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.”

Frequently asked

New Denver teacher contract: We answer the most common questions about the tentative pact

PHOTO: Joe Amon/The Denver Post
Students in class at Dora Moore ECE-8 during the second day of the Denver Public Schools teachers strike.

One reason many Denver educators didn’t like the district’s old ProComp pay system was that it was too complicated and unpredictable. Both sides agree that the deal reached early Thursday morning creates a much simpler pay system for teachers.

But educators — and the general public — still have a lot of questions about the tentative ProComp agreement, which still needs to be ratified by union members and the Denver school board. Here we’ve answered some of the most common questions we’ve heard since the end of the strike.

How do I place myself on the salary schedule?

The salary schedule is made up of “steps” and “lanes.” The “steps” represent years of service for which a teacher had a positive evaluation. The “lanes” represent levels of education. The new schedule has 20 steps and seven lanes.

Worked in Denver Public Schools for five years and have a master’s degree? Go to step five and then slide your finger over to the master’s degree lane. That’s your base salary.

Did you have a year when your evaluation wasn’t good? Go back one step. Have an additional 18 credits on top of your master’s degree? Go up one more lane.

Teachers can also go up a lane once they hit the 10-year mark because the district wanted to reward longevity. Other milestones that merit a lane change: earning national board certification or an advanced license, or completing six “professional development unit” training courses.

Still not sure? Denver Public Schools plans to put a salary calculator on its website soon.

What if I have more than 20 years of experience?

If you have 20 or more years of experience, you’re placed at the top of the salary schedule, on step 20. After step 20, you’ll get yearly cost-of-living raises. You’re still eligible to change lanes, but you won’t get any more step raises.

Does the district know everything it needs to know about individual educators to pay them the correct salary?

Denver Public Schools plans to send letters or emails this spring to every teacher and special service provider (nurses, counselors, and others) covered by the contract, laying out where the district believes that employee falls on the schedule based on information they have on file. Educators will have a certain amount of time to correct any wrong information and get on the correct step and lane for the 2019-20 school year.

Under the new salary schedule, it looks like I’ll earn less next year than I do now. Am I taking a pay cut?

No. The agreement includes a “hold harmless” clause that ensures everyone will get a raise next year. Those whose salaries are higher now than they would be under the new schedule will get a cost-of-living raise each year until the salary schedule catches up with them.

How are bonuses and incentives different under the new contract?

The bonuses and incentives are different in three ways: There are fewer of them, the dollar amounts are different, and the dollar amounts won’t change year to year.

This year, there are six bonuses and incentives offered by the district: one for educators who work in Title I schools where 60 percent or more of the student population qualifies for subsidized meals; one for educators who work in hard-to-fill positions; one for educators who work in “hard-to-serve” schools; one for educators who work in one of 30 “highest-priority” schools; one for educators who return year over year to those schools; and one for educators who work in schools deemed top-performing or high-growth, as based on school ratings.

Here’s what’s left in the new contract: Teachers in Title 1 schools and those in hard-to-fill positions, such as secondary math, will get $2,000 a year. Teachers who return year over year to 30 highest-priority schools will get $3,000 a year. Teachers in 10 schools deemed “distinguished” will get $750 a year, with the criteria to be determined by the district and the union.

Why aren’t the district and the union tying bonuses to test scores anymore?

Unions have traditionally been skeptical of paying teachers based on student test scores because the scores are so closely correlated with factors like race and household income. In Denver, these bonuses were also less predictable for teachers because the district often changed the criteria it used to rate schools and award “top-performing” bonuses.

The district also came to see these bonuses as canceling out the effects of bonuses for teachers at high-poverty schools. A teacher could get nearly the same kind of monetary reward by moving to a more affluent school or by staying in one where students face more challenges. The new bonus system provides clearer monetary benefits to working in a high-poverty school.

Why did the union agree to keep the incentive for highest-priority schools, when that had been such a sticking point?

In any negotiation, there’s give and take and a lot of moving pieces. 

Here’s what lead negotiator Rob Gould said to district officials during bargaining: “We are open to the incentive because we know it’s important to you. And we’re willing to entertain your ideas if we can get the base salary schedule that our teachers need. Because if we can get the base salaries we need, we can keep our teachers in Denver.”

This was also an issue that divided teachers, with some teachers at schools that received the highest-priority incentive pushing to keep them.

Did teachers get a better deal out of the strike than the district’s last offer before the strike?

Teachers were getting a raise no matter what. The district was offering an average 10 percent raise before the strike (this included a cost-of-living raise that was agreed to back in 2017). Now teachers will get an average 11.7 percent raise, though individual teachers will see a wide range.

The district is putting the same amount of new money — $23.5 million — into teacher compensation as it was offering before the strike. It can give a larger average raise with that same amount of money because the incentives are smaller than under the previous proposal and because of limits on how teachers can use training to get raises. That gives the district more predictability about how many teachers will get raises each year.

Union leaders call the deal a win. They secured more opportunities for teachers to earn raises and move into higher categories on the salary schedule, including through completing training partially during work hours at no additional cost. And teachers can get to $100,000 in 20 years, rather than the 30 years in the last district proposal.

However, individual teachers aren’t necessarily getting more base pay next year than they would have under the district’s last offer. Early-career teachers without advanced degrees would have earned more in base pay under the district’s last offer. The teachers who do better under the deal reached after the strike are veteran educators with more education.

To take two examples: A second-year educator with a bachelor’s degree and no extra credits or training would have earned $47,550 in base pay under the district’s last offer before the strike but will earn $46,869 under the deal reached this week.

But a 20-year educator who has a master’s degree and an advanced license who has been with the district for 10 years will earn $88,907 in base pay under the new agreement, compared with $87,550 under the district’s last proposal before the strike.

