toxic debate

De Blasio takes on city's treatment of Moskowitz charter schools

Public Advocate Bill de Blasio’s campaign against charter school operator Eva Moskowitz continued today when the mayoral candidate called for an independent investigation into the way the city treats Moskowitz’s Success Academy schools.

Citing a column by Juan Gonzalez in Friday’s New York Daily News, de Blasio said Cobble Hill Success Academy had toxin-ridden light fixtures removed before other schools in its Brooklyn public school building. (The city is in the midst of a lumbering process to rid hundreds of school buildings of lights that contain PCBs.)

De Blasio brought students and parents to the steps of the Department of Education’s headquarters on Chambers Street today to call for an investigation into what he said was preferential treatment by the department of the charter network. He got an assist from the United Federation of Teachers, who wrote to city schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott today to ask for the investigation.

“The bottom line is if we ever had to have an example of inequality in our city laid out before our very eyes, this is it,” de Blasio said at a press conference Monday afternoon. “It’s time for Eva Moskowitz’s privilege and power to end.”

But Success Academy and Department of Education officials dispute Gonzalez’s reporting and de Blasio’s claims. They say no school in the Baltic Street building has been cleared of PCBs yet and note that the city made capital improvements to the three other schools in the building at the same time as Success Academy prepared to move in last summer.

“Bill de Blasio didn’t do his homework before calling his press conference,” said Success Academy spokeswoman Jenny Sedlis. “It’s disappointing that the public advocate is asking taxpayers to foot the bill for an investigation based on erroneous claims without first trying to get any of the facts himself.”

A teacher in the building who has posted occasional photographs of the building as it went from housing three schools to four wrote in December that Success Academy had replaced its light fixtures just before school started in September.

It wasn’t the first time that de Blasio had singled Moskowitz out. At a mayoral debate in January, de Blasio said, “Another thing that has to change starting in January is that Eva Moskowitz cannot continue to have the run of the place.” He added, “She was giving the orders and chancellors were bowing down and agreeing. That’s not acceptable.”

But de Blasio said the status of Success Academy’s light fixtures represented a bigger equity issue that he would address as mayor.

“If you’re going to make a charter school safe in a school building then all the traditional public schools need to be safe as well to the same standard,” he said at the press conference. “We should end the practice of favoring certain charters — giving them the ability to co-locate whether they fit a school or not. That’s why I’ve called for a moratorium on colocations and closures until we come up with a fair policy.”

Other mayoral candidates have grappled with the tensions of charter school co-locations, as well. Like de Blasio, Comptroller John Liu has made calling for a moratorium on charter school co-locations a key part of his education platform. Former comptroller Bill Thompson has said charter and district-run schools should be able to share space, but the city’s process for awarding and enhancing space needs to change. City Council Speaker Christine Quinn has also said co-locations are important to allow charter schools to continue to flourish, but she, too, has said the process could be improved.

Each of the Democratic candidates has been angling for months to please the UFT, which will endorse a candidate this summer before the party primary. Union officials said the process to choose a candidate would begin soon after the union’s internal elections are complete at the end of this month.

father knows best

How a brush with death convinced one dad to get his diploma, with a boost from the Fatherhood Academy

PHOTO: Courtesy of Steven Robles
Steven Robles with his family

Steven Robles thought he might not live to see his daughter’s birth.

In May 2016, the 20-year-old was in the hospital after being shot during what he described as an argument in his neighborhood.

A year later, Robles just graduated from City University of New York’s Fatherhood Academy. He passed his high school equivalency exam and is happily celebrating his daughter Avare’s 8-month birthday.

“That conflict is what got me into the program, and what happened to me before she was born motivated me to stay in the program,” Robles said. “It motivated me to manage to pass my GED.”

Robles grew up in Brownsville, Brooklyn and attended Franklin K. Lane High School. Though he liked his teachers, Robles said other students at the school were not “mature enough,” and the disorderly school environment made it hard for him to concentrate.

A quiet student, Robles said teachers would often overlook his presence in the classroom. Between that and friction with other classmates, Robles lost interest in school.

“My parents didn’t try to help me, either,” Robles said. “Nobody really tried to help me with that school, so I just stopped going.”

