in search of help

Bronx students demand support to turn around their school

Students at Samuel Gompers High School in the South Bronx held a protest march today to ask for more support for their struggling school. (Patrick Wall)

Students at a South Bronx high school staged a march today to demand that the city seek more federal support to improve their school.

The students, who attend Samuel Gompers High School, have a specific improvement model in mind: the “re-start” option that is one of four models districts can follow in order to receive federal school turnaround funding.

Gompers is one of nine poorly performing high schools that are eligible for the federal help, but are not part of the city’s application for federal turnaround grants. Twenty-two other schools are receiving the grants, and 11 schools are already working with federal grants under the “transformation” improvement model.

“Why hasn’t the DOE given the grants to all the schools?” Gompers sophomore Sony Cabral asked at the rally. “They’re setting us up for failure.”

The students ended their march, which attracted about two dozen students, at the nearby Banana Kelly High School, one of the schools slated to receive the restart funding.

The city chose schools for the restart plan that it felt showed signs of improvement and enough leadership capacity to work with outside organizations to make serious adjustments, said Department of Education spokesperson Jack Zarin-Rosenfeld.

“The schools we didn’t choose for restart just did not have the type of leadership and staff in place that we felt could effectively team up with an educational partnership organization,” said Zarin-Rosenfeld.

School officials said that the nine schools that are not part of the city’s turnaround application will still get some support. The city Department of Education is adding an extra $300,000 to their budgets and offering help from teams in the Children’s First networks, which support schools with a range of needs from professional development to budgeting.

Under the restart model, the DOE will contract with non-profit education management organizations to help turn around low-performing schools. The management organizations, which will receive a portion of the federal grant money, will have the authority to recommend budget and staff changes to the schools chancellor, Zarin-Rosenfeld said.

The partner organizations and the schools will work to revamp curriculum, support students who are behind, and help teachers improve their practice, he said.

“We need as much help as we can get”

The Department of Education counts Samuel Gompers Career and Technical Education High School among the city’s lowest-performing schools. The school’s graduation rate last year was 51 percent, below the citywide average of 63 percent. The city gave it a C overall on its 2009-2010 progress report, with an F for the section on school environment, which factors in parent, teacher, and student surveys about schools’ academic expectations and school safety.

Of the school’s 780 students, nearly three-quarters qualify for free or reduced price lunch and about one quarter receive special education services.

The Gompers students who organized the march are members of a student organizing group called Sistas and Brothas United. The group, which trains young people to organize around issues in their communities, is affiliated with the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition. The students said they joined the group out of a concern that the city would shut down their school for its low performance.

The 20 or so Gompers students in the group meet regularly to discuss problems they see at school and possible solutions. They’ve staged class walkouts, attended education rallies and have met with their school administration.

The students say more engaging lessons and new computers and textbooks would motivate students and increase attendance. One student said his history class uses textbooks in which the most recent president is Ronald Reagan. Other students said that the principal, Joyce Mills Kittrell, could interact more with students.

“We definitely need new teachers and a new principal,” said Lopez, the Gompers junior. “Or at least help her to do a better job. I feel like she’s not even there.”

Kittrell has not replied to previous requests for an interview. The principals and staff at restart schools are not automatically replaced, unlike other school improvement models.

Phasing out Gompers could still be on the horizon. “If the school continues to struggle and does not improve, we would certainly consider replacing the school with a better option,” he said.

Lopez and other students at Gompers said that they hope to fix the problems at their school before school officials loses faith. To do that, Lopez said, “We need as much help as we can get.”

Anxiety at Banana Kelly

When the march reached Banana Kelly, several students there joined the protest. A dean at Banana Kelly, Daniel Jerome, said that some teachers at the school are nervous about what the restart model will entail. Jerome said teachers worry that the new management organizations will implement drastic changes without getting input from staff and students. “The fear is, are these organizations going to be like quasi-charters?” Jerome said.

Jerome also said he was concerned the new organizations, working under contract for the city, would feel pressure to show quick improvements at the schools, particularly in the form of graduation rates and test scores. “Are they going to raise the graduation rate by pushing kids out or make us teach to the test?” Jerome asked.

Banana Kelly students who joined the Gompers protest said that their school needs more resources, not new management. “We have great teachers and principals,” said Shainel Fowler, a junior at Banana Kelly. “But it’s up to the government to give them the resources they need.”

Fowler said the school lacks a library and a gymnasium. Physical education classes often meet on a baseball diamond behind the school.

Zarin-Rosenfeld said teachers and community members will have a role in the restart process. “Staff will be intimately involved with the partner organization,” he said. “And we intend to keep this process transparent so that families know exactly what’s going on in their schools and how they can help turn them around.”

second chance

An embattled Harlem charter school that serves kids with disabilities will be allowed to keep its middle school — for now

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Opportunity Charter School

A Harlem charter school will be allowed to keep its middle school next school year, despite the fact that top city education officials have repeatedly ruled that it is too low performing to stay open.

That decision offers at least temporary relief for Opportunity Charter School, which has been embroiled in a dispute with the education department since March. The disagreement centers on whether city officials properly took into account the school’s students — over half of whom have a disability — when it judged the school’s performance.

