longitudinal data

From school facing turnaround, a tale of academic perseverance

This story originally appeared in Miller-McCune. Since this story was completed, New York City has said it would require Franklin Delano Roosevelt High School to undergo “turnaround,” which would cause the school name to disappear and half the teachers to be replaced.

At 18 years old, Moustafa Elhanafi has embarked on an academic journey that has brought him tantalizingly close to obtaining a high school diploma. (Ben Preston)

On a hot, sunny September afternoon — the sticky kind so common in New York City that time of year — a tall, dark-haired young man with his shoulders hunched slightly forward padded into Franklin Delano Roosevelt High School’s back entrance and into a small courtyard. Moustafa Elhanafi sought the school’s principal. He needed her help. Not being a student there, he didn’t know what she looked like or where he would find her inside the massive, unfamiliar building. In the courtyard beneath the shade of a wide-leafed tree, looking for crafty students cutting class, stood Principal Geraldine Maione.

“I saw her, and I didn’t know if she was the principal, but she was wearing a suit, so I asked her if she was,” said Moustafa.

Maione welcomed him inside and listened to what he had to say. With his father beside him, Moustafa told Maione how, at 18 years old, he still didn’t know how to read or write. He had tried and failed at other schools, and he was willing to work as hard as he could to learn, but Moustafa said he needed help. After 15 minutes relating his frustrations, he began to cry. Maione, too, became emotional. She told him she knew just the person who could help. As if on cue, special education teacher Rosalie Dolan strode around the corner on her way home for the day, right into the tear-streaked faces of Moustafa and Maione.

“He cried, she cried, I cried,” recalled Dolan, relating the details in the thick accent shared by so many of the South Brooklyn school’s teachers. “I don’t know how to explain it; it was like a rainforest. I think we all had a spiritual experience that day.”

The trio’s first meeting that day launched Moustafa on an academic journey that has brought him tantalizingly close to obtaining a high school diploma. Outside of school hours, and without pay, Dolan began the painstaking process of teaching Moustafa how to read, one letter at a time.

That was in 2008, at the end of Moustafa’s three-year run at the Roy Campanella Occupational Training Center — known colloquially as the OTC — a school for developmentally disabled children. The New York City public school system — the largest in the world — has many resources at its disposal, but as Moustafa’s case suggests, it’s not always successful at plugging every student into the right ones.

Moustafa had been enrolled in what is known as an inclusionary program — special education classes sponsored by the OTC, but held on the campus of John Dewey High School, the conventional school right next door. But Moustafa felt out of place in OTC classes. He couldn’t get the hang of reading and writing, but he was different from his classmates, most of whom suffered from Down syndrome, mental retardation, and other severe disabilities. The OTC is well known for helping students with such problems, but its approach wasn’t working for Moustafa.

Moustafa had asked his teacher, Marian Bruce, to help him learn to read, and said that she invited him to show up before class for tutoring. But at those sessions, something was missing. He recalls being asked to copy lessons for class onto the board, mimicry that didn’t help him correlate sounds to letters. Plus, he said, “I’m a slow writer. I had to go one letter at a time, and by the time I finished, the bell rang and class started. It didn’t help at all.”

Frustrated and depressed, Moustafa eventually stopped going to school. His father didn’t like what he saw. “I said, ‘Moustafa, you need to read and write to get a job,’” recalled Ahmed Elhanafi, a now-retired taxi driver who raised his two sons in Bensonhurst, not far from FDR. Ahmed pep-talked his son into asking for help from the principal of the high school in their neighborhood, starting the trek to Geraldine Maione’s shady tree.

• • • • • • • • • • • • • • •

Moustafa Elhanafi gets tutored on the subjects that give him difficulty. (Ben Preston)

Moustafa Elhanafi was born in New York City to Egyptian immigrant parents, both literate in English and Arabic. At age 2 he moved with his mother to Egypt while his father stayed behind. His parents divorced a short time later. Moustafa stayed in Egypt for the next six years, speaking only Arabic, but never learned how to read or write the language. When he was 8, his mother moved back to New York, and Moustafa moved in with his father in Bensonhurst, where he’s been ever since. Like most other kids in New York City, he was enrolled at the neighborhood public school.

