More Time

Sensing interest, group wants to replicate Brooklyn school's unusual schedule

Rep. Jim Wilson, R-Salida / File photo

A roomful of sophomores at Brooklyn Generation School in Canarsie brainstormed sports-related jobs Tuesday — lawyers, trainers, coaches, commentators — at the start of a month-long course devoted to life after high school. Down the hall, students kicked off a class about government participation.

Meanwhile, their core-subject teachers settled into a month-long break from teaching — a bit of creative scheduling that keeps Brooklyn Generation students in school a month longer than their peers at other public schools.

At a time when both the city and state want students to spend more time in school, but have tangled over the financing, Brooklyn Generation offers an enticing model: Its school year is 20 days longer than the rest of the city’s district schools, but the number of days teachers work and the school’s budget are roughly the same as other schools’. The arrangement has approval from the United Federation of Teachers, whose contract dictates when teachers can work but makes exceptions for special cases.

Now, the nonprofit that founded the school is hoping to replicate the model in the coming years. It has produced a policy paper that it hopes Mayor Bill de Blasio — who has advocated for expanded learning time in the form of more and longer pre-kindergarten classes and middle school after-school programs — and officials in other cities will use as they experiment with new models to boost student achievement.

The advocacy comes against a mixed track record at Brooklyn Generation. After seven years in operation, the school has earned high marks for offering an engaging and collegial atmosphere, but its graduation rate lags behind that of schools with similar students. Still, teachers and students are optimistic about the model.

“It’s working,” English teacher Louise Bogue told a group of visitors Tuesday. “But it’s still a work in progress.”

The nonprofit Generation Schools Network founded the Brooklyn school in 2007, one of several small high schools to replace the giant South Shore High School. The new school’s unusual schedule required an agreement between the UFT and the education department.

Twice a year, Brooklyn Generation students spend a month in full-day, credit-bearing courses centered on college and careers — they might shadow professionals, apply to colleges, or study budgeting. Meanwhile, other subject teachers spend one week during each of those months planning and training, and the rest of the time on vacation, so that they teach no more than the state-required 180 days.

The school’s weekly schedule also builds in lots of time for teacher collaboration — at least one period a day is intended for team planning and all teachers meet for 90 minutes every Wednesday.

To afford its 200-day year, the school maintains a small staff that takes on multiple roles. For example, required-subject teachers also lead elective or remedial classes, some teachers do administrative work, and teacher teams handle tasks usually assigned to deans, which the school does not have.

City reviewers in 2012 praised the school’s “wide-ranging professional development offerings” and said the school’s “strategic” scheduling led more students to pass the state Regents exams. On Tuesday, several teachers touted the school’s model.

Principal Lydia Colon Bomani said that even if schools did not adopt the entire model they could still try aspects of it, such as the courses that combine career planning and academic work.

Deshawna Thompson teaches a class on sports management at Brooklyn Generation School.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Deshawna Thompson teaches a class on sports management at Brooklyn Generation School.

“There are many schools that could benefit just from taking parts of it,” said principal Lydia Colon Bomani.

But the school’s approach is still being refined, even as its designers hope to spread it to more schools.

Some students and their families struggle with the longer year, and the school has yet to reach its own enrollment targets. The schedule also creates logistical hurdles. For instance, the city doesn’t issue students free MetroCards until the start of the normal school year, administrators noted.

The school has yet to fully implement the Generation Schools Network model, which is detailed in the policy paper. For example, while teachers collaborate across disciplines, the school had not yet combined its English and history and math and science classes into unified courses.

The paper also identifies some district-level policies that could hamper efforts to replicate the model. For example, teacher evaluations based in part on student growth, a new requirement in New York City, do not easily account for the school’s flexible grouping, where students rotate among teachers.

And the school must still ensure that students’ extra class time is well spent. The Department of Education reviewers in 2012 said that “questions and tasks generally lack rigor” at the school, and its 51 percent four-year graduation rate trails the average for the city and demographically similar schools.

Despite these obstacles, the network hopes to open new schools in New York and Denver, Co., in the coming years, according to Generation Schools Network co-founder, Jonathan Spear. It also plans to continue coaching schools that are part of the city’s Middle School Quality Initiative, which involves extending their school days. (The network tried to open two charter schools in New York in 2010, but its application was denied. Spear said the cause was “changing expectations” about the proper relationship between the boards of the nonprofit and the charter schools.)

The network also wants de Blasio to push for greater school-scheduling flexibility in its contract negotiations with the teachers union, Spear said.

Creative scheduling was a hallmark of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s prized Innovation Zone program, but neither de Blasio nor Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña has yet shown an appetite for such experimentation. Still, Spear said he is confident that the Generation Schools model fits within the administration’s push for students to spend more hours and years in school.

“We’re really encouraged by the new mayor and the chancellor,” he said.

This story is part of a multi-city series on expanded learning time, with funding from the Ford Foundation, which supports “more and better learning time” in high-need communities. Participating along with Chalkbeat’s four bureaus in the series are the Notebook (Philadelphia), Catalyst Chicago, and EdSource (California).