The union fought for this kind of salary schedule in part to address a longstanding complaint that teachers have little reason to stay in a district where base pay levels off.

You can see the salary schedule from the district’s last offer here and the schedule from the tentative agreement here.

Is this deal financially sustainable for the district?

Denver Public Schools Chief Financial Officer Mark Ferrandino says that is the “million-dollar question,” perhaps closer to the “half-billion-dollar question,” since that is roughly how much the district spends on educator compensation.

Ferrandino believes the answer is yes, with the standard caveat that all projections are just that.

What will be cut to pay for this?

The district plans to cut $20 million from administrative costs over the next two years. That includes cutting 150 jobs in the central office and ending all executive bonuses. The bulk of it — $13 million — will go to fund the ProComp agreement.

District officials have not yet said which central office jobs will be cut, though Superintendent Susana Cordova has said cuts will be to “discretionary” departments. Departments that will not be cut include special education, English language acquisition, and transportation, she said.

Teachers will get a raise. What about paraprofessionals, bus drivers, custodians, and cafeteria workers?

These other district employees, much lower paid than teachers, are not covered by the contract that was the subject of the strike. Cordova has said these workers also deserve raises and a portion of administrative cuts will go to pay for them.

But how much of a raise will they get? That will all be worked out over the next few months and include discussions with the unions that represent these employees.

Will striking teachers get back pay?

Not according to district officials. After this story was published Friday, we asked for further clarification on this. We received this statement Saturday morning:

Superintendent Cordova understands that when teachers make the choice to strike, they are doing so to make a statement and bring attention to the importance of the issue at hand. Foregoing pay during the time that a teacher is not working is a challenging decision that no one makes lightly, and consequently, brings with it an impact that is intended to push for change.

DPS did not feel that it would be fair or appropriate to provide back pay to striking teachers when many others — including more than 40 percent of classroom teachers — chose to remain at work this week. However, DPS is working with the DCTA to offer all teachers the opportunity to attend a Saturday session to replace the professional development day that was cancelled in the days leading up to the strike. Any teacher who attends will be paid a day’s salary.

When will the new agreement go into effect? How long will it last?

Assuming both sides ratify it, the new agreement technically (and retroactively) went into effect Jan. 19, the day after the old one expired. But educators won’t start receiving the new salaries, incentives, and bonuses negotiated under it until Aug. 1. The agreement expires Aug. 31, 2022.

Teens Talk Back

‘Mr. Mayor, we cannot afford to wait.’ Teen group says New York City diversity plan doesn’t move fast enough.

PHOTO: Courtesy/Teens Take Charge
Teens Take Charge members at a "virtual" press conference in New York City on Thursday

A teen group representing students from more than 30 New York City high schools sharply criticized a recent report from Mayor Bill de Blasio’s School Diversity Advisory Group as offering no real solutions for increasing integration in the city’s starkly segregated high schools.

At a virtual press conference on Thursday, broadcast live on Facebook by Teens Take Charge, students expressed support for the report’s broad policy aim of achieving greater integration but also disappointment that the findings offered few specifics for how to reach this goal. The mayor’s Diversity Advisory Group has said a follow-up report will provide more details later this year.

“We have been told to wait, to be patient, that change is coming soon,” said Tiffani Torres, a junior at Pace High School in Manhattan. “Mr. Mayor, we cannot afford to wait any longer.”

Teens Take Charge has long advocated for greater efforts to end segregated enrollment patterns in the city’s high schools. Sokhnadiarra Ndiaye, a junior at Brooklyn College Academy High School, said that students’ expectations of the mayor included his announcing “a comprehensive plan” — even if it took years to realize — “to racially, socioeconomically, and academically integrate high schools before the end of this school year,” she said.

Among Teens Take Charge’s specific recommendations are doing away with academic screens for admission to the city’s high schools, a more transparent process for applying to them, and more resources for low-income schools. Early last year, the group produced an Enrollment Equity Plan for increasing educational opportunities for low-income black and Hispanic students.

And because concrete plans for increasing integration would take time, Ndiaye said the teen organization supports several interim measures as well to address inequities in the school system. These include providing more college and career counseling for junior and seniors at low-income, under-resourced high schools. The teen group would also like to see the city provide vouchers to low-income families to access extra-curricular activities and programs offered by private companies or the ability to participate in such programs at other public schools if theirs don’t offer them. (Some city teens joined a class-action lawsuit against the education department and Public School Athletic League for allegedly denying black and Hispanic students equal opportunity to play on school sports teams, in violation of local human rights law.)

Torres described how Teens Take Charge has had “several meetings and phone conversations with Department of Education officials over the past year,” and schools chancellor Richard Carranza has stated that students have his ear. “We’re listening,” he tweeted in response to a Chalkbeat story with excerpts of the students’ views.

In December, the city’s education department posted a new job listing for a “Student Voice Manager” who would gather students’ thoughts on education policies. But while acknowledging this seat at the table, several students expressed frustration at the slow pace of change.

Bill de Blasio’s office declined to comment about Teens Take Charge’s concerns or their specific recommendations, beyond referencing remarks the mayor already made about the School Diversity Advisory Group report.

Doug Cohen, an education department spokesman, said in a statement, “We’ve taken real steps toward school integration,” pointing to initiatives such as a $2 million diversity grant program for school districts and communities citywide to develop their own local diversity plans, and a program that enables middle-schoolers to visit college campuses. “We know there is more work to do, and we thank Teens Take Charge for its continued advocacy on these issues,” he added.

Students at the group’s event urged swift change. “They know our plan; they have our information,” said Sophie Mode, a sophomore at Brooklyn Millennium. “They need to take action now.”