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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.”

reasons vs. excuses

Westminster schools loses on appeal seeking higher performance rating

A student at Westminster’s Hodgkins Elementary in 2013.

The state’s quality rating for Westminster Public Schools will not change after an appeal to the Colorado Board of Education Monday.

The board unanimously voted to deny the appeal after minimal discussion mostly criticizing the district for blaming poor performance on minority and disadvantaged students.

“The ‘why’ students are not performing at grade level is an excuse, but what it should do is give us a roadmap to remedy that failure,” said board member Steve Durham. “It’s our job to identify poor performance and further find remedies regardless of the reasons.”

Pam Swanson, Westminster’s superintendent and school board members said the state board members’ comments were ridiculous.

“We have very high expectations,” Swanson said. “Every teacher listening to that comment was disgusted because we know that we have high expectations. We know all of our kids can get there it just takes them longer.”

The district has argued that their annual performance evaluation was not legal because it discriminated against the district’s population of large numbers of English learners, mobile students and those who qualify for free or reduced price lunch.

They also contend the state isn’t making allowances to account for Westminster’s so-called “competency-based” learning model, which does away with grade levels and moves students instead based on when they’ve learned certain education standards. The district believes that by placing students into traditional grade levels based on their age for testing means they aren’t measuring what students are learning.

State education department officials disputed the district’s appeal stating in part that the district has the flexibility to determine student grade levels for testing purposes.

The decision means Westminster now must go through with an accountability hearing where the state board will be required to vote on action to turnaround the district. Proposed plans for that hearing on May 4 have already been prepared.

The meeting was packed by Westminster employees. A crowd of educators from the Westminster district were watching the meeting from outside the boardroom.

Looking for options

State board raised questions over plan for Pueblo schools and management partners

Charlotte Macaluso, right, speaks with Pueblo City Schools spokesman Dalton Sprouse on July 22, 2016. (Pueblo Chieftain file photo)

The Colorado Board of Education on Monday asked Pueblo City Schools and state officials to submit slightly different plans for three struggling schools by mid-June.

While the district already planned to partner with two outside companies to improve student performance at the three schools, the board directed state officials to give the outside companies more of a management role in the next version of the plan.

While the board approved improvement plans for several other schools and districts this month, its request for changes to the plan for Pueblo schools was unusual. It also means that in June the board will have two plans to choose from for a final order.

Board members on Monday asked district officials about the work the district has done in the past few years trying to improve performance with an innovation zone — or a group of schools granted similar waivers from some laws and policies — about leadership changes in the schools and at the district level and about whether there have been any successful “bright spots” in recent years.

Board members also questioned district officials on the role of the external companies, Achievement Network and Relay Graduate School of Education.

Charlotte Macaluso, Pueblo City Schools superintendent said the management companies would not govern the schools.

“They would serve as a partner to identify needs,” Macaluso said.

But board members weren’t sold on a partnership of equals, and directed state officials to create a governance plan outlining how the companies would work with the schools. They also expressed frustration at the lack of a formal vetting process for the companies that would work with the schools. The same issue came up at hearings for Greeley schools earlier in the day.

The three schools include Heroes Academy, a K-8, Risley International, a middle school, and Bessemer Elementary, where barely 9 percent of third-graders passed the state’s English test last spring.

The initial state and district proposals call for the three schools to work with two external companies. For Heroes and Risley, the recommendations also suggest allowing the schools to waive some district and state rules.

Risley got innovation status in 2012, giving it such flexibility. So far, the status has not improved the school’s performance. For Heroes the autonomies would be new.

A year ago, Pueblo City Schools was expected to pose the biggest test of the state’s school accountability system. A dozen of the city’s schools were on the state’s watch list for chronic poor performance on state standardized tests. However, most of the city’s schools came off that list last year.