Big Apple

New York City is honoring 17 exceptional teachers. Here’s who they are.

PHOTO: New York City Department of Education
Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza presents a Big Apple Award.

New York City has named 17 teachers winners of Big Apple Awards, a competitive prize that rewards “exceptional success” in instruction, impact on student learning, and overall contributions to school communities.

The winners were culled from a pool of more than 6,500 nominees.

The winners include a special education teacher who had her students’ artwork exhibited at MoMA, a dual language teacher who wrote her own Chinese literacy curriculum, and an early education teacher who uses an app to communicate with parents.

Each was surprised by education department officials who presented the award in their classrooms.

“I learned guitar in elementary school from my teacher Mr. Valenzuela who empowered me, taught me the value of rehearsal and poise, and believed I could do anything I set my mind to,” Chancellor Richard Carranza said in a statement. “The Big Apple Award winners exemplify this love of teaching, and I could not be prouder of the 17 recipients selected this year and all of our teachers who bring out the best in our children every single day.”

Here are the winners:

Nina Berman (Early Childhood Education Teacher, LYFE Program at Pathways to Graduation Downtown Brooklyn, Brooklyn)

Nina Berman began teaching as a paraprofessional in the LYFE program when she was 18 years old. Realizing that she “needed to find innovative ways to connect and engage families,” Ms. Berman employed a new online app that allowed her to interact with parents on a daily basis in order to strengthen the connection between home and school, which has now been adopted in all LYFE classrooms.  

Nicole Chu (Middle School English Language Arts Teacher, The Computer School, Manhattan)

Nicole Chu empowers her students by expanding their learning beyond the limits of their classroom. Three years ago, she took the initiative to start an “all school meeting” where a rotating group of 8th grade leaders and faculty facilitators meet monthly to discuss important issues that students wanted to address. Ms. Chu explains: “I only hope the lasting message is as loud and clear as it was for me: your voice matters. Together with your peers, you make a difference in your community.”

Damen Davis (6th Grade English and Language Arts Teacher, I.S. X303 Leadership & Community Service, Bronx)

To overcome challenges his students faced outside of the classroom and at home, Damen Davis began reaching out to school support staff, contacted his students’ former elementary school teachers, and their out-of-school coaches, and when appropriate, met with parents. His students began to see him everywhere and they saw the investment and belief he had in them. Trust began to build which in turn led to students taking academic risks, and their efforts were met with significant growth and increased academic successes.

Sandra Fajgier (Pre-Kindergarten Teacher, Pre-K Center at Bishop Ford, Brooklyn)

Sandy Fajgier exemplifies best-teaching practices in early childhood instruction. Her classroom is a model for other pre-kindergarten programs because of the carefully curated materials used to spark the minds and imaginations of her students. As one parent shared: “She is an extremely talented, dedicated teacher with an inspiring classroom that is always fresh with new inquiries and activities.”

Marisol FitzMaurice (1st Grade Teacher, Concourse Village Elementary School, Bronx)

Marisol FitzMaurice began teaching 15 years ago because she wanted to change the lives of the young students in the Bronx community where she grew up. “I believe that my compassion for young children and enthusiasm for learning creates an attitude that influences my students to want to learn and become critical thinkers.” By involving students in all facets of the learning process, Ms. FitzMaurice gives students the foundation to take responsibility for their academic successes at an early age.

Stephanie Flete (4th Grade Mathematics Teacher, Urban Scholars Community School, Bronx)

Working as a Model Teacher at her school, Stephanie Flete works to find innovative ways to provide high-quality instruction for her students and to share her best practices with her school community. After one of her students faced a mental health crisis, Ms. Flete began developing social-emotional supports given the high incidence of trauma and emotional issues confronting her students. “No matter how strong your classroom management is or how positive a classroom culture is, there is always room for growth and support,” said Ms. Flete.

Mauricio Gonzalez (Science/Career and Technical Education: Marine Biology Teacher, Urban Assembly New York Harbor School, Manhattan)

Under Mauricio Gonzalez’s direction students are given relevant, real world environmental problems to solve independently and are taught to ask probing questions and research before making decisions. This hands on learning approach is especially engaging as students gain independence and confidence. As a result, Mr. Gonzalez’s students include a winner of the Gates Millennium Scholarship for their work on restoring eel grass to the New York Harbor and multiple research grant recipients.

Michelle Jennings (Middle School Science Teacher, Brooklyn Science and Engineering Academy, Brooklyn)

As a first generation Haitian-American, Michelle Jennings understands the doors that a good education can open for her students. Her current student population and community are of Caribbean and African-American descent, some of whom are the first in their families to go to school in America. She serves as a mentor teacher, has been selected to be an Urban Advantage Lead Teacher and was recently selected as one of five teachers to win the 2017 “Excellence In Education Award” presented at UN Headquarters during the annual CTAUN conference.

