under the sea

From Legos to underwater robotics: How Coney Island teachers are creating a marine science “pipeline” for students

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Students at P.S. 188 in Coney Island program a spinning lego top.

When people think of Coney Island, they often picture a beachline with brightly colored roller coasters and hot dog stands, but high school teacher Lane Rosen sees it a laboratory for the next generation of marine scientists.

“People don’t realize there’s 567 miles of coastline in New York City,” Rosen said. “There’s tens of thousands of jobs, but we’re not training anybody for any of them.”

Rosen and a group of teachers in Coney Island have a radical plan to transform education in their neighborhood: build a marine science pipeline that helps guide a student all the way from the first day of elementary school through college or into a career.

The plan tackles an issue that has befuddled educators for years: How do you ensure students have a clear way to stay on track from the beginning to the end of their education? It also invests heavily in career-focused learning, which is in line with the city’s push to expand and strengthen CTE programs.

Students at P.S. 188, a local elementary school, are already encountering a science-heavy curriculum that includes basic coding and experimenting with Lego robotics. In middle school at I.S. 281, the goal is for them to move onto advanced robotics, and by the time they reach John Dewey High School, teachers can tie in marine science and technology.

Why stop at high school graduation, though? The group of teachers is starting to forge relationships with Kingsborough College, which has a maritime technology program, and even with the local divers union.

“We have a whole curriculum that was written in terms of going from step 1, to step 2, to step 3, to step 4, to step 5,” said Scott Krivitsky, a kindergarten teacher at P.S. 188.

The project, which began in earnest last year, remains a somewhat loose collection of schools trying to define what it means to be a “pipeline.” In addition to P.S. 188, I.S. 281 and John Dewey High School, Krivitsky says other schools are getting involved. There are around 30 schools interested in the initiative, known as the Brooklyn Marine STEM Education Alliance. Aside from academics, the group also organizes out-of-school events, such as beach cleanups.

Teachers know a fully-fledged pipeline faces a number of challenges. There is no way to ensure that students remain in the same set of schools, or stay interested in marine science. Not to mention, no teacher wants to track a student into a specific career field starting in kindergarten.

But they are confident students will stick with the program because they are inspired by marine science and robotics, not because they feel boxed into a particular career.

“If all the schools work together, STEM is just a hook,” said high school robotics teacher Fil Dispenza.

That theory was on display at P.S. 188 on a recent Wednesday afternoon. A group of fourth-grade students stared intently at their computer screens, trying to program a spinning top made of Legos. One-by-one they watched their projects come to life.

“One Mississippi, two Mississippi,” they counted in unison, transfixed by the spinning gears.

While the project doesn’t have an obvious marine science tie-in, it’s the kind of work that lays an early foundation for more advanced scientific thinking.

As the students advance, the curriculum delves more deeply into marine science, a subject Coney Island students can relate to since they live in a coast town, Rosen said. That became crystal clear in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. The elementary school, which was temporarily shut down after the storm, is still dealing with repairs. The high school had flickering electricity for a year and a half and some teachers lost their homes, Rosen said.

“I hate to say this, but this disaster, or travesty, really makes my classroom — it makes it alive,” Rosen said, “because I have something to refer to that the kids know about.”

If nothing else, connecting high schools with elementary schools helps inspire some of Brooklyn’s youngest learners, said Uzma Harris, the technology teacher at P.S. 188.

In the corner of the elementary school’s “Lego lab,” where students learn about robotics, is an expansive model of Coney Island, complete with roller coasters, a ferris wheel and a carousel. John Dewey High School students worked with elementary school students to build the model, which, in itself, represents the pipeline teachers are trying to create.

“When students come in they just gravitate towards this,” Harris said about the model. “ It just shows what they can do.”

bargaining

Chicago’s Acero teachers vote 98% to authorize first-ever charter school strike

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Members of the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff protest before an Acero network board meeting in October.

Teachers at 15 Acero schools overwhelmingly voted Tuesday evening to authorize a strike, setting the stage for the first walkout in the nation by teachers at a charter network.

With a 96 percent turnout of the estimated 500 union-represented Acero Teachers, 98 percent of members voted to grant a strike authorization. The teachers union can now announce a strike date if contract negotiations reach an impasse, according to the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff (ChiACTS).

Acero, formerly named UNO, is the largest unionized charter-school operator in Chicago Public Schools. Its contract with teachers expired Aug. 2 and was extended until Oct. 3. But talks have been stalled, union officials said.

If teachers do walk out, it could be the country’s first charter school strike, union leaders said.

At issue in the contract negotiations are higher pay, increased diversity among teaching staff in majority Latino schools, smaller class sizes, better special education services and teacher evaluations.

Chicago International Charter Schools teachers will also take a strike authorization vote Friday.

Changing course

Memphis’ only program for adults to get high school diploma gets lifeline from district leaders

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Kennishia Pratts, 19, is on track to graduate from The Excel Center in December. She plans to attend Spelman College, a prestigious historically black women’s college.

