consolidated ed

Anxieties grow for some vanishing schools in city’s merger plans

Carole-Ann Moench, a teacher at Global Neighborhood Secondary School, expresses her reluctant support for a plan to merge the school with P.S. 96. To the right is Deputy Chancellor of Operations Elizabeth Rose. ( Photo by Geoff Decker )

Emotions were raw but attendance was sparse at a school meeting in East Harlem on Tuesday night as city officials moved a step closer to merging two struggling schools with dwindling student enrollments.

The consolidation, which will allow P.S. 96 to absorb students and teachers from Global Neighborhood Secondary School next year, is one of five mergers the city’s education policy panel will vote on this fall. City officials have taken pains to ensure that the plans face minimal resistance, holding meetings with staff and parents at the affected schools as early as June.

So far, that plan has largely worked. But as the process continues — and five schools prepare to no longer exist — the East Harlem meeting hinted at some of the tensions to come, especially in neighborhoods with clear memories of the divisive school-closure policies of the last mayoral administration.

“I don’t understand how they’re closing our school down,” said Yvonne Figueroa, the parent-teacher association president at Global Neighborhood, which opened in 2008 aiming to serve new immigrants. “Why can’t they just leave our school open and make it the new middle school?”

“It feels like our school’s being taken away from us,” said Carole-Ann Moench, who has taught English at Global Neighborhood since 2009.

Chancellor Carmen Fariña has presented the mergers as part of her larger school-improvement strategy, with a higher-performing school sometimes absorbing a struggling one in the same building or located nearby. Efficiency is the primary driver of other merger plans, where both schools have posted low reading and math scores for years.

The plans have the official support of the teachers and principals union, local elected parent councils, and school administrations. Even some teachers, like Moench, who have raised concerns at meetings, say they aren’t opposed to the plans.

That doesn’t mean she doesn’t see it as a huge shift. “To be honest, it feels like our school’s closing,” she said. “We didn’t have much of a choice in any of this.”

2016-17 merger plans (so far)

  • Crown Heights: M.S. 354 with M.S. 334 (Proposal)
  • East Harlem: The Global Neighborhood Secondary School with P.S. 96 (Proposal)
  • ChinatownP.S. 137 with P.S. 134 Henrietta Szold (Proposal)
  • Bedford StuyvesantJ.H.S. 057 with M.S. 385 (Proposal)
  • Throggs Neck (Bronx): Urban Assembly Academy of Civic Engagement with Mott Hall Community School (Proposal)

School closure is a loaded concept in New York City. More than 100 schools were permanently shuttered under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg for poor academic performance. He replaced them with new schools, including many charter schools, that usually served new students and were staffed by new principals and teachers.

That strategy sparked lawsuits and protests led by the United Federation of Teachers, as well as many dozens of public hearings packed with teachers, activists, and parents who opposed the closures, some lasting hours into the night.

In his campaign for mayor, Bill de Blasio vowed not to close any low-performing district schools until they were given more support, a promise he’s so far kept. He also promised that the concerns of parents, teachers, and parent councils would be respected as decisions were made.

Without forceful backlash from unions and parents, officials are now focused on addressing the quieter challenges of unifying (or planning to unify) two teams of teachers and two groups of students.

In some buildings, schools that are merging are already aligned under one principal, bell schedules are synced up, and students from different schools are spending more time together. At two schools set to merge in Crown Heights, M.S. 354 and M.S. 334, a “master principal” has been appointed to help unite the teaching staffs.

In other cases, it could take more work to smooth over differences.

Tanya Castro-Negron, a parent at P.S. 137, an elementary school in Chinatown set to merge with P.S. 134, said tensions have festered since the schools were forced to share a building 10 years ago. P.S. 137 is seen as “the ugly stepchild,” she said.

“There’s so much bad blood,” she added.

In East Harlem, Global Neighborhood moved into the P.S. 96 building this year to prepare for the merger. Frankie Quinones, president of P.S. 96’s PTA, acknowledged that both schools are still adjusting.

“There’s always going to be issues in the beginning,” said Quinones. “But time will tell.”

Some remain unconvinced that a combined school will be greater than the sum of its parts, especially when both schools have struggled to keep up enrollment, as is the case of the mergers in Chinatown’s P.S. 134 and P.S. 137. Both schools saw their test scores increase last year, but P.S. 137’s reading and math proficiency rates topped out at 16 percent.

