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If school is a haven for homeless students, what happens over spring break? For these kids, a mini-musical

PHOTO: Cassi Feldman
Drama teacher Jackie Wolff, right, leads the workshop.

“How many of you have ever been worried about making a mistake?” the teacher asked, glancing around the circle as hands shot up.

One boy remembered accidentally hitting his mother with a ball. Another shared his fear of riding a two-wheeler without training wheels for the first time.

The drama teacher, who had long, wavy hair and tattooed arms, listened closely to each child. When the group’s focus drifted, she gently pulled it back with a series of deep breaths or a quick game of Simon Says.

The conversation was part of a spring break arts camp at the Flushing Family Residence in Bushwick, a shelter for homeless families. Visiting artists are spending two hours each day this week helping the children transform a book into a mini-musical they perform on Friday. In this case, the book was “The Girl Who Never Made Mistakes,” hence the teacher’s questions.

The camp plays two roles: Getting the students excited about reading while offering the daily dose of structure and support that school normally provides.

“The majority of the time, students really want to be at school because it’s a very safe place for them to be,” said Jackie Wolff, the teacher. “Spring break can be really a scary time for kids.”

The arts camp is part of the city’s Afterschool Reading Club, a $1.4 million pilot project launched last October to help boost literacy among 1,400 children living in 18 shelters across New York City. It’s one in a raft of new programs the Department of Education hopes will help serve the city’s exploding population of homeless students. Nearly one in 10 students lived in a shelter or in temporary housing during the 2015-16 school year, a recent report found.

Three days each week when school is in session, the Reading Club brings teachers into shelters after school to help with reading in particular, but also to offer subjects like art, design and architecture. Over spring break, the city decided to do something different, teaming up with New York City Children’s Theater — one of the program’s regular collaborators — to help students create their own performances at six of the sites.

“We’re very grateful,” said shelter director Nancy Vasquez. “Anything to engage these kids to feel different from everything else that’s going on around them at this particular time in their lives.”

The shelter is a hulking beige building run by SCO Family of Services, a local nonprofit. Ninety-nine families live there, in small studio apartments with kitchenettes. The average shelter stay for a family with children is just over a year, according to the Department of Homeless Services, though some families stay much longer.

On a rainy day, the brightly painted room that houses the Reading Club has no problem attracting visitors. It’s filled with games, books and art supplies. But Tuesday was a gorgeous spring day, one of the first of the year, so the group was smaller — just nine children, all in elementary school.

They took turns sharing things they were proud of — like being a good friend or brave on a skateboard. To show agreement with a speaker, they sent “brain waves” by shaking a hang-loose sign near their heads. Getting down to business, Wolff plotted the book’s arc on a giant notepad, and the children partnered up to act out different scenes.

“A lot of times, the kids in these workshops who really thrive and do well are the kids who have a really hard time in class because that sitting still is very hard for them,” Wolff said. “If they get an opportunity to act like a character or express themselves in a different way with their body or their voice, they can have a place to shine.”

Wolff and her colleagues are specially trained to be sensitive to trauma. When one exercise called for tapping the students on the shoulder, for instance, she asked each for permission first.

During a quick lunch break, the students gave the camp a hearty endorsement. “I like the story because it has conflict,” explained Javan, 9, as he pulled apart his turkey sandwich. He rattled off other stories with conflict: “Spider-Man,” “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” He liked those, too.

And that’s the point of the program, says Rebekah Nelson, a citywide literacy coach with the Department of Education. “There’s a huge deficit in proficiency levels [among] students who live in temporary housing,” she said, a point backed up by a 2016 report. “We want to foster this love of reading, this culture that reading is cool and reading is fun.” As part of the push, children take books home every week to keep and share with their siblings.

The students spent part of Tuesday morning making invitations for their show on Friday, where their parents can come see them perform. Vasquez, the shelter director, said she was eager to attend. “We have the day off, but I’m going to be here,” she said. “I want to see it.”

Summer, age 10, said working on the musical was her favorite part of spring break. “This actually gave me the funnest thing ever,” she said. “To just come here and act.”

New role

Principal Donna Taylor retiring from Brooklyn School of Inquiry, moving to DOE

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Kindergarten students at Brooklyn School of Inquiry

Brooklyn School of Inquiry Principal Donna Taylor announced this week she is stepping down from her position next month.

Taylor, who has been with the Bensonhurst school since it opened in 2009, will take a position with the Department of Education, where she will support principals implementing progressive education and gifted and talented programs — two focuses of BSI. The school, which runs from kindergarten to eighth grade, is one of five gifted and talented schools open to children citywide.

