double jeopardy

Turnaround seen as threat to Smith's shrinking career programs

Scott Pagan, an electrical engineering teacher, speaks at Alfred E. Smith's closure hearing.

Plans to close and reopen Alfred E. Smith Career and Technical Education High School using turnaround, the controversial school reform model, could leave this year’s juniors without state certification in the fields they have been studying for the past three years.

For the students and their teachers, Smith’s turnaround hearing marked a return to the front lines of a battle they thought they won two years ago, when the school was narrowly spared from closure.

After initially proposing to phase the school out, the city opted to keep Smith open but downsize it by eliminating all of its career and technical programs but one: automotive technology. Five other CTE programs — in carpentry, electrical engineering, ventilation and air conditioning, plumbing, and pre-engineering — would close over time.

This year’s juniors would be the last to earn certification in those programs, entitling them to a license to work in some industries immediately after graduation. The school has continued to maintain a staff to help them through their career coursework.

But under turnaround, the school that replaces Smith will constitute a new staff, drawing from Smith’s faculty roster and elsewhere to find teachers to meet its needs.

If multiple teachers choose not to reapply for their jobs or are not selected during the hiring process — a conceivable outcome because the replacement school might not want to hire teachers for programs that would not exist after one year — Smith’s career programs could be severely affected. State certification for CTE programs requires schools to offer particular courses and have teachers with certain credentials.

Department of Education officials told attendees at last night’s closure hearing that it is not guaranteed that Smith’s replacement school would be certified to offer the technical programs. But the officials — who included the department’s former top CTE executive, Gregg Betheil — repeatedly assured families that students “should” still be able to receive CTE diplomas in coming years. They said they are encouraging teachers to gain certification to teach across disciplines so that no single program has a shortfall of qualified teachers and that they expected the state to sign off on the programs again.

That information was not comforting to Robert Matthew, a junior in the electrical engineering program who said he has felt called to the trade since he was a toddler watching his father, an electrician, at work.

“What about my CTE diploma that I’ve worked so hard for? … What are we supposed to do with the 14 spare credits?” Matthew asked at the hearing. “I can withstand bullying. But I’ve never been able to tolerate someone taking away my dreams.”

In recent years the city has worked to improve vocational offerings by shuttering CTE programs in shrinking industries and struggling schools and opening new ones in fields where jobs are likely to be plentiful. In the same January State of the City address where Mayor Bloomberg announced the turnaround plans, he vowed to further refocus the city’s CTE efforts. Today, the mayor is slated to tout a new school that will train students to program computer software.

Smith’s restructuring was part of the city’s shifting CTE priorities. In 2010, department officials cited the school’s partnerships with several local car dealerships of several car companies and its prominence as the Bronx’s only school with a large automotive program when they decided to keep that program open. Now, the department is waiting for state officials to certify the automotive program and a new collision repair program.

Smith has been struggling for well over a decade. The state identified it as one of New York’s lowest-performing schools in 1999, and last year the school had one of the highest rates of weapons possession.

Thomas Newton, a special education English teacher and a United Federation of Teachers delegate, said turnout to the hearing was low — fewer than 50 people attended — in part because it was held the day after spring break, and many students did not show up at school earlier in the day. He spent the evening next to an empty seat that was reserved for a representative of the Community Education Council for District 7.

At Smith's closure hearing, the auditorium stage displayed the hood of a car that students designed and painted with a detailed emblem and the school's name.

Newton was joined in front of the auditorium by principals from two schools that recently opened in Smith’s building: Matthew Williams of Bronx Design and Construction Academy and Lucinda Mendez of Bronx Haven High School, which enrolls transfer students who have fallen behind at other high schools.

Mendez offered a tempered defense of Smith. “I just want to state the obvious: that a school is more than a name, it’s more than a number, it’s more than a building,” she said. “A school is a community of individuals, including staff and students who come together daily to grow, learn, support, thrive, comfort, etc. It’s a home away from home for most if not for all.”

Mendez added, “Smith is a community with deep roots. They go as far back as some of the teachers having been students at the school. I hope that students who come back to the school will be able to recognize peoples’ faces. Because whatever changes you make, if that doesn’t happen, it’s going to be a disaster.”

Smith’s longtime principal, Rene Cassanova, would have to be replaced under the rules of the turnaround model. Cassanova did not speak during the hearing and declined to be interviewed. But teachers said the department had already introduced them to a proposed new principal.

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 cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

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.”