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.”

How I Teach

It’s not just about getting the right answer: How a fifth-grade teacher pushes her students in math class

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Teacher Nicole Lent breaks down the different strategies students in her fifth-grade class used to solve a math problem.

At P.S. 294 in the Bronx, math is often a matter of debate.

In Nicole Lent’s fifth-grade class, groups of students take turns explaining how they solved the math problem of the day, respectfully disagreeing or enthusiastically lending support to their classmates’ arguments.

Lent floats around the room, asking probing questions but stopping short of revealing the right answer — opting to let students figure it out together instead.

“I always thought you had to teach the easiest way to just get an answer, and that is not the case,” she said. “I wasn’t giving them the opportunity to think critically about the problem and explore it in different ways.”

Lent is one of a team of teachers at P.S. 294, The Walton Avenue School, who focus only on math instruction. The city Department of Education has encouraged elementary schools across the city to take the same approach, called “departmentalization,” as part of its Algebra for All initiative. By placing the most capable teachers in charge of math instruction in fifth grade, the city hopes all students will be able to pass algebra by their first year of high school.

P.S. 294 has embraced the shift, starting departmentalized math instruction even earlier — in third grade. That’s in addition to its discussion-based approach. Lent has had a role of ushering both changes into the classroom.

She began using math debates and discussions after visiting another school that used the same model, and feeling struck by what she saw.

“I just remember going to those classrooms and thinking it was the coolest thing to see kids having a discussion,” about math. “I was just like, ‘How do I get my kids to do that?’”

The answer came through professional training offered by the city, along with picking and choosing the teaching resources that worked best for her needs. Soon, Lent’s new method spread throughout the school.

Now, half her time is spent in the classroom, and the rest of her day is spent working with her fellow math teachers as an instructional coach. She visits classrooms and regularly welcomes teachers into her own, all in an effort to provide constructive feedback, troubleshoot lessons and perfect new teaching strategies.

“It’s a different type of rewarding experience than working with children, but you see the same kind of growth,” she said. “We’re always working together to drive our instruction.”

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?

I never saw myself at a desk job where every day was the same. The great thing about teaching is that every day is different and truly rewarding, as you get to see your students grow and show progress over an extended period of time.

What does your classroom look like?

The students are the focal point of the room. You won’t find a teacher’s desk in my room. Around the perimeter are bookshelves containing student supplies … and “anchor charts” for students to reference … One example of an anchor chart would be to have the steps to adding fractions with unlike denominators, with the example of each step written out.

Students are permitted to get up at any time to access the supplies they need without asking for permission. We have set the expectation that they are in charge of their own learning and can self-assess when they need a resource to help them persevere through math tasks.

You had to learn a whole new way to teach math. What was the hardest thing about making that shift?

The hardest thing for me when making the shift from a teacher-led classroom to an approach that’s based on student inquiry and discussion was a shift in teacher mindset so as not to associate student conversation with off-task behavior.

What advice would you give to school leaders or teachers who might be considering departmentalizing math instruction?

I would advise them to start small and pilot departmentalizing on one grade first to see if it’s something they want to invest in doing at additional grade levels. We did this at P.S. 294, when I taught fourth grade last year, and it was very successful. We were able to work out any challenges and adjust what was necessary because we started small. At P.S. 294, we are now departmentalized on grades 3-5 for both [English Language Arts] and math. Teachers now receive the support they need and are focused on the content area they teach and have become true experts in their practices.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my _____________.

I couldn’t teach without my computer because technology now plays a crucial role in education. Without my computer I wouldn’t be able to play instructional videos for my visual learners or have students come up to the Promethean board (an electronic whiteboard) and manipulate math content, which plays a pivotal role in assisting them in understanding math content.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?

One of my favorite lessons to teach this year was on division of fractions. I always thought we had to teach it using the strategy I learned as a child known as “keep, change, flip.” That’s a strategy used to solve an expression such as 1/4 divided by 3. You would keep the fraction, change the sign from division to multiplication, and flip the whole number from 3 to a fraction of 1/3. The quotient is 1/12.

I didn’t know exactly why this strategy works, I just knew it did.

After attending one of the Algebra for All professional developments last summer, I learned from a colleague at another school how to use visual models: We draw three “wholes” and divide each whole into fourths. The quotient is one piece out of the twelve total pieces you have from all three models (wholes you drew). We ask the students to think about the question: “How many fourths fit in three?” When it came time for me to teach them to my students this year, I knew exactly how to show them to divide fractions by whole numbers and by fractions in a purposeful and meaningful way.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?

After a quick check for understanding that takes place after my mini-lesson, students who don’t understand my lesson meet in a small group with me on the carpet, while the rest of the students engage in differentiated math tasks on their level independently at their seats. During this time, I reteach students using a different method than the first time. This includes the use of manipulatives, instructional videos, and whiteboard work. Once I re-teach the concept using a different strategy, I conduct another quick check to see if they mastered the concept, and if so, they then go off independently to try some math tasks on their own.

How do you see your role as an instructional coach? What do you think is the most effective way to help other teachers improve their practice?

My role as an instructional coach is to build capacity across the school in the area of math instruction. Ultimately this means pushing practices down: taking the rigor and instructional approaches used at the 3-5 level and adjusting them to be used at the K-2 level according to the students’ individual needs.

The most effective way to help other teachers improve their practice is to hold debrief sessions following classroom visits, co-teaching sessions, or modeling lessons in their classroom, and providing actionable feedback that they can implement immediately.