Update on Oct. 30, 2018: The Shelby County Schools board approved this contract. 

The only thing that was keeping 19-year-old Kennishia Pratts from a job she really needed was a high school diploma, one potential employer told her.

So Pratts decided she would go back to school. She tried to enroll at a nearby high school, but was ineligible because of her age. That’s when she turned to The Excel Center, a charter school for adults and the only place in Memphis adults can get their high school diploma — not just an equivalent commonly known as a GED.

“When they told me I could get my official high school diploma here, I was ecstatic,” Pratts said. “I’d rather have my high school diploma where I know that I’m for sure going to get into college, I’m for sure going to get this job.”

With two children to support, “I have to make a living out here,” explained Pratts, who is on track to graduate later this year.

But now Excel is slated to close at the end of this academic year because it hasn’t graduated enough students on time and has posted low scores on state standardized tests, called TNReady. By state law, any charter school on the Tennessee Department of Education’s “priority list,” composed of the state’s lowest-performing schools, must close.

That’s why Shelby County Schools is stepping in to help keep Excel’s doors open to serve what Superintendent Dorsey Hopson called a “unique population.” It would no longer be a charter school, but a “contract school,” according to district policy. The state is also supporting the switch because “as an adult high school, the Excel Center does not fit the K-12 charter model,” a state spokeswoman said.

The school board is expected to vote Tuesday on a proposed contract between the district and Goodwill Industries that would set up a different set of expectations for adult learners.

The need for schools like The Excel Center is immense. Adult education programs are scarce in Memphis, which has one of the highest poverty rates in the nation. About 2,000 students drop out of high school every year, according to the city’s main school district. In addition, Memphis has the highest percentage in the nation of young people ages 16 to 24 not in school or working. Without a high school education, it’s that much harder to find a job. Those without a high school diploma are also more likely to end up in jail.

Adult learners come with different challenges than traditional students, school leaders say. They are more likely to need child care while they are in class, have inflexible, low wage jobs, and and need more help with academics because of long gaps in education.

State policy for schools like Excel is lacking, said Candis Dawson, the school’s director. Goodwill operates at least 20 similar schools in five states where there are different standards for measuring success at adult schools. For example, most adult learners missed graduating with their classmates. Since schools qualify for Tennessee’s priority list if the percentage of students graduating on time is below 67 percent, it’s unlikely the center would ever escape the dreaded list. (In 2018, the center’s on-time graduation rate — that is, within four years and a summer of entering 9th grade — was 8.8 percent.)

“It’s not a blame on the district or the state, but we were put in a holding pattern until key players came together to say this model wouldn’t work for us,” Dawson said. Otherwise, “we would automatically continue to fail.”

To address that, the proposed $239,000 contract for no more than 500 students would establish new metrics to gauge success. Students would still take TNReady end-of-course exams like their younger counterparts.

Specifically, the requirements to keep Excel open include:

  • 18 percent of students in an academic year gain their high school diploma
  • 20 percent of graduates within six months are hired for a job that pays more than minimum wage, receive a job certification, such as nursing assistant, or are accepted to attend a community college or four-year university.
  • 59 percent of students complete each eight-week term.

If the school fails for two straight years to meet those amended requirements, should they clear the board, Shelby County Schools could close the school.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
The Excel Center opened in 2015 as a charter school for adults to get their high school diploma.

Currently, the center employs 11 teachers for its 450 students and offers classes from 8:45 a.m. to 6:15 p.m., weekly bus passes, and free child care for children ages six weeks to 12 years. Younger children can also enroll in pre-kindergarten classes at Excel.

“They’re learning the power of education as they see their parents go to class,” said Chuck Molinski, the center’s vice president of education.

The school year is divided into five, eight-week sessions to accelerate students’ completion of credits. If needed, students attend remedial courses before enrolling in credit-bearing classes so they will be able to keep up with the faster pace. Students can enroll for a term, take a break for a term, and then return later, if needed. None of that would change under the new contract arrangement.

The average age of Excel students is 27, with the school serving students as young as 18 and as old as 84. The center also offers life-coaching to help students navigate services, such as housing and job placement. Every student is required to take a class on crafting resumes and cover letters, culminating in a presentation of a portfolio of their work. Job fairs, field trips to area businesses, and workshops on filling out college admissions paperwork is commonplace. Most students are enrolled for three or four terms before earning enough credits for a diploma. If a student has no high school credits coming in, it takes about 18 months attending classes full time to graduate. So far, the three-year-old school has graduated nearly 400 students.

A diploma, rather than a GED, is worth the extra effort, Molinski said.

“On the employer end it shows more of a dedication and devotion… Our students are having to take ACT, TNReady, and the civics exam,” he said. “It shows more dedication than just going on a computer and passing a test.”

Pratts, the Excel student, is now aiming beyond the job she was turned down before going back to school. She’s been admitted to Spelman College in Atlanta, a prestigious historically black women’s college. It’s something she never before thought possible.

“If they close [The Excel Center], a lot of people are going to be devastated because this school has helped a lot of people achieve things they never thought they would,” she said.