turnaround time

‘Everything you got’: How a Bronx principal is trying to restore hope to a once-troubled school, one student at a time

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Principal Asya Johnson chats with students during an AP class.

At 12:30 p.m. on a recent afternoon at Longwood Preparatory Academy in the South Bronx, Principal Asya Johnson was scheduled for three meetings at once.

So as she hurried out of her office and descended the stairs — picking up a few discarded candy wrappers along the way — she settled on a classroom where teachers were trying to figure out what concepts students had missed on the English Regents test, an exam students must pass to graduate.

“Usually I’m not in three places,” she quipped. “I’m in two.”

Johnson is a no-nonsense Philadelphia native short enough to be mistaken for a student. The 36-year-old is also responsible for breathing new life into Longwood Prep, a long-struggling school formerly known as Banana Kelly High School. She’s under intense pressure to perform: The school is part of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s $568 million “Renewal” program, which pours extra resources into troubled schools to spark a revival — but threatens to close those that falter.

When she arrived after a stint at a Harlem charter school, Longwood Prep had one of the highest dropout rates in the city, low staff morale, and had churned through four principals in five years — one of whom was doused with pepper spray in the school’s cafeteria and was later shot with a BB pellet. (Johnson’s immediate predecessor, whom she replaced in January 2016, abruptly resigned after reportedly fabricating reports of teacher observations.)

It’s too early to know whether she can transform the school. But schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña praised her on a recent visit, and some of her colleagues say she has already instilled a new sense of order and discipline.

Sometimes, that’s through a tough-love approach: pulling a distracted student’s headphones out of his ears or calling out dress-code violators in the hallway. Yet she’s also happy to offer students one of the fresh shirts she stashes in a cabinet, or invite them into her office to vent.

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Johnson settles into her desk before students arrive on a recent Thursday morning.

“She has that firm hand with the kid glove on the outside,” said Joahan Suarez, who works for a nonprofit embedded in the school. “Not too many people can pull that off.”

Crucially, many staffers say they support her vision rather than seeing her as just the latest in a rotating cast of leaders. Johnson’s office is lined with notes they wrote her. “This school is not the same school it was,” one reads.

Last week, Chalkbeat shadowed Johnson — from sunrise to sunset — to see what the job of turning around a struggling school looks like. Here are highlights from her day.

6:55 a.m. — Moment of peace

When Johnson settles into her desk, the streetlights outside have just started to flicker off and the halls are silent.

Johnson’s days are typically packed, a feature of running a school with an urgent to-do list, including: convince parents that it is no longer a school of last resort and improve its low graduation rate, which was 50 percent this year (according to preliminary figures) — an increase from 2016, yet still far below last year’s citywide rate of 73 percent and the 59 percent average among Renewal schools.

She leaves her Bronx home and arrives at her desk by 7 a.m. most days. She rarely walks out before 6 p.m.

She relishes the early morning as a time to catch up on emails and paperwork, since she spends most nights catching up with her three sons and husband (who’s an assistant principal at a different school) and doing assignments for a doctoral program in educational leadership.

This morning, she’s reviewing her notes from recent classroom observations that will help determine teacher ratings, which she enters in an online database despite a spotty internet connection.

But it isn’t long before the stillness in her office is broken. Her staff has started to arrive, which means she’s in troubleshooting mode.

One teacher drops in to report that she wasn’t able to print out students’ reading levels, which she planned to share during parent conferences. Another teacher, locked out of her classroom, asks to borrow a set of keys. And Suarez, the community school director, stops by to ask whether Johnson would consider adding a law-and-government program to entice prospective students.

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman/Chalkbeat
Johnson corrals a student between classes.

Next, Johnson meets with the school’s director of recruitment and retention, Enrique Lizardi, who spent his Sunday promoting the school at a Bronx high-school fair. Over the past five years, the school’s population has dwindled from 423 students to just over 200 — a slight uptick from last year. Still, the school must add students if it wants to survive: The city has shuttered several schools in recent years that it deemed too small to sustain.

For now, the pair agree to contact the guidance counselor of every student who expressed interest at the high school fair over the weekend. Her team has already peppered local bodegas and restaurants with fliers advertising Longwood Prep, which she argues is completely different than its precursor. But convincing parents is another matter.

“How do you get people to understand that this isn’t Banana Kelly with a new name?” she says later.

