vignettes

Pep-rally tone but many worries at Queens turnaround hearings

Students dressed in blue and white, Long Island City High School's colors, chant at the school's closure hearing Tuesday.

The feeling at two Queens high schools Tuesday evening was as much pep rally as protest during public hearings about the city’s plans to close the schools in June.

The city wants to close and reopen the schools, Long Island City High School and Newtown High School, under the federally prescribed reform process known as “turnaround.” The process would require many teachers to be replaced, a prospect that students said has induced anxiety about what classes and clubs would be offered next year.

Students and teachers said unique elective and extracurricular options that currently exist — including boys gymnastics, robotics, and guitar — are a large part of what makes the schools special. They urged the Department of Education to preserve those features and revert to other improvement plans that would cause less disruption.

At a third school whose turnaround hearing took place last night, John Dewey High School, students and teachers have been mounting a vigorous defense since January, when the turnaround plans were announced. The three schools are among 26 whose turnaround proposals are likely to be approved when the Panel for Educational Policy votes on them next week.

Newtown High School

The crowd at Newtown gave forth whoops and cheers for every teacher who spoke, for every mention of the school’s winning robotics team, and for every nod to longstanding principal – and Newtown alum – John Ficalora.

But before there was cheer, there was tension when a top Department of Education official, Deputy Chancellor David Weiner, had not shown up 20 minutes after the meeting was supposed to begin. At 6:20 p.m., with Weiner an estimated 20 minutes away, Jesse Mojica, the Department of Education’s executive director for Family and Community Engagement, tried to start the meeting without him.

That decision didn’t sit well with the hundreds of students, parents, and teachers crowded into the school’s auditorium. Washington Sanchez, a Queens Borough United Federation of Teachers representative, rushed to a microphone that had been set up in the audience.

“How can we conduct this meeting without a representative from the chancellor’s office?” he asked?

The audience screamed in support, chanting, “We want Weiner!” until Mojica acquiesced and postponed the meeting.

The crowd did not quiet down even after Weiner arrived, shouting over his opening statement about how the school’s report card grade (C) and graduation rate (62.4 percent) were not satisfactory. In testimony, teachers and staff members who have been invested in the school for decades defended the school alongside students who have been in this country for mere months.

They all said the school had improved under a short-lived reform effort, “restart,” that paired the school with a nonprofit partner this year. They also pointed to dedicated teachers, Ficalora’s leadership, and Newtown’s culturally diverse community of students as strong assets.

But they said having immigrant students from all over the world has also made it difficult to meet the city’s expectations.

Supporters of Newtown High packed the auditorium.

“How do you expect students who never heard any English words to graduate in four years?” asked Jiawen Shen, a junior who immigrated from China two and a half years ago and now has had teachers dedicate hours of their free time to help her perfect her college essay and work through trying math problems.

“How is a school like this called ineffective?” she asked.

“We’re serving the students of Corona. It’s the most ethnically diverse community in the world. It’s not their fault and it’s not our fault,” said Shara Berkowitz, who has taught English as a Second Language at Newtown for 18 years.

Prior to the event, as a small crowd gathered outside of the school to listen to student guitarists perform, Berkowitz said that she was uncertain about what the future would hold for her students and her school.

“I have students walking in every single day from their country. We accept everybody. Will a new school accept everybody?” she asked. (The Department of Education has said that the replacement schools would enroll the same students under turnaround.)

Xiaoyu Zhou immigrated from China five months ago and has worked closely with Berkowitz to learn English. Now, he told me, his English has greatly improved because of his teacher’s efforts and he is no longer afraid of making mistakes. He said he wonders how his teachers would be judged good or bad when the school decides which of them to rehire.

Shen said rumors have been going around about art and music classes being cut to make way for double periods of math and English next year. Last year by this time, Shen said she knew her class schedule for the fall. This year, that’s not a possibility.

Long Island City High School

Students at LICHS also had next year’s classes and clubs foremost on their minds.

During four hours of testimony, dozens of college-bound seniors and recent graduates told Deputy Chancellor Shael Polakow-Suransky and other Department of Education officials that LICHS teachers had inspired them to take Advanced Placement classes and participate in an array of electives, clubs, and sports, from boys gymnastics to culinary arts.

Fotini Dimopoulos, a junior, said she especially values drama club, a dance team, and a leadership class that organizes community service opportunities for students. The class also designed and distributed the T-shirts that most audience members were wearing Tuesday evening, which read “I am L.I.C.” and “We Can, We Will Save Long Island City High School.”

“If you guys close us down, it’s not guaranteed that we’re going to have all these things back,” Dimopoulos said. “Next year’s going to be horrible. I have to apply for colleges and get recommendation letters. If I’m not going to have the same teachers we have now, what’s going to happen?”

Several students and alumni teared up as they described the mentoring and encouragement they received while on the boys gymnastics team and other sports teams, and two performed impromptu backflips at the front of the auditorium before testifying. They reasoned that those programs would not be able to exist without the leadership of Ken Achiron, the gymnastics coach and union representative, and many other teachers who supervise the extracurricular activities.

Polakow-Suransky told the audience that the city would not be eliminating any of the school’s electives or extracurricular programs.

“Anyone who’s telling you that there might not be those programs available is not telling you the truth,” he said.

LICHS freshman Hugo Wehe shows off a medal the gymnastics team recently won during his testimony.

