Student Voices

‘We weren’t surprised’: Students react with a weary shrug to city’s plans to close Bronx school where boy was fatally stabbed

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

Some students at the Urban Assembly School for Wildlife Conservation in the Bronx heard the news from a superintendent, who went from classroom to classroom informing them that their school would be closed after this school year. Others learned secondhand from friends, or from letters they were told to bring home.

But if it came as a surprise that their school — which serves fewer than 500 students in grades 6 to 12 — was among 14 troubled schools that the New York City education department announced Monday it intends to shutter, the decision nonetheless made sense to many students: One of their peers had fatally stabbed one boy and seriously wounded another during history class this September. The violence shocked the city and school community, yet it did not seem totally out of place at a school where student clashes were commonplace and instability was the order of the day.

“People were happy that the school is closing because the school is not really a great school,” said Sarah Vega, a 12th-grader, during an interview Monday with four schoolmates that was arranged by the group, Teens Take Charge. “We weren’t surprised,” added Chloe Oliveras.

The school has been on the decline in recent years. Its state test scores have sunk further and further below the citywide average, with just 12 percent of students passing the English tests and 5 percent passing math last school year. (The high school’s 75 percent four-year graduation rate is on par with the city average, and 8 points above the Bronx rate.)

At the same time, it has churned through several leaders and, since last academic year, lost over 100 students — including about 45 who received department permission to transfer in the wake of the stabbing. In addition, just five students listed the school as their first choice when applying to high schools for next year.

In an email to reporters Monday, the education department’s press secretary, Toya Holness, listed steps the department had taken to stabilize the school, like boosting staff training, installing a new principal, and dispatching officials, including schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, to visit.

“Despite these additional interventions, there continues to be instability for students and staff,” Holness wrote, “and the Chancellor has determined that Wildlife students will be better served at another school.”

The school has been open since 2007, but students said a feeling of disorder began to take hold under Astrid Jacobo, who was principal from December 2015 until she was removed in October. In a survey last academic year, just 36 percent of teachers said they considered the principal an effective manager. (Jacobo did not respond to an email seeking comment.)

Meanwhile, only 55 percent of students said they felt safe in the school’s hallways and cafeteria, and just 22 percent said most students treat each other with respect. On Monday, students said fights were common, as were requests for “safety transfers” to other schools.

“It was like no discipline whatsoever,” Chloe said. Added Sarah: “I don’t feel safe in that school.”

Wildlife Conservation had started to implement “restorative justice” practices, which push students to reflect on their misbehavior and try to repair any harm they’ve caused. Part of that effort involved a “justice panel” of students who would interview their classmates about their actions, try to figure out what caused them, and come up with “sanctions,” which might include a written reflection or an apology letter to a teacher.

“Some kids take it seriously, some kids don’t,” said Sarah, who is on the panel. “Usually they don’t listen to us because obviously they’re not going to listen to someone who’s so close to their age.”

On Monday, Sarah added, the panel heard from a girl who had flown into a rage after a classmate flung a piece of paper at her; during her outburst, she threatened to throw a chair at her teacher.

The incident she described was eerily reminiscent of the one on Sept. 27, when 18-year-old Abel Cedeno reportedly snapped during history class after being pelted with bits of paper and pencils, before stabbing 15-year-old Matthew McCree to death and seriously wounding Ariane Laboy, 16. Cedeno, who has pleaded not guilty to manslaughter charges, later said that other students had taunted him with racist and homophobic slurs.

After the attack, the city sent in grief counselors and beefed up security, which included adding metal detectors. But, the students said, things still didn’t feel right.

They had to walk past the classroom where their friend was killed — the “crime scene,” as Chloe put it. Later, students objected when the administration wanted to reopen the room, so instead it was converted into an office, the students said. At one point, feeling unheard and out of sorts after the stabbing, some students held a silent sit-in in the hallway.

“Everyone was crying and throwing tantrums,” in the days after the stabbing, said Miarah Cabassa, also in 12th grade. “We all was hurt.”

In a statement, Frank Giaimo, the acting principal who replaced Jacobo, said he has focused on making sure all students and staff feel safe and welcomed at the school.

“Over the last several weeks, I’ve spent time getting to know the community and together, we will continue our work to provide students with high-quality instruction, support teachers and partner with families,” he said.

Separately, the education department has promised to work individually with students at the closing schools to ensure they are offered spots at higher-performing schools next year. (The normal high-school application period ended Dec. 1.)

Seniors who are preparing to graduate from the School for Wildlife Conservation will never get that second chance to attend a safe, orderly high school. But for some younger students like Jaidan Oliveras, a 9th-grader who learned of the city’s plans from his sister, Chloe, it felt like a reprieve.

