Cathie Black's school visits take her to the good, skip the bad

Chancellor-designate Cathie Black visited Medgar Evers College Preparatory School today.

More than a month after being named the next schools chancellor, Cathie Black has yet to see the system at its most troubled.

Black has been to 13 schools, making stops in each of the five boroughs and in schools at each grade level. The majority of schools she’s visited have earned either an A or a B on their annual progress report, meaning they are in no danger of being closed for poor performance. She has been to five “C” schools, none of which are on the city’s “to-be-closed” list.

Asked today if she thought she was getting a “realistic” view of the city’s schools, Black said she had.

“I’ve been to the South Bronx, and that’s about as realistic as you can get, and I felt the same thing,” she told Daily News reporter Rachel Monahan. “The principal has been there for four years. And I asked if [the school] looked like that four years ago, and she said no it did not look like that. So that comes from leadership.”

Black visited Medgar Evers College Preparatory School today, a high school in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, that admits students based on their middle school test scores and other academic measures. Nearly all Medgar Evers students graduate with a Regents diploma and some go on to top universities. President Obama praised the school back in July for giving its students the opportunity to earn college credits at the Medgar Evers College of The City University of New York before they graduate from high school.

Department of Education officials allowed only four reporters to enter Medgar Evers with Black today. Descriptions of the visit were provided by Sharon Otterman of the New York Times.

Black visited four classrooms today, spending 45 minutes at the school and chatting with students as she passed through. In a Mandarin class, students sang her a welcome song and performed a dance with bands of colored cloth.

“Some of you may not know this, but I have been in magazine publishing, and we have a company in Shanghai and Beijing, and we publish seven magazines in China,” Black told the class.

“It’s been very exciting to see the growth in China. So maybe someday one of you will have a good job at a magazine in China. Good luck to you all, and keep studying,” she said.

Administrators at the school said they were proud to have boosted the graduation rate from 60 to 95 percent in the last decade. They said they wished Black had spent more time in the school.

“That was the speed of light,” said Assistant Principal Delroy Burnett of Black’s visit.

Medgar Evers Principal Michael Wiltshire said he didn’t have time to thoroughly explain his school’s philosophy to Black. But he hoped she would walk away remembering his school as one “that believes in the total education of the child,” he said.

“It’s not just the academic development of the child; it’s the holistic development, where we take into consideration the total child. That I think is what the city lacks,” Wiltshire said. “They’re not talking about the total education of the child; they’re talking about test prep.  We’re not into that.”

Black will officially become chancellor on January 3. Asked how she planned to spend the holiday, she replied: “Studying.”

List of schools Black has visited:

PS 172K Beacon School of Excellence: Sunset Park, Brooklyn. The school has shown success with its large population of ELL students and was one of the first schools Klein visited when he became chancellor. Progress report grade: A

PS 109X Sedgwick: Morris Heights, Bronx. For her first visit to a public school as chancellor designate, Black went to P.S. 109, an elementary school with a large population of Latino students who’ve recently immigrated and are not fluent in English. Progress report grade: A

PS 111Q Jacob Blackwell and PS 78Q: Assemblywoman Cathy Nolan chose these two schools in her district for Black to visit. Both of them have a majority of low-income students and are ethnically diverse. Blackwell got a C on its most recent progress report and P.S. 78 got a B.

PS 33M Chelsea Prep: Last week, Black spent an hour at this elementary school in Chelsea with Times’ reporter Susan Dominus. She chatted with students and suggested that the school hold a “pet day,” so everyone could bring their pets to school. Later, she noted this was not a very practical suggestion.   Progress report grade: A

PS 185K Walter Kassenbrock: Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. This elementary school routinely posts high test scores and has become very popular, so it now has to manage an overcrowding problem. Its gifted and talented program is being phased out. Progress report grade: C

PS 71X Rose Scala: Pelham Bay, Bronx. A K-8 school where about half the students qualify for free or reduced lunch. Roughly 60 percent of its 3rd graders passed the state’s math and reading tests last year, which was about the citywide average. Progress report grade: C

PS 329K Surfside and I.S. 239K Mark Twain: Coney Island, Brooklyn. Surfside is a K-5 school where the majority of students are low-income and minority. It has few students who are learning English, but has a high percentage of special education students. About 44 percent of its 3rd graders passed the state’s math and reading tests last year. Progress report grade: C. Mark Twain is a nearby selective middle school that admits students from all over the city and sends many of its students on to the specialized high schools. Students audition for the school’s art, music, and dance programs and take written tests for other subject areas like science and creative writing. Progress report grade: A.

Hillcrest High School: Jamaica, Queens. A large high school that reorganized itself into seven programs in 2006, Hillcrest has a four-year graduation rate of 69 percent, which is higher than the citywide average. Like many high schools in Queens, it is overcrowded. Progress report grade: C.

