all turned around

HS of Graphic Communication Arts in crisis, staff members say

Staff members at the High School of Graphic Communication Arts say Room 310, where musical instruments, books, and other discarded materials are piled high, is a symbol for deep disorganization at the school this year.

Manhattan’s long-struggling High School of Graphic Communication Arts was supposed to turn a corner this year. But instead, students and staff throughout the school say a recent string of poor leadership decisions is threatening the school’s ultimate fate.

The toilet plungers that students were told to wield as hall passes last month — until the Department of Education ended the practice — are a distressing symbol of much larger problems at the school, they say.

A month into the school year, longstanding programs are in disarray, materials and personnel are languishing unused, and many students have had such inconsistent schedules that their teachers say they have learned far less than they should have by now.

“They are all so off-track right now that the first projects we have, I can’t really truly grade them as I normally would,” one teacher said about students. “I’m going to have to try to make up the knowledge somehow, but I don’t know how yet. They should be much further along than they are now.”

GothamSchools spoke with nearly a dozen newly hired and veteran staff members under the condition of anonymity, as well as other people close to the school. The staffers span the school’s grade levels, program offerings, and organizational hierarchy.

All said that the ultimate responsibility for the problems should fall on Principal Brendan Lyons, who took over at the school last year and was the department’s pick to lead it through “turnaround.” The aggressive overhaul process for 24 schools was halted this summer after an arbitrator ruled the city’s plans violated its contract with the teachers union.

Under Lyons’s leadership, the staffers said, school administrators have neglected to claim thousands of dollars in state aid for career and technical education; cut the school’s music program and given away many of its instruments; placed students in classes outside of their majors; converted an empty classroom into a dump for unwanted instructional materials; and rewritten students’ schedules so many times that some teachers have not been able to assign any projects or grade them.

“There are a lot of programming issues with my kids — basic things that should have happened but didn’t happen,” said one staff member whom Lyons asked to teach at the school this year.

“We continue to provide support to Brendan Lyons and High School of Graphic Communication Arts,” said Marge Feinberg, a department spokeswoman. “We are looking into the concerns and taking them seriously.”

Lyons declined to comment for this article.

Lyons became principal in 2011 after four years as an assistant principal at a small school in the Bronx and a stint in the department’s central technology division. Initially, many teachers said they saw in the young administrator a chance to work together to set the long-struggling school on a stronger path.

But once the department empowered Lyons to lead the turnaround effort, which included requiring teachers to reapply for their jobs, his leadership style took a more heavy-handed turn, according multiple people familiar with the school.

“A lot of principals did it in a dignified way,” a source familiar with the school said about the rehiring process. “Others didn’t — some did it in a horrific way.”

Lyons fell into the latter camp, the source said. “There was no compassion. That will never be repaired and it continues to this day.”

The arbitrator’s ruling rolled back changes made at the 24 schools that were supposed to undergo turnaround, so any teacher who wanted to return to Graphics could, even if Lyons had already cut him or her loose. Since then, Lyons’s team has frozen veteran administrators out of staff meetings and reassigned their duties to newer assistant principals, according to a new hire. Some of the veterans are still making six-figure salaries, but they are allowed to do little more than serve as hall monitors and physical education and safety supervisors.

That leaves newer staff members struggling to execute the tasks needed to make the school run effectively, the new hire said. “I’m already working 50 to 60 hours a week, and I don’t feel like I’m able to give the kids what they deserve,” the staffer said.

The biggest problems have centered on students’ programs. Some students were placed into courses they had already taken, while others were assigned to courses they never intended to take. Most students in the law and journalism programs, for example, were re-assigned to photography and visual arts courses this year, several students and staff members said.

Department spokeswoman Marge Feinberg said in a statement that “the students taking journalism and law will continue to do so,” but multiple students and staff told GothamSchools that there are currently no classes in those programs.

“We are not offering any of our kids law or journalism classes, and the kids … are not happy about it,” a staff member said. “It’s really sad because they came to the school with the expectation they would graduate with a focus on law and journalism, and now they will graduate with only half their programs.”