Gregg Kwarta (5th Grade Teacher, P.S. 232 The Lindenwood School, Queens)

“A teacher’s true success is not measured by how children grow in the classroom but by how you affect their growth outside the classroom and their values and actions,” Gregg Kwarta explained. That philosophy guides his teaching practices and his dedication to his students. To further connect and empower families, Mr. Kwarta sends welcome postcards to families and monthly newsletters to highlight each student in the class.

Jae Lee (High School Korean Language Teacher, Bayside High School, Queens)

Jae Lee dedicates himself to the celebration of the Korean culture. He has established multiple partnerships with groups like the Korean Consulate and the Korean Education Center, while also creating the Bayside Lunar New York celebration. Mr. Lee also connects his students to experiential learning opportunities through his role as a Work Based Learning Coordinator.

Michelle Lee (5th Grade Dual Language Teacher, P.S. 163 Flushing Heights, Queens)

A dual language teacher for 11 years, Michelle Lee is a senior mentor for new teachers. She wrote her own Chinese dual language literacy curriculum with the DOE’s Office of Periodic Assessment, and started a spelling bee contest for P.S. 163 in Queens where students were encouraged and inspired to take on challenges to expand their vocabulary.

Amie Robinson (Special Education Visual Arts Teacher, P.S. K077, Brooklyn)

Amie Robison’s visual arts instruction gives students with diverse learning and communication needs a way to express themselves. Ms. Robinson’s students have had their artwork exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, MoMA, Brooklyn and Queens art museums, Brooklyn Public Library, and the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC.

Mike Rosario (7th and 8th Grade Physical Education Teacher, P.S. 279 Captain Manuel Rivera, Jr., Bronx)

Mike Rosario’s dedication goes beyond the gymnasium and is evident in his commitment to the wellness of his students. Mr. Rosario said that recently he met a mother “who was crying tears of joy because her child was no longer diagnosed as pre-diabetic. She attributed this directly to my class and my work with the student in the fitness club that I lead before and after school.”

Raya Sam (6th Grade Mathematics ICT teacher, Hamilton Grange Middle School, Manhattan)

Raya Sam came to the U.S. in the first grade as a refugee from Cambodia, and her experience with a caring teacher who helped her adjust to her new home inspired her to become a teacher. In addition to teaching and facilitating IEP meetings across the school, Ms. Sam founded and coaches the school’s cheerleading team, and edits their annual yearbook and school newspaper.

Ryuma Tanaka (English as a Second Language Teacher, I.S. 145 Joseph Pulitzer, Queens)

As the son of an immigrant single mother, Ryuma Tanaka relates his own experience of being bilingual and bicultural with those of his immigrant students, many of whom are new to the United States. Mr. Tanaka works to empower his students while appreciating the experiences that may affect them socially, emotionally and academically, because “when students feel that their teacher cares about their culture and language, then a trusting relationship can be built with them,” he said.

Alberto Toro (Middle School Instrumental Music Teacher, I.S. 007 Elias Bernstein, Staten Island)

Alberto Toro knows the power music education has in shaping his students’ love of the art form and the positive impact it can have on students’ overall learning. As a student, Mr. Toro says his high school band director taught him about culture, history, integrity and character. He’s now teaching those same lessons to his students, whose sense of partnership, confidence and soulfulness increase throughout the year—skills they incorporate into their everyday lives.

Ashley Wilson (Kindergarten Teacher, Success Academy Charter School—Harlem 3, Manhattan)

No moment is wasted in Ashley Wilson’s classroom. In the morning meeting, students share about themselves and their lives to help create a supportive community. Ms. Wilson takes opportunities to model positive behaviors such as how to respond when someone is struggling. “By showing my students that I care about who they are inside and outside of the classroom, I am able to develop the trust necessary for students to take academic risks,” she said.

Payment dispute

Disputes with Tennessee testmakers aren’t new. Here’s an update on the state’s lawsuit with Measurement Inc.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

The testing company fired by Tennessee’s education department two years ago may have to wait until 2019 to settle the case, according to documents recently obtained by Chalkbeat.

As the future of the state’s current testing company, Questar, remains uncertain after a series of testing snafus this year, Tennessee continues to build a case against the first company it hired to usher in online testing three years ago.

The $25.3 million lawsuit, filed by Measurement Inc. of North Carolina, says the state owes about a quarter of the company’s five-year, $108 million contract, which Tennessee officials canceled after technical problems roiled the test’s 2016 rollout. So far, the state has paid the company $545,000.

