school closing season

At three hearings, one idea: City's plans would undo successes

Eighth graders Ciara Shack (L) and Karla Lorenzo (C), along with sixth grader Eliza Fuentes (R) do an impromptu step cheer between testimonies, chanting the school’s motto: “M.S. 45 going down the line, we gotta get an education to survive.” (Photo: Casey Baker)
M.S. 45 eighth-graders Ciara Shack (L) and Karla Lorenzo (C) and sixth-grader Eliza Fuentes (R) do an impromptu step cheer at a hearing about the school’s proposed closure. They chanted the school’s motto: “M.S. 45 going down the line, we gotta get an education to survive.” (Photo: Carey Reed)

A citywide sprint through dozens of public hearings about the Department of Education’s plans to close, open, and move schools this year continued on Wednesday with spirited meetings at multiple schools.

At M.S. 45 in East Harlem, which the city wants to close at the end of the year, supporters said the school was on the verge of turning around after years of poor leadership. Sheepshead Bay High School in Brooklyn, on the chopping block for the second time in a year, got praise for serving its many immigrant students. And at the Tilden Campus, also in Brooklyn, students and teachers argued that three schools’ success could be undone if a new charter school moves into the building.

The hearings are a required part of the city’s process to close or open schools. The Panel for Educational Policy, which has never rejected a city proposal, is set to vote on the plans March 11.

M.S. 45

Frustrations ran high at M.S. 45 S.T.A.R.S. Prep Academy as community members pleaded with city officials to allow the school’s current principal more time to continue making improvements.

“Give her a chance. Give her a chance,” many in the crowd clapped and chanted, as officials tried to end the hearing about the the city’s plan to close the school in June. The 50 students, parents, graduates, teachers, and community members who gathered at the East Harlem school were referring to Alexa Sorden, who took over as interim acting principal in September.

“This year feels like no other year,” said Radames Vasquez, a student in his third year at M.S. 45. “When Ms. Sorden came in the school this year, there was a whole lot of garbage from last year and she cleaned up the garbage real fast.”

Sorden replaced Tomasz Grabski, who was assigned to S.T.A.R.S. Academy in the fall of 2010 after leaving his previous school amid parent protests.

According to a 2010 New York Times article, Grabski resigned from Muscota New School in Inwood after parents accused him of being ineffective and petitioned the city for his removal. Parents at S.T.A.R.S. said he carried his ineptitude with him to M.S. 45. They said he would lock himself in his office, allowing students to roam the halls and be disruptive.

CAPTION (Photo: Casey Baker)
Interim Acting Principal Alexa Sorden listens to supporters of M.S. 45 argue for the school’s future. (Photo: Carey Reed)

“I don’t understand how it is that you, the DOE, knew we were a failing school, yet you put a failing principal in our school,” said Providencia Padilla, parent association president and an M.S. 45 alum.

But Marc Sternberg, the department official in charge of closing and opening schools, said enrollment and performance were so low at S.T.A.R.S. Academy that it should close at the end of the year. In its place, the city has proposed allowing Harlem Village Academy Leadership, which already shares the building on First Avenue and 120th Street, to expand.

Enrollment at S.T.A.R.S has gradually declined from 306 sixth through eighth graders two years ago to 142 students today. Nearly a quarter of students are English language learners, and a fifth require special education services.

Sternberg said while the school may receive many applications, only a small percentage of applicants placed M.S. 45 as their first choice.

Still, the school has committed supporters. Eighth-grader Kweisi Mullings took a few moments to gather courage before addressing the audience and panel, which included Monica Cofield, the head of the school’s support network, and Senior Supervising Superintendent Donald Conyers.

“Please do not close our school down,” Mullings read from his mobile phone. “Give us a chance.”

–Carey Reed

Sheepshead Bay High School

As evidence that her school is doing a good job, despite its lagging scores, Sheepshead Bay’s current student government vice president offered up herself as Exhibit A.

