Tips from the Top

Visiting a troubled school, Fariña mixes praise with pointed advice

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Chancellor Carmen Fariña

When P.S. 123 in Central Harlem has popped up in the news over the past year, the coverage has not been flattering.

There was the story this month highlighting the school’s “nightmarish” test scores and “unsafe” conditions, one last summer citing its many suspensions for students’ “physically aggressive behavior,” and another in October where a principal unfavorably compared P.S. 123’s academic record to that of his charter school.

So when Chancellor Carmen Fariña invited reporters Tuesday to join her and P.S. 123’s principal on a tour of the school, which is part of the city’s new turnaround program for struggling schools, she mixed advice for the principal with praise for bright spots at the school that haven’t grabbed headlines.

As with other schools in the turnaround program, Fariña said P.S. 123 must get students to show up to class every day, weave writing instruction into every subject, and better train teachers while urging the least effective ones to leave. But, noting the school’s many students who are homeless or have special needs, Farina said Principal Melitina Hernandez has already done great work reaching out to their families and using the arts to draw students into school.

“Let me tell you something: There’s a lot here to build on,” Fariña told Hernandez, who took over the school in 2013, as they walked shoulder-to-shoulder down a hallway. “There’s nothing here that you don’t see progress and you don’t see things moving forward.”

During her tour of P.S. 123, Fariña spoke to students in a fifth-grade math class.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
During her tour of P.S. 123, Fariña spoke to students in a fifth-grade math class.

P.S. 123 is in the city’s turnaround program, called School Renewal, because it ranks among the bottom bottom 5 percent of schools in the state and the lowest quarter of schools in the city. Last year, 5 percent of its students passed the state math exams, and 9 percent passed English.

It was those scores that Khari Shabazz, principal of Success Academy Harlem 5 charter school, compared to his school’s last October. The charter school, which shares a building with P.S. 123, had 97 percent of its third and fourth-graders pass last year’s state math exams, and 68 percent pass English. (Citywide, 34 percent of students earned proficient scores in math, and about 28 percent in English.)

Fariña on Tuesday called such a comparison “definitely apples and oranges.” She noted that nearly a third of P.S. 123 students have disabilities, about one-fifth are still learning English, and more than a quarter live in temporary housing. She said the lottery admissions system at charter schools attracts the most involved parents, and she again suggested that some charter schools shed students in a way district schools do not.

“We would like to be at that percentage,” Fariña said, referring to the Success school’s exam pass rates, “but we keep all our kids from the day they walk in the building.”

Still, Fariña made clear that she expects P.S. 123’s test scores to rise regardless of the many challenges its students face. And Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has been touting the Renewal program in recent weeks, has insisted that he will consider closing schools that fail to improve even with the added support.

Hernandez said she has already received some help through the Renewal program, which launched in November. Turnaround officials have visited the school and offered feedback, she has been given budgeting assistance (though no extra funding yet), and 10 teachers have attended training sessions for a particular writing program, she said.

But, unlike a small group of high-priority struggling schools that the city has given intensive help since the start of the school year, P.S. 123 has only recently received support through the program, Hernandez said. For example, the city has not sent the school a principal mentor or on-site teacher coaches or monitored its progress throughout the fall as it did with some of those early-intervention schools.

“We’re actually a Renewal school starting tier two, is it? Stage two. We’re just beginning the process,” Hernandez said, adding later that she had sent her teachers to training sessions and brought in coaches well before the Renewal program got underway. “We already started a lot of this work through our own urgency.”

Fariña offered P.S. 123 Principal Melitina Hernandez advice about how to get students to show up to school and how to weed out ineffective teachers.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Fariña offered P.S. 123 Principal Melitina Hernandez advice about how to get students to show up to school and how to weed out ineffective teachers.

That work was aided by earlier improvement programs for low-performing schools, including a three-year, $4.1 million federal grant that P.S. 123 won in 2013 to fund teacher training along with arts and sports activities.

During Tuesday’s tour, Hernandez said the school had used that money to install electronic whiteboards in classrooms, fill a technology room with top-of-the-line computers, and add after-school and Saturday classes. The school has also established a competitive chess team, healthy cooking classes for families, and a partnership with a nonprofit that sends teaching artists into schools, Hernandez said.

Fariña commended those efforts, but also made plain her own priorities for the Renewal schools.

Throughout her visit, she said P.S. 123 needs to stay focused on improving its writing instruction and tying it into every class. (She told two different art instructors to add more writing to their projects, and asked a kindergarten student to show her some of her writing.) She also said Hernandez must boost the school’s attendance rate, perhaps by having older students check in on younger ones through a “phone buddy” system or buying alarm clocks for others.

And she said the principal must weed out unmotivated or unsatisfactory teachers by documenting their performance problems and advising them to look for jobs elsewhere. After they stopped by the classroom of a teacher whom Hernandez said she had concerns about, Fariña told her to observe the teacher “many, many more times a day.”

After the tour, Fariña explained that principals can use such methods to convince teachers who are not a good fit for a school to leave.

“Not everything has to be knocking people on the head,” she said. “But if that’s what it takes, we’re happy to do that as well.”

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”

moving forward

After Confederate flag dispute at Colorado football game, schools pledge to bring students together

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty
Manual High students.

Acknowledging “we may never have a conclusive picture of what happened,” two Colorado school districts sought to move past a controversy over whether a Confederate flag was displayed at a football game and open a conversation between the two school communities.

The principal of Manual High, Nick Dawkins, wrote in a community letter over the weekend that the visiting Weld Central High School team “displayed a Confederate flag during the first quarter of the (Friday night) game, offending many members of the Manual community.”

Officials from Denver Public Schools and Weld County School District Re-3J released a joint letter Tuesday saying that based “on what we have learned to date, however, the Weld Central team did not display the Confederate flag.” At the same time, it said, multiple Manual eyewitnesses “reported seeing spectators who attempted to bring a Confederate flag into the game and clothing with flag images.”

Going forward, students from the two schools — one rural and one urban — will participate in a student leadership exchange that has student leaders visit each other’s schools and communities to “share ideas and perspectives,” the letter says.

“At a time in our country when so many are divided, we want our students instead to come together, share ideas and learn together,” says the letter, which is signed by the principals of both schools and the superintendents of both school districts.

The alleged incident took place at a time when issues of race, social injustice, politics and sports are colliding in the United States, making for tough conversations, including in classrooms.

Weld Central’s mascot is a Rebel. Manual, whose mascot is the Thunderbolts, is located in one of Denver’s historically African-American neighborhoods.

Dawkins in his initial community letter also said “the tension created by the flag led to conflict on and off the playing field,” and that three Manual players were injured, including one who went to the hospital with a leg injury. He also said some Manual players reported that Weld Central players “taunted them with racial slurs.”

Weld Central officials vehemently denied that their team displayed the flag. In addition, they said in their own community letter they had “no evidence at this point that any of our student athletes displayed racially motivated inappropriate behavior.”

They said district officials “do not condone any form of racism,” including the Confederate flag.

Weld Central fans told the Greeley Tribune that they didn’t see any Confederate flag.

Read the full text below.