IS 75R Frank Paulo: Staten Island. A middle school where about a quarter of the students are low-income and students in all grades score above the citywide averages on the state’s math and reading tests.  Progress report grade: B

Medgar Evers College Prep: Crown Heights, Brooklyn. A 6-12 school that admits high performing students from all over the city. Students have access to more AP classes than your average high school can offer, and many graduate having already earned college credits. Progress report grade: B

PS 376K: Bushwick, Brooklyn. An elementary school where nearly all the students come from low-income families and most are Latino. P.S. 376 has a gifted and talented program and it also has a large number of students who are recent immigrants and don’t speak English. Progress report grade: B.

Photos taken by Ed Reed of the mayor’s office:



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Newark Enrolls

After changes and challenges, Friday’s deadline to enroll in Newark schools finally arrives

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
A student fills out an information sheet at Central High School's booth at the citywide school fair in December.

Newark families have just a few hours left to apply to more than 70 public schools for next fall.

At noon on Friday, the online portal that allows families to apply to most traditional and charter school will close. After that, they will have to visit the district’s enrollment center. Last year, nearly 13,000 applications were submitted.

The stakes — and stress — are greatest for students entering high school. Each year, hundreds of eighth-graders compete for spots at the city’s selective “magnet” high schools, which many students consider their best options.

This year, those eighth-graders have to jump through an extra hoop — a new admissions test the magnets will use as they rank applicants. District students will sit for the test Friday, while students in charter and private schools will take it Saturday.

That’s news to many parents, including Marie Rosario, whose son, Tamir, is an eighth-grader at Park Elementary School in the North Ward.

“I don’t know nothing about it,” she said. District officials have been tight-lipped about what’s on the new test, how it will factor into admissions decisions, or even why introducing it was deemed necessary.

Students can apply to as many as eight schools. Tamir’s top choice was Science Park, one of the most sought-after magnet schools. Last year, just 29 percent of eighth-graders who ranked it first on their applications got seats.

“I’m going to cross my fingers,” Rosario said.

Students will find out in April where they were matched. Last year, 84 percent of families applying to kindergarten got their first choice. Applicants for ninth grade were less fortunate: Only 41 percent of them got their top choice, the result of so many students vying for magnet schools.

This is the sixth year that families have used the online application system, called Newark Enrolls, to pick schools. Newark is one of the few cities in the country to use a single application for most charter and district schools. Still, several charter schools do not participate in the system, nor do the vocational high schools run by Essex County.

Today, surveys show that most families who use the enrollment system like it. However, its rollout was marred by technical glitches and suspicions that it was designed to funnel students into charter schools, which educate about one in three Newark students. Some charter critics hoped the district’s newly empowered school board would abolish the system. Instead, Superintendent Roger León convinced the board to keep it for now, arguing it simplifies the application process for families.

Managing that process has posed challenges for León, who began as schools chief in July.

First, he ousted but did not replace the district’s enrollment chief. Then, he clashed with charter school leaders over changes to Newark Enrolls, leading them to accelerate planning for an alternative system, although that never materialized. Next, the district fell behind schedule in printing an enrollment guidebook for families.

Later, the district announced the new magnet-school admissions test but then had to delay its rollout as León’s team worked to create the test from scratch with help from principals, raising questions from testing experts about its validity. Magnet school leaders, like families, have said they are in the dark about how heavily the new test will be weighted compared to the other criteria, including grades and state test scores, that magnet schools already use to rank applicants.

Meanwhile, León has repeatedly dropped hints about new “academies” opening inside the district’s traditional high schools in the fall to help those schools compete with the magnets. However, the district has yet to hold any formal informational sessions for families about the academies or provide details about them on the district website or in the enrollment guidebook. As a result, any such academies are unlikely to give the traditional schools much of an enrollment boost this year.

District spokeswoman Tracy Munford did not respond to a request Thursday to speak with an official about this year’s enrollment process.

Beyond those hiccups, the enrollment process has mostly gone according to plan. After activating the application website in December, the district held a well-attended school fair where families picked up school pamphlets and chatted with representatives. Individual elementary schools, such as Oliver Street School in the East Ward, have also invited high school principals to come and tell students about their offerings.

American History High School Principal Jason Denard said he made several outings to pitch his magnet school to prospective students. He also invited middle-school groups to tour his school, and ordered glossy school postcards. Now, along with students and families across the city, all he can do is wait.

“I’m excited to see the results of our recruitment efforts,” he said. “Not much else is in my control — but recruitment is.”


Jubilation, and some confusion, as Denver schools begin their post-strike recovery

PHOTO: Eric Gorski/Chalkbeat
Lupe Lopez-Montoya greets students at Columbian Elementary School on Thursday after Denver's three-day teacher strike.

