a day in the life

Fist bumps and a war room: A day in the life of a community school director

Fiorella Guevara, left, looked at student writing samples with a bilingual teacher at M.S. 50 in Williamsburg.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Fiorella Guevara, left, looked at student writing samples with a bilingual teacher at M.S. 50 in Williamsburg.

Around 4 p.m. on a recent Friday, Fiorella Guevara got around to eating her lunch.

Then she leaned back in the student-sized chair where she was sitting in an empty classroom and let out a long sigh.

“Oh man I’m tired,” said Guevara, the new community school director at M.S. 50 in Williamsburg. “This is why I never sit down for too long.”

Instead, she bounds from room to room, checking on the classes she oversees, meeting with the principal or calling up parents, pausing just long enough to hug one of the students whose affection she’s earned in her few months on the job.

“She is a fireball,” said Franklin Tapia, the parent of an eighth-grader at M.S. 50, whom Guevara recently hired to work as a mentor and soccer coach. “I don’t know how she does it. She’ll come in 9 o’clock in the morning sometimes and she won’t leave until 9:30, 10 o’clock at night.”

Community school directors like Guevara play a key role in Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to revitalize 94 of New York City’s low-performing schools — including M.S. 50, where just one in 10 students passed last year’s state English tests, and 40 percent of students are considered chronically absent. Each school has a director responsible for coordinating the activities, social services, and parent workshops that the mayor is hoping will help set the schools on a different path.

That’s a tall order. But if anyone seems up to the task, it’s Guevara, who taught elementary school for five years before working with an advocacy group dedicated to creating service-rich schools that partner with parents.

“I truly, 100 percent believe in community schools,” she said.

Chalkbeat stopped by M.S. 50 recently to see how the job really worked. Here are highlights from Guevara’s day.

Guevara worked with a student during an art class.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Guevara worked with a student during an art class.

11:20 a.m. — Troubleshooting

The mission of community schools is to treat students’ physical or emotional ailments so they can focus on learning. For Guevara, that means switching from nurse to counselor to administrator.

When she walked into a bilingual class, where the children were eating a lunch of chicken and rice, she found a boy who had hurt his ankle. In fluent Spanish, she told him to get some ice and elevate it.

Then she read a letter a girl had received from the health department saying she was missing a mandatory physical exam, though the girl said she’d already had it. Guevara promised to investigate.

Next, she dropped by a peer-mediation class that she started at the school this year. She listened in as the students, munching on pizza, discussed the need to stay neutral when settling disputes between classmates. Then Guevara, whose iPhone is always on hand, took a snapshot of the attendance list: A few students were missing.

“My day-to-day is ensuring that the vision we’ve laid out is going,” she explained. “And also troubleshooting when there’s something that’s not going right with the plan.”

Moments later, she was in the main office showing the health department letter to Benjamin Honoroff, the principal brought in this year to spearhead the school’s turnaround. Then she stepped into the crowded hallway as students returned from lunch.

She hugged a girl, told a boy to spit out his gum, then pulled aside a girl wearing a “M.S. 50 is a bully-free zone” shirt — she was one of those who had skipped the peer-mediation class. Without scolding, Guevara told her how important it is to show up for class, then sent her on her way.

“Alright kids,” Guevara said, speed-walking to her next appointment, “get back to class.”

Guevara led an attendance meeting.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Guevara led an attendance meeting.

12:40 p.m. — Partnerships and pressure

Guevara and Honoroff sat down in a science room with two representatives from El Puente, a 34-year-old community organization headquartered in a former church around the corner from the school.

At the heart of each of the city’s new community schools is a marriage between the school and a nonprofit. With input from Honoroff, El Puente choose Guervara to run its operations at M.S. 50.

One of the group’s main initiatives is to send artists to work with classroom teachers to help students produce a creative project, like a play, that combines academic content with the arts. At the meeting, Guervara recounted a recent conversation with a boy who is struggling academically, but who had shined in his role as Hades in a play last year about Greek mythology.

“I love doing that,” she recalled the boy saying.

