getting started

Live-blogging the first day of school, the first under Mayor de Blasio

PHOTO: Jessica Glazer
A proposed amendment to a state law would let pre-K parents run for spots on Community Education Councils.

Chalkbeat is traversing the city to share scenes from the first day of school, the first under Mayor Bill de Blasio, whose ambitious pre-kindergarten expansion kicks off today. What’s going on at your school? Let us know through #backtoschoolNYC and, as always, [email protected].

4:30 p.m.: School visits are over, pre-K students have been picked up, and some teachers are heading home. At the end of his Amber visit, Geoff says Mayor de Blasio and Chancellor Fariña took up two issues looming over the school year: co-location policy and the city’s plans for struggling schools.

We wrote about the city’s plans to group 23 struggling schools and offer them intensive support yesterday, and Fariña said a formal announcement of that plan was coming soon. And de Blasio continued his calls for charter schools to share resources and best practices.

3:45 p.m.: From the pool report detailing the mayor’s last visit, to Spanish teacher Pruden Dajer’s class at Amber Charter School. Amber’s first day was Tuesday. 

Dajer asks the students to pick an adult in the back of the room to answer a question on the smartboard (“what color is this crayon?”) The game is rigged; BDB is selected. BDB says “brown,” it is the wrong answer. He asks the group of kids for the answer, a kid answers correctly and earns a high-five from BDB.

“You saved me,” BDB says. “Muchos gracias.”

BDB asks another kid to spell “brown” in Spanish. “I need the word” he says, then, realizing how it is spelled, says “oh – like the drink.”

“I feel like Dan Quayle,” he says, “I’m going to misspell potato.”

2:50 p.m.: Mayor de Blasio is on his way to the day’s last stop, Amber Charter School. Amber has positioned itself as one of the city’s “community-based” charter schools that formed a coalition to reach out to City Hall earlier this year.

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2:30 p.m.: On the first day of school, not everyone even has a school yet.

At the other end of P.S./I.S. 218, also known as the Rafael Hernandez Dual Language Magnet School, Patrick found a different line of parents stretched out of the building, looking to enroll them.

The school also serves as a registration center at the start of the school year and, on Thursday, it was packed. Still, it was less crowded than the center at nearby Roosevelt High School, where the wait was so long (up to four hours) that the city was busing families over to 218.

Jessica Robinson and her daughter, Nerriya Grant, walked from one of the Roosevelt buses to the back of the line into 218. Ahead of them, children nibbled on chips or rested on a bench, while their parents stared into their smartphones, all under the midday sun.

Nerriya, 10, had recently moved from Georgia to join her mother in the Bronx. Robinson said she was nervous about enrolling her daughter in the country’s largest school system, but believed she would do well.

“I want her to be herself,” Robinson said. “And to remember the morals I taught her.”

Before long, Tiana Rodriguez, 12, hurried out of the school past the waiting crowd, trailed by her mother, Liza Rodriguez.

Tiana had been admitted to the Bronx Writing Academy for middle school, but then the family moved to a different apartment and so on Thursday they were trying to find a spot in a school closer to their home. Tiana had her heart set on M.S. 244, where she has many friends, but they were told the school was too full. So instead, she was enrolled at P.S. 95, where she knew no one and which Rodriguez said had a poor reputation.

“There’s nothing I can do,” Rodriguez said, while Tiana stood off to the side wiping tears from her eyes. “This is where they sent her.”

PHOTO: Geoff Decker

1:45 p.m.: Chancellor Fariña’s third stop on her five-borough tour started off with some bumps, according to Geoff. The plan was to tour P.S. 69 in the Bronx, which Fariña said she wanted to visit because of its use of an Italian approach to teaching young children called Reggio Emilia.

But Fariña didn’t show it off to reporters, who were shuffled off after 15 minutes of standing in a hallway. The mayor was on his way, and city officials said the classrooms were too small to fit reporters.

Fariña did answer a couple of questions, a rarity for the new chancellor. She said that she had heard of no problems with enrollment on the first day of school, and defended the city’s inspection protocols for pre-K sites in the wake of a DNAinfo report that department staff had received just 90 minutes of training before conducting health and safety inspections.

“First of all, most places had multiple walk throughs,” Fariña said. “The Fire Department did the walk-through, the DOE did the walk through, the Board of Health. I don’t think we’ve ever had as many walk-throughs in New York City education department as we did this year, for very obvious reasons.”

