vignettes

Schools slated for turnaround say they're already getting better

Teachers and students at the Flushing closure hearing wore red and glitter horns to represent the school's mascot, the Red Devils.

The Department of Education isn’t paying attention to recent improvements at the school it has proposed for “turnaround,” teachers and students said at two of the schools Wednesday evening.

At Flushing High School, teachers said during a public hearing about the turnaround plan that a recent leadership change had created conditions for success — and that any consideration of the school’s performance should taken into account its large immigrant population. At the Bronx High School of Business, teachers said the staff had been overhauled this year but hadn’t yet had a chance to demonstrated success.

The city has been holding public hearings about the turnarounds, which would require schools to be closed and reopened after replacing many teachers, since late last month. The final two hearings are tonight, and the city’s Panel for Educational Policy is set to vote on the 26 total proposals next week. It has never rejected a city proposal.

Flushing High School

According to the dozens of students and teachers who testified at Wednesday night’s closure hearing, Flushing High School is on the upswing after suffering from years of poor leadership and budget cuts.

More than 100 protesters of the city’s plan to close the school using the turnaround model struck a tone of optimism and passion as they sat in the Flushing auditorium, wearing red T-shirts and, in some cases, glittery horns to represent the school’s mascot, the Red Devils. A group of sophomores from a band class drummed forcefully on plastic tubs before city officials began the hearing, chanting, “Save our school.”

Deputy Chancellor David Weiner cited the school’s low four-year graduation rate — 60 percent for the past two years — as the main reason the Department of Education believes Flushing would benefit from turnaround. As he spoke, teachers and parents in the audience sporadically shouted over him. “Nobody wants this!” one called. “Fix truancy,” another shouted. A third person yelled, “They’re not English-speaking,” referring to Flushing’s large number of English Language Learners. Of Flushing’s 3,075 students, 618 are ELLs.

Jenny Chen, a Chinese teacher, said the school’s performance only appears to be lagging because many students arrive needing more than four years of English as a second language instruction to reach proficiency.

“Most of my students sitting in the audience are seniors. Three years ago when they left their motherland to start a new life at Flushing High School they barely spoke any English,” Chen said in her testimony. “To my mind, their achievements are more significant than those from Stuyvesant High School who will attend a prestigious college because our students’ social and economic background is extremely disadvantaged.”

Other people who testified said another factor out of teachers’ and students’ control — the school’s leadership — had led to poor performance.

Laura Spadacini, a long-time assistant principal at Flushing, said Cornelia Gutwein, the principal from 1997 to 2010, had made little effort to graduate students in four years and employed administrators who were unfamiliar with graduation requirements or student transcripts.

“The former principal here paid no attention to the graduation rate. You are holding us responsible for the mistakes that were made over the course of years,” she said. “We’re finally given an opportunity to move forward and the DOE decides to close us down.”

Spadacini also said Principal Carl Hudson, until last year a teacher at Flushing, had improved upon the previous administration but got only eight months to prove himself. The city already invited teachers and families to a “meet and greet” with the educator slated to replace him, Magdalen Radovich, now an assistant principal at another Queens school.

“We have a law program, an enterprise program, all cited in the [the city’s Education Impact Statement], and the kids are moving forward with these programs,” Spadacini added in an interview. “If we could expand what’s happening there to the rest of the building, there’s no need to close the school.”

Bronx High School of Business

Unlike at Flushing and other school turnaround hearings where droves of students and teachers have banded together in protest, things were quiet at the Bronx High School of Business.

No more than 40 students, parents, and teachers attended a public hearing about the small high school’s proposed turnaround, and their mood reflected resignation rather than resistance. Still, the school’s supporters said positive changes were underway and should be given a chance to boost the school’s performance.

Department of Education deputy chancellor Laura Rodriguez explained the department’s rationale in at a meeting held in the large auditorium of the Taft Educational Complex, which houses four different high schools. “By closing and replacing the Bronx High School of Business, we are seeking to rapidly create a school environment that will prepare students for college and life,” Rodriguez said.

The school landed on the state’s “Persistently Low-Achieving” schools list last year. As a result, last September it received a federal grant to undergo “restart,” and founding Principal Enrique Lizardi brought in a number of new expert teachers to teach English and special education. (Lizardi resigned last month; he would not be allowed to stay on under the rules of turnaround.)

Those teachers have not yet had a chance to show results, the school’s supporters said, since the decision to close the school was coming before students would take this year’s Regents exams. The teachers have not even served out a full year before the department decided to replace the school, they said.

“They’re not letting us continue the work we were doing with these kids,” said Elizabeth Solis, a teacher brought in under the restart model who is also the school’s union chapter leader. “The kids are sad, confused and upset but they feel powerless. The closing of the Bronx High School of Business is not about the children.”

Few students spoke at the hearing, but those who did said they were disappointed in the message the closure plan was sending. Rashid Gladden, a soft-spoken sophomore, said, “By shutting down this high school, you’ll hurt students. My teachers taught me to become a better leader and persevere.”

Sarah Tan, who covered the Bronx High School of Business hearing, is a graduate student at Columbia University’s journalism school

Mixed messages

Is the Board of Regents hostile to charter schools? Depends upon whom you ask.

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Regent Collins and Regent Johnson engage in a discussion after a Board of Regents meeting.

When the Board of Regents took the unprecedented step of rejecting two new charter schools last week, it sent shudders through the charter school sector.

Even before the meeting last Monday, the Regents had been making charters “nervous,” said Andrea Rogers, the New York State Director for the Northeast Charter Schools Network. The rejections only heightened the anxiety.

