visions and revisions

New Queens school with high hopes battles scheduling crisis

Queens Metropolitan High School under construction, April 21, 2010. Jim Henderson/Creative Commons

A year-old Queens high school that expanded to meet community demand is struggling under the weight of its own ambitions.

Located in a suburban section of Queens, Queens Metropolitan High School promised rich course offerings and a rigorous academic program to its 650 ninth- and 10th-grade students. But the ambitious plans left little room for error, and because of staff changes, space issues, and poor planning, Queens Metropolitan students have gotten new schedules as many as 10 times since September.

On Monday, up to three periods of classes were canceled for many 10th-grade students, who sat in the auditorium and cafeteria as administrators feverishly worked to hash out new schedules, according to accounts from parents, students, and staff.

At a PTA meeting Tuesday night, parents also complained that some classes are without teachers, physical education instruction isn’t happening, and that their students aren’t receiving grades for some coursework.

Principal Marci Levy-Maguire told the two dozen parents at the meeting, who included City Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley, that she is working “night and day” on fixing the schedule debacle.

“Programming has been problematic. I fully admit it. We are continuing to work to address it so students are programmed properly,” Levy-Maguire said. “I can say nothing more than I apologize, and I wish it were different. We are making plans to have this resolved.”

Several teachers who had been assisting with trouble-shooting schedule revisions pulled out of the process on Sunday, saying that they did not want to give up teaching time to complete administrative tasks, according to an email that GothamSchools obtained.

Levy-Maguire said last night that she was getting help from other sources, including her Department of Education network and a programming consultant from outside the school. Later this week, she said, a technology intern would address problems with the school’s scheduling software, BlackBoard. The system recently failed to register changes staff had entered, compounding scheduling woes, Levy-Maguire said.

Levy-Maguire declined a follow-up interview today.

But at the PTA meeting, Levy-Maguire, a graduate of the city’s Leadership Academy for new principals, suggested that her administration was simply in over its head. Under pressure from elected officials and families concerned about crowding elsewhere, the school has enrolled far more students than originally planned.

“We didn’t know how much we needed to plan last year. I had no idea how much we would have to plan as early as February,” she said. “This school feels like a small school to people. But we’re a big school, and we didn’t have the systems in place to run a big school.”

Queens Metropolitan’s size puts it at odds with the vast majority of new high schools opened during the Bloomberg administration. Most new schools are small, with about 100 students and just a handful of teachers in each grade, and one criticism of them has been that they often do not offer the numerous elective and extracurricular options that many large high schools boast (sometimes with scheduling problems of their own). Among her goals in opening Queens Metropolitan, Levy-Maguire has said, was to give students those options in a neighborhood school.

Those options will have to be slimmed down, Levy-Maguire told parents after one mother asked — but did not get an answer to — a question about whether her son would receive credit for the three elective classes he was enrolled in until now.

“Next year will not be the same,” Levy-Maguire said. “I over-burdened the school. I gave your kids lots and lots of choice. I need to limit those choices unfortunately. I cannot offer your kids as many electives this year as I would have hoped to.”

Some of the electives—which include financial literacy, Regents prep in Geometry and Chemistry, and “twenty-first century skills”—could be eliminated by early December, she said.

DOE officials said the scheduling problems, which they promised would be resolved before the start of the next marking period, would not cost students credits or seat time.

Other issues are also in the process of being resolved. One, about teachers’ workloads, is the subject of a union complaint. Evelyn Goldschmidt, the school’s UFT chapter leader, said close to a third of the school’s teachers have filed complaints charging that their packed schedules had them working more time than their contract allows.

In an email to staff on Monday, Levy-Maguire announced that teachers working more than their contractual schedule would be paid overtime. Substitutes might take over some of the elective classes, she said, and members of the Absent Teacher Reserve who rotate through the school each week could supervise others.

And scheduling conflicts between Queens Metropolitan and two other schools in the brand-new building over the gym and locker room have prevented students from having physical education instruction so far this year.

Levy-Maguire confirmed at the meeting that students were not held accountable for PE attendance or participation this marking period because classes could not be held.

“We had to hold kids accountable for something,” she said, so students were graded on a pass-fail basis for handing in required forms and getting their height and weight checked. Those assessments will change once regular P.E. instruction begins after the scheduling conflicts are resolved, she said.

“I have an impression from my son that he has not had one day of gym class,” said City Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley, who has two children at the school. “I don’t understand why a person can’t just look at a student and say we have this many teachers, this is the schedule. We could do it by hand.”

Crowley also said her son has complained that no lessons are being taught in chemistry since the teacher left at the end of October. “I’m worried that he’s not meeting basic standards,” she said.

Marc Pagan, whose son is in 10th grade, raised similar concerns about the chemistry class. “I’m hearing the exact same thing from our son,” he sad. “There’s the occasional substitute. [Students] come in with work, and they’re told they don’t have to do any of it. And that’s a Regents class. They’re being set up for disaster.”

Levy-Maguire responded that she is searching diligently for a new chemistry teacher, but the position is tough to fill.

In an email to her staff last week, Levy-Maguire vowed that the school would emerge from the ongoing troubles more organized and prepared to serve its students.

“I know we are becoming a stronger team not because of the challenges we face, but because of how we face them together,” she wrote.


after douglas

Betsy DeVos avoids questions on discrimination as school safety debates reach Congress

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos prepares to testify at a House Appropriations Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies Subcommittee hearing in Rayburn Building on the department's FY2019 budget on March 20, 2018. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos fielded some hostile questions on school safety and racial discrimination as she defended the Trump administration’s budget proposal in a House committee hearing on Tuesday.

