added support

At a struggling Brooklyn school, having more hands on deck is helping boost student literacy

Students work on their reading and writing skills at East Flatbush Community Research School.
PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Students work on their reading and writing skills at East Flatbush Community Research School.

Every afternoon at a struggling middle school in East Flatbush, Brooklyn, sixth- and seventh-graders spend an extra hour at school improving their reading skills. But they can’t hide in the back of a classroom.

Instead, the students at East Flatbush Community Research School are sitting face-to-face with their peers and instructors. In one classroom this week, tutors worked with the school’s lowest-level readers in groups of four. In another room, eight students pulled out key words from a book (which on Tuesday happened to be about about a vampire bunny). Down the hall, the highest-performing students took an elective class focused on critical thinking skills.

The school is able to offer that intensive help because the adults working with the students aren’t all teachers. Many are tutors and social workers hired by University Settlement, the nonprofit partnered with the school through the city’s “Renewal” turnaround program.

That program is designed to address students’ out of school problems, which often go hand in hand with academic struggles. At Community Research, where just 8 percent of students passed last year’s state English exam, the school is using the partnership to focus on key academic skills themselves — and provide extra help for teachers, which Chancellor Carmen Fariña has said is another key to improving the schools.

“I want to see that teachers have a higher retention rate in our Renewal schools, and teachers are much more likely to have that if they feel supported,” Fariña told a group of school and community leaders during a visit to the school Tuesday afternoon.

University Settlement Executive Director Melissa Aase (left) and Chancellor Carmen Fariña visit a literacy class at East Flatbush Community Research School.
PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
University Settlement Executive Director Melissa Aase (left) and Chancellor Carmen Fariña visit a literacy class at East Flatbush Community Research School.

“If you have a second or even a third person, like a social worker or guidance counselor, in a classroom, you’re going to be like, ‘Gee, this school is giving me a lot of help, and therefore I want to stay here,’” she added.

The partnership between the school and University Settlement isn’t new. But the Renewal program has allowed the community-based organization to work more closely with the school, improving the work it has been doing over the last three years, said Tameeka Ford, University Settlement’s director of youth and community programs.

Now, Ford said, the group’s community school director will work with Principal Daveida Daniel to strategize about which staffers should work with which students based on their reading scores, and to decide what kinds of training the tutors themselves need. As the city’s 94 Renewal schools work their way through the three-year turnaround program, those community school directors play a key role managing those partnerships and often in improving attendance and even instruction.

Chancellor Carmen Fariña speaks with East Flatbush Community Research School Principal Daveida Daniel during a visit of the Renewal middle school.
PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Chancellor Carmen Fariña speaks with East Flatbush Community Research School Principal Daveida Daniel during a visit of the Renewal middle school.

Critics, and even some community schools advocates have raised questions about whether de Blasio’s Renewal program has enough focus on improving students’ academic skills or by improving what happens inside the classroom.

At Community Research, Ford said the Renewal program has allowed the nonprofit to focus on multiple approaches. The organization now has more resources to devote to helping the school engage with parents, provide meals and child care for families, plan weekend events, and find grants to subsidize field trips for students.

Principal Daniel said the school’s attendance rates have gone up since last year, and state test scores saw modest improvements from 2014 to 2015. Now, she’s thinking about how to make the nonprofit’s contributions, like the expanded literacy program, sustainable.

“We never want them to leave, but the reality is one day they might,” she said. “How could we do it if we don’t have funding? That’s our challenge.”

second chance

An embattled Harlem charter school that serves kids with disabilities will be allowed to keep its middle school — for now

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Opportunity Charter School

A Harlem charter school will be allowed to keep its middle school next school year, despite the fact that top city education officials have repeatedly ruled that it is too low performing to stay open.

That decision offers at least temporary relief for Opportunity Charter School, which has been embroiled in a dispute with the education department since March. The disagreement centers on whether city officials properly took into account the school’s students — over half of whom have a disability — when it judged the school’s performance.

The city’s education department, which oversees the school as its charter authorizer, tried to close the middle school and offered only a short-term renewal for the high school when the school’s charter came up for review earlier this year. The school appealed that decision, and was denied late last month.

But the education department is backing down from its position — at least for now. That reversal appears to be based mostly on logistics: A Manhattan Supreme Court judge has temporarily blocked the closure through at least mid-July in response to a lawsuit filed by the school and some of its parents last month, complicating the process of finding students new schools outside the normal admissions cycle.

