on the road again

Charter transfer school helps students overcome past struggles

sam

In the self portrait, her wild, curly blonde hair is tousled to one side of her face, the two sharp arrows from her lip ring poke out the left corner of her mouth and her eyebrows arch upward in a look of skepticism.

Samantha Morales said drawing this picture was the hardest thing she’s ever done.

“I was backing out of it so many times because in the picture I had curly hair, and it was really hard to draw,” she said. “But it made me learn not to give up on anything.”

Morales is a student at ROADS Charter School 2 in the Bronx, a charter transfer school that enrolls 15- to 17-year-olds who are overage and under-credited and have either been homeless, in jail, in foster care or child protective services, or who have dropped out of high school.

ROADS, which stands for Reinventing Options for Adolescents who Deserve Success, opened last fall in the South Bronx and in East New York at a time when many charter schools face criticism for not serving the high-need students that ROADS accepts. The New York City Charter School Center, which is in the midst of a campaign to improve public perception of charter schools, will show off the students’ artwork at its headquarters today at 6 p.m.

The art project — which also asked students to complete the statements “I was … I am … I will be …” in writing — is just one of the many strategies that ROADS is using to help its students overcome past struggles to aspire toward goals such as graduating, going to college, and building a career.

“We’re trying to do something other schools can’t do with these kids,” said ROADS algebra teacher Abbas Manjee, who used to teach at a district transfer school on the Upper West Side.

The school has adopted instructional approaches that accommodate students’ persistent attendance issues; built a robust staff of non-teachers whose job is to support students; and rethought the traditional school schedule to maximize the social and emotional support that students receive.

Principal Seth Litt, who was born and raised in the Bronx and used to be the principal of a nearby middle school, said striking the balance between support and high expectations is sometimes challenging. Unusual among transfer schools, ROADS accepts students who have zero high school credits, and the average student comes in reading at a fifth-grade level and doing math at a fourth-grade level.

“Our students for the most part are struggling learners, and they’re overage,” he said. “The clock is ticking really loudly for them.”

The wide range of students’ skills is one reason ROADS uses outcomes-based grading. Instead of considering students successful if they have simply proceeded through a textbook from beginning to end, each class has 10 outcomes, a stepladder of learning objectives that students must master to pass the class. Litt said the arrangement allows for more individualized learning and for teachers to intervene early on when they see students aren’t understanding a certain concept. It also helps with students who miss class a lot.

“Just because they’re at ROADS doesn’t mean that, especially in their first year, that all the things in their lives have changed,” Litt said.

Examples of that sensitivity were apparent in Manjee’s algebra class one recent day. He had two different assignments for students on his SMART Board, labeled “If you were present Friday” and “If you were absent Friday.”

“We have to adapt to their lives if we expect them to adapt to the system that we’ve created for them,” Manjee said. “And right now the system we’ve created for them doesn’t work for them. If they want to agree with these things that we set up as a society, we need to meet them halfway.” 

In another algebra class, students wearing headphones sat at computers watching a 28-minute video of a math lesson recorded by their teacher Emily Buxbaum. She said she originally created the videos so that students who were absent could catch up on lessons they missed, but it turned out it was helpful for all students to learn at their own pace and pause and replay something when they didn’t understand it.

In an English class a couple doors down on the one-hallway school, which shares space with two other transfer schools, teacher Melissa Giroux showed students a video clip of CNN’s Anderson Cooper hosting a debate about whether women should fight in combat. Posing questions such as “What makes an argument successful?” Giroux asked students to identify each debater’s claim, evidence, and reasoning.

The lesson echoes one of the real-life lessons that Manjee said the school tries to teach students.

“Instead of getting louder than your opponent … you want to beat your opponent with knowledge and not a Jerry Springer-style battle where the loudest person wins,” he said.

There are 13 teachers at ROADS and seven additional people called “team advisors” who act as case workers and help students communicate with child welfare services and their probation officers.

“They’re like our second parents. They really motivate us,” said Elisha Owens, 16, said about the advisors.

“They’re like older brothers and sisters,” said Anthony Reddick, 17. Morales piped in, “Like therapists!”

“They always find a way to give you the time of day,” Owens said.

“Teachers shouldn’t even be stressing about that stuff anyway,” Morales said. “They should just be…”

“Teachers,” Reddick said, finishing Morales’ sentence.

“Yeah, exactly,” Morales said.

