chain of command

New school-support centers will help create consistency across schools, Fariña says

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña

When a visitor walks into a second-grade classroom in Queens, she should see the same sort of work happening as in a classroom in Brooklyn, the Bronx, or any other borough, Chancellor Carmen Fariña said Tuesday while discussing her recent school-system overhaul.

“One of the things I was hoping the reorganization would do is that you don’t go into a school in one part of the city and a school in a different part of the city and see a very different focus,” she said. “You need to have more consistency. You need to have more kids all on the same page.”

Fariña described her vision during a visit to one of seven new school-support centers, which the chancellor said will help create a more uniform school system by offering training and other assistance based on guidance from education department headquarters. The centers, which officially launched last week, are byproducts of Fariña’s school-system shakeup.

The new system, which put superintendents squarely in charge of principals and also established the help centers to assist principals, replaces a structure under the previous administration that gave principals considerable autonomy but left some feeling stranded with little support. Under the new centralized support system, all schools will receive the same high caliber of help but also be expected to reach the same high expectations, Fariña said.

That push for consistency makes sense, experts said, but it will be a heavy lift in a system of 1,600 diverse district schools.

“What she is trying to do is bring everybody up to a standard. The gap was widening when people were left on their own,” said Lily Woo, the longtime principal of Manhattan’s P.S. 130 who now runs a principal-training program at Teachers College. But, she added, “It’s much easier done in a system that’s much smaller.”

Under the old structure, principals chose from about 55 different multi-borough support teams, called “networks,” that helped schools manage everything from budgets and hiring to teacher training and curriculum. Now, principals will first turn for help to their superintendents, who will then refer them to one of the centers. Unlike the networks, principals do not choose their centers, they are assigned them based on location: Brooklyn and Queens both have two centers, while the other boroughs have one each.

The centers will act as a conduit for ideas from the chancellor’s office to flow into schools, Fariña said Tuesday.

Staffers at the new support centers will receive guidance from the education department, which they will pass onto schools.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Staffers at the new support centers will receive guidance from the education department, which they will pass onto schools.

For instance, the deputy directors at each support center in charge of instruction, special education, and services for English learners have been meeting with the education department officials who lead those divisions. The deputies will then oversee workshops at their centers on topics like reading instruction or special-education methods, which representatives from each school will attend, then train their colleagues on.

“There will always be a connection from the deputies to Tweed, so there’s one message only,” Fariña said, using the name of the education department headquarters. “This is not, ‘You decide what you want to do because you’re here, versus over here.’”

Under this model, superintendents are tasked with making sure principals get the help they need from the centers, and also that they are running their schools according to the city’s guidelines. With clearer instructions from the department about what should happen inside classrooms and during teacher trainings, superintendents will have an easier time supervising schools, said Kim Nauer, education research director at the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs.

“The giant philosophical change is that the principals now have bosses: the superintendents,” she said. “If you’re going to do that, you have to have some level of consistency in terms of what the superintendents are looking for in classrooms, and in terms of the supports they’re offering.”

However, the urge to standardize practices at schools comes with risks.

Former Chancellor Joel Klein — the same schools chief who created the network system that freed principals from much department oversight — ordered most schools to adopt standard reading and math programs. As Klein’s deputy chancellor charged with rolling out that initiative, Fariña was accused by some teachers of micromanaging what happened inside their classrooms. Klein eventually backed off that approach, and schools were later allowed to choose their own curriculums.

Nauer said that most schools could use guidance in certain challenging areas, such as adapting lessons for students with special needs, so it would make sense for the department to suggest research-backed practices. But it would be impractical to try to make schools serving different student populations adopt identical teaching methods, she said.

“This is a giant school system with all types of very different kids,” she said, “so I doubt you could take a single model of anything and make it work across the board.”

Fariña said Tuesday that she has no plans to do that.

She doesn’t want “robotic teaching or robotic principals,” but rather ones who make instructional decisions based on their students’ particular needs. And low-performing schools will receive personalized support, she has said.

Still, she recalled how as an elementary school principal she wanted sixth-grade teachers across the city to expect a certain level of preparedness from her graduates. With more uniformity across the school system, teachers today could have similar expectations of their new students no matter what schools they came from, she said.

“That’s really what I want to see,” she said. “I want to see more congruence and consistency.”

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.