on the ground (updated. a lot.)

Live-blogging the first day of school, with (we hope!) your help

Chancellor Walcott greets parents this morning at the New Settlement Campus in the Bronx.

Most folks have a first-day-of-school ritual, from sharpening pencils for teachers to taking pictures for parents to donning a fresh outfit for students. For us at GothamSchools, it’s racing across the city to visit as many school communities as we can.

Rachel is joining Chancellor Dennis Walcott for his annual five-borough bus tour, and Geoff will be zipping around by bike to see schools the chancellor didn’t put on his agenda. They will file dispatches throughout the day here. (Remember, the reports are posted in reverse chronological order, so if you want to read from the beginning of the day, start at the end and scroll up.)

But we need your help! In 2011, we had three reporters on the ground, but this year, we’re down to two. That means we will have to cover less ground and visit fewer schools. You can help us make up the loss by sending pictures and stories about the first day of school where you are.

5:25 p.m. And with that, we’re over and out. Homework awaits!

5:13 p.m. Most students and teachers had left Stuyvesant High School by just before 5 p.m. But a few stragglers said they could tell that the new principal, Jie Zhang, was making changes at the school, the city’s most elite.

Zhang was appointed just a month ago, less than a week after Stuyvesant’s longtime principal, Stanley Teitel, announced his retirement. Teitel’s departure came amid an investigation into a cheating scandal at the school and how the administration handled it.

Students said there were signs of the scandal today. In each class, students were required to sign contracts saying that they would not cheat or plagiarize, some said. One student who declined to share his name said some of his teachers were also stricter about how students could take notes: While teachers still allowed students to use iPads and phones, others laid down the law. Zhang said she intended to enforce the city’s policy barring cell phones from school buildings.

“He told us, ‘I found in the past that using electronics was not a good idea,’” the student said of his teacher.

4:43 p.m. Things are slowing down for the day. But it’s worth noting that not every single student in the city was in school today. We just got a press release from Democracy Prep, the network of charter schools in Harlem, announcing that four students are in Charlotte, N.C., for the Democratic National Convention. One of them, Alize-Jazel Smith, sent a Twitter message this morning with a picture of her and her classmates with Sen. Charles Schumer at a breakfast for convention delegates.

2:55 p.m. Students trickling out of Murry Bergtraum High School in Manhattan said big changes since last year were already evident on the first day of classes.

The school is no longer requiring uniforms, as it did last September. Early dismissal on Wednesdays is no more — a good move, said Stefani Sanchez, because “we didn’t really learn anything.” And there is a new principal: Lottie Almonte, a former principal who replaced Andrea Lewis at the helm of the massive and troubled school. Lewis was hired in 2010 as an executive principal with a hefty bonus and a three-year contract, but she left with a year left on the clock.

Almonte was outside the building to wish students well on their way home. When one trio of students told her they had been placed in classes they had already passed, she sent them inside to get their schedules fixed. She declined to speak to reporters about the programming snafu.

But it wasn’t the only one students reported. Sanchez said she had been placed in a class for ninth-graders that she took last year and plans to meet with a guidance counselor on Friday to switch out of it.

Even with the bumpy start, several students in a college preparation program said they thought the school felt more under control than it did last year, when video of a hallway fight went viral. The brawl came a year after Bergtraum students rioted over bathroom privileges.

”Reporters think we’re the worst school ever, but if you go inside we’re really not,” said 10th-grader Lexis Mercado.

Still, the school’s performance has slipped enough that it was one of 123 city schools to land on the state’s new list of schools that could face closure by 2015. Mayor Bloomberg said today that the city would use the state’s list to inform its own decisions about which schools to propose for closure this year.

2:10 p.m. Chancellor Walcott’s final school visit is focusing on extracurricular activities. Staten Island Tech has a robotics team that last spring got attention for building a basketball-throwing robot.

That robot, named the Russian word for “thirteen,” rolled out to greet the chancellor — after Walcott took three tries to sink a free throw that the robot is programmed to make in one. The afternoon ended with a photo opportunity uniting Walcott, the robotics team, and Staten Island elected officials.

Walcott and most of the press coterie are going home (or at least back to their offices). But we have a couple more schools to visit. Stay tuned.

2 p.m. Chancellor Walcott might not be visiting struggling schools today, but we are: Geoff just stopped by Williamsburg Charter High School for dismissal. Citing deep mismanagement and financial improprieties, the city tried to close the school this spring, but a lawsuit kept it open for at least another year.

Joe Cardiello, the school’s director of accountability and compliance, said it was ”back to basics” for the school. The biggest challenge, he said, was convincing current and potential students that the school wasn’t closing. The school added students from Southside Believe Charter School, another school in Williamsburg’s former network that did close. And while some teachers left, they waited until the end of the year and did not leave in large numbers, Cardiello said.

