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.”

contract sport

UFT files labor complaint against KIPP charter school

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew

An unusual dispute between the United Federation of Teachers and the elite KIPP charter chain spilled into public view Thursday after the union issued a press release accusing KIPP Academy Charter School in the Bronx of threatening to fire teachers if they did not vote to decertify the union.

The union’s claims, which were filed with the National Labor Relations Board this week and are disputed by KIPP, assert that school administrators encouraged staff members to sign a petition that would bar the UFT from representing its teachers.

The situation is uncommon because most charter schools in New York City aren’t unionized and are built partly on the premise that union rules are impediments to a sound education. But KIPP Academy is a “conversion” school, one of few district schools that morphed into charter schools.

The school’s 16-year-old status as a district-cum-charter school is likely at the heart of the dispute over whether its staff members are contractually tied to the UFT. Union officials say roughly 80 of its teachers and other staff members are covered by the city’s contract with the UFT — an idea that KIPP disputes.

“Except for collecting your dues from every paycheck, the union has not ever actively represented you,” Jim Manly, the superintendent of KIPP schools in New York City, wrote in a letter Thursday to staff across the city. The union’s NLRB complaint “and the aggressiveness of their press release is a preemptive effort by the UFT to block your individual ability to decide whether or not you want to be represented by the UFT.”

The latest disagreement over whether the UFT can enforce the city’s contract at KIPP Academy seems to have started boiling over this summer, when the union filed a grievance that alleges a laundry list of contractual violations.

KIPP’s Manly characterized the union’s grievance as a way of making “fundamental changes in the way we educate our students.” He added that staff members had previously tried to get the union decertified in 2010, but were blocked by the UFT.

KIPP co-founder David Levin emphasized the unusual nature of the UFT’s complaint. “For the past 22 years, KIPP Academy’s success has been the collaboration and effort among our educators, students, and parents,” he wrote in a statement. “In all that time, the UFT has never been involved in our school or raised any issues or concerns before now.”

In an interview, union officials said the grievance was filed over the summer for clear contract violations, and that KIPP’s attempt to coerce teachers into rejecting the union was directed in retaliation.

“Charter school employees, like other workers, have a right under federal law to organize and bargain collectively, rights that charter schools must respect,” UFT President Michael Mulgrew said in a statement.

The NLRB will investigate the UFT’s complaint, but in the meantime, you can read their allegations, and KIPP’s full response to its staff members.

deconstructing devos

Will Betsy DeVos change education as you know it? Probably not — but your state lawmakers could

The confirmation hearing for President-elect Donald Trump’s pick to lead the federal education department made Betsy DeVos the new face of American education policy.

But the most important upcoming decisions about schools won’t come from the Trump administration, and they won’t be made by DeVos, who faces a confirmation vote Jan. 24. They’ll happen a lot closer to home, in the state legislatures that have long been the main drivers of education policy.

U.S. lawmakers already empowered states to control more of their school policies through the federal education law passed last year. And DeVos said she would stay the course, emphasizing that states should decide whether to take up even her favorite education policy, school vouchers.

Here’s where states still have the most influence, even if DeVos might have some sway.

School vouchers

DeVos has made a career out of pushing school choice legislation, especially laws that allow public money be used toward tuition at private or religious schools. But DeVos’s appointment doesn’t mean vouchers would sweep the nation — instead, state legislatures would have to create voucher programs.

That’s within the realm of possibility in some states, such as Tennessee, where voucher legislation has come close to passing in recent years. After spending the better part of a decade wrestling over the issue, Tennessee lawmakers who support vouchers are optimistic that they might finally push through a program for poor students this year. (DeVos has played a role in currying support through her foundation and advocacy group, American Federation for Children.)

But some states, like New York, would need more than money to adopt vouchers. They’d need a total change in political winds, and possibly even a change in the state constitution, to allow public money to be spent on religiously affiliated schools. Similarly, state supreme court decisions in Colorado make vouchers only a distant possibility.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Students eat lunch at the Oaks Academy Middle School, a private Christian school in Indiana that is integrated by design and accepts taxpayer funded vouchers.

How schools are judged

No Child Left Behind, passed in 2002 under President George W. Bush, created uniformity in the way states evaluated whether schools and school districts were doing their jobs. Under President Obama, states were allowed waivers that freed them up, although some requirements — like requiring test data to be used in teacher evaluations — remained in place.

The new federal education law, known as the Every Student Succeeds Act, is supposed to go even farther. That means the country will have a quilt of different systems, as states arrive at different answers for what school quality means and how it should be measured.

So, for example, while ESSA requires states to report English language learners’ test scores, some states will wait to count their scores until they’ve been in the country for a few years, and others will start right away.

DeVos’ office would have the final say on these plans, but she’s not expected to be heavy-handed. Sen. Lamar Alexander, the Tennessee Republican who chairs the Senate education committee and co-sponsored ESSA, said he is optimistic that she won’t interfere with states’ visions.

“As secretary, she will be able to implement the new law fixing No Child Left Behind just as Congress wrote it … restoring to states, governors, school boards, teachers, and parents greater responsibility for improving education in their local communities,” Alexander said in November.

Charter schools

DeVos has also been a proponent of charter schools. But the gatekeepers for charter schools operate at the state, or even local, level.

Massachusetts voters declined to lift a cap on charter schools when they voted down a ballot initiative in November. And state lawmakers in Colorado and New York are gearing up for perennial battles over state charter school funding, over which they — not the U.S. Department of Education — have the final say. Seven states still don’t allow charter schools at all.

States also take different approaches to how their charter sectors are regulated.

In DeVos’s home state of Michigan, about 80 percent of charter schools are run by for-profit companies. But for-profit charters only represent 13 percent of charter schools nationwide, in part because many other states, including Tennessee, New York, and Colorado, prohibit them.

And while DeVos aggressively opposed measures to increase oversight of Detroit’s charter schools, even ones with abysmal test scores, other states have tighter regulations on when charter schools must close.

ESSA does include grants for “high quality charter schools,” and stipulates that the Secretary of Education must prioritize giving them to states that do things like craft an ambitious plan for their charter sector and provide equitable funding for those schools. Some states might be tempted to pass laws to conform to DeVos’s ideas about what ambitious plans and equitable funding looks like. But final decisions about charter schools will still be made at a more local level.

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Students line up at Michigan Technical Academy, a charter school in Michigan, DeVos’s home state.


States all face one common challenge: how to allocate scarce resources for public education.

Here, the next U.S. Secretary of Education might play a bigger role for some states than others. While federal funds only account for about 9 percent of the country’s total education spending, some states rely on it much more than others. Title I spending alone accounted for 4.6 percent of total education spending in North Carolina last year, and 4.3 percent in Mississippi, meaning that any cuts or changes to the federal pool of money devoted to poor students could have big ripple effects in those states.

Competitive grant programs, like the Obama administration’s Race to the Top or the charter school grants, can influence state policy, too. That’s what happened in Tennessee, which rushed to revamp its teacher evaluation system and implement a state-run school turnaround district in 2010 in order to win the money.

But federal grants come with end dates, and budgets remain the purview of states and local governments. Courts have consistently decided that it’s up to states to decide what constitutes adequate and equitable funding — and that means school resources will continue to vary widely across the country.