After a year at Nelson A. Rockefeller School, school authorities decided that Moustafa needed extra help, and in September 1999, he was transferred to Alfred De B.Mason, a larger school with a more robust special education program. Yearly evaluations by school counselors are normal for any student, but Moustafa’s recommended he also see an outside psychiatric specialist to see why his classroom performance wasn’t up to par. Ahmend Elhanafi said he did what they told him to do for his son’s education.

When Moustafa was 11 years old, he was diagnosed as mentally retarded. According to the New York City Department of Education’s rules, every special ed student’s “Individualized Education Plan” is updated on a yearly basis, and students are reevaluated every three years. By 2005, when he was 15, Moustafa’s educational situation hadn’t improved, and the Department of Education classified him ineducable. Too old to continue going to Alfred De B.Mason, Moustafa’s next stop was the OTC.

Moustafa says that a typical day at the OTC included menial tasks like stringing beads onto thread and sorting piles of sugar cubes. “They give you a bag of sugar cubes and you take two cubes out and put them in a Ziploc,” he said. “That’s it. After you’ve filled dozens of bags with dozens of cubes, they take you back to the school to sit there for hours and do nothing.”

Teachers and administrators who worked with Moustafa at the OTC and Dewey High School declined to comment on his time there. (OTC Principal Wendy Weiss said she did not feel comfortable speaking about Moustafa’s case, and other teachers and administrators at FDR cited concerns about violating the NYC Department of Education’s information policy.)

In the midst of this drudgery, Moustafa’s desire to learn to read and write kicked in when his mother started the search for a bride for him, the normal route to marriage in his traditional Islamic culture. The girl she had in mind was still in Egypt, but when Moustafa met her during a trip there to visit family, he remembers liking her instantly. The match was arranged when he was 16, steeling Moustafa’s resolve to attain literacy.

“When you get engaged, you don’t want to be like that anymore,” he said. “You want to show your wife that you can be a man and work hard.”

Despite his drive, he struggled in vain to get a grasp on reading. His father says Moustafa became depressed, and was crying a lot. To make matters worse, he was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. “He was taking the Ritalin for one year and he wasn’t eating,” said Ahmed Elhanafi, who canceled his son’s prescription during the summer of 2008, a year after it had begun. “It didn’t make him smarter; it didn’t help. He was in the wrong school.”

• • • • • • • • • • • • • • •

Rosalie Dolan knows what it’s like to be illiterate. Throughout her childhood and young adult years, neither she nor the New York City public school system knew that she was dyslexic and diplopic (double vision). Like Moustafa, she had been deemed mentally retarded and uneducable. She was married at 16 and had three children by age 20 but no high school diploma. It wasn’t until her kids started pestering her to read to them that she really felt the need to learn how.

“Nobody knew I couldn’t read and write — not even my husband,” she said. “My kids wanted me to read them the Little Golden Books, and I was like, ‘Uh oh.’”

Rosalie Dolan devoted her free time to helping Moustafa learn how to read. (Ben Preston)

She said that she let her brother in on the secret, and that he had promised to help her learn how to read. But he was murdered before they could get started. Just after he died, she remembers spying an open Scrabble set on the living room table. In a moment of frustration, she hurled it across the room.

“The chips went in a big arc and landed all over the floor,” she said. “When I bent down to start picking them up, I grabbed [one of the pieces] and felt the little indentation the letter makes in the wood. I’d never that noticed before.”

She realized that what she saw as a backward railroad sign was what everyone else recognizes as the letter “R.” That tiny, tactile moment started her down a long road that led her to a GED, college, graduate school and eventually, teaching children with learning disabilities how to read. 

“Moustafa is just a 30-years-later version of what happened to me with the Board of Ed,” she said. “We could really bash the Board of Ed for destroying this student’s morale, but that’s not what we’re trying to prove. With the right amount of motivation and attention, you can do anything.”