Amanda Pacheco, Anthony Calderon-Melendez, and Daniel Mendez after dismissal at Williamsburg Charter High School

Students said classes were large on the first day. Amanda Pacheco, a senior, said her algebra class had 35 students. Daniel Mendez said his algebra class had 30 students and that his Advanced Placement psychology class couldn’t accommodate all of the students who signed up.

Among the Southside refugees was Anthony Calderon-Melendez, a senior who said he is bound for the Navy. His father, Eddie Calderon-Melendez, founded the network and was cited as a chief reason for its demise before being indicted on fraud charges in April that stemmed from his management of the schools.

Anthony Calderon-Melendez said other students had misplaced blame for the school’s tumult on him. “It was annoying because a lot of students were talking about me because of my dad,” he said after he got out of school for early senior dismissal today. The school opened its doors Aug. 27.

”I heard a lot of things but not to my face,” he said.

1:55 p.m. Chancellor Walcott is rounding out his tour at Staten Island Technical High School, one of eight city schools that admit students solely based on their scores on a single entrance exam. (Former Chancellor Joel Klein finished his first-day tour there in 2009.) It’s the only screened school that Walcott is visiting today, but all of the schools on his itinerary are considered strong.

That’s a pattern Walcott has followed since he became chancellor in April 2011. He visits many more schools than either Joel Klein or Cathie Black, the two previous chancellors, but he tends to visit struggling schools only when something goes dramatically wrong at them or they host citywide meetings, according to his public schedule from his first semester on the job.

On Tuesday, Walcott told radio host John Gambling that he would be “like a bull” and visit many schools this year, too. When he announced the creation of dozens of new schools this summer, he warned principals that they should expect to see him arrive unannounced.

1 p.m. Speaking of UFT President Michael Mulgrew (okay, we haven’t been in nearly three hours), Geoff got a chance to chat with him this morning about his hopes for the new school year.

Chief among them: Reaching an agreement with the city on new teacher evaluations. The state has dictated a framework for the evaluations, but each district must hash out the specifics with its union. That requirement has been a source of tension between the Bloomberg administration and the UFT for more than a year.

Mulgrew said he is optimistic that the tide could turn, but that the ideological chasm between the two sides remains large.

“We are definitely having conversations, pretty good conversations, and we’re hoping to get it done,” he said. But he added,”They think teacher evaluations should be about getting teachers. We think teacher evaluations should be about helping and supporting teachers because then they do their jobs better and kids win. That’s the big difference.”

Mulgrew also criticized the text-messaging parent engagement program that Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Walcott announced this morning.

“I would say adding a health clinic into a school would help attendance a lot more than receiving a text message,” he said. “There are all sorts of services that we have available in the city that could be brought into schools that could help the children and their families overcome the challenges that they face.”

12:58 p.m. It’s a whirlwind trip to Eagle Academy III for Chancellor Walcott, but not so fast that he doesn’t have time to photobomb a class picture. Then it’s on to Staten Island for the last stop of the day, the highly selective Staten Island Technical High School.

12:37 p.m. Chancellor Walcott has arrived at his fourth school of the day, Eagle Academy for Young Men III in Queens’ Springfield Gardens. The school opened in 2010 as a replica of the original Eagle Academy, which gained accolades for closing the achievement gap for black boys.

The original school is now a linchpin for the Expanded Success Initiative, the main education component for the Bloomberg Administration’s Y0ung Men’s Initiative. In the program, researchers will study 40 schools that have made gains with black and Latino boys with the goal of bringing their strong points to more schools.

Principal Kenyatta Reid was leading a tour of the building for new sixth-graders. “Middle school saved me,” he told them.

Eagle Academy III isn’t the first middle school Reid has run. He led Satellite III in Brooklyn for six years, and after he left the school withered without his leadership, supporters argued at a public hearing last year about the Department of Education’s proposal to close the school. This year, Satellite III is beginning to phase out.

Reid said he brought some lessons from Satellite III to his new role. But he said he draws more from his memories of being 12.

12:30 p.m. James Dunston and his mother had a frustrating experience with special education enrollment today. Not so for Jeff Gorlechen and his wife, who visited the center because their young son had been diagnosed with a sensory disorder over the summer.

After just a few minutes in the center, the Brooklyn family emerged with a placement in the Children’s School, a popular school with many middle-class families that pioneered inclusion of students with disabilities.

“The people in poorer neighborhoods are getting screwed,” Gorlechen’s wife said after learning that not everyone left the enrollment center happy so quickly. “The people in the wealthier neighborhoods, they aren’t willing to take that.”

