on the ground

Live-blogging the first day of school, from all five boroughs

As he does every year, Chancellor Joel Klein takes a five-borough tour on the first day of school. For the second time, we’re chronicling his journey and the first day of school for the city’s 1.1 million students in 1,600 schools. Anna and Maura will be sending dispatches from the road all day.

Want to add your own first-day-of-school stories or pictures? Email us.

2:59 p.m. And that’s a wrap. PS 65 has broken out the celebratory pizza, and Klein is taking a slice of his favorite snack. “That’s what you should blog about,” he said to Maura, who’s now on the way back to the GothamSchools office, the year’s first first day of school complete. Only 179 more school days until summer vacation.

2:58 p.m. A final note about the PS 65 Dolphins. Why are you like dolphins? Principal Scamardella asked a group of third-graders. Their answers ranged from “because we’re nice” to “because we keep our hands to ourselves.”

2:57 p.m. Teachers union president Michael Mulgrew just called to respond to Klein’s claim that he didn’t come along on Klein’s first-day tour for political reasons. The real reason was purely logistical, he said.

“Yesterday they invited us and I had already told people I was going to different schools,” Mulgrew said. “I don’t know why he’s trying to make this about him and I.”

2:50 p.m. The city just posted a peek into what reporters missed while they were stuck in traffic earlier today: Manhattan Village Academy students discussing the importance of leadership.

2:43 p.m. Principal Scamardella says familiarizing PS 65 teachers with the “common core” standards for what students should learn is the biggest task ahead of her. She also says PS 65 is devising a new way to grade students that allows students to participate in the grading process.

2:36 p.m. Klein pops into a science class where the teacher is reading aloud from The Secret Science Project that Almost Ate the School, a children’s book that she paints as a cautionary tale for students who don’t take their schoolwork seriously — “especially in science!” Unlike most of the teachers Klein visited today, she doesn’t interrupt her instruction. She’s animated, and her students are engaged.

“Good teacher!” Klein whispers to Principal Scamardella as he exits the classroom.

2:25 p.m. Creative thinking appears to be alive and well at PS 65. Third-graders are talking about what they want to be when they grow up. One boy’s answer: “Batman — because the Batcave is cool.” Then he spun Klein an elaborate tale about Indiana Jones, C3PO from Star Wars, and Batman.

Another girl, who has had perfect attendance since kindergarten, says she wants to be a brain surgeon.

Klein’s suggestion? That the students all become teachers.

2:17 p.m. The principal of PS 65, Sophie Scamardella, has a passion for dolphins, telling Insideschools that the sea creatures embody the virtues she wants to develop in her students. She gave Klein a dolphin pen, which the chancellor said brought back memories of once taking his daughter swimming with dolphins. (Full disclosure: Maura accepted the dolphin pen Scamardella offered her.)

2:11 p.m. Maura’s on Staten Island now, where the city is trying to cut off yellow bus service for some middle school students. “I wish it were otherwise but I have to deal with the economic realities,” Klein said.

2:03 p.m. Last year, teachers union president Michael Mulgrew joined Klein for one of his back-to-school visits, at PS 111 in Queens. Mulgrew was invited to join again today but declined, Klein said.

The union and city are locked in a fierce battle over how to fix failing schools. Klein said Mulgrew’s choice of where to spend the first day of school, which included a school on the city’s to-close list, reflected the union’s single-minded focus on getting more resources, while his own itinerary rewarded schools that are doing especially well with regular funding.

“He’s going to go to where he wants to go,” Klein said. “Those schools aren’t serving their students and I think we should focus on the schools that are serving the needs of their students.”

“If he wants to use this as a political opportunity, that’s up to him,” Klein said. “My own view is, the first day we come together and talk about things we’re working on together.”

Earlier today, Mulgrew told Anna he chose to visit PS 332, which the city tried to close, to draw attention to its students’ needs, which he said are not being met.

“I’ve been visiting schools today that have very high percentages of high-needs students that need extra support and I want to make sure that, as a city, that we’re doing everything we possibly can to give the supports to these schools, to the children, so that they can all be successful,” he said. “We don’t want children being the victims of this tough economy.”

Mulgrew said PS 332 would benefit from having social services delivered to its students at school. Teachers there want a community group to start an after-school program, he said. And he said administrators at PS 1 are trying to scrape together funding for a Saturday program.