“I was just happy because I’ll get to transfer because I don’t want to be at that school,” said Jaidan, who has attended the school since the 6th grade. “At first, I actually enjoyed it. But at the end, I started getting tired of it.”

Newark Enrolls

After changes and challenges, Friday’s deadline to enroll in Newark schools finally arrives

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
A student fills out an information sheet at Central High School's booth at the citywide school fair in December.

Newark families have just a few hours left to apply to more than 70 public schools for next fall.

At noon on Friday, the online portal that allows families to apply to most traditional and charter school will close. After that, they will have to visit the district’s enrollment center. Last year, nearly 13,000 applications were submitted.

The stakes — and stress — are greatest for students entering high school. Each year, hundreds of eighth-graders compete for spots at the city’s selective “magnet” high schools, which many students consider their best options.

This year, those eighth-graders have to jump through an extra hoop — a new admissions test the magnets will use as they rank applicants. District students will sit for the test Friday, while students in charter and private schools will take it Saturday.

That’s news to many parents, including Marie Rosario, whose son, Tamir, is an eighth-grader at Park Elementary School in the North Ward.

“I don’t know nothing about it,” she said. District officials have been tight-lipped about what’s on the new test, how it will factor into admissions decisions, or even why introducing it was deemed necessary.

Students can apply to as many as eight schools. Tamir’s top choice was Science Park, one of the most sought-after magnet schools. Last year, just 29 percent of eighth-graders who ranked it first on their applications got seats.

“I’m going to cross my fingers,” Rosario said.

Students will find out in April where they were matched. Last year, 84 percent of families applying to kindergarten got their first choice. Applicants for ninth grade were less fortunate: Only 41 percent of them got their top choice, the result of so many students vying for magnet schools.

This is the sixth year that families have used the online application system, called Newark Enrolls, to pick schools. Newark is one of the few cities in the country to use a single application for most charter and district schools. Still, several charter schools do not participate in the system, nor do the vocational high schools run by Essex County.

Today, surveys show that most families who use the enrollment system like it. However, its rollout was marred by technical glitches and suspicions that it was designed to funnel students into charter schools, which educate about one in three Newark students. Some charter critics hoped the district’s newly empowered school board would abolish the system. Instead, Superintendent Roger León convinced the board to keep it for now, arguing it simplifies the application process for families.

Managing that process has posed challenges for León, who began as schools chief in July.

First, he ousted but did not replace the district’s enrollment chief. Then, he clashed with charter school leaders over changes to Newark Enrolls, leading them to accelerate planning for an alternative system, although that never materialized. Next, the district fell behind schedule in printing an enrollment guidebook for families.

Later, the district announced the new magnet-school admissions test but then had to delay its rollout as León’s team worked to create the test from scratch with help from principals, raising questions from testing experts about its validity. Magnet school leaders, like families, have said they are in the dark about how heavily the new test will be weighted compared to the other criteria, including grades and state test scores, that magnet schools already use to rank applicants.

Meanwhile, León has repeatedly dropped hints about new “academies” opening inside the district’s traditional high schools in the fall to help those schools compete with the magnets. However, the district has yet to hold any formal informational sessions for families about the academies or provide details about them on the district website or in the enrollment guidebook. As a result, any such academies are unlikely to give the traditional schools much of an enrollment boost this year.

District spokeswoman Tracy Munford did not respond to a request Thursday to speak with an official about this year’s enrollment process.

Beyond those hiccups, the enrollment process has mostly gone according to plan. After activating the application website in December, the district held a well-attended school fair where families picked up school pamphlets and chatted with representatives. Individual elementary schools, such as Oliver Street School in the East Ward, have also invited high school principals to come and tell students about their offerings.

American History High School Principal Jason Denard said he made several outings to pitch his magnet school to prospective students. He also invited middle-school groups to tour his school, and ordered glossy school postcards. Now, along with students and families across the city, all he can do is wait.

“I’m excited to see the results of our recruitment efforts,” he said. “Not much else is in my control — but recruitment is.”

reunion

Jubilation, and some confusion, as Denver schools begin their post-strike recovery

PHOTO: Eric Gorski/Chalkbeat
Lupe Lopez-Montoya greets students at Columbian Elementary School on Thursday after Denver's three-day teacher strike.

Lupe Lopez-Montoya got the text message at 6:15 a.m. The strike was over, the colleague who’d been keeping her up to speed on news from her union told her.

