First Person

What I learned from four years of fighting for the city’s ‘scariest’ schools

What makes being a senior at a closing school miserable?

For one thing, students at so-called “failing” schools are often already struggling in school and facing difficult home lives. Hearing that their schools are going to be closed only confirms the sense of failure many of our poorest, most disenfranchised youth often already feel.

What’s more, given the city’s tradition of co-location, students whose schools are phasing out often have to watch a new school in their building thrive with new books, equipment, and renovated space. Students who remain enrolled in a school as it closes often feel that they might as well give up, which leads to escalating drop-out rates—the single most destructive aspect of the three-and-a-half to four-year closure process.

In this environment, any incentive, from free SAT prep to a new T-shirt, makes a difference, because it can help get a student closer to graduation and further from dropping out.

That’s what the Partnership for Student Advocacy, an organization I started four years go, tried to do, through a combination of advocacy and philanthropy. I founded PFSA four years ago to advocate for students enrolled in New York City’s “worst” schools; every school I worked with was deemed “failing” by the city and faced closure.

I started the program to try to stop schools from closing. Even though none of my own children attend “failing” schools, I was drawn to this work because my husband and I are the adoptive parents of a young black man who faced more hardship, failure, loss, and poverty in his childhood than anyone I’ve ever known. I wanted to do for the thousands and thousands of youth enrolled in “failing” schools what my husband and I did for our son.

Over time, the mission of PFSA became to make the years of closure the best they possibly could be. In other words, we made lemonade out of some really lousy lemons.

Of all of the schools I worked with through PFSA, I worked most closely with Christopher Columbus High School in the Bronx, a school that will close forever in a few weeks. Funds raised by PFSA provided Columbus seniors with free Kaplan SAT prep and helped cover CUNY college application fees for students who needed financial assistance. PFSA funds also made possible a senior class trip to the Intrepid Museum and paid for T-shirts for the Leadership Seniors, a group of Columbus students committed to serving the community and maintaining good grades.

No one needed an A average to get a T-shirt. We looked for students who had positive school spirit and led by example.

During the summer of 2013, I visited with elected officials in the Bronx to request support for this very special and final group of Columbus seniors—the last and only students at the school during this past school year. Senator Jeff Klein’s office came through with a $14,000 donation and presented it at a fall fundraiser for the school hosted by John Starks, the former New York Knicks player and NBA All-Star. The event and the donation were huge boosts at a critical moment: the start of the very last year of the school.

Those practical efforts to boost morale were one result of really listening to what kind of support the parents, guardians, students, teachers and principals wanted. In my work as an advocate, my goal was always to meet them exactly where they were.

I felt strongly that if I was going to go to the “scariest,” “worst” schools in the system, I’d better not walk into the building judging.

The reward for my humility was an education beyond measure. Intuitively, I knew when I started and know now that beneath the “scary” stuff, the stuff no one wants to witness or believe, exists incredible, magical things.

For example, Lorraine, a Columbus senior with special needs, came out of her shell thanks to her mother’s advocacy, Principal Lisa Fuente’s expertise, and her fierce commitment to students with special needs. Lorraine is on the autism spectrum and defied the odds by not settling for an education in practical life skills—the most that’s expected of many autistic students.

Lorraine graduated Columbus with a Regents diploma and is now in college.

The Columbus dance/step/cheer squad is another example of magic. Each year I’ve been at Columbus I’ve watched them practice and perform, and each year I’m blown away by their talent. Students cannot be part of the squad unless they maintain passing grades, show up for school and never miss practice.

The Columbus squad consistently wins trophies. Many students say they stay in school because of the squad.

Over the past four years, I worked with many schools, including the Bronx Writing Academy, M.S. 22, the High School of Graphic Communication Arts, Samuel Gompers, the Academy for Scholarship and Entrepreneurship, and P.S./M.S. 149, and I’m grateful to all the principals who welcomed me into their schools.

As Columbus closes, I’m also wrapping up my work with PFSA. I leave this work knowing I’ve done my best, and while I remain hopeful, I am also concerned.

My dream for the charitable arm of Partnership For Student Advocacy was to replicate the Christopher Columbus Fund in every closing school, but I lack the financial support and some of the skills necessary to realize that dream.

And even though this administration hasn’t tried to close schools and has a very different attitude towards struggling schools from the last administration, I haven’t seen genuine efforts to support struggling schools and their students in a meaningful way.

The problems I was tackling aren’t solved. I hope they won’t be ignored.

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First Person

I’m a principal who thinks personalized learning shouldn’t be a debate.