But the extra staff doesn’t mean that teachers aren’t involved in their students’ lives. Manjee is helping to pilot a new program where each teacher will be assigned to four sets of students and get a whole day every two weeks to take them out of school on field trips. The trips are about establishing a personal connection with students outside the classroom and so that the roles of teachers and counselors don’t become too separated, Manjee said.

“The kids figured out that if we split up so many of these roles, people aren’t doing a good job of communicating and no one can hold me accountable for anything,” he said.

For many students, school staff said, their school is holding them accountable for their grades and behavior for the first time. Lakota Leijon, the director of students services who has worked as a social worker, recounted one of the first times that her students saw her angry. A group of them had misbehaved and Litt wanted to send them home as punishment, but Leijon said no.

“Send them home to what? To play video games? They’ll probably hang out on the corner. I said, ‘No, they need to stay,'” she said. “I need them to start learning what it feels like when someone who’s been believing in you, who’s been your number one advocate, when you’ve let them down.”

Leijon’s faith in her students makes her give them, what she calls, “real talk.”

“A lot of students thought if they don’t pass [ROADS] that’s ok, I’ll just get my GED,” she said, referring to the exam that can be taken to demonstrate high school equivalency. “I said guys, a GED is four years of high school crammed into a two-day test. If you’re at a fourth-grade reading level, you’re not going to pass.”

It’s this kind of honesty that students at ROADS appreciate after being passed at each grade level, but knowing they weren’t really learning anything, Litt said.

“They’re not going to get angry if someone says you need support that isn’t high school work,” the principal said. “They’re tired of people lying to them and giving them work that just keeps them busy in class.”

Getting through to students can require some reframing for teachers. Lisa Barnshaw, the art teacher who assigned the self-portrait art project, said Morales had gotten so frustrated with her drawing, which was divided into a grid, that she was talking the whole time in class and not working on it. Then one day, Barnshaw sat down with Morales and offered to do one square of the drawing.

“I extended the edge of each line into the next box. And she looked at me and was like, okay, thanks, I think I got it and then took off,” Barnshaw said. “I always had that mentality I’m not going to put my hands on a student’s artwork, but if what they need is just a little bit of a boost, I’m willing to make compromises if it’s going to help make that kid be successful.”

Morales spent nine hours over two days to finish her project.

“They thought they couldn’t do something. They worked hard at it, and they got it done. It’s such a huge microcosm for their lives,” Barnshaw said.

While the students have made a lot of progress this year, Litt said he recognizes that they and the school have major challenges ahead.

“It’s a transition from community and culture to making sure our students compete with students anywhere. I’m very proud of where we are right now. It took a lot of work from a lot of adults and a lot of trust from students,” he said. “We have to maintain what we’ve done this year and just make sure we’re adding on to it … We have to demand and support students to be academically excellent.”

This evening, Morales and a few other ROADS students will be speaking at the art show. She’ll be delivering a spoken word poem that recounts her path to ROADS after being suspended for fighting at her previous school.

“The things you’ll hear from us, you’d never hear from a teenager,” said Morales, who transferred from a performing arts high school in Harlem. “But I just want people to see that we are kids willing to make a change, we are kids that want to be the future for our country. … We don’t want to be the same statistic of a high school dropout.”

Samantha Morales’s poem

Things i seened at my age are unimaginable
the memories that flash back in my head are unforgetable.
Boogie down bronx, 17 years young,
alcoholic parents, getting bullied wasnt fun.
High school days was the highlight of my life.
Did wrong things ended up in fights.
Suspension was crazy, they said i needed a new start,
things will get better if i believed in my art.
Wasn’t feeling the vibe at first ,
first day of school of course thinking the worst.
Thinking – kids like me , No way im out
One more slip up , im a drop out without a doubt.
But I knew I couldnt label myself as that, thats not me.
I needed to be able to successed.
Im a dancer , Im a leader
So yes , definately Roads was the answer.
I came across on not judging so fast, got to focus on the future
not on the past.
And at last , people that believed in me ; teachers i can talk to and tell me i can achieve –
Cuz its a hard knocks life and life will get rough –
I just hope you see what ROADS done for us.

Superintendent search

Former principal Roger Leon chosen as Newark’s new superintendent

Former principal and veteran administrator Roger Leon has been chosen as Newark’s new schools chief — its first since the city regained control of its schools.

In a unanimous vote Tuesday night, the school board chose Leon — a Newark native backed by local elected officials — over two candidates with extensive experience in other large urban districts, but whose outsider status put them at a disadvantage. The son of Cuban immigrants, Leon takes the reins of a system whose population has become increasingly Hispanic: At 46 percent of the Newark Public Schools enrollment, Hispanic students now outnumber black students, who make up 44 percent of the enrollment.

