New York

De Blasio defends controversial decision to keep schools open during storm

Updated with today’s school attendance numbers

Mayor Bill de Blasio said the city’s decision last night to keep schools open was made with “imperfect information” about a snow storm that hammered New York City just as educators and students began their morning commutes.

At a late morning press conference to update the city about weather conditions, de Blasio said that forecasts projected “as little as three inches on the ground by the time kids walked in the door of their schools.”

“Based on our knowledge of what sanitation could do over night, we were convinced that kids could get to school this morning,” de Blasio told reporters from the Office of Emergency Management offices in Brooklyn.

Not many of those students made it to school, according to preliminary attendance figures released this afternoon. Just 44 percent of students were in school, even lower than when schools were closed in January after a storm dumped 12 inches of snow in some parts of the city and temperatures hit single digits. Average daily attendance typically hovers around 90 percent.

De Blasio ultimately defended the controversial call, which has been criticized by both the teachers and principals unions and parents who said the inclement weather made streets and sidewalks too unsafe to expect people to make it to school.

“So many families depend on their schools as a place for their kids to be during the day, a safe place, a place where they not only are taught but they get nutrition and they are safe from the elements,” de Blasio said. “So many of these families have to go to work. They do not have a choice. They need a safe option for their kids.”

But Chancellor Carmen Fariña said she might revert back to making announcements about school closures later in order to make more informed decisions. Back on Jan. 3, when 6.4 inches fell in the early morning hours, Fariña announced at 4:50 a.m. that schools were closed.

Last night’s call was made at 10:33 p.m., hours before any snow started. Fariña said she has pulled an early trigger in recent weeks so that parents would not make alternative plans in case schools were closed at the last minute. 

“Might there be times that we decide not to call it the night before but to wait until the next morning?” Fariña said. “That’s one of the things we’re going to talk about and think about.”

In 2004, Mayor Bloomberg made a preemptive call before a major snow storm hit the city. But in that case, Bloomberg announced that schools would be closed and said he did it early for parents who needed to figure out what to do with their children.

“I want parents to be able to start making plans,” Bloomberg said at the time. “One of the difficulties in canceling school in our city is that parents depend on schools to take care of their kids. An awful lot of our families, the parents work, and so it really is an imposition on them in finding somebody to take care of the kids if the schools are closed.”

At the press conference, Fariña said that lateness from students and teachers would be excused. A department spokesman said student absences would be coded as “inclement weather”, but personal days would still be counted for teachers who called out.

“It has totally stopped snowing,” Fariña said. “It is absolutely a beautiful day out there,” a comment that she later clarified to mean that conditions had improved compared to earlier in the morning. Warmer temperatures turned the snow to rain and roads cleared up, but a stiff headwind and slush on the sidewalks made walking difficult.  

Criticism continued to pile up from educators and parents. TV weatherman Al Roker piled on over Twitter, saying de Blasio’s comments were misleading since forecasts consistently predicted that snowfall would hit the hardest immediately before schools opened. 

It’s the fourth major storm since de Blasio entered office six weeks ago in what is amounting to an unusually harsh winter for the city. De Blasio has gotten stricter since he cancelled school on Jan. 3, keeping the system open in subsequent storms.

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.