This has not been the easiest week for Chancellor Dennis Walcott.
He got to champion his middle school initiative at a policy symposium earlier this week. But he also had to reverse course on two policies — a ban on some words on tests and a plan to “turn around” seven schools — after public outcry. And today, as the first year of his appointment comes to a close, the Daily News reported that he has come under fire for his staunch fidelity to the Bloomberg administration’s educational agenda and that little has changed in the school system since he replaced Cathie Black.
But those criticisms did not dampen Walcott’s usual eagerness to get involved in classroom activities, which was on full display this morning when he joined a group of middle schoolers caught in a frenzy of midterms and test preparations for an impromptu salsa dancing lesson.
Walcott has also gained a reputation for that seemingly-boundless energy. He often tells reporters about his early-morning running and swimming routines, and he was back at work the day after completing the New York Marathon last year. This morning, Walcott racked up points on the pedometer he wears at his waist while touring Manhattan’s Dual Language Middle School—a visit that gets him closer to his stated goal of visiting every school before Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s term ends.
The school was Walcott’s first stop of three on the last day of school before break. Later in the day, he traveled to the Young Scholars’ Academy for Discovery and Exploration in Brooklyn and P.S. 48 on Staten Island. This evening, he will fete the student selected to design the cover of next year’s high school directory.
State exams will be administered in less than two weeks, the day after Spring Break, but students at the successful Upper West Side middle school are already mired in midterms. Thursday morning, eighth-graders took a break between exams for a dance class with their teacher, Joanne Vasquez, who teaches dance to each grade level three times a week.
98 percent of students at the A-rated school are Latino, and one third are English Language Learners fluent in Spanish. Some classes are taught entirely in Spanish, Principal Claudia Aguirre explained, and the rest are taught in English.
The motivational words “Dedicación, Propósito, Éxito” (Dedication, Purpose, Success) are written on each classroom door, and students study culture and art from Latin American countries in their core classes.
“We take every opportunity we can to leverage for them some cultural capital,” Aguirre told Walcott as they walked through the third-floor art and English classrooms. Hers is one of more than 60 of dual-language programs in the city, which are aimed at helping students perfect their English skills while maintaining fluency in their first language—usually Spanish or Chinese.
“Who did not speak Spanish before you started here?” Walcott asked one classroom of sixth-graders. About one third raised their hands. “They all spoke Spanish,” Aguirre said, “but they weren’t very sure of their Spanish—academic Spanish is very different than speaking at home with mom and dad.”