Back to school

Golf balls and goal setting: How four New York City schools aimed to inspire on day one

Dennis Jones, National Center for Higher Education Management

Will this year’s crop of students dazzle or dismay? Will the new teacher crack jokes or crack the whip? Will lunch ever come?

The first day of school brims with questions. The way students interact in the halls and answer writing prompts, how teachers decorate their classrooms and respond to misbehavior, all give clues about the coming year.

On Wednesday, Chalkbeat spent time in four different classrooms in the nation’s largest school system. From personal goals to flying golf balls, it was a day of expectations and excitement.

At a school for inventors, lessons on solving problems and saving laptops

Just after 7:30 a.m., Urban Assembly Maker Academy Principal Luke Bauer swung open a side door of his Lower Manhattan school building and greeted a pack of early arrivers.

Principal Luke Bauer greeted students as they returned from summer break.
Principal Luke Bauer greeted students as they returned from summer break.

“Look at all these makers out here!”

Now in its second year, the small school now includes ninth and 10th-graders, who yanked off their headphones, shook the principal’s hand, and headed upstairs. The high school was developed by the nonprofit Urban Assembly and grew out of the maker movement, where hackers and inventors build robots, gadgets, and other tools to solve everyday problems.

Last year, the school brought in software developers to work with students on the first day. But the staff quickly realized that new students are anxious to learn the basics, like how to get a hall pass or find the gym. So this year, teachers designed two days of orientation sessions.

In one early session, English teacher Alex Sosa taught a group of students about a popular note-taking system and asked them to practice by listing the ways books are organized.

Like most non-selective schools, the students had arrived with a range of abilities. At a back table, one boy said books could be sorted by genre or periodically. His partner didn’t recognize either term.

“I can’t even say that word,” he said. When Sosa asked the students to write what they were excited about this year, the boy wrote, “I’m excited what is in store for me.”

A student tested whether her team's straw-and-tape basket could catch a falling golf ball as teacher Gerry Irizarry (right) looked on.
A student tested whether her team’s straw-and-tape basket could catch a falling golf ball as teacher Gerry Irizarry (right) looked on.

Across the hall, design teacher Gerry Irizarry was explaining the school’s problem-solving process, which leads from discovering the problem to delivering a product.

The problem Wednesday was figuring out how to build a basket out of straws and tape that could catch a falling golf ball. To test the product of a group that called itself Basket-Robbins, a girl hopped on a desk and dropped a ball. It landed in the basket, and the class cheered.

A few doors down, special-education teacher Jared Russo introduced himself to the students in his session about laptop care. “I am the weirdest, craziest, most fun guy in the building,” he said. “But I’m also the strictest.”

As if to prove this, he dropped (an already broken) laptop on the floor to demonstrate what students should avoid doing to the laptops they each would receive. He explained that about 30 laptops were damaged last year.

“Some of them broke through kind of normal stuff that happens,” he said. “And then some of them were sat on.”

A challenge, and encouragement, from a teacher who’s walked in her students’ footsteps

At the School of Diplomacy in the north Bronx, Shamika Powell waited outside her classroom Wednesday morning for her seventh-grade English students to enter her room.

Shamika Powell teaches her seventh-grade English class on the first day of school at School of Diplomacy in the Bronx.
Shamika Powell teaches her seventh-grade English class on the first day of school at School of Diplomacy in the Bronx.

It is her seventh year as a teacher at the school, but long before that she walked the same halls as a student at the Richard R. Green School, which has lent its name to the building that now houses four small middle schools.

After the students got seated, fanning themselves with handouts on the muggy morning, Powell jumped into her classroom expectations.

Be prepared each day.
Work quietly and do not call out. Everyone will get a chance to ‘shine.’
Be respectful.

Next she covered some formalities, including the promise of homework every day of the year (which drew sighs). Then she dove into the day’s lesson, asking, “What steps should someone take in order to be successful?”

A seventh-grade student attends the first day of school at the School of Diplomacy in the Bronx.
A seventh-grade student attends the first day of school at the School of Diplomacy in the Bronx.

Students gave their answers proudly: “Work hard.” “Pay attention.” “Come every day.” “Don’t get distracted.” Powell told the class that the path they take now will help determine their futures and prepare them for college.

“This is your job. This is your form of employment,” she said, before adding that “as long as you try your best, that’s what really counts.”

In a timed writing prompt, students detailed three steps they could take to ensure their success.

