MERGE AHEAD

School merger proposal would cap long struggle for STEM Institute in Harlem

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
The city Department of Education has proposed merging P.S. 241 the STEM Institute of Manhattan into P.S. 76 A. Philip Randolph, about eight blocks away in Harlem.

Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña is making good on her promise to consolidate the city’s smallest and lowest-performing schools.

The city Department of Education is proposing a school merger that will fold the tiny P.S. 241 STEM Institute of Manhattan into P.S. 76 A. Philip Randolph, about eight blocks away in Harlem.

If the plan moves ahead, it will end STEM Institute’s long fight to keep its doors open as enrollment at the elementary school has hovered around 100 students. It could also play into a contentious battle to redraw school boundaries on the Upper West Side.

The STEM Institute has struggled on state tests, with only 8 percent of students scoring proficient in math last year. It serves a high-needs population: almost 40 percent of students have disabilities. The school has also had difficulty attracting students, even after landing a multi-million dollar federal grant in 2010 to start a magnet program focusing on science, technology, engineering and math.

P.S. 76’s state test results are comparable to STEM’s. But its enrollment was five times higher last year, and the school has its own building — unlike STEM, which shares its space with two charter schools.

Chancellor Fariña has embraced consolidations as a way to save money on staffing and spend more on services for students. Department spokeswoman Devora Kaye said the consolidation would allow more students to benefit from P.S. 76’s partnership with the Harlem Children’s Zone, and lead to more arts programming for students and more training for teachers.

But the merger plan is also an acknowledgement that the high-profile magnet grant — and some small enrollment gains in recent years — weren’t enough to keep STEM Institute afloat. Kaye said that school’s curriculum would transfer to P.S. 76.

The district superintendent has begun meetings with staff at both schools, and parents will be informed of the proposal on Tuesday, Kaye said in an email. The merger will also require approval from the Panel for Educational Policy.

“Each school consolidation involves an individualized approach,” Kaye wrote. “The goal is always to provide a strong learning environment and expanded resources to best serve all students.”

The news comes at the tail end of a separate rezoning process that has dragged on for more than a year in District 3, which encompasses the Upper West Side and a portion of Harlem. Families, school leaders and the Community Education Council have debated the best way to redraw zone lines to reduce overcrowding and boost student diversity at a handful of schools in the district’s southern end.

So far, none of those proposals affect schools north of 110th Street.

With the merger now on the table, CEC President Joe Fiordaliso said the city should rework those rezoning plans to include the STEM Institute.

“Parents for [P.S.] 241 need and deserve to know where their children will be zoned,” he said.

That would be an extraordinarily tight timeline for engagement with families further uptown, given that the city is expected to present a final draft proposal for the Upper West Side’s rezoning on Wednesday and the CEC is scheduled to cast an up-or-down vote on Nov. 9.

Kaye said the department would “work with the CEC to address zoning issues raised by this potential consolidation.” City planning officials have indicated at recent meetings that they do not want to delay a decision on the Upper West Side plan.

As students lined up to buy after-school empanadas on Monday, a handful of parents said they had not heard about the possibility of a merger between the STEM Institute and P.S. 76.

One parent, Luis Diaz, said he had been impressed with STEM Institute, especially a partnership with a local community center that offers tutoring.

“So far, the school has been good,” said Diaz, who has two daughters at the school.

What's your education story?

How this teacher went from so nervous her “voice was cracking” to a policy advocate

PHOTO: Provided
Jean Russell

Jean Russell is on sabbatical from her work as a literacy coach at Haverhill Elementary School in Fort Wayne after being named the 2016 Indiana Teacher of the Year. Her work as 2016 Indiana Teacher of the Year ignited her interest in education policy, and she is in the first cohort of TeachPlus statewide policy fellows. Nineteen other teachers from urban, suburban and rural areas are also members of the class. Below is Russell’s story condensed and lightly edited for clarity. For more stories from parents, students and educators, see our “What’s Your Education Story?” occasional series.

When I started this January as the 2016 Indiana Teacher of the Year, my overarching goal for my year of service is to focus on recruitment and retention of great teachers. One of the things that came up was the opportunity to serve on the ISTEP alternative assessment panel. (The committee was charged with choosing a replacement for the state’s exam.)

