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At reconfigured Jefferson Junior-Senior High, students are told show up and have fun

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Jefferson Junior-Senior High School Principal Michael James.

EDGEWATER — Well before noon on a recent Tuesday, 33 soon-to-be eighth graders are dancing back-to-back while Katy Perry’s “Firework” blares from the speakers.

When the music stops, the students scramble to find a new partner. The student left standing without a new mate must dance alone on a chair in the center of the gym.

“You must dance like you have never danced before,” Michael James, the principal of the newly reconfigured Jefferson Junior-Senior High School, said to each student who shyly climbed on top of the chair.

Backward dancing was just one of a few activities James and his eighth graders participated in earlier this month as part of Jefferson’s new-student orientation.

Most of the seventh and eighth graders enrolling at Jefferson would have attended Wheat Ridge 5-8. But that school was closed due to chronic low performance on state tests. So instead of attending the Wheat Ridge school, the middle schoolers are joining their high school peers at Jefferson.

The school shuffle is part of a larger programmatic overhaul at a cluster of schools in Jefferson County that serve mostly low-income and Latino students. Most of those schools are in Edgewater, a tiny municipality that borders Denver’s west side, and have bounced on and off the state’s accountability watch list for several years.

Jeffco Public Schools officials hope the changes that include expanding a dual-language program, more cooperation between schools, and a project-based learning curriculum that stretches from kindergarten through high school, will be enough to consistently improve student learning.

The new-student orientation at Jefferson Junior-Senior High was a symbolic first step toward those ideas becoming a reality.

“I want them to connect fun activities to Jefferson,” said Principal James. “I know there is a lot of great learning to be had, but we’re going to have a fun time as well.”

During the three day orientation, the new students also got a tour of the school from student leaders, set personal and academic goals, and learned what teachers and counselors think it takes to be a successful Saint, the school’s mascot.

“There’s no slack time when school starts,” Angelique “Doc” Acevedo-Barron, one of the school’s deans, told the eighth graders. “You must be able to pass each of your classes. There’s no more social promotion.”

As part of the changes at Jefferson, student progress will be closely monitored by teams of teachers. Students who fall behind will be given extra tutoring and other opportunities to catch up. That includes an extra hour of learning each day for seventh and eighth graders, Acevedo-Barron said to some student moans.

“We’re going to make it happen,” Acevedo-Barron said. “We’re going to nip any slacking in the bud. We’re about school.”

Other opportunities those junior high students will have at Jefferson that they did not have at Wheat Ridge include more electives and greater math support, said James. Each math classroom will have a teacher and between three and five tutors to assist students. The students will also have greater access to support services and James said he hopes to have more regular conversations with families.

Some teachers from Wheat Ridge 5-8 are following their students to Jefferson. Tom McLoughlin is one of them. He helped James during orientation week.

“We’re really excited to be working for Michael James,” McLoughlin said. “There’s already a lot of buy-in from the current staff and students.”

McLoughlin said that he thinks combining the middle school and high school will encourage younger students, especially eighth graders, to stay focused.

“They won’t have that ‘king of the school’ mentality anymore,” McLoughlin said. “It will be be nice for them to see their older peers go on and graduate. As well as some who aren’t. They’ll be able to see that difference.”

Students at orientation were equally shy and excited.

Angelo Hulse, an incoming seventh grader, said he’s ready to learn.

“I just want to know how to get good grades so I can go onto college and play college football,” he said. “And we get to have lockers and there will be more fun stuff to do.”

Destanie Allen, meanwhile, said she was excited to meet new friends. But as a new ninth grader, she was well aware of the new social pecking order at the 7-12 school.

“We’re right in the middle,” she said.

Back in the gymnasium, James pulls his eighth graders in for a huddle and ice cream bars.

“Come with a positive idea of what this place is and about who you are,” he said. “We can have a lot fun. If you’re not afraid to have fun, you will. Don’t worry about what other people think of you.”

ready for prime time

Four ways Amazon’s arrival in New York City could impact public schools

PHOTO: Reema Amin/Chalkbeat
John Schoettler, Amazon's vice president of global real estate and facilities, (left) sits with Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio at a press conference about Amazon's announcement to open part of its new headquarters in Long Island City.

