2017-18 Begins

From a preschool to a struggling school, Mayor de Blasio helps city kick off a new school year

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Mayor Bill de Blasio walks to P.S. 277 in the Bronx with three-year-old Joel Lopez and his mother, Astrea Ramirez, on the first day of school.

As school began Thursday for over a million students in New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio and schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña criss-crossed the city, with plans to visit classrooms in every borough.

The yearly tradition marks an opportunity for the mayor, who is facing re-election this fall, to make the case that his education agenda is paying off and to tout several newly unveiled initiatives: free preschool for three-year-olds, more computer-science classes, and an expanded free-lunch program that now includes all students.

Throughout the day, we’ll post dispatches from the mayor and chancellor’s citywide school tour.

Kicking off the school year with the city’s youngest students

7:57 a.m.: De Blasio began the day walking to school with 3-year-old Joel Lopez, a member of the school system’s youngest and newest cohort. Under the city’s new 3-K for All program, two districts in the Brooklyn and Bronx will begin serving nearly 800 3-year-olds this school fall — a downward expansion of free pre-kindergarten for all 4-year-olds, the mayor’s signature education accomplishment. (The education department will also provide support for an additional 577 3-year-olds enrolled in early-learning centers in those districts.)

Along with Fariña, the mayor and Joel strolled into a basement classroom at the Bronx’s P.S. 277, where students got to work right away. They sat at small rectangular tables pulling apart pieces of pink and blue Play-Doh, as their teachers hovered above them.

Astrea Ramirez, Joel’s mother, said she heard about the 3-K program through a family member and signed up immediately. “I would have had to pay out-of-pocket for daycare,” she said, adding that she hopes the new program will jump-start her son’s education. “At this age, they’re sponges.”

With fewer than 1,400 students, the new 3-K program is far smaller than the mayor’s ambitious program for 4-year-olds, which is open to every child and currently serves over 70,000 students. Still, de Blasio said the new program is part of his administration’s push to ensure students have access to high-quality education during their crucial early-developmental years.

“A whole generation of our children are going to get that great education from the beginning,” de Blasio said. “What we’re seeing here today is the beginning of something very big.”

College talk at a struggling high school

11:13 a.m.: Later this morning, the mayor headed to Queens to talk college with teenagers and check in on a high school in his closely watched “Renewal” program for struggling schools.

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Mayor de Blasio sits in on a class at August Martin High School in Queens on the first day of the 2017-18 school year.

Stepping into a blue-tiled classroom in the South Jamaica neighborhood, he observed students in polo shirts and khakis playing a game of “College-and-Career Jeopardy.” The students, who attend separate schools in the same building, eagerly answered questions like: “What are the three things you need to fill out your FAFSA?” and whether students with middling academic records should apply to colleges that look for higher-than-average SAT scores and grades. (The answer: Yes!)

The visit was meant to highlight a collaboration between a low-performing district school, August Martin High School, and a charter school on the same campus, New Visions Charter High School for Advanced Math and Science IV. About 120 partnerships exist across the city, officials said.

This year, August Martin seniors are helping mentor New Visions’ juniors on how to navigate the college application process. One August Martin student, Stephon Jones, said his biggest piece of advice is to start thinking early on about what you want out of college. “That’s going to help me find the career I want,” he said, adding that he’s considering becoming an actor or wrestler.

Mayor de Blasio dispensed some college advice of his own, encouraging students not to be intimidated by the college application process. While the visit focused on college planning, it did not call attention to the fact that August Martin has been among the lowest-performing schools in the city — and one the mayor is trying to turn around through his $582 million Renewal program.

In 2016, the school’s four-year graduation rate was 39 percent — a far cry from the citywide rate of 73 percent that year and lower than the 59 percent rate among Renewal high schools. Graduation rates from 2017 have not yet been released, but Principal Rory Parnell said August Martin’s improved significantly this year, climbing to about 64 percent.

