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.

Superintendent search

Former principal Roger Leon chosen as Newark’s new superintendent

Former principal and veteran administrator Roger Leon has been chosen as Newark’s new schools chief — its first since the city regained control of its schools.

In a unanimous vote Tuesday night, the school board chose Leon — a Newark native backed by local elected officials — over two candidates with extensive experience in other large urban districts, but whose outsider status put them at a disadvantage. The son of Cuban immigrants, Leon takes the reins of a system whose population has become increasingly Hispanic: At 46 percent of the Newark Public Schools enrollment, Hispanic students now outnumber black students, who make up 44 percent of the enrollment.

In opting for Leon, the board also passed over A. Robert Gregory, another former Newark principal and the district’s interim superintendent, who rose through the ranks under the previous state-appointed superintendent, Christopher Cerf — which some critics saw as a blemish on his record. The board actually picked Leon as superintendent once before, in 2015. But the state education commissioner, who still controlled the district at that time, ignored the board’s choice and appointed Cerf.

The board’s decision to again tap Leon seemed to signal a definitive break from the era of sweeping, controversial changes enacted by outsiders — namely, Cerf and his predecessor, Cami Anderson. Instead, after the state ended its decades-long takeover of the district in February and put the board back in charge of the schools, the board’s choice for superintendent suggests that it will rely on local talent and ideas to guide New Jersey’s largest school system in the new era of local control.

“After 22 years of being under state control, this is a new day,” said School Board Chair Josephine Garcia after Tuesday’s vote. “We look forward to working with the new superintendent.”

Leon grew up in Newark’s Ironbound neighborhood, where he attended the Hawkins Street School. He graduated from Science Park High School, the highly competitive magnet school, where he returned as a substitute math teacher while still a student at Rutgers University. He later coached the school’s renowned debate team.

He went on to teach middle-school algebra, then became principal of Dr. William H. Horton School and later University High School of the Humanities. For the past decade, he has been an assistant superintendent in the district.

As deputy chief academic officer under former superintendent Clifford Janey, he helped oversee several major policy changes, including new graduation requirements and district-wide grading standards. During that process, he recruited hundreds of parents, experts, and community members to join advisory committees to help craft the new policies.

More recently, he has played less of a policymaking role, instead helping to organize district-wide initiatives like a book-giveaway program for students. He also often authors the proclamations that the district awards to distinguished students and educators.

At a forum on Friday where the four superintendent finalists introduced themselves to the public, Leon said the district needs “a clear direction” for the future. He said his vision includes an “advanced technological curriculum” in schools, a focus on social-emotional learning, teacher training, and public-private partnerships to bring additional resources into schools.

“I will inherently be a proficient and influential agent of change,” he said, “because anything short of that is unacceptable.”

Leon arrives in his new position with a strong base of support, which was evident after Tuesday’s vote, when the audience erupted into cheers. In addition to the many parents and educators he has crossed paths with during his 25 years working in the district, he is also said to have close ties with State Sen. Teresa Ruiz, an influential lawmaker based in the politically powerful North Ward.

While Leon served under both Anderson and Cerf, he was far enough removed from the decision-making to escape the wrath of critics who opposed their policies, which included closing some district schools and overseeing the expansion of the charter-school sector. On Tuesday, John Abeigon, the head of the Newark Teachers Union, which clashed bitterly with Anderson and Cerf, said he looked forward to working with Leon.

“Once the new superintendent is sworn in,” he said, “we can begin rebuilding some of the more positive aspects of our district that were destroyed under the corporate control of Cerf.”

While the board has now officially offered Leon the position, it must still negotiate the terms of his contract. He will then start his new role on July 1.

Leon was one of four finalists selected by a search committee after a national search. A state plan had called for the board to choose from just three finalists. But someone on the search committee was unhappy with the three who were chosen and asked the state commissioner to allow a fourth finalist — despite the objections of some other committee members.

While the audience at Tuesday’s board meeting loudly cheered the board’s final decision, many people still criticized the search process. The board kept the names of the finalists secret until shortly before Friday’s forum, where audience members were not permitted to ask the candidates questions.

Still, even critics of the process said they were eager to work with the superintendent.

“The board made their decision,” said Wilhelmina Holder, a longtime parent activist. “So now we’re going to have to respect that decision and work on behalf of the children.”

Superintendent search

On eve of historic vote in Newark, questions arise about superintendent selection process

PHOTO: Newark Press Information Office

When the Newark school board votes on a new superintendent Tuesday evening, as is expected, it will choose from four finalists — a notable departure from the state’s guidelines for the search, which called for a maximum of three finalists.

The change, the result of a behind-the-scenes dispute, is likely to raise questions about the integrity of the superintendent search process at a critical juncture, as the local school board takes control for the first time in over two decades.

