the pitch

High schools that dodged closure try to woo new students at fair

A Long Island City High School student takes a break from his booth to meet an umbrella cockatoo from George Washington Carver High School.

The white cockatoo perched on a student’s shoulder during last weekend’s Citywide High School Fair was just one squawking example of the lengths schools go to set themselves apart from eighth-graders’ 500 other high school options.

But for a small group of schools, those that the Department of Education tried but failed to close, winning the affections of eighth-graders could mean the difference between life and death.

The schools were slated for an aggressive overhaul known as “turnaround” until an arbitrator ruled this summer that the process violated the city’s contract with the teachers union. Turnaround would have caused the schools to close and reopen with different names, teachers, and programs. The high school of another school, Manhattan’s Wadleigh Secondary School for the Performing Arts, was never at risk, but its reputation suffered when the city moved to shutter its middle school.

All of the schools are under pressure to demonstrate demand by December, when high school applications are due and when the Department of Education announces its annual school closure proposals. The department frequently cites low demand as a major reason for moving to close schools.

Many of the ex-turnaround schools already have lower-than-usual enrollment, after last year’s tumult, which started in the middle of the high school admissions progress. Many also now have new principals, programs, and organizational problems. Still, the staff and students who spoke to GothamSchools on the second day of the fair said they are putting their best foot forward.

Long Island City High School

During a brief lull in the fair on Sunday, juniors Arissa Hilario and Wendy Li took a break from waving families over to the Long Island City High School booth to admire Winter, an umbrella cockatoo from George Washington Carver High School making the rounds in the area for Queens schools.

They said their booth had been attracting prospective students but that some were confused about whether Long Island City, which was on the turnaround list, still exists.

“Some people do ask about it, but we told them how we fought for our school,” Li said, referring to a raucous closure hearing last spring in which students literally leapt to their school’s defense.

“People think that the school is bad because of the graduate rate, but we include students with disabilities” and many recent immigrants, she said.

Both said the new principal, Vivian Selenikas, has brought more structure and organization to the school by hiring more guidance counselors who follow students through their classes in several themed academies.

“She’s trying her best and really cares about the students,” Li said.

Wadleigh Secondary School

Guidance counselor Diane Ramirez made her case for Wadleigh Secondary School from the second floor of Brooklyn Technical High School, the site of the fair. Wadleigh’s middle school landed on the chopping block last year, but it was removed from the list at the last minute after high-profile supporters, including many Harlem political leaders, rallied to defend it.

“We’ve been open for a very long time, so the programs are the same. Visual arts, vocal music, drama,” Ramirez told the half-dozen families who paused at her booth shortly after noon on Sunday. She then described the performing arts school’s auditioning process, which asks students to sing, perform monologues or submit art portfolios.

The end of Wadleigh’s middle school program would have freed classroom space in the building, which also houses Frederick Douglass Academy II and a new charter school, Success Academy Harlem West.

Instead, Ramirez said space is tight on Wadleigh’s two floors, and the presence of the new charter school has induced some tensions.

“The children are noticing the difference between the charter school and our school,” she said. “The charter school is better looking than we are. It has better bathrooms.”

Alfred E. Smith Career and Technical Education High School

Alfred E. Smith escaped closure two years ago, when the city decided to shrink it to its most popular programs instead of shut it outright. But it landed on the chopping block again this year after the city chose it for turnaround. After an arbitrator’s ruling ended the turnaround plans, Smith and the 23 other turnaround schools had just weeks to prepare for the new school year.

Joseph Marcus, an automotive collision repair teacher entering his 28th year at Smith, said the year has been off to a promising start despite the recent changes, which include a new principal, Evan Schwartz.

“We’re still good because we have a positive outlook for the future,” he said. “When you get that new group of kids in September, looking to you for knowledge, that just builds [your mood] back up.”

“Smith is for anybody who likes the automotive trade. And anybody who likes working with their hands,” Marcus said, describing his pitch to families. “The skills they learn here are easily transferable to other trades. We provide an education that goes beyond automotive.”

Students painted Alfred E. Smith High School's logo onto the hood of a car.

He showed me a photo of the same car hood, emblazoned with Smith’s logo, that was on display during Smith’s turnaround hearing last spring. Students painted it themselves, Marcus explained.

“We do this type of stuff on a regular basis. It’s not hard to learn, but you have to believe you can do it,” he said.

Marcus said Smith’s dwindling enrollment and the reputation that two years on the city’s hit list have brought remain challenges.

This past year, “we had a few more students than we did last year — last year was a bad year, but it’s still not where we’d like it to be,” he said.

When a mother and her son stopped by, he made his case for the careers in automotive repair and technology that Smith’s CTE program would offer.

Smith teaches “how to be self-sufficient, make some money, get out of your parents’ house,” Marcus told the Bronx eighth-grader, who nodded along. “All good things.”

The mother wanted to know which team sports were offered. “All of them,” Marcus said.

August Martin High School

No families were checking out August Martin’s booth as the fair entered its last hour, but teacher Christopher Callahan stood by, ready to tout the positive changes that have arrived since the city installed a new principal as part of its later-abandoned turnaround plans.

At the top of the list, Callahan said, each student has been assigned an adviser who will track them until graduation.

“This gives parents and students a direct link to the high school,” he said. “They’re able to help them stay on track with graduation requirements and plan for their post-secondary education.”

When Gillian Smith was appointed principal of August Martin in an abrupt, mid-year leadership change, she said she would focus on improving the quality of teachers at the school by offering more professional development and more time for curriculum planning.

But Callahan said the turnaround left him and other teachers with less time to plan for the new year than they would have liked, because none knew if they would be returning to August Martin until mid-July. Yet recent changes to the academic programs, including the creation of themed academies, have met a positive reception, he said.

“There’s a stronger school spirit and community atmosphere here,” he said.

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.