moot point

As hearing nears, Sheepshead students indict turnaround plan

In preparation to protest the closure of Sheepshead Bay High School tonight at a public hearing, students interrogated a cardboard cutout of Mayor Michael Bloomberg on video.

In the video, a student posing as an attorney stages a mock “cross-examination,” of the mayor and his plans, which involve closing and re-opening 33 schools this year under a federal reform model known as “turnaround.”

The city is holding hearings at 33 schools that are slated for turnaround, and two more begin tonight at Harlem Renaissance High School and Automotive High School. Each school will hold a hearing—a requirement of the closure process—with city officials, their respective Community Education Councils, and school community members between now and April 19. The citywide school board is set to vote on the closures a week later. The board, known as the Panel for Educational Policy, has never rejected a city proposal.

“Did you know that Sheepshead Bay High School has increased its high school grad rates from 52% to 64%. Would you agree that this represents a steady improvement?” A student asks in the video.

“Uh, well, over a few years… Yes,” ” a voice behind the cardboard cut out says.

The student continues: “Did you know the Sheepshead Bay High School ranks among the top schools in the nation in track and field? …Did you know that a student from Sheepshead Bay High School won the international moot court competition? Do you know about the many students who went and placed as finalists in writing competitions throughout the city and the state? …And yet you still call Sheepshead Bay a failing school?”

Students and teachers at Sheepshead Bay have not been active opponents of the plans until just a month ago, when they began organizing with the Alliance for Quality Education and spoke at a heated Brooklyn forum about the details of turnaround.

Officials “definitely should change their minds, if they saw what was going on in these schools,” Bruce Sherman, a guidance counselor who attended the forum told me. “Teachers are busting their butts, staying late for tutoring, doing all kinds of things to help the school. But they’ve had the sword of Damocles hanging over their heads.”

This afternoon they are planning to rally in front of the South Brooklyn campus in the hour before the hearing begins, and the moot court team is set to perform.

feedback

Tennessee’s ESSA plan gets solid marks in independent review

PHOTO: Amanda Lucidon/The White House
President Barack Obama signs the Every Student Succeeds Act in December 2015, surrounded by U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and other champions and supporters of the new law.

Tennessee’s proposed plan for school accountability rates strong on measuring academic progress, but weak on counting all kids, according to an independent review released Tuesday by two education groups.

For the most part, the state landed in the upper middle of an analysis spearheaded by Bellwether Education Partners and the Collaborative for Student Success.

Their panel of reviewers looked into components of state plans  ranging from academic standards to supporting schools under the new federal education law.

“Tennessee has submitted a very solid plan for which they should be proud,” said Jim Cowen, executive director of the Collaborative for Student Success. “Their ideas for ensuring academic progress and supporting schools are exemplary. We hope that other states will look for ways to incorporate these best practices.”

The groups brought together education experts with a range of political viewpoints and backgrounds to analyze 17 state plans submitted this spring to the U.S. Department of Education in response to the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA.

Calling Tennessee’s plan “robust, transparent and comprehensive,” the review praised its “clear vision for reform” and its design of “district and school accountability systems that rely on high-quality indicators.”

The state received the highest rating possible for its proposal for tracking academic progress.

“Tennessee’s plan clearly values both growth and proficiency,” the review says. “Every school, even high-achieving ones, have growth and proficiency targets, and even the growth measure tracks student progress toward grade-level standards.”

The state’s lowest rating — a 2 out of a possible 5 — was for how Tennessee plans to identify and rate schools in need of targeted support for certain groups of students. Reviewers questioned whether the state’s system might mask the performance of some by proposing to combine the scores of black, Hispanic and Native American students into one subgroup.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said Tennessee is committed to supporting all students, especially those in historically underserved groups.

“When we say ‘all means all,’ that means much more than just accountability for subgroup performance,” McQueen said in a statement on the eve of the review’s release.

“The state’s accountability framework is designed to hold as many schools accountable for subgroup performance as possible while maintaining statistical reliability and validity, and it provides safeguards to ensure student information is protected,” she said. “In schools where there are a smaller number of students from a specific racial or ethnic category, we are combining them into one group. In doing so, we are actually able to hold schools accountable for more students — more than 43,000 black, Hispanic, and Native American students would be excluded from subgroup accountability if we did not use the combined subgroup.”

Congress passed ESSA in 2015 as a bipartisan law co-sponsored by U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, a former U.S. secretary of education. Signed by President Barack Obama, the law ended the No Child Left Behind era and redirected education policy back to the states.

States have since been working on their accountability plans, and Tennessee was among the first to submit a proposal. The state is now awaiting approval by the U.S. Department of Education, which would make it eligible for receiving federal funds.

For a breakdown of analysis on state plans including Tennessee’s, visit Check State Plans, an interactive website that spotlights the best elements of ESSA plans and those that fall short.

graduation day

How one Brooklyn teen gave up gang life for a shot at graduation

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Jahrell Thomas, center, helps a classmate with his cap.

Jahrell Thomas didn’t expect to graduate high school.

Though he initially liked his school, Manhattan’s Leadership and Public Service High School, he quickly lost interest, often wandering out of class to hang out in the hallways.

By sophomore year, he had joined a gang. “I was outside late and the people that I was with said, ‘Do you do you want to go beat someone up to be in this gang?’ And so I had to actually beat the person up, and I joined the gang that night,” Thomas recalls. He often spent his time roaming the streets, drinking and picking fights.

So when the 19-year-old showed up at Brooklyn Democracy Academy, an alternative school for students who are older and have fallen behind, he didn’t have high hopes. “I was like, ‘No, I’m not going to graduate,” he said.

But on Monday, with his mom watching from the audience, the now 21-year-old earned a diploma — along with roughly 50 other classmates who struggled at traditional high schools.

Thomas and several of his classmates credited Brooklyn Democracy Academy — which is run as a partnership between the city and the Jewish Child Care Association — with getting them over what once seemed like insurmountable hurdles.

The Brownsville school is one of several dozen “transfer” schools across the city that exclusively serve students who are over-age and behind in credits, pairing each student with an advocate-counselor who helps shepherd the student through high school.

The individual support, smaller class sizes, and being around classmates who have experienced similar setbacks, some students said, helped them get back on track. “There are challenges,” said Delisa Stoner, who also graduated Monday, “but they help you out.”

Democracy Academy tries to ensure that it only enrolls students who are committed to doing their best to graduate: Students and their guardians must interview to gain admission.

Despite his commitment to the school, Thomas is quick to admit that his path to graduation wasn’t entirely smooth. Janelle Tinsley, who served as Thomas’s advocate-counselor — coaxing him to school, or offering advice — noted that staying on track has been difficult. “It was a real, real fight to the end,” she said.

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Jahrell Thomas with his mother and siblings immediately before graduation

The school’s staff also acknowledge some challenges. Attendance and reading scores could use improvement, said Cherise Littlejohn, a program director with the Jewish Child Care Association who works in the school. But, she adds, “From where and how the students come in, I think we’re doing pretty well.” (At 56 percent, the school’s graduation rate is above average compared with other alternative schools.)

Through a grin, Thomas said he will attend Southeastern Community College in Iowa next year, where he landed a full basketball scholarship.

“It was a straight grind, senior year,” he said. “But I just said, ‘You can’t give up, you can’t give up.’”