9:25 a.m. — ‘Glows and grows’

“This unit we’re learning how to write argument essays,” teacher Grace Fauquet booms over a group of seniors in her Advanced Placement writing class as Johnson slips into an empty student desk.

One of her greatest responsibilities is coaching her teachers, many of whom are new to the school. (In 2016, all 25 teachers were forced to reapply for their jobs — just 12 returned.) She helps them improve their craft by regularly visiting their classrooms and offering feedback, even beyond what is required by the official evaluation process.

After the lesson, she’ll send Fauquet — one of the school’s rising stars — an email with “glows, grows and next steps.”

Fauquet arrived in 2014 with just a few weeks of training through Teach For America, the nonprofit that places recent college graduates in high-poverty schools like Longwood Prep. That same year, Mayor de Blasio named the former Banana Kelly as one of nearly 100 low-achieving schools in his much-publicized Renewal program — a painful acknowledgement of the school’s challenges, but also a promise to send it relief. For Fauquet, that meant a new instructional coach provided through the program, which she credits with helping her survive her tumultuous first years of teaching.

For this lesson, Fauquet has arranged students in roughly 10 pairs and tasked them with researching and writing short presentations that explain different logical fallacies, such as ad hominem attacks or circular reasoning.

Before long, Johnson is weaving throughout the room, clipboard in hand, bending down to speak to students. “Did you take it right from the text or did you paraphrase?” she asks a young woman who appeared to have copied a definition verbatim. “Make sure you paraphrase.”

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Johnson observes teacher Grace Fauquet (left) during her AP writing class.

After the lesson, Johnson says she’s happy with what she saw, but plans to advise Fauquet to get her students to question each other during class — an engaging and subtle way for the teacher to gauge students’ understanding. She plans to return for another observation in two weeks, when she hopes to see tweaks based on her feedback.

“I’m not trying to catch people out there,” she says. But “if we’re not in classrooms, and just give them professional development and then come in to evaluate them — that’s not support.”

2:00 p.m. — Searching for “gray-area kids”

None of Johnson’s reforms will make a difference if students never make it to school.

So after quickly polishing off a microwaveable lunch in her office, she sets off for a meeting where her staff is discussing what’s keeping certain students out of class — and coming up with solutions.

In recent years, the school has struggled with high rates of absenteeism: Roughly 57 percent of students missed 10 percent or more of last school year — down from a crippling 75 percent in 2015. Chronic absenteeism doesn’t just have a detrimental effect on student learning, it also is linked to higher dropout and incarceration rates. It’s an issue education officials have identified across Renewal schools, and is a thermometer for the overall health of a school.

At a long rectangular table, a group of staffers led by teacher Cristina Abellas is trying to marshal the school’s resources to intervene with one student at a time.

Using new software that lets schools quickly identify chronically absent students, the educators take turns explaining why specific students have missed school: medical emergencies, court appearances, mental-health crises.

As in many of her meetings, Johnson participates without running the show. She’s delegated responsibility for overseeing certain meetings and programs to teachers who take on the extra work in exchange for a salary bump and slightly lighter course load.  

Johnson listens as the staffers describe what they’ve tried in each case and what steps should come next — including home visits, calling parents into the school for meetings, or calls to parole officers. One teacher described her strategy for working with a student whose absences seemed to stem from depression.

“I’m sharing poetry with her,” the teacher says, “trying to express her feelings in a positive way.”

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Cristina Abellas (center), community school director Joahan Suarez (right), and Johnson at an attendance meeting

Next, Johnson asks the group to identify one “gray-area kid” from each grade: Students on the precipice of chronic absenteeism who could thrive if the right adults gave them enough attention. It was an experiment in all-hands-on-deck crisis prevention.

“Everything you got,” she tells the group as they start suggesting names, “with every single one of these kids.”

3:18 p.m. — Is it working?

As the school day winds down, Johnson summons a small team to her office to tackle a crucial question hanging over many of the school’s turnaround efforts: How to tell whether they’re working?

Johnson, Abellas, the assistant principal, and a staffer from Replications, the school’s nonprofit partner, sit around a cramped conference table trying to articulate exactly what the attendance program’s goals are and how to describe them in a measureable way — a sometimes gruelling discussion at the end of a long day.