The 2016 test was meant to showcase TNReady, the state’s new, rigorous, online testing program. But the online exam crashed, and the state abandoned it, asking Measurement Inc. to pivot to paper tests. After numerous delays in delivering the paper tests, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen fired the company.

Measurement Inc. filed a lawsuit last June, and the state Department of Education responded in January with a counterclaim saying the company did not fulfill its duties. Now, the state and the company have through spring 2019 to build their cases and call witnesses. (You can view Measurement Inc.’s claims, and the state’s counterclaim below).

The company argues that the state’s decision to cancel online testing and switch to paper was a series of “unrealistic, arbitrary, and changing demands,” and therefore, the state shares blame for the canceled test.

But the state department countered in its January response that Measurement Inc. breached its contract and didn’t communicate truthfully about the status of the online exam.

After Measurement Inc., Tennessee entered into a two-year contract with Minnesota-based Questar to revive the TNReady online exam. In 2017, the state opted to only use paper exams, and testing went smoothly for the most part, outside of delays in returning test results.

But things didn’t go well this spring, when Tennessee tried to return to online testing under Questar. The reasons for the complications are numerous — but different from issues that ruined the online test’s 2016 debut.

Although Tennessee completed its online testing this spring,  it was beset with technological glitches, a reported cyber attack on the testing system, and poor internet connectivity. Many districts are not planning to use the scores in student grading, and teachers can opt out of using the scores in their evaluations.

The state is negotiating with Questar about its $30 million-a-year contract and also is asking Questar’s parent company, Educational Testing Services, to take on the design work of TNReady. McQueen did not offer specifics about either, but any changes must be approved by the legislature’s fiscal review committee.

Questar’s two-year contract ends Nov. 30, and the state either will stick with the company or find its third testing vendor in four years.

You can view Measurement Inc.’s claims, and the state’s counterclaim, in full below:

Measurement Inc.’s June 2017 claim:

The Department of Education’s January response:

Measurement Inc.’s February response:

Future of Schools

Short on students, 3 Indianapolis charter schools are closing. But 6 more will open in the fall

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

Three Indianapolis charter schools facing financial struggles will close at the end of this school year, underscoring just how difficult it can be for charter schools to create sustainable operations.

As another sign of charter schools’ cash crunch, particularly in the city’s increasingly competitive school choice market, longtime Indianapolis charter network Tindley will merge its all-boys and all-girls middle schools into a single coeducational location.

Still, even as some schools close and consolidate, six more charter schools are poised to open in Indianapolis for the upcoming 2018-19 school year — including two that will be tasked with “restarting” schools within Indianapolis Public Schools as innovation schools.

In many parts of the city, the proliferation of charter schools is pushing the school choice conversation beyond simply providing more options to focusing on the quality of those options.

According to state data, nearly 17,000 students who live in Marion County — almost 11 percent — attend charter schools, which are publicly funded schools that are privately run. Across the state, charter schools are the fastest-growing school option, though they mostly serve urban areas.

Read more: How are Indiana charter schools doing? 9 things to know from the state’s first study

CLOSING: CARPE DIEM NORTHWEST

Among those shuttering schools are two that focused on blended learning. Carpe Diem Northwest, the national chain’s only remaining campus in the city, will shut its doors, the state charter school board said.

According to the Indiana Charter School Board, Carpe Diem’s board voted to close the school in March. The school’s principal and board president did not respond to requests for comment from Chalkbeat.

According to state data, 218 students were enrolled at Carpe Diem Northwest this year in grades 6-12 — an uptick likely due to the chain merging its former three campuses into one location. Consolidation efforts started in 2016, when Carpe Diem closed its Shadeland campus amid low enrollment. The chain’s Meridian Street campus lost its charter last year after struggling with academic problems, low enrollment, and financial instability.

CLOSING: NEXUS ACADEMY

Nexus Academy, which shared a building with the Glendale library branch, will also close this summer after a drawn-out attempt to stay open as curriculum providers pulled out of the school.

The school used blended learning to serve students who sought an alternative school environment, such as students with disabilities, students who didn’t succeed in conventional classroom settings, or students pursuing professional athletics or acting.

Nexus Academy had initially announced it would be closing at the end of the last school year, said board president Debra Morgan, when online K-12 management company Connections decided to close all of its Nexus Academy locations across three states.

But local leaders in Indianapolis wanted to keep the school open, so they began searching for a new management company. They were able to arrange a trilateral agreement with Connections and a new provider, California-based iLEAD Schools.

Still, Nexus Academy principal Jamie Brady said, “It was at the 13th hour, and it was too little, too late.”

Students had found other schools, and teachers had found other jobs. Marketing efforts to increase enrollment fell short, Brady said, and the school re-opened late in the year with too few students.

