new model

Achievement First is betting on a new model to help more of its students graduate college

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Alexis Riley teaches a ninth-grade physics class at Achievement First.

Charter school operators across the country have been grappling with a vexing problem: graduating large numbers of students who go on to college, yet flounder when they get there and never earn a degree.

It’s an issue Achievement First — a national network that operates 19 schools in Brooklyn — is trying to solve by experimenting with a new model that gives students more control over their own learning. The model, known as “Greenfield” for its open-minded approach, was first piloted in Connecticut. But starting next school year, it will roll out for the first time in New York City at a new Brooklyn middle school.

“What a lot of alumni revealed to us were gaps in student agency and student choice in what they were learning in the lower grades,” explained Amanda Pinto, an Achievement First spokeswoman. Though virtually all of the network’s students attend college, Pinto said, only about 50 percent graduate.

The model is designed to prepare students to handle self-direction years before they’re in college. It uses a curriculum that emphasizes personalized learning, where students guide themselves through different units of study and are responsible for mastering each piece of content before they can move on (an approach that has earned both hype and mixed reviews).

Zachary Segall, who will serve as the school’s inaugural principal, said students will have two 40-minute blocks of dance and art classes four times each week, will set their own goals throughout the year, and participate in “expeditions” that allow them to explore interests outside the traditional curriculum. That could include something like podcasting, Segall said, or architecture.

“Part of the model is addressing the idea that our students need to be prepared for college, and not just prepared academically,” Segall said. The new school will be called Achievement First Aspire Middle School, and will open in East New York this fall to serve the students aging out of the network’s local elementary school.

Achievement First is known for high academic expectations and a style of discipline that “sweats the small stuff.” Whether the approach will help the network get more of its students through college remains to be seen.

Pinto pointed to some signs of success: The Greenfield model yielded higher math and reading scores at the pilot school in Connecticut compared to other schools in the network that didn’t use the model. But she acknowledged that the approach is still in its infancy.

“‘Good enough’ is never good enough when you’re talking about getting kids college success,” Pinto added. “Time will tell.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story said students will have two 40-minute blocks of dance and music classes. In fact, they will be dance and art classes. 

Big money

Chunk of $55 million AbbVie gift will go toward more counselors in schools

PHOTO: Courtesy of Communities in Schools
Counselors in Schools site coordinator Artesha Williams and student Nasje Adams at the King Academy of Social Justice in Chicago

Sixteen more Chicago schools will add full-time counselors charged with reducing dropouts and helping students with critical mental health issues, thanks to a chunk of a $55 million donation gift from a North Chicago pharmaceutical giant.

The AbbVie donation, announced Friday, will be split among three nonprofit groups with a Chicago presence, though not all the money will be spent here. Communities in Schools will receive $30 million for its national efforts to broker relationships between community organizations and schools; the University of Chicago’s Education Lab, which focuses on dropout prevention and college persistence, will receive $15 million; and City Year, which places AmeriCorps tutors and mentors in schools, will receive $10 million.

Communities in Schools, which received the largest gift, will spend $6 million of its $30 million on its Chicago chapter, while the City Year money will be split among Chicago and a project in San Jose, California.

Jane Mentzinger, the executive director of Communities in Schools Chicago, said the $6 million is “transformational” and will be spent on a program that assigns full-time, master’s-level counselors to public schools on the South and West sides.

The AbbVie gift will grow a program that currently places full-time counselors in 15 Chicago schools, adding five schools this year and another 11 next fall.

“In each school, they case manage the 50 highest-need students who are at risk of falling behind and dropping out,” said Mentzinger. “They really work with students is to help resolve conflict, regulate emotions, and provide exposure opportunities, from support and mentoring to counseling.”  

The counselor piece helps fill a dire need within Chicago’s schools: mental health and trauma services. Students, educators, parents, and union leaders regularly lament that the district does not staff enough counselors and mental health practitioners, and that recent efforts have been too focused on college and career-readiness — including helping students draft a post-secondary plan. Starting with the Class of 2020, seniors must produce such a plan to graduate, a controversial idea championed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

In July, Chicago schools CEO Janice Jackson announced that the district would hire some 250 new social workers and special education case managers for schools.

Mentzinger said the value of sending in counselors who are employed by an outside agency, and not by the district, is that they have fewer administrative duties and so can cast a “wider net” among master’s degree candidates who might have non-traditional degrees such as art therapy or dance. “The level of need of our kids — we need to have more layers, more layers of work.”

A recent Steinmetz High School graduate, Emily Jade Aguilar, told Chalkbeat on Election Day that she was knocking on doors to get out the vote. Aguilar, who identifies as a trans woman, said the biggest issue driving her activism was mental health for students. “We need more mental health resources in our schools,” said Aguilar, whose school had four counselors for 1,200 students last year.

According to federal data from the 2015-16 school year, Chicago had 2.8 guidance counselors, social workers, and psychologists for every 1,000 students — fewer than in many other large cities. National guidance counselors and social workers groups recommend having one counselor and one social worker each for every 250 students. In schools with “intensive” needs, that ratio falls to one social worker for every 50 students.

In addition to providing counselors, Communities in Schools brokers relationships between nonprofit organizations and 160 schools to provide art and enrichment, mental health services, health care and college and career readiness programming.

snow fallout

From stalled buses to canceled programs, New York City schools are bearing brunt of snow storm

PHOTO: Guillermo Murcia / Getty Images
A school bus on Dekalb avenue in Fort Greene Brooklyn during a snow storm.

Parents, students, and teachers are dealing with the fallout of Thursday’s snowstorm, which stranded yellow buses for hours, created brutal commutes, and forced teachers to stay late for parent conferences.

Just before 9 a.m. Friday, schools Chancellor Richard Carranza announced all after-school programs would be cancelled, sending families scrambling to make arrangements. And perhaps anticipating yet another wave of yellow-bus related problems, all field trips involving buses were also cancelled.

Some parents and educators took to social media to vent about the city’s response.

Emergency responders were dispatched to free five children with special needs who had been trapped on a school bus for 10 hours, according to City Councilman Ben Kallos. Traveling from Manhattan to the Bronx, students didn’t make it home until “well after midnight,” Kallos said in a statement. The councilman has sponsored legislation to require GPS tracking on yellow buses after the school year began with horror stories about long, circuitous routes. Many riders are children with special needs who travel to programs outside their neighborhoods.

The education department did not immediately respond to questions about the timing of their decision to cancel after-school programs.

Mayor Bill de Blasio said the city would conduct a”full operational review of what happened,” referring to the city’s response to the storm. “We have to figure out how to make adjustments when we have only a few hours but this was—I hate to use this hackneyed phrase—but this was kind of a perfect storm: late information, right up on rush hour, and then a particularly fast, heavy kind of snow.”

The politics of snow-related closures are challenging, forcing city leaders to balance concerns about safety with the needs of working families, who may struggle to make arrangements for emergency childcare.

Snow-day related cancellations have bedeviled previous chancellors; in one famous incident, former Chancellor Carmen Fariña and de Blasio kept schools open despite a forecast of 10 inches of snow. The next day, Fariña proclaimed it was “a beautiful day.”

Still, the de Blasio administration is much more likely to cancel school in response to snow than his predecessor, Michael Bloomberg.

Christina Veiga contributed.