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.

survey says

More bullying reported at New York City schools, study shows

PHOTO: Anthony Lanzilote

More New York City students say there is bullying in their schools, a report released Monday showed. The findings also revealed that many schools reporting the greatest number of violent incidents on campus have no social workers on staff.

The report was commissioned by New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer.

Stringer also released an audit of how school safety matters are recorded, and concluded that the education department should provide more oversight and streamline incident reporting rules.

“The audit found clear breakdowns in communication in the reporting and tracking of incidents and actions taken,” according to a press release from Stringer’s office.

The education department disputed some of the comptroller’s findings, and in a written statement, spokeswoman Miranda Barbot wrote: “We have detailed protocols in place to ensure allegations of bullying are immediately reported, investigated and addressed, and are investing in both anti-bullying initiatives and mental health supports.”

But the pair of reports raises scrutiny of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s school discipline reforms, which favor  “restorative” practices that emphasize mediation over punishment, and make it harder to suspend students.

Advocates of the de Blasio reforms say the shift is necessary because black and Hispanic students are more likely to be arrested or disciplined at school. Research has shown such disciplinary action can lead to higher dropout rates. Critics of the reforms, meanwhile, say the changes have created more chaotic schools.

The findings are also likely to add to a chorus of parents and elected officials who say more emotional supports are needed for the city’s most vulnerable students. Students who experience a mental health crisis during the school day may be handcuffed and shuttled to hospitals. The city’s latest budget, which was approved last week, includes an additional $2 million to hire social workers and guidance counselors in schools that currently don’t have any.

Here are some highlights from the reports.

More students report there is bullying in their schools — but the data comes with a catch.

Last year, the education department’s annual survey showed that 82 percent of students said their peers “harass, bully, or intimidate others in school.” That’s up year over year, and up significantly from 65 percent of students in 2012, which was the lowest rate recorded since at least 2010. (De Blasio’s discipline reforms started to take effect around 2015.)

A note about these numbers: Prior to 2017, the survey asked whether students harass, bully or intimidate other students none, some, most, or all of the time. The most recent survey responses were slightly different: none of the time, rarely, some of the time, or most of the time — a change that may have artificially inflated the bullying numbers.

That’s enough to render the survey data unreliable said Max Eden, a researcher who has studied school climate for the conservative-leaning Manhattan Institute — a critic of the mayor’s discipline reforms. Still, taken with other findings, it’s reasonable to think that bullying is on the rise at city schools, he said.

Among the other evidence: A first-of-its-kind report, released this month under a new city law, that showed substantiated bullying incidents are on track to increase this year.

Schools that log the most violent incidents often lack mental health supports.

Guidance counselors and social workers are key when it comes to creating safe schools because they can help address the root cause of violent or troublesome behavior, advocates who want more mental health supports say.

But many of the city’s neediest schools go without that help.

Of the schools reporting the most violent incidents on campus, 36 percent lack a full-time social worker, the comptroller found. On campuses where there are social workers, caseloads are a staggering 700 to one. That far exceeds the recommended ratio from the National Association of Social Workers of 250 general education students per social worker — and it’s higher than the citywide average of 612 students per social worker, according to the comptroller.

The comptroller’ compares that to the ratio of New York Police Department school safety agents who are placed in schools: There is one safety agent per 228 students, according to the report.

“Our city is failing to meet the social and emotional needs of our students,” Councilman Mark Treyger, of Brooklyn, who has pushed the city to report more up-to-date bullying data and to hire more school counselors, said in an emailed statement.

Schools may be underreporting violent incidents, something the education department disputes.

In a separate audit, the comptroller compared logs kept by school safety agents to incident reports filed by school leaders. In 21 percent of cases, incidents that were noted by safety agents were not reflected in the school reports.

The school data, in turn, are used to report incidents to the state for its Violent and Disruptive Incident Report, or VADIR. The discrepancy could raise questions about the already-controversial reporting system. (VADIR has been criticized for classifying schoolyard incidents as serious offenses, and the state has tweaked its definitions in response to those kinds of concerns.)

This finding also comes with some caveats. The comptroller looked at only 10 schools — a tiny sample of the city’s portfolio of about 1,800. And the education department took issue with the methodology.

In its response to the audit, education department officials said that the police data doesn’t align with the state’s reporting categories, and that the information may not be comparable because of student privacy concerns and recordkeeping issues on campuses where multiple schools share a building.  

Student Voice

Boasting impressive resumes, five Newark students compete for a school board seat

PHOTO: Newark Public Schools
Top row: Amanda Amponsah, Nailah Cornish, Andre Ferreira. Bottom row: Shalom Jimoh, Emmanuel Ogbonnaya.

Earlier this year, Newark residents elected three new members to the city’s re-empowered school board. Now, public school students can choose one of their own to join the board, which in February became the district’s governing body for the first time in more than two decades.

Students have until midnight on Tuesday, June 5, to vote online for a rising 12th-grader to represent their interests on the school board. The winning student representative will provide the board with student perspectives on district policy, but will not be permitted to vote.

Eligible candidates are required to have a minimum 3.0 grade-point average, a satisfactory disciplinary record, and to submit peer and faculty recommendations. Last week, the five candidates participated in a debate, which can be heard here.

The candidates are:

  • Amanda Amponsah, of University High School, who is class president, captain of the softball team, a member of the marching band, and an aspiring pediatric oncologist.
  • Nailah Cornish, of Barringer Academy of Arts and Humanities, who plays basketball and volleyball, runs her own modeling program, and plans to study law and business in college.
  • Andre Ferreira, of Science Park High School, who is a soccer player, debater, and vice president of the student leadership organization. He plans to major in political science and aspires to work for the United Nations.
  • Shalom Jimoh, of Weequahic High School, who immigrated from Nigeria, and is now a member of the student government council, the National Honor Society, and the track and volleyball teams. She plans to study medicine and theater arts in college.
  • Emmanuel Ogbonnaya, of Weequahic High School, who serves as school photographer, soccer team captain, and is a member of the National Honor Society. Emmanuel wants to study engineering, and then start a company that combines photography, architecture, and engineering.

The winner will join the board at an historic moment. Control of the district reverted to the city in February, when state officials determined the district had met its requirements for home rule. The district had been run by the state for 22 years prior.

Last year, more than 1,200 students  — or about 13 percent of Newark public high school students — voted for a student representative to the school board, which then functioned in an advisory capacity only. This year, a Newark student group tried to ramp up turnout with text messages and a video posted on Facebook encouraging voting.

“The student representative will work closely with administrators and board members to make sure that all student voices are heard,” according to a video produced in advance of the vote by the Youth Media Symposium at the Abbott Leadership Institute, a Newark civic-engagement group. “Now that we have local control, this is more crucial than ever.”

As of 4 p.m. Tuesday, 1,381 votes had been cast. District officials said the winner will be announced Friday, and will be introduced publicly at the board’s June 12 meeting. The representative will then be required to attend at least four board meetings and various district events during the 2018–2019 academic year.