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.

defensor escolar

Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.