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.”

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

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.”