Anatomy of a lesson

An art class at a science high school includes math and poetry

Larry Minetti addresses his high school art class at the Collegiate Institute of Math and Science.

It may have math and science in its name, but lately the Collegiate Institute of Math and Science in the Bronx is all about art.

Concerned that students weren’t receiving a well-rounded education, Principal Shadia Alverez decided this year to cut back on support staff — she has just one assistant principal when the student body of 650 would often warrant two — and hire Larry Minetti to teach four introductory art classes.

Minetti has taught on the Christopher Columbus Educational Campus for 17 years, until recently at Christopher Columbus High School, which is in the process of phasing out. Since starting at CIMS in September, he has already landed his students their first exhibition: On Dec. 6, Minetti and his students will hang as many as 200 pieces of student artwork in State Sen. Jeffrey Klein’s office in the Bronx.

But Minetti said he wants to teach students more than simply how to use artistic principles to create beautiful works of art. He always wants students to understand the interplay between art and their everyday lives, including in the other subjects they study.

GothamSchools spent Thursday morning in Minetti’s class, observing as students applied last week’s still life lesson on their own canvases and then speaking to Minetti about his instructional approach. As when we have chronicled other classes in the past, we’ve included the teacher’s commentary in block quotes beneath our observations.

10:08 a.m. Students filed into the art studio, whose walls are hand-painted with inspirational phrases and peppered with student work, and took their seats. In the middle of the room, a still life scene featuring two bottles, a paint can, a lemon, and a green apple was set up against both sides of a wooden board. The whiteboard at the front of the room displayed a hand-drawn replica of the still life scene, with the day’s aim and curriculum objectives written for the students to see.

Mirielle, the student designated as the “folder monitor,” withdraw large portfolios from a shelf in a cupboard and began distributing them to her classmates.

The whiteboard lists the standards covered by the lesson.

10:09 a.m. Minetti greeted each student with a “good morning,” telling them to prepare by taking out their notes from last week and to “unwind a bit.” To set a relaxing mood, Minetti put on some music — Aerosmith to start — and lit a set of pumpkin spice-scented candles.

Kathy Persaud, an 11th-grader, said she appreciates the laid-back tone of the class. “This is probably our least stressful part of the day, getting to see Mr. Minetti,” she said.

10:11 a.m. Minetti noted that even though late bell had not yet rung to start class officially, students should be tackling the day’s “Do Now,” the prompt that many teachers across the city have used to kick off their classes since the Department of Education first mandated the “workshop model” in 2003.

The morning’s “Do Now” called for students to review the key components of last week’s lesson, in which students defined the term “still life” and recorded eight steps for drawing a bottle.

Minetti writes the "eight steps to drawing a bottle" on the board.

10:15 a.m. Minetti called the class to attention and asked for volunteers to define “still life.”  Piecing together several students’ definitions, the class settled on “a foundation of objects placed together to form a composition.”

10:21 Minetti asked the students to take out their notes from the first lesson on still lifes. He held up 12th-grader Jeremiah Crawford’s notepaper — there was a bottle drawn freehand on the top half of the page.

“The first day you walked in I said, ‘Look at that bottle and draw it,’” Minetti told the class.

He asked the class to make observations about the drawing. Crawford pointed out that it was a bit lopsided.

“It’s very difficult to draw exact points,” Milinetti said. “So with the outer shape, it really helps you.”

The “outer shape” technique is key to Milinetti’s lesson on still life, because the technique forces students to draw by looking at basic shapes. The students all started with a plain piece of white paper and a ruler. Following Milinetti’s guide, they measured out three differently sized rectangles on their paper.

Minetti said his approach is to let students try to derive various theories of art on their own.

“I don’t give them instruction in the beginning,” he said. “They do what they think they’re supposed to do and they try and then we do the theory and we learn what we’re exactly working on. Then we see the difference from the first time we did it to the final product.

“I had them draw the bottle on their own. And I asked them, ‘What part of the bottle did they start with?’ A lot of hands went up for the top, some hands went up for the bottom, and the rest went up for the sides. But the reality is you don’t start by drawing the bottle. The reality is you start with the rectangle.

