vignettes

Schools slated for turnaround say they're already getting better

Teachers and students at the Flushing closure hearing wore red and glitter horns to represent the school's mascot, the Red Devils.

The Department of Education isn’t paying attention to recent improvements at the school it has proposed for “turnaround,” teachers and students said at two of the schools Wednesday evening.

At Flushing High School, teachers said during a public hearing about the turnaround plan that a recent leadership change had created conditions for success — and that any consideration of the school’s performance should taken into account its large immigrant population. At the Bronx High School of Business, teachers said the staff had been overhauled this year but hadn’t yet had a chance to demonstrated success.

The city has been holding public hearings about the turnarounds, which would require schools to be closed and reopened after replacing many teachers, since late last month. The final two hearings are tonight, and the city’s Panel for Educational Policy is set to vote on the 26 total proposals next week. It has never rejected a city proposal.

Flushing High School

According to the dozens of students and teachers who testified at Wednesday night’s closure hearing, Flushing High School is on the upswing after suffering from years of poor leadership and budget cuts.

More than 100 protesters of the city’s plan to close the school using the turnaround model struck a tone of optimism and passion as they sat in the Flushing auditorium, wearing red T-shirts and, in some cases, glittery horns to represent the school’s mascot, the Red Devils. A group of sophomores from a band class drummed forcefully on plastic tubs before city officials began the hearing, chanting, “Save our school.”

Deputy Chancellor David Weiner cited the school’s low four-year graduation rate — 60 percent for the past two years — as the main reason the Department of Education believes Flushing would benefit from turnaround. As he spoke, teachers and parents in the audience sporadically shouted over him. “Nobody wants this!” one called. “Fix truancy,” another shouted. A third person yelled, “They’re not English-speaking,” referring to Flushing’s large number of English Language Learners. Of Flushing’s 3,075 students, 618 are ELLs.

Jenny Chen, a Chinese teacher, said the school’s performance only appears to be lagging because many students arrive needing more than four years of English as a second language instruction to reach proficiency.

“Most of my students sitting in the audience are seniors. Three years ago when they left their motherland to start a new life at Flushing High School they barely spoke any English,” Chen said in her testimony. “To my mind, their achievements are more significant than those from Stuyvesant High School who will attend a prestigious college because our students’ social and economic background is extremely disadvantaged.”

Other people who testified said another factor out of teachers’ and students’ control — the school’s leadership — had led to poor performance.

Laura Spadacini, a long-time assistant principal at Flushing, said Cornelia Gutwein, the principal from 1997 to 2010, had made little effort to graduate students in four years and employed administrators who were unfamiliar with graduation requirements or student transcripts.

“The former principal here paid no attention to the graduation rate. You are holding us responsible for the mistakes that were made over the course of years,” she said. “We’re finally given an opportunity to move forward and the DOE decides to close us down.”

Spadacini also said Principal Carl Hudson, until last year a teacher at Flushing, had improved upon the previous administration but got only eight months to prove himself. The city already invited teachers and families to a “meet and greet” with the educator slated to replace him, Magdalen Radovich, now an assistant principal at another Queens school.

“We have a law program, an enterprise program, all cited in the [the city’s Education Impact Statement], and the kids are moving forward with these programs,” Spadacini added in an interview. “If we could expand what’s happening there to the rest of the building, there’s no need to close the school.”

Bronx High School of Business

Unlike at Flushing and other school turnaround hearings where droves of students and teachers have banded together in protest, things were quiet at the Bronx High School of Business.

No more than 40 students, parents, and teachers attended a public hearing about the small high school’s proposed turnaround, and their mood reflected resignation rather than resistance. Still, the school’s supporters said positive changes were underway and should be given a chance to boost the school’s performance.

Department of Education deputy chancellor Laura Rodriguez explained the department’s rationale in at a meeting held in the large auditorium of the Taft Educational Complex, which houses four different high schools. “By closing and replacing the Bronx High School of Business, we are seeking to rapidly create a school environment that will prepare students for college and life,” Rodriguez said.

