one year later

Détente at Park Slope’s John Jay Campus, but no sea change

Students from Park Slope Collegiate and the Secondary School for Law, which are both housed at John Jay, teamed up to paint this mural at Park Slope Collegiate.

Wesley Weissberg has poured hours into Park Slope’s public schools, even serving as PTA president at the neighborhood’s popular elementary school, P.S. 321. But until this year, she hadn’t even considered trying to help the neighborhood’s only high schools.

Housed in the John Jay Campus at the heart of Park Slope’s main shopping street, the high schools have never drawn many students from within the neighborhood’s brownstone-lined borders. Students who graduated from local middle schools mostly headed to private schools or Manhattan for ninth grade.

That was true well before Weissberg moved to Park Slope. More than a decade ago, the district’s school board president, Mark Peters, waged an effort to turn John Jay High School into a destination for the neighborhood’s middle-class families. As a result, the struggling high school was replaced by three smaller schools: two that had been located elsewhere in the district and one that grew out of John Jay’s relatively strong legal studies program.

But even with the overhaul, the new schools, which did not screen students, never attracted local students. And a decade after Peters engineered the building’s redesign, the Secondary School for Law; the Secondary School for Journalism; and the Secondary School for Research, which became Park Slope Collegiate in 2011, continued to struggle. Except for during the hours immediately after school, when some neighborhood shopkeepers would lock their doors to keep John Jay students out, there was little relationship between the building and its neighborhood.

Then, last year, tensions over the addition of a selective school billed as more likely to attract Park Slope’s high-performing students drew the neighborhood’s attention back to the campus — and volunteers like Weissberg into the building.

A year into Millennium Brooklyn’s uneasy co-location, it is not yet clear whether the building is on the way to becoming a Park Slope school, or whether the worst fears about Millennium’s presence will come to pass.

In protests and at city school board meetings, students and teachers from the John Jay schools charged that Millennium’s arrival could give rise to race and class segregation. Almost all students at the original three schools are black and Hispanic, but if Millennium turned out to be anything like its model in Manhattan, than half its students would be white and Asian.

The John Jay students urged the city to attract more diverse populations to the campus by investing in the three existing schools, rather than concentrating white and Asian students on a single floor. And in a letter to city officials, Park Slope Collegiate Principal Jill Bloomberg said it was hard to stomach a new school getting extra funding while her school was strapped by budget cuts.

Weissberg was one of several members of Congregation Beth Elohim, a synagogue located blocks from John Jay, who were unnerved by the tension Millennium wrought. So the congregation’s social action committee reached out to Learning Leaders, a non-profit that trains community members to volunteer in public schools.

This spring, 16 volunteers from Beth Elohim started working at John Jay — four at each school. The volunteers were each assigned to a teacher at one of the schools and spent at least two periods a week tutoring students, organizing classroom materials, and pitching in wherever they were needed.

“We were thinking about the relationship between all the schools and how we wanted to model the behavior in the type of relationships,” said Isabel Burton, the congregation’s director of social outreach. But she said the volunteers hardly “changed the world.”

Both volunteers and students said last year’s acute tensions had subsided. But they said Millennium doesn’t have much to do with the other schools, an outcome they feared from the start.

“Millennium doesn’t involve themselves with the rest of the school,” said Jelissa Fernandez, who graduated from the Secondary School for Journalism in June. The other schools play on the same sports teams, but Millennium competes with its sister school in Manhattan, Fernandez offered as an example.

The bulletin boards at the entrance of the building represent only the original three schools on John Jay's campus.

Millennium Brooklyn’s founding principal said the four schools do work together in many ways. In an email, Lisa Gioe said principals of the four schools meet once a week to strengthen ties. She said the Beth Elohim volunteers, a weekly cooking competition, and Millennium’s writing center also bring the schools together.