“They took law away. I came here for law. I wanted to do it,” said junior Justin Carter. “Now I’m doing visual arts, but I’m not a draw-er — that’s not me.”

Graphics’s career and technical education certifications could also be in jeopardy, sources said, because the school is receiving less state funding for CTE supplies than it has in past years after neglecting to apply this summer for a pot of state funds for that purpose. Plus, many certified CTE teachers left the school in June during the turnaround turmoil, because Lyons’s plan for the replacement school included changes to some programs, staffers said.

Still, with the staff turnover and the reduction of several programs came confusion and disorder. As we reported in September, many students arrived at Graphics for the new year with schedules for classes they did not request, in subjects they already passed or never planned to study — including one calculus class with so many students it filled three classrooms.

A plastic stool, an American flag and a pile of cardboard boxes join cascading stacks of textbooks in Room 310, a dumping ground for unused supplies at Graphics.

At several points throughout the first week of school, the auditorium hummed with the voices of close to 100 students with missing schedules, sources said. Many waited there for hours while staff members worked overtime to write new schedules. And on at least two days, sources said, administrators discharged hundreds of students by lunchtime because they didn’t have any afternoon classes scheduled, even though department officials said this would be a safety violation.

“Letting students leave before their day is over is irresponsible and shows a lack of caring or planning,” an administrator said. “Anytime we allow students to step out unescorted, we are encouraging them to cut class. This is unacceptable in a school with severe attendance issues.”

A month later, most students say their scheduling problems have been resolved, but the long-term effects linger in the form of missed assignments, extra homework, and frustrated teachers.

Evelis Cespedes, a junior, said teachers have assigned hours of make-up work and told her to expect a progress report on the first month of classes, but no preliminary grades. Students will receive final course grades in January, she said.

“It benefits us because we can make up the work we missed, but others will want to slack off until December,” she said.

A handful of teachers said the scheduling snafus have made it much harder to teach their students new material. They said this is because students’ schedules have been changing so frequently that they couldn’t count on a student who showed up to class on a Monday to be there again the following week.

“It’s impossible. You can’t give them grades or even get to know their names,” said one teacher. “I can’t blame them for getting bitter and angry.”

Another teacher said she typically assigns students a project in the first month of school that takes multiple days to complete but couldn’t do so this year.

“I have a lot of newcomers, so I based their grades on work from projects they did during previous classes,” she said, adding, “Scheduling has always been something of a problem, but never to this degree.”

In one class on a recent morning, another teacher asked the two dozen students to raise their hands if their schedules had changed two or more times this year. Half raised their hands. Some said they had received their most recent new schedule less than a week ago.

“And have any of you passed the Regents [exam for this class] already?” the teacher asked. One hand stayed in the air.

“Then you don’t belong here,” the teacher said, frowning. “This is supposed to be a make-up class.”

Teachers said students who don’t know where they’re supposed to be during the day are a common sight in the Graphics hallways. But several staff members said the most bracing visual of the school’s disorganization could be found in room 310, just off the auditorium.

That room used to house a robust music program with a piano, a drum set, and a host of other musical instruments, sheet music stands and chairs, they said. But this year it became a densely packed dumping ground for hundreds of textbooks, course materials, and other materials — including an askance stepstool, an American flag, and a television. Administrators instructed teachers to toss materials into the room that were left behind by departing teachers after they received their classroom assignments in August, staff members said.

“I’d like to call it a book room, but it’s not a book room. It’s a disaster,” one staffer said last week.

Some staff members said the school still has much potential to improve. But they are on edge as they await the latest high school progress report card release this month, and with it the city’s latest list of high schools it could close. One staffer said he initially believed Lyons was putting the school on a path to success but has lost confidence in the wake of the recent turmoil.

“I liked him,” when he arrived in 2011, the staffer said. “He was young, good with technology. He really sold me on his plan. And then he bamboozled me.”

High emotions

Denver superintendent sheds light on school closure recommendations, what happens next

PHOTO: Eric Gorski
Parents pick up their children at Amesse Elementary Friday.

While the criteria for Denver school closure recommendations is clearer than ever before, that hasn’t made this week’s emotional conversations at the three low-performing elementary schools facing that fate any easier, Superintendent Tom Boasberg said Friday.

