all eyes on you

De Blasio hails ‘rebirth’ at Boys and Girls HS, whose new leader has made big changes

PHOTO: AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews
Mayor Bill de Blasio visited Boys and Girls High School, a Renewal school, in March 2015.

After a turbulent year at Boys and Girls High School that was marked by a high-profile leadership change and intense official scrutiny, Mayor Bill de Blasio told this year’s graduates on Thursday that their accomplishment represented a “rebirth” for one of the city’s most troubled schools.

Ninety-three Boys and Girls students graduated on Thursday, double the number expected to earn diplomas at the start of the year, de Blasio said. But even as he celebrated their accomplishments and commended the school’s new principal, Michael Wiltshire, urgent questions hung over the school, including whether it could reverse its steadily declining enrollment and how it will continue to raise its strikingly low graduation rate.

“I want you to know the eyes of the city are on you,” de Blasio said at the school’s graduation ceremony Thursday, where the girls wore white caps and gowns and the boys wore red. As if to prove his point, two opposing education advocacy groups sent out dueling statements Thursday after de Blasio’s speech to either praise or condemn the city’s efforts to rehabilitate Boys and Girls.

After the school’s outspoken principal left the school in October after publicly clashing with the city over its improvement plan for the school, Wiltshire agreed to take over. The city wooed him there with a bonus and a new title that let him keep oversight of the high-performing Brooklyn high school he’s run for many years, Medgar Evers College Preparatory School.

He faced a formidable challenge at Boys and Girls. The school had a 42 percent graduation rate last year — 26 points below the city average and 10 points under the average of schools in de Blasio’s “Renewal” improvement program, which includes Boys and Girls. It had gone so long without making gains or enacting a turnaround plan that it was one of just two schools last year to earn the state’s “out of time” label, forcing the city to make drastic changes that included requiring all staffers to reapply for their jobs.

A joint Medgar Evers-Boys and Girls choir performed at Thursday's graduation.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
A joint Medgar Evers-Boys and Girls choir performed at Thursday’s graduation.

Wiltshire moved quickly. He added an extra period to the school day so students could take more classes, and hired Kaplan to offer test preparation courses. Since Boys and Girls offered few advanced classes, he let top students take classes at Medgar Evers (“I was not with you for most of my senior year — I was at Medgar,” salutatorian Oliver Gaussaint said in his speech Thursday). He also raised expectations for both the students and staff, telling athletes they had to “pass to play” and ordering struggling students to attend tutoring, several students said Thursday after graduation.

“He made us strive harder,” said graduate Gail Romain, adding Wiltshire’s higher expectations also rubbed off on teachers. “The approach everyone had toward us was different — everyone strived harder for us to be the best we can be more than they normally did.”

Considering the state’s closure warning, Wiltshire entered the school with a mandate to make rapid gains.

One of his first actions was to encourage about 30 students who were significantly behind academically to transfer to schools designed to catch them up. (Overall, the school shed nearly 100 students this year, with its enrollment falling from an adjusted 580 students in October to 487 today, officials said.) Some students and staffers said Thursday that those students could not have graduated without the help of an alternative high school program, but others said that struggling students were urged to leave even if they could have caught up at Boys and Girls with extra help.

Sherried Velez said a staffer called her after Wiltshire’s arrival and urged her to sign off on a transfer for her son, David Lewis, who was 20 years old and needed to pass several Regents exams this year to graduate. She declined and he remained at Boys and Girls, where he got tutoring and was able to earn a less rigorous “local” diploma, she said. (The state has eliminated the local diploma option for students who entered high school more recently.)

“If you fought back,” she said after Thursday’s ceremony, “they couldn’t push your child out.”

Wiltshire and an education department spokesperson did not immediately respond to requests to comment on the incident. However, Assistant Principal Andrea Toussaint said that, in general, students who were encouraged to transfer were sent to programs where “they got exactly what they needed.” She pointed to one student who transferred to an alternative program, where he was able to graduate this month and secure a full scholarship to a community college.

The administration also apparently went to great lengths to help get students to graduation. Two staff members said they were told students had until June 24 — one day before graduation, and after teachers had entered final grades — to make up work in order to pass classes they were in danger of failing.

Other questions loom over the school’s coming year.

One is whether it will be able to attract enough new students to stay afloat, a major challenge for a school whose enrollment plummeted from 2,300 in 2010 to under 500 today. Officials said applications are up, with 154 students applying this year compared to 97 last. But a teacher said only 65 freshmen have enrolled so far.

Another question is who will work at the school. Under state pressure, the city and teachers union agreed to a rehiring plan that required all Boys and Girls employees to reapply for their positions if they wanted to work at the school next year. Those who are not rehired by the committee, which includes city and union representatives, will be sent to other Brooklyn high schools with job openings. Some staffers said Thursday they had not yet been notified about the committee’s decision, but expected to by Friday, the last day of the school year.