PHOTO: Lisa Epstein
Lisa Epstein, principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary, supports personalized learning

This is the first in what we hope will be a tradition of thoughtful opinion pieces—of all viewpoints—published by Chalkbeat Chicago. Have an idea? Send it to

As personalized learning takes hold throughout the city, Chicago teachers are wondering why a term so appealing has drawn so much criticism.

Until a few years ago, the school that I lead, Richard H. Lee Elementary on the Southwest Side, was on a path toward failing far too many of our students. We crafted curriculum and identified interventions to address gaps in achievement and the shifting sands of accountability. Our teachers were hardworking and committed. But our work seemed woefully disconnected from the demands we knew our students would face once they made the leap to postsecondary education.

We worried that our students were ill-equipped for today’s world of work and tomorrow’s jobs. Yet, we taught using the same model through which we’d been taught: textbook-based direct instruction.

How could we expect our learners to apply new knowledge to evolving facts, without creating opportunities for exploration? Where would they learn to chart their own paths, if we didn’t allow for agency at school? Why should our students engage with content that was disconnected from their experiences, values, and community?

We’ve read articles about a debate over personalized learning centered on Silicon Valley’s “takeover” of our schools. We hear that Trojan Horse technologies are coming for our jobs. But in our school, personalized learning has meant developing lessons informed by the cultural heritage and interests of our students. It has meant providing opportunities to pursue independent projects, and differentiating curriculum, instruction, and assessment to enable our students to progress at their own pace. It has reflected a paradigm shift that is bottom-up and teacher led.

And in a move that might have once seemed incomprehensible, it has meant getting rid of textbooks altogether. We’re not alone.

We are among hundreds of Chicago educators who would welcome critics to visit one of the 120 city schools implementing new models for learning – with and without technology. Because, as it turns out, Chicago is fast becoming a hub for personalized learning. And, it is no coincidence that our academic growth rates are also among the highest in the nation.

Before personalized learning, we designed our classrooms around the educator. Decisions were made based on how educators preferred to teach, where they wanted students to sit, and what subjects they wanted to cover.

Personalized learning looks different in every classroom, but the common thread is that we now make decisions looking at the student. We ask them how they learn best and what subjects strike their passions. We use small group instruction and individual coaching sessions to provide each student with lesson plans tailored to their needs and strengths. We’re reimagining how we use physical space, and the layout of our classrooms. We worry less about students talking with their friends; instead, we ask whether collaboration and socialization will help them learn.

Our emphasis on growth shows in the way students approach each school day. I have, for example, developed a mentorship relationship with one of our middle school students who, despite being diligent and bright, always ended the year with average grades. Last year, when she entered our personalized learning program for eighth grade, I saw her outlook change. She was determined to finish the year with all As.

More than that, she was determined to show that she could master anything her teachers put in front of her. She started coming to me with graded assignments. We’d talk about where she could improve and what skills she should focus on. She was pragmatic about challenges and so proud of her successes. At the end of the year she finished with straight As—and she still wanted more. She wanted to get A-pluses next year. Her outlook had changed from one of complacence to one oriented towards growth.

Rather than undermining the potential of great teachers, personalized learning is creating opportunities for collaboration as teachers band together to leverage team-teaching and capitalize on their strengths and passions. For some classrooms, this means offering units and lessons based on the interests and backgrounds of the class. For a couple of classrooms, it meant literally knocking down walls to combine classes from multiple grade-levels into a single room that offers each student maximum choice over how they learn. For every classroom, it means allowing students to work at their own pace, because teaching to the middle will always fail to push some while leaving others behind.

For many teachers, this change sounded daunting at first. For years, I watched one of my teachers – a woman who thrives off of structure and runs a tight ship – become less and less engaged in her profession. By the time we made the switch to personalized learning, I thought she might be done. We were both worried about whether she would be able to adjust to the flexibility of the new model. But she devised a way to maintain order in her classroom while still providing autonomy. She’s found that trusting students with the responsibility to be engaged and efficient is both more effective and far more rewarding than trying to force them into their roles. She now says that she would never go back to the traditional classroom structure, and has rediscovered her love for teaching. The difference is night and day.

The biggest change, though, is in the relationships between students and teachers. Gone is the traditional, authority-to-subordinate dynamic; instead, students see their teachers as mentors with whom they have a unique and individual connection, separate from the rest of the class. Students are actively involved in designing their learning plans, and are constantly challenged to articulate the skills they want to build and the steps that they must take to get there. They look up to their teachers, they respect their teachers, and, perhaps most important, they know their teachers respect them.

Along the way, we’ve found that students respond favorably when adults treat them as individuals. When teachers make important decisions for them, they see learning as a passive exercise. But, when you make it clear that their needs and opinions will shape each school day, they become invested in the outcome.

