getting to know you

Back to class: New chancellor takes a tour of five city schools

Today marks Cathie Black’s first official day as chancellor of the city’s public schools and she’s following in former Chancellor Joel Klein’s footsteps by taking a five-borough tour. We’ll be following her throughout the day as she makes her way from Brooklyn to Staten Island and back to Tweed.

black6
Stephan Zuvich, a student at the Richard Hungerford School gives Black a tour.

3:00: And that’s all folks… We’ll post video once Maura returns from Staten Island.

2:40: Black’s visit to the Hungerford School may seem like a deviation from the rest of the day, but it is, yet again, another high performing school. Hungerford is the only special education school in all of New York State to be recognized as a national blue ribbon school.

In the sensory motor center, aka game room, Black and the remaining reporters watch one student play on a pinball machine while another plays Wii sports and a third shoots a basketball.

“I’m so excited,” Hecht says. “The questions that she [Black] was asking were so poignant and so on the mark for the students that we’re serving. I’d love to see the D75 schools become more integrated, so its not like D75, it’s part of the whole system.”

2:15: The press van has landed at Richard H. Hungerford School, a District 75 school with about 350 students in Staten Island. D75 schools like this one serve students with severe disabilities. Black is led around the school by Stephan Zuvich, a 21-year-old student at the school. She goes into a classroom where half a dozen students, all in wheelchairs, are getting physical therapy, and she walks around introducing herself to each student.

Maura reports that the PT class has Christmas music playing quietly in the background, and the ceiling is draped in white and colored lights, hanging mobiles, and planets. Principal Mary McInerney tells the group that the room is set up this way to stimulate the students.

D75 Superintendent Gary Hecht tells Black that she’s the first chancellor to visit one of his schools on the annual (or this year: biannual) five-borough schools tour. McIerney says that when chancellors have come in the past, it’s always been at the end, not the beginning, of their tenures. Black says that DOE officials picked this school because she told them she wanted to see all the different kinds of schools.

Black visits a second class where students are communicating through a machine called an ACD (augmented communication device).

One student asks her if she was nervous on her first day of work. Another, Sara Watson, compliments the chancellor on her outfit. She asks: “Did you buy it for your first day of work today?” Black says no, it’s not a new dress.

A third student, Anna Incantalupo, shows Black a picture of her family. “And guess what, I’m the prettiest!” she says.

1:20: And now to Staten Island, the very last leg of this tour. Most reporters usually hop out of the press van after three or four schools, but Maura says a surprising number are sticking around for the bumpy ride.

1:00: Black visits a Korean language class, which all Democracy Prep students take. Andrew says that the school chose Korean because it’s phonetic and has an alphabet (unlike Chinese and Japanese where there are thousands and thousands of characters) so it is actually possible to learn to read and write anything in Korean pretty quickly. Also, he figures it will give his students an advantage when they apply to college, as very few black and Latino students have studied Korean.

Maura says the students appear to have studied another language: New York City School Bureaucracy. A tenth grader named Malia Douyon tells Black about her trip to Korea, which was great she says, but would have been better “if we had more money per student.” Another student tells Black that the school “does more with less” — a phrase that has become ubiquitous after two years of continuous budget cuts.

Black is introduced to Daniel Clark Sr., a Democracy Prep parent and field director for the advocacy group Parent Power Now!; Andrew describes him as a “convert.” During Clark’s son’s first year at the school, he had 18 latenesses or absences and teachers called Clark in for a meeting. That was the turning point, Andrew says, and now Clark is one of the most involved parents in the school.

black412:40: Now to Manhattan, where Black visits Democracy Prep, a charter middle school in Harlem. Here’s another high performing school: on last year’s progress report Democracy Prep scored higher than any other middle school or charter school in the city.

On entering, Black meets a group of students who hurriedly tell her why their school is different from other schools. Edgar Sanchez, an eighth grader at the school, gives Black one of the charter school’s signature yellow baseball caps. Now that I think about it, I don’t think I’ve ever seen Democracy Prep founder Seth Andrew without his on.

Andrew explains that students have to work for their caps. “The scholars have to earn them through civic engagement work,” he says.

12:15: Maura asked DOE spokeswoman Natalie Ravitz which D and F graded schools Black has visited. Ravitz says Black has visited a “a mix so far in terms of progress report grades, mostly A’s, B’s, and C’s I believe.”

All the reporters along for the tour say they heard Black say that she’s visited schools at every grade level. Ravitz denies this and says she’ll check the transcript.

