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.

college plans

As Washington decides their fate, ‘Dreamers’ preparing for college are stuck in limbo

PHOTO: Joe Amon/The Denver Post
Randi Smith, a psychology teacher at Metro State University, marched to support Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals during a citywide walkout in downtown Denver, CO.

While many high schoolers spend spring of their senior year coasting through classes and waiting to hear back from colleges, undocumented students who hope to attend college spend their time calling lawyers, consulting school counselors, and scouring the internet in search of ways to pay for school without the help of federal financial aid or student loans — assuming they even get in.

That process, anxiety-provoking even in a normal year, has become incalculably more chaotic this admissions season — even traumatic — as these young undocumented immigrants watch President Trump and lawmakers wrangle over Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the program that has until now allowed them to remain in the country without having to fear deportation.

As the policy battle nears a climax, these students aren’t just breathlessly waiting to learn whether they’ll be accepted into college — they’re waiting to see whether they have a future in this country.

“It’s different for me. It’s definitely more stressful and there are times when you want to give up,” said an undocumented student at KIPP NYC College Prep High School, who is graduating this year and applying to colleges. She requested anonymity because of her legal status. “But then I remind myself that regardless of what’s going on, I’m still going to do what I’ve set myself to do.”

High school counselors are also feeling the strain. They already faced the difficult task of helping undocumented students compete for private scholarships, and finding schools that will support those students once they’re on campus. Now those counselors also must monitor each twist and turn of the immigration debate in Washington, while, somehow, trying to keep their undocumented students focused on college.

One of those counselors is John Kearney, who works at Guadalupe Centers Alta Vista High School, a charter school in Kansas City, Missouri. Dozens of his soon-to-graduate students are beneficiaries of DACA, a program created under former President Obama that allows undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country as children to avoid deportation and work here legally. Lately, they have been asking him why they should even consider college when their fate in the U.S. is so uncertain.

“The big question is, ‘Why? Why go to college, and then I can’t even work, then why?’” said Kearney, who also helped start a nonprofit that provides scholarships to undocumented students. “It’s a really tough question.”

As of Friday, President Trump and lawmakers were still locked in heated negotiations over DACA, which Trump said this fall that he would eliminate unless Congress enshrined it in law. Without an agreement, it is set to expire March 5, just as graduating seniors firm up their college plans. If that happens, young immigrants, often called Dreamers, could lose the few crucial protections they have. For many, their DACA status has already lapsed.

Even with DACA’s protections, Dreamers face massive hurdles to enroll in college: They don’t qualify for federal aid or loans, and, in some states, are barred from receiving financial aid or even attending public universities. Out of the estimated 65,000 undocumented students who graduate from high school every year, only 5-10 percent enroll in college.

Following Trump’s announcement in September, counselors have also had to race against the clock counting down to DACA’s expiration: That meant juggling college application deadlines with the October cutoff for students to apply for renewed DACA status.

The KIPP charter school network received a donation this year to help students pay for the renewal fee, which has been a godsend for many students — including the young woman who is graduating from KIPP NYC College Prep High School.

As soon as she learned the school would pay the fee for her, she immediately called her father, who is also undocumented and repairs beauty-salon equipment for a living.

“My dad was definitely trying to round up the money before the deadline, so it was a blessing that the school was able to find a donor,” she said. “I told him not to worry about it and it was a relief — like a weight off his shoulders.”

If the girl was trying to relieve her father’s stress, her college counselor, Rob Santos, was trying to do the same for her. Even as she balanced college-application essays, transcripts, and the rest, she was also coming to realize how quickly her life would change if DACA is not extended.

“There was definitely extra emotional support that I’ve had to provide this year,” Santos said. “I definitely had my DACA student in my office, and tears were happening.”

Santos keeps a running list of the colleges that accept students who don’t have permanent legal status and the few scholarships available to them. Many of those scholarships require undocumented students to have DACA status. If the program ends, it’s unclear whether students will still be eligible.

Still, Santos said his dreamer student rarely talks about the political furor surrounding her future in the U.S. as she awaits her college-acceptance letter. Instead, she’s more likely to discuss her hope of one day studying business and fashion.

“Our DACA students are resilient. They’re optimistic,” Santos said. “But they’re also realistic for what could actually happen.”

blast from the past

Harkening back to earlier era, struggling New York City school fights closure but faces long odds

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Kevin Morgan, the Parent Association president at P.S./M.S. 42, is leading a fight to keep the Rockaway school open.

A decade ago, teachers picketed P.S./M.S. 42 R. Vernam in Rockaway, Queens and declared the campus unsafe. Parents said the building was in horrible shape — some areas reeked of urine — and they petitioned the education department to close the school and start over.

But when Mayor Bill de Blasio took office, he had a different idea: Rather than shut its doors, he would revamp it. After three years in de Blasio’s “Renewal” improvement program, which injects troubled schools with academic supports and social services, P.S./M.S. 42 appeared to be making progress: Its test scores and quality reviews have steadily improved. Enrollment, while lower this year, has mostly been stable.

So when the education department announced plans last month to shutter P.S./M.S. 42 and 13 other low-performing schools, many in the school community were shocked.

“We think that this is a mistake,” said Donovan Richards, the local city councilman who said that when he met with schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña shortly before the announcement, far from declaring the school a lost cause, she praised its recent strides and discussed ways to celebrate them.

“You have this glimmer of hope and turnaround in the building,” he added, “and yet we’re reversing the progress.”

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Parents used to complain about poor conditions at P.S./M.S. 42, which has since built a new addition.

Now, parents, teachers and local political leaders are vowing to fight its closure. The coalition has launched an aggressive social media campaign, printed highlighter-yellow T-shirts declaring the school “strong and united,” and planned rallies at the school and in Albany, where the school’s supporters traveled Tuesday to make their case to state lawmakers.

