know your neighbors

Harlem leaders champion new school run by Teachers College

Principal Worrell-Breeden looked on as first graders from the Teachers College Community School sang "What a Wonderful World" and recited the song in sign language.

West Harlem community leaders heralded the coming of the year-old Teachers College Community School yesterday as a new district school option for a neighborhood packed with charter schools.

The elementary school, which opened in East Harlem last year and moved to Manhattanville this fall, is managed by Columbia University’s school of education.

In recent years, many new schools have come to West Harlem in the form of high-profile charter school networks that have brought both educational opportunities and controversy to the neighborhood. Like those schools, the fledgling elementary school admits students randomly through a lottery process, and it relies on a mix of public and private funding to operate.

But it also has the widespread support of political leaders who have served as some of the most vocal critics of the city’s charter school policies, among them State Assemblyman Keith Wright. Wright has proposed legislation to give parent councils veto power over city plans to require district and charter schools to share space.

A range of Harlem community leaders, including City Councilman Robert Jackson and Donald Notice, president of the West Harlem Development Corporation, turned out to the school’s opening ceremony yesterday to laud the effort Columbia has made to support the school and help renovate its new, permanent home on Manhattanville’s Morningside Avenue.

Wright was sitting in the audience until Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch offered to give him her seat on the ceremony stage, which was shared by Chancellor Dennis Walcott and other leaders from Columbia University, Teachers College and the community.

Jackson said, “Every parent has a right to choose what’s best for their child—no matter who you are, you have to decide. Isn’t that right, Keith?”

“Yep,” he replied, grinning.

The leaders on stage said the school represented the fruits of a sometimes tense collaboration between the neighborhood and the university, and paved the way for more collaboration through Teachers College. Columbia has long been criticized by Harlem residents for developing land into university buildings that make the areas less affordable. University President Lee Bollinger said the school epitomized efforts to mend neighborly relations.

With an allusion to one of the Harlem Renaissance’s most famous poems, Wright suggested that the effort was slow to come, but very valuable:

“What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up. like a raisin in the sun?” he said, quoting Langston Hughes. “No. A school gets built on 126th Street.”

The Community School opened in 2011 with 50 Kindergarten students, but because that location still needed renovations, the city placed it in a temporary home in East Harlem—about a mile from the neighborhood it was designed to serve. That design was set three years ago amidst a contentious university bid to expand into the Manhattanville part of Harlem. At the time, Columbia University agreed to help found a new neighborhood elementary and middle school, among other promises made to various Harlem leaders, to encourage them to to withdraw their opposition to its plans.

“This went through a lot of changes and a lot of negotiations here and there as part of a larger agreement with the community. And this is an experiment,” Jackson said to the audience, which was filled with families, teachers and students just out of school. “Is it going to work? You better believe it’s going to work, because all the [organizations] up here are going to make sure it’s going to work.”

Now that the school has settled into its new home, the principal Jeanene Worrell-Breeden, said the biggest logistical challenge is behind, but there is still more work to be done.

“Our challenge was finding a new home. Now, it’s just to make sure our children’s needs are met and make sure they’re settled. We’re making sure to include all those new families,” she said in an interview.

Parents who attended the gathering said they were very pleased with their choice, made after weighing options that consisted of mostly charter schools.

Julate Walker, whose daughter is in first grade, said she was directed to the Community School by the administrators of the nearby KIPP Infinity Charter School, which already had filled its roster when she looked into applying in 2011.

“I’m absolutely very satisfied here,” she said. “I feel very included, it’s like a family. Everybody is caring and considerate.”

Another parent said she heard about the school when she attended an information session for the French American Charter School, another nearby elementary school.

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.