panic attack

As dust settles after strike threat, questions about city's urgency

School buses at Coney Island in 2008.

For Simon Jean-Baptiste, a veteran school bus driver who belongs to Local 1181, the city’s announcement Friday that his union could go on strike at any moment was news to him.

“It’s the city that we heard that from,” Jean-Baptiste said today.

Jean-Baptiste, a former vice president in the union, said he had no idea there was any kind of citywide strike threat until he first heard about it from media reports prompted by a last-minute press conference called by Mayor Bloomberg on Friday. Bloomberg warned that Local 1181’s leadership opposed the city’s plans for a new contract for pre-kindergarten bus drivers because the city would not guarantee job security for experienced drivers. As a result, he said, an “immediate” strike was possible.

At the same time, Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott sent a comprehensive plan to principals for how they should handle a strike should it occur.

Hours later, Local 1181 President Michael Cordiello said in a statement that a strike over seniority rights was “likely” but not imminent. Today, Cordiello said in a statement that the union was beginning to weigh its options.

“We do not want to strike, but we have been forced to keep our options open by cost-cutting proposals by Mayor Bloomberg,” he said.

As buses rolled up to schools on time this morning, and with no strike imminent, some are questioning the urgency with with Bloomberg and Walcott presented the threat.

The prospect of a school bus strike didn’t even register at a Panel for Educational Policy meeting Thursday evening, even though the group is responsible for voting on all busing contracts.

A PEP member, Patrick Sullivan, said he suspected that the Friday hype was meant to “demonize” the bus drivers union in order to turn public opinion against its demands.

“I think it’s appalling, really,” said Sullivan, a frequent critic of DOE policies. “[City officials] clearly had a whole plan of action planned and the next day they went out to the press and all of a sudden a strike was imminent. It seems the goal of it was to make parents afraid.”

Jean-Baptiste said union members would likely discuss the contract issue for the first time at a delegates meeting Tuesday evening.

“What is striking to me is that the city is panicking about whether there will be a strike, but the union never mentioned anything like that,” he said. “I think the city is spreading fear.”

That’s a view that Sam Pirozzolo, a parent leader on Staten Island, home to many of the bus contractors that do business with the city, expressed in an op-ed on Saturday. After speaking to union officials and quickly realizing that the threats were not as urgent as the city said, Pirozzolo wrote that he saw the press attention as meant “to instill fear throughout the city that a school bus strike was imminent.”

It isn’t the first time the bus drivers’ union has threatened to strike. It happened in 2006 and again when members authorized a strike last year (an actual strike hasn’t taken place in New York City since 1979). But this appears to be the first time in recent years that the city has worked to defuse a strike threat before union leaders even issued it publicly.

Education officials said the press conference was a direct response to what the bus drivers union had told them directly: that the drivers would strike systemwide.

“The purpose of the press conference was to inform parents about contingency plans and how they can prepare,” a DOE spokeswoman said.

Principals we contacted about the bus strike warnings offered a muted response, with one saying that the warnings were intense but not a distraction.

“It came amidst so much other business that it was hard to get too excited about,” emailed the principal, who works at a neighborhood school where few students ride school buses. She said her school had received Walcott’s letter and additional information about the threat three times.

“It did seem like a large reaction, but I guess I’d rather that they had a plan in place ahead of time than be left improvising after the fact, particularly in instances where there actually is advance knowledge.”

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.