signs of life

Top DOE official endorses a "turnaround" transfer high school

At most of the public hearings about the city’s plans to “turn around” dozens of struggling schools, Department of Education representatives have insisted that closing and reopening the schools with new principals and teachers would be in students’ best interest.

That was not the case at Bushwick Community High School Wednesday night.

After hearing dozens of students deliver emotional speeches in defense of the transfer high school, the department’s second-in-command offered a testimonial of his own.

“This is a school that looks at the whole child. This is a school that gives students second chances. It’s a place of redemption. It’s a family. It saves lives,” said Shael Polakow-Suransky, the department’s chief academic officer.

“I was moved by what you said tonight,” he said. “I’ve been to a lot of public hearings and I think it’s a tribute to the educators in this community that students here speak with such passion, with such eloquence, and so thoughtfully about what works.”

It was not the first time that education officials have given students and staff at Bushwick Community hope since the school landed on the turnaround list in January. That month, state officials said they would ask the U.S. Department of Education for permission not to penalize transfer schools for having low graduation rates — an inevitability when students enroll years into their high school careers, already far behind where they should be.

But that permission is not expected for at least another couple of weeks, and it would kick in for future assessments of school performance.

By that point, turnaround could be well underway at Bushwick Community. The school is one of 26 whose turnaround proposals are set to come before the Panel for Educational Policy next week. The panel has never rejected a city proposal brought to vote.

But Polakow-Suransky signaled that the school might not wind up on the panel’s final agenda.

“I want you to know that as I take those stories back I will share them with our chancellor, Dennis Walcott, who is going to make a decision about whether this school will continue to the panel meeting or not. But I was moved by what you said tonight,” he told the students. A few moments later, he added, “And I do think that whatever gets decided as a result of this process, there’s something very powerful here.”

One student after another spoke about how abuse, crime, drugs and teenage pregnancies had derailed their academic lives until Bushwick Community put them back on track.

Ricardo Rodriguez, who said he was addicted to drugs and was affiliated with the Bloods gang, enrolled at the school in 2010 as a 17-year-old dropout with so few credits that even other transfer high schools wouldn’t take him. Rodriguez graduated last year and is working as a part-time counselor with the school.

Audrey Rochelle is on track to graduate in June after getting kicked out of her last two high schools for fighting and cutting class. She brought her one-year-old child up to the microphone to explain how the teachers supported her during her pregnancy and pushed her to return when she considered dropping out.

“At this point I just know I want a good job so I can provide for my child,” said Rochelle, who plans to attend LaGuardia Community College and study to be a paramedic.

There was Hector Solo, 21, a former Latin King arrested for robbery and assault in 2009. Only a letter of recommendation from his teachers at Bushwick Community saved him from time in jail. Solo graduated last year and is taking community college classes.

Justin Soto, 21, said he was the “chief of armed robbery” at Broadway Junction, a subway hub in East New York, before he began going to Bushwick. “After this school, it changed my life,” he said.

Bushwick Community is the only transfer school that accepts students regardless of how many credits they have (most transfer schools require a minimum of 10 credits). It is also the only city transfer school where all students are at least 17; other schools take younger students.

That means few students can graduate within the four- or six–year time periods that the federal No Child Left Behind law uses to measure progress in most high schools. As a result, Bushwick Community was listed as a “persistently lowest achieving” school two years ago and became one of 33 schools to receive federal funding as part of the School Improvement Grants program.

But Mayor Bloomberg abandoned those plans in January, and instead opted to pursue turnaround for the schools instead, which requires the schools to be closed. It was bad timing for Bushwick Community, which was working with city and state officials on the waiver application that would ease NCLB’s accountability guidelines for transfer schools.

Supporters of Bushwick Community worry that if the closure plan goes through the replacement school will no longer be able to fully serve the most over-aged and under-credited students in the city. The city has proposed allowing the replacement school to enroll students starting at age 16.

“That is so cynical,” David Donsky, an English teacher, said of the plan. “Because all you’re doing is juking the stats. You’re taking younger kids who are more likely to graduate on time, but you’re not improving academic outcomes.”

In another sign that the city might not be fully decided about Bushwick Community’s fate, eight-year Principal Tira Randall remains in charge. The city has already installed new school leaders at many schools slated for turnaround whose principals would have to be removed under the federal government’s rules. Randall has been told she will have to leave at the end of the year if turnaround proceeds, teachers said. They also reported that another administrator who had started working at the school this year, an appointee of the school’s nonprofit management partner, departed in recent weeks for a principal position elsewhere in Brooklyn.

Here’s a full transcript of Polakow-Suransky’s speech:

This is a school that looks at the whole child. This is a school that gives students second chances. It’s a place of redemption. It’s a family. It saves lives. The students in this school call it home. It’s a school that has built a curriculum around teaching students to think critical, to value their history and their culture, to know their identity, to respect each other’s humanity. It’s a school that’s safe. It’s a school that develops leadership, both amongst the faculty and amongst the students. And it’s a school where teachers know kids well and know kids deeply and are willing ot go above and beyond what you see in most schools in order to provide kids needs.