The tone for the hearing was set early by ranking Democrat Rep. Rosa DeLauro, who called aspects DeVos’s prepared remarks “misleading and cynical” before the secretary had spoken. Even the Republican subcommittee chair, Rep. Tom Cole, expressed some skepticism, saying he was “concerned about the administration continuing to request cuts that Congress has rejected.”

During nearly two hours of questioning, DeVos stuck to familiar talking points and largely side-stepped the tougher queries from Democrats, even as many interrupted her.

For instance, when Rep. Barbara Lee, a Democrat from Texas, complained about proposed spending cuts and asked, “Isn’t it your job to ensure that schools aren’t executing harsher punishments for the same behavior because [students] are black or brown?” DeVos responded by saying that students of color would benefit from expanded school choice programs.

Lee responded: “You still haven’t talked about the issue in public schools as it relates to black and brown students and the high disparity rates as it relates to suspensions and expulsions. Is race a factor? Do you believe that or not?” (Recent research in Louisiana found that black students receive longer suspensions than white students involved in the same fights, though the difference was very small.)

Again, DeVos did not reply directly.

“There is no place for discrimination and there is no tolerance for discrimination, and we will continue to uphold that,” she said. “I’m very proud of the record of the Office of Civil Rights in continuing to address issues that arise to that level.”

Lee responded that the administration has proposed cuts to that office; DeVos said the reduction was modest — less than 1 percent — and that “they are able to do more with less.”

The specific policy decision that DeVos faces is the future of a directive issued in 2014 by the Obama administration designed to push school districts to reduce racial disparities in suspensions and expulsions. Conservatives and some teachers have pushed DeVos to rescind this guidance, while civil rights groups have said it is crucial for ensuring black and Hispanic students are not discriminated against.

That was a focus of another hearing in the House on Tuesday precipitated by the shooting last month at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican, falsely claimed in his opening statement that Broward County Public Schools rewrote its discipline policy based on the federal guidance — an idea that has percolated through conservative media for weeks and been promoted by other lawmakers, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Utah Sen. Mike Lee. In fact, the Broward County rules were put into place in 2013, before the Obama administration guidance was issued.

The Manhattan Institute’s Max Eden, a leading critic of Obama administration’s guidance, acknowledged in his own testimony that the Broward policy predated these rules. But he suggested that policies like Broward’s and the Obama administration’s guidance have made schools less safe.

“Faced with pressure to get the numbers down, the easiest path is to simply not address, or to not record, troubling, even violent, behavior,” he said.

Kristen Harper, a director with research group Child Trends and a former Obama administration official, disagreed. “To put it simply, neither the purpose nor the letter of the federal school discipline guidance restrict the authority of school personnel to remove a child who is threatening student safety,” she said.

There is little, if any, specific evidence linking Broward County’s policies to how Stoneman Douglas shooter Nicholas Cruz was dealt with. There’s also limited evidence about whether reducing suspensions makes schools less safe.

Eden pointed to a study in Philadelphia showing that the city’s ban on suspensions coincided with a drop in test scores and attendance in some schools. But those results are difficult to interpret because the prohibition was not fully implemented in many schools. He also cited surveys of teachers expressing concerns about safety in the classroom including in Oklahoma CityFresno, California; and Buffalo, New York.

On the other hand, a recent study found that after Chicago modestly reduced suspensions for the most severe behaviors, student test scores and attendance jumped without any decline in how safe students felt.

DeVos is now set to consider the repeal of those policies on the Trump administration’s school safety committee, which she will chair.

On Tuesday, DeVos said the committee’s first meeting would take place “within the next few weeks.” Its members will be four Cabinet secretaries: DeVos herself, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar, and Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen.

on the run

‘Sex and the City’ star and public schools advocate Cynthia Nixon launches bid for N.Y. governor

Cynthia Nixon on Monday announced her long-anticipated run for New York governor.

Actress and public schools advocate Cynthia Nixon announced Monday that she’s running for governor of New York, ending months of speculation and launching a campaign that will likely spotlight education.

Nixon, who starred as Miranda in the TV series “Sex and the City,” will face New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in September’s Democratic primary.

Nixon has been active in New York education circles for more than a decade. She served as a  longtime spokeswoman for the Alliance for Quality Education, a union-backed advocacy organization. Though Nixon will step down from that role, according to a campaign spokeswoman, education promises to be a centerpiece of her campaign.

In a campaign kickoff video posted to Twitter, Nixon calls herself “a proud public school graduate, and a prouder public school parent.” Nixon has three children.

“I was given chances I just don’t see for most of New York’s kids today,” she says.

Nixon’s advocacy began when her oldest child started school, which was around the same time the recession wreaked havoc on education budgets. She has slammed Gov. Cuomo for his spending on education during his two terms in office, and she has campaigned for New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

In 2008, she stepped into an emotional fight on the Upper West Side over a plan to deal with overcrowding and segregation that would have impacted her daughter’s school. In a video of brief remarks during a public meeting where the plan was discussed, Nixon is shouted down as she claims the proposal would lead to a “de facto segregated” school building.

Nixon faces steep competition in her first run for office. She is up against an incumbent governor who has amassed a $30 million war chest, according to the New York Times. If elected, she would be the first woman and the first openly gay governor in the state.