New Directions

For students aged 17 and in eighth grade, a Bronx middle school tries to break through

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Principal James Waslawski designed New Directions Secondary School for middle school students who are overage and off track.

Longtime teacher and principal James Waslawski watched many students get stuck in middle school.

Maybe they were homeless and drifting in and out of the system, or bad choices — perhaps triggered by trauma at home or in the streets — kept them in trouble and out of class. Maybe they had a disability, or they just couldn’t keep up with the work, so they were held back again and again.

Whatever the cause, he knew of 14 and 15-year-olds stuck in sixth and seventh grade, and eighth-graders older than some seniors in high school. In fact, the city has more than 50,000 middle-school students who are older than their peers, but only enough specialized programs to serve a few hundred of them.

Waslawski’s idea was to create a middle school just for those students who are overage and off track. The result, New Directions Secondary School, opened last year on the basement floor of the towering Taft High School building in the South Bronx.

It is for students, Waslawski said, like the 15-year-old seventh-grade student with severe attention problems who used to stray out of class but is steadily completing more work under the school’s close supervision.

“He’s a genius – a genius,” Waslawski said. Yet, “at other schools, he’s going to be managed, he’s going to be suspended, he’s going to be gone.”

Not unexpectedly, New Directions has at times tottered under the weight of its mission: Behavior problems have cropped up, last year’s test scores were exceptionally low, and some of its founding teachers expressed doubts. But students accustomed to rocky relationships with their past schools, including one who hadn’t attended classes anywhere for three years, have actually started to show up regularly to New Directions, relying as much on the personal support as the academic help.

Students and staff say the school’s model — small classes, lots of counselors, online learning, and a less punitive discipline system — is starting to take hold, even if it has yet to fully take off.

“They’re trying to work with a population that is probably the most difficult in New York,” said Nate Dudley, the head of the support network responsible for the school. “We knew that this was going to be tough – and it is tough – but it’s still hopeful.”

Meeting students where they are

School-wide "agreements" posted in the main office.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
School-wide “agreements” posted in the main office.

When Waslawski opened New Directions in July 2013 after a year of planning, it was one of the first schools of its kind in the city.

While there are dozens of programs able to serve thousands of high-school students who fall behind, fewer than 450 slots exist in programs for overage middle school students, according to a recent report by the nonprofit Advocates for Children. Many of those middle-school programs are designed primarily for eighth-graders or students with particular problems, such as substance abuse.

Borrowing a practice from alternative high schools, Waslawski brought in a nonprofit, Wediko Children’s Services, to provide counselors and run student-support sessions on topics from marijuana use to the way students must “code switch” as they adapt their behavior to school or work.

Sometimes the school must go to the students. Waslawski and a counselor recently gathered several service providers and case workers for a meeting at a student’s house. Other times, they attend students’ court appearances. The idea is that crises at home rarely stay there.

“If you’re in temporary housing and you’ve been up all night,” said Paul Allison, an English and social studies teacher, “it’s hard to concentrate on your work.”

When students act up, the school tries to avoid suspending them, since many went off course at their old schools because their misbehavior kept them out of class. Instead, a student might help paint the school on a Saturday or interview peers and teachers about the harm his actions caused. A student who intentionally bumped into Waslawski was still suspended, but he also had to help serve lunch to his peers and create safety posters when he returned.

Another of New Direction’s central challenges is simply to get students to show up. Their average attendance rate at previous schools was 63 percent. New Directions has boosted that by about 10 percentage points, but the staff’s twice-weekly attendance meetings, texts and calls to students in the mornings, and attendance-based raffle tickets are designed to increase that number even further.

“This school cares more,” said eighth-grader Keyia, 15, who said she’s used to getting calls at home from faculty. “This school makes sure everybody is on point.”

Unchartered territory

Samuel Bromfield, site director for Wediko Children's Services, which provides counselors and other student supports.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Samuel Bromfield, site director for Wediko Children’s Services, which provides counselors and other student supports.

By the time many students reach New Directions, they are in danger of dropping out of school completely.

Most have been held back before and many are far below grade level – one seventh-grade teacher said some of her students entered at a first-grade reading level. This was reflected in the school’s first-year state test results: Just 1 percent of students passed the English tests, and even fewer passed math.

As the school tries to catch students up, it is relying on technology — students do much of their work individually on laptops — and a “mastery-based” approach, where students must demonstrate a skill through tasks and projects before they can advance. The school would like to be able to promote students mid-year who complete their work rapidly, but it is still waiting for approval from the city, Waslawski said.

Next year, Waslawski plans to add the early high school grades, since he is convinced it will take several years to steer his students back onto the route to graduation. Along the way, he hopes the city will consider “fair metrics” to rate his school, since his students are starting from so far behind. (An education department spokesman said the city is still deciding how to evaluate New Directions due to its “particularly unique needs.”)

Beyond the very low test scores, the school also received poor reviews last year from some teachers. Only 38 percent of the faculty who took a city survey said they would recommend New Directions to parents, while 75 percent said that order and discipline are not maintained at the school. Half called Waslawski an effective manager.

Waslawski said the school’s approach to discipline and academics was new and challenging, and noted that three of the school’s original 11 teachers did not return. He said he had brought in new academic coaches to support his teachers, but creating a new school for struggling students is also inherently tough.

“This is the work,” he said. “This is what we signed up for.”

Ashley Grant, a staff attorney at Advocates for Children and the lead author of the report on overage middle-school students, said her 16-year-old client, an eighth-grader at New Directions, has already benefitted from being around classmates her age for “the first time in years.”

“New Directions is really in uncharted territory here,” she said.

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.

What's Your Education Story?

As the 2018 school year begins, join us for storytelling from Indianapolis educators

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Sarah TeKolste, right, and Lori Jenkins at a Teacher Story Slam, in April.

In partnership with Teachers Lounge Indy, Chalkbeat is hosting another teacher story slam this fall featuring educators from across the city.

Over the past couple of years, Chalkbeat has brought readers personal stories from teachers and students through the events. Some of our favorites touched on how a teacher won the trust of her most skeptical student, why another teacher decided to come out to his students, and one educator’s call to ramp up the number of students pursuing a college education.

The event, 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 13, is free and open to the public — please RSVP here.

Event details:

5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018
Tube Factory artspace
1125 Cruft St., Indianapolis, IN 46203
Get tickets here and find more on Facebook

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