New Leadership

Stuyvesant’s new principal is ‘deeply invested’ in diversity. But can he make a difference?

PHOTO: Stuyvesant High School

On Monday, the Department of Education announced that Eric Contreras, a former teacher and the city’s executive director of social studies, will become the new principal of Stuyvesant High School. Contreras, 43, has two sons in Queens public schools and a daughter who graduated from Stuyvesant in June.

Born in Guatemala and raised by a single mother in New York, Contreras will be the school’s first Hispanic principal at a time when the school is under pressure to increase its black and Hispanic enrollment. In the 2015-2016 school year, black and Hispanic students made up just 3.2 percent of Stuyvesant’s enrollment.

“Throughout my career, diversity has been an area I’ve been deeply invested in and I look forward to engaging in ongoing conversations with my school community around these important issues,” Contreras said in a statement.

Stuyvesant’s black and Hispanic enrollment is lower than at other specialized schools, all of which use the same entrance exam for admission. But the other schools are struggling to diversify, too. Citywide, black and Hispanic students make up approximately 70 percent of the student body, but only 11.8 percent of students at specialized schools, according to an October study by the Community Service Society.

Even the city’s top-performing black and Hispanic middle-schoolers often do not enroll in the city’s specialized schools, the Center for New York City Affairs reported in June.

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Contreras said he would consider several ways to increase diversity at the school, such as expanding outreach to middle schools that don’t normally send many students to Stuyvesant, using alumni as mentors, and starting an intensive summer prep program for prospective applicants.

In 2013, Brooklyn Technical High School (one of the city’s three original specialized high schools, along with Stuyvesant and the Bronx High School of Science) started its own summer program that provides rising seventh graders from underrepresented middle schools five weeks of summer enrichment courses and extensive test prep. In its first year, 30 students completed the full year of programming. Of those, 16 were admitted to Brooklyn Tech and 10 to Stuyvesant.

Brooklyn Tech also participates in the Discovery program, which gives roughly 220 students who just missed the cutoff on the Specialized High School Admissions Test a seat at a participating school if they complete a summer curriculum. Though the program added an additional 100 spots last year, the share of black and Hispanic students enrolled dropped from 32 percent in 2015 to 26 percent this year.

Stuyvesant stopped participating in the Discovery program more than a decade ago when the city added five more specialized schools and lowered the cutoff score needed to qualify for the program. Stuyvesant’s then-principal Stanley Teitel felt the change would leave Discovery students too far behind their classmates. Of the original three specialized high schools, only Brooklyn Tech still participates in Discovery.

Despite Contreras’ best intentions, advocates say he will likely have a hard time changing the demographics at his school. Unlike the other five specialized high schools, Stuyvesant, Bronx Science and Brooklyn Tech are bound by state law to use only the Specialized High School Admissions Test for deciding who gets in.

Diversity advocates have long pushed for expanding admissions beyond a single test, but legislation to change that requirement has repeatedly failed. One recent bill, introduced in the State Assembly in 2014 and backed by the New York City Council and Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, never made it to a vote.

In October, advocates sent Fariña a letter asking for changes to the admissions process. One proposal would guarantee the highest-achieving students at each middle school a seat at one of the specialized high schools; another would allow the specialized schools to consider additional criteria like applicants’ state test scores in admissions.

According to the Community Service Society, changes like these would nearly double the number of black and Hispanic students in specialized schools. But Lazar Treschan, the organization’s director of youth policy, doesn’t discount the ideas Contreras is contemplating for Stuyvesant.

“As long as there’s a single test, there will be a lot of efforts with few results,” Treschan said. “But it’s great to see the school’s leadership recognize that it’s time for change.”

First Person

A Queens teacher on Charlottesville: ‘It can’t just be teachers of color’ offering lessons on race

PHOTO: Bob Mical/Creative Commons

In a few short weeks, school will resume in New York and I’m already thinking about how we are going to address racism within the four walls of my classroom. I’m thinking about what texts, historical and current, we can read and films and documentaries we can watch to support dialogue, questioning, and solutions for combatting that ugly, pervasive thread in the fabric of our country’s patchwork quilt called racism.

Last year we read “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass,” a former slave turned abolitionist, and juxtaposed its reading with a viewing of Ava DuVernay’s documentary “13th,” which discusses modern-day slavery in the guise of mass incarceration. Students asked questions of the documentary as they watched it and discussed those queries within their groups and with the class at large afterwards.

We do our children and ourselves a disservice when we don’t have these difficult conversations as a part of our collective curriculums. However, many teachers from various walks of life are neither well-versed nor fully comfortable discussing race on any level with their students. Not talking about racism won’t make it go away. If anything, not talking about racism in the classroom further perpetuates racist ideologies that are, at their root, born out of ignorance. Education’s goal is to dispel ignorance and replace it with truth.