The couple said they were lucky to be working and have the means to send their son to camp, where a counselor first detected a problem, and to experts who were able to determine what kind of school would be best for him. Gorlechen works for Sixpoint Craft Ales, which produced a beer honoring President Obama in 2009, and said his company is frequently approached to donate to school fundraisers — but only in affluent neighborhoods.

12:22 p.m. For some students, the day ended before it began.

James Dunston got a letter Sept. 4 telling him to report to Brooklyn’s School for Global Studies today to start ninth grade. But when he got there, he was told the school didn’t know he was coming. His mom, Yvonne Fernandez, said they were told Dunston would be added to the register as soon as they provided up-to-date records about his special education needs.

But when Fernandez brought Dunston to a special education enrollment center — different from the 10 enrollment centers handling last-minute admissions — she said she was shocked to learn that the most recent Individualized Education Plan on file was two years old. That won’t let his new school make appropriate plans for him, Fernandez said she was told.

”I wanted to start school today but I can’t do anything so I’ll just have to wait,” Dunston said.

Special education reforms rolling out citywide this year call on schools to accommodate all students in kindergarten, sixth grade, or ninth grade, regardless of their special education needs. It’s a major change for some schools that have been accustomed to accepting only students who require services they already provide.

11:50 a.m. In Brooklyn’s Gowanus Houses, two mothers were chatting after dropping their kindergarteners off at their respective schools.

Tenisha Burton called it a ”blessing” when she found out her son was selected for Cobble Hill Success Academy’s first entering class. She said she has to help make sure her son reads 27 books every month.

Kashia Porter said her daughter’s school, P.S. 32 was not great when she herself was a student there. “It’s gotten better over the years,” Porter said.

11:32 a.m. Chancellor Walcott said he decided to visit Young Scholars’ Academy for Discovery and Exploration because it is an example of a successful school “turnaround.” It opened in 2008 to replace P.S. 304, a Bedford-Stuyvesant school with low test scores. Like the turnarounds the city was blocked from carrying out this fall, many teachers changed at the school, but the students stayed the same. Last year, it got an A on the progress report the city uses to assess schools.

Walcott had less to say about a story we reported on Wednesday about how a teacher continued to work with students even after being accused of looking at pornography in school. How did that happen? “I’ll have to get back to you,” the chancellor said.

11:28 a.m. Continuing a long tradition of declining food offered to him on school tours, Chancellor Walcott has turned down an offer of baked — not fried! — chicken from Young Scholars’ Academy’s cafeteria. But he did accept three bananas to power him through the rest of the day. It’s sweltering inside, so he heads to the relative cool of the sidewalk to speak with reporters about why he chose to visit the school before heading on to Queens.

11:02 a.m. At Young Scholars’ Academy for Discovery and Exploration, Deputy Chancellor David Weiner is sitting out of the spotlight with two first-graders as they draw pictures.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Chancellor Dennis Walcott helps students spell his name

On the other side of the room, Chancellor Walcott is helping students spell using magnetic letters. The word they’re working on? His name. “Now you need two of the same letter, and it’s lowercase,” Walcott advises them.

Nearby, in a fourth-grade class, teacher Joyce Knights is talking to her students about London. The discussion was inspired by the Summer Olympics, which many students watched, she said.

This isn’t the first time Walcott has visited Young Scholars’ Academy. It was also one of three schools he visited in April to celebrate the end of his first year as chancellor.

10:45 a.m. We can’t be everywhere, so we’re missing UFT President Michael Mulgrew’s two school visits after his stop at Sunset Park High School. Right now, he’s at P.S. 131 in Brooklyn, a Borough Park school with a large immigrant population. Later today, he’ll visit P.S./I.S. 276, a school that opened in Battery Park in 2009 to accommodate Lower Manhattan’s swelling student population — and now is out of space itself.

One of the schools Mulgrew visited last year — Brooklyn’s P.S. 257, where he was joined by Comptroller John Liu — is now under investigation for cheating. The investigation began after someone at a middle school many P.S. 257 graduates attend reported that some students’ scores didn’t match their skills.

10:25 a.m. As Rachel and Chancellor Walcott barrel toward their third stop, Young Scholars Academy for Discovery and Exploration in Brooklyn, Twitter is spitting out a reminder that classes aren’t the only important education event taking place today.

Jennifer Borgioli, a data specialist working with school districts across the state, sent the message, “Just sent out first round of performance-based assessments for NYS APPR. The teacher-designers were amazing. Data analysis in November.”

