Back to school

This school year in NYC: extra guidance counselors, computer science classes, literacy coaches and more

First Lady Chirlane McCray (far left), walks with guidance counselor Rashida Sealy (left), student Chyna Huertas (center), Mayor Bill de Blasio (right) and schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña.

More than a million students flooded New York City classrooms on Thursday, the first day of classes for 2016-17.

In what has become a back-to-school tradition, Chancellor Carmen Fariña went on a five-borough tour to showcase the education department’s priorities and new initiatives. Mayor Bill de Blasio joined for a few stops, and made others on his own, to highlight the department’s Equity and Excellence agenda.

7:55 a.m.: The day started with a stroll to I.S. 392 in Brownsville, Brooklyn, with de Blasio, first lady Chirlane McCray and Fariña accompanying Chyna Huertas, a seventh-grade student, to school.

Also along for the walk was Rashida Sealey, a Single Shepherd guidance counselor who will keep an eye on Chyna as she works her way through middle school.

The Single Shepherd initiative is new this year. It brings about 100 additional counselors to schools in District 23 in Brooklyn and District 7 in the South Bronx — both of which have among the lowest graduation rates in the city.

The ratio of students to counselors in those schools will be 100 to one — a potentially heavy load in a challenging community, but still below the nationally recommended limit for guidance counselors.

“Sometimes, all it takes is an additional adult in a young child’s life,” McCray said. “The Single Shepherd program is going to be so helpful with that.”

Each middle- and high-school student in the targeted districts will be paired with a counselor who will do “whatever it takes,” Fariña said recently, to make sure the student ultimately graduates and goes to college. That means working not only with students, but families too.

“This is going to make a real difference for our school,” said I.S. 392 Principal Ingrid Joseph.

Students in Claudia Ramirez's third-grade class at P.S. 254 The Rosa Parks School in Queens learn the basics of computer programming.
Students in Claudia Ramirez’s third-grade class at P.S. 254 The Rosa Parks School in Queens learn the basics of computer programming.

10 a.m.: Claudia Ramirez wasted no time. Within the first hours of the new school year, her third-graders at P.S. 254 The Rosa Parks School in Queens were busy learning computer programming.

Groups of students arranged colorful sheets of construction paper in a grid on the floor. Under one of them, a picture of Superman was hidden. One student gave directions to help another move forward and backward, left and right, to find the hidden image.

Though the lesson was “unplugged” — students didn’t touch a computer or look at a screen — it was designed to demonstrate a basic aspect of computer programming: the concept of an algorithm.

“We are growing our kids to ultimately be programmers,” Fariña said.

Ramirez was trained over the summer in how to deliver these kinds of lessons and said the experience had an immediate impact on her teaching. Without it, she explained, she would probably be doing a simple get-to-know-you activity on the first day of school.

“As a teacher, you see the interest of students is video games, Minecraft and technology, and I wanted to get better [at reaching them],” she said.

The Department of Education is launching its Computer Science for All program in 200 additional elementary, middle and high schools this year, bringing officials closer to their goal of offering the subject in every school by 2025.

Schools Chancellor Carmn Fariña reads to second grade students at PS 218 Rafael Hernandez Dual Language Magnet School in the Bronx.
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña reads to second grade students at P.S. 218 Rafael Hernandez Dual Language Magnet School in the Bronx.

11:15 a.m.: Ronny Veloz was excited to talk to his partner. He had some ideas about why David, a character in the book their literacy coach was reading aloud, was making a mess in the lunchroom.

“Maybe because he didn’t wait his turn,” Ronny guessed.

Later the coach, Yokasta Sanchez, would coax Ronny to use complete sentences when sharing his reasoning with the whole class. It was one of the strategies that Sanchez was trained in over 15 days this summer before starting her new position at Rafael Hernandez Dual Language Magnet School in the Bronx.

The Department of Education has flooded Districts 9, 10, 17 and 32 — which have among the lowest reading scores in the city — with additional literacy coaches this year. They will support teachers by providing tips and modeling lessons to help build better readers. Their focus will be on kindergarten through second grade.

“They are not assigned to school to do coverages or be substitutes. They are there for one purpose only, and that is to be literacy coaches assisting teachers,” Fariña said. “And that is a real shift from things in the past.”

De Blasio and Fariña have set ambitious literacy goals for the city’s young learners. By 2026, they aim to have every third-grade student reading on grade level. When de Blasio first took office, only about 30 percent of city students were proficient in English by third grade.

Lucia Herndon, a seventh-grade student at Washington Heights Academy M.S. 366, talks about her college plans.
Lucia Herndon, a seventh grade student at Washington Heights Academy M.S. 366, talks about her college plans.

