In residence

With federal funds lost, city sending trainees to stronger schools

Chancellor Dennis Walcott talks to teachers at M.S. 223 while principal Ramon Gonzalez looks on during a visit last week. M.S. 223 is working with nine teaching residents this year.

A program to train and keep new teachers inside some of the city’s most struggling schools is expanding to include better-performing schools as well.

The New York City Teacher Residency launched last summer at two schools that were receiving federal funds earmarked for overhauling struggling schools. The point of the program, city officials said at the time, was to create a talent pipeline for schools that have trouble attracting teachers.

But because the city and its teachers union did not agree on a new teacher evaluation system by a state deadline, the funds were cut off in January. The city is going forward with plans to double the size of the residency program anyway, but instead of sending new residents only to struggling schools, it is also directing them to schools that the city has touted as success stories. And it is picking up the bill out of the Department of Education’s regular budget.

The department opened the program to stronger schools in order to expose the teachers-in-training to a wider range of “best practices” and mentorship from experienced teachers, officials said.

“Think, what would it actually be like if these teachers were trained at a successful school instead of at a failing school?” said Ashley Downs, the special education director at M.S. 223 in the Bronx who is helping to mentor that school’s nine residents.

Chancellor Dennis Walcott visited M.S. 223 on the day before school started last week, telling teachers, “I think this is a tremendous school. You’ve had major accomplishments.” Two other schools newly receiving residents, Frederick Douglass Academy VII and Bushwick School for Social Justice, have also won accolades: FDA VII was honored for its success in helping to close the racial achievement gap for boys, and BSSJ is one of three schools on the campus Mayor Bloomberg visited last year to tout an increase in the city’s graduation rate.

The city did not abandon struggling schools. One school that now has teaching residents, J.H.S. 22 in the Bronx, also participated in the program last year. And some of this year’s crop of 56 new residents are assigned to two other schools that also received the federal funds, known as School Improvement Grants. They are Angelo Patri Middle School and Bread and Roses Integrated Arts High School.

Residency programs have been on the rise in New York City and across the country, as education officials increasingly view them as an expensive but effective way to prepare new teachers for challenging classrooms. They are seen as a more rigorous approach than that offered by alternative certification programs such as Teach for America and the city’s Teaching Fellows, which put new teachers in charge of classrooms after just a few weeks of training.

The residents work as teaching assistants for one year while pursuing masters degrees in education at St. John’s University, earning a salary of $22,500 and health benefits. They must commit to working in city schools for four years after completing the program.

Last year, the department used SIG funds to help foot the residency program’s steep bill: $1.3 million, or $50,000 for each of the 22 residents. In addition to paying residents’ salaries, the department pays mentor teachers $3,000 for each resident she supports, employs a program director, and subsidizes participants’ graduate school tuition.

This year, the Department of Education is shouldering the program’s increased cost centrally, according to Erin Hughes, a spokeswoman.

Downs said both the residents and the South Bronx middle school stand to benefit from the partnership. That’s because the residents will be learning from teachers with a track record of success, and M.S. 223 will have extra hands on deck, she said. Plus, she said, when the school looks to fill positions next year, some possible candidates will already be versed in M.S. 223’s culture.

M.S. 223 is expanding to include high school grades and agreed to take on residents under the condition that they could apply for jobs when the school adds a ninth grade in 2013.

Downs said she is already seeing differences between the residency program and other teacher training programs. For one, she said, the residents arrived before the start of the school year, so they got to watch experienced teachers set up their classrooms and take part in curriculum planning.

“If you walk in for the first time in October and the class is already running smoothly and the teacher’s just teaching the material, it seems like magic,” Downs said. “You don’t realize all the things that the teacher had to do to get the classroom to that point.”

transfer talk

This seemingly small change could make it easier for guidance counselors to send students to transfer schools

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
A guidance counselor at Bronx Academy of Letters

New York City is planning to make it easier to refer students to alternative high schools — part of a broader effort to remove obstacles for students seeking admission to them.

The change will affect the city’s 52 transfer schools, which are designed to catch up students who have dropped out, are over-age or behind in credits. Guidance counselors at traditional high schools will be able to electronically recommend up to three transfer school options for students they believe would be better served in different settings.

That change might seem minor, but it is at the center of a wider debate playing out behind the scenes between the city’s education department — which has indicated that transfer schools are being too picky about who they admit — and transfer schools themselves, some of which worry the new policy could lead to an influx of students who have been pushed out of their high schools.

“There’s a significant fear from transfer schools that these will essentially be over-the-counter placements,” said one Manhattan transfer school principal, referring to a process through which the city directly assigns students who arrive after the admissions process is over, often mid-year. “It doesn’t necessarily make for a better fit for a student.”

Unlike most high schools in New York City, transfer schools admit students outside the centrally managed choice process. Instead, they set their own entrance criteria, often requiring that students interview, and meet minimum credit or age requirements. The schools themselves largely determine which students they admit, and accept them at various points during the year.

Some transfer school principals say this intake process is essential to maintaining each school’s culture, which depends on enrolling students who genuinely want to give school another try after dropping out or falling behind elsewhere.