The chancellor and the mayor are now more than an hour behind schedule, and have two stops left on their tour. The last stop is the Amber Charter School in East Harlem.

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PHOTO: Jessica Glazer
Abdul Ortega at Grand Street Settlement.

1:01 p.m.: Pre-kindergarten isn’t always easy. During his first day of pre-K at the Grand Street Settlement program, Jessica saw Abdul Ortega facing a decision: should he try a new kind of food, cooked carrots and peppers? He protests. He picks his nails, doesn’t touch the food on his plate. Drinks his milk instead.

This might be a lesson for another day.

12:55 p.m.: By 11:30 this morning, a long line of parents snaked along the sidewalk outside P.S./I.S. 218, a dual-language school in the Bronx, waiting for someone to unlock the gates to a side entrance. Inside, their five-year-olds were finishing their first day of kindergarten. 

Tyquasha Bell, 25, said she sent her son to the school so he could learn to speak Spanish, which one day might make him more competitive for a good-paying job. (The city has been steadily increasing the number of schools with dual-language programs, and the recent appointment of Milady Baez may mean more are on the way.) It wouldn’t hurt that he could teach her to speak another language, Bell added.
Finally, an administrator led the parents in to collect their children, and before long tiny students in navy blue and white uniforms came bounding out through the gates.
Catherine Rodriguez and her daughter Janelis at P.S./I.S. 218 in the Bronx.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Catherine Rodriguez and her daughter Janelis at P.S./I.S. 218 in the Bronx.

Catherine Rodriguez ushered out her daughter, Janelis, who wore a white bow in her hair and purple backpack decorated with fairy tale characters. Rodriguez said her daughter was well prepared because she had attended pre-kindergarten, where she learned the alphabet, the numbers one through 10, the names of colors and animals, and how to get along with other children.

The mayor’s drive to send more four-year-olds to pre-K makes a lot of sense, Rodriguez said. “I think it’s great.”

11:45 a.m.: It was a long drive to Staten Island for a short stop with Chancellor Fariña, Geoff reports. After reporters arrived at Marsh Avenue School for Expeditionary Learning, Fariña ducked into the eighth-grade classroom of Liz Bangles, who teaches music appreciation. A Smart Board at the front of the room read: “Essential Question: Why is music one of the most imaginative of all arts?” A song from “Swan Lake” was playing and the lights were off.

Fariña said she likes this school because of its “student-led conferences,” which mean students join their parents and teachers to talk about their work. The school trained teachers at other schools on the technique this summer. The chancellor also noted that the school uses technology skillfully, specifically its fleet of SmartBoards, which she noted could often be used wastefully.

“It’s becoming one of my missions not to have Smart Boards as a tool that just decorates classrooms, but actually works interactively with kids,” Farina said.

Mulgrew, who has effusively praised the de Blasio administration in the wake of the union’s new contract accompanied Fariña on the visit. It was his first first day of school as union president when Michael Bloomberg wasn’t mayor, and a change he seemed happy to point out. 

“It’s a new beginning for our school system,” he said, “and we are very, very excited about doing the work that we love to do, which is helping our children.”

11:38 a.m.: Ernest Logan, head of the principal’s union, will be at Brooklyn’s P.S. 11 and then P.S. 184 today for back-to-school visits. CSA spokeswoman Chiara Coletti said he wasn’t appearing with the mayor because he didn’t want to send a “confusing” message during contract negotiations. The city and the union are stuck on the issue of retroactive pay for teachers who were promoted to principals or assistant principals since 2009.

Kyle Brillante
PHOTO: Patrick Wall

11:25 a.m.: Patrick’s been hanging out at The Highbridge Green School in the Bronx, a middle school started by local parents. The school is going to feel the effects of a few de Blasio priorities this year—a growing after school program, and some changes because of the UFT contract—but the first thing on Principal Kyle Brillante’s agenda was orienting his new sixth graders. His report:

A few minutes after 8 a.m., Brillante strode into the cafeteria of the Highbridge Green School and found a field of green-shirted sixth-grade students softly chatting and fidgeting on the lunch table benches.

He may not have needed to introduce himself – while all the teachers wore green polo shirts, Brillante had on a brown blazer and green tie – but before he did, he asked the students to check to make sure their shirts were tucked in.

