rise up

An NBC grant means the lights and speakers at this southwest Denver arts school will actually work

Students at Kunsmiller Creative Arts Academy tick off the problems with their theater facilities. (Courtesy NBC)

Chairs with no seats, tiles falling from the ceiling, stage lights with only a tenuous connection to the light board, and speakers that give off a consistent buzz.

These are the problems students at Kunsmiller Creative Arts Academy in southwest Denver documented in a video that won them a $10,000 grant from NBC.

The television network gave $500,000 to 50 schools in honor of its new drama “Rise,” which is about a high school theater department and its effects on a small town. NBC distributed the money in partnership with the non-profit Educational Theatre Foundation.

Kunsmiller, where 84 percent of students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch, a proxy for poverty, was selected from among 1,000 schools.

In their application video, students at the school give viewers a tour of their theater, which has seen better days.

“Welcome to the theater. It’s very sad,” one student says.

Principal Peter Castillo said the quotes he’s gotten to realize his complete vision for the arts-oriented school – a dance studio, a concert-quality music venue, and a new theater – have been “a little disheartening.”

Castillo noted that in contrast to Denver School of the Arts, students at Kunsmiller have traditionally focused more on the visual arts because that’s what they had exposure to in elementary school. Better facilities will open up more opportunities for students to explore other art forms.

The grant is a small percentage of the total need, but it will allow the school to upgrade the lighting and sound systems and repaint the theater, with money left over for additional training for staff and for students to visit other school theater facilities to develop a plan for Kunsmiller. And it will also help boost fundraising efforts, he said.

Castillo gave credit to drama teacher Nicole Hudson for helping the students put together their submission.

“The kids had some fun showing off our 60-year-old stage and our 60-year-old chairs and our 60-year-old feel,” he said.

Here’s the winning video:

Family Hubs

Why the Detroit district is turning its adult ed centers into places where families can find helpful services

PHOTO: Lori Higgins
Detroit Superintendent stops at one of the many community agencies that will be providing resources to the family hubs that will open in adult education centers in the district.

The Detroit school district is turning its two adult education centers into sites that will give parents access to a number of academic and community resources in one spot.

It’s a crucial part of Superintendent Nikolai Vitti’s rebuilding effort, because it goes beyond trying to fix curriculum and system failures, and instead works to connect with parents.

“It’s about breaking down walls and barriers and saying, ‘We don’t have all the answers, but we have access to resources that we want to give to you.’ You come in, you start to trust us, gain those resources and fill gaps in your own lives … So we can all do right by children.”

The family hubs, which will open in January, will be located at the district’s Adult Education Center East at 13840 Lappin and at the Adult Education Center West at 16164 Asbury Park. Both centers already offer a range of programming to help older students and adults earn high school diplomas or GEDs, while providing services such as tutoring and career exploration.

Now, those two sites will offer much more, including courses offered through the district’s Parent Academy that help parents learn how to help their children. And, thanks to partnerships with a number of community organizations, parents can also take advantage of other services, such as job training, home ownership classes, and mental health services. There will also be food and clothing donations.

PHOTO: Lori Higgins
Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti announces the creation of family hubs to connect parents with resources.

“By concentrating in one location, we eliminate that red tape and that bureaucracy,” Vitti said at an event announcing the family hubs this week.

“You come here thinking, ‘I’m just going to learn about literacy,’ and then you find out there’s an opportunity to pay a light bill or there’s an opportunity to get job development.”

Iesha Spencer was among the parents the district sought feedback from as the hubs were being developed. She’s a student at the Adult Education Center West.

The hubs, Spencer said, “will be a great opportunity for families to all come together and learn and grow.”

PHOTO: Lori Higgins
A representative of a community organization talks to those attending an event to announce the creation of family hubs in the Detroit school district.

Among the partners who are part of the hubs is the Detroit Training Center, which provides job training in a number of areas, including construction trades, building maintenance, and blight removal. The company will provide some of that training at the hubs.

“If you’re looking for a job, come on down,” Patrick Beal, CEO of the Detroit Training Center, said at the event.

There also will be other activities, such as family dinner clubs, crochet clubs and book clubs, said Sharlonda Buckman, an assistant superintendent in the district.

“We also want to socialize and have fun together. This is about building a social network,” Buckman said.