But, in a roundabout way, the group acknowledged that the program was struggling to stay on course as some classroom teachers focused their energy on other work. Honoroff pointed out that an official review of the school, and state exams, were both around the corner. The school’s results are sure to be scrutinized for signs of progress — or backsliding.

“There’s a bunch of pressure on the teachers coming up,” Honoroff said.

Frances Lucerna, El Puente’s executive director, said she understood.

“I get it,” she said. “There’s so much that’s at stake right now.”

J.H.S. 50 Principal Benjamin Honoroff at an attendance team meeting.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
J.H.S. 50 Principal Benjamin Honoroff at an attendance team meeting.

1:40 p.m. — The war room

Guevara perched on the edge of a desk in the computer lab, her attendance team assembled around her. It was the school’s equivalent of a war room, and the battle was getting kids to show up to class.

One of the central goals of the city’s community-school program is improved attendance. The idea is that no amount of instruction will get struggling students caught up if they don’t attend class.

Guevara asked for an update from Tapia, the parent and mentor. He described a “chill room” he’d set up, complete with posters of Beyoncé and Malcolm X, where students could hang out with their mentors during lunch.

Then Guevara read through a list of the most frequently absent students, asking each team member to choose a few to keep close tabs on.

Next, they went over the results of a survey of 15 students whose attendance had improved dramatically this year. In explaining why they had missed so much school last year, nine students cited illness and 11 mentioned “appointments.”

“Part of what this triggers for me is the health aspect of community schools,” Guevara told the group, saying the responses showed the need for a school-based health clinic.

Honoroff, who’d sat in the back of the room as Guevara led the meeting, found the results encouraging. If the appointments included parents taking their children with them to an immigration lawyer, he suggested, perhaps the school could offer free legal clinics.

“Great stuff, guys,” he said.

3:02 p.m. — Jumping jacks and fist bumps

The school day lasts an extra hour this year at the 94 struggling schools, part of the mayor’s plan to turn them around. But at M.S. 50, students weren’t complaining.

That’s because, in addition to receiving help with math or reading, they get to play soccer, learn to crochet, practice debating, try jazz dancing, or record podcasts, among other options.

Usually Guevara moves from room to room. But an art teacher was absent, so Guevara oversaw her mural-making class. The task that day was for students to sketch the signatures they would use to sign the mural, which will be painted in a third-floor hallway. At the end of the period, Guevara had the students unwind by doing jumping jacks, squats, and running in place.

After that, Guevara headed upstairs to meet with Carolina Hidalgo, the bilingual teacher. The two are experimenting with an alternative to parent-teacher conferences called “academic parent-teacher teams.”

Instead of the typical report-card meetings, this model has parents come into the school for three workshops throughout the year, where the teacher explains the skills that students must learn and gives parents tips for helping. It’s designed in particular for parents with limited formal educations and those still learning English, who want to be involved in their children’s learning, but don’t know how.

“It’s like you’re building your team,” Guevara explained. “Who’s going to be the support structure for the student in all their learning spaces?”

After the pair finished looking at student writing samples, Guevara stopped by Honoroff’s room to say goodbye before the break. They went over some last-minute business, then bumped fists.

“Get some rest,” she said.

Regents retreat

Regents use annual retreat to take stock of changes in testing, charter schools and more

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Chancellor Betty Rosa, center, at a recent Board of Regents meeting.

New York State’s top education policymakers took a whirlwind tour Monday of their own accomplishments this year, kicking off a two-day retreat full of presentations and updates.

The briefings, conducted by top education department officials, served as a distillation of some top policy goals among the Board of Regents: rolling back graduation requirements, creating new graduation pathways, cutting back on state testing, and even rethinking how the board evaluates the charter schools it oversees.

Monday’s discussions largely tread on familiar territory, but here are three of the key issues they discussed.

Testing

New York State continues to be a hotbed of controversy surrounding testing, with roughly one in five students opting out of the 3-8 math and reading exams in recent years (the number is far smaller in New York City).

In response to concerns about the length of the exams, the Regents reduced the number of testing days for each exam from three to two — a change that went into effect this year. Education officials touted those changes Monday while stressing that they have gone out of their way to involve educators in the process of crafting exam questions.

