the day after

How one Bronx school helped students ‘drive the discussion’ around Trump’s election

East Bronx Academy for the Future students Carla Borbon, Justin Vargas, Jayla Cordero, and Hugo Rodriguez talk about the election. (Alex Zimmerman)

When Sarah Scrogin, principal of East Bronx Academy for the Future, woke up Wednesday morning to a stunning election result and questions from her staff about how to talk about it with students, she had to make a quick decision.

In a school where roughly 70 percent of the student body is Hispanic, and many have friends or relatives who could face the consequences of President-elect Donald Trump’s harsh stance on immigration, should teachers simply carry on with the day’s normal activities? Would it be appropriate for teachers to make their own political views known as a way of comforting students — or themselves?

Just after 8 a.m., Scrogin dashed off an email to the entire faculty, encouraging them to use the election as the ultimate teachable moment. “Our job as educators is not to tell others what to think,” she wrote, “but rather, to work together with young people to develop their own critical thinking.”

In Christine Montera’s AP U.S. History classroom, where the walls are adorned with Time magazine covers, that meant the usual rows of desks were molded into a circle where students spent the hour-long class period processing the news.

“A few of us had a conversation this morning: How can we go into our classrooms and say that someone who behaves in a manner that incites violence and hate on some occasions is the next president?” Montera said. “I was really going into it wanting the students to drive the discussion.”

Teacher Christine Montera
PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Teacher Christine Montera

As she asked her students about their reactions to the news, it was clear the election set off a wave of fear over the immigration status of friends and family, persecution of LGBT people, and the status of police reform.

“I truly believe that white privilege is a thing that has been in play for hundreds of years, even thousands,” noted sophomore Justin Vargas, who said he worries the police may become less restrained against people of color as a result. Trump “wants to make America great again for a certain kind of people. It’s racist people.”

Another student, Carla Borbon, expressed concern for LGBT people, whose reaction she’d seen on social media and on the news. “There were a whole bunch of people scared because of their sexuality because this man is homophobic,” she said. “A lot of people were wondering what is going to happen to them.”

Others were less worried about the election result. “I was annoyed about things people were saying about Donald Trump, saying that he’s a rapist and wanted to deport everyone — that’s not true,” said junior Hugo Rodriguez. “I actually don’t mind Trump as president.”

Still, the school’s assistant principal, Nick Lawrence, said many students were visibly distraught as they filtered into school Wednesday morning and throughout the day. He said parents’ concern over immigration policy “will certainly be on our minds,” but that it was too early to predict exactly how that might play out in the wider school community.

“We have a large immigrant population,” he said. “Our focus is making sure they feel supported and protected and okay with being in the building.”

measuring progress

At some Renewal schools, the city’s new ‘challenge’ targets require only tiny improvements

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Mayor Bill de Blasio

When education officials settled on the goals each school in its high-profile Renewal program would have to meet, they allowed them to take three years to meet what are typically one-year goals.

And though some schools have struggled to meet those initial goals, most of them, it turned out, met at least one benchmark ahead of time. So the city came up with new ones — called “challenge targets” — to replace and “strengthen” the goals that schools reached early.

But, according to new data released last week, dozens of those challenge targets require the lowest possible amount of improvement: one hundredth of one point.

In total, just over a third of the 86 Renewal schools have to improve scores on either state math or reading tests by only .01 points above their current averages, according to a Chalkbeat review of the city’s benchmarks for this school year.

P.S. 154 in the Bronx, for instance, needs to boost its average score this spring from 2.48 to 2.49 in math, and 2.49 to 2.50 in reading — both of which are considered challenge targets. (The scores refer to state tests that are graded from one to four, and only scores of three or higher are considered passing.)

The modest goals continue to raise questions about the pace of change the city is expecting from the $400 million Renewal program, which infuses schools with social services and extra resources.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has promised “fast” improvements, rhetoric that is in tension with the benchmarks the city has released. (At a panel discussion last week, the head of the city’s principals union expressed frustration with the program’s incrementalism.)

In interviews, city officials defended the challenge targets, arguing that they are designed to give schools that already met “rigorous and realistic” goals an extra incentive to maintain or surpass their progress. But some observers noted the challenge targets are so similar to the original goals, in some cases, that calling them a challenge is hard to justify.

“When you see a challenge target that’s so close to current performance, you think, ‘What the heck is going on here?’” said Aaron Pallas, a sociology and education professor at Teachers College. “It’s really hard to see a .01 expected increase as a challenging target.”

Pallas said the modest gains expected in the city’s challenge targets could be the product of a central struggle baked into school turnaround efforts: the political need to have regular benchmarks to track progress, while knowing that low-performing schools can take years to accrue gains, if it happens at all.

Still, setting expectations too low is not likely to yield much useful information about school progress, Pallas said. And while it’s “hard to know what a challenging target is,” he said, “it’s probably greater than .1,” — ten times higher than some of the city’s targets for this school year.

For their part, education officials insist that the new goals are challenging — even if they only represent fractional increases — because they are technically all higher than the original goals, which the city has claimed were “rigorous.”

“If they’re ahead of [the original goals], keeping them on that target is definitely a challenge for them,” said Eric Ashton, the education department’s executive director for school performance.

Ashton noted that many of the city’s Renewal goals — which include measures such as attendance, graduation rates, and progress on state tests — are aggressive and require some schools to improve certain metrics by double-digit percentages. (Coalition School for Social Change, for instance, must improve its four-year graduation rate to 63.4 percent this year, a 17 percent increase.)

The city also defended the challenge targets on the grounds that if they were set too high, they might offer a misleading picture of which schools should be merged, closed or face other consequences.

“Targets do not keep increasing as high as possible each year,” education department spokeswoman Devora Kaye wrote in an email, “because we need the Renewal benchmarks to help differentiate between schools that are in need of more intensive interventions such as school redesign or consolidation, closure, or leadership change — and schools that need other forms of support like professional development or curriculum changes.”

“We believe schools must always work towards continued progress,” she added. “And a challenge target sets the bar above their achievement.”

moving forward

New York City officials: Large-scale school desegregation plan likely coming by June

PHOTO: BRIC TV
Deputy Chancellor Josh Wallack, third from left, discussing the city's integration efforts.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has promised a “bigger vision” to address segregation in New York City schools, but officials have thus far kept details under wraps.

But they’ve been dribbling out some details, most notably a timeline for when a large-scale plan could be released. Officials at a town hall discussion in Brooklyn Thursday night reiterated that a plan would likely be released by June.

We’re “going to propose some new thinking that we have, both about some of the systems that we run and about ways that we can work together locally to make change,” said Deputy Chancellor Josh Wallack, who is heading the department’s diversity efforts. “We expect it to come out by the end of the school year.”

BRIC TV host Brian Vines, who moderated the panel co-produced with WNYC, pushed for details. “Is there any one thing that you can at least give us a hint at that’s a concrete measure?” he asked.

But Wallack didn’t take the bait. “What I will say is that we are actually still engaged in conversations like this one, trying to get good ideas about how to move forward,” he said, adding that the education department is talking with educators, parents and schools interested in the issue.

New York City officials have been under pressure to address school segregation after a 2014 report called its schools some of the most racially divided in the country. More recently, debates over how best to change zone lines around schools on the Upper West Side and in Brooklyn have grown heated.

“We have a lot of hard work to do,” Wallack said. “But the mayor and chancellor are deeply committed to that work and to working with all of you to make that happen.”

Correction (Dec. 2, 2016): This story has been corrected to reflect that the town hall event was not the first time officials had described a timeline for releasing a plan.