turnaround tales

Global Studies bets 'transformation' funds on new tech, staff

School for Global Studies "master" teacher, Natasha Blakley, prepares for the start of school in the Brooklyn school's new computer lab, purchased with federal funds.

To Joseph O’Brien, principal of Brooklyn’s School for Global Studies, there is no clearer indication of how new federal funds have led to higher achievement than Room 326.

The classroom-turned-computer lab, outfitted with 35 Apple computers purchased last winter, is being used by students to recover credits toward graduation and study languages online, and by parents who lack Internet access at home. In addition to two laptop carts and new smartboards for a dozen classrooms, the lab replaces the school’s once-meager technology offerings, which included aging classroom computers hampered by viruses and two broken smartboards.

“For the first time, our students were able to have a dedicated room where they could use the computer on their own time, whether after school or on their lunch hour, with staffed personnel,” he said.

Tasked with raising the school’s graduation rate when the Department of Education appointed him to run Global Studies last year, O’Brien sees the new lab as a main tool. He paid for the lab with $170,000 of the $890,000 in federal School Improvement Grants awarded to Global Studies because it landed on the state’s list of lowest-performing schools last year—requiring the city to overhaul it.

For Global Studies and 10 other schools on the list, the city chose “transformation,” meaning they would receive new principals and nearly $2 million in School Improvement Grants over three years to buy extra supplies and support. The city is starting to overhaul another 33 schools this year under three improvement models.

As the 6th through 12th-grade school enters its second year of transformation — bringing it a second infusion of cash — O’Brien said change is already being felt.

“We are no longer the school that we once were,” he said. “This school is really becoming an oasis of learning.”

Now he just has to convince families that that’s true. 

“In the last five years I can count on one hand how many kids have gone to Global” from P.S. 58, a high-performing elementary school in nearby Carroll Gardens, said Lorie Glazer, a guidance counselor there. “It’s a school that is in the district, but it’s not a very sought-after school for our students.”

For years, enrollment at Global Studies has been shrinking, down to 400 this year. DOE space estimates, which many believe are inflated, say it could accommodate another 150 students or more.

“We’re always looking for more students. I want to get an awareness for our school and how successful we are right now,” said O’Brien, who previously was an assistant principal at Ralph R. McKee Career and Technical High School in Staten Island. “But that reputation is very difficult to break.”

Boosting enrollment would cushion the school’s budget — schools get more money for each student they serve, so adding students would pay off in Global Studies’ budget long after transformation funds are set to dry up — and also bring it one crucial step away from being shuttered. The city takes demand for a school into account when deciding which schools to close.

But getting more families to sign on could be a tall order. The low-slung building on Court Street, which houses two schools, has long kept a low profile. Some would-be applicants were likely scared away after the school made news in 2008 when several students were arrested for giving teachers a laxative-spiked cake as a senior prank, and again in 2009 when the principal at the time was arrested for allegedly attacking her husband with a box-cutter.

The real damage came when the high school was one of just nine schools to land an “F” on its city’s progress report last year. O’Brien called the grade “a scarlet letter” that he hopes will change when the city releases new school grades next month.

He said the new data would show a significant jump in the school’s graduation rate and English Regents exam passing rate.

O’Brien’s emphasis on testing reflects a sharp shift in philosophy for the school, which was founded as an alternative high school where students would be graded on projects instead of standardized tests. Because the school belongs to the Coalition of Essential Schools, students have in the past been exempted from almost all of the Regents exams required for graduation at most schools. But beginning this year, 9th-graders will take all the exams mandated by the state.

Luis Sierra, a junior who has attended the school since sixth grade, said this year, teachers seem to be taking academics more seriously, telling students that they wouldn’t tolerate late work, as some did in the past.

Another student, an 11th-grader who attended middle school on Long Island, said the school was becoming more demanding. “The change is good,” she said. “It’s more like what I’m used to. It’s what I need — the classes before weren’t really challenging.”

