longitudinal data

From school facing turnaround, a tale of academic perseverance

This story originally appeared in Miller-McCune. Since this story was completed, New York City has said it would require Franklin Delano Roosevelt High School to undergo “turnaround,” which would cause the school name to disappear and half the teachers to be replaced.

At 18 years old, Moustafa Elhanafi has embarked on an academic journey that has brought him tantalizingly close to obtaining a high school diploma. (Ben Preston)

On a hot, sunny September afternoon — the sticky kind so common in New York City that time of year — a tall, dark-haired young man with his shoulders hunched slightly forward padded into Franklin Delano Roosevelt High School’s back entrance and into a small courtyard. Moustafa Elhanafi sought the school’s principal. He needed her help. Not being a student there, he didn’t know what she looked like or where he would find her inside the massive, unfamiliar building. In the courtyard beneath the shade of a wide-leafed tree, looking for crafty students cutting class, stood Principal Geraldine Maione.

“I saw her, and I didn’t know if she was the principal, but she was wearing a suit, so I asked her if she was,” said Moustafa.

Maione welcomed him inside and listened to what he had to say. With his father beside him, Moustafa told Maione how, at 18 years old, he still didn’t know how to read or write. He had tried and failed at other schools, and he was willing to work as hard as he could to learn, but Moustafa said he needed help. After 15 minutes relating his frustrations, he began to cry. Maione, too, became emotional. She told him she knew just the person who could help. As if on cue, special education teacher Rosalie Dolan strode around the corner on her way home for the day, right into the tear-streaked faces of Moustafa and Maione.

“He cried, she cried, I cried,” recalled Dolan, relating the details in the thick accent shared by so many of the South Brooklyn school’s teachers. “I don’t know how to explain it; it was like a rainforest. I think we all had a spiritual experience that day.”

The trio’s first meeting that day launched Moustafa on an academic journey that has brought him tantalizingly close to obtaining a high school diploma. Outside of school hours, and without pay, Dolan began the painstaking process of teaching Moustafa how to read, one letter at a time.

That was in 2008, at the end of Moustafa’s three-year run at the Roy Campanella Occupational Training Center — known colloquially as the OTC — a school for developmentally disabled children. The New York City public school system — the largest in the world — has many resources at its disposal, but as Moustafa’s case suggests, it’s not always successful at plugging every student into the right ones.

Moustafa had been enrolled in what is known as an inclusionary program — special education classes sponsored by the OTC, but held on the campus of John Dewey High School, the conventional school right next door. But Moustafa felt out of place in OTC classes. He couldn’t get the hang of reading and writing, but he was different from his classmates, most of whom suffered from Down syndrome, mental retardation, and other severe disabilities. The OTC is well known for helping students with such problems, but its approach wasn’t working for Moustafa.

Moustafa had asked his teacher, Marian Bruce, to help him learn to read, and said that she invited him to show up before class for tutoring. But at those sessions, something was missing. He recalls being asked to copy lessons for class onto the board, mimicry that didn’t help him correlate sounds to letters. Plus, he said, “I’m a slow writer. I had to go one letter at a time, and by the time I finished, the bell rang and class started. It didn’t help at all.”

Frustrated and depressed, Moustafa eventually stopped going to school. His father didn’t like what he saw. “I said, ‘Moustafa, you need to read and write to get a job,’” recalled Ahmed Elhanafi, a now-retired taxi driver who raised his two sons in Bensonhurst, not far from FDR. Ahmed pep-talked his son into asking for help from the principal of the high school in their neighborhood, starting the trek to Geraldine Maione’s shady tree.

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Moustafa Elhanafi gets tutored on the subjects that give him difficulty. (Ben Preston)

Moustafa Elhanafi was born in New York City to Egyptian immigrant parents, both literate in English and Arabic. At age 2 he moved with his mother to Egypt while his father stayed behind. His parents divorced a short time later. Moustafa stayed in Egypt for the next six years, speaking only Arabic, but never learned how to read or write the language. When he was 8, his mother moved back to New York, and Moustafa moved in with his father in Bensonhurst, where he’s been ever since. Like most other kids in New York City, he was enrolled at the neighborhood public school.