Noon: Lucia Herndon just started seventh grade, but she is already thinking about college.

On the first day of school, Lucia was in a college advisement class at Washington Heights Academy M.S. 366, thinking about careers she might want to pursue. She has already visited Barnard College and several others.

“I like the idea of going to a women’s college that encourages female empowerment,” she said.

After a pilot this spring, the Department of Education is rolling out College Access for All at 167 middle schools across 10 districts this school year. Designed to get students thinking about college and careers early, the program aims to eventually include campus tours for all middle schoolers, advising sessions like the one Lucia was in Thursday, and family supports like workshops on how to apply to schools.

“It’s really important to have a goal in your mind, and know where you want to go,” Fariña told the students in Washington Heights.

Mayor Bill de Blasio and schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña touted their "community schools" model at Port Richmond Community High School in Staten Island on the first day of the 2016/2017 school year.
Mayor Bill de Blasio and schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña touted the “community schools” model at Port Richmond Community High School on Staten Island on the first day of the 2016-17 school year.

1:45 p.m.: The day ended at Port Richmond Community High School on Staten Island, a community school that partners with organizations to offer students health care and mentoring along with family assistance like a food pantry and parent fitness programs.

“This is one of the things that really typifies community schools: The notion of reaching a child, every part of them, everything they need to excel,” Mayor de Blasio said at a press conference after touring the school.

De Blasio has made community schools a key feature of his effort to turn around struggling schools. There are more than 100 already throughout the city, and plans to add another hundred by the end of 2017. The model has been lauded nationally, though there are questions over whether the added supports translate into academic gains.

Achievement School District

Tennessee’s turnaround district gets new leadership team for a new chapter

PHOTO: TN.gov
Malika Anderson became superintendent of the state-run Achievement School District in 2016 under the leadership of Gov. Bill Haslam.

Tennessee is bringing in some new blood to lead its turnaround district after cutting its workforce almost in half and repositioning the model as an intervention of last resort for the state’s chronically struggling schools.

While Malika Anderson remains as superintendent of the Achievement School District, she’ll have two lieutenants who are new to the ASD’s mostly charter-based turnaround district, as well as two others who have been part of the work in the years since its 2011 launch.

The hires stand in contrast to the original ASD leadership team, which was heavy with education reformers who came from outside of Tennessee or Memphis. And that’s intentional, Anderson said Friday as she announced the new lineup with Education Commissioner Candice McQueen.

“It is critical in this phase of the ASD that we are learning from the past … and have leaders who are deeply experienced in Tennessee,” Anderson said.

New to her inner circle as of Aug. 1 are:

Verna Ruffin
Chief academic officer

PHOTO: Submitted
Verna Ruffin

Duties: She’ll assume oversight of the district’s five direct-run schools in Memphis called Achievement Schools, a role previously filled by former executive director Tim Ware, who did not reapply. She’ll also promote collaboration across Achievement Schools and the ASD’s charter schools.

Last job: Superintendent of Jackson-Madison County School District since 2013

Her story: More than 30 years of experience in education as a teacher, principal, director of secondary curriculum, assistant superintendent and superintendent in Louisiana, Texas, Oklahoma and Tennessee. At Jackson-Madison County, Ruffin oversaw a diverse student body and implemented a K-3 literacy initiative to promote more rigorous standards.

Farae Wolfe
Executive director of operations

Duties: Human resources, technology and operations

Current job: Program director for the Community Youth Career Development Center in Cleveland, Miss.

Her story: Wolfe has been city manager and human resources director for Cleveland, Miss., where she led a health and wellness initiative that decreased employee absenteeism due to minor illness by 20 percent. Her work experience in education includes overseeing parent and community relations for a Mississippi school district, according to her LinkedIn profile.

Leaders continuing to work with the state turnaround team are:

Lisa Settle
Chief performance officer

PHOTO: Achievement Schools
Lisa Settle

Duties: She’ll oversee federal and state compliance for charter operators and direct-run schools.

Last job: Chief of schools for the direct-run Achievement Schools since June 2015

Her story: Settle was co-founder and principal of Cornerstone Prep-Lester Campus, the first charter school approved by the ASD in Memphis. She also has experience in writing and reviewing curriculum in her work with the state’s recent Standards Review Committee.

Bobby White
Executive director of external affairs

PHOTO: ASD
Bobby White

Duties: He’ll continue his work to bolster the ASD’s community relations, which was fractured by the state’s takeover of neighborhood schools in Memphis when he came aboard in April 2016.

Last job: ASD chief of external affairs

His story: A Memphis native, White previously served as chief of staff and senior adviser for Memphis and Shelby County Mayor A.C. Wharton, as well as a district director for former U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Jr.