“In New York City as a community we need to do everything we can,” Mulgrew said. “And just saying you’re on your own isn’t going to work.”

1:29 p.m. Just like last year, GothamSchools is the only news outlet keeping a reporter in the press van all the way through Chancellor Klein’s Staten Island stop. Maura is on her way now.

1:02 p.m. The press van has finally made it to Manhattan Village Academy, a high school that once belonged to the progressive Coalition of Essential Schools but now does not. The chancellor went ahead and visited classrooms without his coterie of reporters, so it’s soon on to the last stop of the day, Staten Island’s PS 65, an early childhood school.

12:15 p.m. The press van is stuck in traffic on the Cross-Bronx Expressway. Klein’s car took a different route to his fourth stop, Manhattan Village Academy in Midtown, and he has been there for 25 minutes already.

Noon: Klein isn’t sticking just to local issues during his five-borough tour. He also weighed in on the edujobs bill meant to prevent teacher layoffs. School officials told Maura today that the edujobs fund saved the jobs of 800 school aides and paraprofessionals. But Klein emphasized that the jobs are safe only for now.

“That’s one-time money and we’ve got to be very careful,” he said. He also warned that the city could be in for a fiscal shot once federal stimulus money dries up at the end of this school year.

11:13 a.m. Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. has joined Klein at the Bronx Charter School for Excellence, located in a former police precinct in the Parkchester section of the Bronx. Visiting a class where students are seated with their hands folded over their notebooks, Diaz asked how many of the students live in the Bronx. Almost all the students’ hands went up. Then he asked how many live in the same neighborhood of the school. About half the hands went up. How many feel safe in this school? All the hands went back up.

Klein opened the floor to questions from students. A student named Justin asked, “do you think I have a chance to be the president if I try my best?” Another asked, “Excuse me, why are you here today?” It’s not actually the first day for Bronx School for Excellence students.

“The first day you were chancellor, were you nervous?” asked a third student. “I’m still nervous,” Klein answered, adding that he was especially anxious because he hadn’t worked in schools before. “But now I’ve learned the system and have a great team.”

Leaving the room, Klein told the students, “You guys are tougher than the media.”

11:05 a.m. UFT president Michael Mulgrew has exited PS 1. He says he chose the school for his first-day visit because it has so many students who are not native English speakers — 42 percent of students are classified as English language learners — and many homeless students. There is a shelter right behind the school.

10:57 a.m. The Bronx Charter School for Excellence has one of the highest proficiency rates among city charter schools, which took an outsized hit after this year’s test score adjustments. Maura just walked into a fourth-grade class where students are defining endpoints on a line segment. From the hall, she heard another class getting instruction through rhythmic chanting. Otherwise, she reports, the school is very, very quiet.

10:48 a.m. Klein addressed two looming policy questions during his van ride: How to fix failing schools and what to do about the costly pool of teachers whose jobs have been eliminated.

First, Klein explained why schools that are staying open against the city’s wishes aren’t getting any of the extra resources that are going to other struggling schools this year. “These are schools we intend to phase out,” he said. “The solution … is to replace [them] with better schools. We’ve done this so many times in this city and we’ve succeeded and that will continue to be our strategy.”

Klein also said the schools slated for closure have gotten extra resources, both from the city and state, but haven’t improved. “I wish I had lots and lots of money, but I also believe that the differences in schools are related to things other than money,” he said.

About the Absent Teacher Reserve, the pool of teachers whose jobs have been eliminated but who continue to draw salaries, Klein said today, “We’ve done everything we can.”

There are currently about 1,800 teachers in the pool, which the city says will cost about $100 million this year to maintain. Klein has said he wants to give teachers six months to find a new position or be fired.

“Wouldn’t we rather have $100 million to hire teachers that Jack Spatola and others want than to pay a bunch of ATRs?” Klein said.

10:40 a.m. Klein chatted with reporters in the Department of Education’s press van traveled between Queens Gateway and the chancellor’s third stop, Bronx Charter School for Excellence. Here’s some of what he said:

Is today an instructional day? “Of course! It’s the first day of school.”

About the schedule: “I don’t understand for the life of me why the UFT balked on this.”

On overcrowding: “The good news is we’re bringing a lot more seats, but in parts of Queens and parts of Manhattan there are real issues.”

On the city’s test scores: “Choosing adjectives is important and I think our progress by any measure has been substantial.”

