Song and Dance

To turn her middle school around, a principal invests in the arts

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At 9:30 this morning, the principal of the Ron Brown Academy in Brooklyn stood in her school’s auditorium, watching a fight break out.

Across from her, a tall girl in a tight pink shirt slapped at the girl in front of her. Three other girls grabbed the tall one’s arms and kicked at her legs. The girls broke apart as two boys doing cartwheels chased them off stage.

The principal, Celeste Douglas, broke into applause. She was watching the teenagers — who had grins plastered to their faces, and whose fight moves had been carefully choreographed by their teachers — perform their winter dance routine.

“Music makes me feel free,” said Justin, one of the dancers, after the performance. He is a seventh grader at Ron Brown, a middle school in Bedford-Stuyvesant.

Music has also provided the school with an opportunity to improve its test scores, boost attendance and jump off the state’s watch list.

An unusual solution

When Douglas first arrived at Ron Brown Academy in 2006, she found a school in crisis.

Attendance hovered just above 80 percent, students performed poorly on standardized tests, and the previous spring, state officials had put the school on the SURR list of the lowest performing schools in New York. Douglas had three years to improve the school or risk seeing it shut down.

Faced with low performance and small budgets, other schools have cut extra programming and reinforced ELA and math skills. “One of the first things to get cut in schools is the arts program. I felt a lot of pressure to do the same thing,” Douglas said today, sitting in her office, a space decorated with pictures of her students’ performances and trophies of their successes.

She knew that improving instruction was crucial, but she didn’t think it was enough. “The first issue was engagement. I realized our kids were just not coming to school,” said Douglas. “I was looking for something to engage kids and I didn’t know what it was.”

In 2007, she heard about a project at the Center for Arts Education to develop arts programs at low-performing middle schools. The program, called the School Arts Support Initiative, or SASI, demands a lot of partner schools. Working with an arts coach from the center, schools have to offer entirely new courses in drama, dance, music, and the visual arts. They have to hire a new batch of educators who, with help from the center, design the courses and teach them. And the schools must provide space for students to perform and practice; revise their scheduling to accommodate the new courses; and find funding to pay for it all.

Although a bulk of the program — the cost of the coach, professional development, and partnerships with theaters and drama organizations— comes from a U.S. Department of Education grant, the school itself must find funding for many of the other expenses, including art supplies and teachers.

At Ron Brown, space is tight, since the school shares a building with two other schools. About 240 Ron Brown students crowd onto a floor and a half. Some teachers have to share classrooms. Douglas’ budget didn’t have much room for growth, either.

But Douglas decided to work with the center anyway. The design of the program fit with her larger strategy of investing in helping teachers improve their instruction.

To raise the money needed to pay the extra teachers, she applied for outside grants. The school already had a dance studio; she took advantage of it and added a small arts studio inside a tiny classroom. The fact that she was already on a hiring binge allowed her to bring in new teachers who could play double roles at the school.

The school’s theater director also teaches English language arts. In addition to two full-time dance teachers and a visual arts teacher, other teachers help with directing and monitoring students during performances.

“People have come out of the woodwork,” said Brian Nagel, the visual arts teacher, “including a science teacher with a beautiful voice.”

The school is increasingly centered around art. As 6th graders, students are introduced to the range of art disciplines. At the end of the year, they choose an “art major,” which they study in more depth in 7th and 8th grade.

The school has altered the daily schedule to accommodate a full arts sequence. Each student attends an art class, even if that means that she has to be occasionally pulled from another class. Friday afternoons are also completely devoted to arts programming.

Douglas noted that she has had to make a lot of tough decisions to maintain the program, including excessing a math teacher last year instead of an art teacher.

“Out of the woodwork”

Developing an arts program was not just about introducing the students to art. The art classes are used to reinforce the student’s learning in other areas.

A key goal for teachers is to learn “how to marry the learning standards to the artistic process,” said Dr. Carol Feinberg, the director of the SASI program.

Students at the school have responded well to the changes. Some have even come from other schools to participate. A seventh grader, Jordan, who danced in the winter showcase, said he was failing classes at his previous school. He transferred to Ron Brown halfway through his sixth grade year. “My family comes from a long line of dancers,” he said, perched calmly on the edge of the stage. He is now active in an after-school activity called the rap and recording club and doing well in school.

Talent and interest has come from unexpected places. Nagle, the visual arts teacher, described a moment when a quiet sixth grade girl approached him in his studio. She pointed to the still life art pieces that hang in the hallways. “Trees are my life,” she said. “I want to learn how to do that so I can draw trees.”

Laura Hill, the English teacher who directs the school’s plays, said that one of the biggest successes has been getting the boys involved. At first, teachers struggled to get boys excited about dance that didn’t involve hip-hop, she said. But this winter, she was proud to see a large group of boys participate in the swing and jazz performances in the dance showcase.

Still, several boys mentioned today that their favorite dance piece was the finale, set to the song “I Whip My Hair” by Willow Smith.

“Pockets of success”

Douglas has started to see some promising results. For one, parents are more involved.