11:45: Black is now sitting down with students for another roundtable, but this one includes a bunch of alumnae. Black is asking the alums how prepared they felt they were for college. One student said she was assigned an eight page paper; for other students, that was a problem, she said, but not for her. Another alum is going to college in Delaware; the principal calls out, “Tell her your GPA.” The alumna says it’s a 3.98.

black3
Black talks to students and alumnae of the High School for Violin and Dance in the Bronx.

Black asks if there were any particular teachers who stood out. Immediately students begin telling stories about the teachers they loved. One English teacher came to a student’s house to bring books over the summer. Another math teacher is described by a student as being “like a father.”

A student asks Black what her first step will be. “Meeting parents,” she says. “If you see a school with a lot of parental involvement, then it’s a good school. Things are working if the parents are committed to it.”

As she says goodbye, one of the students says, “Remember our school! Don’t forget us!”

Afterwards Black chats with the principal about college preparedness and the school’s curriculum. “I’m pushing Mandarin Chinese,” she says, laughing. The principal tells her that students here can actually take a Mandarin class online.

11:30: Now at the High School for Violin and Dance in the Bronx, Black is getting a tour from two students and Principal Tanya John. Black and the reporters stop into a dance class. Black says to the principal, “I suppose if you told them it was a fitness class, it would be different, right?” John agrees.

After the dance class, the group heads over to watch a violin lesson in action. The students are playing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.”

Violin and Dance opened in 2002 and is one of four small schools in the Morris High School building, which used to hold one large high school that was closed. Students are supposed to take violin and/or dance classes three times a week. Those who don’t take dance have to take gym and those who don’t take violin have to take a technology class. Unlike some arts schools, this high school doesn’t have students audition to get in. It only has about 260 students and, like the first school Black visited, it has earned A’s on multiple progress reports. Last year, it had a graduation rate of 83 percent, which is well above the citywide average.

11:00: While Maura and the other reporters are in the van to the next school, the High School for Violin and Dance in the Bronx, a union spokesman explained the whereabouts of the missing UFT President Michael Mulgrew.

Union spokesman Dick Riley said that Mulgrew turned down an invitation to join Black’s tour because he already had plans to visit two schools today. First he’s going to a school in Staten Island where there’s a PCB contamination problem. Then he’s going to P.S. 114, one of the 26 schools the Department of Education plans to begin phasing out next year.

Riley said Mulgrew was particularly enthused about defending P.S. 114 against closure because the union had petitioned the city to remove what it considered a toxic principal who was dragging the school down. Though supervisors noticed problems with Principal Maria Pena-Herrera as soon as she was hired several years ago, she wasn’t removed until 2009.

By the time she was removed, Pena-Herrera had amassed a reputation as a “principal from hell” who unsuccessfully tried to bully parents into giving her good marks on the city’s survey. According to the report, she ran up a deficit of more than $100,000. None of those problems caused the city to remove Pena-Herrera. Instead, it was failing to follow proper procedure during an evacuation that cost Pena-Herrera her job.

“They put a bad principal in and ran the school into the ground,” Riley said.

10:30: Black sits down with a group of nine North Queens students for a roundtable discussion about their school. She’s just going around asking them how they came to the transfer school and how they feel about it. Student after student is saying that before they came here, school wasn’t a priority and this school — with its heavy counseling and lots of one-on-one teacher-student interaction — has really changed that. Now they want to go to college and have careers.

black2
Black talks to U.S. history teacher Keith Walter at North Queens Community High School

“How often do you see your counselor?” Black asks.
“Every hour,” more than one student answers in unison. “She calls me at home,” one student says.

A typical response comes from a student named Harmony, who says she only had six credits in her third year of high school when she came to North Queens. “It feels good to know that you know things and you can have a conversation and sound smart,” she says.

All of the students are on a first name basis with principals and teachers.

Black asks the school leaders if they made any tweaks to the school as they’ve gone through the years (they’re now in their fourth year). Principal McCarthy describes the decision to institute a “gateway class” for new students.

10:00: The tour has moved onto its second stop: North Queens Community High School. North Queens is a small transfer school for Queens students who enrolled in a regular high school, but either dropped out after the ninth grade or were constantly truant. It’s relatively new; the school opened in 2007.

Black visits a small 11-student U.S. history class taught by “one of the best teachers in the school,” according to principal Winston McCarthy. Black sits down with Karla Fuentes, 17 and Ryan Rodriguez, 18. Maura notes that, unlike Klein, Black prefers not to interrupt instruction when she walks into a classroom. When Klein toured schools, he liked to pause the class and address students as a group.

Rodriguez and Fuentes are working on an assignment about US industrialism in late 19th century, charting causes and effects of various events.