Klein also followed up on the Roosevelt discussion from Queens Gateway with his own list of favorite presidents. Topping the list is Abraham Lincoln, and Roosevelt is high up there. Klein called Harry Truman “underrated.” He concluded: “I’m always going to be partial to the president I worked for, Bill Clinton. I think history is going to judge him well.”

10:28 a.m. Some families spend the first day of school trying to get inside. Reports Anna:

I’m standing outside of the school … Parents are walking in trying to register their kids. But it’s the nearby schools are full, so they can’t. Father is here, speaks only Chinese, trying to enroll his son in kindergarten. He told the school months ago that his son wanted to attend, and he says they promised him a spot. He’s been to PS 1 and PS 2 this morning and both schools told him they were full. But they didn’t tell him to go to the enrollment center.

Moments later, Anna reports, the mother showed up as well, crying.

10:20 a.m. A Lower East Side parent just asked Anna where she should go to enroll her child in kindergarten. The answer: Midtown. Beginning last week, families could go to their zoned school to enroll. Now, parents have to go to a Department of Education registration center. The center on East 23rd Street is the farthest downtown.

10:10 a.m. Strike what we said about Mulgrew making an appearance before reporters at Manhattan’s PS 1. The union president is in the building, but we’re out on the street — he didn’t invite reporters inside. Before he entered, Mulgrew told Anna he came from PS 332, one of the 19 schools the city tried to close. He also said he thinks overcrowding is likely to be a bigger issue this year than ever before.

Comptroller John Liu is also on the scene.

10:05 a.m. An economics class at Queens Gateway is packed with 29 students, and there’s not much room to move around. One upside of this news: It appears that Queens Gateway students didn’t use the single midweek schoolday as an excuse to stay home.

The school is graduating its first students this year, so seniors have been together since seventh grade. The school was supposed to add a sixth grade this year, but that addition has been delayed to 2011.

9:55 a.m. Queens Gateway has a partnership with Queens Hospital Center, on whose grounds the school’s new building is located. Staff from the hospital are at the school daily, and students visit the hospital for lectures and other events, officials told Maura.

In a science class this morning, students — all wearing blue scrubs-like shirts with the school’s logo and the words “hospital program” — are taking each other’s pulse and blood pressure. Klein joins in, rolling up his sleeve to let a student evaluate him.

“The only reason I’m doing this is to prove that I do have a pulse,” Klein quips.

9:42 a.m. State Sen. Malcolm Smith has joined Queens Gateway students in an eighth-grade social studies class. “The best subject on earth!” one student exclaimed.

Smith and Chancellor Klein are sitting in on a student’s presentation about “the only president born and raised in New York, Theodore Roosevelt,” the subject of the class’s summer project.

“You had summer schoolwork?” Smith asked. “Of course they did!” Klein told him.

9:35 a.m. Maura has made it to her second stop of the day, Queens Gateway to Health Sciences Seconday School, which opened today in one of 26 new school buildings.

Maura is getting a tour of the $70 million campus from two seniors, student body president Angelica Villafana and Manrose Singh. The two students also led tours last week, when lots of other students returned early from summer vacation to check out the new building. “That’s amazing,” Klein told them.

One impressive feature: the school’s gleaming auditorium, complete with a wheelchair-accessible stage.

9 a.m. Back to Twitter, where the city schools’ official account has posted a picture of Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz smiling during his stop at PS 172. “Perfect attendance starts today!” NYCSchools excitedly posted earlier today, referring to the city’s “Every Student, Every Day” campaign aimed at reducing absenteeism. “stfu,” responded spectacularx3, a Twitter user who appears to be a city high school student.

8:39 a.m. Talk has turned to the 19 schools the city tried — and failed, by court order — to close this year. “I don’t know why anyone would want to send their parents there,” Bloomberg said, obviously meaning to say students. He called the lawsuit that stopped the closures “an outrageous suit by some groups that want to hurt the kids.”

“Fundamentally the mayor is right,” said Klein. When you want to keep failing schools open “the message you’re sending is that failure is acceptable,” he said. The city halved the number of new students placed in most of the 19 schools this year.

8:36 a.m. Is the story of the New York City public schools one of slow and steady progress? asks the reporter from the New York Times. “I don’t think there is anyone who thinks you can fix education in a revolutionary way,” Bloomberg answers. “It’s an evolutionary process and it never stops.”

