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.

breaking

Breaking: Indiana didn’t set aside enough money for schools. Senate leader says a fix is ‘top priority.’

PHOTO: Photo by Shaina Cavazos/Chalkbeat
Students at Global Prep Academy, a charter school, learn about comparing shapes. All schools could see less funding if lawmakers do not fix the funding shortfall.

State education officials are expecting a shortfall in school funding this year that could be as high as $9 million because state and local officials underestimated Indiana’s student enrollment.

If the legislature does not act to increase funding, districts, charter schools and private schools that receive state vouchers could all get less money than they were promised this year.

Senate President David Long said new legislation to appropriate more money to schools would be proposed, though other lawmakers involved in budget-making were less certain on what a solution would look like this early.

“It’s our top priority, education is, so it’ll have our full focus when we come back in January,” Long said.

But on the upside, he said, public school enrollment increased since last year.

“It’s not a bad problem,” Long said. “We have more kids going into public schools than we did last year, but it’s a challenge for us only in a sense that we need to adjust our numbers.”

A memo from the Indiana Department of Education said the legislature’s budget appropriation was short by less than one-half of 1 percent. When the amount the legislature allocated for school funding does not line up with its funding formula, “the law requires the Department to proportionately reduce the total amount to be distributed to recipients,” the memo said.

It’s not clear how the miscalculation in enrollment numbers occurred, said Rep Tim Brown, a key budget-writer and chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. The budget dollars are estimated based on projected school enrollment counts from districts themselves, the education department and the legislative services agency, which helps provide information and data to lawmakers.

Brown urged people to keep the number in perspective, especially since the budget is crafted based on estimates. Brown said this was the first year since he became involved with budget writing in 2013 that projected budget allocations ended up being less than school enrollment, which was calculated based on counts from September Count Day.

“We’re looking at what our options are, but let us keep in mind it is $1.50 out of every $10,000 a school gets,” Brown said, adding that he wasn’t sure this early on how lawmakers would act to make up the shortfall.

But J.T. Coopman, executive director for the Indiana Association of Public School Superintendents, said even small amounts of money make a difference for cash-strapped schools. Districts have already started making contracts and have obligations to pay for teacher salaries and services at this point. It’s pretty late in the game for this kind of news, he said.

“I did see that it’s less than a half a percent, but for schools that’s a lot of money,” Coopman said. “Can we get this fixed before it becomes a real problem for school districts?”

Neither Brown nor Long knew how much public school enrollment had increased. The $32 billion two-year budget passed in April increased total dollars for schools by about 3.3 percent from 2017 to 2019, for a total of about $14 billion. Included within that was a 2.5 percent average increase for per-student funding to $6,709 in 2019, up from $6,540 last year.

The news of a funding shortfall comes as the state continues to see declining revenue. The Northwest Indiana Times reports that state revenue is down $136.5 million (2.8 percent) from what lawmakers estimated this past spring for the next two-year budget.

During the annual ceremonial start to the 2018 legislative session today, leaders discussed a need to provide more resources to schools and the state board of education. So far, many of the priorities involving education this year look to address workforce needs and encourage schools to offer more computer science courses.

But House Speaker Brian Bosma also shouted out “innovative” steps made by Indianapolis Public Schools and Fort Wayne Public Schools.

“People are trying something different and they are having great results with it,” Bosma said. “We need to give them more tools, we need to give them more opportunities.”

what's next?

Policymakers agree virtual schools should get more teachers and less money. Will they make it happen?

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
A view outside of Indiana Virtual School's office, located in an office park at the northern edge of Marion County.

After Chalkbeat revealed widespread low-performance and unusual spending at Indiana Virtual School, there were no immediate plans to change how the fast-growing but relatively little-known online charter school operates.

Rep. Bob Behning, the House Education Committee chairman who is one of Indiana’s most influential education lawmakers, has not commented after repeated requests for an interview.

Senate Democrats have no education priorities specified for the upcoming year.

And Senate Republicans and House Democrats haven’t yet released their 2018 plans. Sen. Dennis Kruse, the Republican chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said he largely thought Indiana’s charter laws were fine, although he was open to tweaking aspects of the law — such as whether authorizers of failing charter schools should be allowed to open additional schools.

But national and even local charter school advocates — including those who could affect public policy — agree changes need to be made at Indiana Virtual School and online charters more broadly across the state. Some were blunt in their assessment of the school, which since 2011 has enrolled thousands of students and failed to graduate most of them. It also has a barebones teaching force, low test scores, and two F grades from the state.

“The whole thing is a mess,” said Tony Walker, a pro-charter school Democrat on the Indiana State Board of Education.

Read: As students signed up, online school hired barely any teachers — but founder’s company charged it millions

And the school’s problems aren’t limited to academics. Walker also called out the school’s lenient attendance policy, lack of real-time teaching and choice not to provide computers to students.

