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.

money matters

Report: Trump education budget would create a Race to the Top for school choice

PHOTO: Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead
President Donald Trump and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos participate in a tour of Saint Andrews Catholic in Orlando, Florida.

The Trump administration appears to be going ahead with a $1 billion effort to push districts to allow school choice, according to a report in the Washington Post.

The newspaper obtained what appears to be an advance version of the administration’s education budget, set for release May 23. The budget documents reflect more than $10 billion in cuts, many of which were included in the budget proposal that came out in March, according to the Post’s report. They include cuts to after-school programs for poor students, teacher training, and more:

… a $15 million program that provides child care for low-income parents in college; a $27 million arts education program; two programs targeting Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian students, totaling $65 million; two international education and foreign language programs, $72 million; a $12 million program for gifted students; and $12 million for Special Olympics education programs.

Other programs would not be eliminated entirely, but would be cut significantly. Those include grants to states for career and technical education, which would lose $168 million, down 15 percent compared to current funding; adult basic literacy instruction, which would lose $96 million (down 16 percent); and Promise Neighborhoods, an Obama-era initiative meant to build networks of support for children in needy communities, which would lose $13 million (down 18 percent).

The documents also shed some light on how the administration plans to encourage school choice. The March proposal said the administration would spend $1 billion to encourage districts to switch to “student-based budgeting,” or letting funds flow to students rather than schools.

The approach is considered essential for school choice to thrive. Yet the mechanics of the Trump administration making it happen are far from obvious, as we reported in March:

There’s a hitch in the budget proposal: Federal law spells out exactly how Title I funds must be distributed, through funding formulas that sends money to schools with many poor students.

“I do not see a legal way to spend a billion dollars on an incentive for weighted student funding through Title I,” said Nora Gordon, an associate professor of public policy at Georgetown University. “I think that would have to be a new competitive program.”

There are good reasons for the Trump administration not to rush into creating a program in which states compete for new federal funds, though. … Creating a new program would open the administration to criticism of overreach — which the Obama administration faced when it used the Race to the Top competition to get states to adopt its priorities.

It’s unclear from the Post’s report how the Trump administration is handling Gordon’s concerns. But the Post reports that the administration wants to use a competitive grant program — which it’s calling Furthering Options for Children to Unlock Success, or FOCUS — to redistribute $1 billion in Title I funds for poor students. That means the administration decided that an Obama-style incentive program is worth the potential risks.

The administration’s budget request would have to be fulfilled by Congress, so whether any of the cuts or new programs come to pass is anyone’s guess. Things are not proceeding normally in Washington, D.C., right now.

By the numbers

After reshaping itself to combat declining interest, Teach For America reports a rise in applications

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Memphis corps members of Teach For America participate in a leadership summit in last August.

Teach for America says its application numbers jumped by a significant number this year, reversing a three-year trend of declining interest in the program.

The organization’s CEO said in a blog post this week that nearly 49,000 people applied for the 2017 program, which places college graduates in low-income schools across the country after summer training — up from just 37,000 applicants last year.

“After three years of declining recruitment, our application numbers spiked this year, and we’re in a good position to meet our goals for corps size, maintaining the same high bar for admission that we always have,” Elisa Villanueva Beard wrote. The post was reported by Politico on Wednesday.

The news comes after significant shake-ups at the organization. One of TFA’s leaders left in late 2015, and the organization slashed its national staff by 15 percent last year. As applications fell over the last several years, it downsized in places like New York City and Memphis, decentralized its operations, and shifted its focus to attracting a more diverse corps with deeper ties to the locations where the program places new teachers. 

This year’s application numbers are still down from 2013, when 57,000 people applied for a position. But Villanueva Beard said the changes were working, and that “slightly more than half of 2017 applicants identify as a person of color.”