“I can tell you when I started, we would do a workshop and have two parents and now we have 50 or 60,” Douglas said. “We have found the best way to bring parents in is to celebrate their kids’ talent.” The winter showcase two weeks ago drew a large crowd.

School attendance has also improved, jumping from 86 percent in 2006 to 91 percent so far this year, according to the DOE. Test scores are also on the rise. The percent of students scoring at or above Level 3 on the state-wide ELA tests jumped from 21 percent in 2007 to 52 percent in 2009. No scores have been released since the state changed its grading standards, but the school received a B for student progress on its last progress report from the city.

One of the biggest triumphs has been getting off the SURR list in 2008, a full year shy of the deadline imposed by the state for improvement. “I am not going to say the arts are the Holy Grail,” said Russell Granet, the school’s arts coach. “But I do know from Ms. Douglas that the school is a much calmer place.”

Douglas plans to continue to develop the program, including adding a school orchestra. One of her goals this year is to support students who want to attend specialized arts high schools. “There is a lot of raw talent,” said Nagel, but none of the teachers or administrators knew how to help their students to create suitable portfolios or go through the stressful interview process.

Douglas is optimistic. “We are seeing pockets of success,” she said.

Said Granet, “It is not a process to be rushed. You need to plan it.”

D.C.

What you should know about the White House’s proposal to merge the education department into a new agency

PHOTO: Gabriel Scarlett/The Denver Post

The White House is proposing the federal education department merge with the labor department to form the Department of Education and the Workforce, officials announced Thursday.

It’s an eye-catching plan, given how relatively rare changes to the Cabinet are and the current prominence of Betsy DeVos, the current head of the education department who has proven deeply unpopular with educators since her confirmation hearings last year. Education Week first reported the proposed merger on Wednesday.

Here’s what we know so far about what’s going on and why it matters.

The news

The Trump administration announced a big-picture government reorganization Thursday, and the education-labor merger is one part of that.

The new department will have four main sub-agencies: K-12; higher education and workforce development; enforcement; and research, evaluation and administration.

It comes after DeVos proposed acquiring programs from the labor department that have to do with educational programs for unemployed adult workers, reintegrating ex-prisoners, and “out-of-school” youth, according to the New York Times.

The two departments already work together on some adult education and vocational training programs, according to the the Wall Street Journal. In an interview with the Associated Press, director of the Office of Management and Budget Mick Mulvaney said that there are currently 40 different job training programs spread over 16 agencies. This merger would be one attempt to change that.

The implications for K-12 education

Today, the department distributes K-12 education money and enforces civil rights laws. It’s small for a federal agency, at 3,900 employees. On a symbolic level, a merged department would be de-emphasizing education.

The existing set of offices overseeing K-12 education would move into the new agency, according to the document, which says those offices will be “improved” but not how.

The education department’s Office of Civil Rights will become a part of the new department’s “enforcement” sub-agency.

The plan doesn’t mention any cuts to the agency or its offices, though Secretary DeVos has proposed cuts in the past.

Why this might not happen

The proposal would require congressional approval, which will likely be a difficult battle. Past attempts to eliminate the Department of Education in the 1980s and 1990s didn’t gain any traction, and both lawmakers and unions have expressed skepticism toward the new plan.

Sen. Patty Murray, the ranking Democrat on the Senate labor and education committee, quickly put out a statement criticizing the plan.

“Democrats and Republicans in Congress have rejected President Trump’s proposals to drastically gut investments in education, health care, and workers — and he should expect the same result for this latest attempt to make government work worse for the people it serves,” she said

dreamers

‘I fought to be here.’ Amid national debate, Newark students share their immigration stories

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Hawkins Street students read their work at the book launch.

Today, Yorleny is a sixth-grader at Hawkins Street School in Newark’s Ironbound section. But not long ago, she was a young immigrant making a treacherous journey to the United States in pursuit of a better life.

“My story of how I came to America to find the American dream is a very hard one,” she wrote in a personal essay about her journey. “I gave up so much to be here. I fought to be here.”

At a time when many immigrants to the U.S. are beset by fear and uncertainty after thousands of children were recently separated from their parents at the border, Yorleny is part of a group of students and teachers at her neighborhood school, which includes prekindergarten through eighth grade, who are speaking up about their own immigration stories. More than 70 of their reflections are collected in a new, self-published book called, “The Hispanic American Dreamers of Hawkins Street School.”

The project began long before the current border crisis and President Trump’s claim this week that people trying to enter the U.S. “could be murderers and thieves and so much else.” But in that context the book has gained new significance — a way to remind the students of their own dignity and tenacity, and their right to live and dream in America.

They need to know they have a voice,” said Ana Couto, a Spanish-English bilingual teacher at Hawkins Street who led the project. “This is not a time for us to shy or hide away. It’s a time for us to show that they’re strong.”

Read excerpts from the book by the principal, a bilingual teacher, and a fourth-grade student.

The book chronicles the students’ family histories, which often entail voyages north from Central and South America, and their aspirations — to master English; to become doctors, police officers, dancers; to one day visit the countries their parents left behind. Harrowing references to violence and poverty in their past — “We came mostly for our safety because people right now are eating from trash cans,” writes a boy from Venezuela, where food shortages have been endemic — are followed by descriptions of their new lives juggling schoolwork and friendships.

