Developing Professional Development

With 80 minutes of new teacher training each week, schools set out to see what works

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Principal Linda Mazza (left) discussed ways to spend the new 80-minute sessions with teachers at P.S. 295 in Park Slope on Monday.

After years of meeting over lunch and between bells, the city’s teachers now have 80 uninterrupted minutes every Monday afternoon to collaborate and train.

Committees at most schools are still figuring out how to spend the weekly sessions, which were mandated by the new teachers contract and are the cornerstone of Chancellor Carmen Fariña’s plan to uplift the school system. But some schools have already decided to set aside the time for teacher-led workshops on topics from technology to special education, education book clubs, viewings of peers’ videotaped lessons, and visits to other schools, according to interviews with educators at a dozen schools.

That diversity is by design. The education department released a “professional learning” handbook for principals this month with ideas for the Monday sessions, and the teachers union posted similar guides on its website. But beyond that, schools have been left to plan on their own.

“We’re making this up as we go,” said Genevieve Stanislaus, principal of Life Sciences Secondary School on the Upper East Side.

During a visit to P.S. 295 in Park Slope on Monday, city teachers union president Michael Mulgrew contrasted that approach with the “canned” trainings he said the previous administration paid outside consultants to develop and “force down everyone’s throat.” Fariña added that training is more effective when it’s ongoing and designed by people familiar with the needs inside a particular school — that is, by teachers.

“You don’t need to bring a consultant in who gets paid a lot of money to tell you what the best things are for your kids,” she told the teachers.

Chancellor Carmen Fariña told the staff at P.S. 295 on Monday that the best training is "teacher-to-teacher."
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Chancellor Carmen Fariña told the staff at P.S. 295 on Monday that the best training is “teacher-to-teacher.”

But the homemade trainings have also put a new burden on schools, some of which are further along than others in planning their Monday sessions. One principal said she personally created a list of training options after her staff-development team requested one. Judith Glazer, a teacher at I.S. 125 in Queens who is her school’s union representative, said she and some teacher volunteers were surprised by the work required to plan weekly trainings.

“It’s very overwhelming,” she said, adding that the team has decided to schedule the trainings one month at a time rather than for the whole year. (Fariña said Monday that schools could ask the department for planning help or partner with neighboring schools.)

I.S. 125’s planning committee asked teachers to choose from a list of training topics on an online form — including how to manage student behavior, lead classroom discussions, or teach students to “close read” texts — or they could suggest their own topics, according to Glazer. This month, teachers will be trained to use a new electronic grading system and a new literacy program.

Other schools are organizing study groups based on topics their staffers suggested, or workshops that will be led by teachers or outside trainers. I.S. 49 in Staten Island, for instance, invited mental-health workers this month to instruct teachers in how to handle the stresses of the job, according to principal Linda Hill. Still other schools say that teachers will work together during this time to analyze student work, develop course plans, or visit educators at different schools to swap ideas.

At Brooklyn’s P.S. 206, a team surveyed teachers to identify more than a dozen topics for peer-led study groups, according to principal Deirdre Keyes. For 40 minutes each week, teachers will read and talk about how to manage students with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or autism, ask deeper questions, and take full advantage of interactive whiteboards, among other topics.

Some schools, including ones with staggered start times, are not required to have the 80-minute Monday sessions. But the new teachers contract still encourages them to schedule regular trainings.

The staff at Queens Metropolitan High School, for instance, did that by voting for group meetings on Wednesdays and smaller, targeted sessions on Mondays, according to teacher Chris Fazio. One Monday option is a “teacher video club” where colleagues critique one another’s recorded lessons.

The new teacher-collaboration time has come at a cost.

United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew (standing) said that teacher-led trainings work better than "canned" ones produced by paid consultants.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew (standing) said that teacher-led trainings work better than “canned” ones produced by paid consultants.

Some schools had to start and end their days earlier, angering some parents and teachers who commute long distances. Schools have also scrambled to find new time to tutor students, since the weekly staff-development sessions replace time in the contract reserved for working with small groups of students.

Other schools adjusted class lengths to accommodate the after-school staff meetings. The High School for Math, Science and Engineering, for instance, shortened each class on Monday by 20 minutes, according to teacher Mark Hesse. Some educators have questioned the wisdom of that tradeoff and whether every school will manage to make good use of the new training time.

Without the mandated tutoring time, some teachers said they will try to pull aside students during the school day for extra help, while others said they will use more flexible after-school work time on Tuesdays for tutoring. Still, students will not get as much individual support outside of class as they did before, some educators said.

“Of course it won’t be enough time,” said Stanislaus, the Life Sciences Secondary School principal. Students “used to have four days [of tutoring] and now they have one day.”

Already, some teachers are worried that the Monday sessions could devolve from teacher-collaboration time into tedious faculty meetings or assigned-work periods.

Arthur Goldstein, a teacher and union representative at Francis Lewis High School in Queens, said he has heard of one school where teachers were told to create curriculum materials during that period and another where staffers sat through a long presentation on the teacher-evaluation system.

“I just don’t have faith that all of a sudden these get-togethers are going to magically become inspiring,” said Goldstein. His school is not required to hold the weekly sessions, and he said he’s received “precisely zero requests” from teachers to add them.

But during their visit to P.S. 295, Fariña and Mulgrew both insisted that the educator-led trainings would benefit students by raising the caliber of teaching across the city. Linda Mazza, the school’s principal, seconded that idea.

“If you help teachers better their practice,” she said, “students will be more successful in the classroom.”

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.