After a year at Nelson A. Rockefeller School, school authorities decided that Moustafa needed extra help, and in September 1999, he was transferred to Alfred De B.Mason, a larger school with a more robust special education program. Yearly evaluations by school counselors are normal for any student, but Moustafa’s recommended he also see an outside psychiatric specialist to see why his classroom performance wasn’t up to par. Ahmend Elhanafi said he did what they told him to do for his son’s education.

When Moustafa was 11 years old, he was diagnosed as mentally retarded. According to the New York City Department of Education’s rules, every special ed student’s “Individualized Education Plan” is updated on a yearly basis, and students are reevaluated every three years. By 2005, when he was 15, Moustafa’s educational situation hadn’t improved, and the Department of Education classified him ineducable. Too old to continue going to Alfred De B.Mason, Moustafa’s next stop was the OTC.

Moustafa says that a typical day at the OTC included menial tasks like stringing beads onto thread and sorting piles of sugar cubes. “They give you a bag of sugar cubes and you take two cubes out and put them in a Ziploc,” he said. “That’s it. After you’ve filled dozens of bags with dozens of cubes, they take you back to the school to sit there for hours and do nothing.”

Teachers and administrators who worked with Moustafa at the OTC and Dewey High School declined to comment on his time there. (OTC Principal Wendy Weiss said she did not feel comfortable speaking about Moustafa’s case, and other teachers and administrators at FDR cited concerns about violating the NYC Department of Education’s information policy.)

In the midst of this drudgery, Moustafa’s desire to learn to read and write kicked in when his mother started the search for a bride for him, the normal route to marriage in his traditional Islamic culture. The girl she had in mind was still in Egypt, but when Moustafa met her during a trip there to visit family, he remembers liking her instantly. The match was arranged when he was 16, steeling Moustafa’s resolve to attain literacy.

“When you get engaged, you don’t want to be like that anymore,” he said. “You want to show your wife that you can be a man and work hard.”

Despite his drive, he struggled in vain to get a grasp on reading. His father says Moustafa became depressed, and was crying a lot. To make matters worse, he was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. “He was taking the Ritalin for one year and he wasn’t eating,” said Ahmed Elhanafi, who canceled his son’s prescription during the summer of 2008, a year after it had begun. “It didn’t make him smarter; it didn’t help. He was in the wrong school.”

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Rosalie Dolan knows what it’s like to be illiterate. Throughout her childhood and young adult years, neither she nor the New York City public school system knew that she was dyslexic and diplopic (double vision). Like Moustafa, she had been deemed mentally retarded and uneducable. She was married at 16 and had three children by age 20 but no high school diploma. It wasn’t until her kids started pestering her to read to them that she really felt the need to learn how.

“Nobody knew I couldn’t read and write — not even my husband,” she said. “My kids wanted me to read them the Little Golden Books, and I was like, ‘Uh oh.’”

Rosalie Dolan devoted her free time to helping Moustafa learn how to read. (Ben Preston)

She said that she let her brother in on the secret, and that he had promised to help her learn how to read. But he was murdered before they could get started. Just after he died, she remembers spying an open Scrabble set on the living room table. In a moment of frustration, she hurled it across the room.

“The chips went in a big arc and landed all over the floor,” she said. “When I bent down to start picking them up, I grabbed [one of the pieces] and felt the little indentation the letter makes in the wood. I’d never that noticed before.”

She realized that what she saw as a backward railroad sign was what everyone else recognizes as the letter “R.” That tiny, tactile moment started her down a long road that led her to a GED, college, graduate school and eventually, teaching children with learning disabilities how to read. 

“Moustafa is just a 30-years-later version of what happened to me with the Board of Ed,” she said. “We could really bash the Board of Ed for destroying this student’s morale, but that’s not what we’re trying to prove. With the right amount of motivation and attention, you can do anything.”