“This year I will come to school as early as possible,” one girl said, “so I can be ready to learn and be prepared for high school and college.”

When a simple problem stumps his students, a math teacher digs in

Jasper DeAntonio was using every trick in the book to get his students to participate on their first day at East Bronx Academy for the Future, a combined middle and high school.

On the board was a math problem that his ninth and 10th graders should have mastered years ago: 4 x 4 – 4 ÷ 4. But when DeAntonio prodded them to discuss their solutions, he found few willing volunteers.

The fourth-year math teacher paced between tables and hovered over students in hopes they would chime in. After giving them a few more minutes to huddle with a partner, DeAntonio changed tactics.

East Bronx Academy for the Future teacher Jasper DeAntonio found that relatively simple math problem stumped some of his new high school students.
East Bronx Academy for the Future teacher Jasper DeAntonio found that relatively simple math problem stumped some of his new high school students.

“If more of you raise your hands, it’s less likely you’ll get called on,” he said, nearing exasperation. A few students slowly lifted their arms.

After class, DeAntonio chalked the slow pace up to students’ nerves, but acknowledged that he’ll be battling some underlying issues all year. Many of East Bronx Academy’s students come from nearby neighborhoods — among the poorest in the country — and enter high school far behind grade level in math and reading.

One girl he pulled aside explained that it was more than first-day jitters that were keeping her from participating.

“I don’t want to work because I am always bad at math and I’ll always fail,” DeAntonio summed up. “She told me that to my face — ‘I don’t have anything against you, but I hate math and I don’t want to do it and I don’t want to be here.’”

That mindset is what DeAntonio and his colleagues are hoping to change. Before jumping into the meat of the school’s Algebra curriculum, students will spend the first several days in what the math team calls “Unit Zero.” Each class sets aside time to dispel notions that students often have about math and reinforce the idea that math isn’t an inherent ability, but something you get better at with practice.

DeAntonio said his relentless pursuit of his students’ participation on the first day — he spent more than 15 minutes trying to get them involved — was about establishing the expectation that no student would escape tough problems in his class.

“Now they know that I’m going to come around and ask them,” DeAntonio said.

At the end of a long day, students find ‘brain goals,’ ‘heart goals,’ and Yoda

Before the final period of the year’s first day, Alex Corbitt stood outside his seventh-grade English classroom inside the Bronx School for Young Leaders and greeted his last group of new students.

Bronx School for Young Leaders teacher Alex Corbitt tried to balance toughness and tenderness on the first day.
Bronx School for Young Leaders teacher Alex Corbitt tried to balance toughness and tenderness on the first day.

He knew the group, called 703, was tired and hungry (the school does not serve lunch until nearly 2 p.m.), and he’d heard that it contained more than a few troublemakers. Still, he was determined to follow Principal Serapha Cruz’s advice to her staff to balance toughness and tenderness on day one so that students would expect to work hard but also have fun at school.

“Alright 703, my name is Mr. Corbitt,” he told the line of students in the hallway. “I’ll talk to you more when you get inside.”

Inside, Corbitt asked them to create name cards and, on the back, to write the cell phone number of a loved one he could call whenever they did something praiseworthy. He waited until the class was silent, then he explained that every day they would have a “brain goal” having to do with English, and a matching “heart goal” meant to develop their character. He asked a girl what a heart goal might be.

“Let’s say you have anger,” she said. “A heart goal helps you get rid of that anger and be prepared to learn.”

Now it was time to tell them about himself. Cruz tells her teachers to ignore the old adage to avoid smiling in front of students before winter break; instead, they should open up and show the students they care. A third-year teacher, Corbitt had already seemed to master that concept.

He pointed to a whiteboard with a photo of him along with symbols of his interests: a guitar, a football, Yoda from “Star Wars.” A stock photo of students had the caption, “I’ve got your back,” which Corbitt said meant that they could seek his help with academics or “seventh-grade drama.”

Then he took students’ questions: Did he dye his beard? (No, it’s red because he’s Irish.) How old is he? (25.) Did he know he wanted to be a teacher when he was their age? (Nope. “That’s the crazy thing about life — you never know what’s going to happen next!”)

Corbitt showed a video of last year's seventh-grade class to inspire his new students.
Corbitt showed a video of last year’s seventh-grade class to inspire his new students.

