Back to school

Golf balls and goal setting: How four New York City schools aimed to inspire on day one

Dennis Jones, National Center for Higher Education Management

Will this year’s crop of students dazzle or dismay? Will the new teacher crack jokes or crack the whip? Will lunch ever come?

The first day of school brims with questions. The way students interact in the halls and answer writing prompts, how teachers decorate their classrooms and respond to misbehavior, all give clues about the coming year.

On Wednesday, Chalkbeat spent time in four different classrooms in the nation’s largest school system. From personal goals to flying golf balls, it was a day of expectations and excitement.

At a school for inventors, lessons on solving problems and saving laptops

Just after 7:30 a.m., Urban Assembly Maker Academy Principal Luke Bauer swung open a side door of his Lower Manhattan school building and greeted a pack of early arrivers.

Principal Luke Bauer greeted students as they returned from summer break.
Principal Luke Bauer greeted students as they returned from summer break.

“Look at all these makers out here!”

Now in its second year, the small school now includes ninth and 10th-graders, who yanked off their headphones, shook the principal’s hand, and headed upstairs. The high school was developed by the nonprofit Urban Assembly and grew out of the maker movement, where hackers and inventors build robots, gadgets, and other tools to solve everyday problems.

Last year, the school brought in software developers to work with students on the first day. But the staff quickly realized that new students are anxious to learn the basics, like how to get a hall pass or find the gym. So this year, teachers designed two days of orientation sessions.

In one early session, English teacher Alex Sosa taught a group of students about a popular note-taking system and asked them to practice by listing the ways books are organized.

Like most non-selective schools, the students had arrived with a range of abilities. At a back table, one boy said books could be sorted by genre or periodically. His partner didn’t recognize either term.

“I can’t even say that word,” he said. When Sosa asked the students to write what they were excited about this year, the boy wrote, “I’m excited what is in store for me.”

A student tested whether her team's straw-and-tape basket could catch a falling golf ball as teacher Gerry Irizarry (right) looked on.
A student tested whether her team’s straw-and-tape basket could catch a falling golf ball as teacher Gerry Irizarry (right) looked on.

Across the hall, design teacher Gerry Irizarry was explaining the school’s problem-solving process, which leads from discovering the problem to delivering a product.

The problem Wednesday was figuring out how to build a basket out of straws and tape that could catch a falling golf ball. To test the product of a group that called itself Basket-Robbins, a girl hopped on a desk and dropped a ball. It landed in the basket, and the class cheered.

A few doors down, special-education teacher Jared Russo introduced himself to the students in his session about laptop care. “I am the weirdest, craziest, most fun guy in the building,” he said. “But I’m also the strictest.”

As if to prove this, he dropped (an already broken) laptop on the floor to demonstrate what students should avoid doing to the laptops they each would receive. He explained that about 30 laptops were damaged last year.

“Some of them broke through kind of normal stuff that happens,” he said. “And then some of them were sat on.”

A challenge, and encouragement, from a teacher who’s walked in her students’ footsteps

At the School of Diplomacy in the north Bronx, Shamika Powell waited outside her classroom Wednesday morning for her seventh-grade English students to enter her room.

Shamika Powell teaches her seventh-grade English class on the first day of school at School of Diplomacy in the Bronx.
Shamika Powell teaches her seventh-grade English class on the first day of school at School of Diplomacy in the Bronx.

It is her seventh year as a teacher at the school, but long before that she walked the same halls as a student at the Richard R. Green School, which has lent its name to the building that now houses four small middle schools.

After the students got seated, fanning themselves with handouts on the muggy morning, Powell jumped into her classroom expectations.

Be prepared each day.
Work quietly and do not call out. Everyone will get a chance to ‘shine.’
Be respectful.

Next she covered some formalities, including the promise of homework every day of the year (which drew sighs). Then she dove into the day’s lesson, asking, “What steps should someone take in order to be successful?”

A seventh-grade student attends the first day of school at the School of Diplomacy in the Bronx.
A seventh-grade student attends the first day of school at the School of Diplomacy in the Bronx.

Students gave their answers proudly: “Work hard.” “Pay attention.” “Come every day.” “Don’t get distracted.” Powell told the class that the path they take now will help determine their futures and prepare them for college.

“This is your job. This is your form of employment,” she said, before adding that “as long as you try your best, that’s what really counts.”

In a timed writing prompt, students detailed three steps they could take to ensure their success.

“This year I will come to school as early as possible,” one girl said, “so I can be ready to learn and be prepared for high school and college.”

When a simple problem stumps his students, a math teacher digs in

Jasper DeAntonio was using every trick in the book to get his students to participate on their first day at East Bronx Academy for the Future, a combined middle and high school.

On the board was a math problem that his ninth and 10th graders should have mastered years ago: 4 x 4 – 4 ÷ 4. But when DeAntonio prodded them to discuss their solutions, he found few willing volunteers.

