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.

Future of Schools

How this Indiana district realized counselors weren’t spending enough time counseling

PHOTO: Denver Post file

About a year ago, the counselors in the Beech Grove school district made a discovery: They were spending less than half of their time on counseling.

Instead of meeting with students one-on-one or in small groups, they were spending most of their days on routine tasks, such as overseeing lunch, proctoring exams, and filling in for secretaries.

When they realized how much time those other tasks were taking away from counseling work, it was “an eye-opener for everyone,” said Paige Anderson, the district college and career coordinator.

The counselors began tracking their time as part of a planning grant from the Lilly Endowment, a prominent Indianapolis-based philanthropy. In 2016, the foundation launched Comprehensive Counseling Initiative for Indiana K-12 Students, a $49 million effort to improve counseling in Indiana. Experts say meaningful counseling can help schools support students as they navigate problems both at home and in the classroom. (The Lilly Endowment also supports Chalkbeat. Learn more about our funding here.)

What Beech Grove staff members learned during their planning process is already changing their approach to counseling, said Trudi Wolfe, a counselor at Central Elementary School, who was instrumental in applying for the Lilly grants. Now, administrators are taking on more tasks like proctoring tests. And one intermediate school hired a new counselor.

“The schools will take counselors and meet the needs of the school,” Wolfe said. “Part of the process is helping administrators understand, school counselors need to be doing school counseling.”

Last month, the endowment announced its second round of implementation grants, which awarded about $12.2 million to 39 schools and districts. Beech Grove will receive $259,727 to redesign its counseling program to focus on the social and emotional needs of students, with the largest chunk of that money going to staff training.

The aim is to develop a strategy for handling the trauma that students face at home, said Wolfe. Over the past 10 years, the number of students in the district who are poor enough to get subsidized meals has risen by about 25 percentage points to 72 percent of students.

Beech Grove has also been affected by the opioid crisis, said Wolfe. “We have kids living with parents who are dependent on drugs, and they are not meeting the needs of their children.”

Those growing challenges mean that it is essential for counselors to have a plan for helping students instead of just meeting the needs of each day, Wolfe said.

Counseling is an investment that can have long-term benefits. After Colorado began an initiative to hire more school counselors, participating schools had higher graduation rates, increased enrollment in career-and-technical programs, and more students taking college-level courses. A 2016 report found that by keeping students from dropping out, the Colorado program saved taxpayers more than $319 million.

But in Indiana schools, counselors often have large caseloads. In 2014-2015, Indiana had an average of 543 students per counselor, above the national average and significantly higher than the American School Counselor Association recommendation of no more than 250 students per counselor.

Hiring more counselors alone is not enough to create stronger school counseling programs, said Tim Poynton, an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston who studies counseling. They also have to spend their time on meaningful counseling work.

“You need more school counselors. That’s necessary, but it’s also not sufficient,” said Poynton. “If you hire more school counselors, and you have them doing lunch duty and things that basically you don’t need a master’s degree in school counseling to do, then you’re not going to see those important metrics move.”

When schools were applying for the Lilly Endowment grants, many reported that counselors were focused on urgent social and emotional challenges and struggled to help students plan for the future, according to the endowment.

Those challenges can have ripple effects, making it harder for school staff to tackle long-term goals such as ensuring that students sign up and meet the requirements for the state’s scholarship program, 21st Century Scholars.

If counseling is done well, most students will be prepared to go to college, even if they do not seem interested when they are in high school, Poynton said. But when counselors are dealing with urgent problems, they have significantly less time to devote to college preparation, he said.

“In urban schools, school counselors are often focused on getting students to school and meeting their immediate needs,” Poynton said. “In the higher-performing suburban schools, where the students and families don’t have those same kind of issues or concerns, the emphasis is almost entirely on the college-going process.”

In a statement from the endowment, Vice President for Education Sara B. Cobb said the response to the Lilly grants shows increased awareness of the crucial need for counseling programs.

“We are impressed with how school leaders have engaged a wide variety of community partners to assess the academic, college, career and social and emotional needs of their students, and respond to them,” Cobb said.

The Lilly grants are going to a broad array of schools, and they are using the money in different ways. At Damar Charter Academy, which educates students with special needs, few students earn traditional diplomas or have good options for higher education. That’s why school staff plan to use the $100,000 counseling grant they received to build relationships with employers and create training programs for skills such as small engine repair, automotive maintenance, landscaping, and culinary arts, said Julie Gurulé, director of student services.

“If we can commit to getting them the skills they need while they are with us,” she said, “they will be able to go out and gain meaningful employment, and … lead the kind of lives that we all want to.”

These are the districts and schools in Marion County that received counseling grants. (Find the full list here.)

