second chances

Exit strategy for a closing school's principal: Relocate upstairs

Supporters of Washington Irving High School protested its planned closure in December.

Two new schools are coming to the Washington Irving High School campus this fall, but Mayor Bloomberg mentioned only one when he visited the building this week to tout 54 new small schools opening in September.

The principals-to-be of the venture capitalist-backed Academy of Software Engineering and dozens more new schools stood by Bloomberg’s side as he touted the city’s success at replacing large, dysfunctional high schools with smaller schools.

The other new school, Union Square High School for Health Sciences, will share more than a street address with Washington Irving, which the city is closing due to poor performance. Its focus is a spinoff of one of Irving’s programs, and its proposed leader, Bernardo Ascona, has been Irving’s principal since 2008.

Ascona says he applied to lead the new school shortly after the city announced that it was considering closing Washington Irving. Now, some students and teachers say they feel slighted that he sought a way out even as they rallied to keep the school open. They also question why, for the second time in four years, the city has offered a plum new job — the same salary for fewer students and a clean slate — to an Irving principal.

“It’s unfair, particularly when the management hierarchy always seems to land on their feet,” said Gregg Lundahl, Irving’s union chapter leader. “The staff at Washington Irving work very, very hard. [Ascona] was only expecting us to do what he had been told to tell us to do, and as we can see it didn’t work out so well.”

“He failed to make this school successful,” said Anna Durante, a junior. “Once you have a game over, you don’t get an extra token to restart.”

City officials say they are confident in Ascona’s leadership, and Ascona said his move will allow him to bring positive changes to the Irving campus faster than if he had stayed on as the flagship school’s principal.

When Ascona became principal in 2008, Irving was already suffering from low student performance and graduation rates. City officials hoped he would be able to reverse the school’s downward spiral, but the school’s progress report grade has yo-yoed from a C to an F since then. In 2010, the state told the city it would have to overhaul Irving, and city officials planned to funnel extra resources to the school through the federal school improvement program called “transformation,” meant for low-performing schools that show promise of improving.

But in late 2011, officials changed their minds, and placed Irving on the list of schools to begin closing this year. Shortly after, Ascona interviewed for the position of principal at the health sciences-themed small high school, he told me when we spoke at a March high school fair, where he was promoting the new school.

“When I came to Irving, I think we improved tremendously. I was happy they’re letting me stay,” he said. “From my perspective, I get to stay with my kids and Washington Irving, and start something new.”

Bernardo Ascona in his office. (Via Washington Irving YABC)

He said the new school is already set to improve over Washington Irving by bringing a more robust science program to the building. The school will feature extra advanced science courses and two tracks — for would-be dental assistants and pharmacists — that he said would reach an untapped market of Manhattan families.

Ascona isn’t the first Irving principal to move into a different principal’s office in the same building. Denise DiCarlo, who preceded him as Irving’s principal, left her post to open Gramercy Arts High School in 2008 — after two years of F grades on city progress reports.

At protests and Irving’s closure hearing, teachers described Dicarlo’s move — which Ascona will mirror — as a first nail in Irving’s coffin. Gramercy, they said, was attracting the type of high-performing students who once flocked to Irving’s theater program. Without those students, they said, Irving’s performance statistics were doomed to fall. In the years since the school opened, students across the Irving campus say they have come to view Gramercy as “the good school” and Irving as “the bad one.”

Several students said on a recent afternoon they were unfamiliar with or unmoved by Ascona’s plan to leave Irving. But they speculated that the presence of another new school would replicate tensions that already exist between Irving and Gramercy.

“Everyone says that Gramercy is better than Irving. They get more stuff than us. They have better programs than us, they can do more things. We’re … the ‘ghetto school,’” said Ashley Adams, a senior at Irving.

But Adams said the characterizations weren’t always accurate. “They say Irving is bad, but we have students who graduate from the International Baccalaureate program,” she said, referring to a college preparatory program that enrolls a small number of Irving students.

City officials, including deputy chancellor Shael Polakow-Suransky, say Irving’s shortcomings are bigger than any one person.

”In a school that is struggling, a culture develops that exists in the school that comes from teachers, students, and administration, where the expectation is that students are not able to achieve,” Polakow-Suransky said at the school’s closure hearing in January.

David Bloomfield, a CUNY education professor, said principals should not necessarily be held uniquely responsible for a school’s low performance. But he said the pattern at Irving raises questions about the city’s own accountability credo, which includes an emphasis on principal performance.

“Tweed’s record of pointing the finger is questionable,” he said. “It just seems odd that they seem to put great stock in the school’s leadership, but are pointing out failure.”

Asked why Ascona is a good choice to run a new school in a building where he currently runs a closing school, Department of Education officials said they are confident in his leadership. They cited his commitment to student safety, parent outreach, and small learning communities at Irving as evidence that he would be able to shepherd another school to stronger results.

Teachers at the school did not dispute those qualities, but they said Ascona’s planned departure had further chipped away at already low morale.

“Mr. Ascona worked very hard to keep us open, and I understand how he needs to look out for himself,” said one teacher who asked not to be identified. “But I have children, like Mr. Ascona, and no one is going giving me a new job.”

Students said they worried his move would also take teachers and other resources away prematurely. On a March morning, several classes were displaced while workers installed smartboards inside some classrooms, and another teacher who asked not to be named said he was told they were installed in preparation for the opening of the new schools.

Ascona declined to be interviewed for this story, but he did invite me to an open house at Washington Irving for his new school in March. Clad in a white lab coat, he struck an upbeat, forward-looking tone as he led a crowd of 50-some parents and eighth-graders on a tour of the seventh-floor science lab.

With Ayorinde Ayetiwa, an Irving chemistry and physics teacher, by his side, Ascona touted Irving’s robotics team, in addition to the new, science-focused programs his school would offer, and partnerships he was building with local colleges. He also held court in the Irving library — shuttered to students this year after Ascona cut the school’s librarian in 2011 — alongside two other new schools, including the software-themed school.

“We hope all the schools tonight will offer you some choices,” he told families at the conclusion of a presentation. “The important thing is that you do what’s best for you.”

defensor escolar

Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.