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.

baby steps

Efforts to integrate schools in one corner of New York City show promising signs, according to new data

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
P.S. 15 Roberto Clemente is one of the District 1 schools that met enrollment targets under a new diversity plan.

A school integration plan launched in Manhattan’s District 1 showed early signs of progress, according to data released Thursday by the education department.

Seven of the district’s 16 elementary schools met their targets for offering a more diverse group of students admission. If families accept those offers, it would mean three more of the district’s schools fall within the city’s goals than before the plan was implemented.

More progress was made when it comes to offering admission to a similar share of students with disabilities across all schools. All but one school — East Village Community School — met their goals.

The goal is for all elementary schools to enroll a share of needy students — those who are homeless, living in poverty, or still learning English — that is close to District 1’s average of 67 percent. Before the integration plan was implemented, only four elementary schools in the district fell within that range.

The district also wants schools to admit a similar proportion of students who have special needs: between 9 and 29 percent.

But large disparities remain among schools. At the Neighborhood School, only 38 percent of offers went to needy students, compared with 81 percent of offers at Franklin D. Roosevelt. East Village Community school only offered 7 percent of seats to students with disabilities. At the STAR Academy, it was 25 percent.

“There was no belief that, in one year, this was going to transform everything,” said Matt Gonzales, who supports school integration work through the nonprofit New York Appleseed. “So it sounds like there’s been some shifts and that’s a really positive development.”

District 1 is the first place where the city is trying to integrate elementary schools across an entire district. The stakes for the trial are high: Encompassing the Lower East Side, East Village and a sliver of Chinatown, the district is widely seen as a potential model for other integration plans that are in the planning stages.

The numbers released Thursday only reflect admissions offers made. Parents still have to accept them. But they could also decide to send their children elsewhere, meaning the student enrollment could ultimately be different.

“If this was enrollment, I would be high-fiving everyone,” said Naomi Peña, the president of the local Community Education Council who has been an outspoken advocate for the district’s integration plans. “I think the real meat and potatoes is the actual registration.”

Districts across the city, including District 15 in Brooklyn, are developing their own proposals to spur more school diversity. So far, District 1 — a small, diverse neighborhood where all of the elementary schools are unzoned — is the only place where the city has moved forward after years of advocacy from parents.

Under the new admissions model, needy students receive priority for a portion of seats in the incoming kindergarten and pre-K classes at every school. It is coupled with an on-the-ground effort to make schools more welcoming to families of all backgrounds, and encourage parents to consider schools they may have shunned in the past. That work has been seen as crucial to making the plan work, since parents still have to choose where to send their children.

Another test of the model will come later this spring, when offers for pre-Kindergarten admissions go out.

The education department says progress is being made in other elementary schools across the city that have pursued their own integration efforts through the Diversity in Admissions program. Most of the dozen schools in that program met their targets for the upcoming year, according to data released by the education department.

Similar to the efforts in District 1, schools that opt-into the program reserve a portion of their open seats for needy students. Except the Diversity in Admissions program is school-by-school, instead of district-wide, and participating schools set their own enrollment goals. Some aim to admit more students who are in the child welfare system or have incarcerated parents, with targets ranging from 20 percent of students, to 75 percent.

I am excited to build on the progress we’ve made,” the outgoing schools Chancellor, Carmen Fariña, said in a statement.


Impressed by Memphis students planning April walkout, Hopson gives his blessing

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson meets with student leaders from Shelby County Schools and other Memphis-area schools to discuss their planned walkout on April 20 to protest gun violence in the wake of this year's shooting rampage at a Florida high school.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said Thursday that students who walk out of Memphis schools next month to protest gun violence will not be punished.

He also invited student organizers of the April 20 demonstration to speak April 24 to the Board of Education for Shelby County Schools “so our community can hear from these wonderful, thoughtful students.”

Hopson met Wednesday with about a dozen student leaders from district high schools, including White Station, Ridgeway, Central, and Whitehaven and Freedom Preparatory Academy.

“Based on this incredible presentation, I have agreed to be supportive of the walkout, as long as it’s done in an orderly fashion and as long as we work some of the details out,” Hopson said after the meeting.

“No students will be suspended or expelled for taking part in this event. No teachers will be disciplined for being supportive of these students,” he said.

At least six Memphis-area high schools are planning student walkouts on the 19th anniversary of the Columbine High School shooting that killed 13 students and wounded 20 others in Littleton, Colorado.

Shelby County students did not participate in the March 14 nationwide walkout because Shelby County Schools and other local districts were on spring break. That walkout, which was held on the one-month anniversary of a shooting in Parkland, Florida, pushed for stricter gun laws and memorialized the 17 people killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

The April 20 walkout is part of a related nationwide “day of action” that encourages school events focused on pushing policy changes to reduce gun violence.

Hopson’s declarations put to rest concerns that students might be punished for trying to exercise their First Amendment rights of free speech while the district also seeks to ensure school safety. Earlier this month, school districts in Arkansas, Georgia, Maryland, and New Jersey threatened students with unexcused absences, detention, and disciplinary action if they participated in the March 14 walkout.

Most of the student organizers in Memphis are involved in BRIDGES, a program that brings students together across racial and socio-economic divides to discuss civic issues.

Hopson called their walkout plan “one of the most amazing presentations I’ve ever seen.”

Many Memphis-area students also plan to participate Saturday in the related nationwide “March for Our Lives.” More details on the local march are available here.