Lupe Lopez-Montoya got the text message at 6:15 a.m. The strike was over, the colleague who’d been keeping her up to speed on news from her union told her.

And so as district and teachers union officials celebrated their deal at the Denver Public Library, Lopez-Montoya on Thursday resurrected her regular commute to Columbia Elementary School, the northwest Denver school where she’s the longest-serving tenured teacher.

For the past three days, Lopez-Montoya had stayed out of school as Denver Public Schools and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association sparred over how teachers in Denver are paid. She still had unanswered questions about the future. But first, it was time to greet students.

One girl ran across the sidewalk to give a hug. “Ms. Montoya’s back,” she shouted, burying her face in the teacher’s side.

Lopez-Montoya began to welcome students into the building. “Line up and you can go get breakfast,” she told one boy. “I’m happy you’re here today.”

The moment kicked off what was a not-quite-normal day in Denver schools. With a deal coming just an hour before some schools were due to start for the day, teachers and families had little time to adjust their plans. The district also had too little time to reopen early childhood classes that have been closed all week; those will reopen on Friday, officials said.

Building principals got an email around 7 a.m. telling them that the strike was over and that many teachers would be coming back to work. In some buildings, central office staff and substitutes who had been filling in for teachers were already on site when teachers returned to work. And some students who commute long distances didn’t get the word in time to go to schools.

By early afternoon, about 81 percent of teachers in district-run schools had shown up to work, and about 83 percent of students had, according to Denver school district spokesman Will Jones.

In the parking lot outside Mathematics and Science Leadership Academy, a west Denver elementary school, teachers still clad in the red of their cause gathered in the parking lot to walk in together. Asked what the mood was, reading intervention teacher Denise Saiz said, “Relief!” and her colleagues responded with an enthusiastic “Yes!”

“We’re really excited to get back to the kids,” said fifth grade teacher Emily Mimovich.

While strike participation was high at the school — it was founded with support from the state and local union as a teacher-led school — the teachers said they did not believe there would be hard feelings between those who walked and those who didn’t.

“We have such a good relationship,” said Reyes Navarro, who teaches Spanish to kindergarten and first-grade students. “We understand that you have to do whatever is right for you.”

Parents also said they were eager to have their children get back to school.

Sarah Murphy, who has a third-grader and a 4-year-old preschool student, said this morning was a “bit of a scramble, albeit a welcome one.” She had both children signed up for a day camp at the University of Denver and was unsure if she should send them to school or to camp because she wasn’t sure teachers would be back at school. Then she got word that camp was canceled for both children — but Denver Public Schools preschools are still closed.

“We were left trying to figure out what to do with our ECE4 since they were still closed,” she wrote to Chalkbeat. “We know how hard this has been on everyone, but this morning proved that the ECE program was the hardest hit, short notice every step of the way. We very much look forward to tomorrow when both are back in their normal school routines.”

Not everyone returned to school. Some teachers said they needed a day to collect themselves after an emotional experience. Judy Kelley, a visual arts teacher at Martin Luther King Jr. Early College, said she and many of her colleagues live too far away from the school to get there on short notice.

But the majority of teachers who went back to work Thursday describe positive experiences returning to their schools. Ryan Marini, a social studies teacher and football coach at South High School, called it the “best day” in 17 years of teaching.

Suzanne Hernandez, a first-grade teacher at Westerly Creek Elementary in Stapleton, said she and other teachers gathered to walk into school together at 7:45 a.m.

Teachers thanked the subs from central office who were in the building. They headed back to their roles in central offices.

Early in the morning, Hernandez sent a message to her students’ parents to let them know teachers would be back in school. The reaction from students as she greeted them was “overwhelming,” she said.

With the help of paraprofessionals who had prepared lessons, Hernandez said teachers were able to jump right back to where they left off last week.

As far as Valentine’s Day, that celebration will be pushed back until Friday afternoon, she said. For now, teachers are having their own celebration, happy to be back in the classroom.

“I think if there’s any sort of effect from the strike, it’s been a positive one,” she said. “It’s been a very unifying experience.”

Allison Hicks, a teacher at Colfax Elementary, said returning teachers were greeted with hugs, music, smiles and tears.

“After finding out an hour ago we were going back to work, I scrambled home to get ready,” she wrote to Chalkbeat. “I am exhausted, but so excited to be back with my students. This day won’t be normal, but knowing I did my part to put my students first is the best feeling to have.”

Kade Orlandini, who teaches at John F. Kennedy High School, said most of the teachers are back in her building, despite the short notice.

“Teachers were ready, and we are jumping right back into instruction,” she wrote. “Attendance seems lower than normal, but students who are here are ready to learn. The atmosphere in the school is very positive all around.”

What was your experience going back to school? What other questions do you have? Take our survey

Chalkbeat’s Ann Schimke, Erica Meltzer, and Yesenia Robles contributed reporting to this article.