academic performance

'Roundtable' discussions put students and teachers on the spot

Students discussed foreign policy during roundtable discussions at East Side Community High School.

While students across the city hunkered over bubble sheets and short answer questions during last month’s Regents exam period, seniors at East Side Community High School were deep in conversation.

In one corner of Ben Wides’s American Foreign Policy classroom, two students huddled with a university professor talking about the role of altruism in foreign policy. Three desks over, another group discussed the role of public opinion in policy decisions, and across the room, a student told a student teacher why he found the Mexican-American War so interesting.

The conversations were part of “roundtable” discussions that are a crucial early step in East Side’s assessment program. As a member of the New York Performance Standards Consortium, the school exempts students from most of the exams the state requires for high school graduation. The students instead demonstrate competency by completing extensive research projects and presenting their findings to teachers and outside evaluators.

Wides’s students will write and defend original historical research papers at the end of the year in a process that he likened to a graduate thesis defense. Last month’s roundtables gave students an opportunity to practice discussing class material and defending their interpretations, he said, and they also gave him one more way to gauge mid–year what material still hadn’t sunk in.

“The idea is really being able to use information, to dig deep into text and things that you’ve learned, and then being able to use that information to make arguments, to back them up, and to be part of an adult, mature dialogue,” Wides said.

Currently, just 24 city high schools belong to the performance standards consortium, out of more than 500 in total. But performance assessments seem poised to arrive at more schools soon, particularly as pushback against standardized testing mounts and the new Common Core standards require that students be able to stake out positions and support them with evidence.

The city could also use performance assessments in addition to other exams to satisfy the “local assessments” portion of required teacher evaluations. Some policymakers, including City Council Speaker and mayoral candidate Christine Quinn, are pushing for more schools to adopt non-test-based assessment systems.

East Side Principal Mark Federman said he thinks meeting the standards set by Regents exams do not ensure that students will succeed in college and beyond.

“Throughout the semester, [East Side Students] know they’re going to talk in public, they’re going to be accountable to strangers,” he said. Students who start at East Side in sixth grade have presented their work to outsiders more than 50 times by graduation.

In Wides’s classroom, students discussed foreign policy with a CUNY professor, two East Side teachers, three student teachers, a consultant on peer mediation, a graduate student, a paraprofessional, and a teacher from another school whose classes were suspended for Regents week.

Speaking with a classmate and the professor, one student argued that altruism is a nice idea, but it is unrealistic to expect governments to make foreign policy decisions based on anything but their own best interests. Even decisions that look altruistic might not be, she said: The government decides whether to enter a war “based on what they think is best, but they cover it up with a story that would be acceptable to the public.”

The other student pushed back, arguing that altruism should play a role in shaping foreign policy. Wides asked for a hypothetical example of what an altruistic foreign policy decision would look like. “If the U.S. had entered World War II earlier, because so many people were suffering, then that would have been an example of altruism,” the student suggested.

Not every conversation reflected the same level of engagement. In a talk about public opinion on foreign policy, one student struggled to explain the relationship between the two.

“He wasn’t right there saying, what the public thinks matters because they elect the leadership in a democracy. He got there, but he got there through a lot of prompting,” Wides said. “That was a little painful for me, but that was also good feedback. It was valuable for me to hear that a relatively strong student wasn’t making that connection as facilely as I would have liked.”

He said he would revisit the topic in the second semester but would not count the challenge against the student. Unlike regular classwork and end-of-year historical research papers, roundtables are not meant to test students’ knowledge of specific facts.

“This does not substitute to me as an assessment,” he said. “What students are assessed on in the class is the work that’s in their portfolio…I’m not using the roundtable to figure out what kids know.”

Wides said the roundtables also keep teachers on their toes, because in addition to observing his students, “guests are in here observing me.” Teachers acting as guests in each other’s roundtables offer feedback and take notes on what they might do in their own classrooms. They also see how their colleagues are grading student work, preventing teachers from adopting wildly disparate grading scales.

In preparation for the roundtables, each student wrote a cover letter, which guests read alongside student portfolios just before engaging in conversation. In the cover letters, students made historical arguments and drew connections using examples from class material. They also offered personal reflections on their experiences in the class, which became part of their conversations.

“You wrote a lot of criticism, a lot of self criticism, which I thought was really wonderful to be that candid about saying, well, I wasn’t really organized,” Matthew Guilden, a former East Side dean who now consults on discipline and peer mediation with the school, told a student. “How are you going to fix that? Because you’re going to go to college next year.”

East Side senior Gabriella Castillo said after the class that roundtables push her to organize her thoughts and review what she learned during the whole first semester.

