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Cuomo seeks King’s ‘best advice’ on crafting aggressive education agenda

PHOTO: Geoff Decker
Commissioner John King and Chancellor Merryl Tisch at this month's Board of Regents meeting. Elizabeth Berlin, right, will take over as interim commissioner at the end of the month.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo is crafting an aggressive education agenda for his second term, and he’s asking outgoing Education Commissioner John King for his “best advice” about how to do it.

In a three-page letter to sent to King and Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch on Thursday, Jim Malatras, an aide to the governor, writes that Cuomo plans to “pursue an aggressive legislative package to improve public education.” Malatras then asks them to offer their own ideas about a variety of education issues, including how to change teacher evaluations, what should be done about the state’s charter-school cap, and what to do about New York City’s absent teacher reserve pool.

“How is the current teacher evaluation system credible when only one percent of teachers are rated ineffective?” Malatras asks. “How would you address the problem of removing poor-performing educators when the current 3020-a process makes it virtually impossible to do so?”

The scope of Malatras’ letter suggests that Cuomo wants to get involved in a much broader set of education policy debates than ever before. It also puts pressure on Tisch and the education department to produce specific policy suggestions as a leadership vacuum is emerging there, with King preparing to leave for the federal education department at the end of the month.

Cuomo has been increasingly outspoken in his criticism of the current state of the education system — saying recently that the newest teacher evaluation results do not “reflect reality” — though he has never been shy about his disdain for what he has termed the “monopoly of the education bureaucracy.” He has also often expressed frustration over the Board of Regents, a 17-member volunteer board that appoints the commissioner and controls policy.

In his first term, Cuomo has occasionally subverted the state’s governance structure by diverting funds or threatening to pull aid from districts to support his priorities.

But Malatras indicates that even more issues are on the table in the months ahead. He wants to know if King and Tisch believe teachers should be required to spend more time in the classroom before being eligible for tenure, for example, and wades into the debate over why the city pays the salaries of thousands of excessed teachers.

The scrutiny of teacher-protection laws also suggests that Cuomo is ready to take up an issue that he avoided during his first term. Cuomo declined to back a legislative effort in 2011 to end the requirement that seniority be the sole factor in layoff decisions.

The letter also ratchets up pressure on Tisch as she oversees the search for a new education commissioner. It asks if there is a better way to select the Regents, whose members are currently appointed by the legislature, and if there should be more transparency around the commissioner-search process.

In response, Tisch said she looked forward to responding to Malatras’ letter. She has defended the Regents’ governance structure and the hiring process for the next commissioner in an interview last week.

“I leave the politics to the legislature and the governor,” Tisch told Chalkbeat last week. “We have our own sphere. I think we stick to it and we do a pretty good job.”

Tisch also said that a secret search for the commissioner is necessary because many candidates are afraid to jeopardize their current jobs by applying publicly.

One potential change not broached in the letter is increasing funding for low-income districts, whose students receive less state funding than districts with higher-income students do. Critics say Cuomo has ignored the issue in favor an agenda backed by political donors who want to undermine public education.

“This letter comes right out of the playbook of the hedge funders for whom education ‘reform’ has become a pet cause and who poured money into the Cuomo re-election campaign,” United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew 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.