flat-lined

Unprecedented third straight 'F' for struggling Boys and Girls HS

Chancellor Dennis Walcott and City Councilman Al Vann joined Boys and Girls High School Principal Bernard Gassaway to honor the school’s boys basketball team for winning the city championships last year.

Brooklyn’s Boys and Girls High School earned the lowest mark on its city progress report today, making it one of just two schools ever to receive the failing grade three years in a row.

The Department of Education has closed many schools that have netted F’s since it began awarding the annual grades in 2007, but Boys and Girls has always managed to stay away from the chopping block. It will escape closure again this year, this time because the Bloomberg administration has simply run out of time to shutter any more low-performing schools.

Instead, Chancellor Dennis Walcott is scheduled to appear Thursday at Boys and Girls, not to intervene in its academic program but to join the school’s powerful supporters to cut the ribbon on a new health center there.

But while other department officials previously have supported Principal Bernard Gassaway as he has annually promised improvements that have not materialized, Chief Academic Officer Shael Polakow-Suransky said today that a school with Boys and Girls’ record should be “cause for serious concern.”

“I think sometimes when something’s not working you need to look at bringing in a new team of educators in that school community,” Chief Academic Officer Shael Polakow-Suransky of schools with a string of Fs. “It doesn’t make sense that that would be off the table, but it’s not really our decision to make.”

People close to the Bedford-Stuyvesant school said today that even though the city hasn’t closed the school, the stigma from perennially being labeled as failing is doing the same job, just slowly.

“They’ve gotten such a bad rap throughout the years that people just will not send their children there,” said Lisa Dunn, a former PTA president at the school.

Before this year, no school has ever been stuck for so long on the lowest grade in the city’s six-year history of A-F grading system. Today, both Boys and Girls and DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx received their third consecutive F’s. Both schools have strong alumni associations, long and storied histories, award-winning athletic programs, and support among local politicians.

In Boys and Girls’ case, powerful supporters — including City Councilman Al Vann and Regent Lester Young — have repeatedly convinced the Department of Education to extend the school’s lease on life while Gassaway, their hand-picked principal, could be given time and space to implement his turnaround plan. Gassaway said when he came to the school in 2009 that he needed three years to show improvement.

Gassaway would not comment on the school’s latest marks. But he publicly said last month that he might resign over the city’s proposal to install another school inside Boys and Girls’ massive Fulton Avenue building.

That building is far emptier than it used to be just a few years ago. In 2007, Boys and Girls enrolled more than 4,000 students. Following a class action lawsuit that charged Gassaway’s predecessors with warehousing disruptive students in an auditorium and the simultaneous rise of small schools in the area, enrollment plummeted. This year, fewer than 1,000 students attend the school.

And few of those students are thriving, according to city data. Daily attendance hovers around 75 percent and four-year graduation rates were just over 40 percent in recent years, about two-thirds of the citywide rate. Just one in five students met minimum academic standards necessary to move onto college or has managed to stay in college for at least two years after graduating, according to the latest city data.

Gassaway and Boys and Girls supporters have long argued that the school has been a victim of the city’s enrollment policies, which have frequently come under fire for concentrating high-needs students in struggling schools. Those policies, they have said, made it hard to attract high-performing middle-school students, though a screened program for accelerated students in partnership with Long Island University is now in its third year. Over the years, they said, students who were the farthest behind in school and with the most problems at home made up a larger proportion of the population.

The school has made several efforts to address those needs, including with the health center that Walcott is inaugurating on Thursday. Gassaway opened a highly touted “Care Center” last year and recruited a network of community-based organizations to expand social services in the school.

Sources close to the school say most of those organizations are no longer actively working with the school, with the exception of Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration, whose director Colvin Grannum is also a longtime ally.

Gassaway did not respond to requests for a list of community groups working in the center, but he said in an email that it was not diminished. And he noted the new school-based health center.

But the school’s low performance is dismal even in comparison to other struggling schools. Like all low-ranking schools that the department has opted not close, Boys and Girls has received “targeted action plans” with extra resources.

According to the department, most of those schools have improved in response to this extra help. Of all schools that had the assistance plans in 2012-2013, 37 percent improved by one grade this year, 28 percent improved by two grades, and 11 percent improved by three or more grades. A few of the schools netted lower grades. Boys and Girls was part of the 14 percent of schools to stay the same.

A few students have managed to thrive at Boys and Girls. Dunn, the PTA president, allowed her son to attend Boys and Girls to play basketball on the condition that he enroll in the Long Island University program. She estimated that he earned a dozen college credits by the end of his sophomore year.

This year, though, Dunn became part of the school’s student flight when her son transferred to a high school closer to where they live in Queens, in an effort to cut down on his commute. She said she was initially “shocked” to hear it had not improved, but added that the number of students who entered ninth grade already many years behind in reading and writing had taking up a larger share of the population.

What to do with the school, its students, and its hulking building in Bed-Stuy will be among Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio’s education challenges. Though de Blasio has pledged to support struggling schools rather than shut them down, Boys and Girls’ recent history suggests that extra help isn’t enough to turn the school around.

Shifting political winds in the area could also fracture the coalition that has pledged to support Boys and Girls in the past. Vann is leaving the City Council, while another longtime member of the school’s advisory group, Jitu Weusi, died this year.

And Dunn said she thought the constant negative attention that the school receives has “stigmatized” it so much that students no longer want to attend. She suggested that the school’s fate might be sealed when she recalled her experience taking her son to an enrollment center before high school so he could join Boys and Girls’ championship basketball team. She asked the department official to add Armando to the school’s register.

The response she said she got: “Why are you sending him there?”

 

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.