getting to know you

Back to class: New chancellor takes a tour of five city schools

Today marks Cathie Black’s first official day as chancellor of the city’s public schools and she’s following in former Chancellor Joel Klein’s footsteps by taking a five-borough tour. We’ll be following her throughout the day as she makes her way from Brooklyn to Staten Island and back to Tweed.

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Stephan Zuvich, a student at the Richard Hungerford School gives Black a tour.

3:00: And that’s all folks… We’ll post video once Maura returns from Staten Island.

2:40: Black’s visit to the Hungerford School may seem like a deviation from the rest of the day, but it is, yet again, another high performing school. Hungerford is the only special education school in all of New York State to be recognized as a national blue ribbon school.

In the sensory motor center, aka game room, Black and the remaining reporters watch one student play on a pinball machine while another plays Wii sports and a third shoots a basketball.

“I’m so excited,” Hecht says. “The questions that she [Black] was asking were so poignant and so on the mark for the students that we’re serving. I’d love to see the D75 schools become more integrated, so its not like D75, it’s part of the whole system.”

2:15: The press van has landed at Richard H. Hungerford School, a District 75 school with about 350 students in Staten Island. D75 schools like this one serve students with severe disabilities. Black is led around the school by Stephan Zuvich, a 21-year-old student at the school. She goes into a classroom where half a dozen students, all in wheelchairs, are getting physical therapy, and she walks around introducing herself to each student.

Maura reports that the PT class has Christmas music playing quietly in the background, and the ceiling is draped in white and colored lights, hanging mobiles, and planets. Principal Mary McInerney tells the group that the room is set up this way to stimulate the students.

D75 Superintendent Gary Hecht tells Black that she’s the first chancellor to visit one of his schools on the annual (or this year: biannual) five-borough schools tour. McIerney says that when chancellors have come in the past, it’s always been at the end, not the beginning, of their tenures. Black says that DOE officials picked this school because she told them she wanted to see all the different kinds of schools.

Black visits a second class where students are communicating through a machine called an ACD (augmented communication device).

One student asks her if she was nervous on her first day of work. Another, Sara Watson, compliments the chancellor on her outfit. She asks: “Did you buy it for your first day of work today?” Black says no, it’s not a new dress.

A third student, Anna Incantalupo, shows Black a picture of her family. “And guess what, I’m the prettiest!” she says.

1:20: And now to Staten Island, the very last leg of this tour. Most reporters usually hop out of the press van after three or four schools, but Maura says a surprising number are sticking around for the bumpy ride.

1:00: Black visits a Korean language class, which all Democracy Prep students take. Andrew says that the school chose Korean because it’s phonetic and has an alphabet (unlike Chinese and Japanese where there are thousands and thousands of characters) so it is actually possible to learn to read and write anything in Korean pretty quickly. Also, he figures it will give his students an advantage when they apply to college, as very few black and Latino students have studied Korean.

Maura says the students appear to have studied another language: New York City School Bureaucracy. A tenth grader named Malia Douyon tells Black about her trip to Korea, which was great she says, but would have been better “if we had more money per student.” Another student tells Black that the school “does more with less” — a phrase that has become ubiquitous after two years of continuous budget cuts.

Black is introduced to Daniel Clark Sr., a Democracy Prep parent and field director for the advocacy group Parent Power Now!; Andrew describes him as a “convert.” During Clark’s son’s first year at the school, he had 18 latenesses or absences and teachers called Clark in for a meeting. That was the turning point, Andrew says, and now Clark is one of the most involved parents in the school.

black412:40: Now to Manhattan, where Black visits Democracy Prep, a charter middle school in Harlem. Here’s another high performing school: on last year’s progress report Democracy Prep scored higher than any other middle school or charter school in the city.

On entering, Black meets a group of students who hurriedly tell her why their school is different from other schools. Edgar Sanchez, an eighth grader at the school, gives Black one of the charter school’s signature yellow baseball caps. Now that I think about it, I don’t think I’ve ever seen Democracy Prep founder Seth Andrew without his on.

Andrew explains that students have to work for their caps. “The scholars have to earn them through civic engagement work,” he says.