8:34 a.m. What about class size? Spatola says he’s boosting classes from 24 to 25 students in all grades this year. But he says he doesn’t foresee instruction being affected.

Says Bloomberg: “We’re just never going to have the ultimate class size, which is one teacher per student. The public doesn’t want to pay for that.”

8:32 a.m. Back at PS 172, Bloomberg is answering reporters’ questions, and he’s upset (as usual) that some are questioning the city’s tale of unabated school improvement.

Asked how he could feel hopeful with lower-than-expected test scores and a 25 percent graduation rate for black male students, Bloomberg says test scores have actually improved dramatically. “Your facts are wrong,” he tells the reporter who asked. About the poll this week showing that most New Yorkers disapprove of his school reforms, he said, “So we have a PR problem, but I’m not going to devote resources to that.”

New York City is a model for districts around the country, and its 80,000 teachers are working hard, Bloomberg said. “For you to denigrate their efforts is just an outrage,” he chastised reporters.

8:25 a.m. Anna is on her way now to Manhattan’s Chinatown, where United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew will address reporters at PS 1.

8:20 a.m. Klein says PS 172 was one of the first schools he visited when he first became chancellor, “too long ago to remember.” The school does many things well, from engaging parents to focusing on individual students, he said today. “We have a pilot called School of One, but in truth, this was a School of One long before that,” Klein said.

Klein noted that PS 172 delivered high test scores even after the state’s new standards were applied. “Jack never thought it was enough just to get people over the bar,” he said.

8:10 a.m. Now arranged in a formal press conference, Bloomberg, Klein, and Spatola are lavishing praise on each other. Spatola said his support for Bloomberg and Klein is sincere. “I’ve been principal for 26 years, I don’t need to brownnose anyone,” Spatola said. Responded Bloomberg: “I should take him to every press conference.”

8:01 a.m. Mayor Michael Bloomberg has just arrived at PS 172. “You guys are changing the world,” he tells two teachers starting their day.

Even amid all of the first day madness, some parents are quietly having breakfast with their children in PS 172’s cafeteria. They appear reluctant to leave, Maura reports.

7:59 a.m. With budget cuts totaling about 12 percent since 2007, parents and teachers are increasingly taking on the burden of providing basic supplies. Parents are showing up to PS 169, also in Sunset Park, with shopping bags bulging with supplies the school asked them to bring, Anna reports. One mom has two girls enrolled in the school, and two big bags per girl. Her bags are stuffed with pencils, Kleenex, baby wipes, toilet paper, notebooks, binders, and more.

Anna says she hasn’t heard a student speaking a language other than Spanish or Chinese all morning. More than half of PS 169’s students are Hispanic and another 41 percent are Asian. More than 45 percent of students are considered English language learners.

Adding to the confusion at PS 169: Each of the school’s grades was supposed to enter through a different door.

7:50 a.m. Twitter is flush with posts about the first day of school. Parents are posting pictures before their kids head out the door, and teachers are sharing their anxieties. “Yay first day of school! Boo, my throat hurting and being really scratchy. Boo,” wrote BNiche, a second-year third-grade teacher named Brent who is part of the city’s Teaching Fellows program.

7:38 a.m. Maura grabbed a few minutes with PS 172 principal Jack Spatola just before city dignitaries descended on the Sunset Park school. She asked him whether the school, known for its high test scores, would be making any changes as a result of the state’s toughened test standards.

Not more than usual, Spatola answered. “When you individualize like we do, you’re doing something different every day,” he said, adding that PS 172 has long put a lot of energy into tailoring instruction to every student’s particular needs.

So will the state’s test score debacle have no affect on PS 172? “In terms of the new tests? The new cutoff scores? No,” Spatola said. “We never aim for that. If you do, you’re at the mercy of outside forces.”

7:32 a.m. Also on hand at PS 172 is Jim Devor, the president of the elected parent council for District 15, where the school is located. “As much as this school is a really great school, and it is, I wish they would honor some of the other promises they’ve made to Sunset Park,” Devor said about the city’s Department of Education. Among those promises, he said: a new school to ease crowding and a new playground for PS 172.

7:27 a.m. Klein just arrived at PS 172 and gave a hug and kiss to Christopher, a kindergartner who was one of the students to arrive when his parents dropped him off early along with a teacher.