After months of speculation, Amazon announced Tuesday that it picked Long Island City for one of its two new headquarters.

Details about the new Queens hub are still emerging, and some of the particulars are already raising eyebrows — including billions in incentives Amazon was offered to locate here. The deal, which officials claim will create as many as 40,000 jobs over 10 to 15 years, will undoubtedly affect New York City’s public school system.

The formal agreement between Amazon and New York City lays out several direct ways that the deal could impact city schools. The company agreed to house a 600-seat intermediate school on or near its Long Island City campus, replacing a school that had already been planned in a residential building nearby. Amazon also plans to offer “career exploration activities” and internship opportunities to high school students. And there is a proposal to relocate some Department of Education offices in Long Island City to make way for the tech giant.

If Amazon’s impact on Seattle, its primary headquarters, is any guide, there could be reverberations felt in New York City classrooms, especially those districts in or adjacent to Long Island City. Still, given New York City’s size and economy, Amazon’s arrival may not create the same sweeping changes — and officials are already trying to reassure New Yorkers.

“The city and state are working closely together to make sure Amazon’s expansion is planned smartly, and to ensure this fast growing neighborhood has the transportation, schools, and infrastructure it needs,” de Blasio said in an Amazon blog post announcing the move.

Here are four potential issues to look out for.

Overcrowded schools

Amazon has pledged to donate space for a new middle school — space that parents say is desperately needed. De Blasio said Tuesday that the school will replace another that had been proposed for the area. “There is no loss of school seats,” he said.

But Meghan Cirrito, a member of the Gantry Parent Association, an education advocacy group in Long Island City, is skeptical that the school will ease the crunch for classrooms. Queens parents have long fought for more school space in the borough. In the Long Island City neighborhood, schools that serve grades K-8 are already at 102 percent capacity.

“It will absolutely not relieve the overcrowding. They will keep up with their own development,” she said. “We’re already behind school seats.”

Deborah Alexander, the co-president of Community Education Council 30, which includes Long Island City, echoed that the school plan feels like “a pittance.”

“We’re still playing catch up for the city’s lack of infrastructure in Long Island City,” she said.

The need for more classrooms could also have consequences for de Blasio’s push to make pre-K available to all the city’s 3-year-olds, an effort the city is rolling out slowly in part because of existing space constraints.

But even if thousands of students arrive with new Amazon employees, they will still represent only a drop in the bucket of the city’s 1.1 million public school students. De Blasio cautioned at Tuesday’s press conference that while some employees will live in the neighborhood, not all will move to Long Island City and some may commute from other areas. Still, the neighborhoods around Queens are some of the most crowded school districts in the city.

Concerns about the city’s record student homelessness

Seattle has struggled to address a surge in homelessness as home prices have soared more rapidly in the city than anywhere else in the country — an increase that many have attributed to its booming tech sector.

As the number of high-earners there has shot up, so has student homelessness, which has increased threefold between 2011 and 2017. But when the city tried to pass a new tax dedicated to boosting services for the homeless, Amazon led a campaign against the measure, which eventually died.

Amazon is promising to pay an average salary of $150,000 in New York City. In the school district that will host the tech giant’s new hub, about 72 percent of students come from low-income families.

In New York City, the number of homeless students is already at an all-time high. More than 114,000 students here lack permanent housing, which poses challenges for schools that may struggle to meet the needs of children who often lag behind their peers on academic measures.

Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza recently announced the education department would hire 100 new employees to help schools with high concentrations of homeless students.  

De Blasio said the arrival of large companies such as Amazon could exacerbate homelessness in other cities that “don’t have substantial affordable housing, are not building a lot of new affordable housing,” specifically calling out San Francisco.

But, he said, the impact of tax revenue from Amazon’s move will be “central” for supporting existing affordable housing in New York City.