“For school leaders and teachers, they care incredibly deeply about their schools and their kids and they’re very, very committed to them,” Boasberg told Chalkbeat.

“People have respected that there is a clear and transparent process at the intellectual level — and at the emotional level, they’re still very concerned about the changes.”

Denver Public Schools is recommending that Amesse Elementary, Greenlee Elementary and Gilpin Montessori close due to poor school ratings, lagging academic growth and a lack of enough evidence to prove the schools are on a path toward improvement.

The school board is scheduled to vote Thursday on the recommendations, which were made under a new district policy adopted last year and put into effect for the first time this fall.

If the board approves the closures, Amesse and Greenlee would stay open through the end of this school year, 2016-17, and the next school year, 2017-18, Boasberg said.

Each school would be replaced by a new model the following year, 2018-19, he said. The board would choose those models in June 2017 and then give the leaders an entire year to plan — a “year zero” — before asking them to take over in the fall of 2018. Boasberg said the current leaders of Amesse and Greenlee would be welcome to submit plans to reinvent the schools.

The principals at the three schools either declined or did not respond to interview requests.

Walking her second-grader, Clifford, out of Amesse on Friday, parent Sheila Epps voiced her frustration with the district’s closure recommendation. She said in her experience, Amesse is a good school, helping her son get to grade level in reading, writing and math.

She scoffed at what she called DPS’s intense focus on “test scores, test scores, test scores,” saying the district should “stop worrying about rankings” and focus on educating each child.

“As a parent, you feel like there’s nothing you can do,” Epps said. “It’s all up to the district. It’s almost not even worth talking about. It’s like, ‘Now what?’”

The district is recommending a different path for Gilpin. Because of low enrollment projections, Gilpin would close at the end of this school year and not be replaced, Boasberg said.

Students would be guaranteed a seat at one of four neighborhood schools next year: Cole Arts and Science Academy, Whittier ECE-8, University Prep or the Downtown Denver Expeditionary School, said Brian Eschbacher, the district’s director of planning and enrollment services. The district would also work with its other Montessori elementary schools to give priority to Gilpin students wishing to continue a Montessori education, he said.

Gilpin’s enrollment is down 30 percent this year from 2013, which is in line with an overall trend in the Five Points neighborhood in northeast Denver, where Gilpin is located, Eschbacher said.

Neighborhood birth rates are also down, meaning there isn’t a big group of infants and toddlers waiting in the wings, and DPS already has 1,000 empty seats in the area, he added.

Said Boasberg: “Even if Gilpin had not been designated under (the policy), we would have either this year or next year … been in a situation where one of the elementary schools in that area would have had to close because of the decline of school-aged kids.”

At 202 students this year, Gilpin is the second-smallest elementary school in the district, Boasberg said. That causes a financial crunch because schools are funded on a per-pupil basis. He said the district is providing Gilpin with an extra $600,000 this year to ensure it’s able to provide smaller class sizes, more teacher aides in the classroom, more staff members to support students’ mental health and a broader array of arts and music offerings.

“We always want to see our schools succeed and we’ve worked hard to provide supports and resources in these cases,” Boasberg said, referring to all three schools recommended for closure. “But while there have been improvements in the schools, we’re not seeing — and haven’t seen now for some time — the kind of growth the kids in the schools need.”

Monica Lubbert lives across the street from Gilpin and sent her third-grade daughter there for several years before pulling her out last year after spring break. Her daughter had fallen behind academically and Lubbert said she didn’t feel the struggling school was capable of catching her up — a shortcoming for which she believes the school district and community share the blame.

“This is not the teachers that did anything wrong. This is not the kids that did anything wrong,” Lubbert said. Instead, she said the district didn’t follow best practices years ago when it converted Gilpin to a Montessori school. “This was the complete … mismanagement of DPS.”

Lubbert also partly attributed the school’s troubles to the fact that many kids who live in the neighborhood go to school elsewhere, as is allowed under the district’s school choice policy. District statistics show 64 percent of children who live in the school’s boundary choiced out this year. Lubbert’s own daughter is attending a private Montessori school.