When Moustafa came to her in the fall of 2008, she said they both had their work cut out for them. He didn’t yet recognize any of the letters, couldn’t sound many of them out, and had a particular problem with vowels. But he seemed excited to learn with his new tutor, and dove into reading instruction using the Wilson Reading System, a method of sound-symbol association entailing “tapping out” letters one by one — cards with pictures, letters, and phonetic spellings for A, apple, ah; B, bat, buh; and so on. Moustafa wasn’t enrolled in school during that time. Dolan spent a couple of hours with him after regular school hours every week — the two of them seated among two crooked rows of empty desks in her small second-floor classroom at FDR. The rest of the time Moustafa was at home, practicing and practicing tapping. C, cat, cuh; D, dog, duh …

“It helps you to understand the sounds of the letters,” said Moustafa. “Then, it comes automatically. I’m not tapping anymore. Now I’m just reading it – I go with the flow.”

It took six weeks of intensive study before Moustafa was able to read his first sentence: “The rat is mad.” Before long, he could read an excerpt from the Declaration of Independence. Then came comprehension of what he was reading.

After a year and a half of tutoring, Dolan said Moustafa asked her if he could start taking academic classes at FDR and work toward getting his high school diploma. For someone to begin not just high school, but school in general, at 18 years old is unusual, but she was impressed by his hard work and dedication, and helped him take the next step. It was time to see Maione again.

• • • • • • • • • • • • • • •

FDR High School’s hallways are a microcosm of the world. Around every corner, a cacophony of different languages meets passersby as 3,500 students from all kinds of backgrounds move through the building. But it’s a happy world; a well-ordered one where students and teachers appear to get along. Geraldine Maione was the school’s principal for six years, and until being transferred to William Grady High School in Brighton Beach in the fall of 2010, she fostered a “kids first” atmosphere.

“What she did was promote a culture — you had to go out of your way to help kids,” said Stanley Fevrine, 31, a teaching assistant who works in the special education department with at-risk teens. Fevrine’s familiarity with Maione’s teaching ethic goes beyond his job at FDR. He was a student in Maione’s social studies class when she was a teacher at Grady and still remembers the first time he met her. “In steps Ms. Maione — this short, gray-haired Italian lady — she had a presence about her. I don’t want to overdo it, but you know when [Michael] Jordan steps on the court? It’s like that.”

Maione has a reputation as a tough teacher and a strict administrator, but also as someone students could rely on when they needed help with just about anything. She remembers teachers calling her stupid when she was a student on Manhattan’s then-gritty Lower East Side. As a grad student at NYU, one of her professors uttered words that she has carried with her ever since: “You have the power to destroy the spirit of a child.”

When Dolan approached her in March 2010 about getting Moustafa enrolled in diploma-oriented academic classes, she said Maione was unflinchingly supportive of the idea, even though Moustafa had no formal education. Enrolling him at FDR meant that if he tried and failed, the school’s rating would be pulled down, taking it just a little farther from the number of four-year graduations required by the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program. At a school like FDR — with a heavy concentration of non-native English speakers — every point counts. Maione was not deterred, and despite the objections of a couple of teachers toward his enrolling late in the term, Moustafa began classes the next month.

As when he learned to read, Moustafa at first had a tough time with classes. Dolan said the teachers who had initially objected to his enrollment came around when they saw how much effort he put into his schoolwork. Since he’s been at FDR, he hasn’t missed a single day of school.

“Quite frankly, I’ve never seen someone try so hard,” said Anastasia Novik, 28, Moustafa’s algebra teacher. “He knows he’s weak, so he gets to school early and stays late.”

At 6 feet, 4 inches, Moustafa towers over most teachers and students, and looks a bit like a ship navigating a sea of people in the school’s busy hallways. He most often wears a shy smile, and has a gentle manner; Maione calls him a gentle giant.

Moustafa doesn’t have a lunch period, and is enrolled in classes eight periods a day. Twice a week, he meets Dolan at 6:30 a.m. for tutoring. Every day, he has a “resource period,” where he gets extra help in subjects he’s having trouble understanding. Novik said she often tutors him during the period she has open to plan and prepare for other classes. He has a job at the school, assisting teachers with administrative tasks.

“He’s a lot smarter than [the school system] gave him credit for,” said Joe DeRanieri, 57, a 19-year veteran of FDR’s special education program who runs the resource room. “They had him in a very low-functioning program, and with the help of Rosalie Dolan and others, he’s almost up to speed.”