Other changes in student demographics

School leaders in Seattle say the number of students who are learning English as a new language has jumped with Amazon’s growth, opening the need for teachers and curriculum to serve those students.

New York City has rapidly expanded its language programs under de Blasio, which are often seen as a tool to help spur more diverse schools. But the education department has also historically struggled to serve English language learners well.

Amazon’s move could have other effects on school diversity at a time when advocates have put increasing pressure on the the city to step up integration efforts. New York City schools are among the most segregated in the country, an issue that Carranza has pledged to tackle.

But with more higher-income families potentially lured to Queens by Amazon jobs, Cirrito worries about gentrification in a borough and neighborhood known for its diversity, and the effect that could have on classrooms.

“How can we say we welcome new Americans here if they can’t afford to live in Long Island City and they can’t afford to live in neighborhoods where their kids have good schools?” she asked. “At the time we have a chancellor in place calling for the desegregation of schools, this seems to be a move that will completely undermine his efforts.”

Even if low-income families live side-by-side with Amazon’s workers, it’s not at all clear their children will learn together. Long Island City is home to the New York’s largest housing project, and whether high-earners would opt into schools where many students are poor is an open question.

A philanthropic boost?

New York’s agreement with Amazon doesn’t offer many details about how the company will interact with the nation’s largest school system, but it does include a promise to create internships and “work-based learning opportunities” — including activities such as career days and mock interviews.

What that will look like, and whether a bigger stream of philanthropic support could follow, is unclear. Amazon has offered some support for public education in Seattle, including supplies for needy students. And its founder, Jeff Bezos, recently announced a $2 billion investment to launch a network of preschools in low-income communities.

Kathryn Wylde, the president and CEO of the nonprofit Partnership for New York City, which serves as the business community’s lobbying group, said she hopes Amazon’s presence helps fuel career and technical programs in city schools.

“The frustration has been a lack of employer engagement in opportunity for [career and technical education] and workplace opportunities,” Wylde said. “Obviously this is a bonanza in providing those opportunities.”

She added that Amazon could support schools similar to Brooklyn’s P-Tech, a high school that partners with IBM to offer students opportunities in the tech sector. (Wylde said there were no concrete plans in place yet for Amazon to participate in such a partnership.)

Others were less optimistic.

Alexander, the co-president of Community Education Council 30, said she hopes the city would partner “as much as possible” to harness any investments Amazon is willing to make in public schools.

Still, she added, “It sticks a little in my craw —  the richest person in the world getting billions of dollars in money from New York State when New York State owes schools so much money.”

“It’s hard to see what internship or guest speakers or whatever could make that balance.”

Chalkbeat live

Education for all? Let’s talk about that, Chicago.

Since Chalkbeat Chicago launched in June, we’ve convened small gatherings of parents, educators, school council members, and community leaders to talk about city schools.

On December 12, we’re hosting our biggest public forum to date — with pie! — on the topic of Chicago’s next mayor and the future of schools in the city.

  • Which items should top the next mayor’s schools agenda?
  • How do we build on successes like the district’s record-high graduation rates?
  • And how do we grapple with persistent challenges such as declining enrollment and equity gaps in performance and resources?

We are inviting educators, students, advocates, policy makers, and more to join us for this critical conversation. Taking part in the centerpiece panel will be Chicagoans with experience in and around schools including:

  • Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, founder of the Little Village Community Development Corporation and newly elected congressman from the 4th District
  • Elizabeth Swanson, vice president of strategy and programs at the Joyce Foundation and the former deputy chief of staff for education for outgoing Mayor Rahm Emanuel
  • Daniel Anello, CEO of Kids First, which produced a new report that examines school access and capacity on the city’s South and West sides
  • Jitu Brown, national director of the Journey for Justice Alliance

Guests will be encouraged to record a message to the city’s next mayor in our storybooth and to network with other people who care about public education and Chicago youth. The evening also will feature student performances and a coffee-and-pie reception with treats from Justice of the Pies and Dark Matter Coffee.

The event is free and open to all ages, but space is limited and registration is required. RSVP here.