We heard students talk about coming to a school after being in schools where no one ever cared what they thought or what they felt. We heard students talk about the fact that this is a school where they want to learn as a result of the commitment that they feel from their teachers. And we heard many stories about individuals who had come back from very difficult situations and learned how to be students and how to go on to be successes as educators, as musicians, as artists when they left here.

And those were powerful stories and they came through loud and clear and I want you to know that as I take those stories back I will share them with our chancellor, Dennis Walcott, who is going to make a decision about whether this school continue to the panel meeting or not. But I was moved by what you said tonight. I’ve been to a lot of public hearings and I think it’s a tribute to the educators in this community that students here speak with such passion, with such eloquence and so thoughtfully about what works. And I do think that whatever gets decided as a result of this process, there’s something very powerful here and I thank you for sharing that tonight.

Future of Schools

How this Indiana district realized counselors weren’t spending enough time counseling

PHOTO: Denver Post file

About a year ago, the counselors in the Beech Grove school district made a discovery: They were spending less than half of their time on counseling.

Instead of meeting with students one-on-one or in small groups, they were spending most of their days on routine tasks, such as overseeing lunch, proctoring exams, and filling in for secretaries.

When they realized how much time those other tasks were taking away from counseling work, it was “an eye-opener for everyone,” said Paige Anderson, the district college and career coordinator.

The counselors began tracking their time as part of a planning grant from the Lilly Endowment, a prominent Indianapolis-based philanthropy. In 2016, the foundation launched Comprehensive Counseling Initiative for Indiana K-12 Students, a $49 million effort to improve counseling in Indiana. Experts say meaningful counseling can help schools support students as they navigate problems both at home and in the classroom. (The Lilly Endowment also supports Chalkbeat. Learn more about our funding here.)

What Beech Grove staff members learned during their planning process is already changing their approach to counseling, said Trudi Wolfe, a counselor at Central Elementary School, who was instrumental in applying for the Lilly grants. Now, administrators are taking on more tasks like proctoring tests. And one intermediate school hired a new counselor.

“The schools will take counselors and meet the needs of the school,” Wolfe said. “Part of the process is helping administrators understand, school counselors need to be doing school counseling.”

Last month, the endowment announced its second round of implementation grants, which awarded about $12.2 million to 39 schools and districts. Beech Grove will receive $259,727 to redesign its counseling program to focus on the social and emotional needs of students, with the largest chunk of that money going to staff training.

The aim is to develop a strategy for handling the trauma that students face at home, said Wolfe. Over the past 10 years, the number of students in the district who are poor enough to get subsidized meals has risen by about 25 percentage points to 72 percent of students.

Beech Grove has also been affected by the opioid crisis, said Wolfe. “We have kids living with parents who are dependent on drugs, and they are not meeting the needs of their children.”

Those growing challenges mean that it is essential for counselors to have a plan for helping students instead of just meeting the needs of each day, Wolfe said.

Counseling is an investment that can have long-term benefits. After Colorado began an initiative to hire more school counselors, participating schools had higher graduation rates, increased enrollment in career-and-technical programs, and more students taking college-level courses. A 2016 report found that by keeping students from dropping out, the Colorado program saved taxpayers more than $319 million.

But in Indiana schools, counselors often have large caseloads. In 2014-2015, Indiana had an average of 543 students per counselor, above the national average and significantly higher than the American School Counselor Association recommendation of no more than 250 students per counselor.

Hiring more counselors alone is not enough to create stronger school counseling programs, said Tim Poynton, an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston who studies counseling. They also have to spend their time on meaningful counseling work.

“You need more school counselors. That’s necessary, but it’s also not sufficient,” said Poynton. “If you hire more school counselors, and you have them doing lunch duty and things that basically you don’t need a master’s degree in school counseling to do, then you’re not going to see those important metrics move.”

When schools were applying for the Lilly Endowment grants, many reported that counselors were focused on urgent social and emotional challenges and struggled to help students plan for the future, according to the endowment.

Those challenges can have ripple effects, making it harder for school staff to tackle long-term goals such as ensuring that students sign up and meet the requirements for the state’s scholarship program, 21st Century Scholars.

If counseling is done well, most students will be prepared to go to college, even if they do not seem interested when they are in high school, Poynton said. But when counselors are dealing with urgent problems, they have significantly less time to devote to college preparation, he said.

“In urban schools, school counselors are often focused on getting students to school and meeting their immediate needs,” Poynton said. “In the higher-performing suburban schools, where the students and families don’t have those same kind of issues or concerns, the emphasis is almost entirely on the college-going process.”

In a statement from the endowment, Vice President for Education Sara B. Cobb said the response to the Lilly grants shows increased awareness of the crucial need for counseling programs.

“We are impressed with how school leaders have engaged a wide variety of community partners to assess the academic, college, career and social and emotional needs of their students, and respond to them,” Cobb said.

The Lilly grants are going to a broad array of schools, and they are using the money in different ways. At Damar Charter Academy, which educates students with special needs, few students earn traditional diplomas or have good options for higher education. That’s why school staff plan to use the $100,000 counseling grant they received to build relationships with employers and create training programs for skills such as small engine repair, automotive maintenance, landscaping, and culinary arts, said Julie Gurulé, director of student services.

