Anatomy of a lesson

In science class, award-winning New Dorp teacher turns students into investigators

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Theresa Dunlap Kutza has taught science at at Staten Island’s New Dorp High School for the past 13 years.

After class one recent afternoon at New Dorp High School on Staten Island, health and science teacher Theresa Dunlap Kutza was comically busy.

Buzzing around her room in a festive red sweater, the former nurse collected permission slips for an upcoming class trip to view a live surgery, thanked some students for creating the holiday decorations she’d asked for (photos of famous scientists in Santa hats), and fielded a reporter’s questions about the award she won this month for exceptional science teaching.

“I feel like I got an award for doing something I love!” said Kutza, who has taught at New Dorp for the past 13 years.

When Kutza first moved to the classroom after 17 years working in hospitals, she applied her nurse’s efficiency to teaching, making sure to cover the entire textbook each year. But over time, she realized that to absorb the material, students really have to do something with it.

So now, Kutza, who was one of seven city educators this year to win a $5,000 Sloan Award for Excellence in Teaching Science and Mathematics, has her freshmen handle real oysters and debate the best way to contain Ebola. In her neuroscience class, students study meditation and hypothetical zombie brains. And in anatomy and physiology, Kutza asks them to solve actual medical mysteries.

“She takes everything beyond the classroom,” said Principal Deirdre DeAngelis, adding that faculty and students alike celebrated when Kutza won the award this month, which also brings $2,500 to each winner’s school. “Everyone felt like, ‘You deserve it.’”

Chalkbeat stopped by Kutza’s college-level anatomy and physiology class last week, where students played the part of doctors trying to diagnose a woman’s illness based on a case study Kutza found in a magazine. Below are the highlights from the lesson, which came after a unit on cells.

10:28 a.m. Not one to waste time, Kutza started class promptly at the bell, asking students to describe in their notebooks different kinds of membranes.

That was followed by a brief discussion, where Kutza reminded students of the distinction between serous and mucous membranes.

Kutza helps student Nicole Blake-Ramsay during an anatomy and physiology class.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Kutza helps student Nicole Blake-Ramsay during an anatomy and physiology class.

“If you were to miniaturize yourself and walk along the mucus membrane,” she said, noting its porousness, “you’d be able to get outside of the body.”

10:41 a.m. Now they were ready to meet the sick woman in the case study. After Kutza reminded the students to take detailed notes like doctors do, she read them the story.

The middle-aged woman had lost consciousness in a department store bathroom, surrounded by a pool of bloody diarrhea, Kutza read. Paramedics found her heart racing and her blood pressure dangerously low. Later, it was determined that her blood had lost its ability to clot.

10:46 a.m. The students’ first task was to list clues they had heard. They noted that the woman took antidepressants and had been in good health before the incident, except for one time when she’d suffered similar symptoms.

They also ventured some possible causes. One boy suggested that she might have too few platelets, the cells that stop bleeding, while another said she could suffer from hemophilia, a disorder that keeps blood from clotting.

Kutza then asked them to decide what tests to order or referrals to make.

“You’re the doctor,” she told the students. “What are you going to do?”

10:50 a.m. The students conferred with one another, then recommended ordering a blood count, a colonoscopy, and an investigation into the woman’s

Kutza had her students try to solve a medical mystery that she found in a magazine.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Kutza had her students try to solve a medical mystery that she found in a magazine.

medication, in case it caused any relevant side effects.

They were on the right track. The doctor in the story had, in fact, conducted a colonoscopy, Kutza read, and it turned out that the woman’s medication was part of the problem. Now, Kutza told the students, it was finally time to diagnose the cause of the medical scare.

11:04 a.m. Before class, Kutza had cautioned a visitor that the students might not be able to solve the mystery. Now, she told the class that anyone who did would get extra credit on an upcoming test. She asked the students to deliberate, but within 10 seconds a girl raised her hand.

“It could be a problem with the mast cells,” the girl said, referring to certain white blood cells that produce chemicals that can cause low blood pressure and also stop blood from clotting. Another girl added, “She might have an excessive amount of mast cells.”

They were exactly right: The woman suffered from a rare disease in which the body has too many of those cells, and certain medications can trigger the cells to cause the symptoms the woman experienced. The two girls and the boy who had flagged the antidepressants all received extra credit.

“I’m really proud of you guys,” Kutza said. “That was good.”

After class, junior Noah Putney, who plans to study medicine, said case studies like that remind him why he should care about cells and membranes.

“You get to see how what you’re learning can actually apply to what you’re going to do in the future,” he 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.