“Them not having an online platform that permits them to have live courses should be a deal-breaker … You should never have an online school that exists without that,” he said. “You should never have an online school that’s chartered that does not provide the means to access the school to its students. If you’re not giving your students laptops, then you shouldn’t exist.”

What’s more, Thomas Stoughton, Indiana Virtual’s founder, previously headed a for-profit company that charged millions of dollars in management fees and rent to the school while he was school board president. Stoughton is also leading the school’s growth — a second Indiana school opened this year, and plans for Michigan and Texas schools are in the works.

Although Indiana’s legislative session won’t begin until January — and it’s looking like a year where education won’t be center stage — Democrat and Republican lawmakers indicated interest in making changes to laws governing virtual schools, but nothing more.

Doing nothing just isn’t acceptable, said Rep. Terri Austin, a Democrat from Anderson and a former educator.

“Surely given the statistics the General Assembly has an obligation to take a look what’s happening,” she said.

Walker said Indiana Virtual School’s student-teacher ratio jumped out at him. At the end of last school year, Indiana Virtual had one teacher for every 222 students.

Now, Indiana Virtual and the new Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy enroll about 6,332 students, served by 40 teachers, which makes the student-to-teacher ratio 158-to-1. The national average for online charter schools is 30-to-1, according to the National Education Policy Center.

“There’s absolutely no justification or reason that I can think of to permit a school to have a 221-1 faculty-student ratio,” Walker said. “That’s just ridiculous … There needs to be substantially more of the funds appropriated in the direction of instruction than I think this school has.”

Rep. Scott Pelath, the long-time leader of the House Democrats who stepped down from that role last week, was also surprised by the student-teacher ratio, even more surprised than he was by the tens of millions of dollars the state has set aside to fund the schools.

“That struck me as just outrageous, and I would think the public would think it was outrageous,” Pelath said. “Particularly when virtual schools are used as a substitute in places where you maybe have a lot more at-risk kids that need more attention, not less.”

Indeed, more than 80 percent of the students at Indiana Virtual qualify for meal assistance, but otherwise their demographics closely mirror those of the state — majority white, with relatively small populations of English-learners and students with special needs. The school says many of its students have been expelled from previous schools, and they say their students’ struggles are part of the reason graduation rates and test scores remain low.

But Karega Rausch, a former member of the Indiana Charter School Board who now works for the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, said online charter schools as a whole shouldn’t use student characteristics as an excuse. The group even has an entire set of online school-specific policies states should adopt in light of their poor performance.

“Just having lots of low-income kids is not a justifiable reason to not teach them well,” Rausch said. “Just having a lot of kids that may be mobile is not an excuse for not teaching them well. Traditional public schools and charter schools are finding ways of serving those kids at high levels.”

While traditional schools should serve as a model for instruction, Indiana’s school funding formula creates problems in a virtual environment. For schools like Indiana Virtual that have few barriers to entry and inconsistent attendance reporting practices, it can be hard to know if students who are enrolled are actually being educated. Yet schools get more money for every student they enroll.

Kruse and Walker, as well as national advocates, said they would support a funding model based on how much work students do, rather than whether they are on a school’s books on Count Day. New Hampshire and Florida already use this kind of system.

“There needs to be a different funding formula for these schools,” Walker said. “They should not be funded on a per-student basis like brick-and-mortar schools … it becomes a profit mill.”

An analysis from Florida Southwestern State College School of Education last year found that funding based on students finishing classes in virtual schools cost the state less money than the more traditional per-student model. Walker called on lawmakers to consider this change and put it into law “sooner rather than later.”

Pelath said based on what he’s learned about online schools, he doesn’t see them as a good substitute for traditional education. (Former state Superintendent Glenda Ritz agrees.)

“The oversight and accountability is not anywhere close to what we would have in traditional education,” Pelath said. “It’s entirely reasonable that some virtual experiences can be part of the larger overall experience, but as a substitute they are just woefully inadequate.”

The first step is to stop growth immediately, he said. Virtual schools enroll about 12,000 students across the state — about 1 percent of all students — and the number has been growing each year.

As far as upcoming legislation, Pelath was less sure, and new House Democrat leadership will certainly play a role in the caucuses’ goals for next year. Pelath was optimistic change could happen, but he was also realistic about the fact that a Republican supermajority in the House can make it difficult to get Democrats’ bills through.

“I think there’s a very good chance of that,” Pelath said in regards to possible legislation on virtual schools in the upcoming session. “Whether those things come in the form of originally introduced bills, of which there’s a risk of them staying bottled up in committee, or in the form of amendments to alter legislation that is moving in the process …This is going to have to be a debate.”