vignettes

Pep-rally tone but many worries at Queens turnaround hearings

Students dressed in blue and white, Long Island City High School's colors, chant at the school's closure hearing Tuesday.

The feeling at two Queens high schools Tuesday evening was as much pep rally as protest during public hearings about the city’s plans to close the schools in June.

The city wants to close and reopen the schools, Long Island City High School and Newtown High School, under the federally prescribed reform process known as “turnaround.” The process would require many teachers to be replaced, a prospect that students said has induced anxiety about what classes and clubs would be offered next year.

Students and teachers said unique elective and extracurricular options that currently exist — including boys gymnastics, robotics, and guitar — are a large part of what makes the schools special. They urged the Department of Education to preserve those features and revert to other improvement plans that would cause less disruption.

At a third school whose turnaround hearing took place last night, John Dewey High School, students and teachers have been mounting a vigorous defense since January, when the turnaround plans were announced. The three schools are among 26 whose turnaround proposals are likely to be approved when the Panel for Educational Policy votes on them next week.

Newtown High School

The crowd at Newtown gave forth whoops and cheers for every teacher who spoke, for every mention of the school’s winning robotics team, and for every nod to longstanding principal – and Newtown alum – John Ficalora.

But before there was cheer, there was tension when a top Department of Education official, Deputy Chancellor David Weiner, had not shown up 20 minutes after the meeting was supposed to begin. At 6:20 p.m., with Weiner an estimated 20 minutes away, Jesse Mojica, the Department of Education’s executive director for Family and Community Engagement, tried to start the meeting without him.

That decision didn’t sit well with the hundreds of students, parents, and teachers crowded into the school’s auditorium. Washington Sanchez, a Queens Borough United Federation of Teachers representative, rushed to a microphone that had been set up in the audience.

“How can we conduct this meeting without a representative from the chancellor’s office?” he asked?

The audience screamed in support, chanting, “We want Weiner!” until Mojica acquiesced and postponed the meeting.

The crowd did not quiet down even after Weiner arrived, shouting over his opening statement about how the school’s report card grade (C) and graduation rate (62.4 percent) were not satisfactory. In testimony, teachers and staff members who have been invested in the school for decades defended the school alongside students who have been in this country for mere months.

They all said the school had improved under a short-lived reform effort, “restart,” that paired the school with a nonprofit partner this year. They also pointed to dedicated teachers, Ficalora’s leadership, and Newtown’s culturally diverse community of students as strong assets.

But they said having immigrant students from all over the world has also made it difficult to meet the city’s expectations.

Supporters of Newtown High packed the auditorium.

“How do you expect students who never heard any English words to graduate in four years?” asked Jiawen Shen, a junior who immigrated from China two and a half years ago and now has had teachers dedicate hours of their free time to help her perfect her college essay and work through trying math problems.

“How is a school like this called ineffective?” she asked.

“We’re serving the students of Corona. It’s the most ethnically diverse community in the world. It’s not their fault and it’s not our fault,” said Shara Berkowitz, who has taught English as a Second Language at Newtown for 18 years.

Prior to the event, as a small crowd gathered outside of the school to listen to student guitarists perform, Berkowitz said that she was uncertain about what the future would hold for her students and her school.

“I have students walking in every single day from their country. We accept everybody. Will a new school accept everybody?” she asked. (The Department of Education has said that the replacement schools would enroll the same students under turnaround.)

Xiaoyu Zhou immigrated from China five months ago and has worked closely with Berkowitz to learn English. Now, he told me, his English has greatly improved because of his teacher’s efforts and he is no longer afraid of making mistakes. He said he wonders how his teachers would be judged good or bad when the school decides which of them to rehire.

Shen said rumors have been going around about art and music classes being cut to make way for double periods of math and English next year. Last year by this time, Shen said she knew her class schedule for the fall. This year, that’s not a possibility.

Long Island City High School

Students at LICHS also had next year’s classes and clubs foremost on their minds.

During four hours of testimony, dozens of college-bound seniors and recent graduates told Deputy Chancellor Shael Polakow-Suransky and other Department of Education officials that LICHS teachers had inspired them to take Advanced Placement classes and participate in an array of electives, clubs, and sports, from boys gymnastics to culinary arts.

Fotini Dimopoulos, a junior, said she especially values drama club, a dance team, and a leadership class that organizes community service opportunities for students. The class also designed and distributed the T-shirts that most audience members were wearing Tuesday evening, which read “I am L.I.C.” and “We Can, We Will Save Long Island City High School.”

“If you guys close us down, it’s not guaranteed that we’re going to have all these things back,” Dimopoulos said. “Next year’s going to be horrible. I have to apply for colleges and get recommendation letters. If I’m not going to have the same teachers we have now, what’s going to happen?”

Several students and alumni teared up as they described the mentoring and encouragement they received while on the boys gymnastics team and other sports teams, and two performed impromptu backflips at the front of the auditorium before testifying. They reasoned that those programs would not be able to exist without the leadership of Ken Achiron, the gymnastics coach and union representative, and many other teachers who supervise the extracurricular activities.

Polakow-Suransky told the audience that the city would not be eliminating any of the school’s electives or extracurricular programs.

“Anyone who’s telling you that there might not be those programs available is not telling you the truth,” he said.

LICHS freshman Hugo Wehe shows off a medal the gymnastics team recently won during his testimony.

What the department is trying to do, Polakow-Suransky said, is jolt the school out of lagging performance. Citing the school’s lackluster attendance rate — 80.8 percent — and two consecutive progress report C grades, he said the city believes improvement requires a deep intervention such as turnaround, which would overhaul the staff and infuse the school with several million dollars in federal improvement funds.

Until January, LICHS was receiving federal funding to undergo transformation, a less aggressive federally prescribed reform effort. As at other schools cut off from the federal funds because of a city-union dispute over teacher evaluations, the protesters said the transformation had brought about positive changes. If the school had been allowed to complete the three-year program, they argued, then LICHS’s student performance data would have risen to meet the city’s expectations. Its four-year graduation rate already jumped from 56 percent to 66 percent, several points above the city average, over the past two years.

As the hearing wound down, Polakow-Suransky told the 50 or so remaining protesters that he found their testimonies powerful. He said he would report back to Chancellor Dennis Walcott about the sense of “tremendous, love, respect, and pride … and family” evinced at the hearing, adding, “That sense of history and identity fairly came through this evening.”

Vivian Selenikas, the proposed new school leader, sat quietly in the audience beside the current principal, Maria Mamo-Vacacela, who wore a white “I Am L.I.C.” shirt. Mamo-Vacacela took over only in 2010 when the city was required to remove William Bassell, in charge since 1993, under the transformation rules. The city would not have to replace her under turnaround. But her leadership has been dotted with hiccups, including a massive scheduling debacle earlier this year.

Several teachers who spoke at the hearing said Selenikas had already met with teachers and told them she was pleased with their work. She declined to speak with GothamSchools at the hearing.

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.