New lease on life?

Parents want their struggling school to get more time to improve

I.S. 171 Parents at an "early engagement" meeting.

Parents at a school they say was left to fail by a former principal are hoping that a new administration can keep the school doors open.

After receiving a failing grade on its progress report this year, I.S. 171 in Cypress Hills is one of 20 schools the Department of Education is publicly considering for closure. But at a meeting to discuss the school’s future Wednesday evening, parents, students and alumni said the school shouldn’t be judged based on its past performance because new school leadership has already begun to turn things around.

First-year principal Barbara Kendall was hired a week before the year began after former principal Yolanda Fustanio resigned at the end of the last school year. Parents and students complained that under Fustanio’s leadership, enforcement of the school’s discipline code eroded so badly that the school had become unsafe.

“The hallways were like traffic in Times Square,” a sixth-grade girl said at the meeting.

Shamona Kirkland, a District 19 Community Education Council member whose son is in seventh grade at I.S. 171, said Fustanio had turned into an absentee principal by the end of her tenure.

District 19 Superintendent Rosemary Mills gives opening remarks at I.S. 171

“I saw her maybe once or twice the whole school year,” Kirkland said. “I had to keep reminding myself what her name was every time I saw her.”

The comments came at an “early engagement” meeting with Rosemary Mills, District 19’s superintendent, in the school’s auditorium. It was part of a series of meetings that the DOE is organizing for each of the low-performing schools before it decides whether to shutter them. Two other meetings at I.S. 171 included officials from the United Federation of Teachers and the school’s internal leadership team.

The meeting with Mills attracted about 120 people, many of whom had the meeting interpreted for them through headsets. A large percentage of the 800-plus student body is Hispanic and 23 percent are classified as English language learners.

Mills told the audience that their school would either be phased out — one grade at a time — or would adopt a intervention plan that targets the school’s greatest weaknesses. Then Mills opened the floor to parents and asked them for feedback on what worked at the school and what did not.

Some parents who spoke said the school needed greater parent engagement and others lauded the after-school programming, which included theater productions of “In The Heights” and “Rent” in recent years.

But many of them noted that since the school year began, they had noticed a vast improvement in their children’s work habits and school culture. Most of them credited Kendall.

“She told us that as a team we can work together and she made us feel like we were part of the team,” Kirkland said.

Kendall said that when she started at I.S. 171 on Sept. 1, her first order of business was to reinstate a sense of order. She assigned school aides to closely monitor the halls and implemented a policy that requires teachers to lock classroom doors when their class is in session so that, she said, “in any instant, children are accounted for.”

“There was a major issue of safety so once I got here and I realized I had to set that tone and discipline,” said Kendall who previously worked as an assistant principal for 10 years at Robert A. Van Wyck Middle School in Queens.

Despite the vote of confidence, Kendall remains an interim principal and the process to hire her for the permanent position begins next month, Mills said.

A decision on the school’s future will likely come in early December.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”