First Person

Christopher Columbus High School: A Context for Accountability

Christine Rowland is a teacher and professional developer at the UFT Teacher Center at Christopher Columbus High School. She has been at Columbus since 2002.

On Monday, a team from the Department of Education walked into Christopher Columbus High School to announce that it would be closed. It was a profoundly upsetting day for our entire community (on Pearl Harbor Day, as Columbus’s UFT chapter leader Donald March pointed out). I would like to take this opportunity to address the issues surrounding this decision and to appeal for a reversal.

Until several years ago, Columbus was a school that contained a diverse student body not only in terms of races, nationalities and language backgrounds, but also abilities. In 1998, 41-56% of the entering freshmen and sophomores were on grade level in reading and math at entry. By 2005, this number dropped to 5.9% of entering freshmen in reading and 14% in math.

Cohorts are entry cohorts, e.g. Cohort 2005 4-year graduation would be in 2009

In concert with this drop in the skill level of entering freshmen, there was a steep rise in the percentage of special education freshmen from 6.8% to 23.6% of our graduation cohorts:

Percentage of students in the graduation cohort with special education designation

Did the school accept students with very high needs previously? Absolutely. But this was not the sole mission of the school. Several years ago the Bronx High Schools Superintendent’s Office broke off our prestige programs designed to meet the needs of our most able students into separate schools: Collegiate Institute for Math and Science, Pelham Preparatory Academy and Astor Academy. High-performing students who had once come to Columbus instead went to these schools, as did many experienced and skilled educators. In addition, New World Academy opened nearby with Columbus educators as an ELL-only school. These schools see students who are far lower in need.

Columbus’s great good fortune was that, as the changes took place, Lisa Fuentes, a seasoned special educator, was made principal. She has worked tirelessly, extremely long hours and frequently seven days a week to help our students become successful.

Columbus initially reeled under the changes as classes became more challenging both academically and behaviorally. The school was initially badly overcrowded at 180% of capacity and on an end-to-end schedule (juniors and seniors 7 a.m.-12:30 p.m. and freshmen and sophomores 12:30-6 p.m.), and the school went on the dreaded Impact list of schools suffering from high levels of violence. As a community we fought for equity and worked hard to reorganize ourselves into smaller learning communities. The efforts paid off as our environment improved physically, culturally, and in terms of safety.

We also learned that the same old practices were not sufficient to meet the needs of our most vulnerable students. In response, we changed the way the  school was structured so that we could offer stronger instruction that is tailored to each student’s needs. We launched new programs in each of the last three years designed to meet the special needs of our most vulnerable students, including those under pressure to work, those who are pregnant or parenting, and those returning to school after being in jail. In addition, we launched separate advisory programs for male and  female students.

The DOE gave four reasons for phasing out Columbus.

First, the department stated that our graduation rate was 36.9% in 2007-8. This is not accurate. This was the four-year graduation rate after the DOE had placed 26 formerly ungraded special education students back into the cohort after the end of the school year as a result of changes in federal regulations regarding the consideration of special needs students. The DOE, recognizing the unfairness of the situation, in a July 2008 memo agreed not to penalize schools because of these students. After adjustments were made the 4-year graduation rate was 40.1%, and our weighted 4-year graduation rate (a progress report measure that takes into account how challenging the student population is) became 68.8%. But the issue is deeper for us because many of our students take five, six, or even seven years to graduate. Columbus’s most recent 7-year graduation rate (published under longitudinal reports on the DOE Web site) was 81.5%, compared to a city average of 72.2%.

Second, the DOE charges that first-year credit accumulation is low, with only 49.4% of first-year students accumulating 10+ credits in their first year. Removing first-year students who were sent to Columbus throughout the year improves this number to 54.1%. These students are frequently enrolled only for a brief period and are going through additional challenges in their lives that make high credit accumulation particularly challenging. The figure for our non-special education students with 10+ credits was actually 60.2%.

