Rise & Shine: Keeping de Blasio's education pledges honest

  • A review of de Blasio’s many school proposals hints at big changes, but also raises questions. (NY1)
  • As public advocate, Tish James plans to hold de Blasio to his word on education. (GothamSchools)
  • After months of protest, parents sued to block a student data-sharing project. (Daily News)
  • Michelle Obama urged low-income students to take college pursuit into their own hands. (Times)
  • An advisor for Bill de Blasio made her vision for public schools known this week. (GothamSchools)
  • The case for Kathleen Cashin to be the next schools chancellor, according to a professor. (News)
  • An advocate and parent says wandering among students with autism needs more attention. (Times)
  • Attacks from lawmakers on the state education department is a politically safe manuever. (Times Union)
  • The state’s PTA is the latest group to criticize New York’s Common Core rollout. (Post-Standard)
  • As expected, John King’s meeting with parents in Long Island featured plenty of emotion. (Newsday)
  • Citywide school progress reports — perhaps the last ever — come out today. (GS in Brief)
  • A Manhattan school was on a two-hour lock-down after a BB gun was found. (Daily News)
  • U.S. prosecutors are also probing anti-semitism reports in mid-Hudson New York. (Times)


Update: Principal’s removal from Manhattan high school stirs protest from parents and students

PHOTO: Reema Amin

More than 600 people signed an online petition urging the city Department of Education to bring Principal John Wenk back to Lower Manhattan Arts Academy as of Monday, before some concerns could be quelled about the fate of the school’s arts programs.

Over the weekend, rumors began floating over social media that Wenk, the school’s founding principal, had been fired for pushing back against potential cuts to the programs, which included dance, acting, visual arts, drawing, music classes and art history as of last school year.

The petition was created Friday, the same day Wenk was officially removed as principal, and also called to save the school’s arts classes.

On Monday, Department of Education spokesman Doug Cohen said in emailed statements that Dr. Wenk “was not terminated”  but rather had agreed to resign by December 31 prior to an arbitrator’s hearing “based on performance and misconduct as principal.” Cohen added, “There are no plans to cut any arts programming at the school.”

Cohen did not elaborate on what the misconduct was but said that Wenk has been reassigned to the central office. “We’ve made the decision to reassign Dr. Wenk in the interest of students and families,” Cohen said, “and the superintendent is providing ongoing support to ensure a smooth transition.”

But Monday night, parents remained upset at news of Wenk’s reassignment and how it had been handled. 

Former student Jose Camacho launched the petition over the weekend after he saw social media posts about Wenk’s departure, then confirmed the news with people connected to the school.

It wasn’t clear if petition-signers were aware of the official reason Wenk was reassigned, but Camacho said his own attempts at asking school officials for answers were unsuccessful.

Chalkbeat obtained documents with a heading from the state education department’s teacher tenure hearing unit, which list the charges against Wenk. They include his allegedly misusing $80 in school funds, maintaining too large a ratio for classes that integrate general education students and those with disabilities, for not properly staffing some special-education classes, and for assigning multiple paraprofessionals to clerical work instead of to students or classrooms.

In some instances, students’ individualized education plans — commonly known as IEPs — were not fulfilled as required, and the document says Wenk “programmed” students and staff in a way that prioritized the arts over fulfilling mandates laid out in the IEPs.

Wenk also allegedly did not follow instructions or directives from district Executive Superintendent Marisol C. Rosales, though no further description of this alleged “insubordination” is provided. All of the allegations, except for the $80 in misspent funds, occurred since September 2017.

A publicly-listed number for Wenk was not in service, and he could not be reached for comment. The Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, the union for principals, did not respond to a request for comment Monday afternoon, before Chalkbeat knew of the specific allegations.

After learning about the charges, Camacho said he still had questions about their validity.  He credited Wenk with allowing students to express themselves and providing the “push to believe in ourselves,” which he said kept him on track to graduation in 2014.

“I went on Change.org, and I started the petition to see if I got the reaction from people that felt the same way,” Camacho said. “And a whole bunch of people started writing to me and signing the petition. I said, ‘Let’s start a protest.’”

Camacho arranged a rally for 4:30 p.m. Monday outside of the school, where about a dozen people showed up.

The petition garnered 500 signatures in one day, according to the website. As of 2:09 p.m. on Monday, there were 612 signatures.

“John Wenk is one of the most supportive educators I’ve ever known,” one supporter wrote on the petition. “He was there for me from the first day when I came up to him and told him I didn’t want to be there until now. He continued to support my family even after I graduated. This is such an injustice.”

Catherine Fitz, who also signed the petition, said her daughter graduated from the school last year. She said Wenk is passionate about the job and has earned admiration from teachers and parents alike.

“It’s strange to me that the founding principal of a high school would be reassigned like this,” Fitz said. “It’s just astounding to me. I don’t understand pulling him out of the school that he created.”

The school’s parents association called an emergency meeting Monday night, where approximately 40 parents, students and alumni crowded into a small art-class room and, at many points, became heated while talking to  District 2 Superintendent Vivian Orlen, who emphasized that the school is not losing its arts program.

Although she said she couldn’t disclose the specific charges, Orlen said, “There is no doubt in my mind that Dr. Wenk touched many of your lives.”

Still, parents blasted the district for not informing them about Wenk’s reassignment. “I shouldn’t find out the principal is gone from my child,” said one mother, to applause from the room. “I should find out from the district.”

“I have to say, I totally understand from a parent’s perspective that you heard it through your child,” Orlen said. But she added that she assumed there were “strong communication channels” between the leadership team and parents.

