opening days

At Murry Bergtraum HS, fights and frustration mark year's start

This chart from the most recent schools survey shows that overall satisfaction in Murray Bergtraum HS is below the city average.
This chart from the city’s most recent schools survey shows that overall satisfaction with Murry Bergtraum High School is below the city average.

At one of the few remaining comprehensive high schools in the city, the year has gotten off to a rocky start with low teacher confidence in the principal, incomplete teacher and student schedules, and student fights on the first day of school.

Two significant fights broke out on Monday at Murry Bergtraum High School for Business Careers, Department of Education officials said today, confirming reports from faculty and staff who said the downtown Manhattan school bordered on chaos as students returned from summer vacation.

Murry Bergtraum, which received one of the lowest grades in the city on its most recent progress report, saw a major brawl in April and a riot over bathroom rights in 2010, had students arrested for attempted arson last October, and enrolled nearly half its population as “super seniors” three years ago. But despite a new “school within a school” for some strong students and a series of vaunted principals, including one “executive principal” who received a hefty bonus to turn the school around but left before her contract ended, conditions appear to remain grim.

Parents, teachers, and students all rated the school far below the citywide average on four categories, including safety and academic expectations, according to survey results that the Department of Education released last week. Most teachers think the current principal, Lottie Almonte, is not an effective manager and do not trust her, according to the survey, and fewer than half say they feel respected. (Almonte did not respond to requests for comment.)

Fifty-one of about 130 faculty and staff members left the school over the summer, according to John Elfrank-Dana, the school’s union chapter leader who has repeatedly tried to raise the alarm about the school. He said the turnover had added to sweeping confusion about what classes teachers are teaching, what classes students are taking, and where and when classes are being held.

“They put a teacher who left last year on my schedule, and I’m in a tech room when I’m supposed to have math,” one student said. “I had to sit in the tech room and miss my class because they didn’t know what to do with me.”

Teachers did not have complete instructions about their teaching schedules last week, during the preparation days the city set aside for them, several said. On Monday, Elfrank-Dana said he finally learned what he would be teaching — but it included seven classes in six periods, including teaching global studies and U.S. history at the same time.

Mildred Griffin said she was assigned to teach earth science after years of teaching biology classes. “Here’s living, here’s non-living. You might as well give me Greek,” she said, adding that her knowledge was limited to three credits of geology taken years ago.

The programming issues even extended to the elite Syracuse Academy, which was created to offer college-level courses to a select group of 30 ninth-graders. “Some kids don’t have science. No one was programmed for lunch. We just put them in a classroom,” said one teacher from the program. “Luckily they aren’t lost in the shuffle.”

And Donald Campbell, a math teacher, said instructions about what and where he would teach changed several times in the last week and that during his second-period class, students arrived for two other classes also slated for the same room. He said he worried that the programming challenges, which can be common at large schools, represented deeper problems.

Students left Murry Bergtraum High School after a first day that some in the building characterized as chaotic.
Students left Murry Bergtraum High School on Monday after a first day that some in the building characterized as chaotic.

“I know they’ll get the programs straight eventually,” Campbell said. “We just got off to such a poor start. … This just doesn’t set the right tone for the year.”

The fights came as the city opened a new school, with a landscaping focus, in the building. Next year, the city wants to add another school, an elementary Success Academy charter school, to the building while shrinking Bergtraum’s enrollment.

Sarah Darville contributed reporting.

This story was corrected to reflect the subject that Mildred Griffin was assigned to teach this year. It is earth science, not Living Environment.


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.