These are the partners working with the district in the hubs:

 

  • Accounting Aids Society
  • Black Mothers Breast Feeding
  • Detroit Health Department
  • Detroit Land Bank
  • Detroit Parent Network
  • Detroit Training Center
  • Doors of Success
  • Dress for Success
  • Focus Hope
  • Forgotten Harvest
  • Western Michigan University

Want to take advantage of the hubs? You can visit the district’s web site here.

closures ahead

New York City will close another round of schools in de Blasio’s Renewal turnaround program

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman/Chalkbeat
Protesters gathered at the education department's headquarters to protest a previous set of closure plans.

Mayor Bill de Blasio is widely expected to wind down his signature program for struggling schools. But before he does, city officials are planning to close a handful of turnaround schools, decisions that will be announced publicly in January.

The city has closed 14 Renewal schools since the program launched in 2014 with 94 schools. Now, the education department is poised to close more, according to a senior department official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Decisions about which schools will be on the chopping block have not yet been formally made, the official said. But the education department is planning to close fewer than last year, the largest single round of Renewal closures to date, when seven schools were ultimately shuttered.

It’s not entirely surprising that the department is eyeing additional closures. Though de Blasio has said they are a “last resort,” the city began closing some of the 94 original Renewal schools within a year of the program’s launch.

The closure decisions again throw the $750 million turnaround program into the spotlight, underscoring that despite a raft of extra social services and academic support, the extra resources have largely not lived up to the mayor’s promise of “fast and intense” improvements.

The looming closures also raise questions about the future of school turnaround in New York City. De Blasio has said the program, which is in its fourth year of what was initially described as a three-year effort, is reaching its “natural conclusion,” and that decisions about the 50 remaining Renewal schools will be made by the end of this school year. Yet city officials have declined to explain what will happen to schools that will avoid closure and have not made enough progress to leave the program.

“There’s a great deal of uncertainty about what their futures are,” said Aaron Pallas, a professor at Teachers College who has studied the turnaround program. “The chancellor hasn’t said much of anything that is suggestive of a comprehensive strategy of dealing with the remaining Renewal schools in particular, or struggling schools in general.”

When the Renewal initiative launched, city officials framed it as the antithesis of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s approach, which involved closing over 150 schools and replacing them with new — often smaller — ones. Research has found that strategy showed some promise. But it also drew fierce protest from teachers, union officials, and disrupted long-standing neighborhood institutions. A number of the new schools continued to struggle, however, and would eventually become Renewal schools.

By contrast, de Blasio sought to keep schools open whenever possible. The city instead gave low-performing schools additional funding, access to non-profit organizations that would help provide physical and mental health services, and academic resources, such as additional teacher training and leadership coaches.

Research on de Blasio’s approach shows its effect on school improvement has been mixed at best. And the New York Times recently reported that city officials initially predicted that about a third of schools in the program would never make significant strides.

Of the 94 original schools, 14 have been closed, nine have left the program after being merged with other schools, and city officials said 21 have shown enough progress to slowly ease out of Renewal. No schools have been added to the program since it began.

An education department spokeswoman did not respond to specific questions about the program and the city’s future plans for struggling schools, including how closure decisions will be made. In the past, officials said they consider a range of factors, including schools’ academic performance, feedback from families, staff turnover, and previous improvement efforts.

Increases in graduation rates and test scores have not been enough to spare some schools from being shuttered — and the city has even closed schools that have met a majority of their goals.

“We believe in investing in our schools,” education department spokeswoman Danielle Filson said in a statement. “We will share an update on the Renewal program by the end of the school year.”

Many Renewal schools still post test scores and graduation rates that are far below average, which could invite extra scrutiny. At Herbert H. Lehman High School in the Bronx, 57 percent of students graduate on time — roughly 20 points below the city average. At I.S. 117, 8 percent of students passed state math tests last year, and 16 percent were proficient in reading — an increase from 2015 when just 5 percent of students were proficient in either subject, though still far below average.

If Renewal schools performing below expectations avoid closure, it’s unclear how the city will continue to intervene to improve them. City officials have said Renewal schools will not lose the extra funding they received, or their “community school” designations, which are a core element of the Renewal program and allow schools to partner with nonprofit organizations and offer a range of social services, including mental health counseling and dental clinics.

Some observers said it’s possible the city won’t replace Renewal with another distinct turnaround program, especially since it has created headaches for de Blasio, and instead opt for a squishier system of support for struggling schools.

“That would be the politically wise way to go,” said Robin Veentstra-VanderWeele, the chief program officer at Partnership with Children, which serves as the nonprofit partner in eight city turnaround schools. “If you don’t tell anyone what the target is they don’t know what to shoot.”