More Time

Sensing interest, group wants to replicate Brooklyn school's unusual schedule

Rep. Jim Wilson, R-Salida / File photo

A roomful of sophomores at Brooklyn Generation School in Canarsie brainstormed sports-related jobs Tuesday — lawyers, trainers, coaches, commentators — at the start of a month-long course devoted to life after high school. Down the hall, students kicked off a class about government participation.

Meanwhile, their core-subject teachers settled into a month-long break from teaching — a bit of creative scheduling that keeps Brooklyn Generation students in school a month longer than their peers at other public schools.

At a time when both the city and state want students to spend more time in school, but have tangled over the financing, Brooklyn Generation offers an enticing model: Its school year is 20 days longer than the rest of the city’s district schools, but the number of days teachers work and the school’s budget are roughly the same as other schools’. The arrangement has approval from the United Federation of Teachers, whose contract dictates when teachers can work but makes exceptions for special cases.

Now, the nonprofit that founded the school is hoping to replicate the model in the coming years. It has produced a policy paper that it hopes Mayor Bill de Blasio — who has advocated for expanded learning time in the form of more and longer pre-kindergarten classes and middle school after-school programs — and officials in other cities will use as they experiment with new models to boost student achievement.

The advocacy comes against a mixed track record at Brooklyn Generation. After seven years in operation, the school has earned high marks for offering an engaging and collegial atmosphere, but its graduation rate lags behind that of schools with similar students. Still, teachers and students are optimistic about the model.

“It’s working,” English teacher Louise Bogue told a group of visitors Tuesday. “But it’s still a work in progress.”

The nonprofit Generation Schools Network founded the Brooklyn school in 2007, one of several small high schools to replace the giant South Shore High School. The new school’s unusual schedule required an agreement between the UFT and the education department.

Twice a year, Brooklyn Generation students spend a month in full-day, credit-bearing courses centered on college and careers — they might shadow professionals, apply to colleges, or study budgeting. Meanwhile, other subject teachers spend one week during each of those months planning and training, and the rest of the time on vacation, so that they teach no more than the state-required 180 days.

The school’s weekly schedule also builds in lots of time for teacher collaboration — at least one period a day is intended for team planning and all teachers meet for 90 minutes every Wednesday.

To afford its 200-day year, the school maintains a small staff that takes on multiple roles. For example, required-subject teachers also lead elective or remedial classes, some teachers do administrative work, and teacher teams handle tasks usually assigned to deans, which the school does not have.

City reviewers in 2012 praised the school’s “wide-ranging professional development offerings” and said the school’s “strategic” scheduling led more students to pass the state Regents exams. On Tuesday, several teachers touted the school’s model.

Principal Lydia Colon Bomani said that even if schools did not adopt the entire model they could still try aspects of it, such as the courses that combine career planning and academic work.

Deshawna Thompson teaches a class on sports management at Brooklyn Generation School.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Deshawna Thompson teaches a class on sports management at Brooklyn Generation School.

“There are many schools that could benefit just from taking parts of it,” said principal Lydia Colon Bomani.

But the school’s approach is still being refined, even as its designers hope to spread it to more schools.

Some students and their families struggle with the longer year, and the school has yet to reach its own enrollment targets. The schedule also creates logistical hurdles. For instance, the city doesn’t issue students free MetroCards until the start of the normal school year, administrators noted.

The school has yet to fully implement the Generation Schools Network model, which is detailed in the policy paper. For example, while teachers collaborate across disciplines, the school had not yet combined its English and history and math and science classes into unified courses.

The paper also identifies some district-level policies that could hamper efforts to replicate the model. For example, teacher evaluations based in part on student growth, a new requirement in New York City, do not easily account for the school’s flexible grouping, where students rotate among teachers.

And the school must still ensure that students’ extra class time is well spent. The Department of Education reviewers in 2012 said that “questions and tasks generally lack rigor” at the school, and its 51 percent four-year graduation rate trails the average for the city and demographically similar schools.

Despite these obstacles, the network hopes to open new schools in New York and Denver, Co., in the coming years, according to Generation Schools Network co-founder, Jonathan Spear. It also plans to continue coaching schools that are part of the city’s Middle School Quality Initiative, which involves extending their school days. (The network tried to open two charter schools in New York in 2010, but its application was denied. Spear said the cause was “changing expectations” about the proper relationship between the boards of the nonprofit and the charter schools.)

The network also wants de Blasio to push for greater school-scheduling flexibility in its contract negotiations with the teachers union, Spear said.

Creative scheduling was a hallmark of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s prized Innovation Zone program, but neither de Blasio nor Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña has yet shown an appetite for such experimentation. Still, Spear said he is confident that the Generation Schools model fits within the administration’s push for students to spend more hours and years in school.