Borgioli was referring to new students assessments that school districts will use to generate performance ratings for teachers in subjects that don’t have state tests. New York City won’t use the performance assessments until it adopts new teacher evaluations — which it is under pressure to do by January — but some schools are already practicing with the concept.

At M.S. 223 in the Bronx on Wednesday, Principal Ramon Gonzalez said performance tasks are likely to change the way teaching and learning happens. “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,” he said.

10:10 a.m. Harlem Village Academy has a heady “question of the year”: Is man a victim or an agent of his fate?

Chancellor Walcott asks a teacher to explain the question and gets responses from two students. “No matter what situation you are in you can always change your fate if you work hard enough,” one tells him.

“Even in your own situation there’s no one to blame but yourself,” explained De’anna McEachin. She said she got the lesson from her summer reading assignment, “The Other Wes Moore,” a book by a Rhodes Scholar named Wes Moore that plumbs the differences between himself and a man with the same name and background who ended up in prison.

HVA prides itself on changing outcomes for its students, and it says it has a 95 percent four-year graduation rate. But the school has been criticized for losing many students over time, a problem that founder Deborah Kenny said in her book that administrators had been tackling. And the size of the entering class is also very small: In the high school’s first year, it had 36 ninth-graders. In 2010, there were just 16, according to state data.

10:05 a.m. How’s the first day going at Harlem Village Academy High School? Fine — but it’s actually the fourth day, a teacher says. Because it’s a charter school, HVA can set its own schedule. Orientation took place last week and classes started on Tuesday.

10 a.m. After a car ride (or van ride for the fleet of education reporters trailing him), Chancellor Walcott has arrived at his second school visit of the day: Harlem Village Academy, a charter school that has been open since 2007.

Earlier, Walcott said that “just by accident,” the five schools he will visit today opened under the Bloomberg administration. But the city did not actually have a hand in creating HVA: It is the high school extension of two middle schools that received their charter in 2002 from the State University of New York after asking for permission to open well before Mayor Bloomberg gained control of the city schools. And while founder Deborah Kenny explains in a book she published this summer that she wished the timing had been right to get free space from the city, something offered frequently by Joel Klein, Bloomberg’s first and formative chancellor, only the two middle schools were able to co-locate in district school buildings.

“We were forced to divert some time and energy for the difficult process of putting a facility together,” Kenny told reporters today. The network is launching two elementary schools for the first time this fall.

9:20 a.m. Mayor Bloomberg gets a perennial question: Why aren’t city officials and teachers union officials visiting schools together this year?

In the past, the union head and chancellor used to make a joint appearance on the first day of school, but that tradition ended in 2010. Last year, UFT President Michael Mulgrew explained that he and Chancellor Walcott had each invited the other to his school appearances, but their schedules didn’t mesh.

This year, Bloomberg had a similar explanation: “We’re just very busy people. If we go in different directions, we can cover more schools.”

But earlier this week, union officials said Mulgrew had set his schedule without consulting the city. And while he invited many officials — who all declined because of other commitments, mostly at the Democratic National Convention — it’s unlikely that Mulgrew invited the mayor or chancellor to join him, the officials said.

Tensions between the city and UFT are at an all-time high. More than a year of negotiations over new teacher evaluations have so far yielded no changes; Bloomberg has ramped up criticism of the union; and Walcott has recently taken to accusing the UFT of protecting teachers who commit sexual misconduct.

9:08 a.m. Up at the New Settlement Campus, Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Walcott have a big announcement: The Department of Education is launching a text-messaging service to connect parents with important school news and tips about how to access resources.

Walcott is not the Blackberry fiend that his predecessor, Joel Klein, was. But he is still attempting to deliver a message to parents using the new system from the podium at New Settlement’s library.

According to a city press release, parents said on the Department of Education’s annual survey that they want more information about school schedules, lunch menus, enrollment information, and links to ARIS, the department’s data system. So that’s what the text messages will deliver.

Parent engagement has been an Achilles Heel for the Bloomberg administration, which has earned criticism for making policy changes without consulting families. Walcott made parent engagement the topic of one of his first policy speeches last year, promising new strategies to connect parents and schools.

9:03 a.m. Unlike students at Brooklyn Heights’ M.S. 8, students at Sunset Park High School don’t have to go through metal detectors. But they do have to stop by a security station to check in.

A school aide types students’ names into a computer, bringing up their pictures and biographical information. Some students have laminated identification cards, letting them move through security faster.

On a normal school day, classes will start at 8:45 a.m. They are staggered today to compensate for a longer-than-usual check-in process: A school staffer said many students lost their ID cards over the summer, slowing their flow into the building. The system allows parents to find out easily whether their child attended school, so it’s a good accounting system and a good backup for regular attendance-taking, the school official said.