But the union is far from seamless. Bulletin boards at the entrance of the school feature only the original three schools. Students from all the schools must pass through metal detectors at the front doors, but Millennium students arrive earlier. And Millennium students can all leave the building for lunch, but the other schools have tighter rules.

And as predicted, the racial makeup of Millennium’s student body was very different from the three other schools’. At Millennium, 35 percent of the first class was white and another 18 percent was Asian.

Students from the other schools said they are forbidden from walking down to Millennium, although they can visit the other schools.

Giovanni Callao, who just finished eighth grade at Park Slope Collegiate in June and will begin high school there in September, said the Millennium students were “cool,” but he’s had limited contact with them.

“We’re allowed to go to other floors, but we’re not allowed to go there,” he said.

Volunteers have witnessed the disconnect between the schools but not bridged it. As a lead volunteer at the congregation, Weissberg met with the principals at all the schools. She said Gioe told her that students from the building’s other schools were welcome to use Millennium’s Writing Center.

But Weissberg, who volunteered biweekly in an English class at the Secondary School for Journalism and led a lunchtime book group, said she never saw the Writing Center or any other evidence that Millennium was sharing its space and resources.

“I’m really unaware of Millennium, and where they are,” she said. “I don’t know the politics of shared spaces, but I don’t see it.”

Burton said the largest effect of the work has been volunteers’ relationship with John Jay students, at least addressing some of the tensions that have plagued the school.

“Before they would walk by John Jay relatively fast, maybe be tentative about looking at the kids coming out of it in the eye,” she said. “But now they’re looking at them in the face.” The congregation aims to expand the Learning Leaders program this fall.

But community relations with John Jay have a long way to go, according to City Councilman Brad Lander. Lander said he lauds volunteer-led efforts such as Learning Leaders and Teen Battle Chef, a weekly cooking competition organized by a Park Slope resident, Veronica Guzman, and New York Methodist Hospital. But he said he would like to see more neighbors offer students opportunities for internships and resources.

And he said there are other ways the schools could be told they are part of the neighborhood.

“There’s just a strong police presence before and after school that I think contributes to some students feeling like they are less welcome in the community,” Lander said.

When Lander held a panel discussion at the campus about Stop and Frisk, the New York Police Department’s controversial policing strategy, a Park Slope Collegiate teacher said policing at the school only compounded other problems that they already face.

“So A, our school is underfunded,” the teacher said. “B, we have metal detectors. C, a new school comes in with more funding, D, we’re getting cameras. What’s E?”

She added, “It’s pretty obvious that the message that’s being sent to our students is they’re criminals.”

Other teachers say the building is changing for the better. Michael Salak, a social studies teacher at Park Slope Collegiate, said he likes seeing more community members at the school, and that the neighborhood has come along way since he began teaching at John Jay, when a restaurant across the street had a “No Students Allowed” sign posted in the window.

But Salak said the best way for community members to make an impact is to send their children to all of the schools in the building.

“Just try to join us is anyway possible,” he said. “Send your students here, too.”

And a decade after his push to turn the building into a desired school for local residents fizzled, Mark Peters says he still holds out hope for change. His daughter, whose birth first inspired him to take a look at the building, is now in middle school.

“I have no idea where she’s going to high school,” Peters said. “But wouldn’t it be cool if she went to John Jay?”

Counselor Comeback

Years after laying them off, Newark brings back attendance workers to track down absent students

PHOTO: Newark Public Schools
Superintendent Roger León (center) with more than 40 new attendance counselors the district has hired.

A new school-attendance squad is on the job in Newark, ready to phone families and track down truant students.

More than 40 new attendance counselors and truancy officers made their official debut this week — part of a campaign by Superintendent Roger León to curb rampant absenteeism in the district. The linchpin of León’s approach is the rehiring of the attendance workers, who were laid off nearly six years ago amid questions about their effectiveness.

The employees — some new and some returning — will help craft school attendance plans, contact families, and bring truant students back to class with the help of Newark police officers.