But city officials have quietly scaled back the type of sorting transfer schools can do, banning them from testing students before they’re admitted, for example, or looking at attendance or suspension records. The transfer school superintendent also now has the power to directly place students if they are rejected from three transfer schools.

Given those changes, some transfer school principals are wary of the latest policy, which will allow guidance counselors at traditional schools to electronically “refer” students for up to three specific transfer schools, and requires transfer schools to track their interactions with those students.

The city says the new system will make it easier to find the right match between schools and students. It will “make the transfer high school admissions process easier and more transparent for students and families, while also ensuring better tracking and accountability,” education department spokesman Will Mantell said in a statement.

He noted the city is still working on implementation and the change won’t will happen before spring 2018. (The education department currently doesn’t have a way to track how many students are being recommended to transfer schools versus how many are actually accepted.)

Mantell could not say whether guidance counselors would need a student’s consent before electronically referring the student to a transfer school, and could not point to any specific policies on when it is appropriate for guidance counselors to refer students — though he noted there would be additional training for them.

Ron Smolkin, principal of Independence High School, a transfer school, says he appreciates the change. He worries about students who have fallen behind being told they “don’t qualify” for a transfer school, he said. “That’s why we exist.”

But other principals say it will make it easier for traditional schools to dump students because they are difficult to serve, regardless of whether they are good candidates for a transfer.

“There’s a greater risk of pushouts,” the Manhattan transfer school principal said.

Transfer school principals also worry about the consequences of accepting students who might be less likely to graduate than their current students — a potential effect of the new policy. The federal Every Student Succeeds Act requires high schools to graduate 67 percent of their students; those that don’t will be targeted for improvement.

Some transfer schools have called that an unfair standard since, by design, they take students who have fallen behind. The state has said transfer schools will not automatically face consequences, such as closure, if they fail to meet that benchmark, but it remains to be seen whether that entirely solves the problem.

One transfer school principal said the city’s desire to better monitor the admissions process makes sense, but won’t prevent schools from gaming the system — and is being implemented without adequate input from principals.

“Our voices haven’t been heard in this process,” the principal said, “and there are a lot of reasons to distrust.”

try try again

Why this Bronx middle school believes in second — and third — chances

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Vincent Gassetto, the principal M.S. 343, hugs a staff member after winning the Teaching Matters prize in July 2017.

Teachers at M.S. 343 in the South Bronx had a problem: Their lessons weren’t sticking.

Students initially would test well on fundamental concepts — such as multi-digit long division or calculating the rate of change. But that knowledge seemed to melt away on follow-up exams just months or even weeks later.

The solution that teachers developed, based on providing constant feedback to students and encouraging regular collaboration among staff, has helped M.S. 343 beat district averages on standardized tests. It has also landed the school a $25,000 prize.

This week, M.S. 343 won the Elizabeth Rohatyn Prize, which is awarded to public schools that foster great teaching. Presented by the nonprofit Teaching Matters, the award money will go toward building a digital platform that students and teachers can use to track their progress from anywhere, at any time.

The work at M.S. 343 starts with determining which skills teachers will emphasize and test throughout the year. Working together, teachers draw on what they already know about which concepts are most likely to trip students up, contribute to success in later grades or appear on standardized tests. A key concept could be understanding ratios in sixth grade or mastering scientific notation by eighth grade.

“It’s all in the teachers’ hands,” said Principal Vincent Gassetto.

Students are regularly tested with “learning targets.” But they’re also given three chances to prove they’ve mastered the skills. Gassetto said the approach is backed by neuroscience, which suggests the best way to learn is to use the knowledge multiple times, instead of cramming for a single test.

“That actually tells the brain: You’re being tested on this, it’s important. And that stores it in a part of the brain that’s easily retrievable,” he said.

Only the highest score will be recorded, which serves a different purpose: boosting students’ confidence in themselves as learners.

“We’re celebrating their progress, not necessarily the end result,” math teacher Lola Dupuy explained in a video the school produced. “It can be very confusing for a student to receive a failing grade and very discouraging for them if they don’t know … what they’re doing wrong and what they need to do to improve it.”

In between tests, each department comes together to analyze students’ answers. They zero in on common misconceptions and come up with a list of questions for students to ask themselves when reviewing their work.

Using the questions as a guide, it’s up to the students to figure out where they went wrong, often by working in groups with peers with varying skill levels.

“Students are more engaged in their work and the outcomes are better because they’re self-reflecting,” Dupuy said.

M.S. 343’s approach also gets at a common knock on testing: The results are rarely used to improve teaching and students often don’t have the opportunity to learn from their mistakes. At M.S. 343, teachers spend entire weeks meeting as a team to go over results and fine-tune their instruction. That time, Gassetto said, is a valuable resource.

“Most of the time, when you give a big assessment,” Gassetto said, “you’re testing, but for what purpose? We don’t do that. If we’re going to ask kids to sit down and take an assessment, we need to look at it and get it back to them right away, so it’s useful.”