9:02 a.m. Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Walcott are speaking to reporters at New Settlement’s library. Bloomberg begins by touting rising graduation rates — last year, about 64 percent of students graduated on time, according to city data — but quickly notes that expectations are rising, as well.

We’re helping kids in four ways,” Bloomberg says. His list: Adding new technology for parents, running programs to combat chronic absenteeism, building modern facilities, and ramping up principal training. A new mentoring program has produced 13 school leaders, he says.

Bloomberg and Walcott also laud the New Settlement building, which has an indoor pool — something Bloomberg said schools he attended didn’t have “unless there was a leak in the roof.” Recalled Walcott, “What was once a former chop shop is now a school for students from across the Bronx.”

8:52 a.m. UFT President Michael Mulgrew has started his tour of the health clinic located inside Sunset Park High School. Carmen Martinez, a medical worker, is showing Mulgrew around the clinic, which is more redolent of a hospital than a school.

With Lutheran Hospital’s coordination, the clinic has two nurse practitioners, a medical assistant, clerical worker, and social worker. Together, they can see 15 students or other patients each day and deliver any services that are available at a neighborhood health clinic, Martinez says. A community partner, the Center for Family Life, is helping the school run an advisory program.

“That’s fantastic,” Mulgrew replied.

8:43 a.m. Before speaking with reporters, Bloomberg and Walcott make another stop at the New Settlement Campus, this time in a kindergarten class where teacher Rachel Garcia is reading aloud from “Marco Goes to School.” It’s a children’s book that aims to assuage concerns about the transition to school.

Then the city officials enter the building’s gleaming library for a press conference. Also on hand: Deputy Chancellor Kathleen Grimm, who supervises facilities planning and use for the Department of Education. New Settlement got $84 million of School Construction Authority funds to build.

Students at Sunset Park High School

8:40 a.m. At Sunset Park High School, which opened in a new building three years ago, students are milling about outside before classes begin. The building is getting an important visitor today: UFT President Michael Mulgrew, who picked the school because it has a health clinic that the union wants to replicate for more schools.

Sunset Park is one of six schools receiving $100,000 grants from the union and city this year to boost their social service offerings.

8:33 a.m. Mayor Bloomberg ran late for his visit to the New Settlement Campus. But he wasted no time chatting up Dolores Esposito, superintendent of District 9, where the building is located, before breezing into ninth-grade math class in the middle of its first meeting of the year.

In a math class, Mayor Bloomberg told ninth-graders about the slide rule

“Who likes math?” the mayor asked, to radio silence. Then he offered the students a quick history lesson on the slide rule and a piece of advice: “Have a good time, but learning really does matter. Look at those people who learn how to think.”

He also shared a quip that Chancellor Walcott made before they got to class. “We were walking here and Walcott asked if I could hold his hand,” Bloomberg joked.

8:25 a.m. Gloria Gyedu said she picked Mt. Eden Children’s Academy for her kindergartener because it was part of a campus where the schools plan to work together to provide a seamless transition for students as they grow.

“It goes up to 12th [grade], so it will be good for my daughter,” Gydeu said.

8:15 a.m. Cobble Hill in Brooklyn is crowded with students who attend the School for International Studies and the School for Global Studies, secondary schools that share a building on Baltic Street.

This year, another school moved into the building after a contentious co-location process: Cobble Hill Success Academy, a new branch of Eva Moskowitz’s network of charter schools. The school started classes last week and has an earlier start time so that its students, who are in kindergarten and first grade, do not encounter the teenagers in the building.

At one point, Global Studies was not supposed to open this week. It was one of 33 schools originally proposed for “turnaround,” an overhaul process that would have required it to be renamed and staffed with new teachers. But because it had earned a B on its city report card — after showing the most progress of any school on the city’s metrics — it was dropped from the turnaround plan.

Some School for Global Studies students wore a button left over from last year's fight to stay open.

The schools that stayed on the turnaround list are also reopening today. This summer, the city lost a bruising legal battle to overhaul the schools after an arbitrator ruled that the hiring and firing rules it was trying to use were not permitted under its contract with the teachers union.

A few students are displaying signs of last year’s fight in the form of buttons that display a pair of handcuffs and say “Stop holding our schools hostage.” Asked what the button on his backpack meant, a student named Nick said he didn’t remember. “Teacher layoffs?” he suggested.

State Sen. Daniel Squadron at P.S. 8

8:03 a.m. George Westinghouse High School Students say they don’t mind sharing space with middle school students from M.S. 8. But they say the arrangement might be harder on the middle-schoolers.

