dotting the i's

Closure meetings underway at schools slated for "turnaround"

Posters from past student theater performances adorned the walls of Franklin Delano Roosevelt High School’s auditorium, where parents gathered Monday for a meeting on school turnaround.

The city has started running through its closure protocol at dozens of low-performing schools it wants to “turn around.”

At Brooklyn’s Franklin Delano Roosevelt High School, Superintendent Aimee Horowitz held a tense meeting with teachers to talk about the closure plan Monday afternoon. Hours later, she detailed the plan to about 50 angry and bewildered parents at an “early engagement” meeting that has for the last two years been the Department of Education’s first step in letting schools know they could be closed.

The pattern is set to repeat this week and beyond at dozens of low-performing schools that were midway through federally mandated overhaul processes known as “transformation” and “restart” until earlier this month, when Mayor Bloomberg announced that the city would instead try to use a different process, “turnaround,” at the schools. The switch, aimed at letting the city sidestep a state requirement that it negotiate new teacher evaluations with the United Federation of Teachers, would require the schools to be closed and immediately reopened after having at least half of their teachers replaced.

The mass-replacement plan drew fire from parents and students who said FDR’s teachers are essential if academic performance is to improve.

“I feel tortured,” said Abdul Sager, a ninth-grader whose first language is Bengali. “If a new teacher comes who doesn’t know about my feelings and strategies … to learn English, it’s going to take more time.”

Parents found out about Monday’s meeting in letters shortly after Bloomberg’s announcement and through automated telephone calls over the weekend announcing a parent-teacher association meeting with Horowitz, according to Robin Piraino, the mother of a ninth-grader. She said the messages didn’t say the meeting would deal with FDR’s proposed closure, and some people who attended the meeting were visibly surprised by the news.

Principal Steven Demarco implored families to push back against the city’s plan by contacting legislators and elected officials. He also promised that FDR would survive the city’s latest efforts to reshape the school.

“We’ve always been a family, we’ve always gotten through,” he said. “Regardless of what we’re called — transformation, restart, turnaround — we are continuing every day to make progress. That will continue until I’m dragged out of here.”

Demarco’s predecessor was in fact yanked from the school. Starting transformation in 2010 required Roosevelt’s longtime principal, Geraldine Maione, to be replaced, so the Department of Education appointed Demarco, a 29-veteran of the school, to take her place. Then the city installed Maione at William E. Grady Career and Technical Education High School, another school that was undergoing transformation and could now be closed.

Since 2010, FDR had received millions of dollars in federal School Improvement Grants. Teachers said the funds had financed training sessions and overtime hours for leading after-school English classes for parents, tutoring students, and hosting a new advisory program called freshman and sophomore academies.

“We’ve invested our support in the English Language Learners,” said Jorge Mitey, a Spanish teacher and FDR’s union chapter leader, who had passed out large buttons showing Bloomberg’s face with a red strike-through to people attending the meeting. “They’re coming in on weekends, they’re coming after school. We’ve given them more academic rigor to improve.”

Forty percent of FDR’s 3,400 students are considered English language learners, a data point that teachers said makes it impossible for the school to meet the city’s expectations, especially for its four-year graduation rate. Of the students who entered as ninth-graders in 2006, 59 percent graduated four years later, giving FDR a graduation rate just two points below the city average. The school received B’s on its two most recent city progress reports.

“Current policies do not reflect research on how students learn languages — many of our hardest-working students at this school are English language learners,” said one teacher, who asked not to be named because she is worried about keeping her job. “All research shows that it takes five to seven years to become academically proficient in a second language, and that is only if you have literacy in your first language. But many of our students come in with literacy challenges in their first language, Chinese, Spanish.”

The meetings are a first step in the city’s notification process for school closures. For the last two years, the city has held “early engagement” hearings at schools it is considering shuttering before finalizing the closure slate. Then the city must hold public hearings at each school slated for closure before the citywide school board, the Panel for Educational Policy, votes on them. The panel has never rejected a city proposal. By law, the city must also issue detailed reports about the closures’ impact, called “Education Impact Statements,” at least six months before the start of the school year when the closures would begin — a deadline that is just weeks away.

Other school communities are gearing up to protest the turnaround plan at meetings with superintendents later this week. On Wednesday, teachers at Brooklyn’s John Dewey High School say they will defend the progress the school has made under the restart model to department officials and ask them to let current teachers stay in the school.

First Person

First Person: Why my education nonprofit is bucking the coastal trend and setting up shop in Oklahoma

PHOTO: Creative Commons

“Oklahoma?! Why are you expanding to Oklahoma?!”

The response when I told some people that Generation Citizen, the nonprofit I run, was expanding to central Texas and Oklahoma, quickly became predictable. They could understand Texas, probably because our headquarters will be in the blue-dot-in-sea-of-red Austin. But Oklahoma?

My answer: Generation Citizen is expanding to Oklahoma City because no one would expect us to expand to Oklahoma City.

Our nonprofit is dedicated to empowering young people to become engaged citizens by reviving civics education in schools. We help middle and high school students learn about local politics by guiding them as they take action on issues they care about, like funding for teen jobs or state resources for teenage moms.

I founded the organization after graduating from Brown University in Rhode Island in 2009. Since then, we’ve expanded our programming to Boston, New York City, and the San Francisco Bay Area. All are urban areas with wide swaths of low-income young people, unequal schools, and disparate power dynamics. Our work is needed in those areas.

