final exam

As Walcott watches, AP stats students scrutinize school metrics

Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott listens to a student presentation on their school's progress report.
Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott listens to a student presentation on their school's progress report.

Statistics students at a Brooklyn high school took an unusually high-profile final exam today: They presented an analysis of the city’s school report cards to an audience that included their principal and Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott.

Their teacher, Eleanor Terry, had invited the Chancellor via email, hoping to put together an official audience for her Advanced Placement statistics students at the High School for Telecommunication Arts and Technology.

The school earned an A on its most recent progress report. But that didn’t stop students — who wore buttons depicting their statistics class mascot, the “normalcurvasaurus” — from scrutinizing the way their school was graded. They examined technical issues including bias in survey questions, the way students are broken into deciles by their eighth-grade test scores, and how different scores were weighted to come up with their school’s final grade.

The students peppered their presentations with recommendations for Walcott, ranging from offering the student surveys online to factoring a school’s size into its grading.

Walcott spent more than an hour scribbling notes during the presentations. When students described difficult experiences in freshman physics classes and adjusting to high school, which they said could affect the student progress section of the report, Walcott asked, “Should we be doing something different freshman year?”

“The kids were unbelievably impressed that he said he would come. And I can’t say my reaction was any different,” Principal Phil Weinberg said.

Walcott also asked the students for their thoughts about expanding some math classes to be taught over three semesters, rather than two, to reduce what he said was “hopping from topic to topic.”

“I’m not sure if I’m biasing the question,” he joked as some students, like Christian Sanchez, quickly agreed.

“I got by, but there’s a lot more I could have learned,” Sanchez said of his 10th-grade trigonometry class.

Telecommunications’ parent survey response rate was 24 percent below the city average, which the students said might be fixed by using the same tactics used on students: lotteries for rewards, like tickets to baseball games, movies, or SAT-prep classes.

Rifat Kaynas said that the parent survey should also be expanded to cover more of the school environment, since teachers often only see part of the picture.

“I was bullied once, but I don’t go tell the dean, I just go home. Parents can see those bruises and cuts. So how can that be used to improve the quality of safety at the school?” Kaynas asked.

“It’s a good tool, but there are a lot of kinks,” he said.

Asked what they would change to influence the way their school would be graded next year, the students answered nearly unanimously: not cut January Regents exams. The state Board of Regents voted in May to eliminate the January test dates, used mostly in large cities, in order to cut costs.

No January exams will mean fewer students passing, leading to more students falling behind, lower graduation rates, and eventually lower report card grades, the students said.

“When the students say, ‘I have friends who can’t get these credits,’ that’s what the chancellor is here to see, what it feels like to be looked at in this way,” said Terry, a sixth-year teacher and Math for America teaching fellow.

The students pointed out that one flaw in the peer schools index, which calculates how schools compare to similar schools, is that it doesn’t account for enrollment. Telecommunications, with over 1,300 students, is considered a peer school with Civic Leadership Academy in Queens, which has just 323 students.

Walcott asked how the DOE could take school size account without focusing solely on enrollment. The students weren’t sure, but they were emphatic about another suggestion: making the progress report data easier to read and understand.

“If you haven’t taken statistics before, you might struggle,” Eman Toom said.

“Even if you had,” Walcott quipped.

father knows best

How a brush with death convinced one dad to get his diploma, with a boost from the Fatherhood Academy

PHOTO: Courtesy of Steven Robles
Steven Robles with his family

Steven Robles thought he might not live to see his daughter’s birth.

In May 2016, the 20-year-old was in the hospital after being shot during what he described as an argument in his neighborhood.

A year later, Robles just graduated from City University of New York’s Fatherhood Academy. He passed his high school equivalency exam and is happily celebrating his daughter Avare’s 8-month birthday.

“That conflict is what got me into the program, and what happened to me before she was born motivated me to stay in the program,” Robles said. “It motivated me to manage to pass my GED.”

Robles grew up in Brownsville, Brooklyn and attended Franklin K. Lane High School. Though he liked his teachers, Robles said other students at the school were not “mature enough,” and the disorderly school environment made it hard for him to concentrate.

A quiet student, Robles said teachers would often overlook his presence in the classroom. Between that and friction with other classmates, Robles lost interest in school.

“My parents didn’t try to help me, either,” Robles said. “Nobody really tried to help me with that school, so I just stopped going.”