“How’s your teacher?” Black asks.
“He’s a wonderful teacher.” Rodriguez says. Rodriguez transferred here this year and is a junior. He told Black that he’s taking the Regents in U.S. history later this month.

“I’ve never met a chancellor before,” he says of meeting Black. Black is moving from table to table, talking to the students who are working in pairs or groups of three.

9:30: Asked what her number one challenge will be, Black responds: “Budget.” She says she’s going to spend the next one to two months figuring out what her priorities are and that she expects the coming years to be a “hard slog” financially. “Most important is to keep progress and reform going as aggressively as possible,” she says.

She also tells reporters that by now she’s visited schools that run the full gamut: from A-ranking schools to F schools. As of mid-December she’d only been to schools getting A’s, B’s, or C’s.

When a reporter asks for her thoughts on the classroom instruction she’s seen so far, Black describes that first lesson in a fourth grade CTT class as “clear, strong.” Then she adds that those were students “with a lot of issues — this was not the A class.”

She says she doesn’t have any new ideas for changes she’d like to make to the schools just yet. Asked about the importance of class size in the student performance equation, she says:

“Certainly that class size matters has been a longstanding view…but at the end of the day we would say that an effective teacher is more important than any class size.”

9:12: Black tells reporters that she’s visited about 20 schools and says she’s been impressed with how candid people have been. She talks about how the most important thing is having great teachers and instruction (she mentions the common core.) She says said that she wants to make a big community outreach effort and mentions she’s meeting with Community Education Council members later today. A DOE spokeswoman says Black is meeting with a Staten Island CEC.

Asked how she’s improve schools that aren’t doing as well as P.S. 262, which has gotten A’s on its progress reports for the last several years, Black cites two of the Klein administration’s reforms: data inquiry teams and the proliferation of small schools.

“We must have schools that are successful or are showing promise, otherwise we have to take a different approach,” she says.

black1
Principals' union President Ernie Logan, Chancellor Cathie Black, and P.S. 262 principal Joeletha Ferguson

8:52: Mayor Bloomberg, who is on hand for this first stop as he usually is on these tours, says he hopes former Chancellor Joel Klein was just a “prelude” to Black’s tenure. Bloomberg says he wants Black to be the best chancellor in the city’s history.

“Joel is holding that title right now but nobody would be more pleased than Joel to pass that title on,” the mayor said.

Maura notes that Bloomberg is still claiming to have narrowed the city’s racial achievement gap. Though it appeared as though there had been progress on this front over the last several years, when the state recalibrated its exams last year, many of the gains were erased. Students who seemed to be meeting standards were actually ill-equipped to move onto the next grade, though the too-easy tests showed they were competent.

Currently, the racial achievement gap is still formidable. Last year, about 40 percent black students and 46 percent of Hispanic students in grades three through eight met the state’s proficiency standards in math, compared to 75 percent of white students. On the reading test, the gap was similarly large. About 33 percent of black students and 34 percent of Hispanic students were deemed competent, whereas 64 percent of white and Asian students met this bar.

Teachers union president Michael Mulgrew has not joined Black, the mayor, and elected officials for today’s tour, as he has in the past (though last September he gave his own tour). Asked why Mulgrew is absent, Bloomberg says: “I think Mulgrew would say he is well represented here and I think that his chapter leader here would agree.”

The mayor doesn’t say whether the teachers union president was invited or not.

8:40: Black has moved onto the next classroom without interrupting the first lesson she stopped by. This one is a fifth grade class. All the students are working on laptops and Black asks one girl to explain what she’s doing but reporters can’t hear her answer because there are so many video cameras filling the room. The visit is brief — now Black is on to the library for a Q&A with reporters.

8:05: New Chancellor Cathie Black is touring five schools today — one in each borough – and she’s making her first stop now at P.S. 262 El Hajj Malik El Shabazz Elementary School in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn.

Maura reports that Black is visiting a collaborative team teaching (CTT) classroom, which means it has two teachers (one with a general education background and one special education).

P.S. 262 is part of the Innovation Zone, or iZone, pilot program, which emphasizes online learning. In the fourth grade classroom Black is visiting, teacher Stephanie Forcer is going over the writing process: prewriting, drafting, and revising. Black is sitting at a table with students and listening.

“You see all the media in here?” Forcer asks reporters.  “They had to learn all this too.”

Foster switches and talks to the students about what she calls “results based” learning.

“We don’t entertain level 2s in here, do we? We shoot only for level 3s and 4s.” She’s referring to the rankings assigned to students based on their scores on New York State’s annual math and reading exams.

“You have to show me that you are meeting your goals. If you were a 2 you should be going to a 3,” she tells the students.

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.