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.”

Student activist

With Townsend Harris in turmoil over interim principal, one student quietly takes a leading role

PHOTO: The Classic
Alex Chen walks the hallway during a student sit-in he helped organize at Townsend Harris High School.

While students across the nation have taken to the streets to protest President Trump, some are fighting battles closer to home. Just ask Alex Chen, the student union president at Townsend Harris High School, who is helping to lead a high-profile fight against Interim Acting Principal Rosemarie Jahoda.

Chen spent much of his February break rallying fellow students, alumni and parents from the elite Queens school to demonstrate in front of City Hall on Friday, asking the city to remove Jahoda from consideration for the permanent post. The controversy has put the 17-year-old in the uncomfortable position of going against his school’s top official.

But Chen insists this isn’t a student vs. principal situation.

“It might have felt like that sometimes, but I don’t really see it that way. I see it more as a community that’s rising up,” he said.

Opposition has mounted against Jahoda since September, when she stepped in to lead the school. More than 3,500 people, including self-identified parents and alumni, have signed a petition against her, claiming that she has harassed faculty, changed course offerings without proper input and that she has been “aloof or even combative” toward students.

In a statement, Jahoda said: “While I am frustrated by many of these inaccurate allegations, I remain 100% focused on serving students and families at Townsend Harris and working to move the school community forward.”

Meanwhile, Chen has been thrust into the spotlight. In December, during a student sit-in he helped organize, he had a tense standoff with Deputy Superintendent Leticia Pineiro.

“How are your teachers being harassed? I’m curious,” the superintendent quipped to Chen in a livestream broadcast by the student newspaper. “You’re speaking and I believe people should speak from fact. I’m a factual person.”

Chen spoke slowly, his voice a near whisper. Even when the superintendent suggested Chen had invaded her personal space, Chen stayed quiet and calm.

“I really just wanted to be able to communicate with her,” he later told Chalkbeat.

He returned to class, replaying the scene in his head and wondering whether he had handled it right. When he walked in the door, his classmates burst into applause.

“He’s become this symbol for everyone involved. And I think he earned it,” said Brian Sweeney, an English teacher and newspaper advisor who has Chen in his journalism class. “When you’re in that video with everyone watching, and you’re willing to keep talking and keep saying what you think … there’s a lot of trust for everyone involved.”

Since the sit-in, the School Leadership Team at Townsend took the unusual step of making Chen a co-chair of the board, made up of teachers, parents and union reps.

“I believe it was a matter of trust and productivity. We needed co-chairs who could move forward with the issues at the table, rather than be stuck in tension,” Chen said.

Even while he fights to make sure Jahoda isn’t appointed permanently, Chen said he has maintained a “very professional relationship” with her. In SLT and student union meetings where Jahoda is present, Chen said he makes an effort to “stick to the agenda.”

“We still have to keep the school running,” he said. “In the hallways, I’ll say good morning. I’ll say hello. Because that’s what you’re supposed to do.”

The Department of Education opened applications for a permanent principal on Feb. 1 and said the process takes up to 90 days. The pushback against Jahoda means many are watching the department’s next moves. This week, Queens Borough President Melinda Katz wrote a letter to Chancellor Carmen Fariña about the matter.

“Accusations and troubling accounts are occurring on a daily basis,” she wrote. “The students of our system deserve to know that the DOE is providing the tools, atmosphere and attention needed to fulfill our responsibilities to them.”

Chen has responsibilities of his own. At home in Hollis Hills, he helps take care of his younger sister and is expected to finish his chores. He’s looking for a job to have a bit of his own money. And with senior year winding down, he spends a lot of time chasing scholarships. Chen hopes to study business at University of Pennsylvania, though lately many people have asked him whether he’ll go into politics.

“I don’t think I will for now, because there’s a lot that goes on in politics that kind of disturbs me,” he said. “After high school, after college, after your youth, it seems like people [tend] to be more self-interested than to help in the community.”

under study

No longer at the bottom: These 20 schools are Tennessee’s model for turnaround

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Whitehaven Elementary School students work on a robotics project. The Memphis school has moved off of the state's list of lowest-performing schools.

When Education Commissioner Candice McQueen gave a stinging assessment this week of Tennessee’s school turnaround work, she cited a small number of schools as the exception.

Twenty have improved enough in the last five years to move off of the state’s list of “priority schools” that are in Tennessee’s bottom 5 percent.

Of those, the State Department of Education has conducted case studies of 10 former priority schools in Memphis, Nashville, Chattanooga and Hardeman County:

  • Chickasaw Middle, Shelby County Schools
  • Douglass K-8, Shelby County Schools
  • Ford Road Elementary, Shelby County Schools
  • Gra-Mar Middle, Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools
  • Hamilton Middle, Shelby County Schools
  • Treadwell Middle, Shelby County Schools
  • Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy, Hamilton County Schools
  • Whiteville Elementary, Hardeman County Schools
  • City University Boys Preparatory High, Shelby County Schools
  • Springdale Elementary, Shelby County Schools

The first six are part of state-supported innovation zones in Memphis and Nashville. Two schools — in Chattanooga and Hardeman County — have received federal school improvement grants. The last two did not receive federal or state interventions but were studied because their scores improved at a faster rate than 85 percent of schools in 2015.

Ten other former priority schools, all in Shelby County Schools in Memphis, have improved with only local or philanthropic support. The state plans to examine these closer in the coming months:

  • Alcy Elementary
  • Cherokee Elementary, Innovation Zone
  • Hickory Ridge Middle
  • Manassas High
  • Manor Lake Elementary
  • Memphis Academy of Science & Engineering High (charter school)
  • Memphis School of Excellence High (charter school)
  • Oakhaven Middle
  • South Park Elementary
  • Whitehaven Elementary
PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
A classroom at Ford Road Elementary in Memphis, which is among those that have exited the state’s list of lowest performing schools.

McQueen told lawmakers Tuesday that it’s “a little embarrassing” that only 16 percent of priority schools have moved off of the state’s 2012 and 2014 lists that identify 126 failing schools.

The case studies, in part, have informed the school improvement component of Tennessee’s new plan for its schools under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act.

“… We have learned that a combination of school leadership, effective teaching with a focus on depth of instruction around standards, and services focused on non-academic supports has led to strong outcomes in these schools,” McQueen said in a statement Wednesday.

Tennessee’s proposed new plan for turnaround work would gives more authority to local districts to make their own improvements before the state-run Achievement School District steps in.

One ASD school — Brick Church in Nashville — also has moved off of the state’s priority list, but was excluded from the state’s analysis because there were not enough years of test data to compare since its takeover by the state-run district.

“What we can’t do as a state is support — in terms of funding and time — district interventions that don’t work,” McQueen said. “We have to learn from what is working because we know we have much more work to do and many more students that have need.”

Chalkbeat reporter Grace Tatter contributed to this report.