After the mayor spoke at Boys and Girls’ graduation ceremony, valedictorian Salomon Djakpa gave his speech. After arriving in the U.S. from Senegal his freshman year, Salomon went on to earn a 94.29 grade-point average, to play varsity soccer and volleyball, and finally to win a full scholarship to Cornell University.

“My family and I migrated to the United States approximately four years ago in search of a dream,” he told the audience. “I took with me the shirt on my back, the fire in my belly.”

Future of Schools

How this Indiana district realized counselors weren’t spending enough time counseling

PHOTO: Denver Post file

About a year ago, the counselors in the Beech Grove school district made a discovery: They were spending less than half of their time on counseling.

Instead of meeting with students one-on-one or in small groups, they were spending most of their days on routine tasks, such as overseeing lunch, proctoring exams, and filling in for secretaries.

When they realized how much time those other tasks were taking away from counseling work, it was “an eye-opener for everyone,” said Paige Anderson, the district college and career coordinator.

The counselors began tracking their time as part of a planning grant from the Lilly Endowment, a prominent Indianapolis-based philanthropy. In 2016, the foundation launched Comprehensive Counseling Initiative for Indiana K-12 Students, a $49 million effort to improve counseling in Indiana. Experts say meaningful counseling can help schools support students as they navigate problems both at home and in the classroom. (The Lilly Endowment also supports Chalkbeat. Learn more about our funding here.)

What Beech Grove staff members learned during their planning process is already changing their approach to counseling, said Trudi Wolfe, a counselor at Central Elementary School, who was instrumental in applying for the Lilly grants. Now, administrators are taking on more tasks like proctoring tests. And one intermediate school hired a new counselor.

“The schools will take counselors and meet the needs of the school,” Wolfe said. “Part of the process is helping administrators understand, school counselors need to be doing school counseling.”

Last month, the endowment announced its second round of implementation grants, which awarded about $12.2 million to 39 schools and districts. Beech Grove will receive $259,727 to redesign its counseling program to focus on the social and emotional needs of students, with the largest chunk of that money going to staff training.

The aim is to develop a strategy for handling the trauma that students face at home, said Wolfe. Over the past 10 years, the number of students in the district who are poor enough to get subsidized meals has risen by about 25 percentage points to 72 percent of students.

Beech Grove has also been affected by the opioid crisis, said Wolfe. “We have kids living with parents who are dependent on drugs, and they are not meeting the needs of their children.”

Those growing challenges mean that it is essential for counselors to have a plan for helping students instead of just meeting the needs of each day, Wolfe said.

Counseling is an investment that can have long-term benefits. After Colorado began an initiative to hire more school counselors, participating schools had higher graduation rates, increased enrollment in career-and-technical programs, and more students taking college-level courses. A 2016 report found that by keeping students from dropping out, the Colorado program saved taxpayers more than $319 million.

But in Indiana schools, counselors often have large caseloads. In 2014-2015, Indiana had an average of 543 students per counselor, above the national average and significantly higher than the American School Counselor Association recommendation of no more than 250 students per counselor.

Hiring more counselors alone is not enough to create stronger school counseling programs, said Tim Poynton, an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston who studies counseling. They also have to spend their time on meaningful counseling work.

“You need more school counselors. That’s necessary, but it’s also not sufficient,” said Poynton. “If you hire more school counselors, and you have them doing lunch duty and things that basically you don’t need a master’s degree in school counseling to do, then you’re not going to see those important metrics move.”

When schools were applying for the Lilly Endowment grants, many reported that counselors were focused on urgent social and emotional challenges and struggled to help students plan for the future, according to the endowment.

Those challenges can have ripple effects, making it harder for school staff to tackle long-term goals such as ensuring that students sign up and meet the requirements for the state’s scholarship program, 21st Century Scholars.

If counseling is done well, most students will be prepared to go to college, even if they do not seem interested when they are in high school, Poynton said. But when counselors are dealing with urgent problems, they have significantly less time to devote to college preparation, he said.

“In urban schools, school counselors are often focused on getting students to school and meeting their immediate needs,” Poynton said. “In the higher-performing suburban schools, where the students and families don’t have those same kind of issues or concerns, the emphasis is almost entirely on the college-going process.”

In a statement from the endowment, Vice President for Education Sara B. Cobb said the response to the Lilly grants shows increased awareness of the crucial need for counseling programs.

“We are impressed with how school leaders have engaged a wide variety of community partners to assess the academic, college, career and social and emotional needs of their students, and respond to them,” Cobb said.

The Lilly grants are going to a broad array of schools, and they are using the money in different ways. At Damar Charter Academy, which educates students with special needs, few students earn traditional diplomas or have good options for higher education. That’s why school staff plan to use the $100,000 counseling grant they received to build relationships with employers and create training programs for skills such as small engine repair, automotive maintenance, landscaping, and culinary arts, said Julie Gurulé, director of student services.

