learning curve

One Bronx high school is trying to reach high-needs students by ditching the traditional classroom

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Bronx Arena student Jasmine Broda practices French with Nicholas Geron.

In Evelyn Rebollar’s classroom, a student is listening to music on his phone while typing away on a laptop. Behind him, a classmate is fiddling with a deck of cards. One student is playing the computer game Age of Empires in the back corner. A couple tables away, one of his peers is chatting with another teacher in French.

Rebollar is sitting at the front of the room, though the tables are arranged so most students aren’t facing her. The setup might seem strange: All of these students are in the same class, but at this moment, none of them are on the same task. Rebollar occasionally paces through the room to check in on her students, but she isn’t bothered if a phone is out, or if one of them is momentarily distracted.

“We try to make the model as close to what they’ll experience in the work or college environment,” Rebollar explained. “Your boss isn’t going to say, ‘Why are you on your phone?’ They’re going to say, ‘If you don’t complete this project, you’re fired.’”

Opened in 2011, Bronx Arena is one of about 52 “transfer” schools across the city that often innovate to serve students who have dropped out or fallen behind their peers. For Bronx Arena, that means turning traditional teaching on its head.

Instead of shuttling between hour-long classes, students spend roughly four hours a day in their “arenas” — groups of 25 students who work their way through a self-guided online curriculum that is individually tailored to make sure each student develops the core “competencies” needed to graduate.

By discarding the convention that teachers should spend most of their days delivering content from the front of the classroom, teachers at Bronx Arena are freed up to teach small mini-lessons and work with individual students on developing — and reaching — their own learning goals.

Evelyn Rebollar (middle) goes over a summer school contract with student Leslianna Allen (right) and a CBO representative.
PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Evelyn Rebollar (middle) reviews a summer school contract with student Leslianna Allen (right) and Tyesse Rodriguez of SCO Family of Services.

That freedom is the key to re-engaging students who are all at least 16 years old and behind in credits when they enter Bronx Arena, explained Ty Cesene, one of the school’s co-principals. The idea is to give students ownership over what they’re learning by letting them participate in choosing their coursework and managing their time during the school day.

“The students have so much choice and power over what they’re doing on a day-to-day basis,” Cesene said. “We wanted to provide a full new experience so you had to adjust your idea of school.”

But the model can also be an adjustment for teachers, who must closely monitor student progress on each of their courses to determine whether they are meeting the monthly academic goals they’ve agreed to, and if they’re completing at least five daily assignments – all of which is measured with elaborate tracking software.

And even though specialists in subject areas like French and Earth science drop by the classroom to help individual students, teachers who supervise an arena must also be prepared to oversee students who are working on subjects in which the teacher hasn’t been formally trained.

“I had to learn humility and sort of be okay with showing my weaknesses,” said Rebollar, whose expertise is in English instruction. “If you are a generalist teacher, inevitably there will be answers you don’t know. It’s a mindset of problem-solving.”

Rebollar — who recently won a national TNTP Fishman Prize for quality teaching in high-need schools — paced around her arena one afternoon last month checking in on each student’s progress.

A whiteboard in Rebollar's classroom displays the number of credits her "arena" has earned.
PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
A whiteboard in Rebollar’s classroom displays the number of credits her “arena” has earned.

The student who was playing with a deck of cards, for instance, is working on a class that explores the theme “coming of age” and requires designing a board game to illustrate the concept. Rebollar helped her get started by pushing her to experiment with altering the rules of a card game and playing it with two other students to better understand how games are structured.

Another student, Amanda Lopez, asked about how to organize a presentation of her senior project, which focuses on the presidential candidates’ views on abortion. And the student who was playing Age of Empires? That’s Michael Gastambides, a 20-year-old whose senior project uses the game to compare monarchies to democratic republics.

Like many of the roughly 200 students at Bronx Arena, Gastambides felt disengaged and unhappy at his last high school, which was about seven times larger. “I kind of developed anxiety, I was claustrophobic, and I just stopped going,” he said of his last school. “I wanted an education, I wanted a diploma, I wanted to go to college, so I came here.”

Gastambides graduated this year, but he acknowledges that the self-paced aspect of his high school experience wasn’t always easy. “I would be lying if I didn’t say sometimes it is hard to get motivated,” he said. “The teachers, they motivate you — they come in and they say, ‘You can do this.’”

Michael Gastambides works on his senior project.
PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Michael Gastambides works on his senior project.

But getting students to graduation isn’t always easy. School leaders acknowledged Bronx Arena lags behind some of its peers in getting students to quickly accumulate credits, and has struggled with an attendance rate that hovers around 60 percent.

Cesene pointed out that even if students aren’t earning credits as quickly, that’s because the school requires students achieve proficiency in all elements of their coursework before they move on. And to boost attendance, the school has worked with its community organization partner, SCO Family of Services, which provides “advocate counselors” who make calls home and even visit if a student is chronically absent.

