Best and brightest

These ‘life-changing’ Indianapolis teachers and principals were awarded $25,000

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
The Hubbard Awards honors "life-changing" Indianapolis Public Schools teachers and principals.

When Raquel Perez needed a safe place to stay, she turned to her teacher, Marleen Signer.

Signer brought Perez, now a senior, into her own home and helped her find a permanent place to live. That was just one of the ways that Signer’s help has been transformative for Perez and countless other students.

Signer, who has taught children with special needs for 39 years, was honored at the Hubbard Life-Changing Teacher Awards tonight. As a teacher in the Indianapolis Public Schools McFarland School, she not only helps students master academic skills like reading and writing, but also helps them learn to navigate the world — from riding the bus to getting a job.

“When I graduate this May, I will be the first person in my family to finish high school,” wrote Perez in a nomination for Signer. “I was going to drop out at 14 before I met my teacher. I didn’t like coming to school and I didn’t know how to read. She has made me a completely different person.”

Signer was one of four teachers and, for the first year, two principals who received the $25,000 award in a ceremony tonight at the Eiteljorg Museum. They were selected from 10 finalists for the teacher award and four finalists for the principal prize. The honors are funded by Indianapolis philanthropists Al and Kathy Hubbard, who were inspired to create the award after reading a newspaper column about a life-changing IPS teacher.

“Exceptional teachers — the ones who elevate their students and their profession — are the single most important factor in the effort to improve education,” said Ann Murtlow, President of United Way of Central Indiana.

Other winners tonight included:

Stella Vandivier, who works with children who have committed serious crimes at the Marion County Jail School.

Vandivier’s students often have emotional and mental issues, and they can be years behind academically. But despite these challenges, she consistently brings joy to her work, according to students who nominated her.

“It’s very easy for us all to get depressed,” Vandivier said. “But … We are always going to put on that act of being happy.”

Antonia Powell, a sixth grade teacher at School 99, who uses a “tough love” approach with her students to push them toward success.

“She is able to guide and nurture students to become the best they can be,” wrote Daniel Kriech, who works with Powell. “Not only does she believe they can, she backs it up with a never ending daily effort to make sure success is always within their reach.”

Outside the classroom, Powell has transformed the lives of her three nieces who she took in when they were in need of care.

Daphne Draa, a visual art teacher at Center for Inquiry II, helps students take risks and find joy in art. She mentors students, offering academic and emotional support.

“The biggest lesson I’ve learned from my students is about resilience and perseverance,” Draa said. “That just gives me so much joy and hope for the future.”

Draa encourages her students to use art to advocate for their beliefs.

“Thanks to this teacher, my daughter Elizabeth takes risks, sets goals and believes that her voice matters,” wrote parent Judith Cebula in a nominating letter for Draa.

Winning principals included:

Julie Bakehorn, the former principal of School 54, who now leads Arsenal Technical High School, helped the School 54 dramatically improve student performance. The school went from an F to an A on the state accountability scale by holding to student to high standards and focusing on data-driven instruction.

“It’s more than just academics at this school. Ms. Bakehorn pushes for student involvement in extracurricular activities,” wrote Judith Carlile, a data coach who worked with Bakehorn at School 54 and followed her to Arsenal. “Her philosophy is ‘You want students to do well in the classroom? Well, get them involved in activities outside your classroom!’”

Margi Higgs, principal of School 91, is retiring this year but she is leaving behind a changed school. When she arrived, it was a struggling school, but she has refocused the Montessori school, creating a welcoming and collaborative environment, according to parents and teachers who nominated her.

“This principal has made a success story out of my son, who has developmental disabilities,” wrote parent Leesa Hertz. “She treated him as a regular student, helped him make academic gains, set an example of acceptance for him, and had a vision for his success right from Day One.”

Teacher nominees:
Carter Bell, Rousseau McClellan School 91
Maggie Brown, Project SITE
Cassie Davis-Woodall, Key Learning
Para Lee Gale, Charles Fairbanks, School 105
La Meca Perkins-Knight, Theodore Potter School 74
Rebecca Pfaffenberger, Rousseau McClellan School 91

Principal nominees:
Ami Anderson, ROOTS
Christine Collier, CFI 84

'rigorous and realistic'

Some struggling New York City schools can lose ground and still hit performance targets

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Mayor Bill de Blasio at Brooklyn Generation School — part of the Renewal program

Despite Mayor Bill de Blasio’s ambitious promise to transform struggling schools, some of New York City’s bottom-ranked schools can backslide this year and still hit new goals that the city has set for them.

