Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott has quietly visited several former “turnaround” schools in recent weeks, but he has done so without calling attention to the fact that the city planned to close them until just a few months ago.
During the first week of school, Walcott made unannounced visits to two of the schools in Brooklyn. At John Dewey High School, where large-scale scheduling problems are prevailing, he shook hands with students one morning. He stopped by William Grady Career and Technical High School, which was removed from the turnaround roster in April, the same day. Neither visit made his public schedule, and department officials said they had nothing to do with the schools’ ex-turnaround status. Instead, the stops were like many that the chancellor, an avid school visitor, has made outside of public view, the officials said.
And on Wednesday, he shared the stage with the new principal of Flushing High School at a press conference heralding a substantial grant from AT&T to the Sports and Arts in Schools Foundation, which runs an after-school program at the school. Working in about 150 city schools, SASF was only the second group, after the YMCA of New York, to receive a grant through Aspire, a $250 million AT&T grant program aimed at boosting college readiness among high-need students. The grant will help SASF hire staff to support its program at Flushing, which includes targeted efforts to help incoming ninth-graders make up academic ground.
Speaking to the students and staff who attended the press conference, Walcott praised SASF and said, “We expect success from all of you to not just achieve but to achieve at a high level. To do that you need to support great teachers, you need to support great leaders, we need to support families, not-for-profits, the generosity of corporate giving.”
But he did not acknowledge the turmoil the school had gone through in recent months as the city tried to close and reopen it using the turnaround process. Nor did he note the school’s leadership change, made in turnaround’s early stages. And after the press conference, Walcott ducked out without talking to reporters. A department spokeswoman said he was late to a meeting and would be taking questions over email instead, but the spokeswoman did not respond by day’s end.
The city was in the process of overhauling Flushing and 23 other struggling schools when an arbitrator ruled this summer that the city’s staffing plans violated its contract with the teachers union. Many of the changes were reversed, and since the year began, students and teachers at some of the schools have complained of confusion and disorganization that they say might be the result of abrupt leadership and staffing changes that cut into planning time administrators normally reserve over the summer.
While Walcott spoke inside Flushing’s light-filled auditorium shortly after 3 p.m., a half dozen students milled about the school grounds, waiting for the school’s 4:30 p.m. dismissal. All said they had left early because their last period of the day was a Spanish class that has not yet been assigned a teacher for the year. Other students said they had noted few changes to the school since the previous school year but had been surprised to receive first semester schedules that included classes they had not requested or had already taken and passed, such as art.
Scores of students rallied in defense of the school and its principal of one year, Carl Hudson, last winter during a tense public hearing on the city’s plan to close the school. Hudson was arrested near school shortly after the school year ended for possession of methamphetamine, but the city had already planned to replace him with Radovich, a former assistant principal at Queens Vocational Career and Technical High School.
Radovich told reporters on Wednesday she is optimistic about the changes ahead for Flushing and was unfamiliar with students’ complaints. She said she has been offering her staff new professional development opportunities to help them prepare for the rollout of new learning standards.
“The challenge is really to make sure that all of the adults stay focused,” she said. “Trying to meet the mandates and the expectations that we all know are on target, you need to be able to reeducate and retrain teachers, administrators, and for me it was a tremendous learning curve as well.”
One group of students that should see positive changes right away is Flushing’s large population of English language learners and recent immigrants, she said.
“One of the things we did over the summer was we looked very very carefully at how the ELL students are being serviced and we have reprogrammed the entire building to make sure we are providing the mandated services that students need,” Radovich said. “Also we have started through the parent coordinator to start to reach out more to community resources.”