O’Brien attributes the boost in performance, in part, to the presence of computers that allow students to use Plato Online, a curriculum software program, to recover credits after failing classes—a practice that has come under scrutiny for allowing teachers to give students passing grades they have not earned. Global Studies students said they have been scrambling to make up credits after disorganization under the previous principals put them off track to graduate.

O’Brien said the computers also allow students who do not have Internet access at home time to complete assignments and become more aware of their graduation requirements and goals they need to meet—something that he hopes will attract more families to Global Studies.

O’Brien spent $170,000 of his federal grants on computer technology and on hiring Clare Daley, the school’s technology teacher. He has also funded in-class coaching for teachers and has plans to bolster after-school programming this year with band and drama programs, which will make use of the school’s new black-box theater, which was once an empty classroom.

And at a time when many schools’ staffs are contracting, O’Brien has added a host of new positions. In addition to Daley, over two years, he has brought on an assistant principal of safety and security, a band teacher, one “turnaround” teacher and six “master” teachers (one of whom left last year).

“They’re trying to fix [the school],” one student said about the new administration while waiting for class to begin on a recent morning. She said the school seemed more organized this year, with students getting their new schedules and Metrocards for the first time before the year began.

But she said change had come at a cost: “All the good teachers left” over the summer, she said.

Twelve of the school’s 29 teachers are new this year, a fact that O’Brien related to the transformation process.

“Some teachers felt like being a transformation school is a lot of work,” he said. Six teachers left for other schools in June.

O’Brien said he was confident that teachers who stayed are on board with plans to improve the school.

One of them is Daley, who is helping students receive certification in Microsoft Office and IC3—a computing curriculum recognized in the technology industry.

“We’re also looking into becoming an Apple site, so students could be certified as Apple technicians,” she said. “That means they would be able to walk out of here able to land a position at Apple.”

Daley said that, besides providing students with valuable job skills, the computers are addressing a need particular to the high-poverty school’s families.

“Sometimes the assumption is that all students have the resources that we have at home. Many of them don’t have access to technology at home,” Daley said.

According to O’Brien, parents will be able to use the computer labs outside of class time to search for jobs and take online classes in a second-language thanks to a newly-purchased site license for the entire school community to use Rosetta Stone language software. This year every teacher received an iPad, which they will use to track student performance, access transcripts, and take notes.

“I thank god every day that we have the School Improvement Grant funds,” he said.

moving forward

Frequent school changes are hurting students. Here’s how Detroit’s educators want to fix it.

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, second from left, says a tweak to school funding policy in Michigan would alleviate some of the effects of high student mobility. Looking on from left are moderator Stephen Henderson of WDET, Darienne Driver, CEO of United Way of Southeastern Michigan, and Maria Montoya, who works in the charter school office of Grand Valley State University.

As Detroit education leaders gathered Thursday night to find solutions to the problem of students frequently changing schools, it was clear that the stakes for Detroit’s students could not be higher.

When Alisanda Woods, the principal of Detroit’s Bethune Elementary-Middle School took the stage at the Detroit Public Library, she noted that six new students had enrolled in her school the day before, more than two months after the first day of school.

Katherine Andrews, a panelist who teaches in the University Prep charter school district, said the relentless arrival and departure of students haunts her classroom on a regular basis. “It’s almost like the class is going through a mourning period, like they’re going through grief,” she said. “They’re looking at it like there’s a plate missing from the dinner table. ‘Where’s Shawn? Why is Shawn not here? Why didn’t he get a chance to say goodbye?’”

Thursday’s forum came in the wake of a series of reports by Chalkbeat and Bridge Magazine called Moving Costs that examined the way students changing schools disrupts classrooms.

The discussion, which will be rebroadcast in coming days on Detroit Public Television and as an episode of Detroit Today on WDET, focused on solutions to the problem including the creation of a citywide student data systems that could keep track of where students are enrolled and where they’re moving.

Other ideas includes changes to student discipline policies so that schools can’t push students out for misbehavior.

The challenge of enrollment instability is made complicated by the fact that Detroit’s education landscape is evenly divided between schools run by the Detroit Public Schools Community District and those run by dozens of charter school boards and management companies.

