behind the music

At Celia Cruz HS, principal faces discipline after investigation

Students from Celia Cruz Bronx High School of Music, where Principal William Rodriguez faces discipline after an investigation, performed Friday at Grand Central Terminal.

A Bronx principal is facing discipline after investigators substantiated allegations that he played fast and loose with school funds.

The Special Commissioner of Investigation looked into allegations, first filed in 2011, that William Rodriguez, the founding principal of Celia Cruz Bronx High School of Music, billed the city for time he did not work. Investigators substantiated at least some of the allegations and delivered a report to Chancellor Dennis Walcott last month.

Asked about the report on Friday at Grand Central Terminal, where Celia Cruz students were performing to celebrate the station’s centennial, Rodriguez said he had not been found guilty of any wrongdoing. “Nothing has been substantiated,” he said.

But Department of Education officials were already deciding how to act on SCI’s findings.

“We are in the process of determining discipline,” Connie Pankratz, a department spokeswoman, said on Friday. A spokeswoman for the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators confirmed that Rodriguez met with the union’s grievance department on Monday, a standard step whenever a school employee is facing sanctions, which could range from a fine to termination.

Teachers, staff, and students at the school say that whatever misconduct investigators found would be merely a symptom of deeper leadership problems. They say Rodriguez, an accomplished musician himself, poured school resources into Celia Cruz’s award-winning music program while leaving students without adequate preparation for college.

“Please don’t let the many accolades our students receive in music fool you,” one person at the school wrote in 2011 to State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, who monitors the state’s finances and investigates fraud. “The principal is out of touch with the needs of the students and staff. I’m begging you to please look into this matter.”

Among the allegations that investigators looked into was that Rodriguez forged time sheets to be paid for portions of the school day when he was not working and for work he did not actually do outside of school hours.

Copies of Rodriguez’s overtime timesheets from the 2010-2011 school year, which GothamSchools obtained, show that at a time when schools across the city were slashing their budgets, Rodriguez filed for overtime pay for attending student performances, high school fairs, and after-school music classes — expenditures that multiple other principals told GothamSchools are usually the first to be cut.

At a rate of roughly $44 per hour, Rodriguez took home more than $5,000 for the time, on top of his $150,000 annual salary.

The timesheets also show that Rodriguez did not punch in and out using a time clock on regular school days or have handwritten records approved by his supervisor, an option allowed when work is done off-site. Instead, he handwrote his timesheets and had the school’s business manager sign off on them. In their complaints to the city and state, staff members said they thought Rodriguez did not actually work most of the hours.

They also said Rodriguez asked a school employee to help out with his personal business during school hours. And they said Rodriguez’s side gigs, a weekly piano performance at Willie’s Steakhouse and a teaching gig at nearby Lehman College that a city spokeswoman said had been approved by the department’s ethics officer, sometimes distracted him from Celia Cruz.

On the evening of March 17, 2011, for example, Celia Cruz held parent-teacher conferences while Rodriguez was scheduled to teach a music history class at Lehman. “I brought a parent and another teacher to his office, and it was locked and it was dark,” one staff member said. “And that parent was angry.”

All of the teachers and staff members interviewed requested to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation. But they said that while they were concerned about the possibility that Rodriguez was appropriating some of the school’s funding, they were more worried about other issues at the school that are not grounds for a city investigation.

Teachers, staff, and students said Rodriguez favors the school’s arts programs, which by all accounts are outstanding, but gives short shrift to academics, particularly math and science.

Students who enroll find a robust arts program with more than a dozen different ensembles, including an award-winning choir and a Latin music band that performed last year before Mayor Bloomberg’s State of the City address. More than 70 percent of the students who entered in 2008 graduated last year with a special arts designation on their diplomas, according to Department of Education data.

But just 18.9 percent of the students were college-ready, compared to 30 percent citywide. At the Brooklyn High School of the Arts, which also has an arts focus and enrolls very similar students, the college-readiness rate was 25.6 percent. Celia Cruz’s data took the biggest hit in math, where students’ average Regents exam score in Geometry and Algebra II was well below the 65 required for graduation.

On last year’s department survey, 73 percent of Celia Cruz teachers said they disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement, “The principal places the learning needs of children above other interests.” Ninety percent said they disagreed with the statement, “The principal at my school participates in instructional planning with teachers.”

Sources at Celia Cruz said an external grant is the only way the school can pay for Regents exam and SAT preparation classes and after-school tutoring. At the same time, the school budget funds a summer music camp, which enrolls middle school students in hopes that they’ll apply to Celia Cruz.

The summer program is open to “anyone and everyone” and is funded through overtime payments and grants, according to Assistant Principal Jerrod Mabry. “We find the money to make it happen because it’s so important for our outreach,” he said in 2011.

And while school funds support students’ travel to state music competitions, academic teachers rarely get help paying for field trips, teachers and staff members said. A history class’s planned trip to Washington, D.C., was canceled in 2011 because Rodriguez was unable to provide bus fare after students raised funds for their hotel rooms and activities, they said.

Two years ago, when she found that the school was cutting its part-time college advisor, whom staff members said worked for free in the application-heavy month of December, Janel Strachan, a 2012 graduate, said she grew so concerned about the school’s direction that she sent an impassioned plea for help to Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott.

“Not many of us would like to continue music after high school, and [we] are very concerned with our academics,” she wrote in the 2011 letter.

Until this year, the 438-student school had five music teachers and just three math teachers, where schools of this size have four math teachers. Strachan said her junior-year trigonometry class contained students who had passed the previous math course and also students who had not. The teacher essentially taught two classes at once, but all students got the same credits, she said.

“The admissions offices at the colleges I apply to are going to expect me to know trigonometry,” she said at the time. “But when I take the placement exam, I will fail.”

Now a first-year student at the University at Albany, Strachan said her fears have come to pass. In her first semester, she earned A’s in her music classes but D’s and C’s in science classes. She squeaked by in a basic statistics class by taking it pass/fail.

“New information was introduced to me and a lot of other people knew it already,” she said. “It made me feel pretty bad.”

This year, the school increased the number of math teachers to four and decreased the number of music teachers, also to four. But the most challenging math class at the school remains Algebra II/Trigonometry, according to department officials.

Teachers and staff members say students could be doing better if Rodriguez adjusted his priorities, or if a new principal brought a more even-handed approach to the school.

“We have an amazing music team — they’re so talented,” a staff member said. “Even if he cut a position or some resources, we’re still going to get a fine music program.”

Additional reporting contributed by Sarah Darville and Emma Sokoloff-Rubin

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.