MERGE AHEAD

Merging two small East Harlem schools makes sense on paper. So why has it sparked a backlash?

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Global Tech Prep community members spoke out about plans to merge the school at a recent public hearing.

When students returned this fall to Global Technology Preparatory, a small middle school in East Harlem, everything seemed off. The principal and most of the teachers had been replaced, and their classrooms were now crowded with unfamiliar students in green uniform shirts, instead of blue like theirs.

The new students were from P.S. 7, a K-8 school in the same building, and people at Global Tech say the joint classes were part of a long-planned consolidation of the two schools that began unofficially last fall — months before the city’s Panel for Educational Policy officially approved the merger on Wednesday.

The threat of the consolidation was partly to blame for the exodus of Global Tech’s teaching staff and principal. After students began taking classes together this fall, clashes were common, along with calls to the police. Now, a school once known for its tight-knit community, intimate class sizes, and focus on technology has been transformed — and not for the better, according to students, parents, and staff.

“It felt more like a community,” said eighth-grader Scarlet Rivas. “Now we don’t have any of that.”

The merger of Global Tech and P.S. 7 follows 21 previous consolidations that Carmen Fariña, New York City’s retiring schools chief, has ordered during her tenure. They reflect her skepticism of the small-schools movement, which led to the creation of hundreds of new schools during the tenure of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg under the premise that they offer more personalized attention and better results than the typical large campus. (Several studies have shown that students had better outcomes at the city’s small high schools than students who attended larger schools.)

Instead, Fariña has argued that very small schools cannot sustain enough teachers and programming to provide students a rich experience, since funding is allocated partly based on enrollment. Consolidation allows schools to pool their resources, slash administrative costs, and put money back into classrooms.

Global Tech was a prime candidate for consolidation. Already small, its enrollment shrank to 120 students this year — too few for the school to afford such basics as a licensed technology teacher, a foreign language instructor, or a parent coordinator, according to education department officials.

Michael Aciman, a department spokesman, disputed the claim that the merger informally began this fall, saying the joint classes represent the kind of collaboration between schools on shared campuses that the city encourages. After the merger officially occurs, it will benefit students at both schools, he added.

It will “address challenges with low enrollment, and create a stronger school option for families with more robust resources and academic programming,” he said in a statement.

But even if the merger makes logistical sense, it has still sparked a backlash.

Since Global Tech opened eight years ago, its staff has prided itself in offering students a portal to the world outside East Harlem, working with organizations that connected students with corporations, allowed them to perform on a Broadway stage, and created opportunities to learn coding skills at Google’s New York offices.

Now, as Global Tech’s faculty and students prepare to be absorbed by P.S. 7, they fear the partnerships, mission, and culture that defined their school will vanish. To them, that feels less like a consolidation than a closure.

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Kayla Hamilton, a former Global Tech teacher, criticized the merger.

“Even if you still close down Global Tech, please process what these young people are saying,” Kayla Hamilton, a former Global Tech teacher, told a panel of city officials at a recent hearing, speaking through tears. “These are people’s lives.”

Word of the city’s plan to combine Global Tech and P.S. 7 first trickled out about three years ago, around the time Fariña instructed local superintendents to flag small schools that could be candidates for consolidation. Superintendent Alexandra Estrella, who oversees East Harlem’s District 4 and has clashed bitterly with another school in the past, told former Global Tech Principal David Baiz about the merger plan in 2015, he said.

After failing to convince Estrella to drop the merger, Baiz said, he lobbied other education department officials to keep the school open — a move that landed him in hot water.

“All of a sudden I was labeled as problematic,” he said, adding that he began being summoned to disciplinary meetings. “I got the picture, so I left.” (He is now earning a doctorate in education leadership at Harvard.)

After he resigned at the end of last school year, 14 of the school’s 16 teachers followed suit. The exodus shook the school, stripping it of much of its institutional memory and sense of community, parents and students said.

The proposed merger was not the sole reason teachers fled; several said that Estrella had denied their tenure applications, raising fears that their careers could be jeopardized if they stayed. However, some connected the tenure decisions to the merger, suspecting that the superintendent wanted to bring fresh faces into the newly combined schools.

“She wanted us out,” said Arnold Kim, a former Global Tech teacher who said his tenure application was blocked. “She can’t do a full makeover if all of the teachers are still there.”

An education department spokesman said Estrella made tenure decisions “after thoroughly reviewing the recommendations and carefully observing classroom instruction.”

Whatever the causes, the mass departure of teachers and the joint classes with P.S. 7 appear to have destabilized Global Tech.

Students with disabilities have received less individual attention this year due to a shortage of special-education teachers, according to school personnel and parents. (Aciman, the education department spokesman, said that Global Tech and P.S. 7 work together to meet the needs of students with disabilities.)

And police have responded to 911 calls involving the campus 31 times since September, while five people have been arrested on campus, according to the police department — a greater number of calls and arrests than during the entire 2016-17 school year.

“When you go there it’s just complete chaos,” said Jasmine Carrasquillo, whose two sons attend Global Tech, recalling a recent visit where she saw students roaming the hallways. “That would never have happened before.”

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.