The parental unit

Touting evals, StudentsFirstNY delivers its pitch to parents

Parents met last month with officials from StudentsFirstNY to listen to issues surrounding teacher evaluations.

In a packed room at the Marcy Library in Bedford-Stuyvesant on a Saturday morning last month, the message to a group of public school parents was abundantly clear: The way to improve their students’ education begins with a better teacher evaluation system.

Standing in the way, organizers said, was drawn out negotiations between the the city and its teachers union, which has been battling over terms of the evaluations for nearly two years.

“We need to be telling teachers we’re watching. UFT, we’re watching,” said Darlene Boston, a parent organizer for Families Taking Action, which hosted the event.

Families Taking Action is the parent-organizing arm of StudentsFirstNY, a well-funded education advocacy organization that launched in April to act as a counterweight to the influential teachers union during the upcoming mayoral campaign.

One area where the union’s influence has been particularly strong is in rallying communities to oppose budget cutsschool closures and charter school co-locations. It has funded citywide and local organizations to educate parents about the issues and turn them into activists.

But the union has not rallied parents around teacher evaluations, a thorny issue that some teachers view skeptically because of its prescribed model and reliance on test scores.

No one else has either, and that’s where StudentsFirstNY is stepping in.

To do that, StudentsFirstNY is beefing up its organizing infrastructure. It is hiring at least two organizers and paying people to train in month-long organizing academies.

The group has already hired parents to head chapters in parts of New York City that have the lowest-performing schools, and where dissatisfaction is the highest, said Tenicka Boyd, the group’s director of organizing. So far they have chapters in East Harlem, Bed-Stuy, Crown Heights, East New York and Brownsville.

Boyd said she hired Boston, a longtime resident of Bed-Stuy, in part because of her personal experiences with the school system’s failures. Two of her sons have dropped out of high school, Boyd said.

“She came with this passion for ed reform,” Boyd said.

Boston and StudentsFirstNY will have their work cut out for them. Seasoned organizers who have worked with parents around education say the reason that teacher evaluations have rarely been an issue for parent advocates is because it hasn’t resonated with them.

“It’s not the first thing that comes to parents’ minds when it comes to teacher quality,” said Megan Hester, a coordinator for the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, which supports the Coalition for Educational Justice. “What usually comes to mind is to help new teachers get better.”

That point was also raised at the meeting, where some parents said they believed teachers weren’t getting enough support.

“Half of these schools that they’re evaluating, they don’t have help,” said one parent. “They’re losing help. They don’t have no aides, they stick them in the classrooms with 25, 30 kids. Some of these kids are coming from broken homes. They’re coming from broken homes so they take up all the attention in the classroom.”

Anna Hall, StudentsFirstNY’s director of education, came to the meeting and spoke to parents about the complexities of teacher evaluations, a four-tiered rating system that weighs many teaching components differently. She said that the evaluations were intended to help teachers improve, but it was also a way to hold them more accountable than the system’s current model.

“A lot of people are getting satisfactory ratings, but we’re still not seeing the outcomes we should see in our classrooms,” Hall said. “So if our kids are still struggling and we still have schools that are failing, and we still have kids who are not getting promoted, then why are all of our teachers stil getting satisfactory ratings?”

The stakes are high too, Boston said. If an agreement is not reached by Jan. 17, she explained, the city stands to lose nearly $300 million in state aid, which Gov. Andrew Cuomo has promised to withhold from districts that did not strike deals on evaluations.

“This money’s at stake and we’re not even at the table,” Boston said at the meeting. She implored attendees to get involved in her group. “We’re not getting together and forming a cohesive group and letting them know, look, this is how we want things to go down.”


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.