“I think if it’s a test, I’ll probably just make flash cards, memorize a few dates, and then it’s over,” she said. “But when you really get to discuss something, discuss all these topics that you’ve learned about and researched and stuff, this knowledge is going to come with you forever. Even right now, I’m still thinking about some questions that they asked me.”

Wides said the roundtable help him explain to students why they are learning certain topics.

“In a lot of schools, the answer is you’re learning this because it’s going to be on the Regents,” he said. He described a “Countdown to the Test” poster displayed prominently at Norman Thomas High School, where East Side was relocated for several months this year due to structural issues with the building.

“Here, I can say, you need to learn this because someone’s going to ask you about that at the roundtable,” he said. “But what that really means is that some adult is going to come in and take an interest in your ability to answer a real question, take a moral stand, or have a really thoughtful idea about cause and effect in history.”


pre-k for all

New York City will add dual language options in pre-K to attract parents and encourage diversity

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, back right, visits a Mandarin pre-K dual language program at P.S. 20 Anna Silver on the Lower East Side.

Education Department officials on Wednesday announced the addition of 33 dual language pre-K programs in the 2018-19 school year, more than doubling the bilingual opportunities available for New York City’s youngest learners.

The expansion continues an aggressive push under the current administration, which has added 150 new bilingual programs to date. Popular with parents — there were 2,900 applications for about 600 pre-K dual language seats last year — the programs can also be effective in boosting the performance of students who are learning English as a new language.

Another possible benefit: creating more diverse pre-K classrooms, which research has shown are starkly segregated in New York City.

Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña said the new programs reflect the city’s commitment to serving all students, even as a national debate rages over immigration reform.

“It’s important to understand that immigrants or people who speak a second language are an asset,” Fariña said. She called bilingual education “a gift that I think all schools should have.”

Included in the expansion are the city’s first dual language pre-K programs in Bengali and Russian, which will open in Jamaica, Queens, and the Upper West Side, Manhattan, respectively. The other additions will build on programs in Spanish, Mandarin and Italian. Every borough is represented in the expansion, with 11 new programs in Manhattan, nine in Brooklyn, six in Queens, five in the Bronx, and two on Staten Island.

In the dual-language model, students split their time between instruction in English and another language. At P.S. 20 Anna Silver, where the recent expansion was announced, pre-K students start the morning in English and transition to Mandarin after nap time. Experts say the model works best when the class includes an equal mix of students who are proficient in each language so they can learn from each other as well as the teacher, though it can often be difficult to strike that balance.

Officials and some advocates view dual-language programs as a tool for integration by drawing middle-class families eager to have their children speak two languages into neighborhood schools that they otherwise may not have considered. Research has shown that New York City’s pre-K classrooms tend to be more segregated than kindergarten. In one in six pre-K classrooms, more than 90 percent of students are from a single racial or ethnic background. That’s compared with one in eight kindergarten classrooms, according to a 2016 report by The Century Foundation.

Sharon Stapel, a mother from Brooklyn, said she knew early on that she wanted her daughter to learn another language and strike relationships across cultures. So she travels to the Lower East Side with her four-year-old, Finch, to attend the Mandarin dual-language pre-K program at P.S. 20 Anna Silver. On Wednesday, the city announced it will add a Spanish dual language program at the school.

“We really see it as how you build community with your neighbors and your friends,” Stapel said. “It was also an opportunity for Finch to become involved and engage in the cultures and in the differences that she could see in the classrooms — and really celebrate that difference.”

Citywide, about 13 percent of students are learning English as a new language. That number does not include pre-K since the state does not have a way to identify students’ language status before kindergarten. However, based on census data, it is estimated that 30 percent of three- and four-year-olds in New York are English learners.

Dual-language programs can benefit students who are still learning English — more so than English-only instruction. Nationally and in New York City, students who are learning English are less likely to pass standardized tests and graduate from high school. In one study, students who enrolled in dual-language courses in kindergarten gained the equivalent of one year of reading instruction by eighth grade, compared with their peers who received English-only instruction.

The city has been under pressure to improve outcomes for English learners. Under the previous administration, New York City was placed on a state “corrective action plan” that required the education department to open 125 new bilingual programs by 2013. Though the city fell short of that goal, the current administration has agreed to place every English learner in a bilingual program by the 2018-19 school year.

Among the greatest barriers to achieving that is finding qualified teachers, Fariña said. In some cases, it can be hard to find teachers who are fluent in the target language. In others, teachers who are native in a foreign language may only be certified in their home country, and it can be hard to transfer that certification to New York.