Then he launched into the Highbridge essentials: To offer praise, don’t clap, snap. School starts promptly at 8 a.m., but if you aren’t in the building by 7:50, you’re late (and tardy detentions start tomorrow). Homerooms are called houses (“Because,” a boy ventured when asked to infer why, “we’re going to be a family.”)

Next, Brillante shared the school’s goal for every student: two-years worth of growth in reading and math. “We’re going to push you probably harder than you’ve ever been pushed before,” he explained.

The students were allowed some questions (the answer to “When does the school day end?” – 5:10 p.m. – spurred some sideways glances among the students). Then they practiced their “level zero” voices as they lined up and headed to class.

As Brillante set off to check attendance, greet parents, and pass out cookies, he decided that his opening remarks before the new middle-school students had gone well.

“It’s like my State of the School speech,” he said, mid-stride.

Pre-K students at Grand Street Settlement on Thursday morning.
PHOTO: Jessica Glazer
Pre-K students at Grand Street Settlement on Thursday morning.

11:12 a.m.: At least some of the city’s pre-K students are already having fun. Grand Street Settlement, a community organization in the Lower East Side, added 18 pre-K spots this year for a total of 39 seats. By mid-morning, Jessica says one class was headed inside after some play time outdoors—as a few mothers lingered to see how their four-year-olds were adjusting.

10:38 a.m. After a roughly 45-minute press conference, city officials and the reporters trailing them are headed to Staten Island for the second stop on their five-borough tour. De Blasio and Chancellor Carmen Fariña are splitting up, with the mayor headed to a Catholic school that is offering public pre-K and Fariña headed to Marsh Avenue Expeditionary Learning School. 

Fariña delivered a stern first-day-of-school message to parents at the Brooklyn press conference. “One thing I want to say to all New York City parents is, this is your job too,” she said. “This is not just us.”


10:20 a.m. De Blasio’s press conference centered on his pre-K expansion and the impact he said it would have for years to come, Geoff reports.

“We know this will change the lives of these children. This will change the lives of their families for the long haul. It’s also going to change the whole school system,” de Blasio said. “You spend a few moments in that classroom, you see the future of New York City education. … All boats will be lifted as more and more kids are prepared.”

But the mayor did not ignore the rest of the school system, with its 1.1 million students and roughly 125,000 employees. He noted that the city is also preparing to launch new after school programs for middle school students; open new community schools that offer more social services; and allow some schools to make (limited) changes under the city’s new contract with the teachers union.

“A lot is happening right now, this day in New York City,” de Blasio said. “This is a historic day.”

9:50 a.m. It’s not just the first day of senior year for Dante de Blasio, the mayor’s son who attends Brooklyn Technical High School. It’s also his 17th birthday.

Here’s what dad had to say on the occasion, speaking at a press conference after his Inner Force Tots visit in Brooklyn:

“We’re having a lot of different feelings at once. The most important feeling we’re having as Dante’s parents. I woke up this morning, I said happy birthday to Dante. That was bittersweet right there because now that he is 17 that means it’s not long until he leaves the nest and that’s something we’re feeling very deeply today. It was wonderful to drop him off at school.”

PHOTO: Jessica Glazer
Janira Samaniego, a freshman at the High School for Dual Language.

9:37 a.m.: The de Blasio administration’s press release touting today’s pre-K launch is out, and it contains a few bullet points summarizing the initiative “by the numbers.” Here are the data points the announcement pulls out:

  • 51,500 4-year-olds registered for programs
  • 1,655 public schools and Community-Based Early Childhood Centers providing pre-K
  • 180 days of education lasting 6 hours and 20 minutes
  • $300 million in new pre-K funding
  • 1,000 new pre-K lead teachers
  • 6,000 inspections and site visits to pre-K centers this summer by the FDNY, health department, buildings department, and the Department of Education to ensure the safety and quality of every site

One number that’s not included: 9, for the number of sites that the city blocked from opening earlier this week because of safety concerns.

The press release also boasts pre-K plaudits from a number of elected officials, including Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and State Senate co-leader Jeffrey Klein. De Blasio lobbied the state legislators heavily all spring to win the new funding required to roll out his flagship education initiative.

