no worries

City tells parents not to worry about cheating investigation

City officials brushed off parents’ concerns over an ongoing cheating investigation at a Bronx high school last night, telling them that if the principal had really been changing grades, the school wouldn’t be failing.

In 2009, teachers at Herbert Lehman High School reported that executive principal Janet Saraceno was changing dozens of students’ grades in order to boost the school’s graduation rate. More than a year later, Saraceno remains under investigation and Lehman is teetering on the edge of being shut down by the city after receiving an F on its progress report. Yet when parents asked Department of Education officials about the investigation at a meeting last night, they were told to ignore it.

“Let’s let the investigators do their work,” said Juan Ruiz, a DOE official heading the team assigned to support Lehman. He told parents that if Saraceno had really been changing students’ grades from failing to passing, “we probably wouldn’t have an F.”

In fact, Saraceno is only under investigation for changing grades during the 2008-09 school year and Lehman’s progress report grade for that year was a B. A year later, after DOE officials became aware of the cheating and began to monitor the school more closely, its grade fell to an F.

Last night’s meeting was a chance for city officials to explain to parents what might happen to Lehman in the next year. Yet after an hour, parents began walk out, frustrated their questions weren’t being taken seriously.

“Where are the weaknesses? I want to know how it went from a B to an F,” said a parent.

Reading from the DOE’s fact-sheet, Bronx high school superintendent Elena Papaliberios said that Lehman students weren’t passing enough of their classes — one of the metrics the city uses to gauge how well a school is doing.

“Even as they finish their first year, they’re starting to struggle,” she said. “And if they don’t earn 10 credits per year, they’re going to fall short and they’re not going to be able to graduate.”

Parents of Lehman students have been stunned by the school’s precipitous decline, as it has long been considered one of the city’s best remaining large high schools. For 29 years, Lehman was run by former principal Robert Leder, who resigned in 2008. Since then, safety has become a problem and this year the school installed metal detectors. Teachers and students say the new principal rarely leaves her office and does not have the rapport with students that Leder used to keep the large population — 4,000 students — under control.

Ruiz said the city planned to reduce the school’s enrollment next year and that the metal detectors have already cut down the number of violent incidents.

Elvin Flores, the father of a Lehman freshman, said his daughter graduated from the school five years ago without incident. But from his son’s first day of school this year, there have been problems with safety.

“How the heck did you guys lose control of this school?” Flores asked. “For the years Leder was here, we felt safe. You guys need to take back this school.”

Parents at the meeting said when they visited the school during orientation, classroom walls were hung with students’ work that was two years old. Others said they’d gone to parent association meetings hoping to meet the principal, only to watch her rush out afterwards.

Saraceno sat at the front of the auditorium and did not speak, except to say that the school’s graduation rate was 52 percent rather than 49 percent, the number Ruiz gave.

“She’s sitting there and not saying anything,” said Lisa Mateo, whose daughter is a freshman at Lehman. “By now she should know she looks guilty.”

First Person

First Person: Why my education nonprofit is bucking the coastal trend and setting up shop in Oklahoma

PHOTO: Creative Commons

“Oklahoma?! Why are you expanding to Oklahoma?!”

The response when I told some people that Generation Citizen, the nonprofit I run, was expanding to central Texas and Oklahoma, quickly became predictable. They could understand Texas, probably because our headquarters will be in the blue-dot-in-sea-of-red Austin. But Oklahoma?

My answer: Generation Citizen is expanding to Oklahoma City because no one would expect us to expand to Oklahoma City.

Our nonprofit is dedicated to empowering young people to become engaged citizens by reviving civics education in schools. We help middle and high school students learn about local politics by guiding them as they take action on issues they care about, like funding for teen jobs or state resources for teenage moms.

I founded the organization after graduating from Brown University in Rhode Island in 2009. Since then, we’ve expanded our programming to Boston, New York City, and the San Francisco Bay Area. All are urban areas with wide swaths of low-income young people, unequal schools, and disparate power dynamics. Our work is needed in those areas.

At the same time, all of these areas have predominantly liberal populations. In fact, according to The Economist, they are among the 10 most liberal cities in the country.

Generation Citizen is a non-partisan organization. We do not wish to convince young people to support a particular candidate or party — we just want them to engage politically, period. But the fact that we are preparing low-income young people in liberal urban centers to become politically active complicates this narrative.

So despite the fact that we could work with many more students in our existing cities, we made a conscious decision to expand to a more politically diverse region. A city that had real Republicans.

As we started talking about expansion, I realized the extent to which the dialogue about political and geographic diversity was a rarity in national nonprofit circles. While several large education organizations, like Teach for America and City Year, have done an admirable job of in working in conservative and rural regions across the country, a lot of other organizations follow a more predictable path, sticking largely to cities on the east and west coasts and sometimes, if folks feel crazy, an Atlanta or Miami.

