come on everybody let's rally

Spike in anti-school closure protests begins to heat up the winter

Students and teachers protest the proposed closure of Jamaica High School on Wednesday. Photo courtesy William McDonald.
Students and teachers protest the proposed closure of Jamaica High School on Wednesday. Photo courtesy William McDonald.

Tis the season to light candles, exchange gifts, visit family — and protest school closures?

Last week marked the beginning of what promises to be an unusually heated season of rallies organized by opponents of the city’s plan to close 20 schools.

Some activists point to a heightened sensitivity around this year’s school closings. But the spike in public demonstrations may also be due to changes in school governance law that has required DOE officials to explain and defend their closure proposals in public, where those decisions were once made behind closed doors.

“I think the amount of activity this year is definitely unusual,” said parent activist Leonie Haimson. “Among people who pay attention to these things, I think there’s an overwhelming sense of enough is enough and an attitude that we’re going to fight back.”

This afternoon, teachers union head Michael Mulgrew will join parents and City Council members to protest school closings on the steps of Tweed Courthouse.

Last week, hundreds of students, parents and teachers rallied against the closure of Jamaica High School in Queens. Smaller protest gatherings were also held at Norman Thomas High School in Manhattan, Metropolitan Corporate Academy and Maxwell High School in Brooklyn. Much of last week’s four-hour-long citywide school board meeting was spent in public comment session as students and teachers vented their frustration at the proposed school phase-outs.

And in the new year, the frequency of demonstrations against closings is expected to increase. According to a list of demonstrations circulated by the city teachers union, events are being planned at schools slated for closure for nearly every weekday during the first two weeks of the year. Members of an internal opposition group within the UFT have begun to organize a January protest at City Hall or at the residence of Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

A UFT official said union representatives met with teachers at all of the schools facing closure, offering support to anyone who wanted to fight. Teachers at more than half the schools accepted the offer, he said. Some teachers, such as those at Jamaica, used UFT phone banks to encourage parents and teachers to attend Wednesday’s rally against closing the high school.

Schools were given more advance warning because of a newly-mandated 45-day comment period before a final decision can be made, Haimson said. Public hearings now required to be held at each school slated for closure give opponents a natural platform for organized protests. And the January 26 Panel for Educational Policy meeting, the first public vote on school closures since the DOE began shuttering schools in the 2004-05 school year, will likely draw teachers and families from all over the city to Brooklyn Tech’s thousand-seat auditorium.

Haimson said that while the changes in governance laws have made a difference, a more important factor has been an increased awareness of the consequences of school closures for students and teachers. “The first few rounds, there wasn’t enough of an understanding about the effects of the situation,” she said.

Norm Scott, an activist and member of an opposition party within the UFT, said that an increase in the number of schools slated for closure may correspond to an increase in protests. The DOE announced plans to shutter 20 schools this year, more than in previous rounds — last year, 12 schools began to phase out, and 15 the year before that.

Scott also said there may also be a greater level of surprise at which schools were selected in this round of closings. “Now what they’ve done is take schools where people are really shocked,” he said. Some of the schools slated for closure have received bonuses for the past two years for reaching their performance targets on state tests, and other schools with lower graduation rates dodged the ax.

Each round of school closings has been controversial. A DOE official said that opposition against closures this round has not reached the level it did last year, when a group of parents, community leaders and the UFT sued to prevent the DOE from closing three elementary schools and replacing them with charter schools. The DOE backed off that plan in April.

The Panel for Educational Policy, which will have the final say on each school’s closure, has never voted down a DOE proposal. But last week the DOE withdrew a proposal to eliminate the sixth grade from a Bronx school after parent and community members protested.

Klein told reporters earlier this month that there was a chance that public feedback could change the minds of DOE officials. “These are well thought-through decisions, but I don’t foreclose the possibility based on what we hear that we’ll come to a different final decision,” he said.

the aftermath

What educators, parents, and students are grappling with in the wake of America’s latest school shooting

Kristi Gilroy (right) hugs a young woman at a police check point near the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School where 17 people were killed by a gunman in Parkland, Florida. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

It’s hard to know where to start on days like this.

The shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, that left 17 people dead on Wednesday has elicited both terror and anger — and raised debates that are far from settled about how to keep American students safe.

Here are a few storylines we noticed as the country again grapples with a tragic school shooting:

1. You’re not wrong to think it: There have been a lot of mass shootings, and many recent ones have been especially deadly.

Data on school shootings specifically, though, is notoriously murky. As the Atlantic recently noted, varying definitions can contribute to either “sensationalizing or oversimplifying a modern trend of mass violence in America that is seemingly becoming more entrenched.”

But by NBC News’ count, 20 people have been killed and more than 30 have been injured in school shootings this year. That’s a lot — and more news organizations are now trying to keep a careful tally.

2. The consequences of traumatic events like the shooting at Stoneman Douglas are likely to be felt for some time.

A number of studies have found that violent and traumatic events in and outside of school do real damage to student learning, as we’ve reported — particularly among students who are already struggling. Here are some resources for teachers who need to talk to their students about trauma.