The fourth finalist was added after a search committee had already agreed on its shortlist, and despite the objections of some committee members who wanted to stick with the initial three finalists, according to Kim Gaddy, a committee member and school board member, and Marques-Aquil Lewis, the former school board chair, who were both involved in the process.

The addition came at the insistence of other search committee members who were upset that a “strong” candidate had been left off the shortlist, according to Lewis. The additional name was added after the state education commissioner, who is overseeing the handover to local control, agreed to revise the state-authored playbook governing the transition.  

The identities of the four finalist candidates are public, but search committee members would not confirm which of the four was added to the list late.

The dispute over the superintendent selection process comes as the elected school board is choosing a schools chief for the first time since 1995, when the state seized control of the district. In February, the state provisionally returned control of the district to board, whose first major task is to choose a new superintendent.

Gaddy, the school board member who was on the seven-person search committee, said she did not even learn about the request for a fourth candidate until after it was sent. (Lewis, the board chairman who sent the request, disputes that.) Either way, Gaddy says the committee should have honored the process as it was written in the guidelines, which the district must adhere to in order to maintain control of its schools.

“When we finished with three members, that’s it. There should not have been any other discussion with the search committee,” said Gaddy, who declined to say who was the fourth finalist added to the list.

In order to fully return to local control, the district must follow a two-year state plan that spells out every detail of the transition. The plan stipulated that the board must conduct a national search for superintendent candidates, who would then be narrowed down to three finalists by the search committee.

During their deliberations, the committee members discussed the possibility of naming four finalists, but there was “no real consensus” on whether to ask for an additional finalist, according to Gaddy. So at its final meeting on April 21, the group decided to adhere to the plan and name three finalists.

However, immediately after that meeting, one or more members approached Lewis, who was then the chair of the school board, and asked him to send a request to the state asking for permission to name a fourth finalist, Lewis said. Lewis, who was not on the search committee, would not say who asked him to request the change. But he said they were unhappy with the shortlist of finalists.

“When the request was made, they felt there was a fourth candidate that was strong, that should have made the finals,” he said, adding that the person or persons did not tell him who the candidates were.

Lewis said he reached out to all seven committee members before making the request, but could not reach one member. (Lewis said he did speak with Gaddy, which she says she does not recall.)

Two members objected to the request, Lewis said. But he said that four agreed to it, so he sent a letter to the commissioner asking for a change to the transition plan.

Just after Lewis sent the request, he was replaced as board chair by Josephine Garcia. (Lewis did not run for re-election.) After becoming chair, Garcia re-sent the request to the state.

Once again, Gaddy said she was not informed in advance: “I found out after the fact. I was not asked to support it.” Instead, she said that Garcia said she would discuss the request at a board meeting — after it had already been sent. (Garcia did not respond to an email seeking comment.)

On April 27, Acting State Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet sent Garcia a letter saying her request had been granted.

“I am in receipt of your request to amend the Transition Plan to allow the Superintendent Search Committee to submit four finalists to the full Board of Education for consideration,” Lamont wrote in the letter, which the state education department provided to Chalkbeat.

“In order to provider greater assistance to the district in finding the best candidate for the Superintendent position and to allow for consideration of all potentially qualified candidates,” Lamont continued, he agreed to amend the transition plan to allow for four finalists.

After the request was granted, four finalists were presented to the school board — including the one who did not make the original list of three. The four introduced themselves to the public on Friday, and were interviewed by the board in private on Saturday. The full board is expected to vote on which finalist to extend the offer to at its meeting Tuesday evening.

The finalists are former Baltimore city schools chief Andres Alonso; Newark Interim Superintendent A. Robert Gregory; Newark Assistant Superintendent Roger Leon; and Sito Narcisse, chief of schools for Metro Nashville Public Schools in Tennessee.

The search committee includes three board members: Gaddy, Garcia, and Leah Owens. Three other members were jointly chosen by the mayor and the state education commissioner: Former Newark superintendent Marion Bolden, Rutgers University-Newark Chancellor Nancy Cantor, and Irene Cooper-Basch, executive officer of the Victoria Foundation. A seventh person, attorney Jennifer Carrillo-Perez, was appointed by the commissioner.

Only Gaddy would agree to speak on the record for this story; the other committee members did not respond to messages or declined to comment on the record.

Gaddy said she kept the names of the candidates confidential throughout the process, as required. However, she said she felt the entire process has been tainted by the decision to change the rules of the search without the agreement of the full search committee.

The transition plan “was a roadmap,” Gaddy said, that provided clear instructions: “‘You have two years to do A, B, C, and D.’”

“Now every time you don’t agree with A or you don’t agree with B, you’re going to write a letter to the commissioner?” she asked. “How is that following the plan and inspiring confidence in the ability to run this district?”