12:15: Maura asked DOE spokeswoman Natalie Ravitz which D and F graded schools Black has visited. Ravitz says Black has visited a “a mix so far in terms of progress report grades, mostly A’s, B’s, and C’s I believe.”

All the reporters along for the tour say they heard Black say that she’s visited schools at every grade level. Ravitz denies this and says she’ll check the transcript.

11:45: Black is now sitting down with students for another roundtable, but this one includes a bunch of alumnae. Black is asking the alums how prepared they felt they were for college. One student said she was assigned an eight page paper; for other students, that was a problem, she said, but not for her. Another alum is going to college in Delaware; the principal calls out, “Tell her your GPA.” The alumna says it’s a 3.98.

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Black talks to students and alumnae of the High School for Violin and Dance in the Bronx.

Black asks if there were any particular teachers who stood out. Immediately students begin telling stories about the teachers they loved. One English teacher came to a student’s house to bring books over the summer. Another math teacher is described by a student as being “like a father.”

A student asks Black what her first step will be. “Meeting parents,” she says. “If you see a school with a lot of parental involvement, then it’s a good school. Things are working if the parents are committed to it.”

As she says goodbye, one of the students says, “Remember our school! Don’t forget us!”

Afterwards Black chats with the principal about college preparedness and the school’s curriculum. “I’m pushing Mandarin Chinese,” she says, laughing. The principal tells her that students here can actually take a Mandarin class online.

11:30: Now at the High School for Violin and Dance in the Bronx, Black is getting a tour from two students and Principal Tanya John. Black and the reporters stop into a dance class. Black says to the principal, “I suppose if you told them it was a fitness class, it would be different, right?” John agrees.

After the dance class, the group heads over to watch a violin lesson in action. The students are playing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.”

Violin and Dance opened in 2002 and is one of four small schools in the Morris High School building, which used to hold one large high school that was closed. Students are supposed to take violin and/or dance classes three times a week. Those who don’t take dance have to take gym and those who don’t take violin have to take a technology class. Unlike some arts schools, this high school doesn’t have students audition to get in. It only has about 260 students and, like the first school Black visited, it has earned A’s on multiple progress reports. Last year, it had a graduation rate of 83 percent, which is well above the citywide average.

11:00: While Maura and the other reporters are in the van to the next school, the High School for Violin and Dance in the Bronx, a union spokesman explained the whereabouts of the missing UFT President Michael Mulgrew.

Union spokesman Dick Riley said that Mulgrew turned down an invitation to join Black’s tour because he already had plans to visit two schools today. First he’s going to a school in Staten Island where there’s a PCB contamination problem. Then he’s going to P.S. 114, one of the 26 schools the Department of Education plans to begin phasing out next year.

Riley said Mulgrew was particularly enthused about defending P.S. 114 against closure because the union had petitioned the city to remove what it considered a toxic principal who was dragging the school down. Though supervisors noticed problems with Principal Maria Pena-Herrera as soon as she was hired several years ago, she wasn’t removed until 2009.

By the time she was removed, Pena-Herrera had amassed a reputation as a “principal from hell” who unsuccessfully tried to bully parents into giving her good marks on the city’s survey. According to the report, she ran up a deficit of more than $100,000. None of those problems caused the city to remove Pena-Herrera. Instead, it was failing to follow proper procedure during an evacuation that cost Pena-Herrera her job.

“They put a bad principal in and ran the school into the ground,” Riley said.

10:30: Black sits down with a group of nine North Queens students for a roundtable discussion about their school. She’s just going around asking them how they came to the transfer school and how they feel about it. Student after student is saying that before they came here, school wasn’t a priority and this school — with its heavy counseling and lots of one-on-one teacher-student interaction — has really changed that. Now they want to go to college and have careers.

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Black talks to U.S. history teacher Keith Walter at North Queens Community High School

“How often do you see your counselor?” Black asks.
“Every hour,” more than one student answers in unison. “She calls me at home,” one student says.

A typical response comes from a student named Harmony, who says she only had six credits in her third year of high school when she came to North Queens. “It feels good to know that you know things and you can have a conversation and sound smart,” she says.

All of the students are on a first name basis with principals and teachers.