When Moustafa gets home from school, his dad fixes him a quick dinner — usually something Egyptian. Ahmed Elhanafi is a constant presence in his sons’ lives. One moment, he’s helping one of them with homework; the next, he’s cooking dinner or doing laundry. Moustafa’s brother Mohammed, 22, who also lives at home, is studying criminal justice at Kingsborough Community College, and hopes to become a cop. While his dad whirls around, Moustafa spends evenings in a chair in their brightly painted living room, studying and doing homework.

“The days are filled with math and science and history,” said Moustafa. “I may not really be that smart, but I worked hard to get to know all this. I needed it in my life.”

Moustafa has passed all of his Regents competency exams — quite an accomplishment for someone who hadn’t taken academic courses before a couple of years ago — and holds a respectable grade point average. After traveling a long, circuitous educational path, Moustafa is scheduled to graduate in June at the age of 21.

• • • • • • • • • • • • • • •

The New York City Department of Education is responsible for educating millions of students, and while it does provide special education resources such as the OTC, some, like Moustafa, can slip through the cracks. District 75 — of which the OTC is part — is the department’s special education section dedicated to severely disabled students, and most of those students graduate with diplomas that aren’t recognized by colleges, universities, or the military. Until a few years ago, Moustafa was on track to join their ranks.

Terry Manger, a school psychologist working at both New Utrecht and FDR High Schools, said that while she’s only known Moustafa since March 2010, there are many factors that could have led to his being diagnosed as mentally retarded. English is his second language. He’s shy. He’s emotionally sensitive. All of those, she said, are things that can affect a student’s performance.

“This is why we have a process where we can always reevaluate and readjust,” she said, adding that three-year evaluations are the best way to keep on top of a student’s changing conditions. “I think that what Moustafa got at FDR was a lot more individual attention. It’s not a question of what someone did or didn’t do — it’s not even the extra mile. It’s the one-on-one.”

Dolan continues to tutor Moustafa before school two mornings per week, still without being paid for it. She has kept records on his progress since they began working together, and would eventually like to use the data to complete a Ph.D. dissertation she postponed in the mid-1990s when life got in the way. She hopes to see Moustafa graduate and go on to college.

Although he is no longer engaged (the girl’s father called off the engagement shortly after her mother died two years ago), Moustafa is determined to get his diploma and go to college. He thinks he’d like to be a pharmacist someday, but right now, simply going to school to learn more is his top goal. His guidance counselor, Helayne Wagner, 54, and several of his teachers said that as he has learned more and more in school, Moustafa has become more confident.

“It’s a miracle,” said Moustafa’s father. “I live with my son day by day and I’ll never forget the change. He was diagnosed wrong, he was in the wrong school, and he was really struggling. But now he’s really opened his mind, thanks to God.”

Making up for years of lost time, Moustafa takes in opportunities to learn with the voracity of someone who has been starved. During the lunch period he sacrificed, he gets extra credit by taking a music class. He tackles the keys of a piano much as he did the letters of the alphabet — one note at a time. Moustafa plays deliberately, hitting the notes and chords of “Are You Sleeping” with accuracy that’s surprising for someone who had never even touched a piano until a few months earlier.

At his job assisting one of FDR’s business career education teachers, he often helps other students with their classwork, something he wouldn’t have imagined doing even a year ago.

“It’s exciting when you understand what the teacher said,” he explains. “You can be proud to share that lesson with a student who doesn’t.”

Miller-McCune is an online and print magazine produced by the nonprofit Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. Ben Preston is a journalist who graduated in 2011 from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.

To and Through

Newark’s post-grad paradox: More students are entering college, but few earn degrees

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
Newark Mayor Ras Baraka wants 25 percent of residents to have college degrees by 2025, up from 19 percent today.

When it comes to college, Newark faces a good news-bad news paradox.

More students than ever are graduating high school and enrolling in college, according to a new report. Yet fewer than one in four Newark students earns a college degree within six years of graduating high school — leaving many with limited job prospects in a city where an estimated one-third of jobs require a four-year college degree.

Now, city officials are promising to build on the report. They want to ramp up the rigor of high-school classes and create more early-college programs to increase the odds of students entering college and leaving with a degree.  

“How do we teach our children to perform — to graduate?” Mayor Ras Baraka asked at a press conference Wednesday to mark the official release of the report of Newark students’ college outcomes. “We got them in the door,” he said of students who attend college. “Now how do we make them stay?”