They have their work cut out for them: Nearly a quarter of students have already missed about two weeks or more of school since September, according to district officials.

In his drive to boost attendance, León also launched a back-to-school campaign last fall and eliminated some early-dismissal days when students tend to skip class. At a school board meeting Tuesday, León said those efforts have resulted in fewer “chronically absent” students who miss 10 percent or more of school days for any reason. So far this school year, 23 percent of students are chronically absent, down from 30.5 percent during the same period the previous school year, he said.

“Right now, we’re in a really, really good place,” León told the board. “Having hired these attendance officers will get us where we need to go.”

A long to-do list awaits the attendance workers, who will earn between $53,000 and $95,531, according to a district job posting. They will create daily attendance reports for schools, call or visit families of absent students, and make sure students who are frequently out of school start showing up on time.

They will also be tasked with enforcing the state’s truancy laws, which authorize attendance officers to arrest “habitually truant” students and allow their parents or guardians to be fined. Newark’s attendance counselors will gather evidence for potential legal actions, deliver legal notices to students’ homes, and appear in court “when required,” according to the job posting.

The district is also establishing a new “truancy task force” to track down truant students, as required by state law. The task force will include both district employees and police officers who will patrol the streets searching for truants to transport back to school.

The teams will be “going up and down every one of our corridors and getting kids in school,” León said Tuesday, adding that they will eventually be provided buses.

Criminal-justice reform advocates across the country have criticized state laws, like New Jersey’s, which criminalize truancy. As a result of such laws, parents can face fines or even jail time and students can be put on probation or removed from their homes. Meanwhile, a 2011 study found that truant students who faced legal action were more likely to earn lower grades and drop out of school than truant students who did not face those sanctions.

While truancy laws may be on the books, districts have discretion in how they enforce them.

Peter Chen, a policy counsel for Advocates for Children of New Jersey, has studied absenteeism in Newark and said he did not know how the district’s new attendance workers would carry out the law. But he cautioned against “punitive strategies,” such as issuing court summonses or suspending frequently absent students, which can temporarily boost attendance but eventually drive students further away from school.

“Once the school is viewed as the enemy, as somebody who is out to get the student, it’s incredibly difficult to rebuild a trusting relationship,” he said. “And what we see time and again is that a trusting relationship between a school and a family or student is a critical component to building a school-wide attendance strategy that works.”

Superintendent León declined to be interviewed after Tuesday’s board meeting, saying he would answer written questions. As of Wednesday evening, he had not responded to those questions.

At the meeting, he did not rule out the possibility of the district’s truancy officers making arrests. But he said the police officers’ job was not to arrest truant students, only to protect the attendance workers.

“I need to make sure that any staff members that we hire are safe,” he said.

In 2013, then-Superintendent Cami Anderson laid off all 46 of the district’s attendance counselors. She attributed the decision to budget constraints and limited evidence that the counselors had improved attendance.

The district shifted the counselors’ responsibilities to school-based teams that included administrators, social workers, and teachers. Critics said the district was expecting schools to do more with less, and the Newark Teachers Union — which had represented the attendance counselors — fought the layoffs in court. An administrative law judge sided with the union, but then-State Education Commissioner David Hespe later overturned the decision.

León, who became superintendent in July, promised to promptly restore the attendance counselors. However, his plans were delayed by a legal requirement that the district first offer the new jobs to the laid-off counselors, some of whom had moved out of state. By the beginning of February, all the positions had been filled and, on Friday, León held a roughly 90-minute meeting with the new attendance team.

To create lasting attendance gains, experts advise schools to consider every aspect of what they do — their discipline policies, the emotional support they provide students, the quality of teaching, and the relationship between staffers and families. Simply outsourcing attendance to designated employees will not work, they warn.

Superintendent León appears to agree. In an interview last year, he said he expects all school employees to join in the work of improving attendance.

