won't back down

As city is urging, hurricane days prompt some to learn at home

Second-grader Jacob Stone and fourth-grader Thomas Daniel trick-or-treated in Harlem with Wanda Fisher.

As it became clear on Wednesday that city schools would not be able to reopen this week because of damage to the city’s infrastructure, concern deepened at the Department of Education.

The department has ramped up a push to toughen academic standards this year, and a week off eight weeks into the semester — even if the days are likely to be made up later — could set back those efforts.

So department officials started compiling worksheets, suggested study schedules, test preparation guides, and lists of television shows with educational merit for students in each grade. On Wednesday night, they emailed principals to ask them to send a message alerting families to the new resources.

“We know that you and your students are eager to get back to school, and we are working hard to reopen schools as soon as possible,” Deputy Chancellor Shael Polakow-Suransky wrote in the message to families, which schools without power could have difficulty distributing. “In the meantime, we are encouraging students and their parents to continue learning at home during this time away from school.”

He suggested that families look to a silver lining in this week’s storm clouds: “Extra time at home is an opportunity to begin or continue planning for your future after graduation,” he wrote.

It’s an approach that some families and schools have taken since early in the week, when Hurricane Sandy’s danger passed for the many New Yorkers living out of the flood zone and in areas that retained electrical power.

When her nephews finished the homework they brought home on Friday, Wanda Fisher said her husband started quizzing them on mental math problems.

“You did math, multiplication, subtraction, division,” Fisher reminded the boys, second-grader Jacob Stone and fourth-grader Thomas Daniel, as they trick-or-treated in Harlem on Wednesday afternoon.

“And then we did plus/minus, and addition,” Stone added. A second-grader at P.S. 200, Stone said he had spent the days since the storm “reading and watching TV and seeing the hurricane.”

Other parents said they also had pushed their children to go above and beyond the homework assignments they received last week.

“I want them to be safe, but I want them to keep up with their education, too,” said Rosy Lopez, whose son Joseph is in first grade in Harlem’s P.S. 46. She said she had made sure Joseph had tackled all of the work that his teachers had sent home, which included social studies, and math. Then he read books about pirates and the movie “Toy Story.”

Some schools were able to give families additional assignments to keep students busy and engaged with academics.

Ralph Martinez, the principal of P.S. 89 in the Bronx, said his teachers had posted new homework assignments and practice materials online using the program Jupiter Grade. But he said not every student has internet access at home.

Martinez, who said he was not concerned about his Bronxwood school building because of its elevated location, had driven into Manhattan on Wednesday with his two sons, who attend Catholic school, to buy ice and stock up on other supplies. They live in New Jersey and have been without power since Tuesday.

“Many of our teachers live in Rockland County. Fortunately they’re okay, but without light, like I am,” Martinez said. “We have been emailing each other back and forth, almost every day.”

Not every school had taken that approach as of Wednesday, and some that were most affected by the storm are not likely to be able to. Department officials said 200 school buildings were “not operational” because of the storm, including 86 that did not have power.

“Because our building is closed and because many staff members are dealing with power outages at home, there will be no online assignments emailed to students, as some parents have inquired,” Millennium High School told families on Wednesday. “We recommend that students take the opportunity to do review work and read until school reopens.”

Millennium is housed in a Lower Manhattan office building whose basement was flooded. The building’s management company informed the school that no one would be able to enter until Monday, according to an email sent to parents on Wednesday from the school’s parent coordinator on behalf of its interim principal, who she said did not have power.

For high school seniors, the days off come at an opportune time: Most colleges have their first application deadline this week. (Many colleges have extended the deadline for students affected by Sandy.)

Adelya Baimukhamedova, a senior at the High School of Environmental Studies, said she had taken the time so far to catch up on assignments and put the finishing touches on college applications. No teachers assigned new homework since Friday, she said, but “they sent emails to reschedule exams. And I’m caught up with my homework now.”

Dyani Lebron, a fifth-grader at Manhattan’s P.S. 116, also said she had not heard from her teachers this week. She finished her weekend homework on Saturday under the assumption that this week would be a regular school week, so for now, she has been reading “The Mysterious Benedict Society.”

Lebron was walking on the Upper West Side Wednesday afternoon with Jocelyn Alvarez, a senior at Norman Thomas High School, which is in the process of phasing out and now has only an 11th and 12th grade this year. Alvarez said she is worried the storm could deepen the school’s difficulties.

“It’s already very disorganized,” Alvarez said. “Classes, schedules, students mixed in with the wrong grade. There are students who are behind and need to catch up, and this hurricane has made it worse.”