”I just think they’ll be out of place because they’re surrounded by high school kids,” said Jasmine Lawson.

8 a.m. In addition to the Comprehensive Model Project School, the New Settlement Campus in the Bronx also houses Mt. Eden Children’s Academy, an elementary school; a school for students with disabilities; and a community center that includes a health clinic.

The last piece is getting accolades from Ernest Logan, president of the city’s principals union. He is joining Chancellor Walcott and Mayor Bloomberg to celebrate the $100 million building.

“This is really going to become a true community school,” Logan said, thanks to the campus’s partnership with the neighboring New Settlement Houses, a public housing project.

But it is not one of the six schools that is officially part of a new “community schools” program initiated by the teachers union and supported by the Department of Education. UFT President Michael Mulgrew will start his day at one of those schools later this morning, without any city officials by his side.

7:55 a.m. State Sen. Daniel Squadron, one of few elected officials making the rounds today, is on hand at P.S. 8. He helped lead the charge to get the city to agree to add middle school grades to the Brooklyn Heights school.

“A lot of us lost a lot of pounds trying to make this happen so we’re here to celebrate,” Squadron said.

7:50 a.m. Like many city high schools, George Westinghouse High School, where M.S. 8 is opening, has metal detectors — a new experience for students who attended Brooklyn Heights’ P.S. 8 last year.

Metal detectors are more common in secondary schools and, according to critics, in schools that enroll poor students of color. P.S. 8’s students are mostly white and middle-class.

”If you have a phone, please take it out and leave it with your parents,” Principal Seth Phillips told sixth-graders lining up for the security procedure. (City policy forbids students from bringing cell phones into schools, but families say administrators at some schools without metal detectors turn a blind eye to violations.)

”She has an epi-pen, is that okay?” one parent asked about a student who requires the safety device because of acute allergies.

”I think that goes straight through,” Phillips said. Then he advised, “But let’s go check with security.”

Jerry Baines, whose sixth-grader attended P.S. 8, said the metal detectors were a necessary evil. ”You do what you gotta do,” Baines said. “It’s a rough school.”

Westinghouse is a career and technical education high school that offers training in computer maintenance and electrical engineering. In June, video surfaced that appeared to show a teacher at the school beating a student. Chancellor Walcott said Westinghouse’s principal, Janine Kieran, had not adequately punished the teacher. The building also houses a smaller high school, City Polytechnic High School of Engineering, Architecture and Technology, which has a partnership with a local college.

7:46 a.m. Principal Manuel Ramirez is starting his ninth year at the helm of the Comprehensive Model Project School, a secondary school that is one of three schools moving into the brand-new New Settlement Campus. Today, he’s on dress-code duty when not high-fiving students outside the building. His school requires boys to wear ties.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Despite two broken arms, P.S./M.S. 8 Principal Seth Phillips greeted students this morning in Downtown Brooklyn.

7:42 a.m. P.S./M.S. 8 Principal Seth Phillips started the new year in an inauspicious way: by breaking both of his arms in a soccer game. This year, theBrooklyn Heights elementary school is adding middle school grades for the first time, and the pair of slings isn’t stopping Phillips from shaking students’ hands as they arrive for their first day of sixth grade.

Parents pushed hard for the new middle school, which is opening in shared space at George Westinghouse High School, several blocks from P.S. 8’s main building.  The expansion plan was the only proposal to win unanimous approval from the deeply divided Panel for Educational Policy during its February meeting.

7:35 a.m. Rachel’s on her way to Walcott’s first school visit of the day, the New Settlement Campus in the Bronx, where he’ll be joined by Mayor Bloomberg. The brand-new building cost $100 million to construct and houses three schools and a community center.

On her way, Rachel sent this message on Twitter: “Took train to the Bronx w/3 teachers from P.S. 28. ‘It’s the first day & we’re already talking shop.’ They’re excited about a new principal.”

Correction: A previous version stated that Harlem Village Academies founder Deborah Kenny said that all of her schools operated in private space. The two HVA middle schools shares public facility space, one with P.S. 194 and the other with MS 45/STARS Prep Academy. Another one of her schools has also received funding from the department’s School Construction Authority to build a school. 

Top 10

From forest preschools to a secret apology, here are Chalkbeat Colorado’s must-read stories of 2018

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat
Megan Patterson works with children to make a dam in a creek during a recent "forest school" class.

We spend a lot of time at Chalkbeat chasing the news to keep our readers informed about controversial policy changes, fast-moving debates, and late-breaking decisions.

But we also relish the opportunity to dig deep into issues affecting students and families, shine light on innovative ideas, and hear from dedicated educators making a difference. With that in mind, we’ve gathered 10 of our best stories from 2018.