In opting for Leon, the board also passed over A. Robert Gregory, another former Newark principal and the district’s interim superintendent, who rose through the ranks under the previous state-appointed superintendent, Christopher Cerf — which some critics saw as a blemish on his record. The board actually picked Leon as superintendent once before, in 2015. But the state education commissioner, who still controlled the district at that time, ignored the board’s choice and appointed Cerf.

The board’s decision to again tap Leon seemed to signal a definitive break from the era of sweeping, controversial changes enacted by outsiders — namely, Cerf and his predecessor, Cami Anderson. Instead, after the state ended its decades-long takeover of the district in February and put the board back in charge of the schools, the board’s choice for superintendent suggests that it will rely on local talent and ideas to guide New Jersey’s largest school system in the new era of local control.

“After 22 years of being under state control, this is a new day,” said School Board Chair Josephine Garcia after Tuesday’s vote. “We look forward to working with the new superintendent.”

Leon grew up in Newark’s Ironbound neighborhood, where he attended the Hawkins Street School. He graduated from Science Park High School, the highly competitive magnet school, where he returned as a substitute math teacher while still a student at Rutgers University. He later coached the school’s renowned debate team.

He went on to teach middle-school algebra, then became principal of Dr. William H. Horton School and later University High School of the Humanities. For the past decade, he has been an assistant superintendent in the district.

As deputy chief academic officer under former superintendent Clifford Janey, he helped oversee several major policy changes, including new graduation requirements and district-wide grading standards. During that process, he recruited hundreds of parents, experts, and community members to join advisory committees to help craft the new policies.

More recently, he has played less of a policymaking role, instead helping to organize district-wide initiatives like a book-giveaway program for students. He also often authors the proclamations that the district awards to distinguished students and educators.

At a forum on Friday where the four superintendent finalists introduced themselves to the public, Leon said the district needs “a clear direction” for the future. He said his vision includes an “advanced technological curriculum” in schools, a focus on social-emotional learning, teacher training, and public-private partnerships to bring additional resources into schools.

“I will inherently be a proficient and influential agent of change,” he said, “because anything short of that is unacceptable.”

Leon arrives in his new position with a strong base of support, which was evident after Tuesday’s vote, when the audience erupted into cheers. In addition to the many parents and educators he has crossed paths with during his 25 years working in the district, he is also said to have close ties with State Sen. Teresa Ruiz, an influential lawmaker based in the politically powerful North Ward.

While Leon served under both Anderson and Cerf, he was far enough removed from the decision-making to escape the wrath of critics who opposed their policies, which included closing some district schools and overseeing the expansion of the charter-school sector. On Tuesday, John Abeigon, the head of the Newark Teachers Union, which clashed bitterly with Anderson and Cerf, said he looked forward to working with Leon.

“Once the new superintendent is sworn in,” he said, “we can begin rebuilding some of the more positive aspects of our district that were destroyed under the corporate control of Cerf.”

While the board has now officially offered Leon the position, it must still negotiate the terms of his contract. He will then start his new role on July 1.

Leon was one of four finalists selected by a search committee after a national search. A state plan had called for the board to choose from just three finalists. But someone on the search committee was unhappy with the three who were chosen and asked the state commissioner to allow a fourth finalist — despite the objections of some other committee members.

While the audience at Tuesday’s board meeting loudly cheered the board’s final decision, many people still criticized the search process. The board kept the names of the finalists secret until shortly before Friday’s forum, where audience members were not permitted to ask the candidates questions.

Still, even critics of the process said they were eager to work with the superintendent.

“The board made their decision,” said Wilhelmina Holder, a longtime parent activist. “So now we’re going to have to respect that decision and work on behalf of the children.”

Superintendent search

On eve of historic vote in Newark, questions arise about superintendent selection process

PHOTO: Newark Press Information Office

When the Newark school board votes on a new superintendent Tuesday evening, as is expected, it will choose from four finalists — a notable departure from the state’s guidelines for the search, which called for a maximum of three finalists.

The change, the result of a behind-the-scenes dispute, is likely to raise questions about the integrity of the superintendent search process at a critical juncture, as the local school board takes control for the first time in over two decades.

The fourth finalist was added after a search committee had already agreed on its shortlist, and despite the objections of some committee members who wanted to stick with the initial three finalists, according to Kim Gaddy, a committee member and school board member, and Marques-Aquil Lewis, the former school board chair, who were both involved in the process.