At more thriving schools, some teachers found innovative ways to trouble-shoot the situation. At Stuyvesant High School, which is located next to the West Side Highway and currently does not have power, longtime computer science teacher Mike Zamansky resumed classes for some of his students on Wednesday by online Google chat.

About 40 students watched the class live and others watched a recorded video afterwards, said Zamansky, who documented the experience on his blog.

“People keep talking about recorded lectures … but if anything, today’s experience just confirms to me that there’s nothing like an in-class teacher, particularly with a small group of students,” Zamansky wrote. “That said, I think this was a good experience and my students seem to agree. We spent part of an otherwise unproductive day in a productive manner and we’re planning on doing it again tomorrow.”

Election Forum

Tennesseans are about to get their first good look at candidates for governor on education

PHOTO: TN.gov
Former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen speaks as his successor, Gov. Bill Haslam, listens during a 2017 forum hosted by the State Collaborative on Reforming Education. Tennesseans will elect their next governor in November.

For almost 16 years, two Tennessee governors from two different political parties have worked off mostly the same playbook when it comes to K-12 education.

This year, voters will choose a new governor who will determine if that playbook stays intact — or takes a different direction from the administrations of Bill Haslam, a Republican leaving office next January, and Phil Bredesen, the Democrat who preceded him.

Voters will get to hear from all but one of the major candidates Tuesday evening during the first gubernatorial forum televised statewide. Organizers say the spotlight on education is fitting since, based on one poll, it’s considered one of the top three issues facing Tennessee’s next governor. Both K-12 and higher education are on the table.

Candidates participating are:

  • Mae Beavers, a Republican from Mt. Juliet and former Tennessee state senator;
  • Randy Boyd, a Republican from Knoxville and former commissioner of Economic and Community Development and a Republican from Knoxville;
  • Karl Dean, a Democrat and former mayor of Nashville;
  • Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, a Democrat from Ripley and minority leader in the Tennessee House of Representatives;
  • Rep. Beth Harwell, a Republican from Nashville and speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives;
  • Bill Lee, a Republican businessman from Williamson County

The seventh major candidate, U.S. Rep. Diane Black, a Republican from Gallatin, is in the midst of a congressional session in Washington, D.C.

The next governor will help decide whether Tennessee will stay the course under its massive overhaul of K-12 education initiated under Bredesen’s watch. The work was jump-started by the state’s $500 million federal Race to the Top award, for which Tennessee agreed to adopt the Common Core academic standards for math and English; incorporate students’ scores from standardized tests in annual teacher evaluations; and establish a state-run turnaround district to intervene in low-performing schools at an unprecedented level.

Tennessee has since enjoyed steady student growth and watched its national rankings rise, but the transition hasn’t been pain-free. Pushback on its heavy-handed turnaround district led to changes in school improvement strategies. Leaders also ordered new academic standards due to political backlash over the Common Core (though the revised standards are still basically grounded in Common Core).

A major issue now is whether the next governor and legislature will retain Tennessee’s across-the-board system of accountability for students, teachers, schools and districts. Snafus and outright failures with TNReady, the new standardized test that serves as the lynchpin, have prompted some calls to make the assessment just a diagnostic tool or scrap it altogether. Haslam and his leadership team have stood firm.

“We as Tennesseans made the right call — the tough call — on the policies we’ve pursued,” Education Commissioner Candice McQueen told Chalkbeat recently. “Nearly every other state has compromised in some way on some of these core foundational components of policy work, and we have not.”

The State Collaborative on Reforming Education, an advocacy group that works closely with Tennessee’s Department of Education, is a co-host of Tuesday’s forum. Known as SCORE, the group has sought to shape the election-year conversation with priorities that include teacher quality, improving literacy, and developing school leaders — all outgrowths of learnings during Tennessee’s Race to the Top era.

SCORE President David Mansouri said the goal is to maintain the momentum of historic gains in student achievement from the last decade. “The next administration’s education policy decisions will be crucial in determining whether Tennessee students continue to progress faster than students in other states and whether they graduate ready for postsecondary success,” he said Monday.

The one-hour forum will delve into a range of issues. College and career readiness, education equity, and school funding will be among the topics broached before each candidate is allowed a one-minute closing statement, according to David Plazas, a Tennessean editor who will help moderate the discussion.

“It will be really exciting,” Plazas promised. “We’re hoping the candidates are prepared to talk substantively on the issues and to avoid slogans.”

The event begins at 7 p.m. CT at Nashville’s Belmont University. Along with SCORE, it’s being co-hosted by USA TODAY NETWORK and Nashville’s NewsChannel 5. You can livestream the event here and learn more about attending or watching here.

Tennessee’s primary election is set for Aug. 2, with the general election on Nov. 6.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at [email protected]

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede