breaking

After turbulent tenure, State Ed Commissioner John King stepping down for federal ed job

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Former New York State Education Commissioner John King will take over for Arne Duncan as U.S. education secretary.

State Education Commissioner John King is stepping down to join the U.S. Education Department after three-and-a-half years leading the state’s turbulent and divisive transition to tough new learning standards and teacher evaluations.

King has served as the state’s top education official since 2011, during which time he managed the rollout of the Common Core standards and a new teacher-rating system that for the first time factored in student test scores. Both policies were backed by the federal government and many school-reform advocates, but they enraged many parents who saw their children’s test scores plummet and educators who felt ill-prepared for the sweeping changes. Even as his critics, including the state teachers union, called for his ouster, King defended the initiatives as necessary reforms.

King will step down at the end of the year and join the Obama administration as a senior advisor to Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

“I’m humbled and honored to have the chance to work with President Obama and Secretary Duncan,” King said in a statement. “We have accomplished great things for New York’s students. As a kid whose life was saved by the incredible teachers I had in public schools in Brooklyn, I’m proud to have served my fellow New Yorkers.”

King, the state’s first African-American and Puerto Rican education commissioner, was 36 when he was appointed to replace David Steiner, under whom he had been a top deputy.

He moved swiftly to put the new learning standards into practice after the state adopted the them in 2010, introducing Common Core tests ahead of most states and before many schools had updated their textbooks. The first round of Common Core tests last year caused students’ scores to plummet, and when the changes drew inevitable backlash, King proved less savvy at managing criticism. Last fall, he called off a series of public meetings about the new standards after the first one proved contentious, earning scorn from parents and the state teachers union.

“The disconnect between the commissioner’s vision and what parents, educators and students want for their public education system became so great, NYSUT voted ‘no confidence’ in Commissioner King last spring and called for his resignation,” the New York State United Teachers said in a statement Wednesday, adding that it hoped King “has learned from his stormy tenure in New York.”

As the criticism mounted, King was also losing crucial allies across the state. Gov. Andrew Cuomo backed legislation to untie student test scores from teacher evaluations for two years, something that King had steadfastly refused to support. And the de Blasio administration in New York City has proved a less willing partner than the Bloomberg administration, sparring with the state over its plans to intervene in struggling schools.

King has also criticized the city’s education department at points, especially for its enrollment policies that he said too often left schools with concentrations of high-needs students. While his strong support of charter schools contrasts with city schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña’s mixed views on charters, she has publicly backed King and the Common Core.

“It has been a privilege to work so closely with Commissioner King as we move our school system forward,” Fariña said in a statement. “I congratulate him on his new role and look forward to our continued collaboration.”

King’s departure leaves a leadership void at the state education department at a time when its direction is less certain. The Race to the Top education grants created by the Obama administration pumped millions into the state education budget during King’s tenure, empowering him to push for sweeping policy changes, but that funding is now running out.

He is the second top state education official to take a job at the federal education department in less than a year: Amy McIntosh, who oversaw teacher evaluations as a senior fellow at the Board of Regent’s Research Fund, is now a deputy assistant secretary. Two of the state’s deputy commissioners, Elizabeth Berlin and Ken Wagner, will manage the department after King’s departure, officials said, and a subcommittee of the state’s Board of Regents will launch a search for a permanent replacement.

The news of King’s move, which became public on Wednesday evening, appeared to catch some state education officials off guard. Sources said that King had not informed staff about the move and that an announcement was planned for next week’s Board of Regents meeting.

But King has been a favorite for high-profile positions outside of New York before. In 2010, when he was serving as deputy commissioner, King turned down an offer to take over as superintendent of Newark’s schools. King had also been tapped to join the federal education department before, an offer he also turned down because his tenure in Albany was young, sources said.

Before serving as state commissioner, King served as a managing director at Uncommon Schools, a charter school network and founded the high-performing Roxbury Preparatory Charter School in Boston.

King has deep roots in Brooklyn, where his father was the borough’s first African-American school principal. King attended P.S. 276 in Canarsie and Mark Twain Junior High in Coney Island, and he credited teachers there for inspiring him after both of his parents died before his 13th birthday.

“As a teacher, principal and policymaker, my goal is and has always been to give every student what Mr. Osterweil gave me — a classroom where they feel supported and inspired and challenged,” King said in April.

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.