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!”

Achievement School District

Tennessee’s turnaround district gets new leadership team for a new chapter

PHOTO: TN.gov
Malika Anderson became superintendent of the state-run Achievement School District in 2016 under the leadership of Gov. Bill Haslam.

Tennessee is bringing in some new blood to lead its turnaround district after cutting its workforce almost in half and repositioning the model as an intervention of last resort for the state’s chronically struggling schools.

While Malika Anderson remains as superintendent of the Achievement School District, she’ll have two lieutenants who are new to the ASD’s mostly charter-based turnaround district, as well as two others who have been part of the work in the years since its 2011 launch.

The hires stand in contrast to the original ASD leadership team, which was heavy with education reformers who came from outside of Tennessee or Memphis. And that’s intentional, Anderson said Friday as she announced the new lineup with Education Commissioner Candice McQueen.

“It is critical in this phase of the ASD that we are learning from the past … and have leaders who are deeply experienced in Tennessee,” Anderson said.

New to her inner circle as of Aug. 1 are:

Verna Ruffin
Chief academic officer

PHOTO: Submitted
Verna Ruffin

Duties: She’ll assume oversight of the district’s five direct-run schools in Memphis called Achievement Schools, a role previously filled by former executive director Tim Ware, who did not reapply. She’ll also promote collaboration across Achievement Schools and the ASD’s charter schools.

Last job: Superintendent of Jackson-Madison County School District since 2013

Her story: More than 30 years of experience in education as a teacher, principal, director of secondary curriculum, assistant superintendent and superintendent in Louisiana, Texas, Oklahoma and Tennessee. At Jackson-Madison County, Ruffin oversaw a diverse student body and implemented a K-3 literacy initiative to promote more rigorous standards.

Farae Wolfe
Executive director of operations

Duties: Human resources, technology and operations

Current job: Program director for the Community Youth Career Development Center in Cleveland, Miss.

Her story: Wolfe has been city manager and human resources director for Cleveland, Miss., where she led a health and wellness initiative that decreased employee absenteeism due to minor illness by 20 percent. Her work experience in education includes overseeing parent and community relations for a Mississippi school district, according to her LinkedIn profile.

Leaders continuing to work with the state turnaround team are:

Lisa Settle
Chief performance officer

PHOTO: Achievement Schools
Lisa Settle

Duties: She’ll oversee federal and state compliance for charter operators and direct-run schools.

Last job: Chief of schools for the direct-run Achievement Schools since June 2015

Her story: Settle was co-founder and principal of Cornerstone Prep-Lester Campus, the first charter school approved by the ASD in Memphis. She also has experience in writing and reviewing curriculum in her work with the state’s recent Standards Review Committee.

Bobby White
Executive director of external affairs

PHOTO: ASD
Bobby White

Duties: He’ll continue his work to bolster the ASD’s community relations, which was fractured by the state’s takeover of neighborhood schools in Memphis when he came aboard in April 2016.

Last job: ASD chief of external affairs

His story: A Memphis native, White previously served as chief of staff and senior adviser for Memphis and Shelby County Mayor A.C. Wharton, as well as a district director for former U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Jr.

A new team for a new era

The restructuring of the ASD and its leadership team comes after state officials decided to merge the ASD with support staff for its Achievement Schools. All 59 employees were invited in May to reapply for 30 jobs, some of which are still being filled.

The downsizing was necessary as the state ran out of money from the federal Race to the Top grant that jump-started the turnaround district in 2011 and has sustained most of its work while growing to 33 schools at its peak.

While the changes signal a new era for the state-run district, both McQueen and Gov. Bill Haslam have said they’re committed to keeping the ASD as Tennessee’s most intensive intervention when local and collaborative turnaround efforts fail, even as the initiative has had a mostly lackluster performance.