Developing systems to prevent students from hopping around would depend on competitive schools working together. Such cooperation has been difficult to come by in the past. But there are signs that the antagonism has waned in recent months as the city’s district and charter schools have begun collaborating on a a new bus loop that stops at both traditional and charter schools, and on a new school rating system that will soon start assigning letter grades to all Detroit schools.

Here are some of the solutions discussed on Thursday night.

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Dawn Wilson-Clark, a parent and organizer with 482Forward, and Katherine Andrews, a teacher with the University Prep charter school district, spoke about the impacts of students changing schools.

Fix the count day problem

When students switch schools, they need extra support. But the financial uncertainty created by school-hopping makes it harder for schools to meet the challenge, said Superintendent Nikolai Vitti.

As it stands, most of Michigan’s education funds are distributed based on the number of students enrolled in a school on a single day in October.

That means that schools are left in the lurch if they have more students in April than October — and that some schools might try to push out students who are more challenging to educate in late October once they’ve gotten financial credit for that child. To solve the problem, Vitti said fall and spring enrollment should be evenly weighted, a change that would have to be passed by the state legislature.

Jennifer Swanson, a first grade teacher at a Detroit charter school, said she’s seen firsthand the turmoil that can result when a school’s enrollment grows during the year. After attending the forum, she said Vitti’s proposal is a good one.

“Students do move earlier on in the year, and it’s really problematic if you get new students after November,” she said.

Ben Pogodzinski, a Wayne State University professor who has studied the issue and participated in Thursday’s forum said another idea would be to base school funding on average enrollment over three years. That would make funding less dependent on fluctuations that could result in a school getting more or less money that it needs.

A central student data system

When students change schools, teachers are currently forced to sometimes wait weeks for student records to arrive from a student’s previous school

At the same time, schools that see students leave are often left wondering where they’ve gone, unsure whether to mark them absent or call the police.

Maria Montoya, who worked for a central enrollment system in New Orleans before working on a failed effort to bring one to Detroit, said Detroit’s fragmented system for tracking students is unacceptable.

“You continue to hear, well, it’s always been that way,” said Montoya, who now works in the charter school office at Grand Valley State University. “But that doesn’t make it right. A child should not disappear with nobody accountable for them, whether it is a traditional school or a charter.”

Toxic politics killed an earlier effort to create such a system, which would require cooperation between the city’s charter school and the district. Many large cities already have such systems, including Denver; New Orleans; Washington D.C.; Newark; Camden, New Jersey; and Indianapolis.

Michael Chrzan, a science teacher at a charter high school who attended the event, said the debate over charter schools in Detroit has stymied solutions to problems shared by all the city’s schools.

He said that for the first two months of the school year, his attendance list included a student who never showed up for class. Neither he nor his school knew if the student was attending class anywhere. This week, the student’s name finally disappeared.

“He just got dropped from my roster,” Chrzan said. “It’s frustrating.”

A citywide pushback on Detroit’s culture of school hopping

Survey data collected as part of Moving Costs series showed that families moving to new homes wasn’t the leading force driving school changes. In a majority of  cases, parents said they were simply looking for a better school.

“It’s different from our generation,” Chastity Pratt-Dawsey, a reporter for Bridge Magazine who grew up in Detroit. “When we didn’t like the school, momma went to the school and said ‘change it’, not ‘I’m going to move.’”

Montoya said parents often don’t push back when schools push them out, typically because they don’t know that schools that receive public money — both charter and traditional — are obligated by law to educate their children, even if they have special needs or behavioral challenges.

No one believes the culture will shift overnight, but Montoya says every interaction between educators and parents is a chance to make progress, to make sure that Detroiters understand their rights as well as the negative impacts of changing schools.

“We need to, as leaders, make sure that we’re giving parents that information,” she said.

A consistent discipline policy

Problems with behavior are a big reason students change schools.

“Honestly they’ve been kicked out (of their old school) most of the time,” said Woods, principal at Bethune, of the students who arrive at her school mid-year. “There are discipline problems, and parents are hopeful that if they take them here they’ll blend in better.”