With that being said, just how many teachers feel equipped to facilitate lessons that touch heavily upon race in the classroom? Not nearly enough.

According to Teaching Tolerance, “The dialogue about race should start in the classroom — the teacher-prep classroom, that is. Preservice teachers should be exploring multiculturalism and discussing ways to honor diversity in their future classrooms.”

But often, Hilton Kelly, a professor of education at Davidson College in North Carolina told the site, the coursework isn’t giving future teachers the training they need to talk about race. “Even when future teachers take courses on diversity and multiculturalism,” Kelly said, “those courses don’t take the critical approach to race that future teachers truly need.”

“Food, folklore and festivals are not the same as an analysis of race in America,” Kelly argued.

But an analysis of race in America is exactly what needs to happen. Furthermore, it can’t just be teachers of color solely facilitating such lessons in their classrooms.

I don’t want to write about the events going on in Virginia. I don’t want to think about it. I’m so tired of the hatred and I long for peace, but I can’t very well in good conscience remain silent. That would be akin to protesting with those hate-mongers in Virginia last weekend. I can’t just write about back-to-school shopping, lesson planning, and business-as-usual while my brothers and sisters in Virginia are being murdered in cold blood by white supremacist American Nazis.

Are the children of Virginia safe? Are our children anywhere safe? What can I do to make a difference within the hearts and minds of the children whom I teach? If education is our best vehicle for bringing about change — which it is— how am I going to infuse the lessons I teach with critical thinking and analysis about racism in the United States for the seventh-graders entrusted in my care? How are other educators planning to address these events with their students at every grade-level?

I pose these questions to all who are reading. Whether you are a teacher, a student, a parent, an administrator, or a community member, I plead with you to work together to create answers that work toward healthy conversations and hands-on action in the fight against racism.

Vivett Dukes is a teacher at Eagle Academy For Young Men in Queens. A version of this post first appeared on New York School Talk

Consolation prize

Crosstown High wins $2.5 million to help reinvent high school in Memphis

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Newly named leaders Chandra Sledge Mathias and Chris Terrill are working to launch Crosstown High School, a charter school that will open in the fall of 2018 in midtown Memphis.

A charter school opening next year in midtown Memphis has been awarded a $2.5 million grant through a national contest aimed at reinventing America’s high schools.

Leaders of Crosstown High announced Wednesday that it’s receiving the money over five years from the XQ Super School Challenge, an initiative backed by Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs.

The upcoming school garnered national attention last year as a finalist for one of five $10 million XQ awards. Although Crosstown didn’t win, its leaders say the new award will help keep the school on the map of America’s “schools of the future.” (Crosstown is among 18 schools being featured on a live national broadcast on network television on Sept. 8.)

“This hasn’t been attempted in Memphis,” said Chris Terrill, executive director of Crosstown High, about creating a high school of tomorrow from scratch. “There’s energy nationwide for education reform, and we get to be a part of that.”

The new Memphis school will look different from a traditional high school. No classrooms arranged with rows of desks. No high-stakes tests. No failing grades. It will join a growing group of other U.S. schools grounded in mastery-based learning, which emphasizes student-led projects over teacher lectures.

Authorized last year by Shelby County Schools, Crosstown High will open in 2018 with 125 ninth-grade students, eventually growing to 500 across four grades. The students will be chosen through a random lottery that opens in September.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Crosstown Concourse has room for more than just the 500-student high school.

The school will be housed on several floors at Crosstown Concourse, a redeveloped high-rise building that once was a Sears warehouse. The building opened this spring as an urban village and already is home to several nonprofit organizations, community health initiatives and creative arts groups, with whom the school is seeking to leverage partnerships.

“Inside the concourse, there are thousands of different job titles,” said Terrill, whose family has moved into an apartment in the complex. “We’ll be able to listen to what students are interested in and then pair them with places that match those interests.”

Terrill arrived at Crosstown this summer from Mooresville, N.C., where he was head of a charter school. He’s being joined by another charter leader from Warrenton, N.C., Chandra Sledge Mathias, who will serve as Crosstown’s first principal.

Much of the $2.5 million award will go toward professional development, says Sledge Mathias.

“We have lofty ideas, but making it happen in real life is what we need to make happen,” she said. “That starts with teachers who understand what we’re trying to do here, which is going to be very different than the classrooms they’re coming from.”

The school invites the community to stop by Crosstown Concourse on Thursday for a block party celebration featuring the XQ Super School Bus, which visited Memphis last summer as part of the national competition. The event will be an opportunity for Memphians to weigh in on what they want to see at Crosstown High, said Ginger Spickler, the school’s director of strategic partnerships and projects.

“Being a super school means questioning everything,” Spickler said. “We have a mandate to try to do things differently. We want community input as we continue to figure out what different looks like.”