Exit Interview

After 30-year career, founding principal reflects on his school and the city’s plan to revamp it

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Andrew Turay, the founding principal of Peace and Diversity Academy in the South Bronx, is retiring this month after 30 years in the school system.

Early one morning in 2001, during his first week as principal of the Bronx’s vast Evander Childs High School, Andrew Turay was in the main office trying to get the television to work. Suddenly, it flickered to life, just as news cameras showed dark smoke surging out of a World Trade Center tower.

It wasn’t until late that evening that he had calmed the school and safely sent all of his students home — the first of many long days attending to crises.

“I tell you,” said Turay, 62, the founding principal of Peace and Diversity Academy in the Bronx, “it was a transformational experience.”

Turay, a Harvard-educated native of Sierra Leone, is retiring this month after working for 30 years in Bronx schools. He could use a break: He estimates that he missed one day of school for every decade he spent in the system.

Turay joined a fast-track teacher training program at age 32, after which he spent many years teaching social studies at historic Morris High School (where he won a Walt Disney American Teacher award) before becoming an assistant principal there. Then, just as Evander Childs was in danger of closing, a superintendent asked Turay to take it over. He jumped at the opportunity, leaving in such a rush that he never emptied his office at Morris.

But his stint at Evander was cut short when the city decided to split the school into six small ones. The Bloomberg administration was just launching its drive to create scores of new small schools, and so Turay decided to join in. In 2004, with the help of the the Anti-Defamation League, he created Peace and Diversity Academy, a small high school that was relocated several times before ending up at the South Bronx building it currently shares with Metropolitan High School.

Last year, Peace and Diversity found itself in the city’s new Renewal program, which aims to turn around the lowest performing schools. The school needs the help — just a third of students graduate in four years, compared to 68 percent citywide. But it remains to be seen if that program can do the trick quickly enough.

Below are excerpts from a recent interview with Turay, as he prepares to leave the school he brought into existence a decade ago.

Choosing a path

Turay was raised in Freetown, Sierra Leone, where his father owned a small business. As a child, Turay considered becoming a professional athlete or a professor.

When you grow up in African villages or countries, that’s all you want to do: You want to be a lecturer or you want to be a soccer player. So I went to school, had partial scholarships here and there, worked to fund my own education, and ended up with several masters degrees.

In a small way, this is my own American dream: going from nowhere to being able to create several great small schools, including this one.

The battle for Evander

With thousands of students and a reputation for violence, Evander Childs was one of the first city high schools to install metal detectors. When Turay arrived, the police had taken to parking their patrol cars in a row outside the main entrance.

The optics weren’t great. It wasn’t like a school. They had a metal detector. These guys they occupied a room on the first floor. Their cars were all lined up. As a kid coming in here, this was not like a school.

We were able to negotiate with them to move their cars to the side. I took the office they were occupying, I gave that to the parents. We made peace.

Tough times for Peace and Diversity

Turay said the city's new turnaround program for struggling schools like his could work, but perhaps not in the short timeframe the city has proposed.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Turay said the city’s new turnaround program for struggling schools like his could work, but perhaps not in the short timeframe the city has proposed.

The school switched floors in the same building three times in its first three years, then moved to another building, before finally landing in its current shared space. That space presents its own challenges, like a makeshift computer lab and a lack of year-round air conditioning.

We’ve moved around so often that we’ve lost so many kids. And because we don’t have some amenities, we’re not very attractive to some kids. It’s almost a catch-22.

Meanwhile, the school is sent many students who are behind academically, Turay said.

It’s clear to everybody. The nature of the kids who are coming in are typically below, they’re not ready for high school … The old days they were called Levels 1 and 2. That’s been our clientele.

A chance for renewal

Peace and Diversity is one of 94 low-performing schools in the Renewal program, which was launched last fall. The schools will receive extra training for staff and support services for students, along with increased oversight.

I think it’s the right approach, the right course of action: provide the support on a sustained basis, and let people try that out.

I think prioritizing one or two or three effective practices, drilling down and supporting people, providing models and support, and being patient with it can help. I think people need to see what has worked well in other places that are similar to them.

However, Turay added, it may take more to revamp the schools, including changes to the way schools are assigned students.

There’s a huge undercurrent that says if you just build it, they will come. Well, they do and they don’t. There’s no question that the quality of teaching and learning and assessment in a school has to be optimal to sustain improvement. But there are these other intervening variables: Who are the kids? Where are they coming from? What are their needs? What are their parental circumstances?

I think it has to be looked at from the point of view of equity … There should be a balance between who’s coming here and there, and not just shoving kids because they have a space available without requisite resources.

Turay with Nicole Gomez, 24, who was in the inaugural class at Peace and Diversity Academy. Now a case manager at a Bronx social service agency, Gomez still stays in touch with Turay. She said the school "was his baby."
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Turay with Nicole Gomez, 24, who was in the inaugural class at Peace and Diversity Academy. Now a case manager at a Bronx social service agency, Gomez still stays in touch with Turay. She said the school “was his baby.”

Turay said the main shortcoming of the program so far is that education department officials have shared too few details with the schools. Here is what he said he wished schools had been told at the start of the program:

This is where we are, this is what the state has asked, this is what we’re doing, this is when it’s due, these are our roles and responsibilities and timelines and resources. I think that a meeting and greeting and sharing at the outset would have clarified a lot of things, so people have a good sense that this is going to take awhile, but we have a roadmap.

You have to be seen as being transparent to people. It builds trust and mutual respect, it allays some people’s anxieties about what really is going on. They may not like what’s going on, but at least they know what it is. That’s why some of my staff are anxious about the implications for them. So the clearer it becomes, I think the better off everyone is.

Turay ended by expressing some doubt about whether the program will improve the schools quickly enough to satisfy state officials.

I think it can work, but I don’t know whether it can work in three years. Especially given the fact that we were slow in getting off the ground, and there really wasn’t a very transparent understanding of what it was, where it was going, and when it was going to go. …

I just don’t see that Governor Cuomo is going to have a lot of patience to have struggling schools not make what they consider required progress in the timeframe that’s expected. … I don’t think there’s a political will to wait and wait and wait.

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.