“The last thing that needs to happen is for people to walk away saying, ‘Oh, attendance is going to be solved because now we have the attendance counselors,’” León said. “No, everyone has to worry about attendance.”

Newark Enrolls

After changes and challenges, Friday’s deadline to enroll in Newark schools finally arrives

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
A student fills out an information sheet at Central High School's booth at the citywide school fair in December.

Newark families have just a few hours left to apply to more than 70 public schools for next fall.

At noon on Friday, the online portal that allows families to apply to most traditional and charter school will close. After that, they will have to visit the district’s enrollment center. Last year, nearly 13,000 applications were submitted.

The stakes — and stress — are greatest for students entering high school. Each year, hundreds of eighth-graders compete for spots at the city’s selective “magnet” high schools, which many students consider their best options.

This year, those eighth-graders have to jump through an extra hoop — a new admissions test the magnets will use as they rank applicants. District students will sit for the test Friday, while students in charter and private schools will take it Saturday.

That’s news to many parents, including Marie Rosario, whose son, Tamir, is an eighth-grader at Park Elementary School in the North Ward.

“I don’t know nothing about it,” she said. District officials have been tight-lipped about what’s on the new test, how it will factor into admissions decisions, or even why introducing it was deemed necessary.

Students can apply to as many as eight schools. Tamir’s top choice was Science Park, one of the most sought-after magnet schools. Last year, just 29 percent of eighth-graders who ranked it first on their applications got seats.

“I’m going to cross my fingers,” Rosario said.

Students will find out in April where they were matched. Last year, 84 percent of families applying to kindergarten got their first choice. Applicants for ninth grade were less fortunate: Only 41 percent of them got their top choice, the result of so many students vying for magnet schools.

This is the sixth year that families have used the online application system, called Newark Enrolls, to pick schools. Newark is one of the few cities in the country to use a single application for most charter and district schools. Still, several charter schools do not participate in the system, nor do the vocational high schools run by Essex County.

Today, surveys show that most families who use the enrollment system like it. However, its rollout was marred by technical glitches and suspicions that it was designed to funnel students into charter schools, which educate about one in three Newark students. Some charter critics hoped the district’s newly empowered school board would abolish the system. Instead, Superintendent Roger León convinced the board to keep it for now, arguing it simplifies the application process for families.

Managing that process has posed challenges for León, who began as schools chief in July.

First, he ousted but did not replace the district’s enrollment chief. Then, he clashed with charter school leaders over changes to Newark Enrolls, leading them to accelerate planning for an alternative system, although that never materialized. Next, the district fell behind schedule in printing an enrollment guidebook for families.

Later, the district announced the new magnet-school admissions test but then had to delay its rollout as León’s team worked to create the test from scratch with help from principals, raising questions from testing experts about its validity. Magnet school leaders, like families, have said they are in the dark about how heavily the new test will be weighted compared to the other criteria, including grades and state test scores, that magnet schools already use to rank applicants.

Meanwhile, León has repeatedly dropped hints about new “academies” opening inside the district’s traditional high schools in the fall to help those schools compete with the magnets. However, the district has yet to hold any formal informational sessions for families about the academies or provide details about them on the district website or in the enrollment guidebook. As a result, any such academies are unlikely to give the traditional schools much of an enrollment boost this year.

District spokeswoman Tracy Munford did not respond to a request Thursday to speak with an official about this year’s enrollment process.

Beyond those hiccups, the enrollment process has mostly gone according to plan. After activating the application website in December, the district held a well-attended school fair where families picked up school pamphlets and chatted with representatives. Individual elementary schools, such as Oliver Street School in the East Ward, have also invited high school principals to come and tell students about their offerings.

American History High School Principal Jason Denard said he made several outings to pitch his magnet school to prospective students. He also invited middle-school groups to tour his school, and ordered glossy school postcards. Now, along with students and families across the city, all he can do is wait.

“I’m excited to see the results of our recruitment efforts,” he said. “Not much else is in my control — but recruitment is.”