on the road again

Charter transfer school helps students overcome past struggles

sam

In the self portrait, her wild, curly blonde hair is tousled to one side of her face, the two sharp arrows from her lip ring poke out the left corner of her mouth and her eyebrows arch upward in a look of skepticism.

Samantha Morales said drawing this picture was the hardest thing she’s ever done.

“I was backing out of it so many times because in the picture I had curly hair, and it was really hard to draw,” she said. “But it made me learn not to give up on anything.”

Morales is a student at ROADS Charter School 2 in the Bronx, a charter transfer school that enrolls 15- to 17-year-olds who are overage and under-credited and have either been homeless, in jail, in foster care or child protective services, or who have dropped out of high school.

ROADS, which stands for Reinventing Options for Adolescents who Deserve Success, opened last fall in the South Bronx and in East New York at a time when many charter schools face criticism for not serving the high-need students that ROADS accepts. The New York City Charter School Center, which is in the midst of a campaign to improve public perception of charter schools, will show off the students’ artwork at its headquarters today at 6 p.m.

The art project — which also asked students to complete the statements “I was … I am … I will be …” in writing — is just one of the many strategies that ROADS is using to help its students overcome past struggles to aspire toward goals such as graduating, going to college, and building a career.

“We’re trying to do something other schools can’t do with these kids,” said ROADS algebra teacher Abbas Manjee, who used to teach at a district transfer school on the Upper West Side.

The school has adopted instructional approaches that accommodate students’ persistent attendance issues; built a robust staff of non-teachers whose job is to support students; and rethought the traditional school schedule to maximize the social and emotional support that students receive.

Principal Seth Litt, who was born and raised in the Bronx and used to be the principal of a nearby middle school, said striking the balance between support and high expectations is sometimes challenging. Unusual among transfer schools, ROADS accepts students who have zero high school credits, and the average student comes in reading at a fifth-grade level and doing math at a fourth-grade level.

“Our students for the most part are struggling learners, and they’re overage,” he said. “The clock is ticking really loudly for them.”

The wide range of students’ skills is one reason ROADS uses outcomes-based grading. Instead of considering students successful if they have simply proceeded through a textbook from beginning to end, each class has 10 outcomes, a stepladder of learning objectives that students must master to pass the class. Litt said the arrangement allows for more individualized learning and for teachers to intervene early on when they see students aren’t understanding a certain concept. It also helps with students who miss class a lot.

“Just because they’re at ROADS doesn’t mean that, especially in their first year, that all the things in their lives have changed,” Litt said.

Examples of that sensitivity were apparent in Manjee’s algebra class one recent day. He had two different assignments for students on his SMART Board, labeled “If you were present Friday” and “If you were absent Friday.”

“We have to adapt to their lives if we expect them to adapt to the system that we’ve created for them,” Manjee said. “And right now the system we’ve created for them doesn’t work for them. If they want to agree with these things that we set up as a society, we need to meet them halfway.” 

In another algebra class, students wearing headphones sat at computers watching a 28-minute video of a math lesson recorded by their teacher Emily Buxbaum. She said she originally created the videos so that students who were absent could catch up on lessons they missed, but it turned out it was helpful for all students to learn at their own pace and pause and replay something when they didn’t understand it.

In an English class a couple doors down on the one-hallway school, which shares space with two other transfer schools, teacher Melissa Giroux showed students a video clip of CNN’s Anderson Cooper hosting a debate about whether women should fight in combat. Posing questions such as “What makes an argument successful?” Giroux asked students to identify each debater’s claim, evidence, and reasoning.

The lesson echoes one of the real-life lessons that Manjee said the school tries to teach students.

“Instead of getting louder than your opponent … you want to beat your opponent with knowledge and not a Jerry Springer-style battle where the loudest person wins,” he said.

There are 13 teachers at ROADS and seven additional people called “team advisors” who act as case workers and help students communicate with child welfare services and their probation officers.

“They’re like our second parents. They really motivate us,” said Elisha Owens, 16, said about the advisors.

“They’re like older brothers and sisters,” said Anthony Reddick, 17. Morales piped in, “Like therapists!”

“They always find a way to give you the time of day,” Owens said.

“Teachers shouldn’t even be stressing about that stuff anyway,” Morales said. “They should just be…”

“Teachers,” Reddick said, finishing Morales’ sentence.

“Yeah, exactly,” Morales said.

But the extra staff doesn’t mean that teachers aren’t involved in their students’ lives. Manjee is helping to pilot a new program where each teacher will be assigned to four sets of students and get a whole day every two weeks to take them out of school on field trips. The trips are about establishing a personal connection with students outside the classroom and so that the roles of teachers and counselors don’t become too separated, Manjee said.

“The kids figured out that if we split up so many of these roles, people aren’t doing a good job of communicating and no one can hold me accountable for anything,” he said.

