Smile for the Camera

With "turnaround" now approved, a high school looks forward

Nico Ryan, a junior, (second from right), shows community members his winning design for a competition sponsored by the Partnership for Student Advocacy.

Juniors at the High School for Graphic Communication Arts have a lot on their minds this month. They are putting the finishing touches on photography and graphic design projects, planning their study schedule for Regents exams, and signing up for the SAT.

The handful of students who met this morning to show off posters they designed for a local advocacy organization did not rank the school’s impending “turnaround” high on their list of worries.

As hundreds of students and teachers rallied around the city to protest the Department of Education plan — approved last week — to abruptly close, reopen and rename 24 schools this year, Graphics remained virtually silent. City officials floating closing Graphics last year but backtracked on the idea after large groups of students and graduates made their case for the school’s future at a tense meeting with DOE officials. But at its turnaround hearing this spring, just 32 people signed up to speak, compared with nearly 200 at some other schools.

Lantigua Sime, a longtime assistant principal at the Hell’s Kitchen Career and Technical Education school, said the students have already accepted the turnaround and moved on.

“You didn’t see any protests, you didn’t hear any noise here because we’re moving forward,” Sime said. “Anyone who is on the bus is on the bus. Anyone who isn’t is already waiting for their next one.”

Piotr Nieznalski, a 2002 graduate of Graphics who has been teaching at the school for four years — first as a teacher in the now-phasing out printing program, then as a graphic design teacher — said he is upbeat about the news.

“We’re doing good things, they can’t stop good things from happening. That’s my way of thinking,” he said. “Hopefully they’ll see, because we’re doing these excellent things, there’s no reason to get rid of those things.”

Nieznalski said union representatives came to the school Monday afternoon to talk teachers through the contract requirements and the rehiring process. In the coming weeks principals at each of the schools will have to post job descriptions for each of the teaching positions, whether or not they plan to replace the current teachers.

Nieznalski was gathered with a dozen of his students and several other Graphics teachers on the second floor, where education advocate Mary Conway-Spiegel celebrated three students who won a competition she held to design posters and cards for her nonprofit, Partnership for Student Advocacy.

Sime said the competition was evidence of the internship-heavy CTE school’s commitment to giving students job experience, and getting their work viewed professionally.

“This is the tip of the iceberg. This is how we’re going to do our work from this September on, partnering with our community-based organizations,” Sime said. “Everything we do in this building is going to be based on real-world experience.”

“I’m positive about this,” said Jamie Striharsky, a junior in the photography program who placed third in the design competition. “The school’s given me so many opportunities, it’s great. I was looking for photography programs because my dad’s a photographer.”

Photography students from the High School for Graphic Communication Arts pose with teachers and community members, holding the posters they made.

Other photography students nodded in agreement. They said they are concerned about their teachers’ futures but are more focused on the schoolwork separating them from summer vacation.

Kiani Martinez, another junior, was one of just a few dozen Graphics students who attended the joint public hearing city officials held last month to hear feedback on the turnaround plan.

“I think turnaround is the worst thing that could happen to the school,” Martinez said. “It’s good to be funding the school more again, but there’s a chance that all these teachers and school officials are not going to be here. But they’ve been helping us since we were freshman. No one else could have that type of caring about us if they just came into the school.”

After the photo-op, one teacher swapped business cards with some of the community members and officials in attendance, half-joking that she needed the professional contacts, because, “I’ll be out of a job next year—or I think I’ll be. I’m collecting all the cards I can.”

The teacher, who asked not to be identified, told me morale has been low among teachers since the turnaround was first announced in January, and the school’s new principal, Brendan Lyons, has not spent much time in the teacher’s classroom.

“I am reapplying for my job, but I probably won’t get it,” the teacher added. “I’ve worked under six principals [at Graphics, over the past two decades]. That’s a way to screw up the school, isn’t it?”

Lyons was not at the meeting today. But he was open with GothamSchools earlier this year about his plans to improve the F-rated school, with or without the turnaround program and the extra $1.5 million federal dollars it could bring in.

“Every crisis is an opportunity,” Lyons said in January. “I’d like to show how our school is a model turnaround that other schools can learn from.”

Finding a home

Denver school board permanently co-locates charter elementary in middle school building

Students and staffers at Rocky Mountain Prep's first charter school in Denver cheer in 2012. (Photo by The Denver Post)

A Denver elementary charter school that was temporarily granted space in a shuttering district-run middle school building will now be housed there permanently.