Chatting with a student named Karly, Klein, principals union president Ernest Logan, and PS 172 Principal Jack Spatola bantered about recent changes to city schools. “I love it all the time, but I have been particularly happy since you came on board,” Spatola said to Klein.

7:10 a.m. Maura just arrived at the first school on the chancellor’s itinerary, PS 172 in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park.

weekend update

How the education world is reacting to racist violence in Charlottesville — and to Trump’s muted response

PHOTO: Andrew Dallos/Flickr
A rally against hate in Tarrytown, New York, responds to the violence in Charlottesville.

For educators across the country, this weekend’s eruption of racism and violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, offered yet another painful opportunity to communicate their values to families, colleagues, and community members.

Many decried the white supremacists who convened in the college town and clashed with protesters who had come to oppose their message. Some used social media to outline ideas about how to turn the distressing news into a teaching moment.

And others took issue with President Donald Trump’s statement criticizing violence “on many sides,” largely interpreted as an unwillingness to condemn white supremacists.

One leading education official, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, followed Trump’s approach, criticizing what happened but not placing blame on anyone in particular:

DeVos’s two most recent predecessors were unequivocal, both about what unfolded in Charlottesville and whom to blame:

Leaders of the nation’s two largest teachers unions responded directly to Trump:

The American Federation of Teachers, Weingarten’s union, is supporting vigils across the country Sunday night organized by chapters of Indivisible, a coalition that emerged to resist the Trump administration. The union also promoted resources from Share My Lesson, its lesson-plan site, that deal with civil rights and related issues.

“As educators, we will continue to fulfill our responsibility to make sure our students feel safe and protected and valued for who they are,” Weingarten said in a statement with other AFT officials.

Local education officials took stands as well, often emotionally. Here’s what the superintendent in Memphis, which is engaged in the same debate about whether Confederate memorials should continue to stand that drew white supremacists to Charlottesville, said on Twitter:

Teachers in Hopson’s district return for the second week of classes on Monday. They’ve helped students process difficult moments before, such as a spate of police killings of black men in 2016; here’s advice they shared then and advice that teachers across the country offered up.

We want to hear from educators who are tackling this tough moment in their classrooms. Share your experiences and ideas here or in the form below. 

Betsy DeVos

‘Underperformer,’ ‘bully,’ and a ‘mermaid with legs’: NYMag story slams Betsy DeVos

PHOTO: New York Magazine
A drawing of DeVos commissioned by an 8-year-old starts the New York Magazine article.

A new article detailing Betsy DeVos’s first six months as U.S. education secretary concludes that she’s “a mermaid with legs: clumsy, conspicuous, and unable to move forward.”

That’s just one of several brutal critiques of DeVos’s leadership and effectiveness in the New York Magazine story, by Lisa Miller, who has previously covered efforts to overhaul high schools, New York City’s pre-kindergarten push, and the apocalypse. Here are some highlights:

  • Bipartisan befuddlement: The story summarizes the left’s well known opposition to DeVos’s school choice agenda. But her political allies also say she’s making unnecessary mistakes: “Most mystifying to those invested in her success is why DeVos hasn’t found herself some better help.”
  • A friend’s defense: DeVos is “muzzled” by the Trump administration, said her friend and frequent defender Kevin Chavous, a school choice activist.
  • The department reacts: “More often than not press statements are being written by career staff,” a spokesperson told Miller, rejecting claims that politics are trumping policy concerns.
  • D.C. colleagues speak: “When you talk to her, it’s a blank stare,” said Charles Doolittle, who quit the Department of Education in June. A current education department employee says: “It’s not clear that the secretary is making decisions or really capable of understanding the elements of a good decision.”
  • Kids critique: The magazine commissioned six portraits of DeVos drawn by grade-schoolers.
  • Special Olympics flip-flop: DeVos started out saying she was proud to partner with the athletics competition for people with disabilities — and quickly turned to defending a budget that cuts the program’s funding.
  • In conclusion: DeVos is an underperformer,” a “bully” and “ineffective,” Miller found based on her reporting.

Updated (July 31, 2017): A U.S. Education Department spokesperson responded to our request for comment, calling the New York Magazine story “nothing more than a hit piece.” Said Liz Hill: “The magazine clearly displayed its agenda by writing a story based on largely disputed claims and then leaving out of the article the many voices of those who are excited by the Secretary’s leadership and determination to improve education in America.”