For many students, school staff said, their school is holding them accountable for their grades and behavior for the first time. Lakota Leijon, the director of students services who has worked as a social worker, recounted one of the first times that her students saw her angry. A group of them had misbehaved and Litt wanted to send them home as punishment, but Leijon said no.

“Send them home to what? To play video games? They’ll probably hang out on the corner. I said, ‘No, they need to stay,'” she said. “I need them to start learning what it feels like when someone who’s been believing in you, who’s been your number one advocate, when you’ve let them down.”

Leijon’s faith in her students makes her give them, what she calls, “real talk.”

“A lot of students thought if they don’t pass [ROADS] that’s ok, I’ll just get my GED,” she said, referring to the exam that can be taken to demonstrate high school equivalency. “I said guys, a GED is four years of high school crammed into a two-day test. If you’re at a fourth-grade reading level, you’re not going to pass.”

It’s this kind of honesty that students at ROADS appreciate after being passed at each grade level, but knowing they weren’t really learning anything, Litt said.

“They’re not going to get angry if someone says you need support that isn’t high school work,” the principal said. “They’re tired of people lying to them and giving them work that just keeps them busy in class.”

Getting through to students can require some reframing for teachers. Lisa Barnshaw, the art teacher who assigned the self-portrait art project, said Morales had gotten so frustrated with her drawing, which was divided into a grid, that she was talking the whole time in class and not working on it. Then one day, Barnshaw sat down with Morales and offered to do one square of the drawing.

“I extended the edge of each line into the next box. And she looked at me and was like, okay, thanks, I think I got it and then took off,” Barnshaw said. “I always had that mentality I’m not going to put my hands on a student’s artwork, but if what they need is just a little bit of a boost, I’m willing to make compromises if it’s going to help make that kid be successful.”

Morales spent nine hours over two days to finish her project.

“They thought they couldn’t do something. They worked hard at it, and they got it done. It’s such a huge microcosm for their lives,” Barnshaw said.

While the students have made a lot of progress this year, Litt said he recognizes that they and the school have major challenges ahead.

“It’s a transition from community and culture to making sure our students compete with students anywhere. I’m very proud of where we are right now. It took a lot of work from a lot of adults and a lot of trust from students,” he said. “We have to maintain what we’ve done this year and just make sure we’re adding on to it … We have to demand and support students to be academically excellent.”

This evening, Morales and a few other ROADS students will be speaking at the art show. She’ll be delivering a spoken word poem that recounts her path to ROADS after being suspended for fighting at her previous school.

“The things you’ll hear from us, you’d never hear from a teenager,” said Morales, who transferred from a performing arts high school in Harlem. “But I just want people to see that we are kids willing to make a change, we are kids that want to be the future for our country. … We don’t want to be the same statistic of a high school dropout.”

Samantha Morales’s poem

Things i seened at my age are unimaginable
the memories that flash back in my head are unforgetable.
Boogie down bronx, 17 years young,
alcoholic parents, getting bullied wasnt fun.
High school days was the highlight of my life.
Did wrong things ended up in fights.
Suspension was crazy, they said i needed a new start,
things will get better if i believed in my art.
Wasn’t feeling the vibe at first ,
first day of school of course thinking the worst.
Thinking – kids like me , No way im out
One more slip up , im a drop out without a doubt.
But I knew I couldnt label myself as that, thats not me.
I needed to be able to successed.
Im a dancer , Im a leader
So yes , definately Roads was the answer.
I came across on not judging so fast, got to focus on the future
not on the past.
And at last , people that believed in me ; teachers i can talk to and tell me i can achieve –
Cuz its a hard knocks life and life will get rough –
I just hope you see what ROADS done for us.

first steps

Superintendent León secures leadership team, navigates evolving relationship with board

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Superintendent Roger León at Tuesday's school board meeting.

As Newark’s new superintendent prepares for the coming academic year, the school board approved the final members of his leadership team Tuesday and began piecing together a roadmap to guide his work.

The board confirmed three assistant superintendents chosen by Superintendent Roger León: Jose Fuentes, the principal of First Avenue School in the North Ward; Sandra Rodriguez, a Hoboken principal who previously oversaw Newark Public Schools’ early childhood office; and Mario Santos, principal of East Side High School in the East Ward. They join three other assistant superintendents León selected for his team, along with a deputy superintendent, chief of staff, and several other officials.

The three assistant superintendents confirmed Tuesday had first come before the board in June, but at that time none of them secured enough votes to be approved. During last month’s meeting, the board assented to several of León’s leadership picks and to his decision to remove many people from the district’s central office, but it also blocked him from ousting several people.

This week, Board Chair Josephine Garcia declined to comment on the board’s reversal, and León did not respond to a request for comment.

What is clear is that the board and León are still navigating their relationship.