“One of the things I believe is a major adjustment in New York is the extent to which teachers across New York are involved,” state education MaryEllen Elia told the board, noting that 75 percent of the test questions are released to the public. “We have to constantly be asking ourselves what can we do better.”

Still, some Regents continued to express concerns about the exams, including whether they are fair to English learners, and whether the tests themselves help perpetuate disparities.

“What research is used about what’s developmentally appropriate?” Regent Judith Johnson asked. “Is it possible to have a test question that is culturally neutral?”

Charter schools

The Regents are currently discussing changes to the way they evaluate the charter schools they oversee, including taking a deeper look at suspension rates compared to traditional district schools, and tracking why students leave.

“There are charter chains that might have 25 percent of the students when they first started and they’re claiming great growth,” Regent Kathleen Cashin said during Monday’s discussion, adding that questions about why students leave shouldn’t be “buried.”

The discussion highlights a tension in the board’s discussion of the publicly funded, privately managed schools. On the one hand, board members are often quite critical — worrying some within the charter sector. But on the other hand, they have still approved large batches of new charters, including at their most recent meeting.

And the debate will continue in the fall: The Regents are expected to consider a proposal for changing the way charter schools are evaluated at their September meeting.

Students with disabilities

The board also heard from state officials about efforts to improve access to programs for students with disabilities, including those in preschool.

As Chalkbeat has previously reported, there is a shortage of seats for preschool special education students — with students often languishing at home without education services, a problem that advocates say has only gotten worse. Part of the issue, officials say, is they don’t have a way of quickly tracking supply and demand for those programs, which are often provided by private organizations.

Instead, state officials rely on phone calls and informal surveys, which can make it difficult for officials to quickly respond to shortages. Now, state officials are in the process of implementing a new data system for tracking students and open seats.

“We need to move from our current reactive system,” Christopher Suriano, an assistant commissioner of special education told the board. “We have to start reacting proactively to make sure we have capacity.”

Grab bag

  • The Regents spent some time talking about how to measure “civic readiness” which will be a component of how schools are judged under the state’s ESSA plan.
  • New data released by state officials shows that at least 500 students with disabilities graduated this year as part of a new policy that lets superintendents review their performance in lieu of passing all of the Regents exams. Though officials cautioned that the data are preliminary, and the number is likely to increase, that’s up from 315 students during the previous year.

Q&A

‘The war on teachers still exists.’ Newark Teachers Union chief on the Janus ruling, Roger León, and threats from Washington

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
"We took every opportunity to remind our members that the war on teachers still exists," said NTU President John Abeigon.

The past few weeks have been a rollercoaster ride for Newark Teachers Union President John Abeigon.

The high point came on July 1 when Roger León, a veteran Newark educator, became the district’s new superintendent. Abeigon had fought incessantly with the previous superintendent, Christopher Cerf, protesting his confirmation vote and trading insults with him in the press during contentious contract negotiations. León, by contrast, is Abeigon’s longtime acquaintance who held a two-hour introductory meeting with the union’s leadership soon after he was selected as schools chief.

The low point arrived on June 27 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that public employees who choose not to join their labor unions no longer must pay fees to cover the cost of collective bargaining. The case, which was bankrolled by anti-union conservative groups, was brought by a state worker in Illinois named Mark Janus who argued that he should not be forced to support a union whose political views he disagreed with.

“In Newark, we have a word for a guy like that: Jerk-off,” Abeigon said in an interview last week at the union’s four-story headquarters near City Hall. “‘Free rider’ might be more politically correct. But that’s just jerk-off by another name.”

In Newark, about 93 percent of the roughly 4,000 teachers, aides, and clerks represented by the NTU are full members, Abeigon said. They pay 1.1 percent of their annual salary in dues — or about $770 per year for a teacher earning $70,000 annually. The remaining employees are so-called agency-fee payers, who pay .85 percent of their salary to the union, or $595 per year for someone making $70,000.

