consolidated ed

Why city’s unions aren’t fighting Fariña’s school-merger plan

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Chancellor Carmen Fariña speaks with Monique Campbell, the principal of The School of Integrated Learning, one of the city schools that will begin absorbing a struggling middle school next year.

Peace Academy M.S. 596 has struggled for years. Led by a rotating cast of principals and facing dwindling enrollment, the Clinton Hill middle school was nearly closed by the Bloomberg administration in 2012.

This year, despite a name change and yet another new principals, it’s in even worse shape, enrolling just 12 sixth graders and prompting new questions about whether the school should continue in its current form.

“It would have been a miracle to save that school,” said David Goldsmith, president of the parent council that represents the District 13 school.

Now, Mayor Bill de Blasio and Chancellor Carmen Fariña — who oppose school closures except as a last resort — may be close to doing what their predecessors would not. Peace Academy could be folded into another school, Goldsmith said, part of a new consolidation strategy that would merge some struggling schools with another school nearby that is helmed by a top-notch principal.

Fariña’s broader plan, presented in two interviews last week, would share characteristics of the school closures that elicited outrage during the Bloomberg years: A struggling school would eventually lose its name, its principal, and cease to exist. But the teachers and principals unions, strong allies of de Blasio that sued to stop Bloomberg’s attempts to close schools, say they aren’t distressed by the possibility of mergers, in part because relatively few school staff members would be affected.

“There are going to be some cases where this absolutely makes sense,” Mark Cannizzaro, executive vice president for the union that represents principals and assistant principals, the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators. “Some schools are just too small to sustain themselves.”

The Bloomberg administration closed large schools, causing many teachers to lose their positions. Under a merger, teachers from both schools would be expected to remain at the consolidated school, city officials said, and they would not have to reapply for their jobs. Those provisions could make the plans palatable for the United Federation of Teachers.

“We are discussing the issues with DOE,” teachers-union spokesman Dick Riley said.

Teachers whose positions are cut will be assigned to different subjects or grades than they’ve previously taught, city officials said. If the combined school ends up with duplicated positions, the least experienced teachers from either school will lose their positions, in accordance with union rules, Riley said.

School leaders stand to be the most affected by the mergers, because consolidating administrations means there will be two principals for one spot and an excess of assistant principals. But Cannizzaro said he wasn’t concerned because Fariña’s plans were on a “very small scale right now.”

“I don’t think, at this point, that we’re anywhere close to discussing [mergers for] all under-enrolled schools,” Cannizzaro said.

Differences between the Bloomberg administration’s approach and what appears to be Fariña’s are calming other groups that opposed closures.

For one, the small schools that appear to be at risk lack the large alumni associations that sprung to the aid of some schools threatened by the Bloomberg administration. (An exception might be Boys and Girls High School, but it’s unclear whether that proposal — developed by the principal — is part of Fariña’s overarching plans.)

Tensions could still emerge once the city releases the name of the schools that could be consolidated, or when the appear before the Panel for Educational Policy. No schools will be fully consolidated until the start of the 2016-17 school year, although some changes could begin next year.

And while the Bloomberg administration’s strategy of phasing out closing schools one grade at a time was designed to minimize disruption, in reality, staff members often fled and students were encouraged to transfer out, leaving a hollowed-out school. The new plan would offer fewer incentives for staff and students to leave, potentially minimizing disruption for students and parents.

If the two schools are already sharing a building, the city would be able to promise parents that their children would stay with their classmates and maintain relationships with many of the adults at the school.

“The pluses for our people, students with disabilities, are that they’re allowing the schools to stay in the same building,” said Lori Podvesker, a special education advocate and member of the city’s Panel for Educational Policy.

The city’s move to draw attention to the consolidation plan also provides political benefits. De Blasio’s plan to improve 94 Renewal Schools got off to a slow start this year, and his approach has drawn criticism from those who favored Bloomberg’s more aggressive approach.

“This is a struggling school intervention strategy,” Department of Education spokeswoman Devora Kaye said in an email, noting that some schools that aren’t struggling will be merged, too.

That framing gives de Blasio another talking point as he tries to make his case to Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the state legislature that they should renew mayoral control of the city school system and stay out of the city’s education policy affairs, though the plan has attracted attention from familiar critics.

“Masking the depth of failure by combining good schools with bad ones and diluting statistics is a move designed to shirk accountability and keep special interests satisfied,” Families for Excellent Schools CEO Jeremiah Kittredge said in a statement.

The mergers would also help solve a logistical problem that has emerged years after the city created hundreds of small schools that compete for student enrollment. Dozens of schools citywide, and nine Renewal Schools, enroll fewer than 150 students this year — eating up administrative resources in a system serving more than 1 million students.

Kaye said that merger plans are in the works for as many as a dozen schools, but the city has stayed mum on which schools will be involved. So far, the city has only confirmed that a merger is happening at two schools: M.S. 354 and M.S. 334, co-located middle schools in Crown Heights.

Goldsmith said that district officials are having “serious conversations” about a consolidation at Peace Academy, which like Boys and Girls and M.S. 334 are part of the de Blasio administration’s School Renewal turnaround program for struggling schools.

But school and District 13 officials are not eager to discuss those talks. Several options are still on the table for the tiny school, Kaye said, like changing its curriculum, revamping teacher training, or replacing the principal.

District 13 Superintendent Barbara Freeman did not respond to multiple requests for comment, and Principal Amy Rodriguez declined to comment — although her denial came through another principal.

“We are running our schools,” said James O’Brien, principal of the Brooklyn Community High School for Communication, Arts and Media, which shares a building with Peace Academy.

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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.