Corbitt had learned that students digest rules and procedures best when they’re embedded in activities, so next he explained how to listen closely to peers by having them share details about themselves. Whenever they got off track, Corbitt crossed his arms and waited stoically, until the class fell silent.

Finally, it was time for the grand finale. Corbitt had produced a highlight reel of videos of last year’s 7th graders. On his iPhone, he’d captured them working diligently in class, conducting a mock trial, and swimming during a class camping trip.

“The eighth graders now, when they were in your desks, they worked 150 percent,” he said before starting the video. “But guess what’s kind of cool: Every year the students get better and work harder and achieve more.”

Then he played the video and the students were transfixed. As they lined up for lunch, they all looked excited for day two.

money matters

Report: Trump education budget would create a Race to the Top for school choice

PHOTO: Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead
President Donald Trump and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos participate in a tour of Saint Andrews Catholic in Orlando, Florida.

The Trump administration appears to be going ahead with a $1 billion effort to push districts to allow school choice, according to a report in the Washington Post.

The newspaper obtained what appears to be an advance version of the administration’s education budget, set for release May 23. The budget documents reflect more than $10 billion in cuts, many of which were included in the budget proposal that came out in March, according to the Post’s report. They include cuts to after-school programs for poor students, teacher training, and more:

… a $15 million program that provides child care for low-income parents in college; a $27 million arts education program; two programs targeting Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian students, totaling $65 million; two international education and foreign language programs, $72 million; a $12 million program for gifted students; and $12 million for Special Olympics education programs.

Other programs would not be eliminated entirely, but would be cut significantly. Those include grants to states for career and technical education, which would lose $168 million, down 15 percent compared to current funding; adult basic literacy instruction, which would lose $96 million (down 16 percent); and Promise Neighborhoods, an Obama-era initiative meant to build networks of support for children in needy communities, which would lose $13 million (down 18 percent).

The documents also shed some light on how the administration plans to encourage school choice. The March proposal said the administration would spend $1 billion to encourage districts to switch to “student-based budgeting,” or letting funds flow to students rather than schools.

The approach is considered essential for school choice to thrive. Yet the mechanics of the Trump administration making it happen are far from obvious, as we reported in March:

There’s a hitch in the budget proposal: Federal law spells out exactly how Title I funds must be distributed, through funding formulas that sends money to schools with many poor students.

“I do not see a legal way to spend a billion dollars on an incentive for weighted student funding through Title I,” said Nora Gordon, an associate professor of public policy at Georgetown University. “I think that would have to be a new competitive program.”

There are good reasons for the Trump administration not to rush into creating a program in which states compete for new federal funds, though. … Creating a new program would open the administration to criticism of overreach — which the Obama administration faced when it used the Race to the Top competition to get states to adopt its priorities.

It’s unclear from the Post’s report how the Trump administration is handling Gordon’s concerns. But the Post reports that the administration wants to use a competitive grant program — which it’s calling Furthering Options for Children to Unlock Success, or FOCUS — to redistribute $1 billion in Title I funds for poor students. That means the administration decided that an Obama-style incentive program is worth the potential risks.

The administration’s budget request would have to be fulfilled by Congress, so whether any of the cuts or new programs come to pass is anyone’s guess. Things are not proceeding normally in Washington, D.C., right now.

By the numbers

After reshaping itself to combat declining interest, Teach For America reports a rise in applications

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Memphis corps members of Teach For America participate in a leadership summit in last August.

Teach for America says its application numbers jumped by a significant number this year, reversing a three-year trend of declining interest in the program.

The organization’s CEO said in a blog post this week that nearly 49,000 people applied for the 2017 program, which places college graduates in low-income schools across the country after summer training — up from just 37,000 applicants last year.

“After three years of declining recruitment, our application numbers spiked this year, and we’re in a good position to meet our goals for corps size, maintaining the same high bar for admission that we always have,” Elisa Villanueva Beard wrote. The post was reported by Politico on Wednesday.

The news comes after significant shake-ups at the organization. One of TFA’s leaders left in late 2015, and the organization slashed its national staff by 15 percent last year. As applications fell over the last several years, it downsized in places like New York City and Memphis, decentralized its operations, and shifted its focus to attracting a more diverse corps with deeper ties to the locations where the program places new teachers. 

This year’s application numbers are still down from 2013, when 57,000 people applied for a position. But Villanueva Beard said the changes were working, and that “slightly more than half of 2017 applicants identify as a person of color.”