I definitely felt like that was something that is affecting recruitment and retention of great teachers in Indiana, and yet I was reticent about whether or not I was equipped to really be a part of that and to be a helpful voice at the table because policy is not something in my 26 years of teaching that I’ve had anything to do with before this.

The first couple of times that I went to those meetings, I like I just was out of my league, and I didn’t really feel like there was much I could contribute. And I think it was the third meeting, there came a point where a couple of people were saying things where I just felt like having the inside-the-classroom, in-the-trenches voice would really help the conversation.

I was so nervous. I remember, I was shaking, and my voice was cracking. The meetings were in the House of Representatives, so I had to push the button and lean into the microphone, and I’m like, “Hi, I’m Jean Russell.”

But I said what I knew, “I’ve been giving this test for 25 years and these are my experiences, and this is what I think.” I think the biggest surprise in that moment — I won’t ever forget that moment — was that they listened. And I knew that because they were asking good follow-up questions and making references back to what I had said. It sort of became a part of that conversation for that meeting. I never became very outspoken, but I think at that point, I realized that there is most assuredly a time when teacher voice at the table is important to decision making.

I feel like the four walls of my classroom just blew down, and suddenly I realized how many stakeholders there are in my little classroom, in my little hallway, in my little school.

(In the past, policy) just did not make my radar. I think I just felt like, nobody was really interested in what I thought. The work of the classroom is so intense and there’s such a sense of urgency every day to move everybody forward that this broader idea of education, I think I just thought it was something that happened to you and you just work within those parameters. For the first time in 26 years, I’m realizing that that’s not necessarily the case.

First Person

It’s time to retire the myth that any counselor can do the job alone — even at a tiny school

A few of the author's students who graduated last year.

I waited five years to get my dream job as a counselor in a New York City public school. After all of that waiting, I was full of ideas about how I would be able to use my experience to help students navigate what can be an overwhelming few years.

I wanted to make our school counseling more individualized and full of innovative support mechanisms. I wanted our guidance department to be a place that anyone could leave with a grand plan.

A few months into that first year, in fall 2015, it was clear that my vision would be, to put it bluntly, impossible to achieve.

When I received my position at a Harlem high school in District 5, I was assigned to not only take on the responsibilities of a school counselor, but also to act as the college advisor, assign (and then frequently re-shuffle) class schedules for every student, and several other tasks. My school had just under 200 students — enrollment low enough that it was assumed this could all be managed.

This proved to be a very inaccurate assumption. I was working with a group of students with low attendance rates, and many were English language learners or students with disabilities. Many students were overage and under-credited, others were in foster care or homeless, some had returned from incarceration, and a couple were teen parents or pregnant.

The American School Counselor Association recommends a maximum school counselor-to-student ratio of one to 250. I know from experience that extremely high student need makes that ratio meaningless. Almost all of these students needed help in order to be ready to learn. Their needs tripled the feel of our enrollment.

This frequent mismatch between need and numbers puts school counselors like me in the position to do a great disservice to so many students. As the only counselor available, a seemingly small mishap with a task as crucial as graduation certification or credit monitoring could have spelled disaster for a student. I know some seniors missed certain financial aid opportunities and application deadlines, and some ninth, 10th, and 11th graders could have used more academic intervention to help them transition to the next grade level successfully.

My success at keeping our promotion and college admissions rates on the upswing was largely due to my outreach and partnership with community-based organizations that helped support several of our students. Had it not been for their assistance, I wouldn’t have achieved anything near what I did.

I’m still a counselor at my small school, and some aspects of the job have gotten easier with time. I love my job, which I think of as the most rewarding yet intense position in the building. But I still believe that there is almost no case in which only one counselor should be available for students.

Principals and school leaders directly involved with the budget must make sure to effectively analyze the needs of their student population, and advocate for an appropriately sized counseling staff. Small schools face real funding constraints. But ones serving students like mine need more than they’ve gotten.

Students’ social and emotional development and their academic success go hand in hand. Let’s not make the mistake of conflating enrollment numbers with need.

Danisha Baughan is a high school counselor and college advisor. She received her masters in school counseling in May 2010 and has held elementary, middle, and high school counseling positions since then.