The fourth-year math teacher paced between tables and hovered over students in hopes they would chime in. After giving them a few more minutes to huddle with a partner, DeAntonio changed tactics.

East Bronx Academy for the Future teacher Jasper DeAntonio found that relatively simple math problem stumped some of his new high school students.
East Bronx Academy for the Future teacher Jasper DeAntonio found that relatively simple math problem stumped some of his new high school students.

“If more of you raise your hands, it’s less likely you’ll get called on,” he said, nearing exasperation. A few students slowly lifted their arms.

After class, DeAntonio chalked the slow pace up to students’ nerves, but acknowledged that he’ll be battling some underlying issues all year. Many of East Bronx Academy’s students come from nearby neighborhoods — among the poorest in the country — and enter high school far behind grade level in math and reading.

One girl he pulled aside explained that it was more than first-day jitters that were keeping her from participating.

“I don’t want to work because I am always bad at math and I’ll always fail,” DeAntonio summed up. “She told me that to my face — ‘I don’t have anything against you, but I hate math and I don’t want to do it and I don’t want to be here.’”

That mindset is what DeAntonio and his colleagues are hoping to change. Before jumping into the meat of the school’s Algebra curriculum, students will spend the first several days in what the math team calls “Unit Zero.” Each class sets aside time to dispel notions that students often have about math and reinforce the idea that math isn’t an inherent ability, but something you get better at with practice.

DeAntonio said his relentless pursuit of his students’ participation on the first day — he spent more than 15 minutes trying to get them involved — was about establishing the expectation that no student would escape tough problems in his class.

“Now they know that I’m going to come around and ask them,” DeAntonio said.

At the end of a long day, students find ‘brain goals,’ ‘heart goals,’ and Yoda

Before the final period of the year’s first day, Alex Corbitt stood outside his seventh-grade English classroom inside the Bronx School for Young Leaders and greeted his last group of new students.

Bronx School for Young Leaders teacher Alex Corbitt tried to balance toughness and tenderness on the first day.
Bronx School for Young Leaders teacher Alex Corbitt tried to balance toughness and tenderness on the first day.

He knew the group, called 703, was tired and hungry (the school does not serve lunch until nearly 2 p.m.), and he’d heard that it contained more than a few troublemakers. Still, he was determined to follow Principal Serapha Cruz’s advice to her staff to balance toughness and tenderness on day one so that students would expect to work hard but also have fun at school.

“Alright 703, my name is Mr. Corbitt,” he told the line of students in the hallway. “I’ll talk to you more when you get inside.”

Inside, Corbitt asked them to create name cards and, on the back, to write the cell phone number of a loved one he could call whenever they did something praiseworthy. He waited until the class was silent, then he explained that every day they would have a “brain goal” having to do with English, and a matching “heart goal” meant to develop their character. He asked a girl what a heart goal might be.

“Let’s say you have anger,” she said. “A heart goal helps you get rid of that anger and be prepared to learn.”

Now it was time to tell them about himself. Cruz tells her teachers to ignore the old adage to avoid smiling in front of students before winter break; instead, they should open up and show the students they care. A third-year teacher, Corbitt had already seemed to master that concept.

He pointed to a whiteboard with a photo of him along with symbols of his interests: a guitar, a football, Yoda from “Star Wars.” A stock photo of students had the caption, “I’ve got your back,” which Corbitt said meant that they could seek his help with academics or “seventh-grade drama.”

Then he took students’ questions: Did he dye his beard? (No, it’s red because he’s Irish.) How old is he? (25.) Did he know he wanted to be a teacher when he was their age? (Nope. “That’s the crazy thing about life — you never know what’s going to happen next!”)

Corbitt showed a video of last year's seventh-grade class to inspire his new students.
Corbitt showed a video of last year’s seventh-grade class to inspire his new students.

Corbitt had learned that students digest rules and procedures best when they’re embedded in activities, so next he explained how to listen closely to peers by having them share details about themselves. Whenever they got off track, Corbitt crossed his arms and waited stoically, until the class fell silent.

Finally, it was time for the grand finale. Corbitt had produced a highlight reel of videos of last year’s 7th graders. On his iPhone, he’d captured them working diligently in class, conducting a mock trial, and swimming during a class camping trip.

“The eighth graders now, when they were in your desks, they worked 150 percent,” he said before starting the video. “But guess what’s kind of cool: Every year the students get better and work harder and achieve more.”

Then he played the video and the students were transfixed. As they lined up for lunch, they all looked excited for day two.

Betsy DeVos

To promote virtual schools, Betsy DeVos cites a graduate who’s far from the norm

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos spoke to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools in June.

If Betsy Devos is paying any attention to unfolding critiques of virtual charter schools, she didn’t let it show last week when she spoke to free-market policy advocates in Bellevue, Washington.

