course correction

How one ‘Renewal’ school is trying to reach high-needs students by making classes harder

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Peter Seidman meets with Campos Secondary School teacher Blythe Smith

Jason Rosenbaum knew his high school had a problem: Students often arrived years behind in reading and the school struggled to get them to graduation. He tried tweaking the curriculum, but not much changed.

So when New York City’s education department required Juan Morel Campos Secondary School to adopt a new curriculum last year as part of its high-profile “Renewal” turnaround program, Rosenbaum jumped at the chance to quickly change things up.

“Looking back, I was standing at the edge of this cliff and I’m glad someone pushed me,” he said. “Maybe I was moving too gently for what our kids needed.”

Like the other 93 low-performing schools in the city’s program, Campos Secondary School is getting access to health care services, after-school activities, and other help as the city tries to turn it into a hub of social services. But at many schools, equally significant — but less visible — changes are happening behind classroom doors, as educators try new techniques for reaching struggling students.

At Campos, a key part of that change is the new high school English curriculum. It asks students to dig into more complicated texts, performing “close readings” that sometimes take weeks. And it has the whole high school English department starting with the same game plan, even though most teachers have been used to a lot of autonomy.

“English teachers, traditionally — we haven’t had curriculum,” said Peter Seidman, a consultant the school hired to help teachers adapt to the new EngageNY coursework. “They taught the texts that they were familiar with and in the style that they had been taught growing up. And so it becomes very difficult to ensure rigor and ensure consistent high expectations.”

Over the past school year, Seidman has dropped into classrooms to offer feedback, help develop lesson plans, and troubleshoot problems. He says he wants to be a sounding board for teachers, not a critic.

“The teacher needs to understand that you’re on their side and that you’re not an evaluator,” explained Seidman, who works for Public Consulting Group, the education firm that designed the new curriculum.

Education department officials noted that many schools in the turnaround program are using their extra resources to hire coaches to improve instruction, and help teachers adapt to Common Core standards.

The stakes are high for the Williamsburg, Brooklyn school, which is spending $30,000 on the extra support. Just 48 percent of students graduated on time in 2015.

And though teachers and school leaders say the new curriculum is starting to take hold, the process has required winning over some skeptics.

Pat Sirulnick, a 12-year veteran of the school, had her doubts. Many of the school’s students are two to four years behind in reading, one-third have disabilities, and a quarter are English language learners – and she worried they would disengage.

“Our students don’t have the best retention and interest level,” Sirulnick said. “These were challenging texts – I was concerned that they would get bored and really antsy.”

On a recent Monday, though, Sirulnick sat down with Seidman to review two writing samples from a student who is both an English language learner and has a disability. They noticed that the student’s comparison of the Atlanta Compromise and W.E.B. Du Bois’ “Souls of Black Folk” was more sophisticated than a writing exercise from eight months earlier.

Sirulnick said it’s hard to know how much to attribute those gains to the new curriculum, but after using it for just a few months, she has been surprised that students haven’t given up on the more painstaking approach.

“I don’t know why they weren’t bored, but they weren’t,” she said of the close reading.

Peter Seidman discusses student work with Pat Sirulnick
PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Peter Seidman discusses student work with Pat Sirulnick

Seidman has worked with teachers to adapt the work for the school’s highest-needs students. Students may read a graphic novel version of a text like “Romeo and Juliet,” for example, and look at smaller sections of the original where appropriate. Another student, who is in danger of dropping out, was recently allowed to explore a research topic that didn’t relate to the text that his class was reading in an effort to keep him engaged.

That flexibility, and the school’s slow adoption of the changes over the course of the school year, has made it easier to get faculty members on board, Rosenbaum said.

“Any change is hard because it means letting something go, and teachers understandably become wed to things that they believe truly help our students,” he said. “I was surprised at how quickly they recognized the value.”

Struggling Detroit schools

The story of Detroit’s schools is much more nuanced than many people realize. Here’s how we can cover it together.

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Rynell Sturkey, a first-grade teacher at Paul Robeson Malcolm X Academy on Detroit's west side often manages jam-packed classrooms of 37 kids or more. Her students have no music or art or gym. “They’re with me all day in this room. We’re tired,” she said.

Ever since my husband and I announced to friends and family three years ago that we’d made the somewhat-impulsive decision to sell our apartment in Brooklyn and move with our two small children to downtown Detroit, we’ve been confronted with the same persistent questions:

Erin Einhorn
Erin Einhorn

“You live in Detroit” we’re asked, with a tone of skepticism and, frankly, judgement. “And you have kids?”

The questions are rooted in the perception that the schools in Detroit are so awful that no decent parent with other options would reasonably choose to live in this city. It’s a perception I know is grounded in some deeply concerning conditions in Detroit schools, including many of the issues I’ve covered as a reporter for Chalkbeat. I’ve written about the Detroit teachers and families who alleged in a federal lawsuit last year that the conditions in Detroit schools are so deplorable that they violate children’s right to literacy. I’ve spent time in classrooms where a teaching shortage has meant 37 first-graders packed together all day without a break for music, art or gym. And I’ve seen the heartbreak on the faces of students and parents who’ve learned that the charter school they’d chosen would be closing, leaving them to scramble for another school in a city where choice is abundant, but quality is rare.  

I appreciate the concern from friends and family who are worried about my children, but the truth is that my kids are going to be completely fine. My husband and I have a car and accommodating jobs that enable us to enroll our kids in any school in any neighborhood  — options that poor transportation and the uneven distribution of schools have put out of reach for far too many kids. And, as it happens, we found a great public school right in our own neighborhood where our oldest child now walks every day to kindergarten.