The city’s plans, to which Superintendent Roger León is lending his support, reflect a growing recognition that simply getting students into college is not sufficient — and can even backfire if they drop out before graduation, leaving them with college debt but no degree.

Until recently, the charge given to high schools in Newark and across the country was to foster “college-going cultures.” And these efforts showed promising results: On average, 51 percent of Newark Public School students who graduated high school between 2011 and 2016 immediately enrolled in college, up from 39 percent who did so between 2004 and 2010, according to the report by the Newark City of Learning Collaborative, or NCLC, and Rutgers University-Newark’s School of Public Affairs and Administration.

But entering college didn’t guarantee its completion. Of those students who started college straight after high school, only 39 percent earned a degree within six years, the report found.

As a result, educators and policymakers have begun to think harder about how to help students “to and through” college — to ensure they actually earn degrees. Toward that end, Baraka and the NCLC — which includes roughly 40 colleges, schools, nonprofits, and corporations — has set a goal of 25 percent of Newark residents earning college degrees or comparable credentials by 2025.

Today, just 19 percent of Newark adults have associate degrees or higher — compared to 45 percent of adults across New Jersey and 40 percent nationally.

Superintendent León, who began overseeing the city’s schools on July 1, said his main strategy for supporting these efforts will be to expose students to challenging work early on.

“If we don’t do something dramatically in classrooms to improve instruction and make it rigorous,” León said after Wednesday’s event, then students are “getting into college but they’re not completing it.”

Source: “Post-Secondary Outcomes of Newark High School Graduates (2011-2016)” report. Note: The four-year rate is an average of the classes of 2011 to 2013. The six-year rate is from the class of 2011. Graphic: Sam Park/Chalkbeat

For starters, León said he wants high schools to offer more college-level classes. In the 2016-17 school year, just 21 percent of Newark students were enrolled in one or more Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate classes — compared to 42 percent of students statewide.

He also vowed to raise the quality of instruction in the district’s traditional high schools. Only 14 percent of their graduates earn college degrees within six years, compared to 42 percent of graduates from the city’s selective magnet schools, the report found.

To do that, León said he will create specialized academies within the traditional schools modeled on the magnets, which have specialized themes such as science, technology, or the arts. The academies, which will partner with colleges, will most likely feature admissions criteria similar to those of magnet schools, which select students based on their academic and attendance records, León added.

And, for the first time, all ninth-grade students this academic year will take the Preliminary SAT, or PSAT, León said Wednesday. An additional 1,100 eighth-graders who passed at least one of their seventh-grade PARCC exams will also take the PSAT when it’s administered on Oct. 10.

Since 2016, the district has provided the PSAT to all 10th and 11th-grade students. But León said that giving the test to younger students will focus their attention on college and help identity those who are ready for advanced classes. The PSAT is designed to help students prepare for the SAT, which is used in college admissions, and to qualify for National Merit Scholarships.

The district, which was under state control for 22 years until February, is getting some assistance in its effort to improve students’ college outcomes.

For instance, KIPP, the national charter-school network with eight schools in Newark, is sharing its strategies for helping students choose the right college with guidance counselors at three district high schools.

And the higher-education institutions in the Newark City of Learning Collaborative, including Essex County College and Rutgers University-Newark, plan to create more “dual-enrollment” programs that allow high-school students to earn college credits, said NCLC Executive Director Reginald Lewis.

“We’re all going to do a better job,” Lewis said, “of making sure that once Newark residents get in our doors, that we help them persist.”

Time crunch

In victory for teachers union, Newark superintendent scraps longer hours for low-performing schools

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
Superintendent Roger León at Hawkins Street School, one of the schools that will lose its extended hours.

Newark’s new superintendent is eliminating a program that extended the hours of struggling schools, which the teachers union has long attacked as ineffective and unfair to educators.

Teachers at roughly 30 schools will no longer receive $3,000 annual stipends for the extra hours, a provision written into the current teachers contract, which extends to 2019. Instead, all 64 district schools will get extra funding for before and after-school programs, Superintendent Roger León said in an email to employees on Tuesday.