Black asks the school leaders if they made any tweaks to the school as they’ve gone through the years (they’re now in their fourth year). Principal McCarthy describes the decision to institute a “gateway class” for new students.

10:00: The tour has moved onto its second stop: North Queens Community High School. North Queens is a small transfer school for Queens students who enrolled in a regular high school, but either dropped out after the ninth grade or were constantly truant. It’s relatively new; the school opened in 2007.

Black visits a small 11-student U.S. history class taught by “one of the best teachers in the school,” according to principal Winston McCarthy. Black sits down with Karla Fuentes, 17 and Ryan Rodriguez, 18. Maura notes that, unlike Klein, Black prefers not to interrupt instruction when she walks into a classroom. When Klein toured schools, he liked to pause the class and address students as a group.

Rodriguez and Fuentes are working on an assignment about US industrialism in late 19th century, charting causes and effects of various events.

“How’s your teacher?” Black asks.
“He’s a wonderful teacher.” Rodriguez says. Rodriguez transferred here this year and is a junior. He told Black that he’s taking the Regents in U.S. history later this month.

“I’ve never met a chancellor before,” he says of meeting Black. Black is moving from table to table, talking to the students who are working in pairs or groups of three.

9:30: Asked what her number one challenge will be, Black responds: “Budget.” She says she’s going to spend the next one to two months figuring out what her priorities are and that she expects the coming years to be a “hard slog” financially. “Most important is to keep progress and reform going as aggressively as possible,” she says.

She also tells reporters that by now she’s visited schools that run the full gamut: from A-ranking schools to F schools. As of mid-December she’d only been to schools getting A’s, B’s, or C’s.

When a reporter asks for her thoughts on the classroom instruction she’s seen so far, Black describes that first lesson in a fourth grade CTT class as “clear, strong.” Then she adds that those were students “with a lot of issues — this was not the A class.”

She says she doesn’t have any new ideas for changes she’d like to make to the schools just yet. Asked about the importance of class size in the student performance equation, she says:

“Certainly that class size matters has been a longstanding view…but at the end of the day we would say that an effective teacher is more important than any class size.”

9:12: Black tells reporters that she’s visited about 20 schools and says she’s been impressed with how candid people have been. She talks about how the most important thing is having great teachers and instruction (she mentions the common core.) She says said that she wants to make a big community outreach effort and mentions she’s meeting with Community Education Council members later today. A DOE spokeswoman says Black is meeting with a Staten Island CEC.

Asked how she’s improve schools that aren’t doing as well as P.S. 262, which has gotten A’s on its progress reports for the last several years, Black cites two of the Klein administration’s reforms: data inquiry teams and the proliferation of small schools.

“We must have schools that are successful or are showing promise, otherwise we have to take a different approach,” she says.

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Principals' union President Ernie Logan, Chancellor Cathie Black, and P.S. 262 principal Joeletha Ferguson

8:52: Mayor Bloomberg, who is on hand for this first stop as he usually is on these tours, says he hopes former Chancellor Joel Klein was just a “prelude” to Black’s tenure. Bloomberg says he wants Black to be the best chancellor in the city’s history.

“Joel is holding that title right now but nobody would be more pleased than Joel to pass that title on,” the mayor said.

Maura notes that Bloomberg is still claiming to have narrowed the city’s racial achievement gap. Though it appeared as though there had been progress on this front over the last several years, when the state recalibrated its exams last year, many of the gains were erased. Students who seemed to be meeting standards were actually ill-equipped to move onto the next grade, though the too-easy tests showed they were competent.

Currently, the racial achievement gap is still formidable. Last year, about 40 percent black students and 46 percent of Hispanic students in grades three through eight met the state’s proficiency standards in math, compared to 75 percent of white students. On the reading test, the gap was similarly large. About 33 percent of black students and 34 percent of Hispanic students were deemed competent, whereas 64 percent of white and Asian students met this bar.

Teachers union president Michael Mulgrew has not joined Black, the mayor, and elected officials for today’s tour, as he has in the past (though last September he gave his own tour). Asked why Mulgrew is absent, Bloomberg says: “I think Mulgrew would say he is well represented here and I think that his chapter leader here would agree.”

