itinerary

Walcott keeps rapid school-visits pace with three-borough sprint

Chancellor Dennis Walcott speaks with students and a teacher at the High School for Dual Language High and Asian Studies.

When Chancellor Dennis Walcott peeked into an English as a Second Language class at the High School for Dual Language and Asian Studies, he caught a crowd of Chinese-speaking students parsing “Death of a Salesman,” a classic of American literature.

In other classrooms on the fifth floor of the Lower East Side’s Seward Park Campus, he saw students reading aloud from “Romeo and Juliet,” designing school emblems in the style of Chinese art, and preparing to discuss the Earth’s capacity to sustain its human population.

It was the second school visit of the day for Walcott, who is touring schools that landed on U.S. News & World Report’s annual list of America’s “best high schools.” The list measures schools according to how well their students perform compared to other schools with similar demographics. Seven of the 10 highest-ranking New York State high schools are in the city, topped by Queens’ Baccalaureate School for Global Education.

This morning, Walcott started his day at Queens High School for the Science at York College, also on the list. After a lunch break to accept an award from an architecture mentoring program, he’ll finish the school day at a third top-ranked school, the High School of American Studies at Lehman College.

“I saw a lot of learning taking place, great students, great teachers, and a really outstanding principal,” Walcott said of his visit to the Queens school. “Here, even more so. Coming off the stairwell — I didn’t take the elevator — I saw a young student who was getting ready for his A.P. exam. He said the students and teachers here are all committed to excellence in education.”

Walcott’s habit of stopping by schools is well known. In the first semester of the school year, he visited schools on 72 different occasions, often to attend evening meetings for parents and the public, but also during the day for spelling bees, holiday concerts, and a “Harvest Feast.” In contrast, ex-Chancellor Joel Klein crossed the thresholds of city public schools 84 times in 445 days — well over a year — in 2009 and 2010.

Walcott often sets his own agenda, and he seems to enjoy seeing top-performing schools. When he appeared at a press conference with leaders of dozens of new small schools last month, he warned the principals that he could show up at their offices at any time.  In September, he visited Staten Island Technical High School, a specialized school, after it landed on a different U.S. News list of top math and science schools. In October, he stopped by during parent-teacher conferences at American Studies.

He has less frequently visited schools that are struggling. Between September and the end of January, he visited just five of the more than 60 schools that were under consideration for closure or federally prescribed overhauls. One of those visits, to Grace Dodge Career and Technical Education High School, took place amid revelations that the principal had falsified student records. Another time, he visited the Bronx High School of Business, now set to undergo turnaround, because it was hosting a city school board meeting. (Other top department officials visited the other schools up for “turnaround” during the school day this spring.)

Teachers at schools on the chopping block this year said over and over that Walcott would change his mind about their schools’ future if he could only see staff and students hard at work.

But even critics of the city’s school closure policies say they appreciate Walcott’s presence inside schools. “He is constantly in the schools [with] nobody, no entourage,” UFT President Michael Mulgrew said at a union conference on Saturday, even as he criticized Department of Education policies. “Good news, bad news, Dennis is there speaking with the children, speaking with the parents and speaking with the teachers.”

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.