status update

A year in office, Walcott trumpets his middle schools initiative

Efforts to improve the city’s middle schools have come a long way since they were announced six months ago, Chancellor Dennis Walcott said today in a policy speech delivered days before his one-year anniversary of his sudden appointment.

Walcott returned to the same venue where he first announced the middle school reforms — New York University’s Kimmel Center – to deliver the keynote speech at a middle school colloquium hosted by NYU Steinhardt’s Research Alliance for New York City Schools. In his speech, Walcott said the city was in the process of rolling out a host of initiatives that the the Department of Education had either created or expanded since September, all in the interest of improving middle schools, which he said had become his main priority during his tenure.

“If we truly care about preparing our students for success in college and careers, middle school needs to be a central focus of our policies,” Walcott said.

Walcott announced that the DOE had allocated about $500,000 to develop new training programs for 150 teachers and 10 principals who he hoped would work specifically in middle schools. And he said the city would exceed his goal of creating 50 new middle schools in the next two years. Twenty-six new middle schools, including 14 charter schools, will open next fall and 28 more schools — including another 14 charters — are set to open in 2013.

Walcott also revealed more details about the city’s rebranded version of the City Council’s Campaign for Middle School Success. The new phase, called the Middle School Quality Initiative, has brought together 18 struggling middle schools to provide teachers and principals at the schools with professional development based on best practices used in higher-performing schools. So far one school — M.S. 244 in the Bronx — has been selected as a model school, but officials said they hoped to bring on two more “anchor” schools.

Back in September, skeptics observed that Walcott’s policy promises did not depart from the Bloomberg administration’s education agenda. Today, too, critics were quick to point out that little fundamental change going into his reform plans.

“There is not one thing that they’re doing here in schools that’s new,” said Richard Farkas, a middle school vice president for the United Federation of Teachers. Farkas said middle schools would be improved by smaller classes but when he posed that idea to Walcott, the chancellor disagreed, saying it wasn’t the most pressing need.

Walcott did announce updates to some new initiatives. The DOE will fund a $15 million, two-year program to provide non-fiction textbooks that will be available starting April 16 to help schools adopt to new Common Core literacy standards. Walcott also announced the creation of a new, privately-funded pilot summer school program called NYC Summer Quest. The program would be for students who struggled on their state tests, but not enough that they qualified for free summer school. The pilot is launching in the South Bronx, but “if the program is successful, we will expand it to other boroughs and neighborhoods,” Walcott said.

At one point, Walcott split from his prepared remarks and shared a story about a recent encounter he had with a middle school student who was bagging Walcott’s groceries. Walcott said the student told him that “he felt that he had a focus” at school,which Walcott said he later corroborated with the student’s principal, who added that the student used to struggle. Walcott said that it was this kind of character development — toward “resilience” — that was as necessary as “what goes on in the classroom.”

Walcott’s appearance was followed up immediately with a panel of dissent. NYU professor Pedro Noguera and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn’s senior education policy analyst, Mathu Subramanian, both said they were concerned about the city’s ability to implement many of the promised changes.

The city’s original rollout of the council’s Campaign for Middle School Success in 2008 was too focused on directing money to individual schools, Subramanian said. Each of the 51 schools in that initiative received $100,000 to use freely, terms that Subramanian said became problematic during consecutive years of budget cuts that left many holes to fill for principals.

Subramanian called the 2012 iteration a “successful collaboration” that seemed to be aimed more toward systemic change this time. “They really are looking at changes that can be scaled systemwide,” she said.

Noguera, who declined an invitation to participate on the Middle School Quality Initiative’s steering committee after sitting on the council’s version in 2008, was less optimistic.

“This is not a system that is designed to learn even from its successes,” he said.

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.