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.

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.