The truth is that the story of Detroit’s school is much more nuanced than most people realize. There are serious challenges — no doubt about that — but we’re not going to be able to address them until we stop asking each other what we’re going to do about educating our own children. We need to start asking what we can do to make sure that families in every neighborhood have a shot at a decent education. That’s what we try to do at Chalkbeat. We aim to tell the stories of teachers and students and parents, to put a human face on challenges that would otherwise be difficult to understand. We look at what’s working in our schools and what urgently needs to change.

This school year marks the first full year that Detroit’s main school district will be led by a new school board and superintendent. And it will be Chalkbeat’s first full school year since we formally launched in Detroit last winter. We hope to grow this year, adding another reporter to help us expand our coverage of early childhood education, special education and other matters crucial to the city’s future. And we’ll continue to cover the important issues affecting Detroit children and the way they learn.

We can’t tell these stories without you. So please — reach out! Introduce yourself, join our community by submitting a story tip, giving us feedback or making a financial contribution. Contact us at [email protected], follow us on Facebook and at @ChalkbeatDET. And, please, keep reading!

 

now hiring

With a new school year underway, hundreds of teaching positions remain unfilled in New York City

PHOTO: Jaclyn Zubrzycki

Hundreds of schools are missing teachers and support staff two weeks into the school year, with many of the openings in high-poverty districts and struggling schools that are typically the hardest to staff, according to postings on a city database in mid-September.

There were almost 1,700 job postings as of Sept. 19, according to data obtained by Chalkbeat. The listings offer a snapshot of the jobs advertised that day — not an official tally of the total citywide staff openings.

Still, they indicate a critical need for special-education teachers and paraprofessionals, teaching assistants who tend to work with young students and those with disabilities. Many of the unfilled positions were in low-income districts in the Bronx and Brooklyn, and dozens were in schools in the city’s Renewal program for low-performing schools.

The vacancies were posted in the city’s Excessed Staff Selection System, which lists jobs available to teachers in the Absent Teacher Reserve — a pool of teachers who lack permanent positions because they face disciplinary or legal issues, or their schools were closed or downsized. The listings hint at where teachers in the ATR pool may land this year, since the city recently announced it will place such teachers in schools that still have vacancies after Oct. 15.

Education department officials said the data “doesn’t provide accurate or precise information on school vacancies.” In particular, they said there could be a lag in updating the postings, or that schools could post positions that are expected to become available but are currently filled.

In addition, schools may list the same job more than once in order to advertise the position to teachers with different certifications, officials said. For example, a posting for a computer science teacher could also appear as openings for math and science teachers.

Still, the postings suggest where the need for teachers may be greatest — and where ATR teachers could likely end up.

Four out of the five districts with the most postings were in the Bronx. They include Districts 7 and 9 in the South Bronx, along with Districts 10 and 12. District 19 in Brooklyn, which includes East New York, also had dozens of listings.

In District 7, where more than 90 percent of students are poor, there were 60 postings for teachers in subjects ranging from Spanish to physical education and music. That includes 26 listings for paraprofessionals, who are often mandated by students’ special-education plans.

Overall, there were more than 600 listings for paraprofessionals, about half of which were needed to work with students who have disabilities. Almost 400 of the postings were for special-education teachers, who are often in short supply.

Devon Eisenberg knows these staffing challenges well. She is co-principal of The Young Women’s Leadership School of the Bronx in District 9. Despite boasting a staff-retention rate of about 90 percent, the school started the year short one teacher. To plug the hole, Eisenberg relied on substitutes and other teachers to cover the class. She was able to find a permanent hire this week, though the pool of qualified candidates was slim.

“This is definitely not fair for our students as they are not receiving consistent and coherent instruction,” she wrote in an email. “It is also stressful for the teachers covering these holes.”

Starting the school year with a substitute teacher can become a barrier to learning. Research has shown that staff turnover leads to lower test scores, even for students who weren’t in the class that lost its teacher.

Turnover tends to be highest in struggling schools, which often serve the neediest students.

Schools in the Renewal program — which includes 78 low-performing schools — posted about 70 openings, according to the data analyzed by Chalkbeat. The greatest shortage was for special-education teachers, for which there were 16 postings. That was followed by math teachers, with nine openings.

At M.S. 391 The Angelo Patri Middle School, a Renewal school in the Bronx, there were two postings for math teachers. Last year, only 8 percent of students passed state math exams at the school, which has a new principal.

Carmen Marrero teaches special education at M.S. 391 and has worked in other Bronx schools that struggle with staffing.

“We tend to deal with a lot of behavior challenges,” she said, referring to schools in the Bronx. “I guess that keeps some of the aspiring teachers or some of the teachers who are already in the field away from this side of town.”

This year, the openings come with an additional consequence: Schools with vacancies could be prime candidates to receive teachers in the ATR.

Though officials say they will work closely with principals, the department could place teachers even over the objections of school leaders. Some principals have threatened to game the hiring system by simply not posting openings in order to avoid having a teacher from the ATR placed at their school.

Meanwhile, some teachers in the pool dread being assigned to schools whose openings could signal poor leadership or a tough work environment.

Teachers who are in the ATR will not be placed in positions outside of their license areas, which may limit how many of the openings the education department can fill after mid-October.

Critics say the policy will place the least effective teachers in the neediest schools. Education department figures show that only 74 percent of ATR teachers were rated effective, highly effective or satisfactory in 2015-16 — compared to 93 percent of all city teachers.

Education department officials said the city has worked with schools to fill their vacancies well before the start of the school year.

Maria Herrera, principal of Renaissance High School for Musical Theater in the Bronx, said she tries to have all her hires in place by June. That way, she can involve future teachers in end-of-the-year activities that help build a sense of community, and provide training over the summer.

This year, she was able to start school fully staffed. The education department allowed schools to fill positions earlier this year and held numerous job fairs, she said.

“I feel really supported,” she said.