Vitti said the district is working to design a set of discipline guidelines to push schools to work with students and try to meet their needs.

But he added that a city-wide set of discipline standards — like one being used in New York City —  would ensure that troubled students receive extra attention instead of being shunted from school to school.

Better supports for poor families

While there are plenty of school-based policies that could help contain the damage caused by school changes, the panelists made clear that the problem has roots in the poverty and housing instability that continue to plague Detroit

Woods said that some of the students who arrived at her school this week were homeless. One child had not attended school at all the previous year, Woods said, eliciting an audible gasp from the crowd.

That problem will have to be addressed by the city’s residents, its politicians, and its business community, Vitti said.

“Are we serious about developing stadiums, and downtown and midtown neighborhoods, or are we serious about creating homes and neighborhoods?”

Big money

Chunk of $55 million AbbVie gift will go toward more counselors in schools

PHOTO: Courtesy of Communities in Schools
Communities in Schools site coordinator Artesha Williams and student Nasje Adams at the King Academy of Social Justice in Chicago

Sixteen more Chicago schools will add full-time counselors charged with reducing dropouts and helping students with critical mental health issues, thanks to a chunk of a $55 million donation gift from a North Chicago pharmaceutical giant.

The AbbVie donation, announced Friday, will be split among three nonprofit groups with a Chicago presence, though not all the money will be spent here. Communities in Schools will receive $30 million for its national efforts to broker relationships between community organizations and schools; the University of Chicago’s Education Lab, which focuses on dropout prevention and college persistence, will receive $15 million; and City Year, which places AmeriCorps tutors and mentors in schools, will receive $10 million.

Communities in Schools, which received the largest gift, will spend $6 million of its $30 million on its Chicago chapter, while the City Year money will be split among Chicago and a project in San Jose, California.

Jane Mentzinger, the executive director of Communities in Schools Chicago, said the $6 million is “transformational” and will be spent on a program that assigns full-time, master’s-level counselors to public schools on the South and West sides.

The AbbVie gift will grow a program that currently places full-time counselors in 15 Chicago schools, adding five schools this year and another 11 next fall.

“In each school, they case manage the 50 highest-need students who are at risk of falling behind and dropping out,” said Mentzinger. “They really work with students is to help resolve conflict, regulate emotions, and provide exposure opportunities, from support and mentoring to counseling.”  

The counselor piece helps fill a dire need within Chicago’s schools: mental health and trauma services. Students, educators, parents, and union leaders regularly lament that the district does not staff enough counselors and mental health practitioners, and that recent efforts have been too focused on college and career-readiness — including helping students draft a post-secondary plan. Starting with the Class of 2020, seniors must produce such a plan to graduate, a controversial idea championed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

In July, Chicago schools CEO Janice Jackson announced that the district would hire some 250 new social workers and special education case managers for schools.

Mentzinger said the value of sending in counselors who are employed by an outside agency, and not by the district, is that they have fewer administrative duties and so can cast a “wider net” among master’s degree candidates who might have non-traditional degrees such as art therapy or dance. “The level of need of our kids — we need to have more layers, more layers of work.”

A recent Steinmetz High School graduate, Emily Jade Aguilar, told Chalkbeat on Election Day that she was knocking on doors to get out the vote. Aguilar, who identifies as a trans woman, said the biggest issue driving her activism was mental health for students. “We need more mental health resources in our schools,” said Aguilar, whose school had four counselors for 1,200 students last year.

According to federal data from the 2015-16 school year, Chicago had 2.8 guidance counselors, social workers, and psychologists for every 1,000 students — fewer than in many other large cities. National guidance counselors and social workers groups recommend having one counselor and one social worker each for every 250 students. In schools with “intensive” needs, that ratio falls to one social worker for every 50 students.

In addition to providing counselors, Communities in Schools brokers relationships between nonprofit organizations and 160 schools to provide art and enrichment, mental health services, health care and college and career readiness programming.