“BSI was created by a team who believes that students need an inquiry-based, arts-infused curriculum, steeped in technology, where everyone is encouraged to think critically,” Taylor said in a statement. “We came together down here in Bensonhurst to grow our practice and build capacity. I am proud of the work I’ve done together with the school’s community to build and grow BSI.”

Her announcement comes the same week that BSI graduated its first cohort of eighth-graders. Moving forward, Taylor is working with other school staff and her superintendent, Karina Constantino, to ensure a smooth transition. A new principal has not yet been named.

BSI is the only citywide gifted school that participates in the city’s Diversity in Admissions program. The admissions pilot allows principals to set aside a percentage of seats for students who are low-income, English learners or meet other criteria. In the case of BSI, the school set aside 40 percent of its available kindergarten seats for low-income students.

While it met that target in its admissions offers this year, it had few open seats because siblings of current BSI students get priority. That meant that only 20 slots were reserved for low-income students.

It will be up to Taylor’s successor, alongside city officials, to decide where to take the pilot program next.

“We have no way of knowing what the new leadership will do or who they will be or what their position will be on the program,” said Sara Mogulescu, the parent of two children currently studying at BSI. “But I know there is a very strong core of commitment to that pilot and to continue to strengthen our community in all kinds of ways, regardless of whether Donna is the principal.”

Despite her many accomplishments, Taylor’s eight years at the helm of BSI were not without controversy. In 2014, Taylor made headlines for a comment she made at an open-house meeting at BSI. She remarked to prospective parents, “If you don’t speak Spanish, you’re going to clean your own house.” Taylor subsequently apologized.

Mogulescu said Taylor had built a solid foundation at BSI, and she and other parents were confident about the school’s future — and Taylor’s.

“As much as we are all sad to see her go,” she said, “I think the parents take solace in the fact that she is going to be spreading her wisdom and experience to other schools.”

planning ahead

Big assignment for group of Colorado education leaders: rethink the state’s education priorities

File photo of student at Marrama Elementary School in northeast Denver. (The Denver Post)

A newly constituted group of educators, lawmakers and state officials led by Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne will be charged with creating a sweeping new strategic plan for education in Colorado.

Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper signed an executive order this week giving that task to a reconstituted Education Leadership Council, which formed in 2011 but has become inactive.

The new-look council will identify statewide priorities for how to better educate the state’s children so they can contribute to Colorado’s workforce, according to the order.

In an interview Thursday with Chalkbeat, Lynne said she expects the plan to include recommendations for how the governor’s office, relevant state departments, the legislature or others can work toward the state’s goals.

The group will begin meeting in August and will spend its first year setting priorities. It is supposed to give recommendations for possible legislation by 2018 or 2019.

Lynne said various state departments and groups already work on initiatives tied to education, but “we don’t have a place where we weave it all together.”

For example, Lynne said, the group could examine whether certain districts still need help getting access to the internet, whether students are being introduced to STEM careers early enough and whether graduates are prepared for the workforce.

Having a strategic plan and clear goals for what schools should be accomplishing could also give officials a better chance of changing school finance, Lynne said, if the group determines that is needed. Reports routinely rank Colorado near the bottom in per pupil funding among states.

“I think it’s hard when people want to talk about changing school finance or they want to address things like compensation for teachers, if you don’t have the core foundation of what do we want to achieve and how do we get there,” Lynne said.

Bipartisan legislation introduced this spring would have created a group with similar goals, but Republicans killed the so-called “vision” bill. Critics said the bill would have created more state bureaucracy and potentially conflicted with school districts’ strategic plans, and called it a ploy to ultimately ask taxpayers for more money.

Lynne said the group commissioned by the governor — which will have as many as 25 members — will include a diverse group of people representing different interests across the state to ensure local districts have a say in the statewide work. It will include directors from five state departments, a superintendent, a school board member, a teacher and a principal.

The original Education Leadership Council was commissioned in 2011 by a Hickenlooper executive order. Recently the group stopped meeting. Members’ terms had expired, and excitement had decreased after the 2013 defeat of Amendment 66, which would have raised taxes for schools. The council helped push for the measure.

When Lynne succeeded Joe Garcia as lieutenant governor, she said she knew she wanted to revive the group.

Her office started planning to regroup the Education Leadership Council in late 2016 before the legislature considered the same work, but she said she paused while legislators considered their bill. When that effort failed, Lynne said her office got back to organizing the council.

The group, Lynne said, will work under a shorter timeline than the one outlined in the failed bill.

Rep. Bob Rankin, a Carbondale Republican who sponsored the “vision” bill, said the council is the right avenue for this kind of work.

“The legislature is not suited for long-term strategic thinking,” Rankin said. “It’s more about shorter-term action. This is a better way to do it — with our involvement.”

Sponsors of the vision bill, including Rankin, will be part of the leadership council.

Here is a copy of the executive order:



EO Education (Text)