Just days after Politico published a scathing story about virtual charters’ track record in Pennsylvania, DeVos, the U.S. education secretary, was touting their successes at the Washington Policy Center’s annual dinner.

DeVos’s speech was largely identical in its main points to one she gave at Harvard University last month. But she customized the stories of students who struggled in traditional schools with local examples, and in doing so provided an especially clear example of why she believes in virtual schools.

From the speech:

I also think of Sandeep Thomas. Sandeep grew up impoverished in Bangalore, India and experienced terrible trauma in his youth. He was adopted by a loving couple from New Jersey, but continued to suffer from the unspeakable horrors he witnessed in his early years. He was not able to focus in school, and it took him hours to complete even the simplest assignment.

This changed when his family moved to Washington, where Sandeep was able to enroll in a virtual public school. This option gave him the flexibility to learn in the quiet of his own home and pursue his learning at a pace that was right for him. He ended up graduating high school with a 3.7 GPA, along with having earned well over a year of college credit. Today, he’s working in finance and he is a vocal advocate for expanding options that allow students like him a chance to succeed.

But Thomas — who spoke at a conference of a group DeVos used to chair, Advocates for Children, in 2013 as part of ongoing work lobbying for virtual charters — is hardly representative of online school students.

In Pennsylvania, Politico reported last week, 30,000 students are enrolled in virtual charters with an average 48 percent graduation rate. In Indiana, an online charter school that had gotten a stunning six straight F grades from the state — one of just three schools in that positionis closing. And an Education Week investigation into Colorado’s largest virtual charter school found that not even a quarter of the 4,000 students even log on to do work every day.

The fact that in many states with online charters, large numbers of often needy students have enrolled without advancing has not held DeVos back from supporting the model. (A 2015 study found that students who enrolled in virtual charters in Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin did just as well as similar students who stayed in brick-and-mortar schools.) In fact, she appeared to ignore their track records during the confirmation process in January, citing graduation rates provided by a leading charter operator that were far higher — nearly 40 points in one case — than the rates recorded by the schools’ states.

She has long backed the schools, and her former organization has close ties to major virtual school operators, including K12, the one that generated the inflated graduation numbers. In her first week as education secretary, DeVos said, “I expect there will be more virtual schools.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the location of the dinner.

expansion plans

Here are the next districts where New York City will start offering preschool for 3-year-olds

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, left, and Mayor Bill de Blasio, center, visited a "Mommy and Me" class in District 27 in Queens, where the city is set to expand 3-K For All.

New York City officials on Tuesday announced which school districts are next in line for free pre-K for 3-year-olds, identifying East Harlem and the eastern neighborhoods of Queens for expansion of the program.

Building on its popular universal pre-K program for 4-year-olds, the city this year began serving even younger students with “3-K For All” in two high-needs school districts. Mayor Bill de Blasio has said he wants to make 3-K available to every family who wants it by 2021.

“Our education system all over the country had it backwards for too long,” de Blasio said at a press conference. “We are recognizing we have to reach kids younger and more deeply if we’re going to be able to give them the foundation they need.”

But making preschool available to all of the city’s 3-year-olds will require an infusion of $700 million from the state or federal governments. In the meantime, de Blasio said the city can afford to expand to eight districts, at a cost of $180 million of city money a year.

Funding isn’t the only obstacle the city faces to make 3-K available universally. De Blasio warned that finding the room for an estimated 60,000 students will be a challenge. Space constraints were a major factor in picking the next districts for expansion, he said.

“I have to tell you, this will take a lot of work,” he said, calling it “even harder” than the breakneck rollout of pre-K for all 4-year-olds. “We’re building something brand new.”

De Blasio, a Democrat who is running for re-election in November, has made expansion of early childhood education a cornerstone of his administration. The city kicked off its efforts this September in District 7 in the South Bronx, and District 23 in Brownsville, Brooklyn. More than 2,000 families applied for those seats, and 84 percent of those living in the pilot districts got an offer for enrollment, according to city figures.

According to the timeline released Thursday, the rollout will continue next school year in District 4 in Manhattan, which includes East Harlem; and District 27 in Queens, which includes Broad Channel, Howard Beach, Ozone Park and Rockaways.

By the 2019 – 2020 school year, the city plans to launch 3-K in the Bronx’s District 9, which includes the Grand Concourse, Highbridge and Morrisania neighborhoods; and District 31, which spans all of Staten Island.

The 2020 – 2021 school year would see the addition of District 19 in Brooklyn, which includes East New York; and District 29 in Queens, which includes Cambria Heights, Hollis, Laurelton, Queens Village, Springfield Gardens and St. Albans.

With all those districts up and running, the city expects to serve 15,000 students.

Admission to the city’s pre-K programs is determined by lottery. Families don’t have to live in the district where 3-K is being offered to apply for a seat, though preference will be given to students who do. With every expansion, the city expects it will take two years for each district to have enough seats for every district family who wants one.