3. The tragedy is already renewing debates over whether or how to arm teachers.

Education Week gathered some of those calls from politicians Thursday. “Gun-safety advocates say that teachers can’t safely and quickly move from the mindset of teaching to being asked to fire a gun at an active shooter,” the story also notes.

This doesn’t even get at the debate about whether anyone should have access to the kind of gun the shooter used. Students from the district, for their part, told Broward schools chief Robert Runcie Thursday “that the time is due for a conversation on sensible gun control,” the Miami Herald reported.

Whether other technology and infrastructure can help keep students safe is a topic of ongoing discussion in communities across the country. Colorado lawmakers are considering a bill to help schools buy communications systems that would allow them to talk directly to police and other emergency responders. Officials from districts that already use this equipment described them as a way to increase safety without “turning our schools into prisons,” even as they also assured lawmakers that the radios were just as useful for serious playground injuries and broken-down buses as for the much rarer active shooter situations.

In Tennessee, one school district near Nashville announced plans to close schools next Monday to review all safety plans with school staff and local law enforcement.

4. In some places, the shooting is unlikely to change the school safety debate at all.

In New York City, for example, conversations about school safety in recent years have revolved around discipline policies and metal detectors (though police have seized an increasing number of weapons from city schools). There’s little appetite there to arm teachers.

5. But all across America, the shooting and others like it have added a frightening tone to what it means to teach and learn in schools today.

“I know you are waking up this morning to a nightmare,” a former educator wrote in a “love letters to teachers” on Teaching Tolerance. “I know you are frustrated, tired and weary of the news. I know you are wearing your coat of bravery today.”

“I’m so, so angry and I’m having a hard time today looking at my students and not thinking about what happens when it’s my school’s turn,” wrote one commenter on the Badass Teachers Association Facebook group.

getting to graduation

New York City graduation rate hits record high of 74.3 percent in 2017

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the 2017 graduation rate at South Bronx Preparatory school.

New York City’s graduation rate rose to 74.3 percent in 2017, a slight increase over the previous year and a new high for the city.

The 1.2 percentage point increase over the previous year continues an upward climb for the city, where the overall graduation rate has grown by nearly 28 points since 2005. The state graduation rate also hit a new high — 82.1 percent — just under the U.S. rate of 84.1 percent.

The city’s dropout rate fell to 7.8 percent, a small decline from the previous year and the lowest rate on record, according to the city.

“New York City is showing that when we invest in our students, they rise to the challenge and do better and better,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a statement Wednesday.

More graduates were also deemed ready for college-level work. Last year, 64 percent of graduates earned test scores that met the City University of New York’s “college-ready” benchmark — up more than 13 percentage points from the previous year. 

However, the gains came after CUNY eased its readiness requirements; without that change, city officials said the increase would be significantly smaller. But even with the less rigorous requirements, more than a third of city students who earned high-school diplomas would be required to take remedial classes at CUNY.

Phil Weinberg, the education department’s deputy chancellor for teaching and learning, noted that CUNY’s college-readiness requirements are more demanding than New York’s graduation standards — which are among the toughest in the country.

We will work toward making sure none of our students need remediation when they get to college,” he told reporters. “But that’s a long game for us and we continue to move in that direction.”

The rising graduation rates follow a series of changes the state has made in recent years to help more students earn diplomas.

The graduation-requirement changes include allowing students with disabilities to earn a diploma by passing fewer exit exams and letting more students appeal a failed score. In addition, students can now substitute a work-readiness credential for one of the five Regents exams they must pass in order to graduate — adding to a number of other alternative tests the state has made available in the past few years.

About 9,900 students used one of those alternative-test or credential options in 2017, while 315 students with disabilities took advantage of the new option for them, according to state officials. They could not say how many students successfully appealed a low test score; but in 2016, about 1,300 New York City students did so.

The news was mixed for schools in de Blasio’s high-profile “Renewal” improvement program for low-performing schools. Among the 28 high schools that have received new social services and academic support through the program, the graduation rate increased to nearly 66 percent — almost a 6 percentage point bump over 2016. Their dropout rate also fell by about 2 points, to 16.4 percent, though that remains more than twice as high as the citywide rate.

However, more than half of the high schools in that $568 million program — 19 out of 28 — missed the graduation goals the city set for them, according to a New York Times analysis based on preliminary figures.

Graduation rates for students who are still learning English ticked up slightly to 32.5 percent, following a sharp decline the previous year that the state education commissioner called “disturbing.” City officials argue that students who improved enough to shed the designation of “English language learner” in the years before they graduated should also be counted; among that larger group, the graduation rate was 53 percent in 2017.

Meanwhile, the graduation-rate gap between white students and their black and Hispanic peers narrowed a smidgen, but it remains wide. Last year, the graduation rate was about 83 percent for white students, 70 percent for black students, and 68 percent for Hispanic students. That represented a closing of the gap between white and black students by 0.4 percentage points, and 0.1 points between whites and Hispanic.

Asian students had the highest rate — 87.5 percent — a nearly 2 point increase from the previous year that widened their lead over other racial groups.

Christina Veiga contributed reporting.