The school landed on the state’s “Persistently Low-Achieving” schools list last year. As a result, last September it received a federal grant to undergo “restart,” and founding Principal Enrique Lizardi brought in a number of new expert teachers to teach English and special education. (Lizardi resigned last month; he would not be allowed to stay on under the rules of turnaround.)

Those teachers have not yet had a chance to show results, the school’s supporters said, since the decision to close the school was coming before students would take this year’s Regents exams. The teachers have not even served out a full year before the department decided to replace the school, they said.

“They’re not letting us continue the work we were doing with these kids,” said Elizabeth Solis, a teacher brought in under the restart model who is also the school’s union chapter leader. “The kids are sad, confused and upset but they feel powerless. The closing of the Bronx High School of Business is not about the children.”

Few students spoke at the hearing, but those who did said they were disappointed in the message the closure plan was sending. Rashid Gladden, a soft-spoken sophomore, said, “By shutting down this high school, you’ll hurt students. My teachers taught me to become a better leader and persevere.”

Sarah Tan, who covered the Bronx High School of Business hearing, is a graduate student at Columbia University’s journalism school

'indigenized' curriculum

Denver doesn’t graduate half of its Native American students. This charter school wants to change that.

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Tanski Chrisjohn gets help adjusting the microphone at a school board meeting from Denver Superintendent Tom Boasberg.

The Denver school district is not serving Native American students well. Fewer than one in four Native American sixth-graders were reading and writing on grade-level last year, according to state tests, and the high school graduation rate was just 48 percent.

Even though that percentage is lower than for black or Latino students, educator Terri Bissonette said it often feels as if no one is paying attention.

“Nobody says anything out loud,” said Bissonette, a member of the Gnoozhekaaning Anishinaabe tribe who graduated from Denver Public Schools and has worked in education for 20 years as a teacher and consultant. “We’re always listed as ‘others.’”

Bissonette aims to change that by opening a charter school called the American Indian Academy of Denver. The plan is to start in fall 2019 with 120 students in sixth, seventh, and eighth grades and then expand into high school one grade at a time. Any interested student will be able to enroll, no matter their racial or ethnic background.

The Denver school board unanimously and enthusiastically approved the charter last week – which is notable given enrollment growth is slowing districtwide and some board members have expressed concerns about approving too many new schools.

But the American Indian Academy of Denver would be unlike any other school in the city. The curriculum would focus on science, technology, engineering, art, and math – or STEAM, as it’s known – and lessons would be taught through an indigenous lens.

Bissonette gives a poignant example. In sixth grade, state academic standards dictate students learn how European explorers came to North America.

“When you’re learning that unit, you’re on the boat,” Bissonette said. “I’d take that unit and I’d flip it. You’d be on the beach, and those boats would be coming.”

Antonio Garcia loves that example. The 17-year-old cites it when talking about why the school would be transformational for Native American youth, a population that has historically been forced – sometimes violently – to assimilate into white culture. For decades, Native American children were sent to boarding schools where their hair was cut and their languages forbidden.

Garcia is a member of the Jicarilla Apache, Diné, Mexikah, and Maya tribes. A senior at Denver’s East High School, he recalls elementary school classmates asking if he lived in a teepee and teachers singling him out to share the indigenous perspective on that day’s lesson.

“Indigenous students don’t have a place in Denver Public Schools,” Garcia said. “We’re underrepresented. And when we are represented, it’s through tokenism.”

According to the official student count, 592 of Denver’s nearly 93,000 students this year are Native American. That’s less than 1 percent, although Bissonette suspects the number is actually higher because some families don’t tick the box for fear of being stigmatized or because they identify as both Native American and another race.

The district does provide extra support for Native American students. Four full-time and three part-time staff members coordinate mentorships, cultural events, college campus visits, and other services, according to district officials. In addition, five Denver schools are designated as Native American “focus schools.” The focus schools are meant to centralize the enrollment of Native American students, in part so they feel less isolated, officials said.

But it isn’t working that way. While the number of students at some of the schools is slightly higher than average, there isn’t a large concentration at any one of them. Supporters of the American Indian Academy of Denver hope the charter will serve that role.

