rapid response

Student injured in New York City terror attack returned to school the following day

PHOTO: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photo Office
Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo stand in front of the school bus mangled in Tuesday's attack.

On Tuesday, a man sped a pickup truck down bike lanes in Lower Manhattan, killing eight people and wounding over a dozen others before ramming into a yellow school bus, temporarily trapping two students inside.

On Wednesday, one of those students, a 16-year-old who had suffered minor injuries, insisted on returning to school. He wanted to keep his perfect attendance record.

But there was a problem: “The bus actually didn’t pick him up, thinking he wouldn’t be there,” said schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, who told the story Thursday at a press conference near the site of the attack. So the boy’s mother called for a car to take him from Brooklyn to his Manhattan school.

“When I spoke to him yesterday,” Fariña continued, “and this is something I’m never going to forget in terms of my experience as chancellor, he said to me: ‘I told myself I’m going to be fine because a lot of people want to help me.’ That’s what New York is all about.”

Fariña added that the other student who was on the bus had gone through surgery but was “on the mend.” Two adults on the bus, including the driver, were expected to recover.

On Thursday, Mayor Bill de Blasio and Fariña applauded the response from a handful of schools in Lower Manhattan to what has been described as the deadliest act of terror in New York City since 9/11. The schools swiftly moved into “shelter in place” mode, a protocol where classes are supposed to continue as scheduled, but staffers seal the entrances and exits.

“I think they handled a very tough situation exceptionally well,” de Blasio said.

Tuesday’s attack ended just as some students from Stuyvesant, one of the city’s elite specialized high schools, were leaving for the day.

Several students said they watched as the accused attacker, 29-year-old Sayfullo Saipov, emerged from his truck holding what were later found to be a paintball gun and a pellet gun, before being shot by a police officer.

“I saw everything,” said Hadi Moukdad, a Stuyvesant freshman.

When the gunshots rang out, Moukdad said it was unclear where they were coming from, so he fled. Other students who had also left for the day ran back to the school only to find themselves locked out. One ducked into a nearby building.

Officials considered closing Stuyvesant the day after the attack, but ultimately decided to keep it open.

“I thought it was important to send the same message that the rest of the city was sending,” de Blasio said, “that we would not be deterred by terrorism, that we would continue our work as normal.” The mayor noted that one Stuyvesant teacher injured in the attack made it to work the following day.

Still, when students arrived Wednesday, many were visibly shaken. Some teachers invited them to reflect on what had happened, while others carried on classes as normal. One group of students wore black in solidarity with those who had been killed.

“It was a really weird atmosphere — no one really knew what to say,” said Ethan Shenker, a freshman who could see the attack unfold from his classroom and later met with one of the trauma counselors the city made available. “I’ve been trying to keep it out of my head.”

As the attack unfolded, Stuyvesant teacher Annie Thomas was in the middle of a class centered on Amy Tan’s book “The Joy Luck Club,” she told the New Yorker. The discussion stretched on for three hours while students waited to be evacuated.

Later, Thomas reflected on what it means for her Muslim students in particular to live through such acts of terror.

“Especially after 9/11, every time I see that something is a terrorist incident, and someone has said ‘Allahu Akhbar,’ I feel a pit in my stomach, because terrorism is the evil opposite of what Islam is,” she told the magazine. “So many of our kids here at Stuyvesant are Muslim, and they fear being tarred with this kind of thing.”

Across Chambers Street, P.S. 89 Principal Veronica Najjar didn’t miss a beat after she received word of the attack, according to the New York Times.

Her students had just been dismissed, so the school’s staff helped pull them back into the building. Najjar, who helped guide her school through the 9/11 attacks, explained that the most important thing is for the adults to stay calm and speak to students truthfully, without divulging too many upsetting details.

“We just make sure that we’re giving kids the facts that are not overly explicit or overly graphic,” she told the Times. “When you stick to the facts with kids, without giving them any embellishment or emotion with it, they are usually very satisfied. They just want to know that you’re being truthful with them.”

During Thursday’s press conference, Fariña said the staff members at all four schools in the vicinity of the attack had responded exactly as she had hoped.

“Teachers stayed until every child was home, until every parent got listened to, until everyone was deemed safe,” she said.

Local control

Change in Colorado law sets up a ‘David and Goliath’ school choice battle no one saw coming

PHOTO: Andy Cross/The Denver Post
Paraprofessional Ben Johnson washes of the back window of a bus at the Denver Public Schools Hilltop Terminal November 10, 2017. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post)

Buses from other school districts already pass through the tiny Sheridan school district, picking up homeless students who are entitled by law to transportation to their home districts in nearby Littleton or Denver.

What if those buses could make a few additional stops, picking up perhaps dozens more students who aren’t homeless but prefer to attend higher-performing schools in other districts — and taking with them tens of thousands of dollars in state funding?

