creation story

"Mayor and chancellor show" touts 54 schools opening this fall

Mayor Bloomberg, flanked by Chancellor Walcott and new school leaders, discusses the city's school creation efforts.

When Mayor Bloomberg entered office in 2002, there were about fewer than 1,200 schools in the city. By the time he leaves, there will be about 1,800.

That number — representing a more than 50 percent increase — had Bloomberg and Chancellor Dennis Walcott in a good mood during a press conference today to tout this year’s crop of new schools. Thirty Department of Education-run schools will open in September, as will 24 privately managed charter schools.

“We have created so many new schools. It is truly amazing,” said Walcott, who stood with Bloomberg and dozens of freshly minted principals at Manhattan’s Washington Irving High School, which will house two of the new schools. The pair touted a recent study by the research firm MDRC that concluded that the city’s new small high schools have continued to post higher graduation rates than other schools that remained open.

The addition of 54 schools created through the department’s new schools creation process will bring the total number of city schools to 1,750 this fall, 589 of them opened under Bloomberg’s watch. Bloomberg has promised to create at least 50 new schools next year — evenly split between charter and district-run — and he reiterated that vow again today.

Another 26 new schools would open under the city’s “turnaround” proposals but were not included in the small schools total touted today. Those proposals, which are likely to be approved next week, would close and immediately reopen 26 schools with new names and many new teachers in an attempt to win federal funding for the schools.

The sunny event came on the same day as two reports took aim at Bloomberg’s school policies, saying that his administration had fostered inequities and closed schools without first trying to improve them. The city decided this year to close Washington Irving, where teachers have said students had grown increasingly needy in recent years. The teachers also said that the school’s landmarked library, where the mayor’s event took place, had been closed to students since Washington Irving cut loose its librarian last summer.

If the criticism bothered Bloomberg and Walcott, they didn’t show it during their presentation. Instead, the pair engaged in friendly stage banter about the new schools.

Walcott noted that city elementary and middle school students had started state reading tests today. Then he offered a quiz question to Bloomberg, asking the mayor to guess the number of students who attend schools created on his watch.

Bloomberg furrowed his brow and did some quick mental math. “350,000?” he suggested.

The number was way too high. Actually, about 190,000 students — or just over half of Bloomberg’s estimate, which he explained was based on an assumption that a third of the city’s schools would enroll a third of its 1.1 million students  — will be enrolled at the schools in September.

“You’re watching the mayor and chancellor show,” Walcott joked from behind the podium. Then he told Bloomberg that the schools would in fact enroll 384,000 students when they are at full capacity; many are so new that they are still adding a grade each year.

“You’re always right,” Walcott told the mayor, adding, “I don’t want to be an ex-chancellor.”

Cleanup took place in Washington Irving's library after Bloomberg's press conference there today.

Bloomberg and Walcott were less sanguine when discussing the number of schools that would close to make way for additional new schools. The Bloomberg administration has so far closed or begun closing 140 schools, and most of the 589 small schools have opened in space vacated by schools deemed so low-performing that they should not continue to operate.

Bloomberg dismissed a rumor, repeated by mayoral candidate Bill Thompson at an event earlier in the day, that the department would try to close 75 schools in his last year in office.

”We can’t possibly know what we’re going to do next year,” he said, adding that the department would withdraw schools that are improving from closure consideration, as it did two weeks ago when it pulled seven schools from the turnaround roster.

About next year’s closure toll, Bloomberg said, “Pick a number. It’s less than the total number of schools that are in this city and greater than zero.”

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.