These stories don’t necessarily chronicle the biggest education issues of 2018, from teacher walkouts to unprecedented state interventions. But they are stories we think are important and insightful, and that we enjoyed reporting and writing. We hope you enjoy reading them.

No walls: Forest preschools let kids run free, but can they change to reach diverse families?

One day this past summer, about a dozen children frolicked by a Jefferson County creek — making pretend tea in small metal buckets, and building dams with sticks and mud.

They were students at Worldmind Nature Immersion School, where children spend all their time outside. So-called forest preschools like Worldmind are beloved by many families but face significant regulatory and logistical barriers in expanding their footprint nationwide. Here in Colorado, a pilot program could lead a new kind of child care license designed for them.

And being licensed could help the schools confront another problem: a lack of diversity among their students. Read more.

Colorado was never ranked 46th for teacher pay. Does this change the debate?

It was an oft-cited statistic: that Colorado, despite its booming economy, ranked 46th in the nation for teacher pay. The eye-popping number found its way onto social media posts and signs at massive teacher rallies last spring. News outlets latched on to it, too.

But it was wrong. Colorado was actually ranked 30th in the nation.

Our story breaks down how the mistake happened (hint: a new data system, an unrevised report) — and how groups with different agendas seized on the snafu to score points. Read more.

This is the letter of apology that Adams 14 leaders never sent

The Adams 14 district in Commerce City is arguably the most troubled and low-performing in Colorado. Just last month, state officials directed Adams 14 to hire an external manager to oversee the district’s operations for at least the next four years.

Back in September, Adams 14 officials considered taking a rare step: saying sorry to the community. But an apology letter was never signed nor sent out.

Chalkbeat obtained a copy of the letter, which makes mention of “various and conflicting priorities, coupled with constant turnover and organizational disarray.” Read more.

Rising test scores and dwindling trust: Denver’s Tom Boasberg leaves a complicated legacy

Colorado’s largest school district experienced a big change this year when longtime leader Tom Boasberg announced he would step down after nearly 10 years in Denver Public Schools.

Because of his school improvement strategies — some of which were controversial and heightened tensions with the community — the district that the new superintendent, Susana Cordova, will inherit in January is vastly different than it was a decade ago.

One tangible difference: Schools that once served as anchors of the community but struggled academically have been closed or replaced. That disappearance was on display on one of Boasberg’s last days, when he held his cell phone close to his mouth and enunciated each word so his GPS would understand his direction: “Montbello High School.” Read more.

Parents in one Aurora high school are visiting classrooms and giving teachers feedback

Like many schools in Colorado, Aurora’s Rangeview High School has a test score gap between white and black students. But the assistant principal there came up with a unique way to try to address it: by inviting black parents to visit classrooms and observe how students are — or are not — engaging with the teacher’s lesson, and then provide suggestions for improvement.

“We give true and honest feedback,” said one parent involved, “if they looked or appeared comfortable, how they interacted with the environment, the temperature of the room.”

Although the assistant principal considers the African American Parent Committee an experiment, she said it’s generating uncomfortable but necessary conversations. Read more.

How education reform became a wedge issue among Colorado Democrats this election year

For years, more moderate Democrats, often working in unison with like-minded Republicans, championed education reform efforts ranging from school choice to holding educators accountable for student performance.

But partly because of backlash against President Donald Trump and his education secretary, those strategies no longer fly with many Democrats — especially left-leaning Democrats who see them as undercutting public education and devaluing the work of teachers.

That sentiment was palpable in Colorado’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, and could shape the next legislative session, which starts in January. “Education is the issue that really stands to divide the left in a very substantial way,” one observer said. Read more.

How a Colorado school district turned things around at 10,000 feet above sea level

School improvement efforts look a little different high in the Rocky Mountains. While many of the strategies used by the 1,000-student Lake County school district are familiar to urban settings, they’ve been retrofitted to meet the needs of a district that’s 100 miles west of Denver.

For example, instead of firing teachers and principals who weren’t accelerating student learning fast enough, the district adopted a new curriculum and gave its teachers lots of training.

“The belief that the people are the problem is wrong,” the superintendent said. “Our teachers are professionals, and we believe in them. We’re proving that there is a framework or a pathway for rural schools to improve that’s about building capacity within your own community.” Read more.

7 things to know about how Colorado schools punish their youngest students

After state lawmakers rejected a bill to limit the use of suspensions in the earliest grades, Chalkbeat wanted to know more about the early childhood discipline landscape in Colorado. Data from the Colorado Department of Education revealed several trends.

Among them: Young black boys are suspended at disproportionate rates. Some rural school districts have the highest early childhood suspension rates in the state.

