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]

 

To and Through

Newark’s post-grad paradox: More students are entering college, but few earn degrees

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
Newark Mayor Ras Baraka wants 25 percent of residents to have college degrees by 2025, up from 19 percent today.

When it comes to college, Newark faces a good news-bad news paradox.

More students than ever are graduating high school and enrolling in college, according to a new report. Yet fewer than one in four Newark students earns a college degree within six years of graduating high school — leaving many with limited job prospects in a city where an estimated one-third of jobs require a four-year college degree.

Now, city officials are promising to build on the report. They want to ramp up the rigor of high-school classes and create more early-college programs to increase the odds of students entering college and leaving with a degree.  

“How do we teach our children to perform — to graduate?” Mayor Ras Baraka asked at a press conference Wednesday to mark the official release of the report of Newark students’ college outcomes. “We got them in the door,” he said of students who attend college. “Now how do we make them stay?”

The city’s plans, to which Superintendent Roger León is lending his support, reflect a growing recognition that simply getting students into college is not sufficient — and can even backfire if they drop out before graduation, leaving them with college debt but no degree.

Until recently, the charge given to high schools in Newark and across the country was to foster “college-going cultures.” And these efforts showed promising results: On average, 51 percent of Newark Public School students who graduated high school between 2011 and 2016 immediately enrolled in college, up from 39 percent who did so between 2004 and 2010, according to the report by the Newark City of Learning Collaborative, or NCLC, and Rutgers University-Newark’s School of Public Affairs and Administration.

But entering college didn’t guarantee its completion. Of those students who started college straight after high school, only 39 percent earned a degree within six years, the report found.

As a result, educators and policymakers have begun to think harder about how to help students “to and through” college — to ensure they actually earn degrees. Toward that end, Baraka and the NCLC — which includes roughly 40 colleges, schools, nonprofits, and corporations — has set a goal of 25 percent of Newark residents earning college degrees or comparable credentials by 2025.

Today, just 19 percent of Newark adults have associate degrees or higher — compared to 45 percent of adults across New Jersey and 40 percent nationally.

Superintendent León, who began overseeing the city’s schools on July 1, said his main strategy for supporting these efforts will be to expose students to challenging work early on.

“If we don’t do something dramatically in classrooms to improve instruction and make it rigorous,” León said after Wednesday’s event, then students are “getting into college but they’re not completing it.”

Source: “Post-Secondary Outcomes of Newark High School Graduates (2011-2016)” report. Note: The four-year rate is an average of the classes of 2011 to 2013. The six-year rate is from the class of 2011. Graphic: Sam Park/Chalkbeat

For starters, León said he wants high schools to offer more college-level classes. In the 2016-17 school year, just 21 percent of Newark students were enrolled in one or more Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate classes — compared to 42 percent of students statewide.

He also vowed to raise the quality of instruction in the district’s traditional high schools. Only 14 percent of their graduates earn college degrees within six years, compared to 42 percent of graduates from the city’s selective magnet schools, the report found.

To do that, León said he will create specialized academies within the traditional schools modeled on the magnets, which have specialized themes such as science, technology, or the arts. The academies, which will partner with colleges, will most likely feature admissions criteria similar to those of magnet schools, which select students based on their academic and attendance records, León added.

And, for the first time, all ninth-grade students this academic year will take the Preliminary SAT, or PSAT, León said Wednesday. An additional 1,100 eighth-graders who passed at least one of their seventh-grade PARCC exams will also take the PSAT when it’s administered on Oct. 10.

Since 2016, the district has provided the PSAT to all 10th and 11th-grade students. But León said that giving the test to younger students will focus their attention on college and help identity those who are ready for advanced classes. The PSAT is designed to help students prepare for the SAT, which is used in college admissions, and to qualify for National Merit Scholarships.

The district, which was under state control for 22 years until February, is getting some assistance in its effort to improve students’ college outcomes.

For instance, KIPP, the national charter-school network with eight schools in Newark, is sharing its strategies for helping students choose the right college with guidance counselors at three district high schools.

And the higher-education institutions in the Newark City of Learning Collaborative, including Essex County College and Rutgers University-Newark, plan to create more “dual-enrollment” programs that allow high-school students to earn college credits, said NCLC Executive Director Reginald Lewis.

“We’re all going to do a better job,” Lewis said, “of making sure that once Newark residents get in our doors, that we help them persist.”

Time crunch

In victory for teachers union, Newark superintendent scraps longer hours for low-performing schools

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
Superintendent Roger León at Hawkins Street School, one of the schools that will lose its extended hours.

Newark’s new superintendent is eliminating a program that extended the hours of struggling schools, which the teachers union has long attacked as ineffective and unfair to educators.