“We’re really encouraged by the new mayor and the chancellor,” he said.

This story is part of a multi-city series on expanded learning time, with funding from the Ford Foundation, which supports “more and better learning time” in high-need communities. Participating along with Chalkbeat’s four bureaus in the series are the Notebook (Philadelphia), Catalyst Chicago, and EdSource (California).

Time crunch

In victory for teachers union, Newark superintendent scraps longer hours for low-performing schools

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
Superintendent Roger León at Hawkins Street School, one of the schools that will lose its extended hours.

Newark’s new superintendent is eliminating a program that extended the hours of struggling schools, which the teachers union has long attacked as ineffective and unfair to educators.

Teachers at roughly 30 schools will no longer receive $3,000 annual stipends for the extra hours, a provision written into the current teachers contract, which extends to 2019. Instead, all 64 district schools will get extra funding for before and after-school programs, Superintendent Roger León said in an email to employees on Tuesday.

The changes will go into effect Monday, Sept. 10, resulting in new hours for the affected schools just days after the new school year began. The district is still working to adjust pickup times for students who are bused to school, according to León’s email. A few of the schools will phase out their extended hours later in the year, the email said.

“We will not continue to do the same things as before and be surprised when the results do not change,” León wrote, adding that cutting the extra hours would save the district $5 million.

In an interview with Chalkbeat Thursday, León said the move is intended to create more uniformity among schools and the services they provide. Now, all schools will get additional money to pay for programs outside of the regular school day, which schools can tailor to their individual needs, though students who are struggling academically will continue to receive “intensive” support, he said.

“Ultimately, the idea would be by October having completely different after-school and before-school programming that meets the needs of each respective school,” León said.

The extended time was first included in the teachers contract in 2012 as part of a larger improvement plan for the targeted schools, which was developed by Cami Anderson, Newark’s former state-appointed superintendent. The plan also designated some low-performing schools as “renew” schools, where teachers had to reapply for their positions and work longer hours.

Anderson also closed some schools and gave principals new hiring authority. Both actions left dozens of tenured teachers without positions, so Anderson created a fund to pay those teachers to perform support duties in schools. In 2014, that fund for “employees without placement” cost the district $35 million out of its nearly $1 billion budget, though by last year the fund had shrunk to $8 million for about 100 unassigned teachers, according to officials.

León said in Tuesday’s email that he was also eliminating the fund, which he said would save the district another $6 million. The teachers union president said he believed all the unassigned teachers now have placements, but the district did not respond to a request to confirm that.

León is also removing the “renew” and “turnaround” labels from low-performing schools, citing their “progress and student achievement,” according to the email.

“I applaud everyone’s efforts at renew or turnaround schools and acknowledge what has been accomplished,” he wrote.

Now that León has abolished his predecessors’ school-improvement program, he will be expected to create his own. Many schools remain mired in poor performance, even as the district overall has made strides in recent years.

When the teachers union agreed to the extended hours in its 2012 contract with the district, it was hailed nationally as a major breakthrough in efforts to revamp troubled schools. But even as the union agreed last year to keep the provision in its current contract, union officials have assailed the turnaround effort as a failure.

NTU President John Abeigon told Chalkbeat on Thursday that the program had been a “scam” and “nothing more than extended childcare.” He added that the stipend teachers received amounted to about $7 per hour for the extra time they worked.

In 2016, a district-commissioned survey of 787 teachers at schools with extended hours found that two-thirds of teachers at schools where the extra time was spent on student instruction said the time was valuable. But in a survey the union conducted in April, the 278 teachers who responded gave the extended hours low ratings for effectiveness in boosting student achievement.

Some teachers in the union survey praised the longer hours, saying their schools used them effectively to lengthen class periods, run after-school clubs, or allow teachers to plan lessons or review student data. But others said the extra time was squandered, leaving staff and students exhausted with little evidence of improved student outcomes to show for it. (Students’ pass rates on state tests stayed flat or declined at most “renew” schools in the first years of the program.)

The union also has complained that many teachers felt compelled to work the extra hours because those who refused to could be transferred to different schools. Under the terms of the original extended-day agreement, teachers were required to work an extra hour per day and attend trainings during the summer and some weekends.

In León’s email to employees, he said every extended-day school had set different work requirements and “none are consistent with the original design.” The longer days may also be contributing to high teacher turnover in those schools, he wrote, adding that principals of schools with regular hours told him they did not want to extend their hours.

Abeigon, the union president, applauded León’s decision to scrap the extra work hours.

“He came to the conclusion that we expected any true educator to reach: that the program was not working and was never going to work,” he said.