And despite nationwide debate about the impact of harsh discipline on young children and local efforts to bring the numbers down, suspensions in the early grades are actually going up. Read more.

In Denver’s gentrifying neighborhoods, some middle-class parents are avoiding the school down the block

Many neighborhoods in Denver are gentrifying, with middle-class families moving into what have historically been working-class communities. That type of demographic shift could easily lead to neighborhood schools that are more integrated by family income and race.

But that doesn’t always happen in Denver. Instead, data show that wealthier families – more often than low-income families – are using Denver Public Schools’ universal school choice process to send their kids to schools elsewhere in the city.

That’s a problem because research shows integrated schools boost test scores for students from low-income families without lowering the scores of those from wealthier ones. Denver officials want to see those benefits, but allowing parents to choose may be thwarting them. Read more.

Why this Colorado principal hand delivers birthday cards to more than 2,000 students and staff

Northglenn High School Principal Sharee Blunt is Colorado’s 2018 School Principal of the year — but perhaps even more impressive is the enormous number of birthday cards she hand delivers each year. If you’re one of those people who can barely remember your spouse’s birthday, you’ll be floored by Blunt’s annual feat.

In our interview with Blunt, part of Chalkbeat’s “How I Lead” Q&A series with distinguished school leaders, she talks about what she realized after a mother’s emotional reaction, and why she gave a teacher a pass during a lesson that went awry. Read more.

union power

Charter teachers won big in nation’s first strike. What now?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Teachers from Acero charter schools in Chicago protest stalled negotiations Oct. 24, 2018, as they readied to vote on authorizing a strike.

Some 500 unionized teachers joined in the nation’s first charter strike last week, and succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day. Their gains could foreshadow next year’s citywide contract negotiations — between the Chicago Teachers Union, with its contract expiring in June, and Chicago Public Schools.

“The issue of class size is going to be huge,” said Chris Geovanis, the union’s director of communications. “It is a critically important issue in every school.”

Unlike their counterparts in charters, though, teachers who work at district-run schools can’t technically go on strike to push through a cap on the number of students per class. That’s because the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act defines what issues non-charter public school teachers can bargain over, and what issues can lead to a strike.

An impasse on issues of compensation or those related to working conditions, such as length of the school day or teacher evaluations, could precipitate a strike. But disagreements over class sizes or school closures, among other issues, cannot be the basis for a strike.

The number of students per class has long been a point of contention among both district and charter school teachers.

Educators at Acero had hopes of pushing the network to limit class sizes to 24-28 students, depending on the grade. However, as Acero teachers capped their fourth day on the picket line, they reached an agreement with the charter operator on a cap of 30 students — down from the current cap of 32 students.

Andy Crooks, a special education apprentice, also known as a teacher’s aide, at Acero’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz school and a member of the teachers bargaining team, said that even having two fewer students in a classroom would make a huge difference.

“You really do get a lot more time with your students,” Crooks said. “And if you are thinking about kindergarten in particular, two less 5-year-olds really can help set the tone of the classroom.”

In district-run schools, classes are capped at 28 students in kindergarten through third grade, and at 31 students in fourth through sixth grade. But a survey by the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers, which supports educators taking on inequality, found that during the 2017-2018 school year, 21 percent of K-8 classrooms had more students than district guidelines allowed. In 18 elementary school classrooms, there were 40 or more students.

The issue came up at last week’s Board of Education meeting, at which Ivette Hernandez, a parent of a first-grader at Virgil Grissom Elementary School in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood, said her son’s classes have had more than 30 students in them. When the children are so young and active — and when they come into classrooms at so many different skill levels — “the teachers can’t handle 30 kids in one class,” she told the board.

Alderman Sue Garza, a former counselor, accompanied Hernandez. She also spoke before the board about classroom overcrowding — worrying aloud that, in some grades at one school in particular, the number of students exceeded the building’s fire codes. (Board chair Frank Clark said a district team would visit the school to ensure compliance fire safety policies.)

While the Chicago Teachers Union aren’t technically allowed to strike over class sizes, the union does have a history of pushing the envelope when it comes to bargaining.

Back in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union last went on strike, they ended up being able to secure the first limit on class sizes in 20 years because the district permitted the union to bargain over class size.

They also led a bargaining campaign that included discussion over racial disparities in Chicago education and school closures, arguing that these trends impacted the working conditions of teachers.

“Even if you can’t force an employer to bargain over an issue, you can push them to bargain over the impact of an issue,” Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, explained.

The Chicago Teachers Union also emerged from its 2012 negotiations with guarantees of additional “wraparound services,” such as access to onsite social workers and school counselors.