Future of Schools

New report describes recipe for deputy chancellor’s success as Telecommunication principal

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Phil Weinberg

When Chancellor Carmen Fariña, a longtime teacher and principal of younger students, acknowledged her limited secondary-school cred in a February interview with Chalkbeat, she pointed to one person who would fill that void: Phil Weinberg.

An educator who spent nearly three decades at a single Brooklyn high school, Weinberg is now deputy chancellor for teaching and learning. A new report reveals some of the strategies that Weinberg concocted as principal of the High School of Telecommunication Arts and Technology, or Telly, which saw its graduation rate shoot up by more than 35 percent during his tenure.

The school zeroes in on its ninth and tenth-graders, keeping them in small classes and enrolling them in a common set of courses designed to build their basic skills and propel them toward graduation, according to the report by New Visions for Public Schools. New Visions is a large school-support organization that oversees 75 city schools, including Telly.

The Bay Ridge school keeps a close eye on each student’s march (or crawl) toward a diploma, the report says.

Each incoming class is assigned an academic advisor who sticks with those students for four years, monitoring their attendance and grades to catch students before they fall off track. The school also splits its freshmen and sophomores into three “small learning communities” of about 100 students apiece, which are led by a team of three core-subject teachers who meet daily to discuss their charges’ progress.

“Kids know very quickly that if something happens in one class, the teacher from their other class is going to know about it,” Weinberg told the report’s authors.

Telly, which is open to all students, achieves a higher graduation rate than the city average (83 percent compared to 61 percent) while serving a greater share of students with disabilities (22.5 percent at Telly versus 17.5 percent citywide).

The report attributes this in part to those learning communities. The school mixes typical students and those with special needs in each of the three groups, but it clusters the special-needs students strategically: those with disabilities in one group, English language learners in another, and students who are behind in reading in the third group.

“It’s a complicated idea,” said Susan Fairchild, one of the report’s authors, “but it’s brilliant.”

Still, the report notes that Telly struggles to push “chronically low-performing students,” including those who enter the school far below grade level, to graduate within four years — or at all. Schools across the country grapple with a similar problem, the report adds.

It remains to be seen whether Weinberg will try to spread any of these strategies to other high schools in his new role at Tweed. But it seems likely that his boss will back him up if he tries — after all, Fariña penned the foreword to the Telly report.

Big money

Chunk of $55 million AbbVie gift will go toward more counselors in schools

PHOTO: Courtesy of Communities in Schools
Counselors in Schools site coordinator Artesha Williams and student Nasje Adams at the King Academy of Social Justice in Chicago

Sixteen more Chicago schools will add full-time counselors charged with reducing dropouts and helping students with critical mental health issues, thanks to a chunk of a $55 million donation gift from a North Chicago pharmaceutical giant.

The AbbVie donation, announced Friday, will be split among three nonprofit groups with a Chicago presence, though not all the money will be spent here. Communities in Schools will receive $30 million for its national efforts to broker relationships between community organizations and schools; the University of Chicago’s Education Lab, which focuses on dropout prevention and college persistence, will receive $15 million; and City Year, which places AmeriCorps tutors and mentors in schools, will receive $10 million.

Communities in Schools, which received the largest gift, will spend $6 million of its $30 million on its Chicago chapter, while the City Year money will be split among Chicago and a project in San Jose, California.

Jane Mentzinger, the executive director of Communities in Schools Chicago, said the $6 million is “transformational” and will be spent on a program that assigns full-time, master’s-level counselors to public schools on the South and West sides.

The AbbVie gift will grow a program that currently places full-time counselors in 15 Chicago schools, adding five schools this year and another 11 next fall.

“In each school, they case manage the 50 highest-need students who are at risk of falling behind and dropping out,” said Mentzinger. “They really work with students is to help resolve conflict, regulate emotions, and provide exposure opportunities, from support and mentoring to counseling.”  

The counselor piece helps fill a dire need within Chicago’s schools: mental health and trauma services. Students, educators, parents, and union leaders regularly lament that the district does not staff enough counselors and mental health practitioners, and that recent efforts have been too focused on college and career-readiness — including helping students draft a post-secondary plan. Starting with the Class of 2020, seniors must produce such a plan to graduate, a controversial idea championed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

In July, Chicago schools CEO Janice Jackson announced that the district would hire some 250 new social workers and special education case managers for schools.

Mentzinger said the value of sending in counselors who are employed by an outside agency, and not by the district, is that they have fewer administrative duties and so can cast a “wider net” among master’s degree candidates who might have non-traditional degrees such as art therapy or dance. “The level of need of our kids — we need to have more layers, more layers of work.”

A recent Steinmetz High School graduate, Emily Jade Aguilar, told Chalkbeat on Election Day that she was knocking on doors to get out the vote. Aguilar, who identifies as a trans woman, said the biggest issue driving her activism was mental health for students. “We need more mental health resources in our schools,” said Aguilar, whose school had four counselors for 1,200 students last year.

According to federal data from the 2015-16 school year, Chicago had 2.8 guidance counselors, social workers, and psychologists for every 1,000 students — fewer than in many other large cities. National guidance counselors and social workers groups recommend having one counselor and one social worker each for every 250 students. In schools with “intensive” needs, that ratio falls to one social worker for every 50 students.

In addition to providing counselors, Communities in Schools brokers relationships between nonprofit organizations and 160 schools to provide art and enrichment, mental health services, health care and college and career readiness programming.

snow fallout

From stalled buses to canceled programs, New York City schools are bearing brunt of snow storm

PHOTO: Guillermo Murcia / Getty Images
A school bus on Dekalb avenue in Fort Greene Brooklyn during a snow storm.

Parents, students, and teachers are dealing with the fallout of Thursday’s snowstorm, which stranded yellow buses for hours, created brutal commutes, and forced teachers to stay late for parent conferences.

Just before 9 a.m. Friday, schools Chancellor Richard Carranza announced all after-school programs would be cancelled, sending families scrambling to make arrangements. And perhaps anticipating yet another wave of yellow-bus related problems, all field trips involving buses were also cancelled.

Some parents and educators took to social media to vent about the city’s response.

Emergency responders were dispatched to free five children with special needs who had been trapped on a school bus for 10 hours, according to City Councilman Ben Kallos. Traveling from Manhattan to the Bronx, students didn’t make it home until “well after midnight,” Kallos said in a statement. The councilman has sponsored legislation to require GPS tracking on yellow buses after the school year began with horror stories about long, circuitous routes. Many riders are children with special needs who travel to programs outside their neighborhoods.

The education department did not immediately respond to questions about the timing of their decision to cancel after-school programs.

Mayor Bill de Blasio said the city would conduct a”full operational review of what happened,” referring to the city’s response to the storm. “We have to figure out how to make adjustments when we have only a few hours but this was—I hate to use this hackneyed phrase—but this was kind of a perfect storm: late information, right up on rush hour, and then a particularly fast, heavy kind of snow.”

The politics of snow-related closures are challenging, forcing city leaders to balance concerns about safety with the needs of working families, who may struggle to make arrangements for emergency childcare.

Snow-day related cancellations have bedeviled previous chancellors; in one famous incident, former Chancellor Carmen Fariña and de Blasio kept schools open despite a forecast of 10 inches of snow. The next day, Fariña proclaimed it was “a beautiful day.”

Still, the de Blasio administration is much more likely to cancel school in response to snow than his predecessor, Michael Bloomberg.

Christina Veiga contributed.