Collaboration Celebration

Fariña celebrates collaboration as Learning Partners gets set to expand

PHOTO: Jessica Glazer

Chancellor Carmen Fariña has been touting her signature school-collaboration program since April. But the enthusiasm reached new heights this week, as teachers and principals from 21 schools gathered to celebrate the 10-week pilot program at the Brooklyn Marriott on Monday night.

“Carmen, this is a genius plan,” said Christina Fuentes, head of the city’s new Office of Inter-School Collaborative Learning, in her opening remarks.

Fuentes went on to congratulate principals for instituting a variety of changes over the course of the pilot version of the Learning Partners program, which groups schools into triads to share ideas. The program will expand to 72 schools this September, and is an outgrowth of one of Fariña’s guiding principles: that collaboration, not competition, is the way to improve schools.

“I still don’t know what your school report card is,” Fariña said during the event to a table of educators. “I never checked because I don’t care.”

Before the event, the Department of Education released statistics showing that almost all of the participating schools said they plan to make changes in the next academic year based on their experience. How exactly classrooms will be improved—and to what measurable extent—remains to be seen, given the short length of the pilot program.

One English teacher at a co-located school in the Bronx said she had found it helpful to simply communicate with the schools she shares the building with. “Isolation doesn’t work,” she said.

Other educators said they were excited to have been given the chance to visit other classrooms, but acknowledged that it’s not always easy to apply the lessons learned, especially when one school has more resources than another.

The event’s celebratory atmosphere was in line with one of Fariña’s stated priorities as she shifts the department away from the Bloomberg era: to publicly praise schools that are doing well, rather than focus public attention on where the system is struggling. At Panel for Educational Policy meetings, parent town halls, and in emails to principals, she has noted schools that she says are flying under the radar but succeeding with students.

Fuentes, who oversees the Learning Partners Program, did the same on Monday night.

“Way to go, you’re so courageous,” Fuentes said to one principal. “That’s really brave,” she said to another school leader, praising his integration of technology into his school. (The principal, who broke his leg recently, also rolled up to the podium in a wheelchair and stood up to address the group.)

Much of what teachers shared had to do with school atmosphere and culture. For Grace Ballas, a first grade teacher at P.S. 159 in Queens, the takeaway was seeing real teacher collaboration at her host school, P.S. 503 in Brooklyn.

To better apply those lessons to her school, Ballas said she is planning to participate in a book club reading of “The Power of Protocols.” The literacy coach at the same school with Ballas, Allie Myers, explained that it could help teachers trust one another.

“Trust that their opinion matters,” Myers said. “That it’s OK to disagree. That it’s OK to take risks.”

At the end of the remarks, before the triads broke into groups to present what they had learned, Fariña joked with the crowd about the program.

“There is no pressure, but this is my signature program,” Fariña said, amid laughter. “I said, there was no pressure!”

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.