“Overall, this new structure will allow the ASD to move forward more efficiently,” McQueen said Friday, “and better positions the ASD to support the school improvement work we have outlined in our ESSA plan …”

In the next phase, school takeovers will not be as abrupt as the first ones that happened in Memphis in 2012, prompting angry protests from teachers and parents and outcry from local officials. Local districts will have three years to use their own turnaround methods before schools can be considered for takeover.

It’s uncertain where the ASD will expand next, but state officials have told Hamilton County leaders that it’s one of several options on the table for five low-performing schools in Chattanooga.

transfer talk

This seemingly small change could make it easier for guidance counselors to send students to transfer schools

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
A guidance counselor at Bronx Academy of Letters

New York City is planning to make it easier to refer students to alternative high schools — part of a broader effort to remove obstacles for students seeking admission to them.

The change will affect the city’s 52 transfer schools, which are designed to catch up students who have dropped out, are over-age or behind in credits. Guidance counselors at traditional high schools will be able to electronically recommend up to three transfer school options for students they believe would be better served in different settings.

That change might seem minor, but it is at the center of a wider debate playing out behind the scenes between the city’s education department — which has indicated that transfer schools are being too picky about who they admit — and transfer schools themselves, some of which worry the new policy could lead to an influx of students who have been pushed out of their high schools.

“There’s a significant fear from transfer schools that these will essentially be over-the-counter placements,” said one Manhattan transfer school principal, referring to a process through which the city directly assigns students who arrive after the admissions process is over, often mid-year. “It doesn’t necessarily make for a better fit for a student.”

Unlike most high schools in New York City, transfer schools admit students outside the centrally managed choice process. Instead, they set their own entrance criteria, often requiring that students interview, and meet minimum credit or age requirements. The schools themselves largely determine which students they admit, and accept them at various points during the year.

Some transfer school principals say this intake process is essential to maintaining each school’s culture, which depends on enrolling students who genuinely want to give school another try after dropping out or falling behind elsewhere.

But city officials have quietly scaled back the type of sorting transfer schools can do, banning them from testing students before they’re admitted, for example, or looking at attendance or suspension records. The transfer school superintendent also now has the power to directly place students if they are rejected from three transfer schools.

Given those changes, some transfer school principals are wary of the latest policy, which will allow guidance counselors at traditional schools to electronically “refer” students for up to three specific transfer schools, and requires transfer schools to track their interactions with those students.

The city says the new system will make it easier to find the right match between schools and students. It will “make the transfer high school admissions process easier and more transparent for students and families, while also ensuring better tracking and accountability,” education department spokesman Will Mantell said in a statement.

He noted the city is still working on implementation and the change won’t will happen before spring 2018. (The education department currently doesn’t have a way to track how many students are being recommended to transfer schools versus how many are actually accepted.)

Mantell could not say whether guidance counselors would need a student’s consent before electronically referring the student to a transfer school, and could not point to any specific policies on when it is appropriate for guidance counselors to refer students — though he noted there would be additional training for them.

Ron Smolkin, principal of Independence High School, a transfer school, says he appreciates the change. He worries about students who have fallen behind being told they “don’t qualify” for a transfer school, he said. “That’s why we exist.”

But other principals say it will make it easier for traditional schools to dump students because they are difficult to serve, regardless of whether they are good candidates for a transfer.

“There’s a greater risk of pushouts,” the Manhattan transfer school principal said.

Transfer school principals also worry about the consequences of accepting students who might be less likely to graduate than their current students — a potential effect of the new policy. The federal Every Student Succeeds Act requires high schools to graduate 67 percent of their students; those that don’t will be targeted for improvement.

Some transfer schools have called that an unfair standard since, by design, they take students who have fallen behind. The state has said transfer schools will not automatically face consequences, such as closure, if they fail to meet that benchmark, but it remains to be seen whether that entirely solves the problem.

One transfer school principal said the city’s desire to better monitor the admissions process makes sense, but won’t prevent schools from gaming the system — and is being implemented without adequate input from principals.

“Our voices haven’t been heard in this process,” the principal said, “and there are a lot of reasons to distrust.”