A Hard Bargain

Incoming Boys and Girls principal gets big bonus, option to return to old school

PHOTO: Courtesy of Randy Andujar/Teaching Matters
Principal Michael Wiltshire tried turning around Boys and Girls High School while still overseeing Medgar Evers College Preparatory School.

The veteran principal tapped to rescue troubled Boys and Girls High School will receive a $25,000 bonus for taking on the tough assignment, officials confirmed Tuesday. But in an unusual arrangement, he will still play an important role at the successful school he led for over a decade — and where he has the option of returning next year.

Michael Wiltshire, the new principal of Boys and Girls, has told parents that he will continue to spend at least 20 percent of his time focused on Medgar Evers College Preparatory School, the Crown Heights school he helped raise to prominence over the past 13 years. Chancellor Carmen Fariña told parents that Wiltshire will take on a new title at Medgar Evers — “master principal.”

“I will be there every day really,” Wiltshire told Chalkbeat, adding that he would offer oversight and input on important matters. “Medgar Evers is my heart.”

Wiltshire’s official title at Boys and Girls is “executive principal,” a position that comes with a $25,000 bonus. Former Chancellor Joel Klein established the role in 2008 as a way to draw seasoned principals to ailing schools, but the school-improvement strategy was largely abandoned just two years later. The prestigious position typically requires a three-year commitment, but Wiltshire appears to have negotiated the option to return full time to his former school after just one year, according to a principals union spokeswoman.

That escape clause, and his dual leadership roles — rare, if not unheard of, among school leaders — reflect the lengths to which the city has gone to secure a new leader for Boys and Girls, a school that netted three straight F’s on its school-progress reports under its previous principal, who resigned abruptly last month. It also reflects Wiltshire’s commitment to Medgar Evers, where he has earned acclaim during his long tenure as principal.

“That was one of the options they negotiated with him,” said Al Vann, a former city councilman and member of the Boys and Girls advisory board. “He wanted to maintain a relationship with Medgar Evers.”

A Department of Education spokeswoman insisted that Wiltshire is not the principal of both schools, and noted that an assistant principal, Angella Smith, has been named acting principal of Medgar Evers. But Wiltshire and Fariña both assured parents at an emergency meeting last Thursday at Medgar Evers that Wiltshire would remain active at the school as a “master principal,” according to a parent who attended the meeting.

Boys and Girls High School is one of the city's lowest performing schools, which received three straight F's on its most recent school-progress reports.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Boys and Girls High School is one of the city’s lowest performing schools, which received three straight F’s on its most recent school-progress reports.

Wiltshire explained that he would spend about 75 to 80 percent of his time at Boys and Girls and the rest at Medgar Evers, according to the parent, Tricia Mecklembourg. (He repeated that estimate during a meeting with Boys and Girls parents Monday evening, according to an attendee.) Fariña explained to the Medgar Evers parents that, “This has never been done before, so they are working out all the logistics,” Mecklembourg added.

“He’s definitely still at Medgar,” said Mecklembourg, a former parent association president who praised Wiltshire. “That’s his mission and that’s his vision.”

Caster Hall, president of Boys and Girls’ parent association and brother of the school’s outspoken ex-principal, said he was willing to give Wiltshire a chance in his new dual role. But he also hinted at the challenges the arrangement could create. For instance, he said he would refuse to refer to Wiltshire as “executive principal” in letters to parents to avoid confusing them, and would bring up Wiltshire’s option to leave after one year at the school’s next leadership meeting.

“I don’t want the kids to think that they’re going to lose him once they get to know him,” Hall said.

Wiltshire, a former Boys and Girls teacher, said his appointment would allow the schools to try out a new peer-support system. Medgar Evers staff could share their curriculum materials, help coach the struggling school’s teachers, and even allow some Boys and Girls students to take classes at their school, he said. That potential partnership echoes a proposal the city made in a recent federal grant application, where it said struggling schools would be matched with higher-performing “sister schools.”

“Mr. Wiltshire has proven to be an effective principal and he’ll continue to work closely with his former school community to share best practices and support where necessary,” said the education department spokeswoman, Devora Kaye.

As head of Boys and Girls, Wiltshire will try to reproduce the model that has enabled Medgar Evers to more than double its enrollment over the past decade while achieving a remarkable 97 percent graduation rate, he said Monday. (Boys and Girls’ graduation rate, by contrast, was 44 percent.)

The grades 6-to-12 school features extended days, Saturday classes, mandatory summer school, and strong sports and arts programs, Wiltshire said. The middle-school students study Mandarin and take some of the state exams required to graduate high school. Many of the high school students enroll in Advanced Placement classes — about 400 of the roughly 930 students took AP exams last year, Wiltshire said — and some earn enough college credits to graduate with two-year college degrees, he said.

The demanding academic program is made possible at least in part by the school’s admission policy. Incoming sixth-graders are accepted based on their state test scores and entrance-exam results, and the high school gives priority to students who attended Medgar Evers’ middle school. About 100 of this year’s 240 freshmen came from within the school, Wiltshire said.

Some parents and staff at Boys and Girls have already questioned whether that model will take hold in a school that accepts all applicants and whose poor reputation keeps it from attracting many high-achieving students. Last year, about 22 percent of Boys and Girls students had disabilities and 16 percent had been held back before. At Medgar Evers, just 3 percent of students had disabilities in 2013 and only 1.4 percent had previously been held back.

“A lot of our kids aren’t the kids he would have taken at his school,” a Boys and Girls teacher said.

Wiltshire said that when he took over Medgar Evers, the majority of students entered below grade level. He also said many students come from similar backgrounds as those at Boys and Girls, though he acknowledged that they often have stronger academic records.

How the city will measure Wiltshire’s success is unclear, since the administration has yet to release its plans for struggling schools. The state, which has designated Boys and Girls as “out of time,” expects the school to meet certain goals this year, possibly including increased attendance and graduation rates, Wiltshire said.

A state education department spokesman said the school will be evaluated on “a wide variety of metrics” and that deadlines to meet targets are still being worked out with the city. The state can order districts to close struggling schools that do not improve within a certain period, said the spokesman, Tom Dunn.

Wiltshire said he hopes to help the school meet the state’s targets and restore its status as a “premier high school.”

“It’s a steep challenge,” he said. “But I’m going to try my best.”

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.