A parent who identified herself to the room as the school’s PTA president said Wenk came to their meeting last Thursday and informed parents who were there that it was his last day.

Orlen generally described the steps the district follows to find a new principal, which she said will involve getting feedback from parents and school “stakeholders.”

By the numbers

5 tough questions a new report puts front-and-center for Chicago’s next mayor

PHOTO: (Stacey Wescott/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images)
With wife Amy Rule by his side, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel announces Tuesday, Sept. 4, 2018 he will not seek a third term in office at a press conference on the 5th floor at City Hall in Chicago.

Faced with an alarming report that lays bare shrinking enrollment and racial inequity, Chicago Public Schools must wrestle with some tough decisions. But Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s decision not to seek re-election means he won’t be the one addressing those issues for much longer.

Here are five questions raised by the report that Emanuel’s successor faces:

What about all those empty seats?

PHOTO: Chicago Public Schools
Historical enrollment and projections at Chicago Public Schools.

The Annual Regional Analysis, compiled by the school district and Kids First Chicago, projects plummeting enrollment to worsen in coming years. The district has more than 145,000 unfilled seats. By 2021 that gap could be more than 156,000 seats.

The next mayor will have to wrestle with that dismal trend just as Emanuel did in his first term, when he pushed the unpopular decision to shutter 50 schools. That move, research shows, exacted a heavy psychological toll on communities and hurt students’ academic achievement, especially in math. Yet, five years after the closings, the district still faces a massive surplus of classroom space, and is closing high schools in Englewood.

Some have argued that the district should change how it calculates space utilization at schools. They say the formula assumes an average class size of 30, and doesn’t adequately account for needs such as special education.

Community members have also called for an end to school closings, and said the city should consider creative solutions such as sharing space with social service agencies, redrawing attendance boundaries, and investing in academic programs to attract more students.

What can the city do to make neighborhood schools more attractive?

The analysis indicates that many families are skipping their neighborhood schools, including top-rated ones, for schools outside their area. Many schools suffer from low enrollment, and reside in communities where residents have cried out for more investments in neighborhood schools.

Kids First CEO Daniel Anello said the remedy should be to “improve quality and tell the community over and over again once you have.”

“There’s disparities terms of access and disparities in quality that need to be addressed,” he said. “The benefit of having a regional analysis is that people can see where those disparities are, and think about how we should invest in specific places to ensure the families there have access to high-quality options.”

Austin resident Ronald Lawless, who works as a community organizer and education consultant, was baffled to see that the West Side region, which includes Austin, has nearly 30,000 unfilled seats, about one in three of them at top-rated schools. Yet less than 40 percent of kids in the community attend their zoned neighborhood school. He said the district must combat stigma and misinformation that keeps people from neighborhood schools.

How can Chicago dig beyond school ratings to evaluate schools?

The analysis leans heavily on the annual school ratings policy.  But no rating system can tell the whole story about school quality — and Chicago’s ratings rely primarily on standardized test scores and attendance, metrics that often reflect the socioeconomic makeup of the areas from which schools draw their students.

If the new mayor’s administration continues current practice, it will undoubtedly run into opposition from community groups that have been vocal about what they see as shortcomings.

Alexios Rosario-Moore, research and policy associate at the community group Generation All, said, “What we need is a qualitative assessment that involves universities, researchers, non-profit organizations and communities to determine what kind of programming that community needs.”

Anello of Kids First said no measure is perfect, but that Chicago’s school rating approach stacks up favorably against other districts. Yet, he conceded that the ratings don’t fully flesh out what it’s like in classrooms, and that “we can always be working to make it a better measure.”



How does school choice intersect with transportation?

For better or for worse, the analysis showed that more and more students are attending choice schools, meaning buildings outside their assigned attendance area.

Some students have to travel far for the academic programs and high-quality schools they want, especially those coming from high-poverty neighborhoods and communities of color.

Elementary students travel 1.5 miles on average, but the average distance to school for elementary students is highest (2.6 miles) in the Greater Stony Island region, which includes far South Side neighborhoods like Roseland, Chatham, Greater Grand Crossing and South Shore.

High school students travel 3.6 miles on average, but high schoolers in the Greater Stony Island area commute and average of 5 miles, tied for the longest community with the Far Southwest Side region that includes the Beverly and Morgan Park community areas.

Raise Your Hand spokeswoman Jennie Biggs said, “a choice-based system in a large, urban district that lacks universal, free transportation isn’t even providing the same set of choices to all kids.”

And Rosario-Moore of Generation All said he finds it surprising “that in a city so oriented around a school choice model that public transportation is not free to all students.”

How can Chicago better engage its rich arts community through public schools?

Chicago doesn’t offer its highly-desirable fine arts programs equitably across the city, and are most concentrated along the northern lakefront and downtown. Ingenuity Executive Director Paul Sznewajs praised Emanuel and schools chief Janice Jackson for investments in the arts and partnerships with cultural institutions and agencies, but said Chicago’s next mayor should do a better job of tapping into the city’s rich arts community.

He said that the Annual Regional Analysis focuses more narrowly on “a small sliver of arts in schools,” because it identifies available seats in what amounts to fine arts-focused magnet schools, of which he said there are probably 50-60 in the city.

PHOTO: Sam Park
This map shows the number of fine & performing arts program seats available to elementary school students in each “planning area.”

But even if the school district were to double the number of arts magnet schools, Sznewajs said it must address equity, “so that when students walk into school, whether in Englewood or Ravenswood, that child can expect to the get the same things when it comes to the arts.”