When Moustafa came to her in the fall of 2008, she said they both had their work cut out for them. He didn’t yet recognize any of the letters, couldn’t sound many of them out, and had a particular problem with vowels. But he seemed excited to learn with his new tutor, and dove into reading instruction using the Wilson Reading System, a method of sound-symbol association entailing “tapping out” letters one by one — cards with pictures, letters, and phonetic spellings for A, apple, ah; B, bat, buh; and so on. Moustafa wasn’t enrolled in school during that time. Dolan spent a couple of hours with him after regular school hours every week — the two of them seated among two crooked rows of empty desks in her small second-floor classroom at FDR. The rest of the time Moustafa was at home, practicing and practicing tapping. C, cat, cuh; D, dog, duh …

“It helps you to understand the sounds of the letters,” said Moustafa. “Then, it comes automatically. I’m not tapping anymore. Now I’m just reading it – I go with the flow.”

It took six weeks of intensive study before Moustafa was able to read his first sentence: “The rat is mad.” Before long, he could read an excerpt from the Declaration of Independence. Then came comprehension of what he was reading.

After a year and a half of tutoring, Dolan said Moustafa asked her if he could start taking academic classes at FDR and work toward getting his high school diploma. For someone to begin not just high school, but school in general, at 18 years old is unusual, but she was impressed by his hard work and dedication, and helped him take the next step. It was time to see Maione again.

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FDR High School’s hallways are a microcosm of the world. Around every corner, a cacophony of different languages meets passersby as 3,500 students from all kinds of backgrounds move through the building. But it’s a happy world; a well-ordered one where students and teachers appear to get along. Geraldine Maione was the school’s principal for six years, and until being transferred to William Grady High School in Brighton Beach in the fall of 2010, she fostered a “kids first” atmosphere.

“What she did was promote a culture — you had to go out of your way to help kids,” said Stanley Fevrine, 31, a teaching assistant who works in the special education department with at-risk teens. Fevrine’s familiarity with Maione’s teaching ethic goes beyond his job at FDR. He was a student in Maione’s social studies class when she was a teacher at Grady and still remembers the first time he met her. “In steps Ms. Maione — this short, gray-haired Italian lady — she had a presence about her. I don’t want to overdo it, but you know when [Michael] Jordan steps on the court? It’s like that.”

Maione has a reputation as a tough teacher and a strict administrator, but also as someone students could rely on when they needed help with just about anything. She remembers teachers calling her stupid when she was a student on Manhattan’s then-gritty Lower East Side. As a grad student at NYU, one of her professors uttered words that she has carried with her ever since: “You have the power to destroy the spirit of a child.”

When Dolan approached her in March 2010 about getting Moustafa enrolled in diploma-oriented academic classes, she said Maione was unflinchingly supportive of the idea, even though Moustafa had no formal education. Enrolling him at FDR meant that if he tried and failed, the school’s rating would be pulled down, taking it just a little farther from the number of four-year graduations required by the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program. At a school like FDR — with a heavy concentration of non-native English speakers — every point counts. Maione was not deterred, and despite the objections of a couple of teachers toward his enrolling late in the term, Moustafa began classes the next month.

As when he learned to read, Moustafa at first had a tough time with classes. Dolan said the teachers who had initially objected to his enrollment came around when they saw how much effort he put into his schoolwork. Since he’s been at FDR, he hasn’t missed a single day of school.

“Quite frankly, I’ve never seen someone try so hard,” said Anastasia Novik, 28, Moustafa’s algebra teacher. “He knows he’s weak, so he gets to school early and stays late.”

At 6 feet, 4 inches, Moustafa towers over most teachers and students, and looks a bit like a ship navigating a sea of people in the school’s busy hallways. He most often wears a shy smile, and has a gentle manner; Maione calls him a gentle giant.

