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De Blasio offers charter school mea culpa while still calling for change

In his first major education address, Mayor Bill de Blasio painted a picture of a system in crisis.

“We need to be able to say that despite the good efforts of so many, the school system is still broken in so many ways,” the mayor said.

It was the theme of de Blasio’s first lengthy attempt to offer his vision for the city’s school system, outside of debates about charter schools and pre-kindergarten funding that have dominated his first three months as mayor. But before getting to some of the big ideas, he offered a mea culpa over his handling of some recent charter school decisions.

“I have to tell you, I didn’t measure up when it came to explaining those decisions to the people of this city,” de Blasio told the Sunday crowd at Morningside Heights’ Riverside Church.

The mayor was indirectly referring to his administration’s decision to nix three space-sharing plans involving Success Academy charter schools, which has metastasized into a public relations mess for de Blasio—even though the city gave the green light to 19 other charter school plans.

Those reversals, and de Blasio’s laser focus on his campaign to increase New Yorkers’ access to pre-K for their four-year-olds and after-school programs for their middle schoolers, have meant the mayor has spent little time defining his vision for the rest of the city’s school system.

De Blasio didn’t mince words in Sunday’s speech, calling the status quo “a tragedy.” He cited the fact that less than two-thirds of the city’s students graduate on time and only 20 percent of students of color are at grade level by the third grade.

“So many parents are simply looking for the best for their children. And sadly, they don’t see it enough in their neighborhood school,” de Blasio said. “That’s a reality I won’t accept. I want that parent to know that we will not accept a neighborhood school that fails them.”

“I know Chancellor [Carmen] Fariña feels the same urgency I do,” he continued. “Our mission is to create a city in which regardless of zip code, your neighborhood public school is a great option for your child.”

That phrasing combined the rhetoric of his predecessor Michael Bloomberg, who spoke of the urgent need to reform the city’s school system,  and many of de Blasio’s allies, who are much cooler toward charter schools and want the city’s focus to be on improving traditional public schools.

De Blasio didn’t offer any new proposals, instead calling for a unified acknowledgement of the “root causes” of the city’s problems.

“I know people of every ideology who want to shake the foundations. I know teachers in traditional public schools who want to shake the foundations. I know charter school teachers who want to shake the foundations. But what can unify us is that sense of urgency,” he said.

That’s a very different tone than de Blasio’s schools chancellor has been taking in her first three months. Fariña has focused more on building rapport with teachers and principals than on explaining how the system isn’t up to par or spelling out specific goals for academic achievement or graduation rates. De Blasio, whose administration is also currently negotiating a contract with the teachers union, has been less shy about saying he thinks the city has a long way to go.

On charter schools themselves, de Blasio offered a mix of positions, some of them contradictory.

He said he wanted to “re-engage” with the idea that charter schools can develop models for traditional public schools to learn from, but also implied that he disapproved entirely of encouraging the charter sector to improve things for only a subset of the city’s students.

“The answer is not to find an escape route that some can follow and some can’t. The answer is to fix the entire system,” he said.

For de Blasio, that starts with pre-K. As budget proposals near completion in Albany, it seems likely that de Blasio will soon be outmaneuvered when it comes to funding his expansion of pre-K and after-school programs, since Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s plan to pay for the plan for without raising taxes seems to have a broader appeal among lawmakers in Albany than de Blasio’s plan among lawmakers, who must approve the funding source.

Still, de Blasio was eager to portray the city as being on the cusp of big changes, thanks to Albany’s decisionmakers.

“I know in the next few days, the world will change before our very eyes,” he said.

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.