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.


Counselor Comeback

Years after laying them off, Newark brings back attendance workers to track down absent students

PHOTO: Newark Public Schools
Superintendent Roger León (center) with more than 40 new attendance counselors the district has hired.

A new school-attendance squad is on the job in Newark, ready to phone families and track down truant students.

More than 40 new attendance counselors and truancy officers made their official debut this week — part of a campaign by Superintendent Roger León to curb rampant absenteeism in the district. The linchpin of León’s approach is the rehiring of the attendance workers, who were laid off nearly six years ago amid questions about their effectiveness.

The employees — some new and some returning — will help craft school attendance plans, contact families, and bring truant students back to class with the help of Newark police officers.

They have their work cut out for them: Nearly a quarter of students have already missed about two weeks or more of school since September, according to district officials.

In his drive to boost attendance, León also launched a back-to-school campaign last fall and eliminated some early-dismissal days when students tend to skip class. At a school board meeting Tuesday, León said those efforts have resulted in fewer “chronically absent” students who miss 10 percent or more of school days for any reason. So far this school year, 23 percent of students are chronically absent, down from 30.5 percent during the same period the previous school year, he said.

“Right now, we’re in a really, really good place,” León told the board. “Having hired these attendance officers will get us where we need to go.”

A long to-do list awaits the attendance workers, who will earn between $53,000 and $95,531, according to a district job posting. They will create daily attendance reports for schools, call or visit families of absent students, and make sure students who are frequently out of school start showing up on time.

They will also be tasked with enforcing the state’s truancy laws, which authorize attendance officers to arrest “habitually truant” students and allow their parents or guardians to be fined. Newark’s attendance counselors will gather evidence for potential legal actions, deliver legal notices to students’ homes, and appear in court “when required,” according to the job posting.

The district is also establishing a new “truancy task force” to track down truant students, as required by state law. The task force will include both district employees and police officers who will patrol the streets searching for truants to transport back to school.

The teams will be “going up and down every one of our corridors and getting kids in school,” León said Tuesday, adding that they will eventually be provided buses.

Criminal-justice reform advocates across the country have criticized state laws, like New Jersey’s, which criminalize truancy. As a result of such laws, parents can face fines or even jail time and students can be put on probation or removed from their homes. Meanwhile, a 2011 study found that truant students who faced legal action were more likely to earn lower grades and drop out of school than truant students who did not face those sanctions.

While truancy laws may be on the books, districts have discretion in how they enforce them.

Peter Chen, a policy counsel for Advocates for Children of New Jersey, has studied absenteeism in Newark and said he did not know how the district’s new attendance workers would carry out the law. But he cautioned against “punitive strategies,” such as issuing court summonses or suspending frequently absent students, which can temporarily boost attendance but eventually drive students further away from school.

“Once the school is viewed as the enemy, as somebody who is out to get the student, it’s incredibly difficult to rebuild a trusting relationship,” he said. “And what we see time and again is that a trusting relationship between a school and a family or student is a critical component to building a school-wide attendance strategy that works.”

Superintendent León declined to be interviewed after Tuesday’s board meeting, saying he would answer written questions. As of Wednesday evening, he had not responded to those questions.

At the meeting, he did not rule out the possibility of the district’s truancy officers making arrests. But he said the police officers’ job was not to arrest truant students, only to protect the attendance workers.

“I need to make sure that any staff members that we hire are safe,” he said.

In 2013, then-Superintendent Cami Anderson laid off all 46 of the district’s attendance counselors. She attributed the decision to budget constraints and limited evidence that the counselors had improved attendance.

The district shifted the counselors’ responsibilities to school-based teams that included administrators, social workers, and teachers. Critics said the district was expecting schools to do more with less, and the Newark Teachers Union — which had represented the attendance counselors — fought the layoffs in court. An administrative law judge sided with the union, but then-State Education Commissioner David Hespe later overturned the decision.

León, who became superintendent in July, promised to promptly restore the attendance counselors. However, his plans were delayed by a legal requirement that the district first offer the new jobs to the laid-off counselors, some of whom had moved out of state. By the beginning of February, all the positions had been filled and, on Friday, León held a roughly 90-minute meeting with the new attendance team.