Third, the DOE asserts that demand for the school is low. This year 292 students elected to come to Columbus through the high school application process. We have accepted another 182 “over the counter” so far this year. Considering that fact that our overall enrollment is only 1,400 this would seem to indicate that there is plenty of demand for the school. We believe that we have an extensive array of offerings in the fine arts, music, culinary arts, and technology that, along with a wide range of extra-curricular opportunities, make Columbus attractive to students who are looking for more than reading, writing and arithmetic.

Fourth, and finally, we received a D on our 2008-2009 Progress Report, down from a C in 2006-7 and 2007-8. Last year we received 100% of our performance bonus for an improvement that amounted to approximately 17% after adjustments were made for changes in the metrics. This year we made a 13.8% gain in total over last year — improving again. The reason the grade went down was because the DOE changed the targets. Had we received exactly the same score as last year we could have received an F. Our Environment category actually showed a 31% gain — up in every single category and we STILL went down from a B to a C in that area. The reality is that there are many flaws with the progress reports (some of them have been outlined here and here). While we have the second lowest peer index (population challenge level) of any of the 372 high schools receiving a progress report, the peer index does not reflect the proportion of students with special needs who have been identified as requiring the most restrictive environment. A simple comparison of A and D schools on the progress reports show that D schools have four times the most restrictive environment students as A schools.

So how does all of this affect our current student body? Many of our students were deeply upset over the announcement. There was shock and pain, tears, hugs and anger.  They will fight nobly, I’m sure, to try to keep their beloved school  (see the SAVE COLUMBUS Facebook group with more than 900 members as of writing) for as long as there is hope. We will try hard to keep up their spirits and to help them try to refocus on achieving academic success, but Columbus is much more than a school to so many of them (please see our video on YouTube for an illustration). Teachers will see that they stand to be made ATRs and will make the gut wrenching choice to either stay and support the students they care for so deeply, putting their own future at risk, or will polish their resumes and try to find a small school placement as rapidly as possible. In this environment students will lose many of the teachers they love and trust and the environment will deteriorate. This will impact all schools in the building. We know that under such circumstances their opportunities will also suffer.

I’m also concerned about what will happen to the students who would otherwise attend Columbus. Small schools cannot accommodate many students with significant needs. These students are likely to wind up at other large schools in the area, such as Truman and Lehman, which will receive a massive influx of extremely needy students including late-entry immigrants with little or no English, and the most needy special education students. A report that came out last summer proved what is obvious: Other big schools suffer when a large school gets closed. It will take time for the new receiving schools to adjust their instructional practices and programs to meet the needs of the changing population. These schools will be the next targets for closure just the way we have taken those who would at one time have been placed in Evander or Stevenson.

It seems there is a political agenda driving where students are placed. OSEPO (Office of Strategic Enrollment, Planning and Operations) would, I’m sure, claim that they place students in the schools that can best meet individual student needs, but as long as the Office of Accountability engages in evaluative practices that effectively punish such schools, the fatal combination of the actions of the two offices of the Department of Education would seem to be showing a disregard for the well-being of children.

Right now our longer term outcomes are relatively good for our students, helping them along the path to graduation even when they take more than four years. Those students with severe special needs are helped as frequently as possible with work study programs that provide them with job skills, and frequently job placements on leaving the school. We ask that the DOE reconsider their decision and give the Christopher Columbus community the reprieve it deserves. Outcomes can be improved by creating a more equitable situation around school enrollment. We all need a holiday miracle.

First Person

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.

First Person

I was an attorney representing school districts in contract talks. Here’s why I hope the Supreme Court doesn’t weaken teachers unions.

PHOTO: Creative Commons / supermac1961

Many so-called education reformers argue that collective bargaining — and unions — are obstacles to real change in education. It’s common to hear assertions about how “restrictive” contracts and “recalcitrant” unions put adult interests over children’s.

The underlying message: if union power were minimized and collective bargaining rights weakened or eliminated, school leaders would be able to enact sweeping changes that could disrupt public education’s status quo.