That’s the concern of small, relatively poor districts in Colorado after a last-minute provision tacked onto an unrelated bill in the closing days of the legislative session became law. It allows school districts to run buses through other districts’ boundaries without first getting consent, a change from current law.

“Will we start to see the David and Goliath of school choice, where a large district with lots of resources starts to do a marketing campaign and send buses into smaller districts?” Sheridan’s outgoing Superintendent Michael Clough asked in an interview with Chalkbeat.

The Colorado Association of School Executives, which represents superintendents, is exploring the possibility of a lawsuit. The Sheridan district is among the potential plaintiffs, after publicly opposing this change when it was part of a stand-alone bill earlier in the session, though no district has made a formal decision about legal action.

The lawsuit wouldn’t target the substance of the policy, but the way it was enacted. Colorado’s constitution requires that each bill deal with a single subject, clearly expressed in the title of the bill, and that any amendments also relate to that subject.

The transportation provision in question was slipped into a bill on educational stability for youth in foster care that also has a transportation component. In a signing statement attached to the foster youth bill, Gov. John Hickenlooper said it likely represents a violation of the single-subject rule and would be open to a legal challenge.

“We make no judgement today on whether this language is sound policy,” Hickenlooper wrote of the amendment. “However, we have serious concerns about the process in which this amendment was bolted onto such an important bill.”

Foster youth have the lowest four-year graduation rates in the state, much lower even than homeless youth and students whose parents are migrant workers. The bill seeks to make it easier for these students to graduate by requiring child welfare officials and school districts to work out transportation to the student’s home district when that’s in the child’s best interest. It also creates flexibility around graduation requirements when students do change schools. The bill’s title is “Improving Educational Stability for Foster Youth.”

The tacked-on language, added in the Republican-controlled State Affairs committee five days before the end of the session, sounds relatively benign. It says that a school board “may furnish transportation” to students who are enrolled in the district but who live in another district. The provision applies to all students, not just those who are in the foster system. It also strikes language from an existing law that requires the consent of the school district from which students are being bussed.  

Where did this come from and why was it added on?

State Sen. Owen Hill, a Colorado Springs Republican and chair of the Senate Education Committee, sponsored a bill earlier in the session with the same transportation provision. It was called “Improving School Choice in Traditional Schools” and also contained requirements to standardize the open enrollment process.

Students in Colorado can enroll in any school that has room for them and can meet their needs, but deadlines and procedures vary from district to district. Most students who go somewhere besides their neighborhood school don’t get transportation, something that advocates for school choice have long criticized as a major barrier for students from low-income families, whether they’re moving between districts or within one.

Hill’s bill was opposed by the Colorado Association of School Executives and by the Colorado Association of School Boards. They said allowing districts to run school buses in neighboring jurisdictions at will would represent a serious erosion of local control and call into question the entire purpose of school district boundaries. 

Wendy Rubin, superintendent of the suburban Englewood district south of Denver, raised the specter of neighboring districts offering bus service to more affluent neighborhoods and siphoning off the funding associated with those students while leaving Englewood to educate those with greater needs.

Like Sheridan, Englewood is a small district surrounded by larger, wealthier neighbors that post better test scores.

“If we lose a class of kids, we lose a teacher or we offer one AP class when we used to offer three,” Rubin said. “We do not have the economies of scale to withstand losses of kids of 30 or 40 in a year. We would be cutting programs left and right. And what does that do to the kids who stay?”

Rubin and Clough also worried that the legislation would allow districts to cherry-pick students – offering transportation to, say, a star athlete but telling a student with disabilities that it was unable to meet her needs.

To be clear, both superintendents said they have no reason to believe their neighboring districts have immediate plans to come after their students, but they fear future school boards might make different decisions, particularly if declining enrollment increases competition for per-student dollars. 

Supporters of expanding transportation options say such possible challenges do not outweigh the importance of students being able to pursue the best education available to them. If districts want students to stay, they should offer a high-quality education, not block buses from entering their borders, they say.

Kelly Caufield of the business-oriented education reform group Colorado Succeeds pointed to a 2015 case from Pueblo. The lower-performing Pueblo 60 district is surrounded by the higher-performing Pueblo 70 district, and roughly 150 students who lived in 60 used their open enrollment rights to go to school in 70. Pueblo 70 had 10 bus routes within the boundaries of Pueblo 60 – until Pueblo 60 said no.

“Why should a superintendent worried about neighborhood lines get in the way of that student having access to a better education?” Caufield asked. “This is the exact example where that kid and their family deserve to be in a better district. And if transportation is a barrier, this bill would address that.”