As a result of the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision in favor of Janus, the union can no longer charge such fees. That means any NTU member who wants could end their membership but still enjoy the benefits of collective bargaining for free. Abeigon said none of his members dropped out after the ruling — but they only had four days to decide before the union’s July 1 enrollment deadline. It’s possible more could leave when the next window opens on Jan. 1.

During the hour-long interview with Chalkbeat, Abeigon gave his take on the ruling, the new superintendent, and the issues he’ll raise when contract negotiations with the district start this fall.

The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Chalkbeat: The Janus ruling was a major blow to unions that could leave them with less money, members, and political clout. What will it mean for your union?

Abeigon: Right now, Newark has no one requesting to drop out.

It makes sense given what we’ve been through in the past 10 years with [former superintendents] Cami Anderson and Chris Cerf attempting to annihilate us. It doesn’t make sense to drop out. It’s not worth it. For $700 I’m going to kick my union in the face? After all we’ve been through? After all the wins we’ve had?

What incentive do your members have to keep paying dues?

The right to run for office, the right to vote for your union leadership. Access to discount benefit programs that we have that are only available to full-time members, access to professional development that we provide gratis.

What about representation if they come up for disciplinary charges or tenure charges?

Right now, [non-dues payers] would be entitled to that. However, [the American Federation of Teachers-New Jersey] had a meeting yesterday. And there will be other meetings with the state legislature to correct that through the legislative process.

So essentially a law that would allow unions to only provide certain services to dues-paying members?

Correct.

It sounds like you’re also counting on your members to think beyond their personal financial interest and consider the greater good of the union.

We don’t have a separate source of income. We don’t sell T-shirts. We don’t invest in real estate. Our dues go to services and to protect members. If there’s no dues, there’s no service, there’s no protection. It’s that simple.

Our members know we’re not one of these unions that spend millions of dollars on staff and Cadillacs and vacations and conferences. I would say that 98 percent of union dues are spent on legal and professional services that we provide our members.

Some pundits have said the ruling could be a blessing in disguise to unions by forcing them to be more responsive to members and provide better services. Do you feel any pressure to be more responsive now?

If someone is working in a union that is not responsive and doesn’t provide services, this could be an incentive for that union to wake up and start listening to its members.

But if you look at the makeup of my executive board, my negotiation committees, my professional development committees, the workshops that we have here, I would argue there’s not a more progressive union in the state than the NTU.

So in your view, you’re already a responsive union that meets members’ needs?

Above and beyond.

Try to get in contact with another local union president while he’s on vacation through Facebook Messenger, and see if he responds. The staff in this building, we’re available 24-7.

Moving on to the new superintendent, Roger León. This is the first time the board has been able to choose a superintendent in over 20 years, rather than have one appointed by the state. And it chose a lifelong Newarker who’s a veteran educator. To you, what’s the significance of that?

It’s huge. It’s what we’ve been waiting for.

Now, not only do we have Roger, but we have [Gov. Phil] Murphy and [Commissioner Lamont] Repollet in the state Department of Education. So things should be a little more democratic.

And you know, democracy isn’t pretty. But there’s a process.

[León’s] going to learn where his role is as a superintendent who is answerable to a school board. And the school board is going to learn how to represent the parents to whom they’re responsible and the children.

How do you think your dealings with León, someone who’s from the district and worked here for over 25 years, will be different than they were with the state-appointed superintendents?

We’ll deal with him the same way we dealt with every single superintendent who preceded him. When they’re right, it’s because they listened to us, and when they’re wrong, it’s because they didn’t.

Tell me about León. Have you interacted with him over the years?

I’ve interacted with him a hundred times. I went to Montclair State with him; we took education law classes together.

Roger’s all about the kids. After that, he’s all about the teachers and administrators in the building who are in charge of providing those kids with an education.

Roger also comes from poverty. He went to Hawkins Street School as a child, and he still lives in the same house and the same neighborhood, and is loved and respected by the same people.

So it shouldn’t be all that difficult to express to Roger what’s wrong with a situation and how it can be remedied.

León also has a reputation for having very high standards. Is that a positive thing, or could it be a challenge for you if he thinks teachers are under-performing?

