald reported.

Whether other technology and infrastructure can help keep students safe is a topic of ongoing discussion in communities across the country. Colorado lawmakers are considering a bill to help schools buy communications systems that would allow them to talk directly to police and other emergency responders. Officials from districts that already use this equipment described them as a way to increase safety without “turning our schools into prisons,” even as they also assured lawmakers that the radios were just as useful for serious playground injuries and broken-down buses as for the much rarer active shooter situations.

In Tennessee, one school district near Nashville announced plans to close schools next Monday to review all safety plans with school staff and local law enforcement.

4. In some places, the shooting is unlikely to change the school safety debate at all.

In New York City, for example, conversations about school safety in recent years have revolved around discipline policies and metal detectors (though police have seized an increasing number of weapons from city schools). There’s little appetite there to arm teachers.

5. But all across America, the shooting and others like it have added a frightening tone to what it means to teach and learn in schools today.

“I know you are waking up this morning to a nightmare,” a former educator wrote in a “love letters to teachers” on Teaching Tolerance. “I know you are frustrated, tired and weary of the news. I know you are wearing your coat of bravery today.”

“I’m so, so angry and I’m having a hard time today looking at my students and not thinking about what happens when it’s my school’s turn,” wrote one commenter on the Badass Teachers Association Facebook group.

getting to graduation

New York City graduation rate hits record high of 74.3 percent in 2017

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the 2017 graduation rate at South Bronx Preparatory school.

New York City’s graduation rate rose to 74.3 percent in 2017, a slight increase over the previous year and a new high for the city.

The 1.2 percentage point increase over the previous year continues an upward climb for the city, where the overall graduation rate has grown by nearly 28 points since 2005. The state graduation rate also hit a new high — 82.1 percent — just under the U.S. rate of 84.1 percent.

The city’s dropout rate fell to 7.8 percent, a small decline from the previous year and the lowest rate on record, according to the city.

“New York City is showing that when we invest in our students, they rise to the challenge and do better and better,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a statement Wednesday.

More graduates were also deemed ready for college-level work. Last year, 64 percent of graduates earned test scores that met the City University of New York’s “college-ready” benchmark — up more than 13 percentage points from the previous year. 

However, the gains came after CUNY eased its readiness requirements; without that change, city officials said the increase would be significantly smaller. But even with the less rigorous requirements, more than a third of city students who earned high-school diplomas would be required to take remedial classes at CUNY.

Phil Weinberg, the education department’s deputy chancellor for teaching and learning, noted that CUNY’s college-readiness requirements are more demanding than New York’s graduation standards — which are among the toughest in the country.

We will work toward making sure none of our students need remediation when they get to college,” he told reporters. “But that’s a long game for us and we continue to move in that direction.”

The rising graduation rates follow a series of changes the state has made in recent years to help more students earn diplomas.

The graduation-requirement changes include allowing students with disabilities to earn a diploma by passing fewer exit exams and letting more students appeal a failed score. In addition, students can now substitute a work-readiness credential for one of the five Regents exams they must pass in order to graduate — adding to a number of other alternative tests the state has made available in the past few years.

About 9,900 students used one of those alternative-test or credential options in 2017, while 315 students with disabilities took advantage of the new option for them, according to state officials. They could not say how many students successfully appealed a low test score; but in 2016, about 1,300 New York City students did so.

The news was mixed for schools in de Blasio’s high-profile “Renewal” improvement program for low-performing schools. Among the 28 high schools that have received new social services and academic support through the program, the graduation rate increased to nearly 66 percent — almost a 6 percentage point bump over 2016. Their dropout rate also fell by about 2 points, to 16.4 percent, though that remains more than twice as high as the citywide rate.

However, more than half of the high schools in that $568 million program — 19 out of 28 — missed the graduation goals the city set for them, according to a New York Times analysis based on preliminary figures.

Graduation rates for students who are still learning English ticked up slightly to 32.5 percent, following a sharp decline the previous year that the state education commissioner called “disturbing.” City officials argue that students who improved enough to shed the designation of “English language learner” in the years before they graduated should also be counted; among that larger group, the graduation rate was 53 percent in 2017.

Meanwhile, the graduation-rate gap between white students and their black and Hispanic peers narrowed a smidgen, but it remains wide. Last year, the graduation rate was about 83 percent for white students, 70 percent for black students, and 68 percent for Hispanic students. That represented a closing of the gap between white and black students by 0.4 percentage points, and 0.1 points between whites and Hispanic.

Asian students had the highest rate — 87.5 percent — a nearly 2 point increase from the previous year that widened their lead over other racial groups.

Christina Veiga contributed reporting.