The changes will go into effect Monday, Sept. 10, resulting in new hours for the affected schools just days after the new school year began. The district is still working to adjust pickup times for students who are bused to school, according to León’s email. A few of the schools will phase out their extended hours later in the year, the email said.

“We will not continue to do the same things as before and be surprised when the results do not change,” León wrote, adding that cutting the extra hours would save the district $5 million.

In an interview with Chalkbeat Thursday, León said the move is intended to create more uniformity among schools and the services they provide. Now, all schools will get additional money to pay for programs outside of the regular school day, which schools can tailor to their individual needs, though students who are struggling academically will continue to receive “intensive” support, he said.

“Ultimately, the idea would be by October having completely different after-school and before-school programming that meets the needs of each respective school,” León said.

The extended time was first included in the teachers contract in 2012 as part of a larger improvement plan for the targeted schools, which was developed by Cami Anderson, Newark’s former state-appointed superintendent. The plan also designated some low-performing schools as “renew” schools, where teachers had to reapply for their positions and work longer hours.

Anderson also closed some schools and gave principals new hiring authority. Both actions left dozens of tenured teachers without positions, so Anderson created a fund to pay those teachers to perform support duties in schools. In 2014, that fund for “employees without placement” cost the district $35 million out of its nearly $1 billion budget, though by last year the fund had shrunk to $8 million for about 100 unassigned teachers, according to officials.

León said in Tuesday’s email that he was also eliminating the fund, which he said would save the district another $6 million. The teachers union president said he believed all the unassigned teachers now have placements, but the district did not respond to a request to confirm that.

León is also removing the “renew” and “turnaround” labels from low-performing schools, citing their “progress and student achievement,” according to the email.

“I applaud everyone’s efforts at renew or turnaround schools and acknowledge what has been accomplished,” he wrote.

Now that León has abolished his predecessors’ school-improvement program, he will be expected to create his own. Many schools remain mired in poor performance, even as the district overall has made strides in recent years.

When the teachers union agreed to the extended hours in its 2012 contract with the district, it was hailed nationally as a major breakthrough in efforts to revamp troubled schools. But even as the union agreed last year to keep the provision in its current contract, union officials have assailed the turnaround effort as a failure.

NTU President John Abeigon told Chalkbeat on Thursday that the program had been a “scam” and “nothing more than extended childcare.” He added that the stipend teachers received amounted to about $7 per hour for the extra time they worked.

In 2016, a district-commissioned survey of 787 teachers at schools with extended hours found that two-thirds of teachers at schools where the extra time was spent on student instruction said the time was valuable. But in a survey the union conducted in April, the 278 teachers who responded gave the extended hours low ratings for effectiveness in boosting student achievement.

Some teachers in the union survey praised the longer hours, saying their schools used them effectively to lengthen class periods, run after-school clubs, or allow teachers to plan lessons or review student data. But others said the extra time was squandered, leaving staff and students exhausted with little evidence of improved student outcomes to show for it. (Students’ pass rates on state tests stayed flat or declined at most “renew” schools in the first years of the program.)

The union also has complained that many teachers felt compelled to work the extra hours because those who refused to could be transferred to different schools. Under the terms of the original extended-day agreement, teachers were required to work an extra hour per day and attend trainings during the summer and some weekends.

In León’s email to employees, he said every extended-day school had set different work requirements and “none are consistent with the original design.” The longer days may also be contributing to high teacher turnover in those schools, he wrote, adding that principals of schools with regular hours told him they did not want to extend their hours.

Abeigon, the union president, applauded León’s decision to scrap the extra work hours.

“He came to the conclusion that we expected any true educator to reach: that the program was not working and was never going to work,” he said.

León said Thursday that he is now working on a new turnaround program. Once it’s ready, he promised to share the details with affected families before publicly announcing which schools are part of it — an effort to avoid the student protests that erupted when Anderson identified her “turnaround” schools.

He also said he was still considering whether he would ever close schools that fail to improve or to reverse their declining enrollments. Anderson’s decision to shutter nearly a dozen long-struggling schools continues to fuel resentment among her critics even years later.

“I think the whole idea of how much time does a school get to correct itself is a very important one and I’m going to need to be really reflective on it,” León said. “I’ve seen what closing schools does with people who do not feel that they were aware of it or a part of fixing it.”