What's the Plan?

As deadlines loom, city gives few hints about plans for struggling schools

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Boys and Girls High School in Brooklyn is one of only two city schools to ever receive three straight F’s on its annual progress report.

The red-brick colossus known as Boys and Girls High School has stretched out over a block of Fulton Street in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn since the 1970s.

Now, the school looms over the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio and his schools chief, Carmen Fariña, who must decide how to handle a historic high school that has watched its enrollment dwindle from 2,300 to 750 students in the past five years while only graduating about four in 10 students each spring.

Boys and Girls is one of many troubled schools that the new administration has pledged to help fix rather than shutter, in a direct rebuke of the previous administration’s frequent close-and-replace approach to struggling schools.

But after six months on the job, Fariña has yet to announce how the department will prop up the city’s lowest-performing schools — a complicated question that could involve tackling thorny policies around the way schools are assigned students, how support networks oversee schools, and when floundering principals should be replaced.

As she crafts her plans, she faces a state-mandated deadline to launch overhauls at dozens of bottom-ranked schools by September. In the first signal of how she will try to balance support for those schools with interventions, city officials recently submitted a plan to the state to put Boys and Girls and another long-struggling school under special oversight — harkening back to an idea that Fariña and a top deputy endorsed two years ago.

Still, even at Boys and Girls, the details of the city’s intervention plans remain a mystery, said Principal Bernard Gassaway.

“It’s wait-and-see,” he said, adding that officials so far had simply promised more support. “It’s very important that the rhetoric is matched by action.”

As of this school year, 119 New York City schools rank among the bottom 5 percent in the state based on their state test scores and graduation rates, according to state officials. Each of those schools is required by next school year to begin carrying out an approved overhaul, which can include a redesign of teacher training and the school schedule, replacing its leader and possibly some staff, converting into a charter school, or shutting down.

The city has already received federal funds to overhaul 63 of the schools, a process that under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg often involved closing a school and replacing it with one or more new ones. That leaves the city with more than 50 city schools where it must enact overhaul plans by September. (That number will shrink this summer as some of the schools close, lose their struggling status, or receive federal improvement grants, the state officials said.)

Of those schools, two — Boys and Girls and Automotive High School in Williamsburg — have been bottom-ranked for at least five years without enacting an approved overhaul. The state calls those “out-of-time schools” and ordered districts to use one of six intensive interventions to improve them.

The city’s choice was to create an “alternate governance structure” for the two. This will involve putting them under the supervision of a single superintendent and could include granting the principals more leeway to hire and fire staff, providing more money for professional development, and lengthening their school days.

Bernard Gassaway, principal of the long-struggling Boys and Girls High School, said the new administration's approach to troubled schools so far has been "wait-and-see."
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Bernard Gassaway, principal of the long-struggling Boys and Girls High School, said the new administration’s approach to troubled schools so far has been “wait-and-see.”

The city could eventually include more schools in this oversight structure, though officials said only the two high schools will be part of it next year. Fariña has insisted that she would not create a special district just for struggling schools.

But a plan she endorsed two years ago when she was part of a “school transformation” working group with Phil Weinberg, a former principal who now oversees the education department’s accountability efforts, does resemble the city’s new efforts.

That group rejected the Bloomberg administration’s closure policy, and called instead for a “Success Initiative zone” where the leaders at up to 60 struggling schools would adopt improvement plans, receive “targeted support” to enact them, troubleshoot problems with other leaders in the zone, and visit successful schools. The idea was for the city to spur reforms inside floundering schools without being too prescriptive, which was one criticism of a district designed for troubled schools under former Chancellor Rudy Crew, said Jon Snyder, who was part of the working group with Fariña.

“I think that’s the balance that Carmen and the Department of Education will need to strike,” said Snyder, a former dean of the Bank Street College of Education. “It’s about growing capacity — it’s not about mandating particular practices.”

With the plan for Boys and Girls and Automotive high schools in place, the city still must settle on interventions for the dozens of other state-identified bottom-tier schools.

The new administration is unlikely to choose to close any of the schools for now. De Blasio said recently that closure will only become an option “if we feel, after applying all the tools we have in a reasonable timeframe, that we can’t fix the problem.” One approved overhaul the city might consider calls for a school’s “redesign,” but allows for the principal and faculty to stay in place if they are deemed competent.

Still, many questions remain about Fariña’s broader strategy for troubled schools, including those that are stumbling but have not yet attracted the state’s attention.

For example, Fariña has said little about how she will approach high schools or how she might reconfigure the school-support networks that some say allow low-performing schools to slip through the cracks. She has also not indicated whether she will adjust admission policies to prevent certain schools from enrolling a disproportionate number of students with special needs or who are behind academically — a problem cited by Gassaway and the working group Fariña was part of.

The education department did not make Fariña available for this article. A spokeswoman did not offer details about the city’s plan for its struggling schools, but said generally that it would work with each school to identify its needs, then craft school-specific plans to address its “underlying issues.”

In his campaign platform, de Blasio said his administration would collaborate with the leaders of struggling schools until they are “deemed to be a failure.” At that point, he proposed sending in different principals with experience improving schools along with a team of seasoned educators.

But it remains to be seen how Fariña will decide which principals to work with and which to replace. Thomas Hatch, co-director of the National Center for Restructuring Education, Schools, and Teaching at Teachers College, said this is a challenge for every administration.

“For the most part,” he said, “we haven’t found the right balance between support and accountability.”

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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.