The school board voted Thursday to permanently place Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest charter school in the Kepner Middle School building, where it is sharing space this year with three other school programs. Such co-locations can be controversial but have become more common in a district with skyrocketing real estate prices and ambitious school quality goals.

Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest is part of a homegrown charter network that has shown promising academic results. The network also has a school in Aurora and is expected to open a third Denver school next year in the northwest part of the city.

Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest was first placed at Kepner for the 2015-16 school year. The placement was supposed to be temporary. The district had decided the year before to phase out low-performing Kepner and replace it a new district-run middle school, Kepner Beacon, and a new charter middle school, STRIVE Prep Kepner, which is part of a larger network. The district also temporarily placed a third charter school there: Compass Academy.

Compass has since moved out of Kepner but the other four schools remain: Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest, Kepner Beacon, STRIVE Prep Kepner and the Kepner Legacy Middle School, which is on track to be completely phased out and closed by June 2019.

In a written recommendation to the school board, district officials acknowledged that permanently placing Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest at Kepner would create a space crunch.

The Kepner campus has the capacity to serve between 1,100 and 1,500 students, the recommendation says. Once all three schools reach full size, officials expect the schools will enroll a total of approximately 1,250 students. Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest currently serves students in preschool through third grade with a plan to add more grades.

“DPS facilities staff are currently working with all three schools to create a long‐term vision for the campus, including facility improvements that ensure all three schools have what they need to continue to excel,” says the recommendation from Chief Operating Officer David Suppes and Director of Operations and Support Services Liz Mendez.

District staff tried to find an alternate location for Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest but were unsuccessful, the recommendation says. The district does not have many available buildings, and competition for them among district-run and charter schools can be fierce. In northeast Denver, seven secondary schools are currently vying for the use of a shuttered elementary.

Future of Schools

Indianapolis needs tech workers. IPS hopes that George Washington will help fill that gap.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

Indiana companies are looking for workers with computer expertise, and Indianapolis Public Schools leaders want their students to fill that gap.

Next year, George Washington High School will launch a specialized information technology academy designed to give students the skills to pursue careers in IT — and the exposure to know what jobs even exist.

“Half of what kids aspire to be is either someone they know does it or they’ve seen it on TV,” said Karen Jung, president of Nextech, a nonprofit that works to increase computer science preparation in K-12 schools. Nextech is partnering with IPS to develop the new IT program at George Washington.

For teens who don’t know anyone working in computer science, meeting role models is essential, Jung said. When teens see women of color or artists working in computer sciences, they realize there are opportunities for people like them.

“Once we put them in front of and inside of workplaces … it clicks,” Jung said. They believe “they would belong.”

The IT program is one of three academies that will open in George Washington next year as part of a broad plan to close nearly half of the district’s high schools and add specialized focus areas at the four remaining campuses. In addition to the IT academy, George Washington will have programs in: advanced manufacturing, engineering, and logistics; and business and finance.

The district is also moving to a model without neighborhood high schools. Students will be expected to choose high schools based on focus area rather than location. This year, many current high schoolers were required to reapply in an effort to make sure they enroll in academies that fit their interests.

The district will host a showcase of schools to help parents and students with their selections. The showcase runs from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday at the Indiana State Museum.

Stan Law, principal of Arlington High School now, will take over George Washington next year. (Arlington will close at the end of this year.) He said the new academies offer an opportunity for students to see what they need to master — from soft skills to knowledge — to get good jobs when they graduate.

“I want kids to really make the connection of the purpose of high school,” Law said. “It is that foundation for the rest of your life, in terms of the quality of life that you are going to live.”

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Stan Law

When the IT academy launches next year, students who select the program will be able to spend about one to two classes per year focused on information technology, said Ben Carter, who runs career and technical education for IPS.

Carter hopes the academies will reshape George Washington and other IPS campuses by connecting potential careers with the work students do everyday at school. Students who share a focus area will be in a cohort, and they will share many of the same core classes such as English, math and history, said Carter. Teachers, in turn, will be able to relate what students are studying in their history class to projects they are working on in the IT program, for example.

To show students what a career in information technology might look like, students will have the chance to tour, connect with mentors and intern at local companies.

“If I’m in one of these career classes — I’m in software development, but then I get to go to Salesforce and walk through and see the environment, to me as a student, that’s inspiring,” said Carter. “It’s like, ‘oh, this is what I can have.’ ”

He added. “It increases engagement but also gives them a true sense of what the career is.”