Priority Schools?

Classes have started, but some struggling schools still await clear guidance from the city

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Gassaway has attracted his share of critics, who say he has not done enough to improve the school during the five years he has led it.

The principal of Boys and Girls High School in Brooklyn, one of the city’s lowest performing schools, emailed the schools chancellor the week before classes started asking to see the city’s intervention plan for his school. As of last week, he said, he still had not received a final version.

At another bottom-ranked school, the principal said he and his staff crafted their own school-improvement plan over the summer, but are still waiting for official feedback. He said city officials have not shared any plans of their own with the school, even though the state requires it to have a three-year turnaround strategy in place this year.

School-support network officials “told me to be patient, that the city has a plan for priority schools,” said the principal, who asked to remain anonymous to avoid retaliation. “That was in February or March. This is the end of September.”

More than two weeks into the school year, principals of some of the city’s most troubled schools say they still don’t know how exactly the city plans to intervene — and that the delays will make it harder for them to turn around their schools this year.

In fact, the state ordered such struggling schools to turn in improvement plans by July 31 and start acting on them by the start of the school year. But the city has so far only submitted “placeholder” plans created by the schools, and has asked for an extension until the end of October to submit the final versions, according to state officials.

The delays and limited release of information have prompted questions about whether Mayor Bill de Blasio and his schools chancellor, Carmen Fariña, consider these schools a top priority and if they have a clear plan in place to turn them around.

“De Blasio and the chancellor knew coming in that this was a huge problem that they had all these schools that were struggling,” said Pedro Noguera, an education professor at New York University. “They put all their emphasis on preschool, but they don’t seem to get that they’re dealing with a much larger system.”

Gassaway said his school needs a well-thought-out improvement plan from the city, but "that’s the one thing that’s absent."
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Gassaway said his school needs a well-thought-out improvement plan from the city, but “that’s the one thing that’s absent.”

More than 90 schools in the city qualify as “priority schools,” a federal designation for the bottom 5 percent of schools in a state based on their test scores and graduation rates. Those schools must carry out “whole-school reforms” this year. Most of the schools have received federal grants to fund and guide those changes, but 29 that did not still need turnaround plans.

The whole-school reform calls for a performance review of the principal and teachers and the replacement of anyone deemed unsuccessful, more learning time for students, and a more rigorous academic program. Schools were supposed to describe those overhauls in their improvement plans, which the city asked for a three-month extension to submit.

Tom Dunn, a state education department spokesman, said the state and city are working together to make sure that next year the final plans are submitted and approved before the start of the school year.

Dunn added that schools usually craft the plans “under the direction and guidance of the district.” But the principal of the low-performing school that designed its own improvement plan this summer said it received almost no guidance.

The school’s leadership team filed an initial plan in June, then updated versions in August and last week, according to the principal. So far, the school has only received feedback on the budget portion of the plan, he said.

Meanwhile, the principal said he asked for extra money to hire a social worker, a math coach, and a reading specialist but got no response. Eventually, the school team gave up hope that they would get extra resources this year and designed their plan based on what was already available.

“We’re trying to rescue the school from priority status, so we can’t wait,” he said. “We’re trying to help ourselves.”

While those school-level plans are still being completed, the city has started to quietly roll out another intervention program for about two-dozen troubled schools. Some of the 29 schools that require whole-school overhauls are part of the program, which has been dubbed the “School Achievement Initiative,” while others are not.

Schools that are in the program have only been given basic information about it, according to principals. Meanwhile, new “school redesign” directors that are a key feature of the program only recently started visiting the schools to begin crafting customized improvement plans.

City officials briefed the leaders of the 23 schools in the program the week before school started. According to people who attended the meeting, the education department official overseeing the program gave a short PowerPoint presentation but said she couldn’t share copies of the slides with the principals until the mayor and chancellor publicly announce the program, which they have yet to do.

The program has “yet to be made transparent to schools,” one principal said, “let alone unveiled to the public.”

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.
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.

One of the schools in the program is Boys and Girls High School, a long-struggling institution in Bedford-Stuyvesant that is one of only two city schools to ever receive three straight F’s on its annual progress report. (The state considers it an “out-of-time” school because it has gone so long without enacting an approved overhaul, forcing the city to take even more drastic action there than at other struggling schools.)

So far the city has sent in two academic coaches and a former principal, who will act as the school’s redesign director, according to Bernard Gassaway, Boys and Girls’ principal. The school was also put under the oversight of a special superintendent who will monitor all the high schools in the intervention program.

The city also made the unusual decision not to send Boys and Girls any new students during the school year. Many critics, including Gassaway, have long said that struggling schools wind up with more of these “over-the-counter” students who often have greater needs than other students. It is unclear if other schools in the program will be granted a similar late-enrollment freeze — at least one other principal in the program said he had not been told.

Gassaway, who has opposed the city’s intervention plans for his school before, sent Fariña an email last month asking to see a final version of the school’s plan.

“BGHS is doomed to fail if we are expected to implement a plan in September 2014 that we have not seen since its first draft in July 2014,” he wrote on August 26. As of last week, he said he still had not received a copy of the final plan.

In an interview, Gassaway said the city’s delay would make it harder to improve the school.

For instance, he said he requested extra money in June to hire six new teachers with dual certifications in special education and other subjects. He said he only received that funding last month, after many teachers with those sought-after credentials had already been hired. By that time, he was only able to find two teachers with the dual certifications, he said.

“What would have helped this whole situation at Boys and Girls High School this year would have been a well-thought-out plan,” he said. “And that’s the one thing that’s absent.”

An education department spokeswoman said department officials started discussing a school-improvement plan with Gassaway and the school’s leadership team in the spring and continued to do so over the summer. The department has worked closely with Gassaway to identify and address the school’s needs, she added.

The city is taking a similar “proactive approach” with all of its struggling schools, developing tailored interventions for each one, said the spokeswoman, Devora Kaye.

“We are deeply committed to improving outcomes in all of our schools and ensuring that we meet the whole needs of each child and family,” she said.

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.