“From the rectangle we can incorporate guidelines and then follow the steps for drawing an actual bottle. We went from just jumping into anything to actually having a plan.”

Minetti demonstrates how a real bottle translates onto the canvas.

10:25 a.m. As students began working individually, Minetti walked around the classroom, pausing to help and answer questions. One student was struggling to round out the bottoms of his bottles, and Minetti helped her measure out half-inch marks that she could connect to complete the shape.

Minetti pointed out that the outer-shape technique he encourages students to use requires a mathematical know-how: The height and width of the rectangle is key to preserving realistic proportion and perspective of the final still life.

“Art can be implemented into any subject,” Minetti said. “What’s the subject we’re using for this? Math. We’re using measurements — we’re bringing math into art.”

Alvarez said Minetti is always making connections to other academic subjects.

“One of the real nice things he’s done is connect with the math teachers and ask, ‘What does an architect do? What does an engineer do? And how does it connect to art?’” she said.

The connections don’t stop with math. Poetry that students wrote and illustrated in a collaboration between Minetti and English teachers adorns the art studio. And Minetti also worked with the living environment science teacher to help students make their science project presentations aesthetically pleasing.

“Everything incorporates art. Art is basically in every subject and it’s all around the world,” Minetti said.  “Especially since we’re in New York City, which is the mecca of the entire world of the arts.”

Minetti helps a student fine-tune her work.

10:34 a.m. Rathkevin Sary, a 12th grader, wanted to make his still life more detailed than the scene laid out in the classroom, something that Minetti encouraged all the students to do.

“Use your imagination. Create from within. Get those emotions out on the paper,” Minetti said.

Sary said he wanted to incorporate a vase with flowers, and Minetti retrieved a book with outlines of floral bouquets for Sary to use as a guide. Sary settled on a bouquet of calla lilies and began sketching.

10:37 a.m. Minetti asked students if they were ready for an “outliner,” a black marker they would use to make their sketched shapes permanent.  Minetti reminded the students who weren’t ready for the outliner that the pencil was erasable, and that they shouldn’t be afraid to make mistakes.

Minetti said repeated practice and patience to withstand trial and error — “soft skills” that educators are increasingly being encouraged to develop — are essential to developing skills in art.

“A lot of kids come in and say “I can’t draw, I don’t like art. But it’s not that they can’t draw, it’s that no one ever showed them the proper way to draw,” he said.

10:40 a.m. When several students needed help, Minetti encouraged the students to work together. He praised students who were already offering each other feedback.

Students collaborate on their still life assignments.

Martiz Amonte, a 12th-grader, reached over to point out that a line on Crawford’s piece was not aligned properly. After they discussed solutions, Crawford adjusted one line on his paper.

10:45 a.m. Minetti is an enthusiastic teacher, praising the students’ work throughout the class as “perfect,” “beautiful,” “fantastic,” “spectacular,” and “incredible.”

“This is so exciting for me as a teacher to see the development you guys have,” he said to the class. “As a teacher, that’s like a dream.”

Minetti said he always tries to give good news before adding a touch of constructive criticism.

“I give careful criticism,” he said. “I’m always positive – I always speak positive first, and if there is a little bit of criticism I reinforce it lightly so they understand what to do. One of the girls was struggling with the bottom of the bottle. So I’ll just reinforce what we learned and do a little one-on-one instruction on that particular technique just to help the student get through that particular moment.”

Minetti shows off exemplary work.

10:50 a.m. Minetti gave the class a two-minute warning, encouraging them to finish whatever they were working on.

10:52 a.m. The bell sounded and Minetti called for the students to put their work back into their folders. The folder monitor collected the portfolios and returned them to the cabinet for safekeeping until the next class.

In that session, Minetti said, the students will use shading — a technique they learned for their last project — to turn their sketches into vibrant still lifes.

At a time when advocates warn that the arts have been marginalized by budget cuts and shifting priorities in city schools, Minetti and Alvarez said they hope to expand CIMS’ art program next year. Minetti said who enjoyed and excelled in the introductory course would benefit from electives such as painting and sculpture.

“It’s so healthy to have a class like this because it is an opportunity for the students to create and express themselves on paper,” he said. “And they need this.”

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.”