There is nothing wrong with these decisions (and we were originally following this trajectory). A big reason for the coastal-focused expansion strategy is the availability of financial resources. Nonprofits want to raise money locally to sustain themselves, and those cities are home to a lot of people and foundations who can fund nonprofits.

But a more problematic reason seems related to our increasing ideological self-segregation. Nonprofits lean toward expanding to places that are comfortable, places that their leaders visit, places where people tend to hold similar values and political views.

One of the fault lines in our democracy is our inability to talk to people who disagree with us (highlighted daily by this presidential election). And non-profits may be exacerbating this reality.

This schism actually became more apparent to me when our board of directors started having conversations about expansion. Oklahoma City had come to the top of my proposed list because of my personal and professional contacts there. But I quickly realized that no one on my board lived more than five miles from an ocean, and save a board member from Oklahoma, none had stepped foot in the state.

“Are we sure we want to expand there? Why not a gateway city?” (I still don’t know what a gateway city is.)

“We can hire a Republican to run the site, but they can’t be a Trump supporter.”

“Are we sure that we can raise enough money to operate there?”

It wasn’t just my board. Whenever I talked to friends about our plans, they’d offer the same resistance.

The stereotypes I heard were twofold: Oklahoma was full of bigoted conservatives, and it was an incredibly boring location. (The dullness narrative got an unquestionable boost this year when star basketball player Kevin Durant left the hometown Thunder. It became quite clear that a main rationale for his leaving the team was Oklahoma City itself.)

But as I met with folks about Generation Citizen’s work, I met citizen after citizen who was excited about our mission. The state is facing tremendous budget challenges, and its voter participation rates amongst the worst in the country. Given these realities, there seemed to be widespread recognition that a program like ours could actually be helpful.

I did not talk about national politics with most people I met. Indeed, we might disagree on whom to support. But we did agree on the importance of educating young people to be politically active, shared concerns about public school budget cuts, and bonded over excitement for the Thunder’s playoff chances.

Still, the actual expansion to Oklahoma will be a challenge for our organization. Despite our local ties, we are coming in from the outside, and we do have the perception of being a progressively minded organization. What will happen if one of our classes wants to advocate for open carry at schools in response to a shooting? How will my board handle working in a site where they wouldn’t ordinarily visit?

I am excited to tackle all of these challenges. And I would push other similarly sized non-profits to think about working in a more diverse set of areas. It is not possible to be a national organization and avoid entire swaths of the country. But more importantly, given these tenuous political times, it feels important to interact with people who may not hold our beliefs.

Nonprofits can’t fix our national dialogue alone. But by expanding where we work, we might help improve the conversation.

honor system

Meet Derek Voiles, the Morristown educator who is Tennessee’s newest Teacher of the Year

PHOTO: Tennessee Department of Education
Derek Voiles, Tennessee's 2016-17 Teacher of the Year

Derek Voiles, a seventh-grade English language arts teacher in Morristown, is Tennessee’s 2016-17 Teacher of the Year, the State Department of Education announced Thursday.

One of nine finalists for this year’s award, Voiles teaches at Lincoln Heights Middle in Hamblen County Schools in East Tennessee. He received the top teacher honor at a banquet in Nashville.

Voiles, who has been teaching for six years, has long shared his teaching practices publicly — on Twitter, through a blog he wrote with a colleague, and as a state ambassador for the Common Core standards. In recent years, according to a state news release, his classroom became a hub as teachers from across his district observed his teaching in hopes of replicating his practices, which often improved the performance of students far behind their peers.

“All students are capable of achieving great things, and all students deserve a teacher who believes this and will do whatever it takes to make it happen,” Voiles said in the release. He is also a doctoral candidate at East Tennessee State University.

Now, Voiles will gain an even wider stage, as Tennessee’s representative to the National Teacher of the Year program. He will also share insight from the classroom as part of committees and working groups with the Tennessee Department of Education.

All nine Teacher of the Year finalists, representing each of the state’s regions, will serve on the Commissioner Candice McQueen’s Teacher Advisory Council during the 2016-17 school year.

The department also recognized two division winners from Middle and West Tennessee. Cord Martin, a music education and enrichment teacher at Whitthorne Middle School in Maury County, was recognized for his innovative teaching strategies and connecting content to contemporary culture. Christy McManus, a fifth-grade English language arts and social studies teacher at Chester County Middle School in Henderson was honored for equipping her students with the end goal in mind: a college-ready twelfth grader.

Voiles follows Cathy Whitehead, a third-grade teacher from Chester County, who served as Tennessee’s 2015-16 Teacher of the Year. Whitehead teaches at West Chester Elementary School in Henderson in West Tennessee.