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.”

To and Through

Newark’s post-grad paradox: More students are entering college, but few earn degrees

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
Newark Mayor Ras Baraka wants 25 percent of residents to have college degrees by 2025, up from 19 percent today.

When it comes to college, Newark faces a good news-bad news paradox.

More students than ever are graduating high school and enrolling in college, according to a new report. Yet fewer than one in four Newark students earns a college degree within six years of graduating high school — leaving many with limited job prospects in a city where an estimated one-third of jobs require a four-year college degree.

Now, city officials are promising to build on the report. They want to ramp up the rigor of high-school classes and create more early-college programs to increase the odds of students entering college and leaving with a degree.  

“How do we teach our children to perform — to graduate?” Mayor Ras Baraka asked at a press conference Wednesday to mark the official release of the report of Newark students’ college outcomes. “We got them in the door,” he said of students who attend college. “Now how do we make them stay?”

The city’s plans, to which Superintendent Roger León is lending his support, reflect a growing recognition that simply getting students into college is not sufficient — and can even backfire if they drop out before graduation, leaving them with college debt but no degree.

Until recently, the charge given to high schools in Newark and across the country was to foster “college-going cultures.” And these efforts showed promising results: On average, 51 percent of Newark Public School students who graduated high school between 2011 and 2016 immediately enrolled in college, up from 39 percent who did so between 2004 and 2010, according to the report by the Newark City of Learning Collaborative, or NCLC, and Rutgers University-Newark’s School of Public Affairs and Administration.

But entering college didn’t guarantee its completion. Of those students who started college straight after high school, only 39 percent earned a degree within six years, the report found.

As a result, educators and policymakers have begun to think harder about how to help students “to and through” college — to ensure they actually earn degrees. Toward that end, Baraka and the NCLC — which includes roughly 40 colleges, schools, nonprofits, and corporations — has set a goal of 25 percent of Newark residents earning college degrees or comparable credentials by 2025.

Today, just 19 percent of Newark adults have associate degrees or higher — compared to 45 percent of adults across New Jersey and 40 percent nationally.

Superintendent León, who began overseeing the city’s schools on July 1, said his main strategy for supporting these efforts will be to expose students to challenging work early on.

“If we don’t do something dramatically in classrooms to improve instruction and make it rigorous,” León said after Wednesday’s event, then students are “getting into college but they’re not completing it.”

Source: “Post-Secondary Outcomes of Newark High School Graduates (2011-2016)” report. Note: The four-year rate is an average of the classes of 2011 to 2013. The six-year rate is from the class of 2011. Graphic: Sam Park/Chalkbeat

For starters, León said he wants high schools to offer more college-level classes. In the 2016-17 school year, just 21 percent of Newark students were enrolled in one or more Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate classes — compared to 42 percent of students statewide.

He also vowed to raise the quality of instruction in the district’s traditional high schools. Only 14 percent of their graduates earn college degrees within six years, compared to 42 percent of graduates from the city’s selective magnet schools, the report found.

To do that, León said he will create specialized academies within the traditional schools modeled on the magnets, which have specialized themes such as science, technology, or the arts. The academies, which will partner with colleges, will most likely feature admissions criteria similar to those of magnet schools, which select students based on their academic and attendance records, León added.

And, for the first time, all ninth-grade students this academic year will take the Preliminary SAT, or PSAT, León said Wednesday. An additional 1,100 eighth-graders who passed at least one of their seventh-grade PARCC exams will also take the PSAT when it’s administered on Oct. 10.

Since 2016, the district has provided the PSAT to all 10th and 11th-grade students. But León said that giving the test to younger students will focus their attention on college and help identity those who are ready for advanced classes. The PSAT is designed to help students prepare for the SAT, which is used in college admissions, and to qualify for National Merit Scholarships.

The district, which was under state control for 22 years until February, is getting some assistance in its effort to improve students’ college outcomes.

For instance, KIPP, the national charter-school network with eight schools in Newark, is sharing its strategies for helping students choose the right college with guidance counselors at three district high schools.

And the higher-education institutions in the Newark City of Learning Collaborative, including Essex County College and Rutgers University-Newark, plan to create more “dual-enrollment” programs that allow high-school students to earn college credits, said NCLC Executive Director Reginald Lewis.

“We’re all going to do a better job,” Lewis said, “of making sure that once Newark residents get in our doors, that we help them persist.”

Time crunch

In victory for teachers union, Newark superintendent scraps longer hours for low-performing schools

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
Superintendent Roger León at Hawkins Street School, one of the schools that will lose its extended hours.

Newark’s new superintendent is eliminating a program that extended the hours of struggling schools, which the teachers union has long attacked as ineffective and unfair to educators.

