out of the loop

As education officials negotiate the fate of a Bronx middle school, ‘everything is up in the air’

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Nelson Santiago with his daughter, Savannah Torres, a sixth-grader at J.H.S. 162

When city officials submitted a proposal to the State Education Department this week about whether to close, merge or cede control of a Bronx middle school, one constituency was kept out of the loop: the school itself.

“Everything is up in the air,” said Yolanda Montalvo, who sits on the school leadership team at J.H.S 162 Lola Rodriguez de Tio, and is a member of the PTA. The school’s administration “doesn’t know what the last decision will be.”

J.H.S. 162 has drawn outsized attention for being the only school in New York threatened with a takeover under the state’s receivership program, which is supposed to create consequences for low-performing schools if they don’t show improvements within a year or two.

The school is the first in the state to face the prospect of a takeover under the 2015 receivership law.

State officials have said the city could propose a merger or closure in lieu of a takeover by an outside manager — and on Tuesday, the city sent a letter to the state with a proposal.

So far, that letter has been kept secret; city and state officials would not release it to Chalkbeat.

On Wednesday afternoon, some parents said they participated in meetings at the beginning of the school year focused on the consequences the school might face under the state receivership program. But they noted there had not been an effort to gather input from them to specifically inform the city’s proposal, and there were rumors the school could be shuttered.

That sense of uncertainty was evident among school officials minutes before a school leadership team meeting Wednesday that was abruptly cancelled. The school’s principal, Deborah Sanabria, declined to comment for this story.

“That’s not something they’ve brought to our attention as of yet,” said parent Nelson Santiago, referring to the city’s proposal. After picking up his daughter early from school Wednesday — because she’d been hit by another student, he said — Santiago explained that the school is headed in the right direction.

Despite the bullying his sixth-grade daughter experienced this year, he added, J.H.S. 162 was taken off the state’s list of “persistently dangerous schools.”

Still, if the state determined that the school was not performing, Santiago said it should be shut down. “If it’s not up to par, then that means my daughter’s education is not up to par.”

Rafael Capestany, who has two children at the school, agreed that there have been some signs of improvement, and said he hopes the school stays open despite its designation as among the worst in the state. “Whenever there’s a situation where students might fight, they handle it real fast,” he said. “I don’t see why they would have to close the school down.”

In addition to being part of the state’s receivership program, the school is also part of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s high-profile Renewal program, which is designed to be less punitive. Under the city’s approach, low-performing schools have been infused with resources and social services and are expected to show gains over time. In a surprising discrepancy, J.H.S. 162 hit 83 percent of its benchmarks in the city’s program — a sign of improvement — but was still singled out by the state for a takeover.

Eric Nadelstern, a former deputy chancellor in the city’s department of education and current professor at Teachers College, said it is odd that the city would keep the school out of the loop on its plans, especially because it has invested so heavily in it as a community school.

“If the idea is that the schools should be part of the solution,” Nadelstern said, “to deny the vital information they need to keep doing that job effectively is not a good strategy.”

Still, others pointed out that if the city does get approval from the state to merge or close the school, the city will be legally required to hold hearings and solicit public comment — a process parents will be able to influence.

“The community would have a full opportunity to give its input once state approval had been secured,” said David Bloomfield an education law expert at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center.

City education department spokeswoman Devora Kaye emphasized that meetings were held at the beginning of the school year to inform families about the potential effects of the state’s receivership program.

“DOE officials have worked with [the State Education Department] as well as the superintendent — who knows the school best — to ensure the next steps for the J.H.S 162 community are best for kids,” Kaye wrote in an email.

“Starting next week, we will begin having a town hall forum and small group meetings to provide families with information and resources to make the right decisions for their child.”

The date and time of the town hall has not yet been announced.

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 perimeters. 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.