León said Thursday that he is now working on a new turnaround program. Once it’s ready, he promised to share the details with affected families before publicly announcing which schools are part of it — an effort to avoid the student protests that erupted when Anderson identified her “turnaround” schools.

He also said he was still considering whether he would ever close schools that fail to improve or to reverse their declining enrollments. Anderson’s decision to shutter nearly a dozen long-struggling schools continues to fuel resentment among her critics even years later.

“I think the whole idea of how much time does a school get to correct itself is a very important one and I’m going to need to be really reflective on it,” León said. “I’ve seen what closing schools does with people who do not feel that they were aware of it or a part of fixing it.”

Back to school

Newark officials deliver a message to students on first day: Keep showing up

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
Superintendent Roger León spoke to seventh-graders at Hawkins Street School on the first day of school Tuesday.

At Hawkins Street School Tuesday morning, eighth-grade teacher Jasmine Johnson was at the whiteboard writing her students’ goals for the new school year — complete all assignments, get into a great high school — when in walked two unusual visitors: Newark’s mayor and schools chief.

Luckily for Johnson, Mayor Ras Baraka’s message was also about goals — namely, the lofty goal of perfect attendance.

“Try your best to get here and be in these seats every single day,” the mayor told the students as a phalanx of TV cameras captured his remarks from the back of the room. “It’s very, very important. The superintendent is super focused on that.”

Superintendent Roger León, who started in July and is the city’s first locally selected schools chief in more than two decades, told employees last week that he wants the district to achieve 100 percent attendance. That is a hugely ambitious, if not impossible, goal considering that the average daily attendance was 90 percent in 2016-17 and — even more troubling to experts — about 30 percent of students were chronically absent.

To assist in the effort, León has promised to rehire the attendance counselors who were laid off by former Superintendent Cami Anderson and to restore the truancy teams that in the past roamed the streets searching for students who cut class. He also ordered every district employee to call five students’ families before the start of the school year to remind them that school began Tuesday.

“It’s important for everyone to worry about student attendance,” León said during the all-staff meeting at the Prudential Center last Tuesday.

At a school board meeting that evening, district officials said that an analysis of state test data had shown a strong connection between attendance and test scores: Students who regularly showed up to class earned markedly higher scores.

Research shows the reverse is also true. Students who are chronically absent, meaning they missed 10 percent or more of school days, tend to perform worse on tests and are more likely to drop out of school and enter the criminal-justice system.

Peter Chen, a staff attorney at Advocates for Children of New Jersey who co-wrote a report on Newark’s high-school absenteeism problem last year, said in an August interview that schools often take a compliance-driven approach to attendance. After students miss a certain number of days, staffers may call or write home and inform families of the problem.

He said that a more effective, but also more resource-intensive, strategy is to analyze why certain students are frequently absent — for instance, are they suffering from mental-health challenges or struggling with school work? Then social workers and other staffers should try to help remove those obstacles that are keeping students out of class, Chen added.

He also pointed out that León’s state-appointed predecessors, including Anderson and Christopher Cerf, also came up with plans to reduce absenteeism. But top-level mandates only go so far, Chen said.

“What we’ve seen is that leadership at the top matters,” he said. “But on a day-to-day basis, what happens in school buildings is often more a function of the school-building leadership.”

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
Seventh-graders listened to Superintendent León on Tuesday.

At Hawkins Street, Principal Alejandro Lopez said his school’s attendance task force had already devised its own plan to boost attendance.

Students with perfect attendance each week will earn “Hawk bucks,” named for the school mascot, and be entered into raffles to win prizes. Also, the three classes with the highest attendance rates at the end of the year will take a trip to Six Flags Great Adventure theme park.

Meanwhile, support staff will look for ways to help students who are frequently absent. In 2016-17, 45 percent of Hawkins Street students missed more than 10 days of school. Getting them to show up every day this year will be hard, Lopez said — but doing so is crucial.

“If you’re not present, you’re not going to learn,” he said. “There’s no substitute for that.”

After leaving Johnson’s room Tuesday morning, Mayor Baraka and Superintendent León stopped by a seventh-grade math class where teams of students were building towers out of noodles and marshmallows.

León told the class that he had attended Hawkins Street as a child, before growing up to become a teacher, principal, and now, superintendent. Baraka, another Newark Public Schools graduate and former principal, told the students he loved them and would make sure they got whatever they needed to succeed.

After the city officials left to visit two high schools, 12-year-old Angeles Rosario said she was excited about the new school year — and dance classes, in particular. That the mayor had chosen to visit her school first on Tuesday only added to her excitement, she said.

“There are many other schools in Newark,” she pointed out, “but he decided to come to ours.”