The addition came at the insistence of other search committee members who were upset that a “strong” candidate had been left off the shortlist, according to Lewis. The additional name was added after the state education commissioner, who is overseeing the handover to local control, agreed to revise the state-authored playbook governing the transition.  

The identities of the four finalist candidates are public, but search committee members would not confirm which of the four was added to the list late.

The dispute over the superintendent selection process comes as the elected school board is choosing a schools chief for the first time since 1995, when the state seized control of the district. In February, the state provisionally returned control of the district to board, whose first major task is to choose a new superintendent.

Gaddy, the school board member who was on the seven-person search committee, said she did not even learn about the request for a fourth candidate until after it was sent. (Lewis, the board chairman who sent the request, disputes that.) Either way, Gaddy says the committee should have honored the process as it was written in the guidelines, which the district must adhere to in order to maintain control of its schools.

“When we finished with three members, that’s it. There should not have been any other discussion with the search committee,” said Gaddy, who declined to say who was the fourth finalist added to the list.

In order to fully return to local control, the district must follow a two-year state plan that spells out every detail of the transition. The plan stipulated that the board must conduct a national search for superintendent candidates, who would then be narrowed down to three finalists by the search committee.

During their deliberations, the committee members discussed the possibility of naming four finalists, but there was “no real consensus” on whether to ask for an additional finalist, according to Gaddy. So at its final meeting on April 21, the group decided to adhere to the plan and name three finalists.

However, immediately after that meeting, one or more members approached Lewis, who was then the chair of the school board, and asked him to send a request to the state asking for permission to name a fourth finalist, Lewis said. Lewis, who was not on the search committee, would not say who asked him to request the change. But he said they were unhappy with the shortlist of finalists.

“When the request was made, they felt there was a fourth candidate that was strong, that should have made the finals,” he said, adding that the person or persons did not tell him who the candidates were.

Lewis said he reached out to all seven committee members before making the request, but could not reach one member. (Lewis said he did speak with Gaddy, which she says she does not recall.)

Two members objected to the request, Lewis said. But he said that four agreed to it, so he sent a letter to the commissioner asking for a change to the transition plan.

Just after Lewis sent the request, he was replaced as board chair by Josephine Garcia. (Lewis did not run for re-election.) After becoming chair, Garcia re-sent the request to the state.

Once again, Gaddy said she was not informed in advance: “I found out after the fact. I was not asked to support it.” Instead, she said that Garcia said she would discuss the request at a board meeting — after it had already been sent. (Garcia did not respond to an email seeking comment.)

On April 27, Acting State Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet sent Garcia a letter saying her request had been granted.

“I am in receipt of your request to amend the Transition Plan to allow the Superintendent Search Committee to submit four finalists to the full Board of Education for consideration,” Lamont wrote in the letter, which the state education department provided to Chalkbeat.

“In order to provider greater assistance to the district in finding the best candidate for the Superintendent position and to allow for consideration of all potentially qualified candidates,” Lamont continued, he agreed to amend the transition plan to allow for four finalists.

After the request was granted, four finalists were presented to the school board — including the one who did not make the original list of three. The four introduced themselves to the public on Friday, and were interviewed by the board in private on Saturday. The full board is expected to vote on which finalist to extend the offer to at its meeting Tuesday evening.

The finalists are former Baltimore city schools chief Andres Alonso; Newark Interim Superintendent A. Robert Gregory; Newark Assistant Superintendent Roger Leon; and Sito Narcisse, chief of schools for Metro Nashville Public Schools in Tennessee.

The search committee includes three board members: Gaddy, Garcia, and Leah Owens. Three other members were jointly chosen by the mayor and the state education commissioner: Former Newark superintendent Marion Bolden, Rutgers University-Newark Chancellor Nancy Cantor, and Irene Cooper-Basch, executive officer of the Victoria Foundation. A seventh person, attorney Jennifer Carrillo-Perez, was appointed by the commissioner.

Only Gaddy would agree to speak on the record for this story; the other committee members did not respond to messages or declined to comment on the record.

Gaddy said she kept the names of the candidates confidential throughout the process, as required. However, she said she felt the entire process has been tainted by the decision to change the rules of the search without the agreement of the full search committee.

The transition plan “was a roadmap,” Gaddy said, that provided clear instructions: “‘You have two years to do A, B, C, and D.’”

“Now every time you don’t agree with A or you don’t agree with B, you’re going to write a letter to the commissioner?” she asked. “How is that following the plan and inspiring confidence in the ability to run this district?”