“You’re taking two failing schools and putting them together,” Castro-Negron said. “How do we know that this is going to be effective?”

In East Harlem, neither Global Neighborhood nor P.S. 96 are part of the Renewal initiative, but both are struggling on several levels.

Proficiency rates on last year’s state English and math tests ranged from 5 percent to 13 percent in the schools, and there are fewer than 300 students enrolled in the schools’ middle school grades. Global Neighborhood had just 26 new sixth graders this year, though the schools still have their own principals and staffers.

Because enrollment largely determines school funding, schools with few students receive less money that is often used for support services for students with disabilities and English language learners. It also makes it harder to pay teachers for elective classes and extracurricular activities. That can create a negative spiral, where enrollment and funding struggles coincide with academic struggles.

The mergers should change those patterns, said Elizabeth Rose, the department’s deputy chancellor of operations.

“It is completely different from a school closure,” Rose said. “In this case, all students and staff will continue to be part of an ongoing, operating school. That’s the most important thing.”

Rose said more 2016-17 mergers would be proposed this winter. The Panel for Educational Policy is set to vote on the Crown Heights and East Harlem mergers on Nov. 19 and on the remaining proposals on Dec. 16.

another path

‘They’re my second family.’ Largest Pathways to Graduation class earn their diplomas

Jasmine Byrd receives an award for excellence after giving a speech to her fellow graduates.

Before last fall, Jasmine Byrd never envisioned herself striding across the stage to receive a diploma at a graduation ceremony.

But then Byrd moved to the Bronx from Utah and entered New York City’s Pathways to Graduation program, which helps 17- to 21-year-olds who didn’t graduate from a traditional high school earn a high school equivalency diploma by giving them free resources and support.

Just walking into this space and being like, this is what you’ve accomplished and this is what you’ve worked hard for, is a great feeling,” said Byrd, who also credits the program with helping her snag a web development internship. “I’ve built my New York experience with this program. They’re my second family, sometimes my first when I needed anything.”

Byrd is one of about 1,700 students to graduate during the 2017-18 school year from Pathways, the program’s largest graduating class to date, according to officials.  

This year, students from 102 countries and 41 states graduated from Pathways, which is part of District 79, the education department district overseeing programs for older students who have had interrupted schooling.

The program also saw the most students ever participate in its graduation ceremony, a joyful celebration held this year at the Bronx United Palace Theater. According to Robert Evans, a math teacher at one of the program’s five boroughwide sites and emcee of the graduation, about 600 students typically show up to walk the stage. But students can be a part of the ceremony even if they received their passing test results that morning, and this year more than 800 graduates attended.

There were still students coming in last night to take photos and to pick up their sashes and gowns,” said Evans.

The graduation ceremony is unique in part because the program is. Students who have not completed high school attend classes to prepare to take the high school equivalency exam. But the program also prepares students to apply for college, attend vocational school, or enter the workforce by providing help applying for colleges, creating resumes, and other coaching.

To make sure that the program is accessible to all students, there’s a main site in every borough and 92 satellite sites, located in community centers and youth homeless shelters like Covenant House. Students who want to work in the medical field, like Genesis Rocio Rodriguez, can take their courses in hospitals. Rodriguez, who graduated in December, is now enrolled in the Borough of Manhattan Community College, and passing the exam meant being one step closer to her dream of becoming a nurse.

When I got my results I was with my classmate, and to be honest I thought I failed because I was so nervous during it. But then I went online, and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh I did it!’ My mom started crying and everything.”

Byrd said the program worked for her because of the supportive teachers and extra resources.

“The teachers are relatable,” said Byrd. “They don’t put on an act, they don’t try to separate the person from the teacher. They really reach out, even call you to get you out of bed in the morning.”

Carmine Guirland said the supportive environment of social workers, guidance counselors, and teachers is what attracts him to the work at Bronx NeOn, a site where students who are on probation or who are involved with the court system can prepare for the exam, college, and careers.

When students are on parole they will have really involved [parole officers] who would text me at the beginning of class to check in so that we could work together,” said Guirland. “It’s really about that village thing. The more support systems that are available the more success the students will have.”

Reflecting on his experiences with the graduating class, Guirland’s most treasured memory was when one of his students proposed to his girlfriend in a guidance counseling session. Even though they aren’t together anymore, the moment was a reflection of the relationships that many of the students build during their time at Pathways to Graduation.

“It’s this amazing high moment where this student felt like the most comfortable place for him to propose to his girlfriend and the mother of his child was in our advisory circle,” said Guirland.