The Colorado Springs area that Hill represents also has numerous districts in close proximity to each other. None of them have weighed in publicly on this issue. Hill said he brought the bill forward at the request of constituents, but none of them testified before the committee.

Hill’s bill passed the Republican-controlled Senate but died in a Democratic-controlled House committee near the end of the session. The next day, the foster youth bill came up for its first vote in the Senate State Affairs committee. Filling in as chair, Hill amended the bill without explaining what his addition would do. With the 2018 legislative session nearing its close, the committee members had a long agenda in front of them representing hours of testimony and votes, with tight deadlines to move bills to the floor. No one asked any questions or raised any objections, and the amended bill was adopted.

Hill has pushed back repeated interview requests with promises to try to talk soon. He’s involved in a heated three-way primary campaign – the election is Tuesday – to unseat sitting U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn. When his school choice bill was heard in committee, he expressed surprise that the transportation provision was controversial and suggested it could be struck from the bill to save the rest of it.

Caufield said Colorado Succeeds wasn’t involved in the decision to amend the foster youth bill, but said, “we care about what’s good for kids, so we’re excited that it crossed the finish line, even if it’s in a different form.”

Clough said Sheridan is prepared to sign on to a lawsuit. Rubin stressed that she had had only a very preliminary conversation with her school board informing them of the situation and the possibility of a lawsuit.

The law is scheduled to go into effect Aug. 9, but school districts may seek an injunction stopping the transportation provision.

Enrollment push

‘The pressure is on everyone’ as Detroit’s main district advertises to attract more students

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Detroit school board members stand with the students who will star in the district's summer ad campaign.

Detroit’s main school district has a new look.

Officials announced a new brand for the Detroit Public Schools Community District to real-live fanfare on Thursday, unveiling a new logo and tagline with a student brass band as backdrop.

After the announcement was made at Nolan Elementary School, students streamed out wearing blue tee shirts printed with the new logo, which depicts a rising sun.

“Students rise. We all rise,” reads the tagline, signaling that improvement  is coming to a district that is working to recover from decades of disinvestment and mismanagement.  Officials hope the campaign will bring Detroit families back to a district whose future depends in part on increasing enrollment.

That’s a sign of a new reality in public education, one that public relations professionals recognized around the time that policy shifts nationwide allowed more charter schools to open.

When school competition spread nationally, the phenomenon was especially pronounced in Michigan, where parents can enroll their children in charter schools or suburban schools that will accept them. State law puts few restrictions on where charter schools can be opened and who can open them.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said the re-branding effort was inevitable in a state that fosters competition between school districts.  Vitti has criticized Michigan’s charter school laws, but has charged head-on into the battle to enroll students nonetheless.

“I think the pressure is on everyone,” Vitti said. “Students can move from one district to another. It’s incumbent on every school district and every school to go into a marketing mode.”

The district paid $100,000 for the campaign, which was put together by BLVD Content and Real Integrated, marketing and strategy firms that have worked for Ford, the City of Detroit, The Henry Ford, and the Detroit Opera Theater. The non-profit United Way chipped in another $200,000. The brand includes television commercials and a new logo and tagline.

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Detroit’s main district has a new logo.

This is not the first time Detroit’s main district has used advertising to attract students. In 2010, the “I’m in” campaign won a top national marketing award. The old Detroit school district, which now exists only to pay off legacy debt, reported that 830 students enrolled as a result.

Nora Carr, former president of the National Association of School Public Relations, says schools are “borrowing a page from the private sector” by investing in brands. “Rarely mentioned a decade ago, branding is becoming part of the educational lexicon,” she wrote in a 2009 article.

While enrollment in Detroit’s main district has declined, it remains the largest in the state. That makes it easier to raise funds, but harder to implement a brand widely enough that it will become ingrained in parents’ perception of the district.

Many charter schools in the city are far smaller. Take The Detroit Achievement Academy, a 200-student charter school on the city’s northwest side. Kyle Smitley, the school’s founder, said in a text that she does the branding herself. “We don’t pay anyone externally,” she added.

District officials say the brand projects “a new beginning for traditional public education in Detroit.” His administration has set lofty academic goals, which it hopes to reach through an overhauled curriculum, but it remains too early to judge whether these efforts will move the district forward.

Boosting enrollment is a crucial piece of the puzzle. A plan unveiled earlier this month called for commercials on television, billboards and buses, part of an effort to bring back some of the roughly 30,000 students who wake up every day in the city and go to school in the suburbs.

The commercials will be based on a promotional video, also released Thursday, in which rapper Big Sean, a graduate of Cass Technical High School, speaks over images of actual Detroit students playing sports and studying. They build on a tradition of commercials that emphasize Detroit’s hard-knock reputation, with the rapper dropping lines like “we are a city that runs on ambition and grit.”

The video and other advertising materials can be seen on the district’s website.