The mayor doesn’t say whether the teachers union president was invited or not.

8:40: Black has moved onto the next classroom without interrupting the first lesson she stopped by. This one is a fifth grade class. All the students are working on laptops and Black asks one girl to explain what she’s doing but reporters can’t hear her answer because there are so many video cameras filling the room. The visit is brief — now Black is on to the library for a Q&A with reporters.

8:05: New Chancellor Cathie Black is touring five schools today — one in each borough – and she’s making her first stop now at P.S. 262 El Hajj Malik El Shabazz Elementary School in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn.

Maura reports that Black is visiting a collaborative team teaching (CTT) classroom, which means it has two teachers (one with a general education background and one special education).

P.S. 262 is part of the Innovation Zone, or iZone, pilot program, which emphasizes online learning. In the fourth grade classroom Black is visiting, teacher Stephanie Forcer is going over the writing process: prewriting, drafting, and revising. Black is sitting at a table with students and listening.

“You see all the media in here?” Forcer asks reporters.  “They had to learn all this too.”

Foster switches and talks to the students about what she calls “results based” learning.

“We don’t entertain level 2s in here, do we? We shoot only for level 3s and 4s.” She’s referring to the rankings assigned to students based on their scores on New York State’s annual math and reading exams.

“You have to show me that you are meeting your goals. If you were a 2 you should be going to a 3,” she tells the students.

study says...

In new study of school-district effectiveness, New York City falls just below national average

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder

Each year, state test scores offer a snapshot of how much New York City students have learned. But they say little about how the city’s schools stack up against other districts’, in part because the raw scores largely reflect student demographics — wealthier districts tend to have higher scores.

Now, a major new analysis of several years of test scores from across the country provides a better way to judge and compare districts: Instead of looking at a single moment, it shows how well school systems help students grow their skills over time.

Based on that measure, New York City falls just below the middle of the pack: In the five years from third to eighth grade, its students collectively make about 4.6 grade levels of progress — landing New York in the 35th percentile of districts nationally. By contrast, Chicago students advance the equivalent of six grades within those five years, giving the district one of the highest growth rates in the country.

Still, New York is slightly above average when compared to other large districts with many students from low-income families. And it trounces the state’s other urban districts — including Yonkers, Syracuse, and Rochester, which have some of the nation’s worst growth rates.

“Among big poor districts, it’s better than average,” said Sean Reardon, the Stanford University researcher who conducted the analysis. “In the grand scheme, it’s pretty middle-of-the-road.”

Reardon’s analysis — based on 300 million standardized tests taken by students across more than 11,000 school districts from 2009 to 2015 — is the largest of its kind. It looks both at student proficiency on third-grade math and English tests (that is, what share of students earned a score deemed “proficient”) and student growth between grades three and eight (how much their scores improved over time). Reardon’s research was supported by several foundations, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which also provides funding to Chalkbeat.

The analysis controls for the differences in tests across states and over time by converting scores into a common scale that measures growth in grade levels, making it possible to compare nearly every district in the country to one another. (It excludes New York’s scores from 2015 and some grades in 2014 because of the high number of students who boycotted the state tests those years. However, each district’s five-year growth rates is actually an average of its year-over-year growth, so Reardon was still able to calculate a five-year rate for New York.)

Experts generally prefer growth rates over proficiency as a way to evaluate school quality, since growth measures the progress students make in school rather than where they started. Even if a district enrolls many poor students who are less likely than their affluent peers to hit the “proficiency” benchmark, its schools can still help them advance at a rate comparable to or even better than schools filled with wealthier students.

“Growth is way better than achievement,” said Douglas Ready, an education and public policy professor at Teachers College, Columbia University. “We know low-income students start school behind — the question is what do school districts do with the kids they get?”

New York’s growth rate falls just below the national median of 4.8 grade levels. Among big districts, its students made gains similar to those in Dallas and Detroit, and greater than students in Los Angeles, Miami, and Indianapolis.

By contrast, Rochester ranks rock-bottom nationally. In that high-poverty district, where the median income among families with children in the public schools is $26,000, students advanced about three grade levels in five years. Yonkers’ $48,000 median income is much higher, yet its schools barely do better, with students moving just 3.5 grade levels. (Among New York City public-school parents, the median income is $42,000.)