“We’re getting somewhere,” says Replications program manager John Elwell after the conversation stalls for a moment. “Let’s not get discouraged.”

During a recent visit, state officials asked the school to begin documenting the impact of social-emotional programs offered with help from Replications. The programs run the gamut from hip-hop therapy sessions, where students use the school’s recording studio to express feelings that can be hard to convey in traditional counseling, to intake interviews where Replications staffers assess students’ health needs.

More than an hour after the group started trying to list realistic objectives for the program, their work is still not finished. But they’ve made some progress and agree to meet again soon.

Afterwards, Johnson says goodbye to some staffers who’d stopped by, checks her email, and gathers up her belongings to leave — nearly 12 hours after she stepped into her office that morning.

She acknowledges that there’s still lots of work ahead, and that change can be slow. But she plans to stay long enough for the baby steps to turn into strides.

“If I could retire from this school and this job that would be my dream,” she says, the light fading outside. “I want to be able to say: ‘Here’s a model to turn around a school.’”

School discipline

Michigan schools have expelled fewer students, but that may not be cause for celebration

PHOTO: Getty Images

Michigan schools have expelled far fewer students since the state enacted laws aimed at cutting back on expulsions. But an advocate who’s pushed for an end to zero-tolerance policies pointed out persistent problems and told elected state education leaders this week that, “We shouldn’t start celebrating yet.”

This is why: Peri Stone-Palmquist, executive director of the Ypsilanti-based Student Advocacy Center, told State Board of Education members that in the 18 months since the new laws took effect in 2017, expulsions have dropped 12 percent. But she’s concerned that too many school leaders don’t understand the law or are ignoring its requirements. And she believes some schools are finding other ways of kicking kids out of school without expelling them.

Michigan did away with zero-tolerance policies that had earned it a reputation for having some of the toughest disciplinary rules in the nation. In their place, lawmakers instituted new rules, such as requiring schools to consider seven factors — including a student’s age, disciplinary record, disability and seriousness of the incident — in making expulsion decisions.

“We have had districts and charters tell advocates that they would not consider the seven factors at all,” Stone-Palmquist said. Others aren’t sharing with parents and students how those seven factors were used. And she said there’s a general “lack of understanding of lesser interventions and the persistent belief that lengthy removals remain necessary.”

That’s a problem, she and others say, because of the negative consequences of kicking students out of school. Studies have shown that students kicked out of school are often missing out on an education and are more likely to get into trouble. Advocates also worry that expulsion exacerbates what they describe as a “school-to-prison” pipeline.

She said advocates are noticing that more students are receiving long suspensions, an indication that some schools are suspending students rather than expelling them. Hiding students in suspension data won’t work much longer, though. Michigan now requires schools to collect such data, which soon will be public.

Stone-Palmquist also said that some schools aren’t even going through the expulsion process, but simply referring students with discipline issues to “understaffed virtual settings.”

“Once again, the students who need the most get the least, and no one has to report it as an expulsion.”

Stone-Palmquist gave an example of a ninth-grader involved in a verbal altercation who was expelled for a long time for persistent disobedience, “despite our team lining up extensive community resources for him and despite the district never trying positive interventions with him.”

In another case, a fifth-grader was expelled for 180 days for spitting at another student who had done the same to them first. Stone-Palmquist said the seven factors weren’t considered.

“We were told at the appeal hearing that the student’s behaviors were too dangerous to consider lesser interventions.”

She and Kristin Totten, an education lawyer for the ACLU of Michigan, provided board members with statistics that some members found alarming. Totten noted that an ACLU review of data collected by the federal government shows that for every 100 students in Michigan, 38 days are lost due to suspension. In Oakland County, 26 days are lost for every 100 students. In Macomb County, it’s 35 days and in Wayne County, it’s 55 days.

One child who’s experienced trauma for years was repeatedly suspended from multiple schools. The 11-year-old has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. This school year, she’s been suspended for 94 days.

“Never once were the seven factors mentioned to her mother,” Totten said.

Stone-Palmquist asked board members to consider recommendations, including developing a model student code of conduct that incorporates the new rules, partnering with the advocacy center to request an attorney general’s opinion on what districts are required to do, and expanding data collection.

Tom McMillin, a member of the state board, asked whether the state should consider financial penalties, such as withholding some state aid.