Parnell said she has been working hard to turn the school around after it was labeled “out of time” by the state and has suffered a declining enrollment. She’s boosted its music program (plastic storage containers no longer double as drums), instituted a uniform policy, and has pushed her teachers — just two of whom have been at the school longer than three years — to raise their expectations of students. Between 2015 and 2016, the school’s graduation rate leapt 14 percentage points, while its students’ college-readiness rate grew six points.

“Over the past two years, our school has seen a 100 percent transformation,” Parnell said.

Still, just weeks ago, de Blasio suggested that more schools in the Renewal program could face closure if they don’t make steady progress. Parnell says she feels pressure to improve, but believes the school is on the right track.

“I try to separate myself from the political pressure,” she said. “As far as my school closing, that’s in God’s hands.”

Day 1(010110011)

1:59 p.m.: It was the final period of their first day back at Curtis High School on Staten Island and Sarah McCoy’s new computer-science students were already learning the rudiments of programming.

The juniors and seniors in the newly created Advanced Placement class worked in pairs to write lines of code that would direct a small yellow cartoon character to dance around the screen, or to move in response to clicks. Even with the mayor and schools chancellor observing her lesson, McCoy attentively shuttled across the room to help students troubleshoot technical glitches, or nudged others to move on to the next task.

One of her main goals is to help her students pass the AP test, which can give them a leg up in the college application process or help them earn college credits. But she also wants them to derive more intangible benefits from her class, like intellectual curiosity, as evinced by the issues of WIRED magazine strewn across the tops of filing cabinets.

“I hope they’ll be better equipped to understand the world around them,” she said.

Oluwaseun Johnson, a senior who said he’s always had an interest in technology, seemed to be enjoying the programming challenge.

“I like seeing how things work,” he said, adding that he plans to study computer science in college next year. “It’s a good skill to have.”

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Chancellor Carmen Fariña watched Curtis High School student Oluwaseun Johnson during a computer science class.

The new class — called Computer Science Principles — is part of an overlapping set of initiatives that Mayor de Blasio hopes will result in every high school offering at least five AP classes by 2021, and every student studying computer science by 2025.

McCoy, who has taught math in the past, said she signed up for every new computer-science workshop she could. This April, she attended a weeklong training with educators from U.C. Berkeley who are helping some New York City educators adapt a college-level programming course for high school students.

“As a math teacher, I often got questions about how the course is relevant to their lives,” she said. “It’s just so obvious how [computer science] is relevant to real life.”

Correction: Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this story cited an incorrect graduation rate for New Visions Charter High School for Advanced Math and Science IV. In fact, that school has not yet graduated any students.

Clarification: The story has been updated to better describe the purpose of the mayor’s visit to August Martin High School and to include the 2016 graduation rate among Renewal high schools.

Newark Enrolls

After changes and challenges, Friday’s deadline to enroll in Newark schools finally arrives

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
A student fills out an information sheet at Central High School's booth at the citywide school fair in December.

Newark families have just a few hours left to apply to more than 70 public schools for next fall.

At noon on Friday, the online portal that allows families to apply to most traditional and charter school will close. After that, they will have to visit the district’s enrollment center. Last year, nearly 13,000 applications were submitted.

The stakes — and stress — are greatest for students entering high school. Each year, hundreds of eighth-graders compete for spots at the city’s selective “magnet” high schools, which many students consider their best options.

This year, those eighth-graders have to jump through an extra hoop — a new admissions test the magnets will use as they rank applicants. District students will sit for the test Friday, while students in charter and private schools will take it Saturday.

That’s news to many parents, including Marie Rosario, whose son, Tamir, is an eighth-grader at Park Elementary School in the North Ward.

“I don’t know nothing about it,” she said. District officials have been tight-lipped about what’s on the new test, how it will factor into admissions decisions, or even why introducing it was deemed necessary.

