frontiers of choice

At AMS, easing the stressful high school search by staying put

The Urban Assembly School for Applied Math and Science is housed within the Bathgate Educational Complex, seen here. It shares the building with Validus Preparatory Academy and Mott Hall Bronx High School. (Photo by Andrew Wiktor)

Stephanie Dejesus spent an invigorating three weeks last summer in the dormitories in upstate New York’s Bard College studying mathematical problem solving with the faculty. When she returned in the fall, she set to work applying for Bard, studying for and passing its entry exam. The school would be a tough commute from her Bronx home in Tremont, but she was enticed by its excellent academic reputation.

Stephanie wasn’t applying for college. Stephanie is an eighth-grade student at the Urban Assembly School for Applied Math and Science in the Bronx, or AMS for short. She was considering applying for Bard High School Early College, a Lower East Side high school affiliated with Bard College. And Bard is just one of many New York City schools that require prospective students to test, interview, write an essay, and submit test scores for admission. It’s all part of a labyrinthine citywide system in which students must choose from over 500 high schools.

Today, eighth-graders across the city will find out which of their choices has accepted them.

For Stephanie, the news won’t come as a surprise. She ended up declining to go through the interview for Bard and chose instead to stay at AMS, which enrolls students from grades six through 12. Stephanie says she’s glad she had the opportunity to choose from different schools and find different programs that might suit her, but she’s also happy to avoid the anxious wait for a school assignment. Plus, AMS is familiar, and it’s close to home.

“They’ll make you feel welcome,” she said of the teachers, who will already know her when she arrives for ninth grade next year.

Stephanie’s experience is one example of why AMS encourages its eighth graders to stay for high school, easing the stress of the application process for those children and allowing teachers more time to prepare them for college.

“Any school that cuts down on the number of transitions that a student has to make is going to do kids a service because it’s during the transitions that kids get wiped out,” said Eric Nadelstern, a visiting professor at Teachers College, Columbia University and a former deputy chancellor at the Department of Education.

Before 2002, when the Bloomberg administration began a decade of reforming the city’s schools, many students attended their neighborhood schools under a zoning system — the way it works in much of the United States. Only a few, like the ultra-elite specialized high schools, screened applicants with a battery of tests and interviews. But in 2003, the city began requiring all students to rank their top 12 choices, many of which have different admissions requirements. A complex algorithm, similar to the one used to match medical school students with residency programs, then assigns schools to students.

AMS, a relatively well-performing small school on Bathgate Avenue in the South Bronx, was founded in 2004 by the Urban Assembly network with a mission to cultivate students’ math and science skills. There are 606 students total, and 80 percent qualify for free lunch. Most are from the local neighborhood. AMS usually retains about 85 percent of its eighth graders for high school, according to first-year principal David Krulwich.

If an AMS student selects AMS as one of his or her 12 high-school choices during the high-school selection process in the fall, he or she is automatically accepted, Krulwich said. This year, there are 86 eighth-graders at the school, and 68 of them selected AMS as their top choice, guaranteeing that they will return.

“It’s a good thing for us that they want to,” Krulwich said of the majority of his students who choose to stay.

The remaining 18 students put other schools first on their lists, but many selected extremely competitive schools such as the Bronx High School of Science and placed AMS further down the list. Of those, many will not get into the borough’s only elite high school and will likely also return to AMS.

Krulwich said the 6-12 model allows instructors to take a more holistic approach to the curriculum rather than strictly teaching to standardized tests. Seventy-two schools in New York combine high school and middle schools, according to Insideschools, a website run by The New School.

“It gives you a chance to work with middle-school kids not just because you want them to do well on a test in seventh or eighth grade and then leave, but it gives us a real need to work with kids on things that are going to get them ready for college,” Krulwich said.

Not every student who decides to leave AMS is pursuing admission at a selective school such as Bronx Science or Stuyvesant High School. The small percentage of kids who choose somewhere else do so for a multitude of reasons.

Some want to join a sibling in another building. Some, like AMS eighth-grader Nicole Lara, simply want to try something different. Children with long commutes to AMS sometimes opt for schools closer to their homes. Still others, like AMS eighth grader Martin Espinal, harbor the impression that the schools in Manhattan are better. In all of these cases, AMS guidance counselors research other schools with students and help them through the application process, according to Krulwich.

“We know there are certainly some kids who want something different and might be better off going somewhere else,” Krulwich said.

Kimberly Melgar, who teaches eighth-grade math and helps her students through the high-school selection process, said the top three things she looks at in a prospective school are graduation rate, extracurricular activities, and attendance.

The gap left by the students who do leave is filled by incoming ninth graders from other middle schools. There are usually 15 to 17 such students each year.

The transfer ninth graders are sometimes at a disadvantage compared to those who have been at AMS since sixth grade. Freshmen often have emotional and social problems, Melgar said, and it is often easier for teachers to more quickly spot and resolve issues facing students they already know. She added that teachers also identify students who they think will struggle with changing to a high-school curriculum and come in with a plan to keep those students from falling behind.

AMS eighth grader Sar Mnahsheh, who is coming back next year, said he’d be lost if he had to switch to a strange new school for his freshman year.

“You don’t have to make the teachers know your name – again,” Sar said of returning to AMS. Melgar added, “They struggle with not wanting change.”

Krulwich said the 6-12 system is essential to the school’s success as a non-screened, take-all-comers institution.

“We have kids from all elementary schools coming to us in sixth grade,” he said. “They come to us, honors kids and remedial level, from the highest possible test scores to the lowest. And when kids come to you with that wide a range in ninth grade, it’s very, very difficult.”

That gap is easier to close when the students arrive earlier and when the teachers get more time with students, Krulwich added. Indeed, the school received “A” grades in the Department of Education’s student performance and college and career readiness categories in its 2011-12 progress report, while Validus Preparatory Academy, a high school that shares a building with AMS, scored “B” and “D” in the same categories. The third school in the building, Mott Hall Bronx High School, posted an “A” in student performance but only a “C” in college and career readiness.

“Our school mission [is] that we can be a non-screened school giving any student a real chance at a good college-preparatory education,” Krulwich said. “And I think that would be much more difficult to do with only four years to work with kids.”

Luke Hammill is a graduate student at Columbia University’s journalism 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.