It was a whole different experience for him once he arrived at the Fatherhood Academy at LaGuardia Community College, a program run by CUNY for unemployed and underemployed fathers ages 18 through 28. The Academy, now partnering with the New York City Housing Authority at its LaGuardia location, was launched in 2012 and also has programs at Hostos and Kingsborough Community Colleges.

“I have interviewed many of the men who come into the program and I often ask the question, ‘What brought you here?'” said Raheem Brooks, program manager of the Fatherhood Academy at LaGuardia Community College. “Mostly every young man says, ‘I’m here because I want to create a better life for my child than I had.’ So, I think the main theme of the program is that we help promote intergenerational change.”

At the LaGuardia branch, 30 students attend classes three times a week over the course of 16 weeks. Subjects include mathematics, social studies, and writing for students seeking to get their high school equivalency diplomas. Students also attend workshops run by counselors who guide them in professional development and parenting.

Robles found out about the program after seeing a flier for it in his social worker’s office at Graham Windham, a family support services organization. Curious to see what the Academy offered, he called to find out more and officially enrolled after passing a test to prove he could read above seventh-grade level.

“Before the Academy, I was not really into school at all,” Robles said. “But when I got there, it just changed my life. In this program, I didn’t know anybody there, there were no distractions. It made me more focused, and I just really wanted to get my GED and education.”

What helped Robles the most was getting to learn from the other fathers in the class, who were going through similar experiences as him.

“Little things I didn’t know, I learned from them because they were also fathers,” Robles said. “I just liked the way they were teaching us.”

In fact, he liked the Academy so much, he doesn’t plan to leave. He is applying to study criminal justice at LaGuardia Community College and to become a mentor for the Academy next year.

Currently, Robles lives with his grandparents, his daughter and the mother of his child. Getting a place for his family is next on his to-do list, he said.

“Avare always has a smile on her face and always puts a smile on my face,” Robles said. “She motivates me to get up and do what I have to do. Anything I could do for her, I will.”

Though school did not play a huge role in his life growing up, that is not what Robles wants for his daughter. He said after participating in the Academy, he wants to make sure Avare stays motivated and in school.

“I hear a lot from people about how they think they can’t do it,” Robles said. “I almost lost my life before my daughter was born and that motivated me. If I could do it, you could do it.”

Behind the brawl

Three things to know about the Tennessee school behind this week’s graduation brawl

PHOTO: Arlington Community Schools
Arlington High School is a 2,000-plus-student school in suburban Shelby County in southwest Tennessee.

Arlington High School is considered the crown jewel of a 3-year-old district in suburban Shelby County, even as its school community deals with the unwelcome attention of several viral videos showing a fight that broke out among adults attending its graduation ceremony.

The brawl, which reportedly began with a dispute over saved seats, detracted from Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance and the more than $30 million in scholarships earned by the school’s Class of 2017. No students were involved.

“It was unfortunate that a couple of adults in the audience exhibited the behavior they did prior to the ceremony beginning and thus has caused a distraction from the celebration of our students’ accomplishments,” Arlington Community Schools Superintendent Tammy Mason said in a statement.

Here are three things to know about the 13-year-old school in northwest Shelby County.

With more than 2,000 students, Arlington is one of the largest high schools in Shelby County and is part of a relatively new district.

It’s the pride of a suburban municipality that is one of six that seceded from Shelby County Schools in 2014 following the merger of the city and county districts the year before. (School district secessions are a national trend, usually of predominantly white communities leaving predominantly black urban school systems.) More than 70 percent of Arlington’s students are white, and 6 percent are considered economically disadvantaged — in stark contrast to the Memphis district where less than 8 percent are white, and almost 60 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

The school’s graduation rate is high … and climbing.

Last year, after adding interventions for struggling students, the school’s graduation rate jumped a full point to more than 96 percent. Its students taking the ACT college entrance exam scored an average composite of 22.5 out of a possible 36, higher than the state average of 19.9. But only a fifth scored proficient or advanced in math and a third in English language arts during 2015-16, the last school year for which scores are available and a transition year for Tennessee under a new test.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits with students at Arlington High School during a 2016 tour.

The school was in the news last August when Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visited its campus.

The commissioner spoke with students there to kick off her statewide listening tour that’s focused on ways to get students ready for college and career. McQueen highlighted the school’s extracurricular activities and students’  opportunities to intern for or shadow local professionals. She also complimented Arlington for having an engaged education community.