Reardon emphasized that test scores provide an important but incomplete picture of student learning, and growth rates are an imperfect measure of school effectiveness since factors outside of the classroom also influence how much students learn over time.

Still, he argued that officials who rate schools and parents who choose them would do much better to look at a school’s growth rate over its average test scores. In fact, he said, a focus on growth rates could theoretically drive down socioeconomic segregation since higher-income parents might be willing to enroll their children in schools with many poor students and low overall test scores if the schools nonetheless had outstanding growth rates.

Ready, however, pointed out that even when schools and districts are highly effective at helping students make progress, they are still unlikely to close the yawning achievement gaps that separate most poor and wealthier students from the time they start school. Reardon came to the same conclusion.

“The large gaps in students’ academic skills between low- and higher-[socioeconomic status] districts are so large,” Reardon’s analysis says, “that even the highest growth rate in the country would be insufficient to close even half of the gap by eighth grade.”

In response to the analysis, New York City education department officials pointed to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a standardized test taken by a representative sample of students in each state and certain districts, including New York. Only one other district among the country’s 10 largest cities performed better in reading and math than New York, which had the highest share of low-income students reach the proficient level on the reading test.

“Our schools are the strongest they’ve ever been, with record-high graduation and college enrollment rates, and improving state test scores,” said the district’s spokesman, Will Mantell.

change up

Just as Lower East Side integration plan takes off, superintendent who helped craft it steps down

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Carry Chan, left, will become acting superintendent in District 1 when Daniella Phillips, right, leaves this month to join the central education department.

The longtime superintendent of the Manhattan community district where parents pushed for a plan to desegregate the local schools is stepping down just as the plan gets underway.

After a decade at the helm of District 1, which includes the Lower East Side and East Village, Superintendent Daniella Phillips is leaving to join the central education department, Chalkbeat has learned. During the yearslong campaign for an integration plan, Phillips acted as a liaison between parents and the education department, which finally approved a new admissions system for the district’s elementary schools this fall.

She will be replaced by Carry Chan, who has also played a role in the district’s diversity efforts as the interim head of a new Family Resource Center, an information hub to help district parents sort through their school options. Chan takes over as acting superintendent on Dec. 18.

The leadership change comes at a crucial time for the district, which also includes a portion of Chinatown. Parents are currently applying to elementary schools, marking the first admissions cycle under the new enrollment system. Under the system, schools give certain students admissions priority based on their economic status and other factors, with the goal of every elementary school enrolling share of disadvantaged students similar to the district average.

It will be up to the new superintendent to help schools recruit and welcome a greater mix of families, and to help steer parents towards a wider range of schools. Advocates hope the district can become a model for the city.

“There is a torch that needs to be carried in order to really, fully execute,” said Naomi Peña, president of the district’s parent council. “The next superintendent has to be a champion for the mission and the cause.”

During heated public meetings, Phillips tried to keep the peace while serving as a go-between for frustrated integration advocates and reluctant education department officials. The tensions sometimes boiled over, with advocates directing their anger at Phillips — though they were eventually won-over and endorsed the final integration plan.

In her new role, she will oversee school consolidations as part of the education department’s Office of School Design and Charter Partnerships. In District 1, Phillips helped steer three such mergers, which often involve combining small, low-performing schools with ones that are higher achieving.

“It has been such a joy and privilege to be District 1 superintendent for over 10 years, and I’m excited for this next chapter in the district and my career,” Phillips said in an emailed statement.

Chan is a former principal who launched the School for Global Leaders, a middle school that focuses on community service projects and offers Mandarin classes. Last year, she joined the education department’s Manhattan support center, where she helped schools form partnerships in order to learn from one another.

Since October, Chan has served as the interim director of District 1’s Family Resource Center, which is seen as an integral part of making the new diversity plan work. Families must apply for seats in the district’s elementary schools, which do not have attendance zones like other districts. The family center aims to arm families with more information about their options, in the hopes that they will consider schools they may not have previously.

“I think we’re all really passionate about this plan and we really want this to work,” Chan said. “Communication is the key, and being transparent with how we’re progressing with this work.”