School leaders enumerate challenges on the eve of the new year

Chancellor Dennis Walcott visited the School of the Future to hear from department chairs about citywide education policy reforms.

Most classrooms were set up and schedules finalized at M.S. 223 in the Bronx this morning, 24 hours before students would arrive for the first day of school.

But teachers still needed to meet to review the lesson plans they are aligning to the state’s new curriculum standards, the Common Core. As they finished their breakfast and got to work, they were joined by Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott and his top deputy, Shael Polakow-Suransky, on the first of their two school visits today.

Walcott gave the teachers a quick pep talk before sitting in on their training sessions. But he cautioned that the school’s past successes — which include a strong arts program, summer classes, and a New York Times Magazine profile — were not enough.

“I think this is a tremendous school. You’ve had major accomplishments,” Walcott said. “We need to make sure we model what you’re doing and also improve on that performance as well.”

Like all city schools, M.S. 223 is contending with the new standards, looming changes to state tests, and citywide special education reforms aimed at better integrating students with disabilities.

Today, the teachers focused on a small piece of the sweeping changes: developing performance tasks, or assessments that reflect the Common Core’s emphasis on real-world applications of classroom learning.

“[This] is probably one of the most difficult pieces of the puzzle,” Principal Ramon Gonzalez told reporters. “It’s difficult to think about six-week lessons that build up to a performance task, but it impacts everything the teachers are doing before that. And the Common Core has really pushed this agenda forward.”

Ashley Downs, the school’s special education coordinator, said the English department has set personalizing instruction as a top goal. “We’ve spent a lot of time trying to work with teachers to move away from whole-group mini-lessons to more specific, individual, one-on-one or small group conferences,” she said.

In one classroom, Heather Burns, the school’s literacy coach, was guiding English language arts teachers on how to use a rubric to help students become better writers.

The stakes are high: This year’s state tests will focus more heavily on essays than on multiple-choice questions.

“This spring there’s going to be a lot more nonfiction, and generally they’re making the tests much much harder — very different than the difficulty level we’ve seen in the past few years,” Polakow-Suransky told reporters.

“Chancellor [Merryl] Tisch has said we will see the results,” Walcott said about the state education official who helped engineer the changes to the exams. “They’re not going to necessarily be positive.”

Walcott talks to teachers at M.S. 223 while principal Ramon Gonzalez looks on.

After 90 minutes bouncing among M.S. 223’s academic department meetings, the pair sped downtown to visit another school: School of the Future, a secondary school where students are not required to take most state exams required for graduation.

While teachers waited for their guests to arrive, some discussed a set of major policy changes that are affect only high schools. In February, the Department of Education announced it would tighten the way high schools award credits and assign students to classes.

So for the first time, School of the Future and other high schools won’t be able to let seniors who are close to graduation take shortened schedules.

Because students have flexibility around state exams, School of the Future won’t have to deal with some of the acute scheduling challenges that some high schools are facing, according to Sarah Kaufman, who is spending the year at the school to learn how to be a principal.

But the school is still making some adjustments. For years, the school used an early dismissal on Thursday afternoons for professional development and also to allow students work at their internships, which are an integral part of the school, Kaufman said.

“It was great for our seniors,” she said.

Now, instead of the early dismissal, the school will hold a study hall where students will be able to work on class assignments and get help with college essays and resume writing.

Once Walcott and Polakow-Suransky arrived, the conversation quickly shifted to the city’s special education reforms, which department officials have touted much more widely than the high school policy changes. This year, schools are being required to accept students regardless of their disabilities as part of a push to create more inclusive education settings. The changes are causing anxiety and tension at some schools, but School of the Future teachers said they are prepared for the shift.

“Our school has always used an inclusion model, so it’ll be a smooth transition,” said Whitney Lukens, the school’s special education department chair, a 13-year teaching veteran. “It won’t be as hard for people to wrap their heads around the changes.”

Before he left, Walcott acknowledged the challenges facing a secondary school like the School of the Future, which loses many of its students in eighth grade and enrolls new ones in ninth grade.

“You have a monumental task in front of you,” he said. “But I know you guys are going to do it.”

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 [email protected]

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.”