As our students take ownership over their learning, they earn autonomy, which means they know their teachers trust them. They see growth as the goal, so they no longer finish assignments just to be done; they finish assignments to get better. And it shows in their attendance rates – and test scores.

Lisa Epstein is the principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary School, a public school in Chicago’s West Lawn neighborhood serving 860 students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Richard H. Lee Elementary School serves 860 students, not 760 students.

First Person

I’ve spent years studying the link between SHSAT scores and student success. The test doesn’t tell you as much as you might think.

PHOTO: Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Proponents of New York City’s specialized high school exam, the test the mayor wants to scrap in favor of a new admissions system, defend it as meritocratic. Opponents contend that when used without consideration of school grades or other factors, it’s an inappropriate metric.

One thing that’s been clear for decades about the exam, now used to admit students to eight top high schools, is that it matters a great deal.

Students admitted may not only receive a superior education, but also access to elite colleges and eventually to better employment. That system has also led to an under-representation of Hispanic students, black students, and girls.

As a doctoral student at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York in 2015, and in the years after I received my Ph.D., I have tried to understand how meritocratic the process really is.

First, that requires defining merit. Only New York City defines it as the score on a single test — other cities’ selective high schools use multiple measures, as do top colleges. There are certainly other potential criteria, such as artistic achievement or citizenship.

However, when merit is defined as achievement in school, the question of whether the test is meritocratic is an empirical question that can be answered with data.

To do that, I used SHSAT scores for nearly 28,000 students and school grades for all public school students in the city. (To be clear, the city changed the SHSAT itself somewhat last year; my analysis used scores on the earlier version.)

My analysis makes clear that the SHSAT does measure an ability that contributes to some extent to success in high school. Specifically, a SHSAT score predicts 20 percent of the variability in freshman grade-point average among all public school students who took the exam. Students with extremely high SHSAT scores (greater than 650) generally also had high grades when they reached a specialized school.

However, for the vast majority of students who were admitted with lower SHSAT scores, from 486 to 600, freshman grade point averages ranged widely — from around 50 to 100. That indicates that the SHSAT was a very imprecise predictor of future success for students who scored near the cutoffs.

Course grades earned in the seventh grade, in contrast, predicted 44 percent of the variability in freshman year grades, making it a far better admissions criterion than SHSAT score, at least for students near the score cutoffs.

It’s not surprising that a standardized test does not predict as well as past school performance. The SHSAT represents a two and a half hour sample of a limited range of skills and knowledge. In contrast, middle-school grades reflect a full year of student performance across the full range of academic subjects.

Furthermore, an exam which relies almost exclusively on one method of assessment, multiple choice questions, may fail to measure abilities that are revealed by the variety of assessment methods that go into course grades. Additionally, middle school grades may capture something important that the SHSAT fails to capture: long-term motivation.

Based on his current plan, Mayor de Blasio seems to be pointed in the right direction. His focus on middle school grades and the Discovery Program, which admits students with scores below the cutoff, is well supported by the data.

In the cohort I looked at, five of the eight schools admitted some students with scores below the cutoff. The sample sizes were too small at four of them to make meaningful comparisons with regularly admitted students. But at Brooklyn Technical High School, the performance of the 35 Discovery Program students was equal to that of other students. Freshman year grade point averages for the two groups were essentially identical: 86.6 versus 86.7.

My research leads me to believe that it might be reasonable to admit a certain percentage of the students with extremely high SHSAT scores — over 600, where the exam is a good predictor —and admit the remainder using a combined index of seventh grade GPA and SHSAT scores.

When I used that formula to simulate admissions, diversity increased, somewhat. An additional 40 black students, 209 Hispanic students, and 205 white students would have been admitted, as well as an additional 716 girls. It’s worth pointing out that in my simulation, Asian students would still constitute the largest segment of students (49 percent) and would be admitted in numbers far exceeding their proportion of applicants.

Because middle school grades are better than test scores at predicting high school achievement, their use in the admissions process should not in any way dilute the quality of the admitted class, and could not be seen as discriminating against Asian students.

The success of the Discovery students should allay some of the concerns about the ability of students with SHSAT scores below the cutoffs. There is no guarantee that similar results would be achieved in an expanded Discovery Program. But this finding certainly warrants larger-scale trials.

With consideration of additional criteria, it may be possible to select a group of students who will be more representative of the community the school system serves — and the pool of students who apply — without sacrificing the quality for which New York City’s specialized high schools are so justifiably famous.

Jon Taylor is a research analyst at Hunter College analyzing student success and retention.