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If school is a haven for homeless students, what happens over spring break? For these kids, a mini-musical

PHOTO: Cassi Feldman
Drama teacher Jackie Wolff, right, leads the workshop.

“How many of you have ever been worried about making a mistake?” the teacher asked, glancing around the circle as hands shot up.

One boy remembered accidentally hitting his mother with a ball. Another shared his fear of riding a two-wheeler without training wheels for the first time.

The drama teacher, who had long, wavy hair and tattooed arms, listened closely to each child. When the group’s focus drifted, she gently pulled it back with a series of deep breaths or a quick game of Simon Says.

The conversation was part of a spring break arts camp at the Flushing Family Residence in Bushwick, a shelter for homeless families. Visiting artists are spending two hours each day this week helping the children transform a book into a mini-musical they perform on Friday. In this case, the book was “The Girl Who Never Made Mistakes,” hence the teacher’s questions.

The camp plays two roles: Getting the students excited about reading while offering the daily dose of structure and support that school normally provides.

“The majority of the time, students really want to be at school because it’s a very safe place for them to be,” said Jackie Wolff, the teacher. “Spring break can be really a scary time for kids.”

The arts camp is part of the city’s Afterschool Reading Club, a $1.4 million pilot project launched last October to help boost literacy among 1,400 children living in 18 shelters across New York City. It’s one in a raft of new programs the Department of Education hopes will help serve the city’s exploding population of homeless students. Nearly one in 10 students lived in a shelter or in temporary housing during the 2015-16 school year, a recent report found.

Three days each week when school is in session, the Reading Club brings teachers into shelters after school to help with reading in particular, but also to offer subjects like art, design and architecture. Over spring break, the city decided to do something different, teaming up with New York City Children’s Theater — one of the program’s regular collaborators — to help students create their own performances at six of the sites.

“We’re very grateful,” said shelter director Nancy Vasquez. “Anything to engage these kids to feel different from everything else that’s going on around them at this particular time in their lives.”

The shelter is a hulking beige building run by SCO Family of Services, a local nonprofit. Ninety-nine families live there, in small studio apartments with kitchenettes. The average shelter stay for a family with children is just over a year, according to the Department of Homeless Services, though some families stay much longer.

On a rainy day, the brightly painted room that houses the Reading Club has no problem attracting visitors. It’s filled with games, books and art supplies. But Tuesday was a gorgeous spring day, one of the first of the year, so the group was smaller — just nine children, all in elementary school.

They took turns sharing things they were proud of — like being a good friend or brave on a skateboard. To show agreement with a speaker, they sent “brain waves” by shaking a hang-loose sign near their heads. Getting down to business, Wolff plotted the book’s arc on a giant notepad, and the children partnered up to act out different scenes.

“A lot of times, the kids in these workshops who really thrive and do well are the kids who have a really hard time in class because that sitting still is very hard for them,” Wolff said. “If they get an opportunity to act like a character or express themselves in a different way with their body or their voice, they can have a place to shine.”

Wolff and her colleagues are specially trained to be sensitive to trauma. When one exercise called for tapping the students on the shoulder, for instance, she asked each for permission first.

During a quick lunch break, the students gave the camp a hearty endorsement. “I like the story because it has conflict,” explained Javan, 9, as he pulled apart his turkey sandwich. He rattled off other stories with conflict: “Spider-Man,” “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” He liked those, too.

And that’s the point of the program, says Rebekah Nelson, a citywide literacy coach with the Department of Education. “There’s a huge deficit in proficiency levels [among] students who live in temporary housing,” she said, a point backed up by a 2016 report. “We want to foster this love of reading, this culture that reading is cool and reading is fun.” As part of the push, children take books home every week to keep and share with their siblings.

The students spent part of Tuesday morning making invitations for their show on Friday, where their parents can come see them perform. Vasquez, the shelter director, said she was eager to attend. “We have the day off, but I’m going to be here,” she said. “I want to see it.”

Summer, age 10, said working on the musical was her favorite part of spring break. “This actually gave me the funnest thing ever,” she said. “To just come here and act.”

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.