For the first time, the city has told schools in its $582 million “Renewal” program to aim for test scores, graduation rates, or attendance rates that fall within a certain range, rather than hit a specific target. But some ranges include goals that are below the schools’ current levels.

For instance, Bronx Collegiate Academy posted a 67 percent graduation rate last year. This year, its city-issued goal is to land between 63.6 and 81.9 percent — meaning its graduation rate can go down and still fall within its target range.

At the Bronx’s J.H.S. 123, the goal is for students to earn an average score on the state English tests of between 2.3 and 2.45 — despite already achieving a 2.42 average last year. (Students must earn a 3 or higher on the 4-point scale to be considered proficient.)

The latest round of goals continues a pattern of modest targets for schools in de Blasio’s signature school-turnaround program, even as the city loads them with extra social services, extended hours, and bigger budgets. Some experts say the goals are appropriate for schools that started so far behind, and note that school turnaround can take years. But others say the goals set a low bar, and question whether they are designed to make it easier for the de Blasio administration to claim its pricey program was a success.

What’s more, the new goal ranges have created some confusion among school leaders about what they are expected to achieve and what will happen if they don’t.

“If [the goals] really are supposed to be guiding stars and shaping what schools are doing on a day-to-day basis,” said Teachers College professor Aaron Pallas, “fuzzy ranges with unclear accountability consequences is not the way to do it.”

The goals are one of the factors officials consider when deciding whether schools in the Renewal program have made sufficient progress or should instead be closed or merged with other schools.

But if they are meant to provide low-performing schools with clear targets and a sense of urgency, the new ranges have instead created some confusion. The city offered online trainings on the goals, but some school leaders remain unsure of what’s expected of them.

“What we’ve been told is: ‘You need to reach for the upper range of your benchmark,’ said an administrator at a Brooklyn Renewal school, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “It’s not a fixed number, so what’s good enough and what isn’t?”

Eric Ashton, the education department’s executive director for accountability, acknowledged that the new goal ranges had left some people confused.

Still, he defended them as “rigorous and realistic,” and said schools are expected to aim for the upper end of the range. The ranges are meant to encourage schools to focus on making progress rather than fixating on a single number, he added

“If you just have one number as a target then it’s all or nothing,” Ashton said. “We don’t want it to be all or nothing.”

The tweaks partially reflect the political dilemma the education department faces when assigning goals to the city’s lowest-performing schools: Overly modest goals could invite criticism that such small gains do not justify the program’s hefty price tag, while overly ambitious goals could set the program up for failure.

Yet despite their caution, officials have fallen into both traps.

Early goals they set for Renewal schools required such slight improvements that a top state official called them “ridiculous.” Still, many schools have failed to meet those goals, providing ammunition to some critics who say the program has been a costly disappointment.

Some schools have made strides, including a group of 21 “Rise” schools that officials say have made enough progress to begin transitioning out of the Renewal program. Pallas, the Teachers College professor, said that officials may have assigned achievable goals to the program’s remaining schools as a way to ease even more out — raising questions about the city’s long-term plans for the program.

“Setting low targets could allow the department to shift more of the schools to the Rise category, which is the declaring-victory category,” he said. “I think we’re all still wondering what the future of this program is going to be.”

How I Teach

In divisive political times, an East Harlem government teacher strives for nuance

PHOTO: Courtesy photo/Skylyn Torres
Steven Serling, wearing a New York University shirt, poses with seniors wearing gear to represent the colleges they've committed to attending.

Some teachers might prefer to avoid politics in the classroom. Not Steven Serling.

As a government teacher at Park East High School in East Harlem, it seemed impossible to ignore the polarized debates that bombard his students on social media and the nightly news. So, along with a fellow teacher, Serling came up with a series of lessons to help students search for nuance in a world of bombastic soundbites and firey tweets.

“The media and politicians, they’ve been very partisan, and we want to lump things into ‘this-or-that, black-or-white,’” Serling said. “We wanted our students to understand we are human beings who live on a spectrum.”

In class discussions, students explored how they felt about issues such as the death penalty or abortion, and researched the stances of candidates and political parties. When an online quiz revealed many of his students were politically aligned with the presidential candidate Jill Stein, some were surprised to learn there were parties outside of Democrats and Republicans — which led to a lesson on the Green Party and Libertarians.