Moustafa doesn’t have a lunch period, and is enrolled in classes eight periods a day. Twice a week, he meets Dolan at 6:30 a.m. for tutoring. Every day, he has a “resource period,” where he gets extra help in subjects he’s having trouble understanding. Novik said she often tutors him during the period she has open to plan and prepare for other classes. He has a job at the school, assisting teachers with administrative tasks.

“He’s a lot smarter than [the school system] gave him credit for,” said Joe DeRanieri, 57, a 19-year veteran of FDR’s special education program who runs the resource room. “They had him in a very low-functioning program, and with the help of Rosalie Dolan and others, he’s almost up to speed.”

When Moustafa gets home from school, his dad fixes him a quick dinner — usually something Egyptian. Ahmed Elhanafi is a constant presence in his sons’ lives. One moment, he’s helping one of them with homework; the next, he’s cooking dinner or doing laundry. Moustafa’s brother Mohammed, 22, who also lives at home, is studying criminal justice at Kingsborough Community College, and hopes to become a cop. While his dad whirls around, Moustafa spends evenings in a chair in their brightly painted living room, studying and doing homework.

“The days are filled with math and science and history,” said Moustafa. “I may not really be that smart, but I worked hard to get to know all this. I needed it in my life.”

Moustafa has passed all of his Regents competency exams — quite an accomplishment for someone who hadn’t taken academic courses before a couple of years ago — and holds a respectable grade point average. After traveling a long, circuitous educational path, Moustafa is scheduled to graduate in June at the age of 21.

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The New York City Department of Education is responsible for educating millions of students, and while it does provide special education resources such as the OTC, some, like Moustafa, can slip through the cracks. District 75 — of which the OTC is part — is the department’s special education section dedicated to severely disabled students, and most of those students graduate with diplomas that aren’t recognized by colleges, universities, or the military. Until a few years ago, Moustafa was on track to join their ranks.

Terry Manger, a school psychologist working at both New Utrecht and FDR High Schools, said that while she’s only known Moustafa since March 2010, there are many factors that could have led to his being diagnosed as mentally retarded. English is his second language. He’s shy. He’s emotionally sensitive. All of those, she said, are things that can affect a student’s performance.

“This is why we have a process where we can always reevaluate and readjust,” she said, adding that three-year evaluations are the best way to keep on top of a student’s changing conditions. “I think that what Moustafa got at FDR was a lot more individual attention. It’s not a question of what someone did or didn’t do — it’s not even the extra mile. It’s the one-on-one.”

Dolan continues to tutor Moustafa before school two mornings per week, still without being paid for it. She has kept records on his progress since they began working together, and would eventually like to use the data to complete a Ph.D. dissertation she postponed in the mid-1990s when life got in the way. She hopes to see Moustafa graduate and go on to college.

Although he is no longer engaged (the girl’s father called off the engagement shortly after her mother died two years ago), Moustafa is determined to get his diploma and go to college. He thinks he’d like to be a pharmacist someday, but right now, simply going to school to learn more is his top goal. His guidance counselor, Helayne Wagner, 54, and several of his teachers said that as he has learned more and more in school, Moustafa has become more confident.

“It’s a miracle,” said Moustafa’s father. “I live with my son day by day and I’ll never forget the change. He was diagnosed wrong, he was in the wrong school, and he was really struggling. But now he’s really opened his mind, thanks to God.”

Making up for years of lost time, Moustafa takes in opportunities to learn with the voracity of someone who has been starved. During the lunch period he sacrificed, he gets extra credit by taking a music class. He tackles the keys of a piano much as he did the letters of the alphabet — one note at a time. Moustafa plays deliberately, hitting the notes and chords of “Are You Sleeping” with accuracy that’s surprising for someone who had never even touched a piano until a few months earlier.

At his job assisting one of FDR’s business career education teachers, he often helps other students with their classwork, something he wouldn’t have imagined doing even a year ago.

“It’s exciting when you understand what the teacher said,” he explains. “You can be proud to share that lesson with a student who doesn’t.”

Miller-McCune is an online and print magazine produced by the nonprofit Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. Ben Preston is a journalist who graduated in 2011 from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.

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 Columbian 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.