back-up power

Dewey gets its building back, but longer-term problems remain

Smoke billows from John Dewey High School following the sound of an explosion on Monday night, during Hurricane Sandy. Credit: Sandra Aronowitz-Garron/Youtube

Teachers from John Dewey High School reported for duty to Sheepshead Bay High School on Monday with a sinking feeling. Months after narrowly escaping closure, the school had struggled since September to settle on programs for its 1,900 students and, if that were not enough, its Gravesend building had caught on fire during Hurricane Sandy.

Now they thought  students and staff would have spread out among three different school buildings, including Sheepshead Bay, for the foreseeable future.

“It could be, without a doubt, another nail in the coffin,” one teacher said about the planned relocation. “It’s a whirlwind to be told to go here or there.”

The school’s staff spent Monday deciding who would report where on Wednesday, and creating new schedules for their students. Then, late Monday evening, teachers got a phone call from the Department of Education with unexpected news: Dewey would be able to reopen right away after all.

Teachers said the phone call came as a welcome surprise, but some said they thought the location was the least of Dewey’s worries.

Last week, Chancellor Dennis Walcott cited Dewey as one of the most severely damaged schools in the wake of the hurricane. And teachers said they had received no hints that the school would be ready to reopen any time soon, even after Principal Kathleen Elvin stopped by the building to assess repair efforts on Monday morning and afternoon. But department officials said the School Construction Authority had been able to install a generator and get Dewey’s boiler to work, making the building safe for students and teachers.

The quick return was exactly what some teachers said they thought the school needed.

“We need to be a comfort buffer against what happened in the hurricane,” one teacher said outside of Sheepshead Bay on Monday. “Dewey is really family to a lot of kids, they want to see their teachers and the staff again. But I have a feeling that nothing will return to normal until we get back our building.”

But Dewey’s normal is far from ideal, several teachers said. They said Elvin and her administration have been so focused on instruction that some of the fundamentals of running a large high school have fallen by the wayside.

In the most glaring example, they said, scheduling woes had continued deep into the semester, with some students having received an eighth program revision within the last couple of weeks.

“It was incompetence beyond belief,” one teacher said about the administration’s efforts to program students.

Others said Elvin’s approach to the storm days reflected the same misplaced priorities. Even as teachers struggled without Internet or gas for their cars—one the most convenient modes of transportation in Southern Brooklyn, particularly after Sandy knocked out some subway lines — and families remained out of reach, Elvin instructed teachers to focus on aligning their lessons to new standards.

She “wanted us to do unit plans on the Common Core today, and I don’t see why because we didn’t have the Internet, we didn’t have any of our resources,” one teacher said in a phone interview on Monday evening.

Some schools used the Friday teacher workday to brainstorm ways to help students, families, and colleagues whose lives were disrupted by the storm. But Elvin emailed department chairs on Thursday morning, just 48 hours after the fire at Dewey, instructing them to make copies of a department-produced science lesson to share with their teachers. The email made no mention of the storm or the damage it wrecked on Dewey.

“If we still have an Election Day PD, it can continue the work on Common Core,” Elvin wrote in the email, which GothamSchools obtained. “We also need to review passing rates with teachers who have failing rates over 15% to see how we can support them and their students.”

At least one assistant principal hedged against the instructions when passing them on to the teachers in his department. “I know that many of you have been going through a lot and may find it difficult to get to school tomorrow,” the assistant principal wrote. “Please put safety first and if you can get to work that would be great.”

But even though they have found Elvin’s laser-like focus on instruction too narrow throughout the year and disconcerting in the last week, teachers said they understood it. She has Dewey’s latest progress report grade in hand, but she hasn’t shared it with teachers, which some cited as a bad sign.

Plus, the school had been scheduled for a Department of Education quality review last week. The evaluation, which had been delayed from last year when the department was planning to close the school, will look at how well the staff works together in moving toward academic progress.

The teacher who spoke to us by phone said, “[Elvin] told us she thinks the DOE is still going to come after us and we want to be ready.”

He said he expects Dewey to land on the city’s list of high schools up for closure this year unless it posts a surprisingly high progress report grade.

“We are like an emotional rollercoaster,” he added. “For the students and the staff, it’s like we don’t know what to do anymore.”

This morning, teachers said they were pleased to find the building in near-perfect condition when they arrived for a full day of professional development.

“The building looks great, the janitorial staff has been working around the clock to get things ready,” one wrote in a message. But the teacher added that the status quo will take yet more time to return. “There’s still a lot of uncertainty and confusion, but we’re headed in the right direction!”

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.