peace in the space wars

School space group offers path forward for de Blasio on co-locations

PHOTO: Jackie Schechter

Collaboration, transparency and students with disabilities are the themes of a long-awaited report from a diverse group of education experts convened to advise the de Blasio administration on how schools should share space.

The new report offers dozens of recommendations and strategies for how schools can better share space within a building. It calls for more public involvement during the planning period, suggests that schools in the same building share main offices or faculty work rooms, and says “bad neighbors” in a building should be monitored and arbiters dispatched to settle intractable disputes.

But the report is less a playbook for the de Blasio administration to use than a 13-page mission statement. And it warns that the “most urgent” school space issues — overcrowding and the presence of classroom trailers — have yet to be fully addressed. Requirements to provide facilities for new and expanding charter schools and plans to add 2,000 prekindergarten classrooms next year will further stretch the city’s capacity.

Co-locations incite some of the city’s fiercest education battles because they force schools to share auditoriums and cafeterias and divvy up the building’s classrooms and offices. Two of three city schools share space, but often the most contentious co-locations involve district and charter schools placed in the same building.

It is now the city’s decision whether to turn the group’s recommendations into system-wide regulations or simply guidelines that different schools in the same building are encouraged to follow. Even if the city does create new space-sharing rules, though, charter schools in public buildings will not necessarily be bound by them since they are exempt from most rules covering district schools.

“One of the big concerns is that charters aren’t technically obligated to follow” the recommendations, said Miriam Aristy-Farer, president of the community education council in Manhattan’s District 6 and a member of the advisory group that wrote the report, in an interview last month. “We could have all these great recommendations, but it’s up to them whether to follow them or not.”

The report suggests shorter and more concise explanations of how schools will be affected by changes, and make them available in more than just English and Spanish. It also asks that officials no longer sit silently and take notes at heated community meetings but instead respond to concerns directly.

Schools that share space should be given additional resources to coordinate schedules so that problems like extremely early and late lunch periods could be avoided, the report suggests. It also advises the city to provide examples of successful school schedules and continue to encourage schools to share Advanced Placement courses, foreign language programs, and joint extracurricular activities.

The report acknowledges that some co-location situations are more tense than others. It recommends the city create a system to monitor “high-risk co-locations” when one school is viewed as a “bad neighbor” because it resists collaboration or criticizes a school with which it shares space. When school leadership teams are unable to settle a dispute between themselves, the report also recommends that the city appoint an independent arbiter to resolve the impasses.

The report also suggests that the city should minimize changes that would uproot programs with students with severe special needs, an issue at the heart of a springtime scuffle over space at one of the schools where de Blasio nixed a space-sharing plan. Future plans should also set aside space specifically for mental health services, a nod to the de Blasio administration’s community schools initiative.

City Hall and the education department have already promised a number of reforms to the space-sharing process. Those included school walkthroughs by department officials when new co-locations are being considered, more public hearings before final co-location votes, and “campus squads” that will be dispatched to buildings with multiple schools to help resolve disputes.

The report’s release comes at a challenging moment for the de Blasio administration, which will have to quickly find space for at least four new charter schools as a result of new legislation. How the city handles that contentious process will be the first major test of the administration’s commitment to transparency and community involvement.

That law puts the city in bind: Many schools were already packed to the brim before de Blasio introduced his signature pre-kindergarten expansion and his plan to locate more service providers in schools, both of which absorb space. The new law says the city must find even more space in its cramped buildings for charter schools, or pay for more-expensive private locations.

“This law will have at least some, possibly significant, impact on space availability going forward,” Buery and Fariña wrote in their introduction to the new report.

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.