back-up power

Dewey gets its building back, but longer-term problems remain

Smoke billows from John Dewey High School following the sound of an explosion on Monday night, during Hurricane Sandy. Credit: Sandra Aronowitz-Garron/Youtube

Teachers from John Dewey High School reported for duty to Sheepshead Bay High School on Monday with a sinking feeling. Months after narrowly escaping closure, the school had struggled since September to settle on programs for its 1,900 students and, if that were not enough, its Gravesend building had caught on fire during Hurricane Sandy.

Now they thought  students and staff would have spread out among three different school buildings, including Sheepshead Bay, for the foreseeable future.

“It could be, without a doubt, another nail in the coffin,” one teacher said about the planned relocation. “It’s a whirlwind to be told to go here or there.”

The school’s staff spent Monday deciding who would report where on Wednesday, and creating new schedules for their students. Then, late Monday evening, teachers got a phone call from the Department of Education with unexpected news: Dewey would be able to reopen right away after all.

Teachers said the phone call came as a welcome surprise, but some said they thought the location was the least of Dewey’s worries.

Last week, Chancellor Dennis Walcott cited Dewey as one of the most severely damaged schools in the wake of the hurricane. And teachers said they had received no hints that the school would be ready to reopen any time soon, even after Principal Kathleen Elvin stopped by the building to assess repair efforts on Monday morning and afternoon. But department officials said the School Construction Authority had been able to install a generator and get Dewey’s boiler to work, making the building safe for students and teachers.

The quick return was exactly what some teachers said they thought the school needed.

“We need to be a comfort buffer against what happened in the hurricane,” one teacher said outside of Sheepshead Bay on Monday. “Dewey is really family to a lot of kids, they want to see their teachers and the staff again. But I have a feeling that nothing will return to normal until we get back our building.”

But Dewey’s normal is far from ideal, several teachers said. They said Elvin and her administration have been so focused on instruction that some of the fundamentals of running a large high school have fallen by the wayside.

In the most glaring example, they said, scheduling woes had continued deep into the semester, with some students having received an eighth program revision within the last couple of weeks.

“It was incompetence beyond belief,” one teacher said about the administration’s efforts to program students.

Others said Elvin’s approach to the storm days reflected the same misplaced priorities. Even as teachers struggled without Internet or gas for their cars—one the most convenient modes of transportation in Southern Brooklyn, particularly after Sandy knocked out some subway lines — and families remained out of reach, Elvin instructed teachers to focus on aligning their lessons to new standards.

She “wanted us to do unit plans on the Common Core today, and I don’t see why because we didn’t have the Internet, we didn’t have any of our resources,” one teacher said in a phone interview on Monday evening.

Some schools used the Friday teacher workday to brainstorm ways to help students, families, and colleagues whose lives were disrupted by the storm. But Elvin emailed department chairs on Thursday morning, just 48 hours after the fire at Dewey, instructing them to make copies of a department-produced science lesson to share with their teachers. The email made no mention of the storm or the damage it wrecked on Dewey.

“If we still have an Election Day PD, it can continue the work on Common Core,” Elvin wrote in the email, which GothamSchools obtained. “We also need to review passing rates with teachers who have failing rates over 15% to see how we can support them and their students.”

At least one assistant principal hedged against the instructions when passing them on to the teachers in his department. “I know that many of you have been going through a lot and may find it difficult to get to school tomorrow,” the assistant principal wrote. “Please put safety first and if you can get to work that would be great.”

But even though they have found Elvin’s laser-like focus on instruction too narrow throughout the year and disconcerting in the last week, teachers said they understood it. She has Dewey’s latest progress report grade in hand, but she hasn’t shared it with teachers, which some cited as a bad sign.

Plus, the school had been scheduled for a Department of Education quality review last week. The evaluation, which had been delayed from last year when the department was planning to close the school, will look at how well the staff works together in moving toward academic progress.

The teacher who spoke to us by phone said, “[Elvin] told us she thinks the DOE is still going to come after us and we want to be ready.”

He said he expects Dewey to land on the city’s list of high schools up for closure this year unless it posts a surprisingly high progress report grade.

