Pace of change yields mixed reactions at Bryant closure hearing

Bryant High School teachers and students rally outside the school's 31st Avenue entrance before the closure hearing.

Over a hundred teachers, students, and alumni converged at from William Cullen Bryant High School closure hearing last night to warn city officials that undergoing “turnaround” next year would harm the school.

But some teachers said that rapid changes are already hitting the school under the hard-charging leadership of first-year principal Namita Dwarka.

Bryant is one of eight Queens schools proposed for turnaround, which would require them to close and reopen this summer with a new name and many new teachers. The school counts former schools chancellor Joel Klein among its graduates, but it has struggled in recent years to meet the city’s expectations. It landed on the turnaround list because of its lagging graduation rate, which last year was 56.5 percent, slightly lower than the city average.

City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer invoked Bryant’s century-old legacy in a press conference outside the school and during the hearing. Sporting a lapel pin with the school’s mascot, an owl, and other alumni, Van Bramer said the school’s tradition of excellence brought pride to the community and should be preserved.

Many teachers who spoke at the hearing shared his concern. But others expressed enthusiasm about changes at the school. The conflicting feelings reflected some of the tensions that have arisen since Dwarka took over as principal in September and, according to at least half a dozen teachers who have spoken with GothamSchools, began issuing low ratings to teachers who had never received them before.

Dwarka, who arrived when Bryant began a less agressive reform process last year, has the Department of Education’s support.

“We stand behind Namita Dwarka’s leadership, and we believe she is the right person to be the proposed new leader of the proposed new school,” said Deputy Chancellor Laura Rodriguez, to shouts and boos from students in the crowded auditorium. “In her time here at W.C. Bryant she has shown commitment and a strong will to improve student achievement and learning.”

One way that Dwarka has shown that commitment, according to the six Bryant teachers I spoke to in the last month, is by offering more bracing criticism than most teachers have gotten in the past.

“I was always satisfactory,” one teacher who asked not to be named told me by phone. “This is the principal’s first year and she never, ever observed me, not even a first time.”

“The environment in the school is not good,” she continued. “Many people complain. I get depressed, I cry. I personally believe that I work very hard during the whole year and every day, every class I try to do my best.”

The half dozen teachers said they learned in recent weeks, via letters from assistant principals who conducted classroom observations, that they would likely receive “unsatisfactory” ratings this spring. The U-rating is the first step in a contractual process that could lead to job termination. Last year, 2,118 teachers received unsatisfactory ratings citywide.

The news came as a shock to several of the teachers who testified last night — but none of them mentioned the U-rating spree they fear was underway in their public comments.

A handful of teachers did testify that they have brought a strong work ethic to the school but were not given enough time to meet the administration’s rising expectations. In private, several told me that they thought the new principal was laying the groundwork to reopen this fall with fewer veteran teachers.

Cracking down on subpar instruction is a typical first step for new principals, and one teacher who asked to remain anonymous  said Dwarka was working to help teachers improve by adding professional development sessions and more classroom observations.

But the teacher also said Dwarka’s leadership had caused a rift in the teaching staff, and rumors were swirling that many teachers would receive unsatisfactory job ratings in June, which could cost them their positions at Bryant.

The rumors have been exacerbated by the city’s approach to rehiring in turnaround schools, which will be conducted according to a process outlined in the city’s contract with the teachers union. The process, known as 18-D, requires that at least half of applicants to the new school from the old school must be hired according to seniority — provided that they are qualified. The hiring committees won’t be formed and the qualifications can’t be set until after the turnaround plans have been approved. But union officials have said in the past that the committees could reasonably decide to exclude from consideration teachers who have recently received U-ratings.

“With the present administration we’ve seen a sharp rise in unsatisfactory reviews — there’s nothing to compare it to. And the number of people who have been told officially that they are in danger of getting an end-of-the-year unsatisfactory rating is extremely high,” Sam Lazarus, the union chapter leader said in an interview. “These are veteran teachers who’ve never received an unsatisfactory. [The principal] is insisting on these decisions.”