What’s your go-to trick to re-engage a student who has lost focus?

Oftentimes, it takes some time to realize a student is lost and you don’t know exactly where they began to get lost. To avoid guessing and confusing them some more by repeating the last thing I said, I will restart and go step by step from the beginning while having that student assist me. Engaging the student along with the teacher has been the best strategy because you know they are listening and following along, because they are personally and directly involved with the teacher.

Your school has a common planning period. Has that helped change the way you teach?

Common planning periods bring teachers together to learn from one another and collaborate on projects.

During a recent common planning session, we had a consultant from Silicon Valley come and teach us about the difference between re-teaching vs. re-engagement lessons. Re-teaching lessons teach content again to a group of students who didn’t master it the first time. Re-engagement lessons allow students to work with a task to build mathematical ideas.

He showed us the data surrounding re-teaching vs. re-engagement lessons, which indicated that re-engagement lessons are what build students’ critical thinking skills. I realized that instead of having re-teach lessons built into my math block each day, that it would be much more beneficial to my students to participate in re-engagement tasks more often, as research had shown that that’s what truly pushes their levels.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.

A few years back, one of my students who had always been a Level 4 student [top-scoring on state, city and school assessments] started to act out in negative ways, not complete her homework, and be disruptive during lessons. After several warnings, I decided to call home to speak to the parent to notify the parent as to what was going on. As it turned out, this student’s father had recently moved out of state as the parents were getting divorced. Her mother said she was not taking it well and was acting the same way at home.

I asked the student to stay with me during her recess and spoke to her about what was going on at home. After some time, she finally opened up to me and let me know about her parent’s divorce.

We shared our own personal stories, and I was able to connect with my student on a much deeper level, and let her know that I am here for her any times she needs an ear to listen. From that day on, the student confided in me as she needed to and improved her effort and behavior in the classroom.

What’s the best advice you ever received?

A colleague told me that, “As educators, we learn best from our students.” I thought that had been the silliest thing as I had considered myself the head of the classroom who was supposed to know everything. As I began to dive deeper into my career, I couldn’t agree with her more.

My students have taught me that teaching is not black and white. There is no perfect science to it. Everything we do as educators is based off of what our students know and do, resulting in continuous reflections on our own practices. What needs to be modified? What needs to be revisited the following day? What shouldn’t be done anymore? What can I do further to push or help my students? What worked and what didn’t work? [These] are things we reflect about regularly. My students are the reason my toolbox of promising practices is so strong.

To read more stories in the How I Teach series, click here. 

By the numbers

Early reports indicate New York opt-out rates are decreasing statewide, a possible sign of eased tension

PHOTO: Ann Schimke

Early opt-out estimates started rolling in Wednesday, the day after students sat for their first round of New York state standardized tests this year.

The number of families refusing to take the controversial tests seems to have decreased slightly in Rochester, the Hudson Valley, Buffalo and Albany. In Long Island, typically an opt-out hotbed, the rates thus far seem similar to last year. It’s still too soon to tell in New York City, but the number of families refusing to take tests has been traditionally been much lower in the city than in the rest of the state.

These are only preliminary numbers, based mostly on reports from school districts. Both High Achievement New York and New York State Allies for Public Education are tracking these reports closely and providing early tallies. The state will release an official tally this summer and would not provide any information at this time. But if it is true that opt-out rates are declining, it could be a sign that tension is slowly seeping out of what has been a charged statewide education debate.

“I think slowly and steadily, the situation is calming,” said Stephen Sigmund, executive director of High Achievement New York, a coalition of groups that promotes testing. “The changes that the state made are good changes and have helped calm the water.”

On the other side, Lisa Rudley, a founding member of New York State Allies for Public Education, said the numbers still look strong, the decreases are “very minor” and there is still a lot of information to be collected.

“The reality is, whether the numbers go up or down, there’s still a major problem with the testing in our state,” Rudley said.

Over the past few years, the number of families opting their children out of tests statewide has been on an upward trajectory, as teachers and parents protested what they saw as an inappropriate emphasis on testing. (There are currently three testing sessions each for English and math administered to students in public school grades 3-8.)

Backlash to the tests heightened in response to the state’s decision to adopt the Common Core learning standards and to tie those test results to teacher evaluations. The opt-out rate climbed to one in five students in 2015.

Partly in response to the movement, the state began to revise learning standards and removed grades 3-8 math and English tests from teacher evaluations tied to consequences. The Board of Regents selected a new leader, Betty Rosa, endorsed by opt-out supporters. Last year, the tests themselves were shortened slightly and students were given unlimited time to complete them. But, officials were unable to quell the tension. Roughly the same number of students sat out of the tests last year as the year before.

It’s difficult to estimate whether the opt-out rate has increased or decreased in New York City yet, said Kemala Karmen, a New York City representative for NYSAPE. She said that, anecdotally, in schools she has been in contact with, opt-out rates have either remained constant or decreased. Yet she has also heard of opt-outs in schools that had not reported them in the past. Karmen is also critical of the state’s changes to testing, which she thinks do not do nearly enough to assuage parents’ concerns.

New York City has traditionally had much lower opt-out rates than the rest of the state. While statewide 21 percent of families opted out last year, less than three percent did in the city. In part that’s because the movement hasn’t taken hold with as strongly with black and Hispanic families, who make up the majority of the city’s student body. Still, the movement’s political ramifications are being felt statewide.