“We are like an emotional rollercoaster,” he added. “For the students and the staff, it’s like we don’t know what to do anymore.”

This morning, teachers said they were pleased to find the building in near-perfect condition when they arrived for a full day of professional development.

“The building looks great, the janitorial staff has been working around the clock to get things ready,” one wrote in a message. But the teacher added that the status quo will take yet more time to return. “There’s still a lot of uncertainty and confusion, but we’re headed in the right direction!”

survey says

How accessible are New York City’s high schools? Students with physical disabilities are about to find out

PHOTO: Cassi Feldman
Midwood High School is considered inaccessible to students with physical disabilities.

Michelle Noris began her son’s high school search the way many parents of children with physical disabilities do: by throwing out most of the high school directory.

She knew her son Abraham would only have access to a few dozen of the city’s 400-plus high schools because of significant health needs, despite being a bright student with a knack for writing.

“I tore out every page that didn’t work in advance of showing [the directory] to him,” Noris recalls.

Even once they narrowed the list of potential schools, they still couldn’t be sure which schools Abraham — who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair — would be physically able to enter. The directory lists whether a school is considered partially or fully accessible, which, in theory, means that students should have access to “all relevant programs and services.”

In practice, however, the situation is much more complicated. “We had schools that are listed as partially accessible, but there’s no accessible bathroom,” said Noris, who is a member of the Citywide Council on Special Education. Some “accessible” schools might not have water fountains or cafeteria tables that accommodate students with mobility needs. A school’s auditorium could have a ramp, but no way for a wheelchair-bound student to get up on the stage.

Most of that information is not publicly available without calling a school or showing up for a visit — a process that can be time-consuming and demoralizing. But now, thanks in part by lobbying from Noris and other advocates, the city has pledged to begin filling the information gap. The education department will soon release more detailed information about exactly how accessible its high schools are.

Based on a 58-question survey, the city is collecting more granular data: if music rooms or computer labs are accessible, for instance, or whether there’s a slight step in a library that could act as a barrier. The survey also tracks whether a student in a wheelchair would have to use a side or back entrance to make it into the building.

“Sometimes, [parents] actually have to visit four or five of our schools to see if their child could get to every area of the school that’s important to them,” said Tom Taratko, who heads the education department’s space management division. “We didn’t think that was right.”

Virtually every physical amenity will be documented, Taratko said, down to whether a school has braille signage or technology for students with hearing impairments.

Education department officials are still fine-tuning exactly how to translate the city’s new accessibility inventory into a user-friendly dataset families can use. Some of the new information will be made available in the high school directory, and the results of each school’s survey will be available online.

Officials said the new data would be provided in “the coming weeks” for all high schools in Manhattan and Staten Island. The rest of the city’s high schools should be included before the next admissions cycle.

The survey will help identify which schools could be made accessible with relatively few changes, Taratko explained. “Everything — our shortcomings, our strengths — everything will be out there.”

The decision to release more high school accessibility data comes less than two years after a scathing U.S. Department of Justice investigation revealed “inexcusable” accommodations in elementary schools.

Many of the city’s school buildings were built before the Americans with Disabilities Act became law, and despite committing $100 million in its current five-year capital budget to upgrades, many schools are still not accessible. According to 2016 data, the most recent available, just 13 percent of district and charter schools that serve high school grades are fully accessible. About 62 percent are partially accessible, and 25 percent are considered inaccessible.

Making accessibility data public could help change those numbers, said Maggie Moroff, a disability policy expert at Advocates for Children who has pushed for greater transparency and praised the initiative.

“Once it’s out there, there’s so much more self-advocacy a parent can do,” Moroff said. “Then they can make requests about specific accommodations.”

Greater transparency is just one step in the process. Moroff hopes the city will consider taking students’ physical disabilities into account during the admissions process so that academically qualified students get preference for accessible schools. Once students arrive, she added, they must be welcomed by the school community.

“There needs to be much more work to hold the schools accountable to actually welcoming those students,” Moroff said. “It has to go hand in hand with making renovations and making accommodations.”

Even though the data comes too late for Noris, whose son submitted applications to just two high schools out of a possible twelve due to accessibility constraints, she is optimistic future families will have an easier time navigating the process.

