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.

Weighing in

Parents rally to demand a voice in the search for New York City schools chief

PHOTO: Courtesy/Shino Tanikawa
Parents and ddvocates rallied on the steps of the New York City education department headquarters to call for a say in the search for a new schools chancellor.

The education department has made it a mission to boost parent involvement in schools. Now, parents are demanding a bigger role elsewhere: In the search for a new schools chancellor.

Parent leaders from across New York City took to the steps of the education department’s headquarters to demand that Mayor Bill de Blasio allow them to have a say in the process.

“For the mayor to deny parents the opportunity to represent the interests of our children in this critical decision is to ignore the voices of our most vulnerable, underrepresented New Yorkers,” Jessamyn Lee, co-chair of the Chancellor’s Parent Advisory Council, said in a statement.

Organizers say about 30 members from a range of parent groups gathered in the rain to call on de Blasio to follow through on a campaign promise made during his first run for mayor.

Before he was was first elected, de Blasio said the city needed a school leader who would be “presented to the public, not just forced down our throat.” But he went on to conduct a hushed search, pulling department veteran Carmen Fariña from retirement to become chancellor.

De Blasio recently won reelection for a second term, and, in December, Fariña announced plans to head back to retirement. This time around, the mayor has committed to a quiet, internal deliberation.

Among the organizations represented at the rally were the Chancellor’s Parent Advisory Council, which is made of leaders from school parent organizations; the Education Council Consortium, which represents members of the local Community and Citywide Education Councils; and the NYCKids PAC, a parent-led political committee. Those are not the only groups seeking more access and transparency in the hiring process. Advocates for different causes, including school integration efforts, have all called for the opportunity to weigh in.

One of those calls came this weekend in an online petition asking de Blasio to consider a well regarded state education official for the job. And the Coalition for Educational Justice, which held its own rally on Tuesday outside City Hall, is calling on the city to appoint a chancellor who “has a strong vision for racial justice in schools.” The organization has called on the city to focus on making sure that teachers have anti-bias training and that classrooms reflect all students’ cultures.

pre-k for all

New York City will add dual language options in pre-K to attract parents and encourage diversity

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Schools Chancellor Carmen FariƱa, back right, visits a Mandarin pre-K dual language program at P.S. 20 Anna Silver on the Lower East Side.

Education Department officials on Wednesday announced the addition of 33 dual language pre-K programs in the 2018-19 school year, more than doubling the bilingual opportunities available for New York City’s youngest learners.

The expansion continues an aggressive push under the current administration, which has added 150 new bilingual programs to date. Popular with parents — there were 2,900 applications for about 600 pre-K dual language seats last year — the programs can also be effective in boosting the performance of students who are learning English as a new language.

Another possible benefit: creating more diverse pre-K classrooms, which research has shown are starkly segregated in New York City.

Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña said the new programs reflect the city’s commitment to serving all students, even as a national debate rages over immigration reform.

“It’s important to understand that immigrants or people who speak a second language are an asset,” Fariña said. She called bilingual education “a gift that I think all schools should have.”

Included in the expansion are the city’s first dual language pre-K programs in Bengali and Russian, which will open in Jamaica, Queens, and the Upper West Side, Manhattan, respectively. The other additions will build on programs in Spanish, Mandarin and Italian. Every borough is represented in the expansion, with 11 new programs in Manhattan, nine in Brooklyn, six in Queens, five in the Bronx, and two on Staten Island.

In the dual-language model, students split their time between instruction in English and another language. At P.S. 20 Anna Silver, where the recent expansion was announced, pre-K students start the morning in English and transition to Mandarin after nap time. Experts say the model works best when the class includes an equal mix of students who are proficient in each language so they can learn from each other as well as the teacher, though it can often be difficult to strike that balance.

Officials and some advocates view dual-language programs as a tool for integration by drawing middle-class families eager to have their children speak two languages into neighborhood schools that they otherwise may not have considered. Research has shown that New York City’s pre-K classrooms tend to be more segregated than kindergarten. In one in six pre-K classrooms, more than 90 percent of students are from a single racial or ethnic background. That’s compared with one in eight kindergarten classrooms, according to a 2016 report by The Century Foundation.

Sharon Stapel, a mother from Brooklyn, said she knew early on that she wanted her daughter to learn another language and strike relationships across cultures. So she travels to the Lower East Side with her four-year-old, Finch, to attend the Mandarin dual-language pre-K program at P.S. 20 Anna Silver. On Wednesday, the city announced it will add a Spanish dual language program at the school.

“We really see it as how you build community with your neighbors and your friends,” Stapel said. “It was also an opportunity for Finch to become involved and engage in the cultures and in the differences that she could see in the classrooms — and really celebrate that difference.”

Citywide, about 13 percent of students are learning English as a new language. That number does not include pre-K since the state does not have a way to identify students’ language status before kindergarten. However, based on census data, it is estimated that 30 percent of three- and four-year-olds in New York are English learners.

Dual-language programs can benefit students who are still learning English — more so than English-only instruction. Nationally and in New York City, students who are learning English are less likely to pass standardized tests and graduate from high school. In one study, students who enrolled in dual-language courses in kindergarten gained the equivalent of one year of reading instruction by eighth grade, compared with their peers who received English-only instruction.

The city has been under pressure to improve outcomes for English learners. Under the previous administration, New York City was placed on a state “corrective action plan” that required the education department to open 125 new bilingual programs by 2013. Though the city fell short of that goal, the current administration has agreed to place every English learner in a bilingual program by the 2018-19 school year.

Among the greatest barriers to achieving that is finding qualified teachers, Fariña said. In some cases, it can be hard to find teachers who are fluent in the target language. In others, teachers who are native in a foreign language may only be certified in their home country, and it can be hard to transfer that certification to New York.

In order to open an Urdu program recently, Fariña said, the teacher, who holds a degree from another country, went through Teaching Fellows, an alternative certification program that usually caters to career-changers or recent college grads.

“I think the biggest challenge we have right now is ensuring our teacher preparation courses are keeping up with our need and demand for teachers who can teach another language,” she said.