New sheriffs in town

Students bring anti-turnaround message to PEP members

Wassem Albakka, a sophomore from Grady High School, tapes a poster of PEP member Linda Bryant to a fence near her Upper East Side office building.

When student protesters came knocking on the front door of Eduardo Martí’s office building this afternoon, the mayoral appointee to the Panel for Education Policy wasn’t there. The same was true when they tried the offices of fellow appointees Linda Bryant and Judy Bergtraum.

But the band of eight students, all from high schools the city has put up for closure, still used chants, drumming, and “wanted” posters with the panelists faces on them to leave them a message: that they should not vote to close their schools.

A City University of New York official blocked the students from entering Martí’s office on East 80th Street shortly before 3 p.m. But a receptionist listened patiently by phone as Diana Rodriguez, a senior at Grover Cleveland High School, read off a list of “crimes he is wanted for”:

“One, violation of civil rights: He approved 23 school closing affecting 10,000 students. He approved countless policies that have resulted in only 13 percent of Black and Latino students graduating ready for college,” she said. “Two, breach of the public trust: He rubber stamped all of Mayor Bloomberg’s proposals, against the will of parents, students and communities. Three, conflict of interest: He received funds from the mayor’s administration while holding public office.”

Students from Cleveland and Grady, which the city wants to close using the controversial turnaround school reform model this year, were later joined by a student and parent from Legacy High School for Integrated Studies, a small Union Square high school the PEP voted to close this winter.

The students, who were organized by the advocacy group Alliance for Quality Education, said they had two main reasons for protesting: solidarity with the schools that the PEP has already voted to close, and a desire to protect their schools from the turnaround, which would call for the firing of half the schools’ staff and replacing its name. The PEP, which has never rejected a city proposal, will vote on the turnaround proposals on April 26.

Students from William E. Grady Career and Technical Education High School taped the wanted posters–which entreated viewers to call Martí at his office number and say, “you are wanted for crimes against New York City students”—to street poles around the block while two Cleveland students pounded on makeshift bucket-drums.

“I’ve had two years to get comfortable with the teachers,” Wassem Albakka, a sophomore from Grady, told me. “Walking up and down the hallway is going to be a little awkward, seeing teachers we don’t know.”

Students from Grover Cleveland High School bang bucket drums with cooking utensils to share their concerns about Panel for Educational Policy member Eduardo Martí with coworkers outside his East 80th Street offices.

Albakka said he is especially worried about whether the city will fire his football coach, who spends free periods reviewing games with students.

“Grady is like a family,” Mohannad Ikhma, also a sophomore, added. “Alumni come back here to visit. If they take the name away, where are they going to come back to?”

Ikhma also said he expected new teachers would have a difficult time commanding respect from the students, many of whom have rallied in opposition to the turnaround plan at the school in the past month.

Several Upper East Side residents passing by stopped to read the posters and ask the students what they were protesting.

“I don’t have any children in school,” one said. “But why does the mayor want to close the schools?”

At Bryant’s office two blocks north, an employee of Inwood House, the pregnancy-prevention program she runs, opened the building’s front door a crack to tell the students that Bryant was gone for the day, too. Rodriguez offered the woman a “wanted” poster with Bryant’s face on it, and she responded, “How cute,” before shutting the door.

The students also struck out at Bergraum’s office in Midtown West. They were told it was closing for the day when they arrived close to 5 p.m, so they resumed chanting outside the high-rise.

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.