Principal-ed Response

Troubled by the state reading test, Manhattan principals decide to protest

PHOTO: Geoff Decker
A protest in 2014 at P.S. 321 in Park Slope against the state English exams. The number of families who opted out of those tests increased dramatically this year.

Manhattan’s District 2 spans well-heeled neighborhoods from Tribeca to the Upper East Side and includes some of the top schools in the city, which tend to ace the state exams, not protest them.

And yet about three-dozen schools in the district and nearby are planning to hold rallies Friday morning to protest this year’s Common Core English exams, which students took last week.

Plans for the demonstrations were still coming together Thursday when the state education commissioner gave a speech in which he acknowledged parents’ frustration with testing, but forcefully defended this year’s exams. But unlike recent test boycotts led by a small but growing group of parents, educators are spearheading the Manhattan protests — which follow a principal-led rally in Brooklyn last week.

In both boroughs, the principals behind the latest outcry generally support testing and the state’s new standards, and they typically steer clear of street protests. At P.S. 11 in Chelsea, for instance, the sight of sign-carrying demonstrators outside the school is so unusual that teachers took time earlier in the week to discuss the idea of protests with students, said principal Bob Bender.

“We’ve never had a demonstration like this at P.S. 11,” he explained.

But, like more than 30 other principals in his district, he was jolted into action by last week’s tests.

“I have never seen a more atrocious exam,” he wrote in a recent letter to parents, inviting them to join the protests.

The idea for Friday’s demonstrations began with two District 2 principals who had once worked under Liz Phillips, principal of P.S. 321 in Park Slope. Phillips organized last week’s protest, then wrote an op-ed in Thursday’s New York Times denouncing this year’s English exams along with state rules that bar educators from revealing their contents.

The Manhattan principals wanted to prove that other educators shared Phillips’ concerns, so they began contacting other principals who they knew were dismayed by the tests. By Thursday afternoon, 37 principals had promised to take part in the protests.

P.S. 234 principal Lisa Ripperger, one of the school leaders who once taught at P.S. 321, said the principals felt a responsibility to speak out against the tests since the general public is not permitted to see them.

“It’s increasingly obvious to me that people need some leadership,” she said, “and they’re looking to school leaders to voice that.”

Echoing criticisms of the exams that other educators have posted online, the Manhattan principals said the tests did not measure the type of analytical reading and writing they associate with the Common Core standards. They also argued that the tests were too long and many of the multiple-choice answers were bafflingly similar.

“I have a double masters and some of them could be A or C,” said Medea McEvoy, principal of P.S. 267 on the Upper East Side, one of the schools planning to protest.

The principals also said that confidentiality rules shield the test maker, publishing giant Pearson, from public scrutiny. And because only a portion of the test questions are eventually released, they said, teachers cannot rely on them as instructional tools.

The school leaders added that, considering all the flaws they found in the exams, they do not trust the state’s new evaluations that rate teachers partly on their students’ test scores.

In his speech Thursday, New York State Education Commissioner John King stood firmly behind the teacher evaluations, the standards, and the new tests that measure those standards.

Insisting that “the facts around testing seem to get lost,” he said the Common Core exams ask students to think critically and demonstrate skills they will need later in life.

“They are better tests,” he said.

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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.