A new team for a new era

The restructuring of the ASD and its leadership team comes after state officials decided to merge the ASD with support staff for its Achievement Schools. All 59 employees were invited in May to reapply for 30 jobs, some of which are still being filled.

The downsizing was necessary as the state ran out of money from the federal Race to the Top grant that jump-started the turnaround district in 2011 and has sustained most of its work while growing to 33 schools at its peak.

While the changes signal a new era for the state-run district, both McQueen and Gov. Bill Haslam have said they’re committed to keeping the ASD as Tennessee’s most intensive intervention when local and collaborative turnaround efforts fail, even as the initiative has had a mostly lackluster performance.

“Overall, this new structure will allow the ASD to move forward more efficiently,” McQueen said Friday, “and better positions the ASD to support the school improvement work we have outlined in our ESSA plan …”

In the next phase, school takeovers will not be as abrupt as the first ones that happened in Memphis in 2012, prompting angry protests from teachers and parents and outcry from local officials. Local districts will have three years to use their own turnaround methods before schools can be considered for takeover.

It’s uncertain where the ASD will expand next, but state officials have told Hamilton County leaders that it’s one of several options on the table for five low-performing schools in Chattanooga.

transfer talk

This seemingly small change could make it easier for guidance counselors to send students to transfer schools

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
A guidance counselor at Bronx Academy of Letters

New York City is planning to make it easier to refer students to alternative high schools — part of a broader effort to remove obstacles for students seeking admission to them.

The change will affect the city’s 52 transfer schools, which are designed to catch up students who have dropped out, are over-age or behind in credits. Guidance counselors at traditional high schools will be able to electronically recommend up to three transfer school options for students they believe would be better served in different settings.

That change might seem minor, but it is at the center of a wider debate playing out behind the scenes between the city’s education department — which has indicated that transfer schools are being too picky about who they admit — and transfer schools themselves, some of which worry the new policy could lead to an influx of students who have been pushed out of their high schools.

“There’s a significant fear from transfer schools that these will essentially be over-the-counter placements,” said one Manhattan transfer school principal, referring to a process through which the city directly assigns students who arrive after the admissions process is over, often mid-year. “It doesn’t necessarily make for a better fit for a student.”

Unlike most high schools in New York City, transfer schools admit students outside the centrally managed choice process. Instead, they set their own entrance criteria, often requiring that students interview, and meet minimum credit or age requirements. The schools themselves largely determine which students they admit, and accept them at various points during the year.

Some transfer school principals say this intake process is essential to maintaining each school’s culture, which depends on enrolling students who genuinely want to give school another try after dropping out or falling behind elsewhere.

But city officials have quietly scaled back the type of sorting transfer schools can do, banning them from testing students before they’re admitted, for example, or looking at attendance or suspension records. The transfer school superintendent also now has the power to directly place students if they are rejected from three transfer schools.

Given those changes, some transfer school principals are wary of the latest policy, which will allow guidance counselors at traditional schools to electronically “refer” students for up to three specific transfer schools, and requires transfer schools to track their interactions with those students.

The city says the new system will make it easier to find the right match between schools and students. It will “make the transfer high school admissions process easier and more transparent for students and families, while also ensuring better tracking and accountability,” education department spokesman Will Mantell said in a statement.

He noted the city is still working on implementation and the change won’t will happen before spring 2018. (The education department currently doesn’t have a way to track how many students are being recommended to transfer schools versus how many are actually accepted.)

Mantell could not say whether guidance counselors would need a student’s consent before electronically referring the student to a transfer school, and could not point to any specific policies on when it is appropriate for guidance counselors to refer students — though he noted there would be additional training for them.

Ron Smolkin, principal of Independence High School, a transfer school, says he appreciates the change. He worries about students who have fallen behind being told they “don’t qualify” for a transfer school, he said. “That’s why we exist.”

But other principals say it will make it easier for traditional schools to dump students because they are difficult to serve, regardless of whether they are good candidates for a transfer.

“There’s a greater risk of pushouts,” the Manhattan transfer school principal said.

Transfer school principals also worry about the consequences of accepting students who might be less likely to graduate than their current students — a potential effect of the new policy. The federal Every Student Succeeds Act requires high schools to graduate 67 percent of their students; those that don’t will be targeted for improvement.

Some transfer schools have called that an unfair standard since, by design, they take students who have fallen behind. The state has said transfer schools will not automatically face consequences, such as closure, if they fail to meet that benchmark, but it remains to be seen whether that entirely solves the problem.

One transfer school principal said the city’s desire to better monitor the admissions process makes sense, but won’t prevent schools from gaming the system — and is being implemented without adequate input from principals.

“Our voices haven’t been heard in this process,” the principal said, “and there are a lot of reasons to distrust.”