  • Beech Grove City Schools $259,727
  • Damar Charter School $100,000
  • Metropolitan School District of Decatur Township $671,300
  • Purdue Polytechnic Indianapolis High School $100,000

Delayed decision

Officials promised to update a Giuliani-era agreement between the NYPD and city schools almost a year ago. So where is it?

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
A school safety agent at Staten Island's New Dorp High School.

Last October, city officials said they were on the cusp of announcing changes in the way the New York Police Department interacts with schools — an overhaul that began more than three years ago and sparked months of negotiations with advocacy groups.

But nearly 10 months later, the city has not announced any revisions to the “memorandum of understanding” that governs police involvement with school security, leaving in place a nearly two-decade-old agreement that has not been altered since Rudy Giuliani was mayor and “zero tolerance” discipline policies were in vogue.

Now, police and education officials say revisions won’t be made public until this fall. That timeline has infuriated advocates who said they made progress with senior city officials but have recently been kept in the dark and fear their recommendations are being ignored.

“Here we are three years later without any explanation from the administration,” said Kesi Foster, an organizer with Make the Road New York and the Urban Youth Collaborative who serves on a mayoral task force charged with revising the agreement. “It’s extremely frustrating and disheartening.”

As Mayor Bill de Blasio has worked to overhaul school discipline policies, which have reduced suspensions and student arrests, advocates say the outdated MOU has become a roadblock.

The 1998 agreement officially gives the city’s police department authority over school safety agents, a force that rivals Houston’s entire police department in size. The agreement was controversial at the time, with some city officials saying the presence of police officials made student misbehavior more likely to end in arrests.

Mark Cannizzaro, head of the city’s principals union who was a school administrator in the 1990s, said it was not unheard of for principals to consider calling the police for incidents as minor as shoving. “There was, at one point, a zero tolerance approach that didn’t make sense,” he said.

The current memorandum is a reflection of that era, advocates say, and is one of the reasons students of color are disproportionately likely to wind up in the criminal justice system instead of the principal’s office. It was supposed to be updated every four years, but has still never been revised.

De Blasio seemed to agree that the memorandum needed to be reformed, and convened a group of advocates and senior city officials who recommended changes. Among the group’s recommendations, released in 2016, were giving school leaders the lead role in addressing student misbehavior, making it more difficult for school safety agents to place students in handcuffs, and ensuring students are informed of their rights before they’re questioned.

Johanna Miller, the advocacy director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said senior officials — including Mark Rampersant, the education department’s director of security, and Brian Conroy, the chief of the police department’s school safety division — participated in the task force and seemed receptive to changes. The group agreed there should be limits to the type of offenses that could trigger police involvement, multiple participants said, excluding offenses such as smoking cigarettes, cutting class, and certain instances of insubordination.

But when the city presented the group with a draft agreement, many of their recommendations had vanished, according to people who were present during the meetings, some of whom requested anonymity because the city required that participants sign nondisclosure agreements.

“They basically eliminated all of the major changes that we made,” Miller said, adding that the group requested another opportunity to change the agreement more than a year ago. “And that was the last we heard of it.”

City officials would not comment on why the process has been delayed or why key recommendations never made it into the draft agreement. Some task force members said they believed education and police department lawyers, who had not participated in the group’s discussions, played a role in stripping the draft agreement of the most important changes.

An education department spokeswoman acknowledged in an email that “agency lawyers have been involved in order to ensure the MOU is aligned with existing local, state, and federal laws and in the best interest of students and families,” but did not comment further on why certain changes were not included.

Asked why task force members were required to sign nondisclosure agreements, the official said the decision was made “To protect the confidentiality of any shared student data and remain within (The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) compliance.”

The task force still meets quarterly, although several of its members say they have not received updates and did not know the city planned to release an updated memorandum this fall.

“The DOE and NYPD have been working in close partnership to finalize updates to the MOU and ensure that the changes are done correctly in the best interest of students and families,” education department spokeswoman Miranda Barbot wrote in an email.

Cannizzaro, the principals union chief, said he has not been informed about potential changes to the agreement, adding that school leaders should have discretion in how misconduct is handled and noted the police play an important role in school safety. “We certainly appreciate their presence — we need their presence,” he said.

Some members of the task force wondered whether the selection of a new schools chief has delayed the process, and at their most recent meeting in May, schools Chancellor Richard Carranza stopped by. “He said something to the extent of, he knew it was an issue and was going to put eyes on it,” said Nancy Ginsburg, a lawyer at the Legal Aid Society and a member of the task force.

Ginsburg said she appreciates that changes take time, but also stressed that the current memorandum can make it difficult to hold officials accountable since the agreement is so vague.

“It’s impossible to hold the agencies to anything if there are no rules,” she said.