Students can apply to as many as eight schools. Tamir’s top choice was Science Park, one of the most sought-after magnet schools. Last year, just 29 percent of eighth-graders who ranked it first on their applications got seats.

“I’m going to cross my fingers,” Rosario said.

Students will find out in April where they were matched. Last year, 84 percent of families applying to kindergarten got their first choice. Applicants for ninth grade were less fortunate: Only 41 percent of them got their top choice, the result of so many students vying for magnet schools.

This is the sixth year that families have used the online application system, called Newark Enrolls, to pick schools. Newark is one of the few cities in the country to use a single application for most charter and district schools. Still, several charter schools do not participate in the system, nor do the vocational high schools run by Essex County.

Today, surveys show that most families who use the enrollment system like it. However, its rollout was marred by technical glitches and suspicions that it was designed to funnel students into charter schools, which educate about one in three Newark students. Some charter critics hoped the district’s newly empowered school board would abolish the system. Instead, Superintendent Roger León convinced the board to keep it for now, arguing it simplifies the application process for families.

Managing that process has posed challenges for León, who began as schools chief in July.

First, he ousted but did not replace the district’s enrollment chief. Then, he clashed with charter school leaders over changes to Newark Enrolls, leading them to accelerate planning for an alternative system, although that never materialized. Next, the district fell behind schedule in printing an enrollment guidebook for families.

Later, the district announced the new magnet-school admissions test but then had to delay its rollout as León’s team worked to create the test from scratch with help from principals, raising questions from testing experts about its validity. Magnet school leaders, like families, have said they are in the dark about how heavily the new test will be weighted compared to the other criteria, including grades and state test scores, that magnet schools already use to rank applicants.

Meanwhile, León has repeatedly dropped hints about new “academies” opening inside the district’s traditional high schools in the fall to help those schools compete with the magnets. However, the district has yet to hold any formal informational sessions for families about the academies or provide details about them on the district website or in the enrollment guidebook. As a result, any such academies are unlikely to give the traditional schools much of an enrollment boost this year.

District spokeswoman Tracy Munford did not respond to a request Thursday to speak with an official about this year’s enrollment process.

Beyond those hiccups, the enrollment process has mostly gone according to plan. After activating the application website in December, the district held a well-attended school fair where families picked up school pamphlets and chatted with representatives. Individual elementary schools, such as Oliver Street School in the East Ward, have also invited high school principals to come and tell students about their offerings.

American History High School Principal Jason Denard said he made several outings to pitch his magnet school to prospective students. He also invited middle-school groups to tour his school, and ordered glossy school postcards. Now, along with students and families across the city, all he can do is wait.

“I’m excited to see the results of our recruitment efforts,” he said. “Not much else is in my control — but recruitment is.”

reunion

Jubilation, and some confusion, as Denver schools begin their post-strike recovery

PHOTO: Eric Gorski/Chalkbeat
Lupe Lopez-Montoya greets students at Columbian Elementary School on Thursday after Denver's three-day teacher strike.

Lupe Lopez-Montoya got the text message at 6:15 a.m. The strike was over, the colleague who’d been keeping her up to speed on news from her union told her.

And so as district and teachers union officials celebrated their deal at the Denver Public Library, Lopez-Montoya on Thursday resurrected her regular commute to Columbia Elementary School, the northwest Denver school where she’s the longest-serving tenured teacher.

For the past three days, Lopez-Montoya had stayed out of school as Denver Public Schools and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association sparred over how teachers in Denver are paid. She still had unanswered questions about the future. But first, it was time to greet students.

One girl ran across the sidewalk to give a hug. “Ms. Montoya’s back,” she shouted, burying her face in the teacher’s side.

Lopez-Montoya began to welcome students into the building. “Line up and you can go get breakfast,” she told one boy. “I’m happy you’re here today.”

The moment kicked off what was a not-quite-normal day in Denver schools. With a deal coming just an hour before some schools were due to start for the day, teachers and families had little time to adjust their plans. The district also had too little time to reopen early childhood classes that have been closed all week; those will reopen on Friday, officials said.