“Students always come first, and given where we are in the school year, we will allow the middle school grades to remain open in 2017-18,” education department spokesman Michael Aciman wrote in an email on Thursday. Still, he noted, the department will continue to push to close the middle school in the future.

Kevin Quinn, a lawyer representing Opportunity Charter, said the city’s decision was the only responsible one, given that the school has already held its admissions lottery and made offers to parents.

“This is a wise decision by the [education department],” Quinn wrote in an email, “and [we] appreciate their acknowledgment that placement of this population at this time would be significantly disruptive.”

language proficiency

Educators working on creating more bilingual students worry new state requirements aren’t high enough

A second grade class at Bryant Webster K-8 school in Denver (Joe Amon, The Denver Post).

Colorado educators who led the way in developing high school diploma endorsements recognizing bilingual students worry that new legislation establishing statewide standards for such “seals of biliteracy” sets the bar too low.

Two years ago, Denver Public Schools, Eagle County Schools and the Adams County School District 14 started offering the seal of biliteracy to their students. The three districts worked together to find a common way to assess whether students are fluent in English and another language, and recognize that on high school diplomas. Advocates say the seal is supposed to indicate to colleges and employers that students are truly bilingual.

A bill passed by state legislators this year that will go into effect in August sets a path for districts that want to follow that lead by outlining the minimum that students must do to prove they are fluent in English and in another language.

According to the new law, students must meet a 3.0 grade point average in their English classes and also earn a proficient score on the 11th grade state test, or on Advanced Placement or IB tests. For showing proficiency in the second language, students can either earn proficient scores on nationally recognized tests — or meet a 3.0 grade point average after four years of language classes.

Although educators say the law sends a message of support for bilingual education, that last criteria is one part of what has some concerned.

“It allows for proficiency in a world language to be established solely by completing four years of high school language classes,” said Jorge Garcia, executive director of the Colorado Association for Bilingual Education. “Language classes in one school district may have a different degree of rigor than they do in another.”

The second language criteria should be comparable to the English criteria, several educators said. In the requirements set by Denver, Eagle County and Adams 14, students must at a minimum demonstrate language proficiency through a test score, or in some cases with a portfolio review and interview if a test is not available.

The three districts also catered their requirements based on what each community said was important. In Adams 14 and in Eagle schools, students must perform community service using their language skills. Students also have to do an interview in both languages with a community panel.

“Our school district team developed the community service criteria because we wanted our kids to have authentic practice in their languages,” said Jessica Martinez, director of multilingual education for Eagle County Schools. “We also wanted students to be a bridge to another community than their own. For example, one group of students created academic tutoring services for their peers who don’t yet speak a lot of English. Another student started tutoring her mom and her parents’ friends so they could get their GED.”

The state law doesn’t require students to do community service. But it does allow school districts to go above the state’s requirements when setting up their biliteracy programs.

“Thoughtful school districts can absolutely address these concerns,” Garcia said.

Several school districts in the state are looking to start their own programs. In March, the school board for the Roaring Fork School District in Glenwood Springs voted to start offering the seal. Summit School District also began offering the seal this year.

Leslie Davison, the dual language coordinator for Summit, said that although her program will change in the next year as she forms more clear requirements around some new tests, she will continue to have higher requirements than the state has set.

This year her students had prove proficiency in their second language by taking a test in that language. They also had to demonstrate English proficiency through the ACT. In addition, students did oral presentations to the community in both languages.

“Their expectations aren’t as high as mine are,” Davison said. “We’ll probably stay with our higher-level proficiencies. I do have some work to do in terms of how that’s going to look for next year, but I certainly don’t want to just use seat time.”

Meanwhile, the districts that started the seal are increasing their commitment to biliteracy so as many students as possible can be eligible to earn seals in the future.

The Adams 14 school district in Commerce City is using Literacy Squared, a framework written by local researchers for teaching students to read English by strengthening literacy in the native language. The program is being rolled up year by year and will serve students in 34 classrooms from preschool through fourth grade in the fall.

In Eagle County, Martinez said parents have shown such a strong demand for biliteracy that most elementary schools are now dual language schools providing instruction to all students in English for half of the school day and in Spanish for the other half.

Both districts are also increasing the offerings of language classes in middle and high school. The options are important for students who are native English speakers so they too can become bilingual and access the seal. For students whose primary language is not English, the classes can help ensure they don’t lose their primary language as they learn English.

Of Eagle’s 25 students who graduated with a seal of biliteracy this year, 17 were native Spanish speakers and eight were native English speakers.

“We want all kids to see their bilingualism is an asset,” Martinez said. “It’s huge for them.”