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.”

reunion

Jubilation, and some confusion, as Denver schools begin their post-strike recovery

PHOTO: Eric Gorski/Chalkbeat
Lupe Lopez-Montoya greets students at Columbian Elementary School on Thursday after Denver's three-day teacher strike.

Lupe Lopez-Montoya got the text message at 6:15 a.m. The strike was over, the colleague who’d been keeping her up to speed on news from her union told her.

And so as district and teachers union officials celebrated their deal at the Denver Public Library, Lopez-Montoya on Thursday resurrected her regular commute to Columbia Elementary School, the northwest Denver school where she’s the longest-serving tenured teacher.

For the past three days, Lopez-Montoya had stayed out of school as Denver Public Schools and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association sparred over how teachers in Denver are paid. She still had unanswered questions about the future. But first, it was time to greet students.

One girl ran across the sidewalk to give a hug. “Ms. Montoya’s back,” she shouted, burying her face in the teacher’s side.

Lopez-Montoya began to welcome students into the building. “Line up and you can go get breakfast,” she told one boy. “I’m happy you’re here today.”

The moment kicked off what was a not-quite-normal day in Denver schools. With a deal coming just an hour before some schools were due to start for the day, teachers and families had little time to adjust their plans. The district also had too little time to reopen early childhood classes that have been closed all week; those will reopen on Friday, officials said.

Building principals got an email around 7 a.m. telling them that the strike was over and that many teachers would be coming back to work. In some buildings, central office staff and substitutes who had been filling in for teachers were already on site when teachers returned to work. And some students who commute long distances didn’t get the word in time to go to schools.

By early afternoon, about 81 percent of teachers in district-run schools had shown up to work, and about 83 percent of students had, according to Denver school district spokesman Will Jones.

In the parking lot outside Mathematics and Science Leadership Academy, a west Denver elementary school, teachers still clad in the red of their cause gathered in the parking lot to walk in together. Asked what the mood was, reading intervention teacher Denise Saiz said, “Relief!” and her colleagues responded with an enthusiastic “Yes!”

“We’re really excited to get back to the kids,” said fifth grade teacher Emily Mimovich.

While strike participation was high at the school — it was founded with support from the state and local union as a teacher-led school — the teachers said they did not believe there would be hard feelings between those who walked and those who didn’t.

“We have such a good relationship,” said Reyes Navarro, who teaches Spanish to kindergarten and first-grade students. “We understand that you have to do whatever is right for you.”

Parents also said they were eager to have their children get back to school.

Sarah Murphy, who has a third-grader and a 4-year-old preschool student, said this morning was a “bit of a scramble, albeit a welcome one.” She had both children signed up for a day camp at the University of Denver and was unsure if she should send them to school or to camp because she wasn’t sure teachers would be back at school. Then she got word that camp was canceled for both children — but Denver Public Schools preschools are still closed.

“We were left trying to figure out what to do with our ECE4 since they were still closed,” she wrote to Chalkbeat. “We know how hard this has been on everyone, but this morning proved that the ECE program was the hardest hit, short notice every step of the way. We very much look forward to tomorrow when both are back in their normal school routines.”

Not everyone returned to school. Some teachers said they needed a day to collect themselves after an emotional experience. Judy Kelley, a visual arts teacher at Martin Luther King Jr. Early College, said she and many of her colleagues live too far away from the school to get there on short notice.

But the majority of teachers who went back to work Thursday describe positive experiences returning to their schools. Ryan Marini, a social studies teacher and football coach at South High School, called it the “best day” in 17 years of teaching.

Suzanne Hernandez, a first-grade teacher at Westerly Creek Elementary in Stapleton, said she and other teachers gathered to walk into school together at 7:45 a.m.

Teachers thanked the subs from central office who were in the building. They headed back to their roles in central offices.

Early in the morning, Hernandez sent a message to her students’ parents to let them know teachers would be back in school. The reaction from students as she greeted them was “overwhelming,” she said.

With the help of paraprofessionals who had prepared lessons, Hernandez said teachers were able to jump right back to where they left off last week.

As far as Valentine’s Day, that celebration will be pushed back until Friday afternoon, she said. For now, teachers are having their own celebration, happy to be back in the classroom.

“I think if there’s any sort of effect from the strike, it’s been a positive one,” she said. “It’s been a very unifying experience.”

Allison Hicks, a teacher at Colfax Elementary, said returning teachers were greeted with hugs, music, smiles and tears.

“After finding out an hour ago we were going back to work, I scrambled home to get ready,” she wrote to Chalkbeat. “I am exhausted, but so excited to be back with my students. This day won’t be normal, but knowing I did my part to put my students first is the best feeling to have.”

Kade Orlandini, who teaches at John F. Kennedy High School, said most of the teachers are back in her building, despite the short notice.

“Teachers were ready, and we are jumping right back into instruction,” she wrote. “Attendance seems lower than normal, but students who are here are ready to learn. The atmosphere in the school is very positive all around.”

What was your experience going back to school? What other questions do you have? Take our survey

Chalkbeat’s Ann Schimke, Erica Meltzer, and Yesenia Robles contributed reporting to this article.