Building principals got an email around 7 a.m. telling them that the strike was over and that many teachers would be coming back to work. In some buildings, central office staff and substitutes who had been filling in for teachers were already on site when teachers returned to work. And some students who commute long distances didn’t get the word in time to go to schools.

By early afternoon, about 81 percent of teachers in district-run schools had shown up to work, and about 83 percent of students had, according to Denver school district spokesman Will Jones.

In the parking lot outside Mathematics and Science Leadership Academy, a west Denver elementary school, teachers still clad in the red of their cause gathered in the parking lot to walk in together. Asked what the mood was, reading intervention teacher Denise Saiz said, “Relief!” and her colleagues responded with an enthusiastic “Yes!”

“We’re really excited to get back to the kids,” said fifth grade teacher Emily Mimovich.

While strike participation was high at the school — it was founded with support from the state and local union as a teacher-led school — the teachers said they did not believe there would be hard feelings between those who walked and those who didn’t.

“We have such a good relationship,” said Reyes Navarro, who teaches Spanish to kindergarten and first-grade students. “We understand that you have to do whatever is right for you.”

Parents also said they were eager to have their children get back to school.

Sarah Murphy, who has a third-grader and a 4-year-old preschool student, said this morning was a “bit of a scramble, albeit a welcome one.” She had both children signed up for a day camp at the University of Denver and was unsure if she should send them to school or to camp because she wasn’t sure teachers would be back at school. Then she got word that camp was canceled for both children — but Denver Public Schools preschools are still closed.

“We were left trying to figure out what to do with our ECE4 since they were still closed,” she wrote to Chalkbeat. “We know how hard this has been on everyone, but this morning proved that the ECE program was the hardest hit, short notice every step of the way. We very much look forward to tomorrow when both are back in their normal school routines.”

Not everyone returned to school. Some teachers said they needed a day to collect themselves after an emotional experience. Judy Kelley, a visual arts teacher at Martin Luther King Jr. Early College, said she and many of her colleagues live too far away from the school to get there on short notice.

But the majority of teachers who went back to work Thursday describe positive experiences returning to their schools. Ryan Marini, a social studies teacher and football coach at South High School, called it the “best day” in 17 years of teaching.

Suzanne Hernandez, a first-grade teacher at Westerly Creek Elementary in Stapleton, said she and other teachers gathered to walk into school together at 7:45 a.m.

Teachers thanked the subs from central office who were in the building. They headed back to their roles in central offices.

Early in the morning, Hernandez sent a message to her students’ parents to let them know teachers would be back in school. The reaction from students as she greeted them was “overwhelming,” she said.

With the help of paraprofessionals who had prepared lessons, Hernandez said teachers were able to jump right back to where they left off last week.

As far as Valentine’s Day, that celebration will be pushed back until Friday afternoon, she said. For now, teachers are having their own celebration, happy to be back in the classroom.

“I think if there’s any sort of effect from the strike, it’s been a positive one,” she said. “It’s been a very unifying experience.”

Allison Hicks, a teacher at Colfax Elementary, said returning teachers were greeted with hugs, music, smiles and tears.

“After finding out an hour ago we were going back to work, I scrambled home to get ready,” she wrote to Chalkbeat. “I am exhausted, but so excited to be back with my students. This day won’t be normal, but knowing I did my part to put my students first is the best feeling to have.”

Kade Orlandini, who teaches at John F. Kennedy High School, said most of the teachers are back in her building, despite the short notice.

“Teachers were ready, and we are jumping right back into instruction,” she wrote. “Attendance seems lower than normal, but students who are here are ready to learn. The atmosphere in the school is very positive all around.”

What was your experience going back to school? What other questions do you have? Take our survey

Chalkbeat’s Ann Schimke, Erica Meltzer, and Yesenia Robles contributed reporting to this article.