first steps

Facing pressure to show results, de Blasio points to changes at some Renewal schools

PHOTO: AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews
Mayor Bill de Blasio visited Boys and Girls High School, a Renewal school, in March 2015.

Mayor Bill de Blasio summoned reporters to one of the city’s most troubled schools Tuesday to tout progress it has made under his watch, and insisted that other long-struggling schools in his new $150 million turnaround program are making similar changes that will lead to academic gains.

Since a veteran principal took over Boys and Girls High School this fall, it has lengthened the school day and added advanced classes while watching its attendance rate rise and more seniors get on track to graduate, officials said at the school in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. Other schools in the “Renewal” turnaround program have added Saturday classes, sent teachers to training workshops, and formed partnerships with nonprofits, the officials added.

“The Renewal Schools effort is happening right now,” de Blasio said, “and it’s building out every day.”

The press conference comes as de Blasio faces pressure from state lawmakers who are reviewing his turnaround program as they consider extending mayoral control of the city’s schools, and from Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who wants to let outside groups take over struggling schools across the state.

It also follows a Chalkbeat New York report Friday showing that some of the 94 Renewal schools have received limited support since the program launched in November, even as high-priority schools like Boys and Girls have been heaped with extra resources and oversight. De Blasio and the other officials did not refute that report Tuesday, but said certain schools required more urgent attention than others and that the rest will get more personalized help over time.

“Schools are getting the support they need based on their individual needs and we will continue to build that out as we become more and more aware of the needs,” said Aimee Horowitz, a superintendent who has worked with 14 high-priority struggling high schools since the start of the school year. She was named executive superintendent of the Renewal program Tuesday, expanding her oversight to all 94 of those schools, in addition to all of Staten Island’s high schools.

The state last year singled out Boys and Girls and another long-struggling Brooklyn institution, Automotive High School in Greenpoint, as “out of time” to improve. That designation and pressure from the state education department led the city to take drastic steps to turn around the schools, such as no longer sending new students to the schools mid-year and forcing their entire staffs to reapply for their jobs.

The city also recruited seasoned principal Michael Wiltshire to take over Boys and Girls under an unusual agreement that let him become principal of two schools; he continues to oversee the high-performing Brooklyn school he has led for years, Medgar Evers College Preparatory School.

Since Wiltshire’s arrival, the school has added an extra class period each day, after-school and Saturday tutoring, and more arts and Advanced Placement courses, officials and students said. One senior, Salomon Djakpa, said he is now taking four AP classes, which were not available before.

As a result of these changes, students’ Regents exam scores edged up in January, and 90 seniors are now on track to graduate this year, compared to just 40 students last semester, they said. The signs of growth come after years of academic stagnation under the previous administration, city officials pointed out.

“I’m really proud of what’s happening here,” said senior Marlon Glynn.

Michael Wiltshire took over Boys and Girls High School last fall through an unusual arrangement that lets him continue to oversee the school he left.
PHOTO: Courtesy of Randy Andujar/Teaching Matters
Michael Wiltshire took over Boys and Girls High School last fall through an unusual arrangement that lets him continue to oversee the school he left.

Another step Wiltshire took was to help about 30 students who were far behind academically transfer to alternative high schools, which some students and parents saw as an effort to counsel out students who could drag down the school’s graduation rate. (Wiltshire said Tuesday that no students were “thrown out” and that just 15 students transferred out after he arrived, but Assistant Principal Andrea Toussaint said about 30 did.) Wiltshire also set up a high-school equivalency program within the school for 39 seniors with very few credits who were unlikely to graduate, he said.

The new placements were a better fit for students who had floundered in traditional classes, the administrators said. But the changes also mean that those struggling students will no longer count towards the school’s graduation rate, officials confirmed.

“We wanted to make sure that every child had an appropriate placement,” Toussaint said, adding that many of the students had no way of graduating without the help of a special program or school. “It really doesn’t make sense to keep the child here if they’re 19 and have seven credits and no Regents exams.”

Automotive has also seen gains, particularly in the share of students earning the expected number of credits, officials said. And other high-priority schools that were in an early turnaround effort that was folded into the Renewal program have also made some improvements in attendance, student credit-earning, and test scores, Horowitz said. (Five of the six schools mentioned in a City Hall press release Tuesday were in that early effort, called the School Achievement Initiative.)

But other schools in the Renewal program have not received the same level of support as those schools, administrators and teachers at four schools recently told Chalkbeat.

Those schools said they had only met with program officials once so far, had not been given specific goals for the year, and had not been assigned teacher or principal coaches. Meanwhile, de Blasio has emphasized that Renewal schools that do not make academic gains within three years could be closed.

Officials said Tuesday that superintendents have already visited every Renewal school, and that the department will soon start producing weekly reports on each of them. All of the schools have been able to send some staffers to various types of training.

Fifty-four of the schools have already added extra learning time in the mornings, afternoons, or on weekends, and all 94 will get the additional class period next academic year, officials said. And new principals have taken over seven of the schools since the program started, they added.

But they also acknowledged that not every school has received the intensive support yet that has helped some of the high-priority Renewal schools make quick improvements.

For instance, only some have been sent principal mentors or school-based coaches to work with teachers. And the staffers at Boys and Girls and Automotive are the only ones who have to reapply for their jobs this year. (Chancellor Carmen Fariña explained that “there’s an even greater sense of urgency” at those schools because of their state designation.)

De Blasio said all schools will eventually get certain resources, such as the extra class period and a range of health and social services for students and their families. But others may get different or additional types of help depending on their needs.

“Some things will be common to every school in the Renewal School effort,” he said. “Others will be tailor-made to the specific school.”

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”

moving forward

After Confederate flag dispute at Colorado football game, schools pledge to bring students together

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty
Manual High students.

Acknowledging “we may never have a conclusive picture of what happened,” two Colorado school districts sought to move past a controversy over whether a Confederate flag was displayed at a football game and open a conversation between the two school communities.

The principal of Manual High, Nick Dawkins, wrote in a community letter over the weekend that the visiting Weld Central High School team “displayed a Confederate flag during the first quarter of the (Friday night) game, offending many members of the Manual community.”

Officials from Denver Public Schools and Weld County School District Re-3J released a joint letter Tuesday saying that based “on what we have learned to date, however, the Weld Central team did not display the Confederate flag.” At the same time, it said, multiple Manual eyewitnesses “reported seeing spectators who attempted to bring a Confederate flag into the game and clothing with flag images.”

Going forward, students from the two schools — one rural and one urban — will participate in a student leadership exchange that has student leaders visit each other’s schools and communities to “share ideas and perspectives,” the letter says.

“At a time in our country when so many are divided, we want our students instead to come together, share ideas and learn together,” says the letter, which is signed by the principals of both schools and the superintendents of both school districts.

The alleged incident took place at a time when issues of race, social injustice, politics and sports are colliding in the United States, making for tough conversations, including in classrooms.

Weld Central’s mascot is a Rebel. Manual, whose mascot is the Thunderbolts, is located in one of Denver’s historically African-American neighborhoods.

Dawkins in his initial community letter also said “the tension created by the flag led to conflict on and off the playing field,” and that three Manual players were injured, including one who went to the hospital with a leg injury. He also said some Manual players reported that Weld Central players “taunted them with racial slurs.”

Weld Central officials vehemently denied that their team displayed the flag. In addition, they said in their own community letter they had “no evidence at this point that any of our student athletes displayed racially motivated inappropriate behavior.”

They said district officials “do not condone any form of racism,” including the Confederate flag.

Weld Central fans told the Greeley Tribune that they didn’t see any Confederate flag.

Read the full text below.