9:33 a.m. The first day of school isn’t the only reason that VIPs are stopping by schools today. Former President Bill Clinton will be visiting the New York Harbor School on Governor’s Island to start the annual meeting of his foundation, which has funded the school’s ongoing project to repopulate oyster beds in local waters. The school, which serves many low-income students and was temporarily relocated after Superstorm Sandy, has long been successful at fundraising to support its maritime theme.

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PHOTO: Geoff Decker

9:31 a.m.: The shared press report from de Blasio’s Inner Force Tots visit has arrived, thanks to the single reporter that the mayor’s office allowed in with him and other officials. In addition to admiring the “fancy” spinning tops that children were playing with in teacher Norda Calder’s classroom, the report says, de Blasio also spoke with parents who were sending children to public school for the first time today.

“What does this mean for you personally?” he asked.

One answer, from mom Wendy Alexander: “It means the world.”

9:25 a.m.: First-day jitters are universal. “I’m nervous about making new friends,” Janira Samaniego, a freshman at the High School for Dual Language on Grand Street in Manhattan, told Jessica. At around 8:45 a.m., Janira stood under the scaffolding wrapped around her school, halfway down the block from where a large group of students jostled each other before heading into the building.

A friend from middle school would be in her first period class, so that was a comfort. Janira’s sister, in 11th grade at the same school, had given her advice, too. “Be nice,” Janira said her sister told her. “And remember where your classes are. Don’t get lost.”

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9:05 a.m.: Geoff is at Inner Force Tots, where Chancellor Fariña, Michael Mulgrew, and a slew of other officials are kicking off their day. It’s a scene, with reporters, parents and kids packed into a small entrance area. Parents have to sign in and then take their kids down a long hallway and disappear. De Blasio is visiting classrooms. Behind a curtain near a classroom where the press conference is, he’s hearing a lot of crying.

Meanwhile, not everything goes smoothly on day one. Louise Gibbons, a retired former teacher at I.S. 246, and the superintendent of a nearby apartment building were trying to figure out why a child with special needs hadn’t been picked up for school yet. The super said he had been there since at least 7:20 a.m., and by 8:20, “When I came out with my daughter, he was there. And he’s still there.”

8:57 a.m.: Ayatullah Hanit and Kristal-Mae Forst told Jessica that they were excited about two things this morning: seeing friends, and getting out of the house. They’re off to Urban Academy High School on the Upper East Side, where students complete projects rather than take state Regents exams to graduate. It’s a model that more schools are pursuing with the help of Urban Academy’s founder.

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PHOTO: Jessica Glazer

8:49 a.m.: The classroom visits are pooled press, so Geoff isn’t inside with Mulgrew at Inner Force Tots. Here’s one shot.

8:20 a.m.: Not everyone is thrilled for #backtoschoolNYC — or willing to say so, at least. On the 3 train, Geoff ran into some seniors from the High School for Public Service, who said they had no school supplies. Were they excited? “Hell no.”

PHOTO: Geoff Decker

8:10 a.m.: Things are getting started a little later than last year, when Chancellor Walcott was visiting a school at 7:40 a.m. But there’s plenty on the city’s plate today (and this year): pre-K expansion, the expansion of after-school programs and community schools, new school start times and more teacher training thanks to a new UFT contract, the continued rollout of the Common Core standards, free lunch for middle schoolers, more school space fights, and new parent engagement efforts.

7:53 a.m.: Jessica is on pre-K duty today. Seen on her way to one site:

7:45 a.m.: It’s the first first day of school under Mayor Bill de Blasio, and all eyes are on the pre-kindergarten expansion as 51,000 four-year-olds head off to school for the first time. Geoff is joining the mayor and Chancellor Carmen Fariña are on a five-borough tour today, with United Federation of Teachers president Michael Mulgrew joining for a couple of stops. Here’s de Blasio’s schedule:

8:25 AM – Visits Inner Force Tots and Hosts Press Conference (Brooklyn)

10:20 AM – Visits Sacred Heart School (Staten Island)

12:00 PM – Joins Students for Lunch at Journey Prep School (Bronx)

1:30 PM – Visits Home Sweet Home Children’s School (Queens)

2:25 PM – Visits Amber Charter School (East Harlem)

Fariña is also stopping by middle school classrooms at Staten Island’s Marsh Avenue School for Expeditionary Learning in the morning. And Mulgrew is joining Fariña at Inner Force, a pre-K program, and Marsh Avenue.

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.