parent voice

Anxious parents challenge de Blasio’s school safety efforts in wake of Bronx killing

PHOTO: Edwin J. Torres/Mayoral Photography Office
Mayor Bill de Blasio and Chancellor Carmen Fariña speak with parent leaders about school safety at the Harry Belafonte Library in October.

Less than a week after a stabbing in a Bronx school left one student dead and another seriously injured, parents grilled Mayor Bill de Blasio at a public forum on his safety policies and what he is doing to control violence in their schools.

One by one, parents at a Harlem forum on Monday stood to question the mayor and schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña: Would the city deploy more school psychologists? How can parents get better information on the safety of their schools? What happens if the police department’s school safety agents are not effective in patrolling a school?

The meeting, which was sometimes tense, was the first time the pair publicly heard from parents in the aftermath of the first student killing inside a school building in nearly 25 years.

“Anyone who’s had a child in our schools felt that moment very deeply,” de Blasio said in his opening remarks. “People all over the city want to know that every action is being taken.”

The killing at the Urban Assembly School for Wildlife Conservation comes at a sensitive moment for de Blasio, who is running for reelection and has faced a drumbeat of criticism for school discipline reforms that discourage suspensions and other punitive responses to student misbehavior. On Monday, de Blasio repeatedly reassured a group of parent leaders — including PTA presidents and community education council members — acknowledging their concerns about school safety without retreating from his own policies.

Some systems across the country are wrestling with school discipline reforms, with the debate largely split between those who advocate for strict discipline and those, like the mayor, who believe that such policies are imposed much more harshly on students of color and fail to address underlying problems.

Building on de Blasio’s emphasis on “restorative” approaches, all schools will hold weekly trainings for the next three weeks to reinforce de-escalation and anti-bullying strategies, Chancellor Fariña said, and will also receive refreshers on how to appropriately report cases of bullying.

Officials said those training materials are still being created and details will be distributed to schools this week. “This will go a long way in reinforcing what we’ve already put in place,” Fariña said.

But Gigs Taylor-Stephenson, a parent who attended the forum, expressed skepticism that additional training would be enough. Taylor-Stephenson, the PTA president at Manhattan’s Wadleigh Secondary School for the Performing & Visual Arts — a school in the city’s Renewal turnaround program — said she has seen training have little effect in the past.

People go to training, and sign up,” she said in an interview, referring to one program designed to help staff welcome parents and get them involved in the school. “But they don’t implement it in schools.”

Throughout the morning, de Blasio appeared to be particularly sensitive to concerns that schools might not immediately respond to reports of bullying — a criticism that has emerged at the Wildlife Conservation school.

“We very much are sending a message but we will send it even more rigorously to everyone in the school community: Never ignore an instance of bullying,” de Blasio said. If parents have a concern about school safety, he later added, “they got to know who to talk to and we have to do a better job of making that go-to person available.”

The mayor did not offer new facts about last week’s stabbing, and said the public should hold off on drawing conclusions until the investigation is complete. Before a student was killed, parents at that school said there had been breakdowns in school safety, and officials had failed to properly respond to incidents of bullying. After the stabbing, frustrated parents confronted school safety officers who refused to let them in the building or pick up their children.

On Monday, other parents raised concerns that their own student’s schools feel chaotic — and that staff members sometimes struggle to intervene. Speaking at the forum, Renesha Westbrooks-Martinez, a parent at P.S. 45 in Brooklyn, described a visit where she saw students shoving each other and papers strewn across the room. “I’m like, ‘Oh my goodness the teacher has no control,’” she said.

In response, de Blasio said disorderly classrooms are “something we don’t accept,” though Fariña later suggested that “a lot of what happens in classrooms that sometimes can look wild is interactive learning.”

“Certainly, if kids are not being disciplined, or not paying attention, that’s on us,” Fariña added. “But a lot more parents need be aware that we really want to hear a lot more talking in classrooms, we want to hear students talking to each other, working together.”

Speaking with reporters after the forum, Westbrooks-Martinez said what she described was a disorderly classroom, not one where students were learning from each other.

“I know the difference,” she said.

awards season

For the first time in two decades, New York’s Teacher of the Year hails from New York City — and West Africa

PHOTO: New York State Education Department
Bronx International High School teacher Alhassan Susso, center, is New York State's 2019 Teacher of the Year.

An immigrant from West Africa who teaches social studies to immigrant students in the Bronx is New York State’s newest Teacher of the Year.

Alhassan Susso, who works at International Community High School in Mott Haven, received the award Tuesday, becoming the first New York City teacher to do so since 1998.

As the state’s Teacher of the Year, Susso will travel the state to work with local educators — and will represent New York in the national competition at a time when federal authorities are aggressively seeking to limit immigration.