At the same time, all of these areas have predominantly liberal populations. In fact, according to The Economist, they are among the 10 most liberal cities in the country.

Generation Citizen is a non-partisan organization. We do not wish to convince young people to support a particular candidate or party — we just want them to engage politically, period. But the fact that we are preparing low-income young people in liberal urban centers to become politically active complicates this narrative.

So despite the fact that we could work with many more students in our existing cities, we made a conscious decision to expand to a more politically diverse region. A city that had real Republicans.

As we started talking about expansion, I realized the extent to which the dialogue about political and geographic diversity was a rarity in national nonprofit circles. While several large education organizations, like Teach for America and City Year, have done an admirable job of in working in conservative and rural regions across the country, a lot of other organizations follow a more predictable path, sticking largely to cities on the east and west coasts and sometimes, if folks feel crazy, an Atlanta or Miami.

There is nothing wrong with these decisions (and we were originally following this trajectory). A big reason for the coastal-focused expansion strategy is the availability of financial resources. Nonprofits want to raise money locally to sustain themselves, and those cities are home to a lot of people and foundations who can fund nonprofits.

But a more problematic reason seems related to our increasing ideological self-segregation. Nonprofits lean toward expanding to places that are comfortable, places that their leaders visit, places where people tend to hold similar values and political views.

One of the fault lines in our democracy is our inability to talk to people who disagree with us (highlighted daily by this presidential election). And non-profits may be exacerbating this reality.

This schism actually became more apparent to me when our board of directors started having conversations about expansion. Oklahoma City had come to the top of my proposed list because of my personal and professional contacts there. But I quickly realized that no one on my board lived more than five miles from an ocean, and save a board member from Oklahoma, none had stepped foot in the state.

“Are we sure we want to expand there? Why not a gateway city?” (I still don’t know what a gateway city is.)

“We can hire a Republican to run the site, but they can’t be a Trump supporter.”

“Are we sure that we can raise enough money to operate there?”

It wasn’t just my board. Whenever I talked to friends about our plans, they’d offer the same resistance.

The stereotypes I heard were twofold: Oklahoma was full of bigoted conservatives, and it was an incredibly boring location. (The dullness narrative got an unquestionable boost this year when star basketball player Kevin Durant left the hometown Thunder. It became quite clear that a main rationale for his leaving the team was Oklahoma City itself.)

But as I met with folks about Generation Citizen’s work, I met citizen after citizen who was excited about our mission. The state is facing tremendous budget challenges, and its voter participation rates amongst the worst in the country. Given these realities, there seemed to be widespread recognition that a program like ours could actually be helpful.

I did not talk about national politics with most people I met. Indeed, we might disagree on whom to support. But we did agree on the importance of educating young people to be politically active, shared concerns about public school budget cuts, and bonded over excitement for the Thunder’s playoff chances.

Still, the actual expansion to Oklahoma will be a challenge for our organization. Despite our local ties, we are coming in from the outside, and we do have the perception of being a progressively minded organization. What will happen if one of our classes wants to advocate for open carry at schools in response to a shooting? How will my board handle working in a site where they wouldn’t ordinarily visit?

I am excited to tackle all of these challenges. And I would push other similarly sized non-profits to think about working in a more diverse set of areas. It is not possible to be a national organization and avoid entire swaths of the country. But more importantly, given these tenuous political times, it feels important to interact with people who may not hold our beliefs.

Nonprofits can’t fix our national dialogue alone. But by expanding where we work, we might help improve the conversation.

honor system

Meet Derek Voiles, the Morristown educator who is Tennessee’s newest Teacher of the Year

PHOTO: Tennessee Department of Education
Derek Voiles, Tennessee's 2016-17 Teacher of the Year

Derek Voiles, a seventh-grade English language arts teacher in Morristown, is Tennessee’s 2016-17 Teacher of the Year, the State Department of Education announced Thursday.

One of nine finalists for this year’s award, Voiles teaches at Lincoln Heights Middle in Hamblen County Schools in East Tennessee. He received the top teacher honor at a banquet in Nashville.

Voiles, who has been teaching for six years, has long shared his teaching practices publicly — on Twitter, through a blog he wrote with a colleague, and as a state ambassador for the Common Core standards. In recent years, according to a state news release, his classroom became a hub as teachers from across his district observed his teaching in hopes of replicating his practices, which often improved the performance of students far behind their peers.

“All students are capable of achieving great things, and all students deserve a teacher who believes this and will do whatever it takes to make it happen,” Voiles said in the release. He is also a doctoral candidate at East Tennessee State University.

Now, Voiles will gain an even wider stage, as Tennessee’s representative to the National Teacher of the Year program. He will also share insight from the classroom as part of committees and working groups with the Tennessee Department of Education.

All nine Teacher of the Year finalists, representing each of the state’s regions, will serve on the Commissioner Candice McQueen’s Teacher Advisory Council during the 2016-17 school year.

The department also recognized two division winners from Middle and West Tennessee. Cord Martin, a music education and enrichment teacher at Whitthorne Middle School in Maury County, was recognized for his innovative teaching strategies and connecting content to contemporary culture. Christy McManus, a fifth-grade English language arts and social studies teacher at Chester County Middle School in Henderson was honored for equipping her students with the end goal in mind: a college-ready twelfth grader.

Voiles follows Cathy Whitehead, a third-grade teacher from Chester County, who served as Tennessee’s 2015-16 Teacher of the Year. Whitehead teaches at West Chester Elementary School in Henderson in West Tennessee.