In February, the board regained local control of the district 22 years after the state seized control of the district due to poor performance and mismanagement. The return to local control put the board back in charge of setting district policy and hiring the superintendent, who previously answered only to the state. Still, the superintendent, not the board, is responsible for overseeing the district’s day-to-day operations.

During a board discussion Tuesday, Garcia hinted at that delicate balance of power.

“Now that we’re board members, we want to make sure that, of course, yes, we’re going to have input and implementation,” but that they don’t overstep their authority, she said.

Under state rules, the board is expected to develop district goals and policies, which the superintendent is responsible for acting on. But León — a former principal who spent the past decade serving as an assistant superintendent — has his own vision for the district, which he hopes to convince the board to support, he said in a recent interview on NJTV.

“It’s my responsibility as the new superintendent of schools to compel them to assist the district moving in the direction that I see as appropriate,” he said.

Another matter still being ironed out by the board and superintendent is communication.

León did not notify the full board before moving to force out 31 district officials and administrators, which upset some members. And he told charter school leaders in a closed-door meeting that he plans to keep intact the single enrollment system for district and charter schools — a controversial policy the board is still reviewing.

The district has yet to make a formal announcement about the staff shake-up, including the appointment of León’s new leadership team. And when the board voted on the new assistant superintendents Tuesday, it used only the appointed officials’ initials — not their full names. However, board member Leah Owens stated the officials’ full names when casting her vote.

The full names, titles and salaries of public employees are a matter of public record under state law.

Earlier, board member Yambeli Gomez had proposed improved communication as a goal for the board.

“Not only communication within the board and with the superintendent,” she said, “but also communication with the public in a way that’s more organized.”

The board spent much of Tuesday’s meeting brainstorming priorities for the district.

Members offered a grab bag of ideas, which were written on poster paper. Under the heading “student achievement,” they listed literacy, absenteeism, civics courses, vocational programs, and teacher quality, among other topics. Under other “focus areas,” members suggested classroom materials, parent involvement, and the arts.

Before the school year begins in September, León is tasked with shaping the ideas on that poster paper into specific goals and an action plan.

After the meeting, education activist Wilhelmina Holder said she hopes the board will focus its attention on a few key priorities.

“There was too much of a laundry list,” she said.

early dismissals

Top Newark school officials ousted in leadership shake-up as new superintendent prepares to take over

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Incoming Newark Public Schools Superintendent Roger León

Several top Newark school officials were given the option Friday to resign or face termination, in what appeared to be an early move by incoming Superintendent Roger León to overhaul the district’s leadership.

The shake-up includes top officials such as the chief academic officer and the head of the district’s controversial enrollment system, as well as lower-level administrators — 31 people in total, according to documents and district employees briefed on the overhaul. Most of the officials were hired or promoted by the previous two state-appointed superintendents, Cami Anderson and Christopher Cerf, a sign that León wants to steer the district in a new direction now that it has returned to local control.

The officials were given the option to resign by Tuesday and accept buyouts or face the prospect of being fired by the school board at its meeting that evening. The buyouts offer a financial incentive to those who resign voluntarily on top of any severance included in their contracts. In exchange for accepting the buyouts, the officials must sign confidentiality agreements and waive their right to sue the district.

Earlier this week, León submitted a list of his choices to replace the ousted cabinet-level officials, which the board must approve at its Tuesday meeting. It’s not clear whether he has people lined up to fill the less-senior positions.

It’s customary for incoming superintendents to appoint new cabinet members and reorganize the district’s leadership structure, which usually entails replacing some personnel. However, many staffers were caught off guard by Friday’s dismissals since León has given little indication of how he plans to restructure the central office — and he does not officially take the reins of the district until July 1.

A district spokeswoman and the school board chair did not immediately respond to emails on Friday about the shake-up.

Some staffers speculated Friday that the buyout offers were a way for León to replace the district’s leadership without securing the school board’s approval because, unlike with terminations, the board does not need to sign off on resignations. However, it’s possible the board may have to okay any buyout payments. And it could also be the case that the buyouts were primarily intended to help shield the district from legal challenges to the dismissals.

León was not present when the staffers learned Friday afternoon that they were being let go, the employees said. Instead, the interim superintendent, Robert Gregory, and other top officials broke the news, which left some stunned personnel crying and packing their belongings into boxes. They received official separation letters by email later that day.

The people being ousted include Chief Academic Officer Brad Haggerty and Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon, who oversees enrollment. Also included are top officials in the curriculum, early childhood, and finance divisions, among others, according to a list obtained by Chalkbeat.

In addition to the 31 being pushed out, several assistant superintendents are being demoted but will remain in the district, according to the district employees.

There was concern among some officials Friday about whether the turnover would disrupt planning for the coming school year.

“I don’t know how we’re going to open smoothly with cuts this deep,” one of the employees said. “Little to no communication was provided to the teams about what these cuts mean for the many employees who remain in their roles and need leadership guidance and direction Monday morning.”