Rudy Awakening

Chancellor's District architect says his school improvement model is "dead wrong"

PHOTO: Geoff Decker
Former schools Chancellor Rudy Crew, second from right, expressed doubts about his old school-turnaround program on a recent panel.

The architect of the city’s “Chancellor’s District,” a school improvement initiative that flooded low-performing schools with resources over a decade ago, said Wednesday his much-debated approach was “dead wrong” and warned current officials not to repeat his mistakes.

From 1996 to 2003, New York City School Chancellor Rudy Crew grouped struggling schools into their own separate district and provided them with extra support, including new curriculum materials, more training, extra staff, and smaller class sizes. Union leaders have touted the program as an alternative to closing schools, but critics say more aggressive reforms are needed.

The initiative also shares similarities to the Renewal Schools program that Mayor Bill de Blasio announced on Monday. The administration has distanced itself from those comparisons, but Crew said in an interview that they shared a lot in common.

“[De Blasio]’s changing the day, the year, the way teaching will be done,” Crew said in an interview. “We tried to do the same thing with the Chancellor’s District.”

Crew said those changes are important, but he offered a grim post-mortem 10 years after the district’s demise. Asked to assess the model on a panel on absenteeism at the New School on Thursday morning, he said the city school system wasn’t set up to fix persistently low-performing schools.

“When we did this in the Chancellor’s District, I think the framework is dead wrong,” said Crew. The structure, he said, was too one-size-fits-all.

“Everybody got the same memo, everybody got the same dollars, everybody got the same requirements and then you were sort of off to the races to do the best that you could with what you had,” Crew added.

While many details remain unclear, the de Blasio administration is asking schools to tailor their plans to meet students’ needs.

The $150 million plan will flood 94 of the city’s lowest-ranked schools with an array of social services and supports for students, a majority of whom are poor and many who live in homeless shelters, are part of the city’s child welfare system and come to school without getting basic needs met at home. Hoping to convert the schools into so-called community schools, each school is required to come up with its own plan, which also includes an extra hour of tutoring, summer programs and an increase in guidance counselors, health practitioners and adult literacy teachers. If schools don’t show progress in three years, de Blasio has said he’ll close them, though he hasn’t said how he will measure that progress.

Crew’s comments were delivered just a few feet from Deputy Mayor Richard Buery, who’s charged with making sure students who attend Renewal Schools benefit from the flood of services. Buery said the city’s initiative is uniquely challenging because each school will be have to create its own process for serving children and their families.

“Every school, every family, every child presents a unique set of challenges. And so the question, I think, at the school-level becomes, do you have an actual strategy and a structure, child by child?” Buery said.

After the event, Crew said the success of the city’s new approach will hinge on setting concrete goals and partnerships between schools and with outside organizations.

“What will be different is how they not just name it, but how they actually collaborate with these community agencies and how they come to agreement about what the targets, what the outcomes will be, for the expenditures they’ll be making,” Crew 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.