“I’m a fierce advocate for local control. But in areas where the incentives might not be there to do what’s right … I’m fine with the state stepping in,” McMillin said.

Board member Pamela Pugh said she appreciated the push for the board to “move with great speed.” She said the data and stories provided are “compelling, as well as convincing.”

Stone-Palmquist said that despite her concerns, there have been some successes.

“Districts that used to automatically expel 180 days for fights, for instance, have partnered with us to dramatically reduce those removals with great outcomes,” she said. “We know alternatives are possible and that they actually help get to the root of the problem, prevent future wrongdoing and repair the harm.”

The Detroit school district didn’t come up during the hearing. But on the same day Stone-Palmquist presented to the state board, Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti gave a presentation to his local board of education about what’s happened in the months since the district embarked on an effort to improve school culture by revising the student code of conduct, hiring deans for each school, and providing training on alternative discipline methods.

The bottom line: Vitti said that schools are booting out dramatically fewer students and greatly increasing alternative methods of discipline. In-school suspensions are up, given the push against out-of-school suspensions.

But the changes have also raised concerns. Some school staff have said the new rules are tying their hands. Vitti said it will take time for the changes to take hold, and he outlined some areas that need to improve, including more training.

tracking success

With more pathways to a high school diploma, New York education officials wonder about student success after graduation

PHOTO: Reema Amin/Chalkbeat
The New York Board of Regents meets at its February 2019 meeting.

Over the past few years, New York state education officials have approved multiple ways students can earn diplomas, which have contributed to the rising graduation rate in New York City.  

Now, some Regents are wondering whether the pathways are actually helping students stay successful after they turn their tassels, and if these alternative routes are accessible for all students.

Graduation rates across the state ticked up very slightly — from 80.2 percent to 80.4 percent. New York City notched its highest graduation rate on record. Most of New York City’s improvement this year, where rates rose by almost 1.7 percent, could be linked to the growing number of students who are choosing to take alternative assessments to earn their diplomas and an expanded appeals process that made it easier for students to graduate despite earning a low score on a high school exit exam.

The state allows students to opt out of a social studies exit exam and substitute other assessments in math, art, or career and technical education. About 11,200 students took advantage of one of these options across the state, up from about 9,900 the year before.

“Courageous” is how Regent Kathleen Cashin, who represents Brooklyn, characterized the department and board’s decision to expand assessment options “to support our students in getting a degree they need so desperately,” she said.

“So don’t you think we should track them into college?” Cashin asked Monday as Regents reviewed the latest graduation rate data from across New York. “Let’s continue to see if the strategies that allowed them to graduate are working.”

Elia said the department would “push on that,” noting that there could be some way to partner with the State University of New York and City University of New York to determine how students are faring in college.

This is “exactly the right conversation,” said Ian Rosenblum, executive director for The Education Trust-New York, a policy and advocacy organization that has tracked the changes in graduation requirements. A department official said there’s no consensus yet on how the department might measure the success of different graduation pathways. Last year was the first time the department collected data on how many students graduated using alternative assessments.

KIPP, the national charter network that has 31 high schools nationwide, including one in New York City, has devised a way, using counselors and the program Salesforce, to follow its students’ progress through college. Several states, Rosenblum said, use data systems designed to track students from early childhood all the way through college. Education officials in Minnesota use such a system to inform decision-making and “identify the most viable pathways” for success in school and work.

“The strength of those data systems is that it really enables policymakers to understand how students do throughout their educational careers and where the most successful interventions can be,” Rosenblum said. “So moving in that direction is a really important discussion to be having, and in the interim, there are positive steps that can be taken to link the data systems that the various state agencies and post secondary sectors already have.”

Some Regents and Elia also want to see how accessible different graduation pathways are to students in different districts.

Elia said the department is looking for ways to see which schools are giving students the chance to take different assessments for graduation and access other opportunities, like the My Brother’s Keeper program. The department could, for example, create a profile for each school district, she said.

Regent Lester W. Young said he wants to sample results from school districts to see which specific graduation pathways are being used — as the judicial districts that Regents members represent are sometimes too large to provide the necessary insights. He used Brooklyn as an example, which is comprised of multiple districts with vastly different socioeconomic profiles.

“Central Brooklyn is very different from the rest of Brooklyn,” Young said. “If you look at a judicial district, you don’t see what’s going on in East New York or Brownsville.”