Take Two

Report: City to resurrect special district for struggling schools

The education department is looking to resurrect a special district designed to support struggling schools, according to a news report, a signal that the new administration is holding to its pledge to flood the lowest performing schools with resources before it considers closing them.

The city is forming a plan to group about a dozen struggling high schools under a single district superintendent and offer them special support, according to the New York Post. Another cohort of elementary and middle schools would be kept separate but also receive extra support.

Chalkbeat could not confirm the report, and the Department of Education did not respond to questions on the plan. The United Federation of Teachers, which championed the now-defunct district that the new plan reportedly draws from, declined to comment.

Chancellor Carmen Fariña’s major school-improvement plan so far has been a partnership program that would group especially strong schools with schools that are weaker in specific areas to share effective practices and ramp up training for all teachers.

The new teachers contract also contains several provisions meant to boost schools, such as more time for professional development and extra pay for teachers who take on additional duties or work in hard-to-staff schools. Fariña has also promised to give greater assistance to middle schools.

But Fariña has yet to describe how the department will approach long-struggling schools that need intensive support. She has been critical of school closure, a signature tactic of the Bloomberg administration that Mayor Bill de Blasio has denounced, and said the department will not issue A-to-F report card grades in favor of more nuanced metrics.

De Blasio’s 2013 campaign platform called for an “early warning system” to identify schools that need immediate help and a “Strategic Staffing Initiative” that would replace the principals of the most challenged schools and send in a team of experienced administrators and teachers. The struggling-schools district would incorporate elements of de Blasio’s plan, according to the Post.

If the department established such a district, it would harken back to one that former Chancellor Rudy Crew created in 1996 to turn around 10 struggling schools, which eventually grew to include 58 schools before former Chancellor Joel Klein dissolved it in 2003.

Schools in the so-called Chancellor’s District received a slew of supports: smaller class sizes, longer days and years, new curriculum materials, more professional development, and extra staff. Teachers who worked in some of the schools received bonus pay. As those supports were rolled out, the Chancellor’s District schools eventually spent $2,400 more per student than the city’s other struggling schools.

The District schools achieved some limited success, with fourth-grade students’ reading scores outpacing those of other schools on the state’s list of struggling schools, according to a 2004 report. That report did not evaluate the 10 high schools in the program.

The UFT and others celebrated those results and pointed to the District as an alternative to school closure. But critics said they did not justify the amount of resources devoted to the schools.

Eric Nadelstern, an education department official under the Bloomberg administration, said the past program amounted to “micromanaging” low-performing schools, rather than overhauling them. He said that in the current administration were to group together low-performing schools it would conflict with its other strategy of partnering high-performing schools with others.

“Putting all your lowest-performing schools in the same jurisdiction is a terrible idea,” he said. “It’s like a remedial class for principals of schools.”

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.