To create lasting attendance gains, experts advise schools to consider every aspect of what they do — their discipline policies, the emotional support they provide students, the quality of teaching, and the relationship between staffers and families. Simply outsourcing attendance to designated employees will not work, they warn.

Superintendent León appears to agree. In an interview last year, he said he expects all school employees to join in the work of improving attendance.

“The last thing that needs to happen is for people to walk away saying, ‘Oh, attendance is going to be solved because now we have the attendance counselors,’” León said. “No, everyone has to worry about attendance.”

Newark Enrolls

After changes and challenges, Friday’s deadline to enroll in Newark schools finally arrives

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
A student fills out an information sheet at Central High School's booth at the citywide school fair in December.

Newark families have just a few hours left to apply to more than 70 public schools for next fall.

At noon on Friday, the online portal that allows families to apply to most traditional and charter school will close. After that, they will have to visit the district’s enrollment center. Last year, nearly 13,000 applications were submitted.

The stakes — and stress — are greatest for students entering high school. Each year, hundreds of eighth-graders compete for spots at the city’s selective “magnet” high schools, which many students consider their best options.

This year, those eighth-graders have to jump through an extra hoop — a new admissions test the magnets will use as they rank applicants. District students will sit for the test Friday, while students in charter and private schools will take it Saturday.

That’s news to many parents, including Marie Rosario, whose son, Tamir, is an eighth-grader at Park Elementary School in the North Ward.

“I don’t know nothing about it,” she said. District officials have been tight-lipped about what’s on the new test, how it will factor into admissions decisions, or even why introducing it was deemed necessary.

Students can apply to as many as eight schools. Tamir’s top choice was Science Park, one of the most sought-after magnet schools. Last year, just 29 percent of eighth-graders who ranked it first on their applications got seats.

“I’m going to cross my fingers,” Rosario said.

Students will find out in April where they were matched. Last year, 84 percent of families applying to kindergarten got their first choice. Applicants for ninth grade were less fortunate: Only 41 percent of them got their top choice, the result of so many students vying for magnet schools.

This is the sixth year that families have used the online application system, called Newark Enrolls, to pick schools. Newark is one of the few cities in the country to use a single application for most charter and district schools. Still, several charter schools do not participate in the system, nor do the vocational high schools run by Essex County.

Today, surveys show that most families who use the enrollment system like it. However, its rollout was marred by technical glitches and suspicions that it was designed to funnel students into charter schools, which educate about one in three Newark students. Some charter critics hoped the district’s newly empowered school board would abolish the system. Instead, Superintendent Roger León convinced the board to keep it for now, arguing it simplifies the application process for families.

Managing that process has posed challenges for León, who began as schools chief in July.

First, he ousted but did not replace the district’s enrollment chief. Then, he clashed with charter school leaders over changes to Newark Enrolls, leading them to accelerate planning for an alternative system, although that never materialized. Next, the district fell behind schedule in printing an enrollment guidebook for families.

Later, the district announced the new magnet-school admissions test but then had to delay its rollout as León’s team worked to create the test from scratch with help from principals, raising questions from testing experts about its validity. Magnet school leaders, like families, have said they are in the dark about how heavily the new test will be weighted compared to the other criteria, including grades and state test scores, that magnet schools already use to rank applicants.

Meanwhile, León has repeatedly dropped hints about new “academies” opening inside the district’s traditional high schools in the fall to help those schools compete with the magnets. However, the district has yet to hold any formal informational sessions for families about the academies or provide details about them on the district website or in the enrollment guidebook. As a result, any such academies are unlikely to give the traditional schools much of an enrollment boost this year.

District spokeswoman Tracy Munford did not respond to a request Thursday to speak with an official about this year’s enrollment process.

Beyond those hiccups, the enrollment process has mostly gone according to plan. After activating the application website in December, the district held a well-attended school fair where families picked up school pamphlets and chatted with representatives. Individual elementary schools, such as Oliver Street School in the East Ward, have also invited high school principals to come and tell students about their offerings.

American History High School Principal Jason Denard said he made several outings to pitch his magnet school to prospective students. He also invited middle-school groups to tour his school, and ordered glossy school postcards. Now, along with students and families across the city, all he can do is wait.

“I’m excited to see the results of our recruitment efforts,” he said. “Not much else is in my control — but recruitment is.”