Teachers at roughly 30 schools will no longer receive $3,000 annual stipends for the extra hours, a provision written into the current teachers contract, which extends to 2019. Instead, all 64 district schools will get extra funding for before and after-school programs, Superintendent Roger León said in an email to employees on Tuesday.

The changes will go into effect Monday, Sept. 10, resulting in new hours for the affected schools just days after the new school year began. The district is still working to adjust pickup times for students who are bused to school, according to León’s email. A few of the schools will phase out their extended hours later in the year, the email said.

“We will not continue to do the same things as before and be surprised when the results do not change,” León wrote, adding that cutting the extra hours would save the district $5 million.

In an interview with Chalkbeat Thursday, León said the move is intended to create more uniformity among schools and the services they provide. Now, all schools will get additional money to pay for programs outside of the regular school day, which schools can tailor to their individual needs, though students who are struggling academically will continue to receive “intensive” support, he said.

“Ultimately, the idea would be by October having completely different after-school and before-school programming that meets the needs of each respective school,” León said.

The extended time was first included in the teachers contract in 2012 as part of a larger improvement plan for the targeted schools, which was developed by Cami Anderson, Newark’s former state-appointed superintendent. The plan also designated some low-performing schools as “renew” schools, where teachers had to reapply for their positions and work longer hours.

Anderson also closed some schools and gave principals new hiring authority. Both actions left dozens of tenured teachers without positions, so Anderson created a fund to pay those teachers to perform support duties in schools. In 2014, that fund for “employees without placement” cost the district $35 million out of its nearly $1 billion budget, though by last year the fund had shrunk to $8 million for about 100 unassigned teachers, according to officials.

León said in Tuesday’s email that he was also eliminating the fund, which he said would save the district another $6 million. The teachers union president said he believed all the unassigned teachers now have placements, but the district did not respond to a request to confirm that.

León is also removing the “renew” and “turnaround” labels from low-performing schools, citing their “progress and student achievement,” according to the email.

“I applaud everyone’s efforts at renew or turnaround schools and acknowledge what has been accomplished,” he wrote.

Now that León has abolished his predecessors’ school-improvement program, he will be expected to create his own. Many schools remain mired in poor performance, even as the district overall has made strides in recent years.

When the teachers union agreed to the extended hours in its 2012 contract with the district, it was hailed nationally as a major breakthrough in efforts to revamp troubled schools. But even as the union agreed last year to keep the provision in its current contract, union officials have assailed the turnaround effort as a failure.

NTU President John Abeigon told Chalkbeat on Thursday that the program had been a “scam” and “nothing more than extended childcare.” He added that the stipend teachers received amounted to about $7 per hour for the extra time they worked.

In 2016, a district-commissioned survey of 787 teachers at schools with extended hours found that two-thirds of teachers at schools where the extra time was spent on student instruction said the time was valuable. But in a survey the union conducted in April, the 278 teachers who responded gave the extended hours low ratings for effectiveness in boosting student achievement.

Some teachers in the union survey praised the longer hours, saying their schools used them effectively to lengthen class periods, run after-school clubs, or allow teachers to plan lessons or review student data. But others said the extra time was squandered, leaving staff and students exhausted with little evidence of improved student outcomes to show for it. (Students’ pass rates on state tests stayed flat or declined at most “renew” schools in the first years of the program.)

The union also has complained that many teachers felt compelled to work the extra hours because those who refused to could be transferred to different schools. Under the terms of the original extended-day agreement, teachers were required to work an extra hour per day and attend trainings during the summer and some weekends.

In León’s email to employees, he said every extended-day school had set different work requirements and “none are consistent with the original design.” The longer days may also be contributing to high teacher turnover in those schools, he wrote, adding that principals of schools with regular hours told him they did not want to extend their hours.

Abeigon, the union president, applauded León’s decision to scrap the extra work hours.

“He came to the conclusion that we expected any true educator to reach: that the program was not working and was never going to work,” he said.

León said Thursday that he is now working on a new turnaround program. Once it’s ready, he promised to share the details with affected families before publicly announcing which schools are part of it — an effort to avoid the student protests that erupted when Anderson identified her “turnaround” schools.

He also said he was still considering whether he would ever close schools that fail to improve or to reverse their declining enrollments. Anderson’s decision to shutter nearly a dozen long-struggling schools continues to fuel resentment among her critics even years later.

“I think the whole idea of how much time does a school get to correct itself is a very important one and I’m going to need to be really reflective on it,” León said. “I’ve seen what closing schools does with people who do not feel that they were aware of it or a part of fixing it.”