“If we can commit to getting them the skills they need while they are with us,” she said, “they will be able to go out and gain meaningful employment, and … lead the kind of lives that we all want to.”

These are the districts and schools in Marion County that received counseling grants. (Find the full list here.)

  • Beech Grove City Schools $259,727
  • Damar Charter School $100,000
  • Metropolitan School District of Decatur Township $671,300
  • Purdue Polytechnic Indianapolis High School $100,000

Delayed decision

Officials promised to update a Giuliani-era agreement between the NYPD and city schools almost a year ago. So where is it?

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
A school safety agent at Staten Island's New Dorp High School.

Last October, city officials said they were on the cusp of announcing changes in the way the New York Police Department interacts with schools — an overhaul that began more than three years ago and sparked months of negotiations with advocacy groups.

But nearly 10 months later, the city has not announced any revisions to the “memorandum of understanding” that governs police involvement with school security, leaving in place a nearly two-decade-old agreement that has not been altered since Rudy Giuliani was mayor and “zero tolerance” discipline policies were in vogue.

Now, police and education officials say revisions won’t be made public until this fall. That timeline has infuriated advocates who said they made progress with senior city officials but have recently been kept in the dark and fear their recommendations are being ignored.

“Here we are three years later without any explanation from the administration,” said Kesi Foster, an organizer with Make the Road New York and the Urban Youth Collaborative who serves on a mayoral task force charged with revising the agreement. “It’s extremely frustrating and disheartening.”

As Mayor Bill de Blasio has worked to overhaul school discipline policies, which have reduced suspensions and student arrests, advocates say the outdated MOU has become a roadblock.

The 1998 agreement officially gives the city’s police department authority over school safety agents, a force that rivals Houston’s entire police department in size. The agreement was controversial at the time, with some city officials saying the presence of police officials made student misbehavior more likely to end in arrests.

Mark Cannizzaro, head of the city’s principals union who was a school administrator in the 1990s, said it was not unheard of for principals to consider calling the police for incidents as minor as shoving. “There was, at one point, a zero tolerance approach that didn’t make sense,” he said.

The current memorandum is a reflection of that era, advocates say, and is one of the reasons students of color are disproportionately likely to wind up in the criminal justice system instead of the principal’s office. It was supposed to be updated every four years, but has still never been revised.

De Blasio seemed to agree that the memorandum needed to be reformed, and convened a group of advocates and senior city officials who recommended changes. Among the group’s recommendations, released in 2016, were giving school leaders the lead role in addressing student misbehavior, making it more difficult for school safety agents to place students in handcuffs, and ensuring students are informed of their rights before they’re questioned.

Johanna Miller, the advocacy director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said senior officials — including Mark Rampersant, the education department’s director of security, and Brian Conroy, the chief of the police department’s school safety division — participated in the task force and seemed receptive to changes. The group agreed there should be limits to the type of offenses that could trigger police involvement, multiple participants said, excluding offenses such as smoking cigarettes, cutting class, and certain instances of insubordination.

But when the city presented the group with a draft agreement, many of their recommendations had vanished, according to people who were present during the meetings, some of whom requested anonymity because the city required that participants sign nondisclosure agreements.

“They basically eliminated all of the major changes that we made,” Miller said, adding that the group requested another opportunity to change the agreement more than a year ago. “And that was the last we heard of it.”

City officials would not comment on why the process has been delayed or why key recommendations never made it into the draft agreement. Some task force members said they believed education and police department lawyers, who had not participated in the group’s discussions, played a role in stripping the draft agreement of the most important changes.

An education department spokeswoman acknowledged in an email that “agency lawyers have been involved in order to ensure the MOU is aligned with existing local, state, and federal laws and in the best interest of students and families,” but did not comment further on why certain changes were not included.

Asked why task force members were required to sign nondisclosure agreements, the official said the decision was made “To protect the confidentiality of any shared student data and remain within (The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) compliance.”

The task force still meets quarterly, although several of its members say they have not received updates and did not know the city planned to release an updated memorandum this fall.

“The DOE and NYPD have been working in close partnership to finalize updates to the MOU and ensure that the changes are done correctly in the best interest of students and families,” education department spokeswoman Miranda Barbot wrote in an email.

Cannizzaro, the principals union chief, said he has not been informed about potential changes to the agreement, adding that school leaders should have discretion in how misconduct is handled and noted the police play an important role in school safety. “We certainly appreciate their presence — we need their presence,” he said.

Some members of the task force wondered whether the selection of a new schools chief has delayed the process, and at their most recent meeting in May, schools Chancellor Richard Carranza stopped by. “He said something to the extent of, he knew it was an issue and was going to put eyes on it,” said Nancy Ginsburg, a lawyer at the Legal Aid Society and a member of the task force.

Ginsburg said she appreciates that changes take time, but also stressed that the current memorandum can make it difficult to hold officials accountable since the agreement is so vague.

“It’s impossible to hold the agencies to anything if there are no rules,” she said.