“If we can commit to getting them the skills they need while they are with us,” she said, “they will be able to go out and gain meaningful employment, and … lead the kind of lives that we all want to.”

These are the districts and schools in Marion County that received counseling grants. (Find the full list here.)

  • Beech Grove City Schools $259,727
  • Damar Charter School $100,000
  • Metropolitan School District of Decatur Township $671,300
  • Purdue Polytechnic Indianapolis High School $100,000

Delayed decision

Officials promised to update a Giuliani-era agreement between the NYPD and city schools almost a year ago. So where is it?

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
A school safety agent at Staten Island's New Dorp High School.

Last October, city officials said they were on the cusp of announcing changes in the way the New York Police Department interacts with schools — an overhaul that began more than three years ago and sparked months of negotiations with advocacy groups.

But nearly 10 months later, the city has not announced any revisions to the “memorandum of understanding” that governs police involvement with school security, leaving in place a nearly two-decade-old agreement that has not been altered since Rudy Giuliani was mayor and “zero tolerance” discipline policies were in vogue.

Now, police and education officials say revisions won’t be made public until this fall. That timeline has infuriated advocates who said they made progress with senior city officials but have recently been kept in the dark and fear their recommendations are being ignored.

“Here we are three years later without any explanation from the administration,” said Kesi Foster, an organizer with Make the Road New York and the Urban Youth Collaborative who serves on a mayoral task force charged with revising the agreement. “It’s extremely frustrating and disheartening.”

As Mayor Bill de Blasio has worked to overhaul school discipline policies, which have reduced suspensions and student arrests, advocates say the outdated MOU has become a roadblock.

The 1998 agreement officially gives the city’s police department authority over school safety agents, a force that rivals Houston’s entire police department in size. The agreement was controversial at the time, with some city officials saying the presence of police officials made student misbehavior more likely to end in arrests.

Mark Cannizzaro, head of the city’s principals union who was a school administrator in the 1990s, said it was not unheard of for principals to consider calling the police for incidents as minor as shoving. “There was, at one point, a zero tolerance approach that didn’t make sense,” he said.

The current memorandum is a reflection of that era, advocates say, and is one of the reasons students of color are disproportionately likely to wind up in the criminal justice system instead of the principal’s office. It was supposed to be updated every four years, but has still never been revised.

De Blasio seemed to agree that the memorandum needed to be reformed, and convened a group of advocates and senior city officials who recommended changes. Among the group’s recommendations, released in 2016, were giving school leaders the lead role in addressing student misbehavior, making it more difficult for school safety agents to place students in handcuffs, and ensuring students are informed of their rights before they’re questioned.

Johanna Miller, the advocacy director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said senior officials — including Mark Rampersant, the education department’s director of security, and Brian Conroy, the chief of the police department’s school safety division — participated in the task force and seemed receptive to changes. The group agreed there should be limits to the type of offenses that could trigger police involvement, multiple participants said, excluding offenses such as smoking cigarettes, cutting class, and certain instances of insubordination.

But when the city presented the group with a draft agreement, many of their recommendations had vanished, according to people who were present during the meetings, some of whom requested anonymity because the city required that participants sign nondisclosure agreements.

“They basically eliminated all of the major changes that we made,” Miller said, adding that the group requested another opportunity to change the agreement more than a year ago. “And that was the last we heard of it.”

City officials would not comment on why the process has been delayed or why key recommendations never made it into the draft agreement. Some task force members said they believed education and police department lawyers, who had not participated in the group’s discussions, played a role in stripping the draft agreement of the most important changes.

An education department spokeswoman acknowledged in an email that “agency lawyers have been involved in order to ensure the MOU is aligned with existing local, state, and federal laws and in the best interest of students and families,” but did not comment further on why certain changes were not included.

Asked why task force members were required to sign nondisclosure agreements, the official said the decision was made “To protect the confidentiality of any shared student data and remain within (The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) compliance.”

The task force still meets quarterly, although several of its members say they have not received updates and did not know the city planned to release an updated memorandum this fall.

“The DOE and NYPD have been working in close partnership to finalize updates to the MOU and ensure that the changes are done correctly in the best interest of students and families,” education department spokeswoman Miranda Barbot wrote in an email.

Cannizzaro, the principals union chief, said he has not been informed about potential changes to the agreement, adding that school leaders should have discretion in how misconduct is handled and noted the police play an important role in school safety. “We certainly appreciate their presence — we need their presence,” he said.

Some members of the task force wondered whether the selection of a new schools chief has delayed the process, and at their most recent meeting in May, schools Chancellor Richard Carranza stopped by. “He said something to the extent of, he knew it was an issue and was going to put eyes on it,” said Nancy Ginsburg, a lawyer at the Legal Aid Society and a member of the task force.

Ginsburg said she appreciates that changes take time, but also stressed that the current memorandum can make it difficult to hold officials accountable since the agreement is so vague.

“It’s impossible to hold the agencies to anything if there are no rules,” she said.