The city’s education department, which oversees the school as its charter authorizer, tried to close the middle school and offered only a short-term renewal for the high school when the school’s charter came up for review earlier this year. The school appealed that decision, and was denied late last month.

But the education department is backing down from its position — at least for now. That reversal appears to be based mostly on logistics: A Manhattan Supreme Court judge has temporarily blocked the closure through at least mid-July in response to a lawsuit filed by the school and some of its parents last month, complicating the process of finding students new schools outside the normal admissions cycle.

“Students always come first, and given where we are in the school year, we will allow the middle school grades to remain open in 2017-18,” education department spokesman Michael Aciman wrote in an email on Thursday. Still, he noted, the department will continue to push to close the middle school in the future.

Kevin Quinn, a lawyer representing Opportunity Charter, said the city’s decision was the only responsible one, given that the school has already held its admissions lottery and made offers to parents.

“This is a wise decision by the [education department],” Quinn wrote in an email, “and [we] appreciate their acknowledgment that placement of this population at this time would be significantly disruptive.”

language proficiency

Educators working on creating more bilingual students worry new state requirements aren’t high enough

A second grade class at Bryant Webster K-8 school in Denver (Joe Amon, The Denver Post).

Colorado educators who led the way in developing high school diploma endorsements recognizing bilingual students worry that new legislation establishing statewide standards for such “seals of biliteracy” sets the bar too low.

Two years ago, Denver Public Schools, Eagle County Schools and the Adams County School District 14 started offering the seal of biliteracy to their students. The three districts worked together to find a common way to assess whether students are fluent in English and another language, and recognize that on high school diplomas. Advocates say the seal is supposed to indicate to colleges and employers that students are truly bilingual.

A bill passed by state legislators this year that will go into effect in August sets a path for districts that want to follow that lead by outlining the minimum that students must do to prove they are fluent in English and in another language.

According to the new law, students must meet a 3.0 grade point average in their English classes and also earn a proficient score on the 11th grade state test, or on Advanced Placement or IB tests. For showing proficiency in the second language, students can either earn proficient scores on nationally recognized tests — or meet a 3.0 grade point average after four years of language classes.

Although educators say the law sends a message of support for bilingual education, that last criteria is one part of what has some concerned.

“It allows for proficiency in a world language to be established solely by completing four years of high school language classes,” said Jorge Garcia, executive director of the Colorado Association for Bilingual Education. “Language classes in one school district may have a different degree of rigor than they do in another.”

The second language criteria should be comparable to the English criteria, several educators said. In the requirements set by Denver, Eagle County and Adams 14, students must at a minimum demonstrate language proficiency through a test score, or in some cases with a portfolio review and interview if a test is not available.

The three districts also catered their requirements based on what each community said was important. In Adams 14 and in Eagle schools, students must perform community service using their language skills. Students also have to do an interview in both languages with a community panel.

“Our school district team developed the community service criteria because we wanted our kids to have authentic practice in their languages,” said Jessica Martinez, director of multilingual education for Eagle County Schools. “We also wanted students to be a bridge to another community than their own. For example, one group of students created academic tutoring services for their peers who don’t yet speak a lot of English. Another student started tutoring her mom and her parents’ friends so they could get their GED.”

The state law doesn’t require students to do community service. But it does allow school districts to go above the state’s requirements when setting up their biliteracy programs.

“Thoughtful school districts can absolutely address these concerns,” Garcia said.

Several school districts in the state are looking to start their own programs. In March, the school board for the Roaring Fork School District in Glenwood Springs voted to start offering the seal. Summit School District also began offering the seal this year.

Leslie Davison, the dual language coordinator for Summit, said that although her program will change in the next year as she forms more clear requirements around some new tests, she will continue to have higher requirements than the state has set.

This year her students had prove proficiency in their second language by taking a test in that language. They also had to demonstrate English proficiency through the ACT. In addition, students did oral presentations to the community in both languages.

“Their expectations aren’t as high as mine are,” Davison said. “We’ll probably stay with our higher-level proficiencies. I do have some work to do in terms of how that’s going to look for next year, but I certainly don’t want to just use seat time.”

Meanwhile, the districts that started the seal are increasing their commitment to biliteracy so as many students as possible can be eligible to earn seals in the future.

The Adams 14 school district in Commerce City is using Literacy Squared, a framework written by local researchers for teaching students to read English by strengthening literacy in the native language. The program is being rolled up year by year and will serve students in 34 classrooms from preschool through fourth grade in the fall.

In Eagle County, Martinez said parents have shown such a strong demand for biliteracy that most elementary schools are now dual language schools providing instruction to all students in English for half of the school day and in Spanish for the other half.

Both districts are also increasing the offerings of language classes in middle and high school. The options are important for students who are native English speakers so they too can become bilingual and access the seal. For students whose primary language is not English, the classes can help ensure they don’t lose their primary language as they learn English.

Of Eagle’s 25 students who graduated with a seal of biliteracy this year, 17 were native Spanish speakers and eight were native English speakers.

“We want all kids to see their bilingualism is an asset,” Martinez said. “It’s huge for them.”