First Person

Christopher Columbus High School: A Context for Accountability

Christine Rowland is a teacher and professional developer at the UFT Teacher Center at Christopher Columbus High School. She has been at Columbus since 2002.

On Monday, a team from the Department of Education walked into Christopher Columbus High School to announce that it would be closed. It was a profoundly upsetting day for our entire community (on Pearl Harbor Day, as Columbus’s UFT chapter leader Donald March pointed out). I would like to take this opportunity to address the issues surrounding this decision and to appeal for a reversal.

Until several years ago, Columbus was a school that contained a diverse student body not only in terms of races, nationalities and language backgrounds, but also abilities. In 1998, 41-56% of the entering freshmen and sophomores were on grade level in reading and math at entry. By 2005, this number dropped to 5.9% of entering freshmen in reading and 14% in math.

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Cohorts are entry cohorts, e.g. Cohort 2005 4-year graduation would be in 2009

In concert with this drop in the skill level of entering freshmen, there was a steep rise in the percentage of special education freshmen from 6.8% to 23.6% of our graduation cohorts:

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Percentage of students in the graduation cohort with special education designation

Did the school accept students with very high needs previously? Absolutely. But this was not the sole mission of the school. Several years ago the Bronx High Schools Superintendent’s Office broke off our prestige programs designed to meet the needs of our most able students into separate schools: Collegiate Institute for Math and Science, Pelham Preparatory Academy and Astor Academy. High-performing students who had once come to Columbus instead went to these schools, as did many experienced and skilled educators. In addition, New World Academy opened nearby with Columbus educators as an ELL-only school. These schools see students who are far lower in need.

Columbus’s great good fortune was that, as the changes took place, Lisa Fuentes, a seasoned special educator, was made principal. She has worked tirelessly, extremely long hours and frequently seven days a week to help our students become successful.

Columbus initially reeled under the changes as classes became more challenging both academically and behaviorally. The school was initially badly overcrowded at 180% of capacity and on an end-to-end schedule (juniors and seniors 7 a.m.-12:30 p.m. and freshmen and sophomores 12:30-6 p.m.), and the school went on the dreaded Impact list of schools suffering from high levels of violence. As a community we fought for equity and worked hard to reorganize ourselves into smaller learning communities. The efforts paid off as our environment improved physically, culturally, and in terms of safety.

We also learned that the same old practices were not sufficient to meet the needs of our most vulnerable students. In response, we changed the way the  school was structured so that we could offer stronger instruction that is tailored to each student’s needs. We launched new programs in each of the last three years designed to meet the special needs of our most vulnerable students, including those under pressure to work, those who are pregnant or parenting, and those returning to school after being in jail. In addition, we launched separate advisory programs for male and  female students.

The DOE gave four reasons for phasing out Columbus.

First, the department stated that our graduation rate was 36.9% in 2007-8. This is not accurate. This was the four-year graduation rate after the DOE had placed 26 formerly ungraded special education students back into the cohort after the end of the school year as a result of changes in federal regulations regarding the consideration of special needs students. The DOE, recognizing the unfairness of the situation, in a July 2008 memo agreed not to penalize schools because of these students. After adjustments were made the 4-year graduation rate was 40.1%, and our weighted 4-year graduation rate (a progress report measure that takes into account how challenging the student population is) became 68.8%. But the issue is deeper for us because many of our students take five, six, or even seven years to graduate. Columbus’s most recent 7-year graduation rate (published under longitudinal reports on the DOE Web site) was 81.5%, compared to a city average of 72.2%.

Second, the DOE charges that first-year credit accumulation is low, with only 49.4% of first-year students accumulating 10+ credits in their first year. Removing first-year students who were sent to Columbus throughout the year improves this number to 54.1%. These students are frequently enrolled only for a brief period and are going through additional challenges in their lives that make high credit accumulation particularly challenging. The figure for our non-special education students with 10+ credits was actually 60.2%.

Third, the DOE asserts that demand for the school is low. This year 292 students elected to come to Columbus through the high school application process. We have accepted another 182 “over the counter” so far this year. Considering that fact that our overall enrollment is only 1,400 this would seem to indicate that there is plenty of demand for the school. We believe that we have an extensive array of offerings in the fine arts, music, culinary arts, and technology that, along with a wide range of extra-curricular opportunities, make Columbus attractive to students who are looking for more than reading, writing and arithmetic.

Fourth, and finally, we received a D on our 2008-2009 Progress Report, down from a C in 2006-7 and 2007-8. Last year we received 100% of our performance bonus for an improvement that amounted to approximately 17% after adjustments were made for changes in the metrics. This year we made a 13.8% gain in total over last year — improving again. The reason the grade went down was because the DOE changed the targets. Had we received exactly the same score as last year we could have received an F. Our Environment category actually showed a 31% gain — up in every single category and we STILL went down from a B to a C in that area. The reality is that there are many flaws with the progress reports (some of them have been outlined here and here). While we have the second lowest peer index (population challenge level) of any of the 372 high schools receiving a progress report, the peer index does not reflect the proportion of students with special needs who have been identified as requiring the most restrictive environment. A simple comparison of A and D schools on the progress reports show that D schools have four times the most restrictive environment students as A schools.

So how does all of this affect our current student body? Many of our students were deeply upset over the announcement. There was shock and pain, tears, hugs and anger.  They will fight nobly, I’m sure, to try to keep their beloved school  (see the SAVE COLUMBUS Facebook group with more than 900 members as of writing) for as long as there is hope. We will try hard to keep up their spirits and to help them try to refocus on achieving academic success, but Columbus is much more than a school to so many of them (please see our video on YouTube for an illustration). Teachers will see that they stand to be made ATRs and will make the gut wrenching choice to either stay and support the students they care for so deeply, putting their own future at risk, or will polish their resumes and try to find a small school placement as rapidly as possible. In this environment students will lose many of the teachers they love and trust and the environment will deteriorate. This will impact all schools in the building. We know that under such circumstances their opportunities will also suffer.

I’m also concerned about what will happen to the students who would otherwise attend Columbus. Small schools cannot accommodate many students with significant needs. These students are likely to wind up at other large schools in the area, such as Truman and Lehman, which will receive a massive influx of extremely needy students including late-entry immigrants with little or no English, and the most needy special education students. A report that came out last summer proved what is obvious: Other big schools suffer when a large school gets closed. It will take time for the new receiving schools to adjust their instructional practices and programs to meet the needs of the changing population. These schools will be the next targets for closure just the way we have taken those who would at one time have been placed in Evander or Stevenson.

It seems there is a political agenda driving where students are placed. OSEPO (Office of Strategic Enrollment, Planning and Operations) would, I’m sure, claim that they place students in the schools that can best meet individual student needs, but as long as the Office of Accountability engages in evaluative practices that effectively punish such schools, the fatal combination of the actions of the two offices of the Department of Education would seem to be showing a disregard for the well-being of children.

Right now our longer term outcomes are relatively good for our students, helping them along the path to graduation even when they take more than four years. Those students with severe special needs are helped as frequently as possible with work study programs that provide them with job skills, and frequently job placements on leaving the school. We ask that the DOE reconsider their decision and give the Christopher Columbus community the reprieve it deserves. Outcomes can be improved by creating a more equitable situation around school enrollment. We all need a holiday miracle.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.