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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.”

second chance

An embattled Harlem charter school that serves kids with disabilities will be allowed to keep its middle school — for now

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Opportunity Charter School

A Harlem charter school will be allowed to keep its middle school next school year, despite the fact that top city education officials have repeatedly ruled that it is too low performing to stay open.

That decision offers at least temporary relief for Opportunity Charter School, which has been embroiled in a dispute with the education department since March. The disagreement centers on whether city officials properly took into account the school’s students — over half of whom have a disability — when it judged the school’s performance.

The city’s education department, which oversees the school as its charter authorizer, tried to close the middle school and offered only a short-term renewal for the high school when the school’s charter came up for review earlier this year. The school appealed that decision, and was denied late last month.

But the education department is backing down from its position — at least for now. That reversal appears to be based mostly on logistics: A Manhattan Supreme Court judge has temporarily blocked the closure through at least mid-July in response to a lawsuit filed by the school and some of its parents last month, complicating the process of finding students new schools outside the normal admissions cycle.

“Students always come first, and given where we are in the school year, we will allow the middle school grades to remain open in 2017-18,” education department spokesman Michael Aciman wrote in an email on Thursday. Still, he noted, the department will continue to push to close the middle school in the future.

Kevin Quinn, a lawyer representing Opportunity Charter, said the city’s decision was the only responsible one, given that the school has already held its admissions lottery and made offers to parents.

“This is a wise decision by the [education department],” Quinn wrote in an email, “and [we] appreciate their acknowledgment that placement of this population at this time would be significantly disruptive.”

language proficiency

Educators working on creating more bilingual students worry new state requirements aren’t high enough

A second grade class at Bryant Webster K-8 school in Denver (Joe Amon, The Denver Post).

Colorado educators who led the way in developing high school diploma endorsements recognizing bilingual students worry that new legislation establishing statewide standards for such “seals of biliteracy” sets the bar too low.

Two years ago, Denver Public Schools, Eagle County Schools and the Adams County School District 14 started offering the seal of biliteracy to their students. The three districts worked together to find a common way to assess whether students are fluent in English and another language, and recognize that on high school diplomas. Advocates say the seal is supposed to indicate to colleges and employers that students are truly bilingual.

A bill passed by state legislators this year that will go into effect in August sets a path for districts that want to follow that lead by outlining the minimum that students must do to prove they are fluent in English and in another language.

According to the new law, students must meet a 3.0 grade point average in their English classes and also earn a proficient score on the 11th grade state test, or on Advanced Placement or IB tests. For showing proficiency in the second language, students can either earn proficient scores on nationally recognized tests — or meet a 3.0 grade point average after four years of language classes.

Although educators say the law sends a message of support for bilingual education, that last criteria is one part of what has some concerned.

“It allows for proficiency in a world language to be established solely by completing four years of high school language classes,” said Jorge Garcia, executive director of the Colorado Association for Bilingual Education. “Language classes in one school district may have a different degree of rigor than they do in another.”

The second language criteria should be comparable to the English criteria, several educators said. In the requirements set by Denver, Eagle County and Adams 14, students must at a minimum demonstrate language proficiency through a test score, or in some cases with a portfolio review and interview if a test is not available.

The three districts also catered their requirements based on what each community said was important. In Adams 14 and in Eagle schools, students must perform community service using their language skills. Students also have to do an interview in both languages with a community panel.

“Our school district team developed the community service criteria because we wanted our kids to have authentic practice in their languages,” said Jessica Martinez, director of multilingual education for Eagle County Schools. “We also wanted students to be a bridge to another community than their own. For example, one group of students created academic tutoring services for their peers who don’t yet speak a lot of English. Another student started tutoring her mom and her parents’ friends so they could get their GED.”

The state law doesn’t require students to do community service. But it does allow school districts to go above the state’s requirements when setting up their biliteracy programs.

“Thoughtful school districts can absolutely address these concerns,” Garcia said.

Several school districts in the state are looking to start their own programs. In March, the school board for the Roaring Fork School District in Glenwood Springs voted to start offering the seal. Summit School District also began offering the seal this year.

Leslie Davison, the dual language coordinator for Summit, said that although her program will change in the next year as she forms more clear requirements around some new tests, she will continue to have higher requirements than the state has set.

This year her students had prove proficiency in their second language by taking a test in that language. They also had to demonstrate English proficiency through the ACT. In addition, students did oral presentations to the community in both languages.

“Their expectations aren’t as high as mine are,” Davison said. “We’ll probably stay with our higher-level proficiencies. I do have some work to do in terms of how that’s going to look for next year, but I certainly don’t want to just use seat time.”

Meanwhile, the districts that started the seal are increasing their commitment to biliteracy so as many students as possible can be eligible to earn seals in the future.

The Adams 14 school district in Commerce City is using Literacy Squared, a framework written by local researchers for teaching students to read English by strengthening literacy in the native language. The program is being rolled up year by year and will serve students in 34 classrooms from preschool through fourth grade in the fall.

In Eagle County, Martinez said parents have shown such a strong demand for biliteracy that most elementary schools are now dual language schools providing instruction to all students in English for half of the school day and in Spanish for the other half.

Both districts are also increasing the offerings of language classes in middle and high school. The options are important for students who are native English speakers so they too can become bilingual and access the seal. For students whose primary language is not English, the classes can help ensure they don’t lose their primary language as they learn English.

Of Eagle’s 25 students who graduated with a seal of biliteracy this year, 17 were native Spanish speakers and eight were native English speakers.

“We want all kids to see their bilingualism is an asset,” Martinez said. “It’s huge for them.”