School leaders enumerate challenges on the eve of the new year

Chancellor Dennis Walcott visited the School of the Future to hear from department chairs about citywide education policy reforms.

Most classrooms were set up and schedules finalized at M.S. 223 in the Bronx this morning, 24 hours before students would arrive for the first day of school.

But teachers still needed to meet to review the lesson plans they are aligning to the state’s new curriculum standards, the Common Core. As they finished their breakfast and got to work, they were joined by Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott and his top deputy, Shael Polakow-Suransky, on the first of their two school visits today.

Walcott gave the teachers a quick pep talk before sitting in on their training sessions. But he cautioned that the school’s past successes — which include a strong arts program, summer classes, and a New York Times Magazine profile — were not enough.

“I think this is a tremendous school. You’ve had major accomplishments,” Walcott said. “We need to make sure we model what you’re doing and also improve on that performance as well.”

Like all city schools, M.S. 223 is contending with the new standards, looming changes to state tests, and citywide special education reforms aimed at better integrating students with disabilities.

Today, the teachers focused on a small piece of the sweeping changes: developing performance tasks, or assessments that reflect the Common Core’s emphasis on real-world applications of classroom learning.

“[This] is probably one of the most difficult pieces of the puzzle,” Principal Ramon Gonzalez told reporters. “It’s difficult to think about six-week lessons that build up to a performance task, but it impacts everything the teachers are doing before that. And the Common Core has really pushed this agenda forward.”

Ashley Downs, the school’s special education coordinator, said the English department has set personalizing instruction as a top goal. “We’ve spent a lot of time trying to work with teachers to move away from whole-group mini-lessons to more specific, individual, one-on-one or small group conferences,” she said.

In one classroom, Heather Burns, the school’s literacy coach, was guiding English language arts teachers on how to use a rubric to help students become better writers.

The stakes are high: This year’s state tests will focus more heavily on essays than on multiple-choice questions.

“This spring there’s going to be a lot more nonfiction, and generally they’re making the tests much much harder — very different than the difficulty level we’ve seen in the past few years,” Polakow-Suransky told reporters.

“Chancellor [Merryl] Tisch has said we will see the results,” Walcott said about the state education official who helped engineer the changes to the exams. “They’re not going to necessarily be positive.”

Walcott talks to teachers at M.S. 223 while principal Ramon Gonzalez looks on.

After 90 minutes bouncing among M.S. 223’s academic department meetings, the pair sped downtown to visit another school: School of the Future, a secondary school where students are not required to take most state exams required for graduation.

While teachers waited for their guests to arrive, some discussed a set of major policy changes that are affect only high schools. In February, the Department of Education announced it would tighten the way high schools award credits and assign students to classes.

So for the first time, School of the Future and other high schools won’t be able to let seniors who are close to graduation take shortened schedules.

Because students have flexibility around state exams, School of the Future won’t have to deal with some of the acute scheduling challenges that some high schools are facing, according to Sarah Kaufman, who is spending the year at the school to learn how to be a principal.

But the school is still making some adjustments. For years, the school used an early dismissal on Thursday afternoons for professional development and also to allow students work at their internships, which are an integral part of the school, Kaufman said.

“It was great for our seniors,” she said.

Now, instead of the early dismissal, the school will hold a study hall where students will be able to work on class assignments and get help with college essays and resume writing.

Once Walcott and Polakow-Suransky arrived, the conversation quickly shifted to the city’s special education reforms, which department officials have touted much more widely than the high school policy changes. This year, schools are being required to accept students regardless of their disabilities as part of a push to create more inclusive education settings. The changes are causing anxiety and tension at some schools, but School of the Future teachers said they are prepared for the shift.

“Our school has always used an inclusion model, so it’ll be a smooth transition,” said Whitney Lukens, the school’s special education department chair, a 13-year teaching veteran. “It won’t be as hard for people to wrap their heads around the changes.”

Before he left, Walcott acknowledged the challenges facing a secondary school like the School of the Future, which loses many of its students in eighth grade and enrolls new ones in ninth grade.

“You have a monumental task in front of you,” he said. “But I know you guys are going to do it.”

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”

moving forward

After Confederate flag dispute at Colorado football game, schools pledge to bring students together

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty
Manual High students.

Acknowledging “we may never have a conclusive picture of what happened,” two Colorado school districts sought to move past a controversy over whether a Confederate flag was displayed at a football game and open a conversation between the two school communities.

The principal of Manual High, Nick Dawkins, wrote in a community letter over the weekend that the visiting Weld Central High School team “displayed a Confederate flag during the first quarter of the (Friday night) game, offending many members of the Manual community.”

Officials from Denver Public Schools and Weld County School District Re-3J released a joint letter Tuesday saying that based “on what we have learned to date, however, the Weld Central team did not display the Confederate flag.” At the same time, it said, multiple Manual eyewitnesses “reported seeing spectators who attempted to bring a Confederate flag into the game and clothing with flag images.”

Going forward, students from the two schools — one rural and one urban — will participate in a student leadership exchange that has student leaders visit each other’s schools and communities to “share ideas and perspectives,” the letter says.

“At a time in our country when so many are divided, we want our students instead to come together, share ideas and learn together,” says the letter, which is signed by the principals of both schools and the superintendents of both school districts.

The alleged incident took place at a time when issues of race, social injustice, politics and sports are colliding in the United States, making for tough conversations, including in classrooms.

Weld Central’s mascot is a Rebel. Manual, whose mascot is the Thunderbolts, is located in one of Denver’s historically African-American neighborhoods.

Dawkins in his initial community letter also said “the tension created by the flag led to conflict on and off the playing field,” and that three Manual players were injured, including one who went to the hospital with a leg injury. He also said some Manual players reported that Weld Central players “taunted them with racial slurs.”

Weld Central officials vehemently denied that their team displayed the flag. In addition, they said in their own community letter they had “no evidence at this point that any of our student athletes displayed racially motivated inappropriate behavior.”

They said district officials “do not condone any form of racism,” including the Confederate flag.

Weld Central fans told the Greeley Tribune that they didn’t see any Confederate flag.

Read the full text below.