“It’s very hard being the only Native person that my friends know,” second-grader Vivian Sheely told the school board last week. “It would be nice to see other families that look like my own.”

That sense of belonging is what Shannon Subryan wants for her children, too. Subryan and her daughters are members of the Navajo and Lakota tribes. Her 7-year-old, Cheyenne, has struggled to find a school that works for her. Because Cheyenne is quiet in class, Subryan said teachers have repeatedly suggested she be tested for learning disabilities.

“Our children are taught that listening before speaking is more valued than speaking right away,” Subryan said. “She understands everything. It’s just a cultural thing.”

After switching schools three times, Cheyenne ended up at a Denver elementary with a teacher who shares her Native American and Latina heritage. She’s thrived there, but Subryan worries what will happen when Cheyenne gets a new teacher next year. As soon as Cheyenne is old enough, Subryan plans to enroll her at the American Indian Academy of Denver.

In addition to the school’s “indigenized” curriculum, Bissonette envisions inviting elders into the classrooms to share stories and act as academic tutors, exposing students to traditional sports and games, and teaching them Native American languages. Above all, she said the school will work to hire high-quality teachers, whether they’re Native American or not.

The school is partly modeled on a successful charter school in New Mexico called the Native American Community Academy. Opened in 2006, it has a dual focus on academic rigor and student wellness. Last year, 71 percent of its graduates immediately enrolled in college, school officials said. In Denver, only 38 percent of Native American graduates immediately enrolled.

Several years ago, the New Mexico school launched a fellowship program for educators who want to open their own schools focused on better serving Native American students. Bissonette will be the first Colorado educator to be a fellow when she starts this year.

She and her founding board of directors are hoping to open the American Indian Academy of Denver in a private facility somewhere in southwest Denver. That region is home to the Denver Indian Center and has historically had a larger population of Native American families.

However, she said she and her board members realize the Native American population isn’t big enough to support a school alone. More than half of all Denver students are Latino, and they expect the school’s demographics to reflect that. Many Latino students also identify as indigenous, and Bissonette is confident they’ll be attracted to the model.

“This really is a school from us, about us,” she said.

COUNTING TNREADY

School boards across Tennessee scrap TNReady scores from students’ grades

PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki

As the school year comes to a close following the standardized testing debacle that concluded in Tennessee this month, many school districts have decided the scores won’t count toward students’ final grades.

Shelby County Schools, the state’s largest district, will take up the issue Tuesday when the school board meets in a work session.

Earlier this year, the district was one of about half of the state’s school systems that reported to the state it likely would not use the scores because the results were not expected to be received at least five school days before the end of the year. But that early tally was unofficial.

“The survey was just to let us know what they were planning for so we could have a sense of what districts were planning on doing, but it was not binding in any way,” said Sara Gast, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Education.

Now, one by one, a growing number of districts are opting not to count the scores against students whenever the results are released.

This year’s online testing was plagued with a series of testing snafus, including login troubles, an apparent cyberattack, a dump truck cutting a fiber optic line and the wrong test being issued to some students. It’s the third year in a row that TNReady testing has gone wrong.

Bartlett City Schools decided during a special school board session last week not to use the scores on high school report cards after previously saying it would. So did the Franklin Special School District. The week before, Williamson County, Blount County, and Collierville school board members voted the same.

Millington Municipal Schools also will not be using the scores in that district’s final grades. But the district decided in December not to include the scores, said Stacy Ross, a spokesperson for the district.

“The decision was made because the scores from testing would not be back in time for final report cards,” Ross said in a statement to Chalkbeat.

It’s unclear of the 71 school districts that had initially said they planned to count the scores, how many have changed their minds.

Greene County is one of a few districts that has decided to count the scores as 15 percent of students’ final grades.

Before this year’s testing challenges, state law had required that the high school end-of-course exams count for 15 percent of a high school student’s final grade unless the scores came in too late for report cards.

But after the testing snafus, legislators left it in the hands of school boards to decide how much to count TNReady scores — if at all — toward students’ grades.

High school raw scores are expected to be delivered electronically to districts by May 22 and grades 3-8 scores are expected to be available by June 15, according to the state.