“I came here as a foreigner, knew very little English, knew very little about this country, and Sheepshead nurtured me,” said senior Asma Begum, reading from her notes. “Now I’m in AP English class and I’m very proud of myself.”

English Language Learners make up 25 percent of the students at Sheepshead Bay, which the Department of Education has proposed phasing out and replacing with smaller schools. Over 100 current and former students, parents, and teachers joined department officials and the District 22 Community Education Council for a hearing about the closure plan on Wednesday evening.

CAPTION (Photo: Andres David Lopez)
Department of Education Deputy Chancellor Kathleen Grimm explains the city’s plan to close Sheepshead Bay High School at a hearing about the proposal. (Photo: Andres David Lopez)

“Please don’t close the school,” said Begum, who kicked off the public comment portion of the hearing. “If we are given the proper amount of time, we can improve.”

The city has proposed opening four high schools in the building as Sheepshead Bay phases out. The schools include a four-year high school and transfer high school operated by the Department of Education and two charter high schools operated by the nonprofit New Visions.

Deputy Chancellor Kathleen Grimm said the city’s decision to close Sheepshead Bay was based on its poor performance. The school’s four-year graduation rate is 51 percent, lower than the city average of 65.5 percent. Sheepshead Bay has also been identified among the bottom 5 percent of schools in the state by the New York State Education Department.

It is also one of several schools that the city is trying to close for a second time. Last year, it was one of 24 schools slated for a form of closure called “turnaround” until a judge upheld a labor ruling that turnaround violated the city’s agreement with the teachers union.

An explanation for the school’s struggles came in the night’s most common refrain, offered by scheduled speakers and by members of the audience in spontaneous outbursts, “Sheepshead Bay takes everybody!” The school does not screen its students and has many students with disabilities, as well as English language learners.

“We are proud to have the underperformers in our school community,” said Maribel Pena, president of the parent teacher association.

Jay Appelblatt, an alumnus who has taught social studies at the school for 13 years, said the students’ many challenges made it hard for the school to raise its graduation rate. “When a kid gets here from Uzbekistan, not speaking one word of English, they’re not getting out of here in four years,” he said.

That’s not to say that teachers don’t try to pull students along, said senior Presley Guobadia.

“She grabs me and she walks me to class. She’s like a second mother to me,” Guobadia said of guidance counselor Sherry Satchell,

“And we have a lot of people here that are working just as hard, if not harder, to try to ensure these children get to where they need to go,” Satchell said. “We are not failures. These children are not failures.”

Principal John O’Mahoney, who was fined last year for violating city ethics rules, was silent during the hearing while sitting to Grimm’s right. He declined to comment for this article.

–Andres David Lopez

Tilden High School

Community leaders including City Councilman Jumaane Williams turned out at a third hearing held on Wednesday, even though no school was up for closure.

That no school is closing on the Tilden Campus is precisely the reason that the New American Academy Charter School should not move in, as the department has proposed, said Eric Waterman. Waterman, who is parent coordinator at the Kurt Hahn Expeditionary Learning School, previewed the hearing in an interview with GothamSchools.

If a school were phasing out, there might be room for the charter school, Waterman said, but as it stands, all three high schools in the building are in good standing, and all would have to make sacrifices to accommodate yet another neighbor.

Kurt Hahn could lose seven classrooms under the department’s proposal, meaning that teachers would no longer have their own classrooms and the arts and culinary offerings could be at risk, he said. The two other schools in the building — It Takes A Village Academy and the Cultural Academy for the Arts and Sciences — would also have to trim their offerings, he said.

Waterman said students were motivated to speak out at the closure hearing because they had not yet had a chance to voice their opinions about the proposed changes.

“This proposal was proposed and will probably be implemented without the community’s input. It’s something that the DOE has forced on our environment,” Waterman said.

Plus, he noted, while the city says the neighborhood needs stronger elementary schools, the charter school is a replica of a district-run school whose students have not yet taken any state tests.

“You can’t say you’re bringing in high quality when you haven’t rated it high quality yet,” Waterman said. “We’re smarter than that.”

–Philissa Cramer

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.”