We expect him to be about high standards. But we also expect him to be about reasonable high standards.

If you’re in a classroom with 14, 15 kids, air-conditioned, parental support, you can have a certain expectation. If you’re in a classroom with 30 kids and it’s 105 degrees and gunshots interrupt the lesson, you have to adjust and monitor your expectations.

Does that mean lowering expectations for students facing those challenges?

No. But don’t expect the same results in the same amount of time.

One of the first things León did was force out 31 officials who were connected to his predecessors, Anderson and Cerf. What did you think about that?

It was a good start, but there’s still more of them to go.

Anyone associated with education reform or the corporate-charter school agenda needs to be identified, isolated, and let go. I would push Roger that anyone in the administrative sector who was hired by Cami or Cerf be terminated immediately.

You’ve called for Newark Enrolls, the district’s single enrollment system for traditional and charter schools, to be dismantled. But just recently León made a comment saying he was planning to keep it. Did that concern you?

Well it takes time to dismantle something, you can’t just dismantle it overnight. You have to replace it with something. I’ll give him time. But little by little it has to be demolished.

The purpose of Newark Enrolls was solely to put children in the empty seats at charter schools.

It had nothing to do with accommodating Newark parents. How do you accommodate a Newark parent by telling her that two of her kids are going to go to one school, and the the third is going to go to another school across town when she’s got a full-time job and has to get them to both schools?

León has limited control over charter schools. He can’t open or close charters, but he has talked about getting the two sectors to collaborate by having principals and teachers share ideas and best practices.

There’s nothing we can share. I disagree with him on that.

We have nothing to learn from the corporate charter industry. Everything that they use are things we’ve been arguing for for decades. We’ve been looking for legislation year after year to mandate a class-size minimum and maximum of 15 to 20 [students]. We didn’t need to learn that from them. We’ve been looking for that legislation forever. We can never get it.

Another issue you’ve brought up before are the extended hours at low-performing schools that was built into the 2012 teachers contract.

Another corporate-reform failure. It failed big because they thought they knew everything.

Every teacher can tell you that if you’re doing something wrong, or a kid’s not getting it, keeping him there an additional three hours a day is only going to frustrate him. It’s going to attack his self-esteem, and he’s going to act out. And that’s exactly what we saw happen.

So will you push León to get rid of that?

Yes. We want a restoration of the after-school program that has worked successfully in the traditional schools.

The contract that was negotiated in 2012 was considered groundbreaking. It had performance pay, longer hours for some schools, a new teacher evaluation system, and teacher raises.

We are a progressive union. We did negotiate those things.

And where they were successful is because we made them work. Where they failed is because the district was not being run by educators. It was being run by corporate charter reformers.

So now when the current contract is set to expire after this school year, will you try to keep any of those policies in the new contract?

We’re going to be trying to negotiate them all away.

Including performance pay?

Except for that. We have no problem with getting more money into the pockets of our members.

That’s what we’re about. We’re a union. It’s the Newark Teachers Union. A lot of people forget that. No, I’m not the parents union. I’m not the taxpayers union. I’m not the children’s union. The children in this city got more advocates than you can throw a…They got the [Advocates for Children of New Jersey], they got the Education Law Center, they got the parents and the other thing. Everyone and their mother in this city is an advocate for the children.

Wherever there’s a child in this city, one of my members is within three feet of that kid. You think I want any harm to come to that child? No, because the collateral damage will hit the teacher.

This moment seems like it’s been a bit of whiplash for your union. In Newark, you have a new locally controlled school board and a superintendent who’s an educator. But at the national level, you have a Supreme Court ruling that goes against unions. How are you feeling in this moment?

Locally, it’s a win that we’ve been working for for a long time — the return to local control.

But we were never not mindful that the war on teachers was a national one. And we took every opportunity to remind our members that the war on teachers still exists. That we may be lucky, we may have spared ourselves now, we may have found a moment to breathe without being directly attacked. But we still have to keep our helmets on for attacks that come from Washington.

But we’ll deal with it. We’ll survive those attacks, too.