On a recent morning, Kevin Morgan, the school’s parent association president, went to his local congress member’s office to appeal for help, and brought in a motivational speaker to inspire students as they drafted essays in defense of their school.

“It’s not fair,” he said. “They need to rethink what they’re about to do. How is this going to affect these children?”

The fight puts the mayor in the uncomfortable position of defending the closure of a low-performing school despite signs of improvement and vocal opposition from some parents — a scenario he railed against when running to replace then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg. At the time, de Blasio blasted Bloomberg for disregarding the will of parents in his zeal to shutter and replace troubled schools without first giving them a chance to rebound.

Now, after investing $582 million in a program meant to offer bottom-ranked schools the second chance he said they had been denied, de Blasio finds himself coming to the same conclusion as his predecessor: Some underachieving schools simply can’t be resuscitated — at least not quickly enough — so better to pull the plug and start fresh.

“After a serious effort, we do not think, with their current structures, they can make it,” de Blasio said on NY1 the day the closures were announced. Still, he defended the turnaround effort, saying that, without it, “we would have continued to see closures without an honest effort to fix the problem.”

In the case of P.S./M.S. 42, the education department is proposing to replace it with two new schools — an elementary school and a middle school — in the same building.

It’s likely they will serve many of the same students as the school they’re supplanting, though some parents worry the new schools may deploy admissions criteria that will screen out some of P.S./M.S. 42’s current students. An education department spokesman said the new schools would not turn away any P.S./M.S. 42 students. The new schools may also employ many of the same teachers, under a contract rule that says at least half the positions in replacement schools must be offered to teachers at closed schools who apply and hold the right qualifications.

P.S./M.S. 42 boosters hope the new schools never have a chance to open. But they face long odds: Under de Blasio, very few schools on the chopping block have managed to escape.

Last year, the Panel for Educational Policy — an oversight board where the majority of members are appointed by the mayor — signed off on all of the city’s proposed closures. Even when parents at J.H.S 145 in the Bronx mounted a campaign to keep the middle school open, only five of the 13 panel members voted against its closure.

The city’s plan to shutter P.S./M.S. 42 follows a yearslong, grassroots effort to save it.

Today, one of the leaders of that campaign is an unlikely champion: a parent named Queen Makkada, who called for the school’s closure in 2010 when her two children went there. At one point, her daughter was attacked by a group of boys, and students were known to roam the hallways unsupervised.

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Queen Makkada says P.S./M.S. 42 has struggled in the past, but is now showing improvement.

“We literally had first graders cutting class,” Makkada said. A joint city-state report from 2011 said teachers there “demanded little” from students and parents complained about unchecked bullying among students.
Makkada says things began to turn around when the current principal, Patricia Finn, took over about seven years ago. Finn did not respond to a request for comment.

The principal smoothed over relations with teachers, who have filed far fewer grievances under her than the previous administration, according to their union. And she forged relationships with skeptical parents, Makkada said. Last year, 90 percent of parents who responded to a school survey said the principal works to build community.

“All the stakeholders had to come together and change it,” Makkada said. “These parents went through the process to improve a failing school.”

At the same time that parents were getting more involved, the school facilities were getting an upgrade. In 2011, a gleaming new addition was built onto the building, and there are plans for a new $7 million playground, according to the city councilman.

The Renewal program, which launched in 2014, marked a new wave of investment in P.S./M.S 42. A community-based nonprofit — Family Health International, which goes by FHI 360 — brought much-needed mental health supports for students, including one-on-one counseling. The school day was extended by an hour. And the school has launched several initiatives aimed at improving school culture, including training students to help resolve conflicts among their peers, parents said.

Since 2014, the school has received improved “quality review” ratings from official observers, and its test scores have ticked upwards. In fact, elementary students at P.S./M.S. 42 earned higher scores on the state English and math tests last year than the average among Renewal schools that the city is keeping open. Its middle-school students perform just below that average.

And enrollment, a key factor that chancellor Fariña says the education department considers when recommending closures, grew by dozens of students the first few years of the program. This past year, its population declined to just over 660 students — but that’s still higher than before becoming a Renewal school.

Given the progress, parents don’t understand why their school is targeted for closure.

“This is ripping everything apart,” said Morgan, the parent-association president.

But despite the recent improvements, the majority of the school’s students still are far behind where they should be.

Only 17 percent of elementary students and 14 percent of middle schoolers passed last year’s state English tests — compared with 40-41 percent of students citywide. In math, 14 percent of elementary students and 6 percent of middle schoolers passed the tests, compared with 42 percent and 33 percent citywide.

Meanwhile, a stubbornly high share of students are chronically absent, despite a major push by the city to boost attendance at Renewal schools. More than 45 percent of P.S./M.S. 42 students miss 10 percent or more of the school year, compared to 36 percent among all Renewal schools and about 26 percent among all city schools, according to the education department.

“This decision to propose a school closure was made based on a careful assessment of the school community as a whole,” Aciman, the department spokesman, said in a statement. He added that community engagement is an important part of proposed closures, and said officials will respond to parents’ questions and concerns.

Officials will hold a public hearing at the school on Jan. 10, before the Panel for Educational Policy votes Feb. 28 on whether to approve the city’s closure plans.

Among the P.S./M.S. 42 parents who will ask the panel to spare the school is Willard Price.

He said teachers have given his son, William, extra help in math and handwriting, and principal Finn has invited him to eat lunch in her office when he felt overwhelmed by the cafeteria. Now, William earns high marks on his report cards and would like to remain at P.S./M.S. 42 for middle school, his father said.

“I think that’s messed up, trying to close the school,” William said. “This school is the only school I ever liked.”