Since the curriculum is largely self-paced, “If you miss a day, you didn’t miss the class,” Cesene said. “It’s a double-edged sword to have a model that doesn’t punish not attending.”

Still, the school’s model has earned some attention from those outside its walls. “The co-founders are constantly challenging the assumptions, rituals and routine of the traditional school model,” said Chris Sturgis, co-founder of Competency Works, an organization that disseminates information about efforts across the country to re-think what it means for students to master coursework, and who visited the school two years ago.

And while Cesene acknowledges that the school will continue to tweak the program, at least one thing will stay constant. “Our language here is you’re responsible for your education,“ he said. “Our biggest innovation is we trust students to learn.”

debating admissions

In a mostly black district, parents bring different concerns to debate over New York City’s specialized high schools

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
Mutale Nkonde, a parent in Brooklyn's District 16, asked education department officials how black and Hispanic students would be supported in specialized high schools.

After raucous protests against plans to integrate New York City’s specialized high schools, parents in Brooklyn’s District 16 aired starkly different concerns about efforts to overhaul admissions at the coveted schools.

At a public meeting Monday night, parents in Bedford-Stuyvesant asked education department officials how they plan to support black and Hispanic students at specialized high schools, where those students are dramatically underrepresented.

“There are stakeholders within this city who do not want our children in those schools,” said Mutale Nkonde, a district parent with two children. “Ultimately, these are our children who we’re sending into potentially hostile environments.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio ignited a firestorm this summer with a push to eliminate the entrance exam that currently stands as the sole entrance criteria for the city’s specialized high schools. Critics blame the test for segregation at the schools, where only 10 percent of students are black or Hispanic, compared with almost 70 percent who are in district schools citywide. Alumni and some parents have vigorously pushed to keep the Specialized High School Admissions Test, or SHSAT, arguing it’s an unbiased measure that helps ensure the schools’ prestige.

 But parents in District 16 brought different demands to the table. Students in the district are mostly black, and 84 percent are from low-income families. Parents called for teaching practices that reflect the diverse experiences and cultures of these students. To underscore the need for a more welcoming environment at the elite schools, one parent pointed to a social media campaign in 2016 in which students posted about discrimination they faced at one specialized high school with the hashtag “Black in Brooklyn Tech.”

Parents also decried the education department’s efforts as small scale — only 25 black students from the district would be admitted to specialized high schools under the city’s plans. In a district where test scores are historically low and retaining students in local schools is a struggle, parent leaders said more systemic approaches are needed to lift performance and vaunt black, Hispanic, and low-income students to success.

Since the SHSAT is enshrined in state law, legislators will have to act on de Blasio’s plan. In the meantime, the city is expanding a program that offers admission to students who score just below the entrance cutoff.

“Our needs are not going to be met by getting the exact same things that everyone else gets,” said Lurie Daniel Favors, a parent and general counsel at the Center for Law and Social Justice at Medgar Evers College.

The meeting was in sharp contrast to last week, when about 300 parents packed a meeting that quickly grew heated in Manhattan’s District 2, a wealthy enclave that sends an outsized share of students to specialized high schools. Many of those present argued the city’s plan would send unprepared students to rigorous schools. Backlash in the Asian community has been particularly fierce; more than 60 percent of students at specialized high schools are Asian, compared with just 16 percent citywide.

Education department leaders highlighted a pilot initiative already underway at two specialized high schools to address climate concerns, including anti-bias training for students and staff at High School of American Studies at Lehman College, and training for black and Hispanic parents at Brooklyn Tech who will help serve as recruitment ambassadors for the school. They also pointed to initiatives such as an expansion of pre-K for 3-year-olds in District 16 as proof that the city is tackling wider inequities in the system.

“The fact that we had ‘Black in Brooklyn Tech,’” where young people were asking, “‘Is this a place for me?’ is a problem,” said LaShawn Robinson, deputy chancellor for school climate and wellness. “We have to address those problems, because every school in this system is a place for our young people.”  

Payroll Data

From pay to personnel, changes in the principal’s office shed light on Vitti’s first year — and his plans for the next

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
On his first day as Detroit schools superintendent, Nikolai Vitti, with former interim superintendent Alycia Meriweather, greets principals at a teacher hiring fair at Martin Luther King Jr. High School.

Take a look at the Detroit district’s payroll, and you’d be forgiven for thinking that Superintendent Nikolai Vitti has already brought major changes to the principal’s office.

Fully 17 new principals have been hired at the Detroit Public Schools Community District since Vitti took over the superintendent’s office last summer, and another nine have transferred to new schools. Pay is up three percent, and principals now report to “principal leaders” — former principals whom Vitti tasked with overseeing turnaround efforts building-by-building.

(Find salary and staffing data for principals in the Detroit Public Schools Community District below. Chalkbeat has requested but has not yet received salary data for charter school principals from Michigan’s education department.)

But more than a year into a turnaround effort led by Vitti, those changes are likely only a start.