A decorated teacher with significant vision impairment since childhood, Susso came to New York from Gambia at 16 and had a rocky experience at his upstate high school, which he chronicled in an autobiography he published in 2016. Assuming that he would struggle academically because he was an immigrant, even though English is the official language of Gambia, his teachers assigned him to a remedial reading class. There, he found a compassionate teacher who was attentive to the diverse needs of her students, who came from all over the world.

Now, Susso is playing that role at his school. International Community High School, part of the Internationals Network for new immigrants, has a special program for students who did not receive a formal education before coming to the United States.

“Alhassan Susso exemplifies the dedication and passion of our 79,000 New York City teachers,” city Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza said in a statement. “Using the obstacles he’s overcome and lessons he’s learned in his own life, Alhassan has changed the trajectory of students’ lives and helped them pursue their dreams.”

New York City teachers make up nearly 40 percent of the state’s teaching force but have won the Teacher of the Year honor only six times since 1965, the last in 1998. This year’s winner had a strong chance of ending the two-decade shutout: Two of the three finalists teach in the Bronx. In addition to Susso, Frederick Douglass Academy III chemistry teacher William Green was up for the award.

regents roundup

Regents support a new way of evaluating charter schools and soften penalties for schools with high opt-out rates

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Chancellor Betty Rosa, center, at a recent Board of Regents meeting.

New York’s top education policymakers tentatively approved new rules Monday on two hot-button issues: the penalties for districts and schools where many students opt out of state tests — and how nearly 100 charter schools across the state will be evaluated.

Here’s what you need to know about the new policies that the state’s Board of Regents set in motion.

Potential penalties for high opt-out rates were softened

After criticism from activists and parents within the opt-out movement and pushback from the state teachers union, the Regents walked back some of the consequences schools and districts can face when students refuse to take state exams.

Among the most significant changes, which state officials first floated last week, is that districts with high opt-out rates will not be required to use a portion of their federal funding to increase their testing rates.

“I do not ever want to be the person who takes money away from children,” State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said.

The regulations are part of the state’s plan under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act and stem from a federal mandate that 95 percent of students take the state’s annual reading and math exams.

The Regents tweaked other rules requiring schools to create improvement plans if they fall below the 95 percent threshold. Schools with average or higher test scores will not have to come up with those plans.

Still, some parents who support the opt-out movement and who attended Monday’s meeting said the changes don’t go far enough and that schools with lower test scores should also be exempt from coming up with plans to boost participation rates.

“There’s still so much left to be addressed,” said Kemala Karmen, a New York City public school parent who attended the meeting.

The new regulations will likely not have a major effect in New York City, where opt-out rates have remained relatively low. Although New York State has been the epicenter of the test-boycott movement — with roughly one in five students refusing to take the tests, according to the most recent data — less than 4 percent of the city’s students declined to take them.

The Regents unanimously approved the changes, although their vote is technically preliminary. The tweaks will still be subject to a 30-day public comment period and will likely be brought to a final vote in December.

New criteria for evaluating charter schools

The Regents also narrowly approved a new framework for evaluating the roughly 100 charter schools that the board oversees across the state, 63 of which are in New York City.

The new framework is meant to bring charter schools in line with how the state judges district-run schools. Under the new federal education law, the Regents have moved away from emphasizing test scores as the key indicator of a school’s success.

In keeping with that shift, the new charter framework will require schools to have policies covering chronic absenteeism, out-of-school suspension rates, and other measures of school culture to help decide whether they are successful enough to remain open.

And while the new framework does not spell out specific rates of chronic absenteeism a school must fall below, for example, it does explicitly add those policies to the mix of factors the Regents consider. (Officials said that test scores and graduation rates would still remain among the most important factors in evaluating charter schools.)

At Monday’s meeting, discussion of the charter framework prompted broad complaints about the charter sector from some Regents. The state’s framework for evaluating charters was last updated in 2015; the board has added several new members and a new chancellor since then.

The current board has repeatedly sent mixed messages about the sector, approving large batches of new charters while also rejecting others and raising questions about whether the schools serve a fair share of high-need students.

“We’re giving money away from our public schools to charters,” Regent Kathy Cashin said, emphasizing that she believes the state should more deeply probe when students leave charter schools and survey families to find out why.

Charters receive some freedom from rules governing most district-run schools, but in exchange the schools are expected to meet certain performance benchmarks or else face closure.

State officials said the new framework does not include new standards for how New York judges enrollment and retention. Under the current rules, schools must enroll a similar number of students with disabilities, English learners, and low-income students as other nearby district schools. If they don’t, they must show that they’re making progress toward that goal.

Ultimately, the new framework was approved eight to five in a preliminary vote and will be brought back to the full board for approval on Tuesday.