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.”

men of color

New York state charges forward with its ‘My Brother’s Keeper’ initiative

When young men of color enter high school, they often do so with the deck stacked against them. That’s what a panel of young men from Ithaca and Albany told a room of education policy officials and lawmakers on Friday.

“There’s a mold for us that they want us to fit in,” one student said.

“No one realizes how much potential, not only white students have, but every student has,” another added.

New York state’s top education leaders convened in Albany Friday to tackle the problem posed by these young men: How can the state raise educational achievement for boys and young men of color?

Only about 68 percent of black and Hispanic students graduate on time, while 88 percent of their white counterparts do, according to state graduation rates released last week. Male students fare worse than female students, with a 76 percent graduation rate compared to 83 percent for female students.

The conference is part of the state’s My Brother’s Keeper Initiative, modeled on President Barack Obama’s national program geared toward boosting opportunities for young men of color. Policymakers spearheading New York’s initiative scored a big victory last year, securing $20 million from the legislature and officially becoming the first state to accept Obama’s challenge.

Though the political winds in Washington have changed since then, Friday’s conference sent a clear message that, if the state’s top education officials have anything to do with it, this strand of Obama’s legacy will live on in New York.

Attendees included State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa and assorted lawmakers and superintendents.

“For me, this is the end of the beginning,” said Stanley Hansen, the State Education Department assistant commissioner who runs the program. “We will start today: Staff will be contacting your schools and communities, and we will be out there in force.”

So far, the state has split the $20 million into grants that encourage the recruitment of a diverse pool of high-quality teachers, along with family and community engagement, and programs focused on college and career success. The department is pushing for another $20 million in this year’s budget.

But Regent Lester Young, who is leading the effort on New York’s education policymaking board, reminded the crowd that it will take more than funding to radically change outcomes for young men of color.

“This is not about $20 million because this problem, this challenge, is not going to be solved with $20 million,” Young said. “This will be solved when we decide to change the narrative.”

turnaround time

This Harlem school has one of the highest dropout rates in New York City. Meet the principal working to turn it around.

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Geralda Valcin, principal at Harlem's Coalition School for Social Change

Just two months after becoming principal, Geralda Valcin’s plan to reduce her school’s dropout rate landed her in a parking lot at Rikers Island.

One of her students at the Coalition School for Social Change had been incarcerated, so she made the trip — with a care package of clean t-shirts and socks in tow — to convince the jail’s staff to enroll him in a U.S. history class, one of the only courses he needed to earn a diploma.

“The principal at Rikers was like, ‘You really came up here to do this?’” Valcin recalls. “It fell on deaf ears.”

The jail wouldn’t let her visit the student or place him in the class Valcin requested, but that was only part of the reason for the trip. “He totally appreciated us for it,” she said. After his release about six months later, the senior returned to school and is on track to graduate this year.

Valcin chalks this up as a success story, but acknowledges she has many other students who need that type of support. At her Harlem school, more than a quarter of the ninth-graders who started in 2012 dropped out at some point during their high school careers, meaning they left without enrolling in another school. Only a handful of other traditional high schools in New York City had higher dropout rates, according to new statistics.

Valcin, who became principal last March after more than five years as assistant principal at Bronx High School for Law and Community Service, says she’s ready for the challenge.

She has spent much of the past year reinforcing systems to identify students early who are at risk of dropping out, and working with her school’s nonprofit partner to intervene. And the stakes are high: Coalition is one of 86 schools in the city’s “Renewal” program for low-performers, which offers schools extra social services and academic support, but which must show signs of progress in return.

Though her previous school wasn’t in the program, it also struggled with low graduation rates. It was “pretty much in the same predicament,” she said. That school boosted graduation rates by almost 20 points during her tenure, eventually besting the current citywide average of 72 percent.

Though graduation rates at her new school have started to climb, Valcin isn’t sanguine about the work ahead of her. For one thing, her students — roughly 92 percent of whom are black or Hispanic — often arrive far behind grade-level. Three-quarters come from poor families; 35 percent have disabilities.

Valcin isn’t willing to speculate about why Coalition’s dropout rate is higher than other schools with similarly high-need populations, and is careful not to assign blame. “The numbers spoke for themselves,” she said. “Coalition hasn’t graduated 50 percent of its students in six years or more. A lot of the work probably wasn’t happening.”

Soon after arriving, she launched a “Saturday academy” to help students stay on track and prepare for the state’s exit exams, and began carefully watching students who had attendance or disciplinary problems early on. “If that pattern begins, you’re almost doomed,” Valcin said.

That’s why, before students start classes in the fall, school staff review their middle school records and conduct home visits, so they can talk about previous problems before they crop up again.

“From the beginning of the year, we have highlighted a cohort of kids that without significant additional support wouldn’t cross the finish line,” said Derek Anello, a program director at Partnership with Children, the school’s nonprofit community partner. “We’re starting with ninth-graders before they’re even in the building.”

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Coalition School for Social Change

The school zooms in on students who don’t earn passing grades during the first few months of school, and offers extra academic help. (Valcin keeps a color-coded spreadsheet on her desk that tracks student progress toward graduation.)

If a student is showing up late — or not at all — they’ll likely get a knock on their door, sometimes from Valcin herself, or from a staff member at Partnership with Children. And if they’re routinely showing up late to class due to an extra-long commute, school officials might help the family find a school that’s closer to home.

City officials are expecting those efforts to produce significant results this year. Under the benchmarks assigned to the school through the Renewal program, its graduation rate should increase to 63 percent this school year, up from 46 percent. The education department considers graduation rates in decisions about whether to close or merge schools in the program.

Partnership with Children’s Anello is optimistic about meeting that goal partly because of Valcin’s embrace of his community organization. “Not every principal allows the [nonprofit partner] to be their right hand,” he added. “That’s not consistent across Renewal schools.”

But the school faces strong headwinds that make it hard to attract students who are more likely to graduate, including intense academic segregation. Among last year’s ninth-graders, for instance, fewer than five students had passed either their eighth-grade math or reading tests.

The school’s inclusion in the Renewal program, historically low graduation rate, and sagging enrollment have also signaled to prospective families that the school doesn’t have a strong track record.

In fact, Valcin has been reluctant to aggressively market the school. “I don’t want to go on the street and say, ‘Hey send your kids to this school’ given the condition we’re in currently.”

But she’s banking on this year’s graduation rate changing that calculation.

“The day after graduation, I’ll be on the corners passing out fliers,” she said.