Dwarka did not speak at the hearing, where she sat next to Rodriguez on stage and smiled as student athletes praised her leadership, the school culture, and their teachers during two and a half hours of public comments. She declined to comment on her leadership philosophy and referred all questions to Department of Education press officials.

Dwarka’s approach has won her support from within the school. Alyson Roach, an English teacher, testified that Dwarka has “not been afraid” to push teachers and had set the school on a path toward improvement.

“We have a great school, but of course we have areas where we could improve. We are fortunate enough to have an energetic new principal who is herself an alumna of Bryant,” she said. “I believe everyone here would describe Ms. Dwarka as someone who is truly transforming our school. No one can question her relentless quest for excellence. Why then, after marked improvement, after only six months, have we been threatened with the possible closing of our school?”

A second school whose turnaround hearing took place Tuesday night also has a brand-new principal who was handpicked to lead the school through a reform effort. Brendan Lyons took over at Manhattan’s High School for Graphic Communications Arts in September, before that school had been selected for any reform process.

“Every crisis is an opportunity,” Lyons said when the turnaround plans were announced in January. “I’d like to show how our school is a model turnaround that other schools can learn from.”

Building bonds

‘Trust is being built’ as foundation invests in programs to support Detroit parents and students

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
Teacher Michele Pizzo and students Wajiha Begum, Iftiker Choudhury and Demetrious Yancy are closer since she's visited their homes


Anna Hightower didn’t know what to think when her daughter, Jasmine, wanted permission to invite her teachers to visit their home in October. But she pushed past her reluctance and nervousness, baked brownie cookies and opened her doors to two teachers from the Davison Elementary-Middle School.

She discovered a new world of information on being a better parent as a participant in the Detroit main district’s new initiative to empower parents, the Parent Teacher Home Visit Program.

It’s part of a sweeping initiative led by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, which announced a three-year, $3 million grant Wednesday with the Detroit Public Schools Foundation. The initiative also includes a parent academy which will serve 7,000 parents, and a summer camp for up to 900 pre-kindergartners starting in the fall.

It’s the first grant Kellogg has awarded as part of its $25 million commitment to a major initiative called Hope Starts Here that Kellogg, along with the Kresge Foundation, announced last fall. The two foundations plan to spend $50 million to improve the lives of the city’s youngest children. (Kresge and Kellogg also support Chalkbeat).

Hightower said she believes the home visits are helping set the direction for her daughter’s life.

“I see now that DPS is not just a school for my daughter, but also a GPS,” she said.  “They see where my daughter wants to be, they know the destination and give her the opportunity to see the different routes she can go. They encouraged me as a parent to foster her growth as well.”

By the time the first home visit was over, the new relationships got 12-year-old Jasmine planning to join the school math club, apply to attend Cass Technical High School and consider her college choices.

La June Montgomery Tabron, W.K. Kellogg Foundation President and CEO, helped design the initiative to help the city’s youngest citizens, but Wednesday was the first day she met program participants.

“It just brought tears to my eyes,” she said. “It’s real, it’s practical. These aren’t easy relationships to build, but they are being built and trust is being built.”

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said rebuilding the district must include making parents stronger advocates for their children’s education.

“Every parent cares about their child’s education,” he said. “The reality, though, is a lot of our parents don’t know how to navigate the system in order to advocate for their child every day. Some of our parents are intimidated by the system. Sometimes, parents are not welcomed by schools, principals and even teachers, and sometimes district staff.”

Parents, he said, also often are carrying heavy loads, working multiple jobs, and struggling to pay bills. While they’re navigating everything, they are challenged to put their children and their  schooling first.

He said he envisions a “critical mass of parents” in every school who will hold the district accountable for its performance: They will demand certified teachers. They will understand how to help their child get a higher SAT test score, complete a financial aid application and help their children become better readers.

“All of this, I probably would say, is part of the greatest reflection of what I want us to be as a district,” he said.

