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.

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.