summer plans

At first meeting, Cuomo's ed reform commission maps road trip

Who's who: John King, Randi Weingarten and Geoffrey Canada (in background), were among the top education officials who attended today's inaugural meeting. In foreground from left are Mary Anne Schmitt Carey, of Say Yes to Education, CUNY's Eduardo Marti, and Chair Dick Parsons, a former executive at Citigroup and Time Warner.

At their first official meeting today, members of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s blue-ribbon education reform commission stayed away from specifics.

But their two-hour discussion, held in a Midtown conference room, previewed some of the issues they will tackle as they travel the state to learn about problems facing local school districts.

The 25-member commission, announced more than six months ago, is tasked with coming up with recommendations aimed at reducing costs while improving the overall quality of the state’s schools. A report is due in late 2012.

New York State’s 3.4 million student school system is diverse and complex. It boasts the country’s largest school district — New York City — but it also includes six districts that employ fewer than eight teachers. At more than $18,000 per pupil, spending in the state is the highest in the country, 70 percent higher than the U.S. average, according to an analysis by Cuomo’s office. Spending has increased dramatically in the last 15 years, outpacing inflation, but student performance has barely budged. The state ranks 39th in graduation rates (73.5 percent) and no higher than 19th on any of the four NAEP test scores.

Cuomo has argued that the state’s school funds should be used more efficiently. The commission — which  includes many of the state’s and country’s top education officials, including union leader Randi Weingarten and state education chief John King —  is supposed to figure out how to make that happen.As a first step, the group will break into three subcommittees, Commission Chair Dick Parsons announced today. Elizabeth Dickey, president of Bank Street College, will lead a subcommittee on teacher and principal quality, likely to focus primarily on the controversial evaluation systems that have stalled reform efforts across the state. Former Citigroup CEO — and newly added member — Sanford Weill will head a committee analyze how education funding is currently allocated. A third committee will be led by Harlem Children’s Zone CEO Geoffrey Canada and will review the role of test scores and other assessments for measuring student outcomes. Canada’s committee will also look at the role of parent engagement.

Each subcommittee will take the same 10-region tour of the state, starting July 10. They will meet in New York City July 26. At those meetings, they will listen to public comments about what changes should be undertaken.

Whether those meetings will have an impact on the commission’s work is yet to be seen. Michael Rebell, a commission member who studies school equity issues, questioned whether the two to three hours allotted for each meeting would be enough to capture the full range of public opinions. And Carrie Remis, an upstate parent activist added to the commission amid criticism that it included no parent representatives, encouraged Parsons to allow parents to submit comments in writing because they are likely to be working or at home with children during the commission’s meetings.

The regional meetings will be starkly different from one another. Weill said that he planned to look closely at district consolidation as an option for school districts in western and upstate New York, where student enrollment has plummeted.

That’s unlikely to be on the agenda for New York City, with 3,300 students per square mile. Instead, Weill’s committee is more likely to discuss issues like capital funding and facility costs. An official at the city’s charter school advocacy center took to Twitter during the meeting to say he hoped that the conversation would touch on new facilities funding streams for charter schools that currently operate in private space.

#charterschools sure would love to see facility funding be part of the discussion,” David Golovner, an official for the New York City Charter Center, which advocates and supports charter schools, wrote on twitter.

Cuomo’s staff launched a new web site for the commission in conjunction with the first meeting today.

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.