“I think these denials skyrocketed the issue to the front of people’s minds,” she said.  

And yet, during the same meeting, the board praised and signed off on the opening of five other charter schools, which brings the number of new schools approved this year to more than any year since 2013.

The meeting was emblematic of the mixed signals that this Board of Regents have been sending over the last few months, feeding different interpretations among both those who advocate for charter schools and those who champion traditional schools

The board’s willingness to criticize and question charters have many believing the Regents are, at best, skeptics and, at worst, opposed to the publicly funded, privately run schools that they authorize and oversee.

At the same time, the Regents have not been without praise for charters, and some charters say they have appreciated the support of the body and the state’s support staff.

Chancellor Betty Rosa said the Regents’ decisions are evidence of nuance, not rigid ideology or partisanship.

“I think there’s too many times when people want to simply say ‘you’re for’ or ‘you’re against.’ It’s so much more complicated than that,” Rosa told Chalkbeat in an interview Wednesday. “To me, if it’s a wonderful opportunity for kids — you got me. If it’s not, I’m probably going to be your worst enemy.”

As an authorizer, the Board of Regents has the power to approve new schools and decide which of its 87 schools should remain open. In addition to deciding the fate of individual schools, the board is rethinking how it evaluates all of its schools   and whether they should take a closer look at measures like surveys or chronic absenteeism.

With several new members and a relatively new leader, the Regents’ actions have been under particular scrutiny for signs of partisanship. Some have seized on recent events, such as critical statements made by some Regents as charter schools have come before the board for approval or renewal.

One Regent suggested that charter schools achieve high test scores by pushing out students; another suggested a charter school in Brooklyn is contributing to segregation.

Rosa has fiercely opposed a proposal that would allow some charter schools to certify their own teachers, calling the idea  “insulting.” The board also rejected a batch of Success Academy renewals, arguing that their authorizer attempted to renew the high-performing but controversial charter schools too soon. (The move had little practical effect, since their authorizer, SUNY, can override the board’s decision.)

Rosa said the sum of these decisions does not mean either she or the board is anti-charter. Her opposition to the teacher certification proposal had nothing to do with the source of the proposal — a charter authorizer — but because, she said, she believes the idea is an affront to the teaching profession and will allow unqualified teachers to enter classrooms.

The Success Academy renewals, she said, were returned based on legal requirements — and were not an appraisal of the charter network.

But taken together, observers of different educational ideologies have concluded that the board is more likely to probe problems with charter schools than in the past.

“It is quite a change from a couple years ago, and it does show greater misgivings about charter schools than what we saw under the board as it was previously constructed,” said Bob Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents. (Lowry said he appreciates that the board is paying more attention to how charter schools will affect the funding of surrounding school districts.)

The state’s teachers union has picked up on the change and praised the board for providing more oversight of charter schools, while calling on them to do more.

“The Regents, at this point, are providing much overdue scrutiny of the charter sector,” said NYSUT spokesman Carl Korn. “We believe that the Regents and the state education department need to do more, but this is a good step.”

Charter school advocates agree, seeing the Board of Regents’ actions as worrying. Since the board’s philosophy is hard to pin down, schools are starting to wonder if they can switch authorizers, Rogers said.

Yet there are signs that charters’ fear are based on conclusions that are far too sweeping. As the board rejected two schools outside of New York City, they also lauded applications for schools opening in the city a fact that may suggest differences in how the Regents assess schools in different areas of the state.

Regent Christine Cea welcomed a new school in Staten Island, saying she is “totally in favor of it.” Rosa expressed excitement about a new KIPP school in the Bronx, saying the community has “tremendous support” for its opening.

Rosa said Regents are more thoughtful and involved in reviewing schools now. She suggested that there are educational innovations that can be learned from charter schools, but also offered some critiques. At the top of her list, she worries that charter schools are not well-equipped to serve students with the most severe disabilities.

Several schools that are currently authorized by the board expressed their appreciation for the Board of Regents and those in the state education department’s charter school office who provide technical assistance to schools and create charter school recommendations for the board.

“On our quest to better serve scholars with learning differences, we have found no better ally,” said Eric Tucker, who is a co-founder of Brooklyn Laboratory Charter School. “Through technical assistance and oversight, the Regents push public schools like ours to continually improve to better serve the needs of all students, all days.”

Still, said Bob Bellafiore, an education consultant who works with charter schools, several Regents come from district school backgrounds, and so their default attitude is to question charter schools and support the traditional school model.

“They’re much more district school system people,” Bellafiore said.

What's Your Education Story?

Tips for teaching poetry in a women’s prison. ‘Remember, you are not allowed to hug anyone.’

PHOTO: Lwp Kommunikáció, Flickr CC
Inmates at the Indiana Women's Prison.

Adam Henze was one of seven educators who participated in a story slam sponsored by Chalkbeat, Teachers Lounge Indy, WFYI Public Media and the Indianapolis Public Library on Sept. 5. Every teacher shared stories about their challenges and triumphs in Circle City classrooms.

A poet and educator, Henze read a poem about a day in his life as a poetry instructor at the Indiana Women’s Prison. Henze recounts the painful struggle to reconcile his experiences with the crimes for which his students were serving time — some life sentences for murder

It’s a story full of darkness, but it also offers hope that, as Henze said, “we are the sum of the things that we have done, but we’re also the sum of the things that we have yet to do.”

Check out the video below to hear Henze’s story.

You can find more stories from educators, students and parents here.