It was a whole different experience for him once he arrived at the Fatherhood Academy at LaGuardia Community College, a program run by CUNY for unemployed and underemployed fathers ages 18 through 28. The Academy, now partnering with the New York City Housing Authority at its LaGuardia location, was launched in 2012 and also has programs at Hostos and Kingsborough Community Colleges.

“I have interviewed many of the men who come into the program and I often ask the question, ‘What brought you here?'” said Raheem Brooks, program manager of the Fatherhood Academy at LaGuardia Community College. “Mostly every young man says, ‘I’m here because I want to create a better life for my child than I had.’ So, I think the main theme of the program is that we help promote intergenerational change.”

At the LaGuardia branch, 30 students attend classes three times a week over the course of 16 weeks. Subjects include mathematics, social studies, and writing for students seeking to get their high school equivalency diplomas. Students also attend workshops run by counselors who guide them in professional development and parenting.

Robles found out about the program after seeing a flier for it in his social worker’s office at Graham Windham, a family support services organization. Curious to see what the Academy offered, he called to find out more and officially enrolled after passing a test to prove he could read above seventh-grade level.

“Before the Academy, I was not really into school at all,” Robles said. “But when I got there, it just changed my life. In this program, I didn’t know anybody there, there were no distractions. It made me more focused, and I just really wanted to get my GED and education.”

What helped Robles the most was getting to learn from the other fathers in the class, who were going through similar experiences as him.

“Little things I didn’t know, I learned from them because they were also fathers,” Robles said. “I just liked the way they were teaching us.”

In fact, he liked the Academy so much, he doesn’t plan to leave. He is applying to study criminal justice at LaGuardia Community College and to become a mentor for the Academy next year.

Currently, Robles lives with his grandparents, his daughter and the mother of his child. Getting a place for his family is next on his to-do list, he said.

“Avare always has a smile on her face and always puts a smile on my face,” Robles said. “She motivates me to get up and do what I have to do. Anything I could do for her, I will.”

Though school did not play a huge role in his life growing up, that is not what Robles wants for his daughter. He said after participating in the Academy, he wants to make sure Avare stays motivated and in school.

“I hear a lot from people about how they think they can’t do it,” Robles said. “I almost lost my life before my daughter was born and that motivated me. If I could do it, you could do it.”

Behind the brawl

Three things to know about the Tennessee school behind this week’s graduation brawl

PHOTO: Arlington Community Schools
Arlington High School is a 2,000-plus-student school in suburban Shelby County in southwest Tennessee.

Arlington High School is considered the crown jewel of a 3-year-old district in suburban Shelby County, even as its school community deals with the unwelcome attention of several viral videos showing a fight that broke out among adults attending its graduation ceremony.

The brawl, which reportedly began with a dispute over saved seats, detracted from Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance and the more than $30 million in scholarships earned by the school’s Class of 2017. No students were involved.

“It was unfortunate that a couple of adults in the audience exhibited the behavior they did prior to the ceremony beginning and thus has caused a distraction from the celebration of our students’ accomplishments,” Arlington Community Schools Superintendent Tammy Mason said in a statement.

Here are three things to know about the 13-year-old school in northwest Shelby County.

With more than 2,000 students, Arlington is one of the largest high schools in Shelby County and is part of a relatively new district.

It’s the pride of a suburban municipality that is one of six that seceded from Shelby County Schools in 2014 following the merger of the city and county districts the year before. (School district secessions are a national trend, usually of predominantly white communities leaving predominantly black urban school systems.) More than 70 percent of Arlington’s students are white, and 6 percent are considered economically disadvantaged — in stark contrast to the Memphis district where less than 8 percent are white, and almost 60 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

The school’s graduation rate is high … and climbing.

Last year, after adding interventions for struggling students, the school’s graduation rate jumped a full point to more than 96 percent. Its students taking the ACT college entrance exam scored an average composite of 22.5 out of a possible 36, higher than the state average of 19.9. But only a fifth scored proficient or advanced in math and a third in English language arts during 2015-16, the last school year for which scores are available and a transition year for Tennessee under a new test.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits with students at Arlington High School during a 2016 tour.

The school was in the news last August when Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visited its campus.

The commissioner spoke with students there to kick off her statewide listening tour that’s focused on ways to get students ready for college and career. McQueen highlighted the school’s extracurricular activities and students’  opportunities to intern for or shadow local professionals. She also complimented Arlington for having an engaged education community.