Head Start

Meet the Staten Island elementary school determined to start college-readiness in kindergarten

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Zubaidah Bhello, Joselyn Quinteros and Jade Johnson attend the grand opening of P.S. 21's college center.

Zubaidah Bhello has visited colleges, decided New York University is her top pick, and plans to become a dermatologist.

And she’s only 10 years old.

Bhello is part of a bold new experiment at a Staten Island elementary school that attempts to prepare students for life after high school as soon as possible even as early as kindergarten. The school, P.S. 21, has built college preparedness into its curriculum and launched its new college and career center on Thursday.

“It helps you with college and getting ready for the next grade,” Bhello said. “And it helps you pick what you want to be when you grow up.” (Bhello determined, for instance, that dermatology is “less disgusting” than some other medical jobs.)

The new center, a first floor room adorned with college pennants and bean bag chairs, is meant to be a hub of college-related activities. Students may come to take a virtual tour of Harvard, or meet with students from nearby Wagner College.

While even the youngest learners are expected to participate in college activities, students at different ages will have different tasks, Principal Anthony Cosentino said. Kindergarteners design college pennants, while fifth graders create digital portfolios that explain their background, goals and what it will take to get there.

The purpose of the center is twofold: Energize students about their futures and use that excitement to help them stay on track academically. For instance, if a student decides she wants to become a mechanical engineer after visiting the center, she will work harder to master fractions and ratios, reasons Cosentino.

“The world is too complex and diverse of a place where a kid should just be told, ‘You just need to do it for a test.’” Cosentino said. “That’s unacceptable. Kids need to know what are they learning, why are they learning it, and how this will impact them down the road.”

The early focus on college is a new attempt to solve an old problem: By the time many students leave high school, they have often been falling off-track for years. Only about 64 percent of New York City graduates are considered “college-ready,” or are qualified to avoid remedial classes at CUNY colleges. Students at P.S. 21 may be particularly at risk for falling behind. Last year, 100 percent of students at the school were in poverty.

P.S. 21 staff work with a local middle school, high school and Wagner to make sure the program is as relevant as possible. A staff member from Wagner College visits P.S. 21 on Thursdays to coordinate college-related activities, such as a research project about the college, tours of campus, and tickets to basketball games. And students from the college, high school, and the middle school mentor the elementary school students.

“This is about helping young people see real pathways from one part of their education, to another part of their education, to their futures as adults,” said Deputy Chancellor Phil Weinberg, who attended the center’s grand opening on Thursday.

Jade Johnson, a fifth-grade student at P.S. 21, nodded vigorously when asked if she enjoyed the college field trips. Johnson, who wants to be an emergency medical technician, said they helped her picture what it will be like to attend college someday.

“We can see other kids, how they’re working hard and stuff,” Johnson said. “When I see that, I want to be just like that.”

If students change their mind about their dreams and aspirations, that is perfectly natural, Cosentino said. The idea is to give education a purpose so students will have something to strive for in school, he said.

“It’s not just about college,” Cosentino said. “It’s about kids setting goals for themselves.”

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.