“They didn’t say, ‘We’re going to do this over the next ten years.’ They said, ‘We’re going to do this in two years,’” Noris said, noting that she hopes more funding is allocated to upgrade buildings. “I think it’s a real example of the Department of Education hearing the needs and being willing to act on it.”

Student activist

With Townsend Harris in turmoil over interim principal, one student quietly takes a leading role

PHOTO: The Classic
Alex Chen walks the hallway during a student sit-in he helped organize at Townsend Harris High School.

While students across the nation have taken to the streets to protest President Trump, some are fighting battles closer to home. Just ask Alex Chen, the student union president at Townsend Harris High School, who is helping to lead a high-profile fight against Interim Acting Principal Rosemarie Jahoda.

Chen spent much of his February break rallying fellow students, alumni and parents from the elite Queens school to demonstrate in front of City Hall on Friday, asking the city to remove Jahoda from consideration for the permanent post. The controversy has put the 17-year-old in the uncomfortable position of going against his school’s top official.

But Chen insists this isn’t a student vs. principal situation.

“It might have felt like that sometimes, but I don’t really see it that way. I see it more as a community that’s rising up,” he said.

Opposition has mounted against Jahoda since September, when she stepped in to lead the school. More than 3,500 people, including self-identified parents and alumni, have signed a petition against her, claiming that she has harassed faculty, changed course offerings without proper input and that she has been “aloof or even combative” toward students.

In a statement, Jahoda said: “While I am frustrated by many of these inaccurate allegations, I remain 100% focused on serving students and families at Townsend Harris and working to move the school community forward.”

Meanwhile, Chen has been thrust into the spotlight. In December, during a student sit-in he helped organize, he had a tense standoff with Deputy Superintendent Leticia Pineiro.

“How are your teachers being harassed? I’m curious,” the superintendent quipped to Chen in a livestream broadcast by the student newspaper. “You’re speaking and I believe people should speak from fact. I’m a factual person.”

Chen spoke slowly, his voice a near whisper. Even when the superintendent suggested Chen had invaded her personal space, Chen stayed quiet and calm.

“I really just wanted to be able to communicate with her,” he later told Chalkbeat.

He returned to class, replaying the scene in his head and wondering whether he had handled it right. When he walked in the door, his classmates burst into applause.

“He’s become this symbol for everyone involved. And I think he earned it,” said Brian Sweeney, an English teacher and newspaper advisor who has Chen in his journalism class. “When you’re in that video with everyone watching, and you’re willing to keep talking and keep saying what you think … there’s a lot of trust for everyone involved.”

Since the sit-in, the School Leadership Team at Townsend took the unusual step of making Chen a co-chair of the board, made up of teachers, parents and union reps.

“I believe it was a matter of trust and productivity. We needed co-chairs who could move forward with the issues at the table, rather than be stuck in tension,” Chen said.

Even while he fights to make sure Jahoda isn’t appointed permanently, Chen said he has maintained a “very professional relationship” with her. In SLT and student union meetings where Jahoda is present, Chen said he makes an effort to “stick to the agenda.”

“We still have to keep the school running,” he said. “In the hallways, I’ll say good morning. I’ll say hello. Because that’s what you’re supposed to do.”

The Department of Education opened applications for a permanent principal on Feb. 1 and said the process takes up to 90 days. The pushback against Jahoda means many are watching the department’s next moves. This week, Queens Borough President Melinda Katz wrote a letter to Chancellor Carmen Fariña about the matter.

“Accusations and troubling accounts are occurring on a daily basis,” she wrote. “The students of our system deserve to know that the DOE is providing the tools, atmosphere and attention needed to fulfill our responsibilities to them.”

Chen has responsibilities of his own. At home in Hollis Hills, he helps take care of his younger sister and is expected to finish his chores. He’s looking for a job to have a bit of his own money. And with senior year winding down, he spends a lot of time chasing scholarships. Chen hopes to study business at University of Pennsylvania, though lately many people have asked him whether he’ll go into politics.

“I don’t think I will for now, because there’s a lot that goes on in politics that kind of disturbs me,” he said. “After high school, after college, after your youth, it seems like people [tend] to be more self-interested than to help in the community.”