And so as district and teachers union officials celebrated their deal at the Denver Public Library, Lopez-Montoya on Thursday resurrected her regular commute to Columbia Elementary School, the northwest Denver school where she’s the longest-serving tenured teacher.

For the past three days, Lopez-Montoya had stayed out of school as Denver Public Schools and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association sparred over how teachers in Denver are paid. She still had unanswered questions about the future. But first, it was time to greet students.

One girl ran across the sidewalk to give a hug. “Ms. Montoya’s back,” she shouted, burying her face in the teacher’s side.

Lopez-Montoya began to welcome students into the building. “Line up and you can go get breakfast,” she told one boy. “I’m happy you’re here today.”

The moment kicked off what was a not-quite-normal day in Denver schools. With a deal coming just an hour before some schools were due to start for the day, teachers and families had little time to adjust their plans. The district also had too little time to reopen early childhood classes that have been closed all week; those will reopen on Friday, officials said.

Building principals got an email around 7 a.m. telling them that the strike was over and that many teachers would be coming back to work. In some buildings, central office staff and substitutes who had been filling in for teachers were already on site when teachers returned to work. And some students who commute long distances didn’t get the word in time to go to schools.

By early afternoon, about 81 percent of teachers in district-run schools had shown up to work, and about 83 percent of students had, according to Denver school district spokesman Will Jones.

In the parking lot outside Mathematics and Science Leadership Academy, a west Denver elementary school, teachers still clad in the red of their cause gathered in the parking lot to walk in together. Asked what the mood was, reading intervention teacher Denise Saiz said, “Relief!” and her colleagues responded with an enthusiastic “Yes!”

“We’re really excited to get back to the kids,” said fifth grade teacher Emily Mimovich.

While strike participation was high at the school — it was founded with support from the state and local union as a teacher-led school — the teachers said they did not believe there would be hard feelings between those who walked and those who didn’t.

“We have such a good relationship,” said Reyes Navarro, who teaches Spanish to kindergarten and first-grade students. “We understand that you have to do whatever is right for you.”

Parents also said they were eager to have their children get back to school.

Sarah Murphy, who has a third-grader and a 4-year-old preschool student, said this morning was a “bit of a scramble, albeit a welcome one.” She had both children signed up for a day camp at the University of Denver and was unsure if she should send them to school or to camp because she wasn’t sure teachers would be back at school. Then she got word that camp was canceled for both children — but Denver Public Schools preschools are still closed.

“We were left trying to figure out what to do with our ECE4 since they were still closed,” she wrote to Chalkbeat. “We know how hard this has been on everyone, but this morning proved that the ECE program was the hardest hit, short notice every step of the way. We very much look forward to tomorrow when both are back in their normal school routines.”

Not everyone returned to school. Some teachers said they needed a day to collect themselves after an emotional experience. Judy Kelley, a visual arts teacher at Martin Luther King Jr. Early College, said she and many of her colleagues live too far away from the school to get there on short notice.

But the majority of teachers who went back to work Thursday describe positive experiences returning to their schools. Ryan Marini, a social studies teacher and football coach at South High School, called it the “best day” in 17 years of teaching.

Suzanne Hernandez, a first-grade teacher at Westerly Creek Elementary in Stapleton, said she and other teachers gathered to walk into school together at 7:45 a.m.

Teachers thanked the subs from central office who were in the building. They headed back to their roles in central offices.

Early in the morning, Hernandez sent a message to her students’ parents to let them know teachers would be back in school. The reaction from students as she greeted them was “overwhelming,” she said.

With the help of paraprofessionals who had prepared lessons, Hernandez said teachers were able to jump right back to where they left off last week.

As far as Valentine’s Day, that celebration will be pushed back until Friday afternoon, she said. For now, teachers are having their own celebration, happy to be back in the classroom.

“I think if there’s any sort of effect from the strike, it’s been a positive one,” she said. “It’s been a very unifying experience.”

Allison Hicks, a teacher at Colfax Elementary, said returning teachers were greeted with hugs, music, smiles and tears.

“After finding out an hour ago we were going back to work, I scrambled home to get ready,” she wrote to Chalkbeat. “I am exhausted, but so excited to be back with my students. This day won’t be normal, but knowing I did my part to put my students first is the best feeling to have.”

Kade Orlandini, who teaches at John F. Kennedy High School, said most of the teachers are back in her building, despite the short notice.

“Teachers were ready, and we are jumping right back into instruction,” she wrote. “Attendance seems lower than normal, but students who are here are ready to learn. The atmosphere in the school is very positive all around.”

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Chalkbeat’s Ann Schimke, Erica Meltzer, and Yesenia Robles contributed reporting to this article.