Building Better Schools

Want to understand Betty Rosa’s vision? Check out the Bronx ‘community school’ she visited.

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Chancellor Betty Rosa and Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. cut the ribbon for a new playground at P.S. 55/Success Academy Bronx 2.

On the first day of school Thursday, Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa stood next to a giant pair of scissors in front of a jungle gym at P.S. 55 in the Bronx, preparing to announce the opening of a new million-dollar playground.

She chose to visit that school largely because of the playground and what it represents.

The playground, which will be shared by P.S. 55 and the charter school in its building, is the latest in a series of resources — among them a health clinic, garden, and child-care center — that Principal Luis Torres has cobbled together to improve the lives of his students and their families.

“It’s not just about literacy and math. It’s about saving lives,” said Torres, who Rosa has mentored for many years. He added, “My philosophy started from Dr. Rosa’s vision.”

In many ways, P.S. 55 embodies Rosa’s philosophy that students’ social and emotional needs must be met before they can learn, and that a school’s academic performance is essential but should not be the only measure of its success. During Rosa’s tenure, the state has put more emphasis on schools like P.S. 55 that provide students with an array of social services — often called “community schools” — and has sought new ways to evaluate schools in addition to their test scores.

Yet it remains an open question whether the community-school model necessarily improves academic performance — especially in schools with especially needy populations and longstanding academic challenges, like P.S. 55. The vast majority of its students live in poverty, and nearly one-fifth have disabilities. While its scores ticked up this year, only 15 percent of students passed the state English exams and 19 percent passed math — rates far below the citywide averages, but on par with the high-poverty Bronx district where it’s located.

On Thursday, Rosa said the community-school approach — which often involves adding health clinics and counseling services at schools, along with art and nutrition programs — is crucial for boosting test scores at a school like P.S. 55. But, echoing her mentee, she said that can’t be the sole or even primary motivation for attending to students’ mental, physical, and emotional needs.

“The intent is not to push the needle on test scores,” Rosa said. “I think that when children are healthy, mentally ready, have had good entry points, have had a community that supports them, that prepares students to be ready.”

Some studies of community schools’ impact on student achievement have found mixed results. A recent study showed that mental, physical and academic interventions improved students’ attendance and graduation rates but did not raise their test scores, though other research has found that support services did lead to higher scores.

Torres attributed his test score gains over the past year to the network of supports and community partners he has cultivated in the school. But he also said he sees his job as far more expansive than simply improving his students’ math and reading scores.

“It matters to me but it’s not my sole purpose,” said Torres, who is so devoted to the community-school model that he has taken to referring to his school as C.S. 55, instead of P.S.

The chancellor’s assent to the top of the Board of Regents came after a series of dramatic shifts in education policy, including the adoption of tougher learning standards, test-based teacher evaluations, and more rigorous graduation requirements. Endorsed by groups that opposed those policies and boycotted the state tests, Rosa represented an abrupt end to that era of controversial changes.

By the time Rosa took control of the board, Gov. Andrew Cuomo had moved away from those harsher policies and made the creation of more community schools a top priority.

The Board of Regents has also started to pay more attention to schools’ resources. As part of the plan it is required to create under the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act law, it is designing a tool that could display schools’ funding levels, teacher qualifications, and the diversity of their student bodies, in addition to academic measures like test scores.

On Thursday, Rosa also visited the charter school that shares a building with P.S. 55, Success Academy Bronx 2, where she toured a classroom and complimented students’ orange and blue uniforms. The charter network is known for emphasizing test scores and, though Success Academy Bronx 2 has significantly fewer economically disadvantaged students than P.S. 55, it also has far higher test scores.

The visit was meant, in part, to show solidarity between district and charter schools. The two schools have been spotlighted before for forging a close and mutually beneficial relationship.

But Rosa’s visit to Success comes at a politically awkward moment.

Last month, she forcefully condemned racially charged comments made by Success Academy’s board chair, hedge-fund manager Dan Loeb. She also recently railed against a new proposal that would allow some charter schools to certify their own teachers — a change supported by Success.

Soon after the visit on Thursday, the state released a joint letter by Rosa and State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia decrying the teacher certification proposal.

“Simply put, such action is an affront to a critical tenet in education: rigorous and high-quality teacher preparation programs foster high-quality teachers who increase the likelihood of students achieving proficiency on state standards,” the letter said.

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.