“This community has gone above and beyond to make every single home in the neighborhood a historically designated home,” she said. But no one seems to care about the school, she added. “How does the community grow and thrive without a school for the kids?”

Boasberg admitted that the district learned some hard lessons over the years about how best to restart low-performing schools, which is what happened at Gilpin. But he said the new policy in effect this year represents a better way to do things.

As for what will happen to the centrally located Gilpin building if the board closes the school, Boasberg said DPS would like for it to remain a school. While the neighborhood doesn’t need any more elementaries, he said the preliminary thinking is to convert it into a secondary school that could draw students from across the city, as Denver School of the Arts, Denver Center for International Studies and Girls Athletic Leadership Academy currently do.

Chalkbeat’s Eric Gorski contributed information to this report.

bigger issues

Harlem parents want more time to weigh in on school rezoning and merger

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
The city Department of Education has proposed merging P.S. 241 the STEM Institute of Manhattan into P.S. 76 A. Philip Randolph, about eight blocks away in Harlem.

Crystal Bailey’s son came home from school recently with a dirty uniform. Before she could fuss at him, he explained it was muck from science class.

“He’s like, ‘Guess what I learned?’ How could I be mad at that?” Bailey said.

She and dozens of other parents gathered at a public hearing Thursday night to protest plans to merge and rezone their school, P.S. 241 STEM Institute of Manhattan in Harlem.

For parents, elected officials and advocates, the plan in Harlem has grown to symbolize larger issues: school segregation and the impact of charter schools.

“This is an equity issue,” said Emmaia Gelman, a member of the group New York City Public School Parents for Equity and Desegregation.

The Department of Education has proposed to merge P.S. 241 with P.S. 76 A. Philip Randolph, and to redraw the school lines around P.S. 241. Under the plan, families currently zoned for P.S. 241 would be distributed among other local schools: P.S. 76, P.S. 180, P.S. 185/P.S. 208.

“Why do you want to unravel this institution, rather than strengthen it?” Maria Garcia, who has two children at P.S. 241, asked at Thursday’s hearing.

The proposal comes on the heels of another contentious rezoning in District 3, which spans from the Upper West Side to 122nd Street in Harlem. Both plans have highlighted stark differences among the area’s schools.

For more than a year, parents railed against plans to redraw school boundaries on the Upper West Side, where students are packed into high-performing schools. In Harlem, a rezoning plan was presented just weeks before a final vote was expected — and only after the Department of Education proposed to merge a school that has struggled with enrollment and performance on state tests.

Enrollment at P.S. 241 has hovered around 100 students in recent years, despite a federal magnet grant designed to attract families — and integrate the school — by offering a curriculum in science, technology, engineering and math. The school has seen a small uptick in enrollment recently, but parents say it has been squeezed by two charter schools that share its building.

“Why do we have to go?” asked Tasha Clarke, who has two sons at P.S. 241.

The merger and rezoning rely on two separate processes. The citywide Panel for Educational Policy is scheduled to vote on the merger in January.

The District 3 Community Education Council must ultimately vote on the rezoning. Though a vote is scheduled for Dec. 14, council members have begun to voice reservations about the plan.

“Anybody who thinks that this council has decided to vote to approve this is sorely mistaken,” council President Joe Fiordaliso said at the hearing.

Council members shared data they compiled that shows declining enrollment in the area’s schools and growing charter enrollment.

“We’re in crisis,” said council member Daniel Katz.

This isn’t the first time P.S. 241 has fought to keep its doors open. The DOE tried in 2009 to close the school and replace it with charters.

The New York Civil Liberties Union and teachers union sued, arguing that by closing a zoned school, the department was essentially redrawing attendance boundaries. That falls under the purview of Community Education Councils, which vote on all zoning decisions.

Soon after the suit was filed, the DOE dropped its plans to shutter P.S. 241. But CEC member Noah Gotbaum thinks the same issues apply to the proposed merger — and therefore the council could play a crucial role in determining the school’s fate.

“I think we on the CEC need to look at the merger very, very carefully and essentially make a decision on it,” he told Chalkbeat, “and not say that we don’t have the power or the right.”