Along the way, Serling hopes his students solidify their own principles — and gather practical knowledge about how government affects their lives.

“I try to make it as practical and real life as possible,” he said.

In an email interview, Serling explained why he has students write their opinions before discussing them, how he turns the city into a classroom, and what he learned by dropping a former student off at college.

His responses have been edited for length and clarity.

How has the current political climate affected how you teach?

As the political climate has become more polarized, it is easier to take one side or another without actually investigating or understanding the nuance. It is important for me now more than ever to make sure that I check my own political beliefs at my classroom door and engage in discussions and lessons which explore those nuances for my students to grapple with and explore their own political beliefs.

What tips do you have for encouraging and leading productive class discussions, especially when the topics you’re covering can be so polarizing?

A good academic discussion takes time to build. It starts with building a classroom community in which there is trust and respect from the start of the year.

[One]strategy that helps is having them write their response first before engaging in a verbal discussion. It allows students time to think through their beliefs, what evidence they could present, and grapple with the nuance prior to the discussion. It gives them more confidence to speak, knowing they have thought it through in writing, and they can refer to their paper if needed while they are speaking.

What’s the hardest part about getting teenagers engaged in government and politics?

Teenagers have opinions on everything, but they seem to have a ‘that’s just the way it is’ mentality and often choose not to engage in government and politics outside the classroom. It is important to me to keep my lesson as relevant as possible to their lives and present examples of government and politics at work within their community.

I have taken my students to two “Ethics in Action” forums sponsored by New York Society for Ethical Culture. The first was on climate change and the second was on police-community relations [and featured] Police Commissioner James O’Neill.

We have in the past partnered with New York Supreme Court Judge Fernando Tapia and brought the 12th grade government students to engage with the many [professionals] who help make the Bronx Court run. After the trip, many students who admitted they get tense walking past the building felt more at ease.

I will say that an unintended consequence of the recent political scene is that, the more polarized it has become, the more engaged our students have become. Students, more than ever, have been asking questions about things they have seen in the news or on their social media feeds. Many alumni have messaged me with pictures of them attending the Bernie Sanders rally in the Bronx or different protests this past year.

What does your classroom look like?

I like to think of my classroom as NYC. When we can’t go outside for a particular experience, I try and bring that experience into the physical classroom. When learning about the first amendment, we have had a former Young Lord member Iris Morales come in and speak about her experience in the 70’s organizing in East Harlem on issues around economic and social justice.When exploring the workings of criminal and civil trials, we have had an exoneree from the Innocence Project come and speak.

I couldn’t teach without my __________. Why?

YouTube. I often use YouTube to show quick visual or auditory clips to help provide context to a lesson. It brings a snapshot of the outside world into the classroom.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are off task?

I do try and be cognizant if the student is off task because they are unclear of the directions or material, if they are being distracted, or if they just need a break as they have been sitting through multiple classes with only a three minute passing.

If… I notice they need a quick break from the content, I often use YouTube to play a clip of a song that I like, which they then call “old people” music (which is sad, because I don’t think music from the 90s is old). It generates a laugh and a quick discussion about the song or artist and then we can go back to the lesson.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them?

It starts with having a welcoming classroom where everyone is recognized in some way. Be it a high five at the start, a quick check-in, or a general shout-out. I make a point to listen and ask follow-up questions when students speak.

Also, I am okay with allowing them to hear my opinion on certain government topics and current events when asked. It is humanizing and builds trust when you can hear the teacher’s opinions, personal accolades, and struggles.

I also build relationships by being involved outside of the classroom. I coach bowling, I make a point to go to at least one of each sporting event, chaperone trips, dress up during theme days and generally keep my office door open for drop-in conversations. Over time, these experiences build relationships.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.

I offered to take an alum up to college his freshman year. When I went to pick him up, his entire family including grandmother and little siblings came out to help pack the car. They hugged and we left.

His mother called me the next day to express how thankful she was for taking her son up, who was the first to go to college. She went on to express how ashamed she was that she couldn’t do it, listing numerous reasons, from her not having her drivers license and to taking care of her mother and younger siblings. She went on to say that is one of the reasons she wanted him to stay in the city for college.

This experience helped me approach our seniors a bit more empathetically, while being able to ask some questions to get answers that students may not want to express upfront to help have a more honest conversation with themselves and their parents.

What’s the best advice you ever received?

Never forget to listen and learn from your students; they are the best teachers.