Earlier this spring, state charter officials deferred renewing Nexus Academy’s expiring charter. But before the school could return to make its case again, Brady and Morgan said iLEAD Schools also decided it could not help Nexus Academy, leading the school of about 25 students to close.

CLOSING: INDIANA COLLEGE PREP

A third school, the highly troubled Indiana College Preparatory School, will close after the mayor’s office ordered the school to shut down. The company running the school had stopped communicating with the mayor’s office, and the entire school board had resigned.

Read more: In debt, with too many unlicensed teachers, Indiana College Preparatory School loses charter

CLOSING: HOOSIER ACADEMY VIRTUAL

Hoosier Academy Virtual Charter School, a statewide full-time virtual charter school that enrolls students from Indianapolis, is also closing after months of scrutiny from the state, dropping enrollment, and poor academic performance.

Read more: After years of failing grades, Hoosier Academy Virtual will close in June

CONSOLIDATING: TINDLEY MIDDLE SCHOOLS

Among Tindley’s local chain of six schools, its two middle schools will drop their single-gender programming to merge into one co-educational school.

Tindley CEO Kelli Marshall said the decision was in part financial, driven by declining enrollment. As charter school competition has increased, she said it was harder to attract students to the all-girls Tindley Collegiate Academy and all-boys Tindley Preparatory Academy.

Families also said the bridge into high school was more difficult for students who went to single-gender middle schools, Marshall said.

The merged middle schools will operate under the Tindley Collegiate name and use Tindley Prep’s building, next door to Tindley Renaissance, its feeder elementary school.

OPENING: ALLEGIANT PREP AND VANGUARD

A pair of charter schools will open on Indianapolis’ westside to focus on students in the Haughville area, each school founded by Building Excellent Schools fellows.

Allegiant Preparatory Academy will grow into a K-8 college preparatory school with a particular focus on literacy, led by Indianapolis native Rick Anderson. The first week of school will be devoted to teaching students about Allegiant’s culture and core values. Students will begin making college visits in kindergarten and first grade, and the school will also work with families on how to support students on their paths to college.

Allegiant is built upon the motto that “it takes a village” to ensure students’ successes.

“We’re all saying that we have our hands on the shoulder of this child, and we are going to ensure that they’re safe, that they’re learning, and that they’re also growing as leaders,” Anderson said.

At Vanguard Collegiate of Indianapolis, school founder Rob Marshall — also an Indianapolis native — wants to incorporate the school with the Haughville neighborhood, with students completing service learning and projects based on the needs of the community.

The school, located in the former IPS School 75 building, is specifically seeking to help low-income students who live nearby, and Marshall said his leadership team is intentionally composed of people coming from backgrounds similar to their students.

“We know these students can achieve,” he said. “They just need the right adult that understands the circumstances and is willing to build the relationships.”

Vanguard will be “unapologetically” college prep-focused, Marshall added, with mandatory tutoring at the end of school that helps students with whatever they may have struggled with in that day’s lessons.

Both schools say they expect to ramp up enrollment efforts this summer.

OPENING: PILOTED SCHOOLS

PilotED started as after-school programs in Chicago, and now it’s turning into a new school in Fountain Square, in the former home of Indiana Math and Science Academy South and IPS School 64.

PilotED is focused on social identity, asking both teachers and students to examine difficult questions about power and privilege. The school incorporates social justice and racial equity into academics.

School co-founder and The Mind Trust fellow Jacob Allen said he hopes the model does more than prepare students academically for college — he wants it to position students to persist and graduate, particularly students of color, students from low-income families, and first-generation college students.

Allen also said the school wants to pay attention to teacher development and perks, including providing a mental health stipend, a staff gym, and co-working space.

OPENING: PARAMOUNT’S SECOND CAMPUS

Paramount School of Excellence is expanding to a second location about two miles away from its flagship eastside campus. Paramount Community Heights will serve students in grades K-4.

TURNAROUND: MATCHBOOK LEARNING

Matchbook Learning, a turnaround operator with a troubled history, will restart IPS School 63 on the westside as an innovation school. The charter school uses software to help teachers track students’ progress, a model that Matchbook founder and The Mind Trust fellow Sajan George hopes will lead to dramatic test score gains.

Read more: Ousted from Detroit and Newark, turnaround operator Matchbook could get a fresh start in Indianapolis

TURNAROUND: URBAN ACT ACADEMY

URBAN ACT, led by The Mind Trust fellow Nigena Livingston, will restart IPS School 14, a downtown school that has long served many students who are homeless. She plans to use “place-based learning,” a philosophy that incorporates the surrounding community into the projects students pursue at school.

Read more: Homeless students found stability at School 14. Now the school faces a big shake-up