In Yorleny’s case, she left behind her mother and siblings in Honduras, according to her essay, which was translated from Spanish. Traveling north with two cousins, she walked for hours at a time and slept on floors. Along the way, they were “grabbed” by immigration officers and detained for three days.

Finally, Yorleny made it to the U.S. and connected with her father. Now, she is focused on studying hard and learning English — but she still longs to spend Christmas with her family and to be reunited with her mother, who used to give her a kiss each morning before school.

“I need those kisses and hugs from my mother,” she wrote, “but someday I will have that with me.”

After Trump was elected in 2016, following vows to crack down on illegal immigration, Newark city and school officials spoke out in defense of the city’s foreign-born population, who make up nearly 30 percent of residents. Mayor Ras Baraka said Newark would remain a “sanctuary city” for immigrants who are living in the country illegally or under a temporary protected status, while the school board passed a resolution reiterating immigrant students’ rights and the district hosted an informational fair for undocumented students and families.

On Tuesday, amid the latest immigration flare-up, Gov. Phil Murphy signed an executive order to prevent state resources from being used to support federal authorities in separating children and parents as they attempt to cross the southern border. The following day, in response to the growing backlash, Trump ordered families to be detained together rather than split up.

But even as New Jersey leaders signal their support for immigrants, it falls on individual schools to comfort students who are distraught by recent events. At Hawkins Street, many students are immigrants and 36 percent are still learning English — the highest percentage of any elementary school in the city. Incoming Superintendent Roger León, whose parents came to Newark from Cuba, attended the school.

After the presidential election, many Hawkins Street students felt like their new lives in the U.S. were threatened.

“We had students in crisis,” said Principal Alejandro Lopez, who organized class discussions about the election and provided some students with counseling. “They were literally having breakdowns because they felt that they would be deported, that their parents would be targeted.”

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Ana Couto, the bilingual teacher who led the project, handed out the published books to students.

The idea for the book came later, when the school held an Hispanic Heritage Month event this past November. Couto’s fifth-grade students wanted to sing or dance, but she convinced them that they would have a greater impact by telling their own stories.

The students stood on stage wearing black T-shirts that read, “Thanks to our parents, we are living the Hispanic American Dream.” One by one, with their backs to the audience to focus attention solely on their words, the students read their personal essays.

Hilary, whose family came from the Dominican Republic, talked about teaching English to her mother “who faced discrimination in getting a job” because she spoke only Spanish.

Steven recalled planting corn and beans with his father in El Salvador, before his family left to escape violent crime. Now in the U.S., his father is a cook who “makes pizzas, hamburgers, fries and salads.”

Andrea did not say where her family came from, only that her parents left because it was too dangerous.

“Now we feel safer,” she wrote in her essay. “This is now my family’s country.”

Couto, who is in her third year teaching but only her first as a bilingual instructor, decided to collect the essays in a book. She invited students from across the school to submit essays, and interviewed second-graders to get their thoughts. A team of students helped type the submissions, while a group of teachers — and Couto’s sister — helped edit.

Some staff members also contributed essays.

Principal Lopez wrote about being the child of undocumented immigrants who left the Dominican Republic when they were still teenagers. Couto, whose family is Portuguese but grew up alongside Spanish-speaking immigrants in Newark’s North Ward, wrote that she identified with the “never giving up-survivor fire” in her bilingual students.

Two teachers, Jennifer Palumbo and Catherine Moore, shared their remarkably similar childhood stories. Both were born in Bogota, Colombia in the same year and placed in an orphanage before being adopted by American parents. Both were given new names and spoke only English at home. And both would later study Spanish and try to learn more about where they came from.

“Young children think that we don’t understand what they’re going through,” said Moore, who teaches fifth and sixth-grade science, “but we may understand a lot more than they think.”

On Monday, the student authors filed into the school library for a launch party. The books, which the school’s parent-teacher organization had paid about $500 to have printed, were concealed under a Puerto Rican flag. Celebratory cookies and muffins were arrayed on a long table.

Standing at a podium, Lopez congratulated the students for sharing their stories and defying a stereotype of immigrant students as quiet and meek. Couto said she was in awe of the students’ strength as they made new lives in America even as they longed for the family and friends they’d left behind.

“We use the word ‘grit’ every day here at Hawkins,” she told them. “And now that I know you better, I see that you all have a lot of grit in you. You’re warriors, and I just lack the words to tell you how proud I am of you all.”

Then Couto handed out the books, which the students asked her to sign. A few read their contributions, including a girl whose essay will go in the collection Couto is already planning for next year — “The African American Dreamers of Hawkins Street School.”

Near the back of the room sat a fifth-grader named Adamaris. She had written about staying with her sister in the U.S. so she could continue her education, even though her mother lives in Honduras. She described how badly she misses her mother — especially on Christmas and Christmas Eve, which is also her birthday.

But now she had the summer to look forward to, when she would visit her mother and show her the book.

“I’m going to read it for her,” she said. “She’s going to be proud of me.”