New Standards

Tennessee updates science standards for first time in 10 years. New guidelines stress class discussion, inquiry

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Fourth grade science teachers Lamarcus Marks, of Rivercrest Elementary, and Angie Clement, of Bartlett Elementary, test out a lesson on kinetic and potential energy at Arlington High School, one of 11 statewide sites where Tennessee teachers are training for next year's new science standards.

How can a wolf change the river? Why doesn’t a cactus have leaves? Why can’t you exterminate bats in Tennessee?

With new state science standards coming to classrooms next fall, these are the kinds of questions students will explore in their science classes. They’ll be tasked not only with memorizing the answers, but also with asking questions of their own, engaging on the topic with their teacher and classmates, and applying what they learn across disciplines. That’s because the changes set forth are as much about teaching process, as they are about teaching content.

“At the lowest level, I could just teach you facts,” said Detra Clark, who is one of about 300 Tennessee educators leading teacher trainings on the new standards to her peers from across the state. “Now it’s like, ‘I want you to figure out why or how you can use the facts to figure out a problem.’”

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Detra Clark, a science coach in Shelby County’s iZone, demonstrates a sample lesson for sixth grade science teachers.

On Wednesday, Clark — a science coach for the iZone, a group of underperforming schools that Shelby County Schools is looking to turn around — unpacked for her peers, who gathered at Arlington High School, a key component of the new material: three-dimensional modeling. Under three-dimensional modeling, students should be able to do something with the content they learn, not just memorize it.

In recent years, Tennessee students have performed better on state science tests than on their math and English exams. But state science standards for grades K–12 haven’t been updated since 2008. By contrast, math and English benchmarks have undergone more recent changes. To give the stakeholders time to adjust, results from next year’s science test, the first to incorporate the new standards, won’t count for students, teachers, or schools.

At the training session, Clark, standing before a room of sixth-grade science teachers, held up a chart with the names of woodland animals, such as elk and deer. Under each name, she tracked the population over time.

“At our starting population, what do we see?” she asked.

“The deer, it decreases again because it’s introduced to a predator,” a teacher responded.

“More resources, more surviving animals” another teacher chimed in.

“How can we explain what happened in year two, when we’re dealing with students?” Clark asked the group.

“The population went up,” a teacher said.

“They start to reproduce!” another teacher interjected.

Clark nodded.

In another classroom, this one composed of kindergarten teachers, Bridget Davis — a K-2 instructional advisor for Shelby County Schools — clicked through a video of fuzzy critters, each paired with a close relative, such as two different breeds of dogs.

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
In a teacher training session on Wednesday, kindergarten teachers highlight the three dimensions of three-dimensional modeling, a key part of new state science standards.

She encouraged the teachers to ask their students what traits the animals shared.

“The first thing they’re going to say is, ‘Well, one’s big and one’s small,” she said. “What we really want them to say is, ‘Well, their fur is the same color,’ or, ‘Mom has a patch of black hair here and the baby doesn’t.’ We want them to look at detail.”

She added, “We want them to get used to being a detective.”

The science standards that have been in place for the past decade fulfills the first dimension of three-dimensional modeling.

Doing something with that knowledge satisfies the second dimension, and the third dimension requires teachers to apply to their lessons a “cross-cutting concept” — strategies that students can apply to any subject, like identifying patterns or sequences.

Under the existing standards, a student may not have been introduced to physical science until the third grade. But starting next year, Tennessee schoolchildren will learn about life science, physical science, earth and space science, and engineering applications, beginning in kindergarten and continuing through high school.

“I do believe that this is the best our standards have ever been, because of the fact that they are so much more detailed than they have been in the past,” Davis said.

About a thousand Shelby County teachers made their way to trainings this week, which were free and open to all educators. Several administrators also met to discuss ways they can ensure the new standards are implemented in their schools.

As with anything new, Jay Jennings — an assistant principal at a Tipton county middle school and an instructor at Wednesday’s training — expects some pushback. But he’s optimistic that his district will have every teacher at benchmark by the end of the 2018–2019 school year.

“We talked before about teachers knowing content, and that’s important,” he said. “But what we want to see is kids knowing content and questioning content. We want to see them involved.”

He reminded other school leaders about last year’s changes to English and math standards, a transition that he said was challenging but smoother than expected.  

“Teachers are going to go out of their comfort zone,” he explained. “But it’s not changing what a lot of them are already doing.”