Vitti spent much of his first year moving the district to a new K-8 curriculum and reshaping the central office. It’s common for turnaround districts to replace principals — an Obama-era school improvement grant even required it as a first step. While Vitti’s administration hasn’t yet sought to completely overhaul the principal corps, he said this week that deeper changes can be expected next summer.

“This will be the first year we focus more closely on performance (staffing, attendance, enrollment, climate and culture, and student achievement),” he wrote in an email. “Last year the focus was on operations and setting the right culture and climate in schools to begin implementation of this year’s reform.

“We are not satisfied with principal salaries right now,” Vitti added, saying he wants to further increase pay, especially for principals who help improve schools with especially low attendance or test scores.

Education experts see principals as a key ingredient in any u-turn school improvement efforts like the ones underway in many Detroit district schools. They say principals deserve as much credit as anyone for a successful school turnaround, and they note that when things aren’t going well, principals are very often the first to leave.

The pressure facing principals in the district is one reason Vitti hired four principal leaders, about one for every 25 principals in the district. Other districts have found that extra coaching for principals can pay off for schools, especially in large cities.

Staffing data obtained by Chalkbeat makes clear that changes to the principal corps are already a significant piece of Vitti’s legacy. Nearly one-third of the district’s roughly 100 schools have a new principal who was hired by Vitti’s administration.

Still, the district hasn’t seen the high level of principal turnover that often accompanies turnaround efforts.  Most of the departing principals retired or accepted a job elsewhere, Vitti said, and only a handful of school leaders were removed for low performance.

“We did not make more principal changes last year because we wanted to give principals the opportunity to learn and grow professionally,” he said. “Under emergency management, time and resources were not spent on building principal capacity to drive instructional reform.”

Despite a 3 percent raise this year, Vitti says pay for principals remains near the top of his to-do list. He wants to tie principal salaries to the size of the school, the principal’s performance, and the school’s historic performance. The idea is that principals should be paid more for helping a large, struggling school improve.

While it seems at first glance that principal salaries have already undergone major changes since June of 2016, Vitti says those changes are largely due to the district’s decision to treat principal as 12-month employees instead of nine-month employees. Under the previous system, principals who chose to work summer school received an additional stipend that didn’t appear in their overall salary, meaning their actual pay has changed less than it might appear on paper.

That’s why the data shows that the average salary for principals increased by 10 percent even though they only received a 3 percent raise.

Vitti said principals received raises if they took on more responsibilities at their current school or were transferred to larger or more challenging schools. Still, their salaries aren’t necessarily tied to their school or their level experience because principals in the district aren’t unionized and aren’t paid on a fixed scale.

There hasn’t been much change at the top of the pay range. While the top salary increased from $117,000 in 2016 to $131,000 today, the people earning those salaries — including the principals at Cass Technical High School, Cody High School, Pershing High Schools, and John R. King Academic and Performing Arts Academy  — remained the same. Cass is one of Detroit’s elite high schools, while Cody and Pershing are among its most troubled. John R. King is a large K-8 program with low test scores and high rates of chronic absenteeism.

Nearly half of the district’s 102 principals are clustered at the bottom of the pay range, making around $100,000 per year.

The lowest paid principals include dozens of returning principals, as well as new arrivals and two former Cass Tech teachers who Vitti tapped to lead Detroit School of Arts and Nolan Elementary-Middle School.

As the state of Michigan ratchets up accountability for principals, Vitti’s administration says higher pay will help attract replacements for principals who retire or who don’t cut muster.

While philanthropists have stepped up to help train some principals, the district no longer has an internal training program for school leaders. It ended during a decades-long period of declining enrollment, budget cuts, and administrative turmoil, which also led many Detroit administrators to flee for more stable suburban districts.

Jeffery Robinson, principal at Paul Robeson Malcolm X Academy, stuck it out for the last 11 years without a raise, and he says he welcomes the changes Vitti is proposing, especially the changes in pay. Even with the raise earlier this year, he says Detroit principals are still undercompensated compared to similar districts, especially taking into account the challenges their schools face. Principals in the district don’t have a union, but Robinson is part of a “focus group” that will meet with Vitti to hash out the details of changes to the pay scale.

Robinson says he supports the idea of paying principals based on the kind of school they manage.

“While both are complex, there are still some things that have to be managed at the high school level that don’t have to be managed at the K-8 level” he said.

Both Robinson and Wendy Zdeb, executive director of the Michigan Association of Secondary School Principals, say the most important figure isn’t how many principals have left the district — it’s how many have stayed in spite of the difficult conditions.

“I find that administrators in Detroit are really committed,” Zdeb said. “They’re the consistency of the district, when you really think about it.”

 

See below for a list of current principals in the Detroit Public Schools Community District. You can search for names at the top right corner.

Note that the pay increases evident in this table largely weren’t raises. Vitti shifted principals to a 12-month schedule instead of 10-month schedule, so their salaries rose. However, many had already been receiving that extra pay in the form of a stipend for running summer school.

Source: Detroit Public Schools Community District payroll as of June 2016 and October 2018. “NA” means the principal was not employed by the district in June 2016.