Those that subscribe to this view are eagerly awaiting the Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. At issue is the constitutionality of “agency” or “fair share” fees — employee payroll deductions that go to local unions, meant to cover the costs of negotiating and implementing a bargaining agreement.

In states that permit agency fees (there are about 20), a teacher may decline to be part of a union but must still pay those fees. If the Supreme Court rules that those agency fees are unconstitutional, and many teachers do not voluntarily pay, local unions will be deprived of resources needed to negotiate and enforce bargaining agreements.

Based on my experience as an attorney representing school districts in bargaining and contract issues, I have this to say to those hoping the Court will strike down these fees: be careful what you wish for.

Eliminating fair share fees (and trying to weaken unions) represents a misguided assumption about bargaining — that the process weakens school quality. To the contrary, strong relationships with unions, built through negotiations, can help create the conditions for student and school success. Indeed, in my experience, the best superintendents and school boards seized bargaining as an opportunity to advance their agenda, and engaged unions as partners whenever possible.

Why, and how, can this work? For one, the process of negotiations provides a forum for school leaders and teachers to hear one another’s concerns and goals. In my experience, this is most effective in districts that adopt “interest-based bargaining,” which encourages problem-solving as starting point for discussions as opposed to viewing bargaining as a zero-sum game.

Interest-based bargaining begins with both sides listing their major concerns and brainstorming solutions. The touchstone for a solution to be adopted in a bargaining agreement: Is the proposal in the best interests of children? This important question, if embedded in the process, forces both sides to carefully consider their shared mission.

For example, some districts I worked with paid teachers less than comparable neighboring districts did. It would have been unreasonable for unions to insist that their pay be increased enough to even that difference out, because that would mean reducing investments in other items of importance to children, like technology or infrastructure. At the same time, it would have been untenable for management to play “hard ball” and deny the problem, because to do so would likely lead to a disgruntled workforce.

Instead, both sides were forced to “own” the issue and collaboratively craft plausible solutions. That made unions more agreeable to proposals that demonstrated some commitment by the district to addressing the issue of pay, and districts open to other things that they could provide without breaking the budget (like more early release days for professional development).

To be sure, many school administrators could get frustrated with the process of bargaining or having to consult the negotiated agreement when they want to make a change. Some districts would very much like to adopt an extended school day, for example, but they know that they must first consult and negotiate such an idea with the union.

Yet, in districts where school administrators had built a reservoir of goodwill through collective bargaining, disagreement does not come at the cost of operating schools efficiently. Both sides come to recognize that while they inevitably will disagree on some things, they can also seek agreement — and often do on high-stakes matters, like teacher evaluations.

How does this relate to the Supreme Court’s pending decision? Without fees from some teachers, unions may lack the resources to ensure that contract negotiations and enforcement are robust and done well. This could create a vicious cycle: teachers who voluntarily pay fees for bargaining in a post-Janus world, assuming the court rules against the unions, will view such payments as not delivering any return on investment. In turn, they will stop contributing voluntarily, further degrading the quality of the union’s services.

Even more troubling, if fair share fees are prohibited, resentment and internal strife will arise between those who continue to pay the fees and those who refuse. This would undercut a primary benefit of bargaining — labor peace and a sense of shared purpose.

Speaking as a parent, this raises a serious concern: who wants to send their child to a school where there is an undercurrent of bitterness between teachers and administrators that will certainly carry over into the classroom?

It is easy to see the appeal of those opposing agency fees. No one wants to see more money going out of their paycheck. The union-as-bogeyman mentality is pervasive. Moreover, in my experience, some teachers (especially the newer ones) do not recognize the hidden benefits to bargaining contracts.

But, obvious or not, agency fees help promote a stable workplace that allows teachers to concentrate on their primary responsibility: their students. Removing the key ingredient threatens this balance.

Mark Paige is a former school teacher and school law attorney who represented school districts in New England. He is currently an associate professor of public policy at the University of Massachusetts – Dartmouth.