What the department is trying to do, Polakow-Suransky said, is jolt the school out of lagging performance. Citing the school’s lackluster attendance rate — 80.8 percent — and two consecutive progress report C grades, he said the city believes improvement requires a deep intervention such as turnaround, which would overhaul the staff and infuse the school with several million dollars in federal improvement funds.

Until January, LICHS was receiving federal funding to undergo transformation, a less aggressive federally prescribed reform effort. As at other schools cut off from the federal funds because of a city-union dispute over teacher evaluations, the protesters said the transformation had brought about positive changes. If the school had been allowed to complete the three-year program, they argued, then LICHS’s student performance data would have risen to meet the city’s expectations. Its four-year graduation rate already jumped from 56 percent to 66 percent, several points above the city average, over the past two years.

As the hearing wound down, Polakow-Suransky told the 50 or so remaining protesters that he found their testimonies powerful. He said he would report back to Chancellor Dennis Walcott about the sense of “tremendous, love, respect, and pride … and family” evinced at the hearing, adding, “That sense of history and identity fairly came through this evening.”

Vivian Selenikas, the proposed new school leader, sat quietly in the audience beside the current principal, Maria Mamo-Vacacela, who wore a white “I Am L.I.C.” shirt. Mamo-Vacacela took over only in 2010 when the city was required to remove William Bassell, in charge since 1993, under the transformation rules. The city would not have to replace her under turnaround. But her leadership has been dotted with hiccups, including a massive scheduling debacle earlier this year.

Several teachers who spoke at the hearing said Selenikas had already met with teachers and told them she was pleased with their work. She declined to speak with GothamSchools at the hearing.

weekend update

How the education world is reacting to racist violence in Charlottesville — and to Trump’s muted response

PHOTO: Andrew Dallos/Flickr
A rally against hate in Tarrytown, New York, responds to the violence in Charlottesville.

For educators across the country, this weekend’s eruption of racism and violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, offered yet another painful opportunity to communicate their values to families, colleagues, and community members.

Many decried the white supremacists who convened in the college town and clashed with protesters who had come to oppose their message. Some used social media to outline ideas about how to turn the distressing news into a teaching moment.

And others took issue with President Donald Trump’s statement criticizing violence “on many sides,” largely interpreted as an unwillingness to condemn white supremacists.

One leading education official, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, followed Trump’s approach, criticizing what happened but not placing blame on anyone in particular:

DeVos’s two most recent predecessors were unequivocal, both about what unfolded in Charlottesville and whom to blame:

Leaders of the nation’s two largest teachers unions responded directly to Trump:

The American Federation of Teachers, Weingarten’s union, is supporting vigils across the country Sunday night organized by chapters of Indivisible, a coalition that emerged to resist the Trump administration. The union also promoted resources from Share My Lesson, its lesson-plan site, that deal with civil rights and related issues.

“As educators, we will continue to fulfill our responsibility to make sure our students feel safe and protected and valued for who they are,” Weingarten said in a statement with other AFT officials.

Local education officials took stands as well, often emotionally. Here’s what the superintendent in Memphis, which is engaged in the same debate about whether Confederate memorials should continue to stand that drew white supremacists to Charlottesville, said on Twitter:

Teachers in Hopson’s district return for the second week of classes on Monday. They’ve helped students process difficult moments before, such as a spate of police killings of black men in 2016; here’s advice they shared then and advice that teachers across the country offered up.

We want to hear from educators who are tackling this tough moment in their classrooms. Share your experiences and ideas here or in the form below. 

Betsy DeVos

‘Underperformer,’ ‘bully,’ and a ‘mermaid with legs’: NYMag story slams Betsy DeVos

PHOTO: New York Magazine
A drawing of DeVos commissioned by an 8-year-old starts the New York Magazine article.

A new article detailing Betsy DeVos’s first six months as U.S. education secretary concludes that she’s “a mermaid with legs: clumsy, conspicuous, and unable to move forward.”

That’s just one of several brutal critiques of DeVos’s leadership and effectiveness in the New York Magazine story, by Lisa Miller, who has previously covered efforts to overhaul high schools, New York City’s pre-kindergarten push, and the apocalypse. Here are some highlights:

  • Bipartisan befuddlement: The story summarizes the left’s well known opposition to DeVos’s school choice agenda. But her political allies also say she’s making unnecessary mistakes: “Most mystifying to those invested in her success is why DeVos hasn’t found herself some better help.”
  • A friend’s defense: DeVos is “muzzled” by the Trump administration, said her friend and frequent defender Kevin Chavous, a school choice activist.
  • The department reacts: “More often than not press statements are being written by career staff,” a spokesperson told Miller, rejecting claims that politics are trumping policy concerns.
  • D.C. colleagues speak: “When you talk to her, it’s a blank stare,” said Charles Doolittle, who quit the Department of Education in June. A current education department employee says: “It’s not clear that the secretary is making decisions or really capable of understanding the elements of a good decision.”
  • Kids critique: The magazine commissioned six portraits of DeVos drawn by grade-schoolers.
  • Special Olympics flip-flop: DeVos started out saying she was proud to partner with the athletics competition for people with disabilities — and quickly turned to defending a budget that cuts the program’s funding.
  • In conclusion: DeVos is an underperformer,” a “bully” and “ineffective,” Miller found based on her reporting.

Updated (July 31, 2017): A U.S. Education Department spokesperson responded to our request for comment, calling the New York Magazine story “nothing more than a hit piece.” Said Liz Hill: “The magazine clearly displayed its agenda by writing a story based on largely disputed claims and then leaving out of the article the many voices of those who are excited by the Secretary’s leadership and determination to improve education in America.”