Model Lesson

Bronx principal marshals colleagues around arts enrichment

Sixth-graders at M.S. 223 drew Andy Warhol-inspired portraits during summer arts enrichment program

Angel Angel, 13, missed playing in seven baseball games last month so he could mentor students at his middle school, M.S. 223.

But Angel, a rising eighth-grader who is also an avid guitar-player, welcomed the opportunity to forgo his usual summer activities to help 96 incoming sixth-graders at the South Bronx middle school study reading, math and music for three weeks.

The summer enrichment program, which just finished its first year, is the brainchild of M.S. 223’s principal, Ramon Gonzalez, who has gained a reputation as a leader in public school management since he opened the school in 2003.

Gonzalez has touted initiatives to increase literacy and parental involvement to school community members throughout District 7, which is largely poor and low-performing. Now he is trying to turn District 7’s attention toward arts education, at a time when many schools are facing cuts to their art and music teaching positions. He is asking a handful of local principals to help him write a large grant to fund after school and summer school arts education at multiple schools in future years.

Gonzalez said he wanted to create a free summer program for his students that would address the learning-loss that some students, particularly those from low-income families, experience between June and September. He hoped offering afternoon classes in painting, printmaking, and orchestral music — in addition to trips to Broadway shows and the Museum of Modern Art —  would bring the students back each day, even though the classes were not mandatory.

Rather than try to carve $85,000 out of MS 223’s tight budget, he leveraged his connections — augmented after this spring’s appearance in the New York Times Magazine — to win funding.

Still, selling the split schedule to donors was difficult. Some pointed to a lack of research showing that arts integration would fuel academic improvements. Others didn’t see how Gonzalez’s program would fit into their funding priorities: One foundation that focuses on the arts didn’t want to help support the camp’s academic component, Gonzalez said, while another group wanted to fund academic instruction but not arts programming.

So Gonzalez approached this summer’s pilot program with a hypothesis: If you offer students quality arts education during the summer, then they will be more likely practice reading and math outside of the school year.

Gonzalez wants other principals to help him prove the point, so he is recruiting them to join him in offering arts integration programs outside the school day.

“His focus on trying to use the arts to raise reading scores is really good,” said Mary Padilla, principal of P.S. 5, who visited M.S. 223 last week for a tour of the summer program. “We need to do things differently than other districts because of all the high needs our students have. We have parents who are standing on unemployment lines, on food stamp lines. They don’t have the time to take kids to museums.”

Gonzalez plans to pitch the program to eight other principals this Friday and approach donors with his expansion plans in September. Most of the principals hail from Bronx and Harlem public schools which are outside of M.S. 223’s support network within the Department of Education, Gonzalez said, so collaborations like this one are his only opportunity to interact with them.

“You need a good body of people to effect change,” he said. “It’s the activist in me. We need to create the model to drive instruction, because this is not being done by outsiders.”

At the culmination of the camp last week, roughly 75 percent of the sixth-grade class—many of whom picked up instruments for the first time this July—performed Duke Ellington’s C Jam Blues and other jazz numbers to a half-full auditorium of parents and teachers.

Padilla, who sent four graduating fifth-grade students from her elementary school to M.S. 223 this year, left the school impressed by what she heard.

“You had over 100 kids participating in his summer arts program in a heat wave, on a Friday, at one o’clock in the afternoon,” she said. “This is August, when kids want to take a break and put their feet up, and these kids were in work mode.”

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.