Turnaround Tactics

At Boys and Girls HS, struggling students urged to transfer, sources say

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Calvin Brown, Jr., 17, was the junior class president and debate team captain at Boys and Girls HS. But after a new principal arrived, he said he was pressured to transfer out.

Calvin Brown, Jr. enrolled at Boys and Girls High School midway through his sophomore year after falling behind at a nearby charter school. Though the Bedford-Stuyvesant high school is considered one of the city’s worst, Brown thrived there.

He became the junior class president last year and the captain of the debate team, which is set to travel to South Africa next month for a competition. He had entered the school with just seven credits, but as he started his senior year this September he had three times that amount — still half as many as he needs to graduate, but he was catching up.

Then, after the school’s outspoken principal resigned last month, the city installed a new leader to turn around the troubled school. Under new principal Michael Wiltshire, students who are missing many credits or otherwise unlikely to graduate this year have been encouraged to transfer out, according to Brown and staffers at the school. Brown was one of the students urged to leave.

“They made me transfer,” said Brown, 17. “They don’t want me on the Boys and Girls roster.”

Leaders ordered to overhaul struggling high schools like Boys and Girls have limited options. They may try to retrain teachers or add tutoring time, but city regulations and the teachers union contract can stop them from taking more drastic steps. But one significant change they can make is to quietly adjust the school’s student population by advising underachieving students to transfer out.

Principals who have done that argue it is in the students’ best interest, since the alternative high schools where they land are designed to help students who are chronically absent and missing credits to graduate. But struggling high schools under intense pressure to improve also benefit by nudging out those students, since the schools are judged partly by their graduation rates.

Whether principals should treat student transfers as a turnaround strategy may come up for debate as the leaders of more than 90 low-performing schools try to make improvements under a new city program launched this week. The program gives schools extra support, but does not allow for immediate staffing changes or restructuring.

People at Boys and Girls High School say that about 30 students have transferred out since Wiltshire took over three weeks ago. Many of the students moved to Research and Service High School, an alternative school in the same building, according to an employee there.

“Since the administration change took place,” the employee said, “it seems like there’s some sort of mass exodus going on.”

Roughly 30 students have transferred out of Boys and Girls High School since Michael Wiltshire became principal three weeks ago, sources say.
PHOTO: Courtesy of Randy Andujar/Teaching Matters
Roughly 30 students have transferred out of Boys and Girls High School since Michael Wiltshire became principal three weeks ago, sources said.

One of Wiltshire’s first moves was to summon to the auditorium all the older students who were behind academically and let them know their odds of graduating could improve if they switched schools, according to Brown and other sources at Boys and Girls. He also said that students would now be expected to earn diplomas in four years, otherwise the school would help them find new placements, Brown said. (Last year, just 44 percent of Boys and Girls students hit the four-year graduation target.)

After the talk, a guidance counselor asked to meet with Brown and his father last week. In the past, Brown and the counselor had discussed ways he could make up his missing credits and still graduate from Boys and Girls, Brown said. But at this meeting, the counselor said Brown had too few credits and should transfer to an alternative school, Brown said. Convinced that he had to leave, Brown and his father reluctantly agreed to the move.

“Why don’t you take the kids who have problems and deal with them instead of pushing them out?” said Mary Saxon, Brown’s grandmother, who also spoke with the counselor. She said she told the counselor that her grandson wanted to remain at Boys and Girls, but the counselor said, “He has to go.”

A staffer said the school had occasionally advised off-track students to switch schools in the past, but never this “aggressively.” Because of Boys and Girls’ chronic low performance, the state has designated it as “out of time” and ordered it to show signs of improvement this year. Removing students who are far behind in school appears to be part of Wiltshire’s plan to produce a higher graduation rate, according to the staffer and Caster Hall, the school’s parent association president.

“The new principal is trying to kick out all the students who don’t have enough credits to get his graduation rate up,” said Hall, who is the brother of the principal who resigned. “It’s all about the numbers.”

Wiltshire did not respond to emails or phone messages, and school guidance counselors referred questions to the education department.

Department spokeswoman Devora Kaye would not comment on the situation at Boys and Girls. But she said that students should be in schools that best meet their needs, which can include transfer schools, the small alternative high schools designed for dropouts and students struggling to graduate.

“The DOE would never tolerate a student being forced out of any school,” she added.

The matter is especially delicate at Boys and Girls, which was the subject of a class action lawsuit a decade ago alleging that the school warehoused troublesome students in the auditorium as a way to push them out.

Brown’s claim — that he was pressured to transfer to another school— differs from the 2005 lawsuit, which alleged that the school’s actions drove students to drop out of school completely, said Rebecca Shore, director of litigation at Advocates for Children, the nonprofit that helped file the lawsuit. (As part of a 2008 settlement, the city agreed to put Boys and Girls under the oversight of a monitor for several years and make sure the school got approval before transferring students.)

Still, Brown’s situation highlights a common problem, Shore said. Students have the right to remain in school until the end of the year they turn 21, and administrators must follow strict protocols to make students switch schools against their will. But administrators sometimes work around those rules by convincing students that they will not graduate from their current school, and so should transfer to an alternative school, Shore said.

“It comes off in theory as the student wanting this and consenting,” she said. “But really, it’s more of the school pushing the student out.”

Students at Alfred E. Smith Career and Technical Education High School, where the principal advised many students who were far behind to consider transferring to a special program.
PHOTO: Jessica Glazer
Students at Alfred E. Smith Career and Technical Education High School, where the principal advised many students who were far behind to consider transferring to a special program.

If Wiltshire’s plan to improve Boys and Girls involves convincing some challenging students to transfer out, he would not be the first turnaround principal to try that approach.

Evan Schwartz was sent to Alfred E. Smith Career and Technical Education High School in the Bronx two years ago with orders from the city to make drastic changes. One of his first actions was to encourage older students who regularly skipped class and were far behind in credits to switch schools.

“I moved 100 kids in my first four months,” he said.

Schwartz notes that the city created alternative schools to serve so-called overage, under-credited students like the ones who left his school. Transfer schools, for example, tend to have smaller classes, extra social workers, and accelerated programs that let such students earn credits quickly in order to graduate. Other programs offer evening classes and paid internships.

Schwartz emphasized that he never forced lagging students to leave. Rather, he explained to the students that other schools were designed to help them catch up but, if they decided to stay at Smith, they could no longer cut class and ignore the rules.

Still, Schwartz said that it was crucial to get those students into a different school if he was going to improve Smith. Many of them were 19 years old, far behind academically, and only interested in wandering the halls and lunchroom, he said.

“You don’t want kids like that in the school,” Schwartz said. “It makes it hard to change the culture.”

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.