Parents will be able to take classes on topics such as resume writing, scholarships, and college placements tests. The Parent Academy training will be held in schools, libraries, community centers and places of worship across the city.  

Michele Pizzo, a seventh-grade English language arts teacher at Davison, said volunteering to visit homes has become personal for her.

She’s gained weight eating four- and five-course meals of samosas, biryani rice and rich desserts prepared by families in the school with a majority Bengali student population. She’s made new friends while visiting with her students’ parents, and she better understands her students and feels she knows them better.

Since the fall, when the program was in its pilot stage, she has visited 30 parents after school and on weekends — all in homes except one.

“We try to make the parents feel as comfortable as possible. We walk in, give them a hug, kissing on both cheeks, and there’s a huge meal that takes place,” she said.  “They are able to open up to us, and even if they couldn’t speak English, their child translated for us.”

For seventh-grader Iftiker Choudhury the home visits have made him and his family closer to his teacher.

“I get along with the teacher more, and it’s like very friendly now,” he said. “I’m comfortable now and I talk to her more. My parents knowing her, it creates a bond in all of us.”

Every Student Succeeds Act

The Indiana State Board of Education is hitting the brakes on a plan to overhaul A-F school grades

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Students in IPS School 91's multi-age first-, second- and third-grade classroom work on math activities.

The Indiana State Board of Education is pressing pause on a proposed overhaul of how schools are graded that drew criticism from educators and some education advocates.

Board members said they wanted more time to consider how the A-F proposal — initially created to address new federal accountability law — would work alongside new graduation requirements and to incorporate feedback from educators about how the school grades are calculated, especially for high schools.

That means for this year, the 2018-19 school year, and possibly longer, Indiana schools will be measured according to two different yardsticks — a state model introduced in 2016 and a federal system that complies with the new Every Student Succeeds Act.

Read: Indiana has a curious plan to sidestep federal rules — give schools two A-F grades next year

The board met Wednesday to continue hammering out the new process for calculating state grades, a draft of which was approved in January. But just as the meeting started, board member Byron Ernest suggested pausing process, aiming instead for a new A-F grading model for the 2019-20 school year at the earliest.

“I would like for us to take a step back and do some research,” Ernest said. Four of the state board members were absent, including state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick. The seven present board members quickly reached a consensus that they should postpone a decision on the A-F rules, though no official vote happened.

As it stands now, the state and federal grading methods for calculating school ratings have important differences. The federal grade calculation, for example, would include school attendance rates and language proficiency of English-learners, whereas the state calculation would mainly rely on state test scores and test score growth. Because Indiana’s calculation also excludes certain students that the federal plan includes, such as those receiving credit recovery services, the final ratings could differ significantly for the same school. Although state and federal accountability metrics have differed in the past, the differences going forward would be more significant.

The differences ultimately add a lot of confusion to a state accountability system designed to be simpler to understand for teachers, parents, and the community.

Cari Whicker, a board member and principal, said the changes Indiana has made to testing and accountability have been exhausting and frustrating for schools.

“Either A-F accountability or testing has changed every year since 2011,” Whicker said. “That’s a lot for schools. What you consider tweaking is truly moving the target for people in the field.”

The pause is also an about-face from a meeting just a couple months ago, where board members shot down a similar proposal from Gordon Hendry to slow down. On Wednesday, Hendry said he was glad to hear Ernest’s proposal.

“That’s what I advocated for in January — wouldn’t it behoove us to take our time,” Hendry said.

In January, educators and education advocates came forward with concerns over the process for creating the new school grades, which they said was far too fast and not transparent. They also took issue with the substance of the state plan, which would have made test scores more important and limited how much test score improvement could have factored into high school grades.

It’s not yet clear exactly what changes the board wants to make in the state A-F grading model that haven’t already been discussed or considered. The Indiana Department of Education released its federal ESSA plan over the summer, and the board has had multiple opportunities to examine that plan and give feedback.

Further discussion is expected at the state board’s April meeting.