protest movement

Advocates pushing city on struggling schools choose an unlikely champion

PHOTO: Jessica Glazer
Tenicka Boyd, an organizer for StudentsFirstNY, spoke at a rally outside Boys and Girls High School in Brooklyn.

The city’s delay in publicizing plans for its struggling schools has made strange bedfellows of an advocacy group that supports school closures and a principal who for years resisted his own school’s potential shuttering.

Families organized by StudentsFirstNY rallied outside the long-struggling Boys and Girls High School on Monday, calling on the mayor to announce a clear improvement plan for the school. It was the latest effort by StudentsFirstNY, a group that advocates for charter schools and school choice, to pressure city officials to more quickly articulate a comprehensive plan for the city’s lowest-performing schools.

Principal Bernard Gassaway made the same point when he announced his resignation late last week, blasting the city for offering incomplete plans that were “doomed to fail.” Boys and Girls, which received an “F” letter grade from the city three years in a row, has long struggled to raise test scores and graduation rates. And though Gassaway didn’t attend Monday’s rally, when schools were closed, he indicated that he didn’t mind staying involved.

“I have no problem being used for any just cause,” Gassaway said in an email. “The fact is: There is no comprehensive, strategic plan. I support all efforts to right the wrongs of this and any administration.”

Over the last few months, critics of the de Blasio administration’s education policies have shifted their focus to struggling district schools. Improvement plans for the city’s lowest-performing schools were due July 31, but the city asked for and received an extension to file those plans until next month. Thousands of families and advocates organized by the pro-charter Families for Excellent Schools pressed the mayor for a struggling-schools plan at a rally in lower Manhattan earlier this month.

But Gassaway is an unconventional choice of a champion for StudentsFirst and Families for Excellent Schools — an advocacy group which referred to the principal as a “widely respected educator” in a press release on Monday. Gassaway criticized the Bloomberg administration even as Boys and Girls avoided closure in recent years as the school’s reputation and enrollment declined during his five-year tenure. StudentsFirst and Families for Excellent Schools support closing low-performing schools.

City and state officials said last month they would not send students to Boys and Girls mid-year, and that a more detailed plan is forthcoming. Education department spokeswoman Devora Kaye said this week that Gassaway’s departure could benefit the school.

“Boys and Girls High School was moving in the wrong direction, and it was always the DOE’s intention to find a stronger leader for this school,” Kaye said Monday. Officials said the department is moving to install an interim principal.

Meanwhile, StudentsFirstNY’s director Jenny Sedlis said if the group did not see a quick response from the city, it would begin planning future rallies.

“Here we are with no principal, no leadership from City Hall, and no plan on what we’re going to do next,” said Darlene Boston, a mother of two sons who both dropped out of Boys and Girls. They were part of a class-action suit filed against the city in 2005 that charged the school with warehousing disruptive students in the school’s auditorium until they dropped out.

Howard Pressley, a senior at Boys and Girls who attended the protest with his father, said he is on track to graduate and plays on the basketball team. “A lot of people get the wrong idea about the school,” he said. “I feel like it’s a family.”

The school does have significant issues, he acknowledged. “A lot of kids barely come to school, maybe two days a week,” he said.

Patrick Wall contributed reporting. 

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at [email protected]

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

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.”