In order to open an Urdu program recently, Fariña said, the teacher, who holds a degree from another country, went through Teaching Fellows, an alternative certification program that usually caters to career-changers or recent college grads.

“I think the biggest challenge we have right now is ensuring our teacher preparation courses are keeping up with our need and demand for teachers who can teach another language,” she said.

college plans

As Washington decides their fate, ‘Dreamers’ preparing for college are stuck in limbo

PHOTO: Joe Amon/The Denver Post
Randi Smith, a psychology teacher at Metro State University, marched to support Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals during a citywide walkout in downtown Denver, CO.

While many high schoolers spend spring of their senior year coasting through classes and waiting to hear back from colleges, undocumented students who hope to attend college spend their time calling lawyers, consulting school counselors, and scouring the internet in search of ways to pay for school without the help of federal financial aid or student loans — assuming they even get in.

That process, anxiety-provoking even in a normal year, has become incalculably more chaotic this admissions season — even traumatic — as these young undocumented immigrants watch President Trump and lawmakers wrangle over Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the program that has until now allowed them to remain in the country without having to fear deportation.

As the policy battle nears a climax, these students aren’t just breathlessly waiting to learn whether they’ll be accepted into college — they’re waiting to see whether they have a future in this country.

“It’s different for me. It’s definitely more stressful and there are times when you want to give up,” said an undocumented student at KIPP NYC College Prep High School, who is graduating this year and applying to colleges. She requested anonymity because of her legal status. “But then I remind myself that regardless of what’s going on, I’m still going to do what I’ve set myself to do.”

High school counselors are also feeling the strain. They already faced the difficult task of helping undocumented students compete for private scholarships, and finding schools that will support those students once they’re on campus. Now those counselors also must monitor each twist and turn of the immigration debate in Washington, while, somehow, trying to keep their undocumented students focused on college.

One of those counselors is John Kearney, who works at Guadalupe Centers Alta Vista High School, a charter school in Kansas City, Missouri. Dozens of his soon-to-graduate students are beneficiaries of DACA, a program created under former President Obama that allows undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country as children to avoid deportation and work here legally. Lately, they have been asking him why they should even consider college when their fate in the U.S. is so uncertain.

“The big question is, ‘Why? Why go to college, and then I can’t even work, then why?’” said Kearney, who also helped start a nonprofit that provides scholarships to undocumented students. “It’s a really tough question.”

As of Friday, President Trump and lawmakers were still locked in heated negotiations over DACA, which Trump said this fall that he would eliminate unless Congress enshrined it in law. Without an agreement, it is set to expire March 5, just as graduating seniors firm up their college plans. If that happens, young immigrants, often called Dreamers, could lose the few crucial protections they have. For many, their DACA status has already lapsed.

Even with DACA’s protections, Dreamers face massive hurdles to enroll in college: They don’t qualify for federal aid or loans, and, in some states, are barred from receiving financial aid or even attending public universities. Out of the estimated 65,000 undocumented students who graduate from high school every year, only 5-10 percent enroll in college.

Following Trump’s announcement in September, counselors have also had to race against the clock counting down to DACA’s expiration: That meant juggling college application deadlines with the October cutoff for students to apply for renewed DACA status.

The KIPP charter school network received a donation this year to help students pay for the renewal fee, which has been a godsend for many students — including the young woman who is graduating from KIPP NYC College Prep High School.

As soon as she learned the school would pay the fee for her, she immediately called her father, who is also undocumented and repairs beauty-salon equipment for a living.

“My dad was definitely trying to round up the money before the deadline, so it was a blessing that the school was able to find a donor,” she said. “I told him not to worry about it and it was a relief — like a weight off his shoulders.”

If the girl was trying to relieve her father’s stress, her college counselor, Rob Santos, was trying to do the same for her. Even as she balanced college-application essays, transcripts, and the rest, she was also coming to realize how quickly her life would change if DACA is not extended.

“There was definitely extra emotional support that I’ve had to provide this year,” Santos said. “I definitely had my DACA student in my office, and tears were happening.”

Santos keeps a running list of the colleges that accept students who don’t have permanent legal status and the few scholarships available to them. Many of those scholarships require undocumented students to have DACA status. If the program ends, it’s unclear whether students will still be eligible.

Still, Santos said his dreamer student rarely talks about the political furor surrounding her future in the U.S. as she awaits her college-acceptance letter. Instead, she’s more likely to discuss her hope of one day studying business and fashion.

“Our DACA students are resilient. They’re optimistic,” Santos said. “But they’re also realistic for what could actually happen.”