Teachers at roughly 30 schools will no longer receive $3,000 annual stipends for the extra hours, a provision written into the current teachers contract, which extends to 2019. Instead, all 64 district schools will get extra funding for before and after-school programs, Superintendent Roger León said in an email to employees on Tuesday.

The changes will go into effect Monday, Sept. 10, resulting in new hours for the affected schools just days after the new school year began. The district is still working to adjust pickup times for students who are bused to school, according to León’s email. A few of the schools will phase out their extended hours later in the year, the email said.

“We will not continue to do the same things as before and be surprised when the results do not change,” León wrote, adding that cutting the extra hours would save the district $5 million.

In an interview with Chalkbeat Thursday, León said the move is intended to create more uniformity among schools and the services they provide. Now, all schools will get additional money to pay for programs outside of the regular school day, which schools can tailor to their individual needs, though students who are struggling academically will continue to receive “intensive” support, he said.

“Ultimately, the idea would be by October having completely different after-school and before-school programming that meets the needs of each respective school,” León said.

The extended time was first included in the teachers contract in 2012 as part of a larger improvement plan for the targeted schools, which was developed by Cami Anderson, Newark’s former state-appointed superintendent. The plan also designated some low-performing schools as “renew” schools, where teachers had to reapply for their positions and work longer hours.

Anderson also closed some schools and gave principals new hiring authority. Both actions left dozens of tenured teachers without positions, so Anderson created a fund to pay those teachers to perform support duties in schools. In 2014, that fund for “employees without placement” cost the district $35 million out of its nearly $1 billion budget, though by last year the fund had shrunk to $8 million for about 100 unassigned teachers, according to officials.

León said in Tuesday’s email that he was also eliminating the fund, which he said would save the district another $6 million. The teachers union president said he believed all the unassigned teachers now have placements, but the district did not respond to a request to confirm that.

León is also removing the “renew” and “turnaround” labels from low-performing schools, citing their “progress and student achievement,” according to the email.

“I applaud everyone’s efforts at renew or turnaround schools and acknowledge what has been accomplished,” he wrote.

Now that León has abolished his predecessors’ school-improvement program, he will be expected to create his own. Many schools remain mired in poor performance, even as the district overall has made strides in recent years.

When the teachers union agreed to the extended hours in its 2012 contract with the district, it was hailed nationally as a major breakthrough in efforts to revamp troubled schools. But even as the union agreed last year to keep the provision in its current contract, union officials have assailed the turnaround effort as a failure.

NTU President John Abeigon told Chalkbeat on Thursday that the program had been a “scam” and “nothing more than extended childcare.” He added that the stipend teachers received amounted to about $7 per hour for the extra time they worked.

In 2016, a district-commissioned survey of 787 teachers at schools with extended hours found that two-thirds of teachers at schools where the extra time was spent on student instruction said the time was valuable. But in a survey the union conducted in April, the 278 teachers who responded gave the extended hours low ratings for effectiveness in boosting student achievement.

Some teachers in the union survey praised the longer hours, saying their schools used them effectively to lengthen class periods, run after-school clubs, or allow teachers to plan lessons or review student data. But others said the extra time was squandered, leaving staff and students exhausted with little evidence of improved student outcomes to show for it. (Students’ pass rates on state tests stayed flat or declined at most “renew” schools in the first years of the program.)

The union also has complained that many teachers felt compelled to work the extra hours because those who refused to could be transferred to different schools. Under the terms of the original extended-day agreement, teachers were required to work an extra hour per day and attend trainings during the summer and some weekends.

In León’s email to employees, he said every extended-day school had set different work requirements and “none are consistent with the original design.” The longer days may also be contributing to high teacher turnover in those schools, he wrote, adding that principals of schools with regular hours told him they did not want to extend their hours.

Abeigon, the union president, applauded León’s decision to scrap the extra work hours.

“He came to the conclusion that we expected any true educator to reach: that the program was not working and was never going to work,” he said.

León said Thursday that he is now working on a new turnaround program. Once it’s ready, he promised to share the details with affected families before publicly announcing which schools are part of it — an effort to avoid the student protests that erupted when Anderson identified her “turnaround” schools.

He also said he was still considering whether he would ever close schools that fail to improve or to reverse their declining enrollments. Anderson’s decision to shutter nearly a dozen long-struggling schools continues to fuel resentment among her critics even years later.

“I think the whole idea of how much time does a school get to correct itself is a very important one and I’m going to need to be really reflective on it,” León said. “I’ve seen what closing schools does with people who do not feel that they were aware of it or a part of fixing it.”