Back to school

Golf balls and goal setting: How four New York City schools aimed to inspire on day one

Dennis Jones, National Center for Higher Education Management

Will this year’s crop of students dazzle or dismay? Will the new teacher crack jokes or crack the whip? Will lunch ever come?

The first day of school brims with questions. The way students interact in the halls and answer writing prompts, how teachers decorate their classrooms and respond to misbehavior, all give clues about the coming year.

On Wednesday, Chalkbeat spent time in four different classrooms in the nation’s largest school system. From personal goals to flying golf balls, it was a day of expectations and excitement.

At a school for inventors, lessons on solving problems and saving laptops

Just after 7:30 a.m., Urban Assembly Maker Academy Principal Luke Bauer swung open a side door of his Lower Manhattan school building and greeted a pack of early arrivers.

Principal Luke Bauer greeted students as they returned from summer break.
Principal Luke Bauer greeted students as they returned from summer break.

“Look at all these makers out here!”

Now in its second year, the small school now includes ninth and 10th-graders, who yanked off their headphones, shook the principal’s hand, and headed upstairs. The high school was developed by the nonprofit Urban Assembly and grew out of the maker movement, where hackers and inventors build robots, gadgets, and other tools to solve everyday problems.

Last year, the school brought in software developers to work with students on the first day. But the staff quickly realized that new students are anxious to learn the basics, like how to get a hall pass or find the gym. So this year, teachers designed two days of orientation sessions.

In one early session, English teacher Alex Sosa taught a group of students about a popular note-taking system and asked them to practice by listing the ways books are organized.

Like most non-selective schools, the students had arrived with a range of abilities. At a back table, one boy said books could be sorted by genre or periodically. His partner didn’t recognize either term.

“I can’t even say that word,” he said. When Sosa asked the students to write what they were excited about this year, the boy wrote, “I’m excited what is in store for me.”

A student tested whether her team's straw-and-tape basket could catch a falling golf ball as teacher Gerry Irizarry (right) looked on.
A student tested whether her team’s straw-and-tape basket could catch a falling golf ball as teacher Gerry Irizarry (right) looked on.

Across the hall, design teacher Gerry Irizarry was explaining the school’s problem-solving process, which leads from discovering the problem to delivering a product.

The problem Wednesday was figuring out how to build a basket out of straws and tape that could catch a falling golf ball. To test the product of a group that called itself Basket-Robbins, a girl hopped on a desk and dropped a ball. It landed in the basket, and the class cheered.

A few doors down, special-education teacher Jared Russo introduced himself to the students in his session about laptop care. “I am the weirdest, craziest, most fun guy in the building,” he said. “But I’m also the strictest.”

As if to prove this, he dropped (an already broken) laptop on the floor to demonstrate what students should avoid doing to the laptops they each would receive. He explained that about 30 laptops were damaged last year.

“Some of them broke through kind of normal stuff that happens,” he said. “And then some of them were sat on.”

A challenge, and encouragement, from a teacher who’s walked in her students’ footsteps

At the School of Diplomacy in the north Bronx, Shamika Powell waited outside her classroom Wednesday morning for her seventh-grade English students to enter her room.

Shamika Powell teaches her seventh-grade English class on the first day of school at School of Diplomacy in the Bronx.
Shamika Powell teaches her seventh-grade English class on the first day of school at School of Diplomacy in the Bronx.

It is her seventh year as a teacher at the school, but long before that she walked the same halls as a student at the Richard R. Green School, which has lent its name to the building that now houses four small middle schools.

After the students got seated, fanning themselves with handouts on the muggy morning, Powell jumped into her classroom expectations.

Be prepared each day.
Work quietly and do not call out. Everyone will get a chance to ‘shine.’
Be respectful.

Next she covered some formalities, including the promise of homework every day of the year (which drew sighs). Then she dove into the day’s lesson, asking, “What steps should someone take in order to be successful?”

A seventh-grade student attends the first day of school at the School of Diplomacy in the Bronx.
A seventh-grade student attends the first day of school at the School of Diplomacy in the Bronx.

Students gave their answers proudly: “Work hard.” “Pay attention.” “Come every day.” “Don’t get distracted.” Powell told the class that the path they take now will help determine their futures and prepare them for college.

“This is your job. This is your form of employment,” she said, before adding that “as long as you try your best, that’s what really counts.”

In a timed writing prompt, students detailed three steps they could take to ensure their success.

“This year I will come to school as early as possible,” one girl said, “so I can be ready to learn and be prepared for high school and college.”

When a simple problem stumps his students, a math teacher digs in

Jasper DeAntonio was using every trick in the book to get his students to participate on their first day at East Bronx Academy for the Future, a combined middle and high school.

On the board was a math problem that his ninth and 10th graders should have mastered years ago: 4 x 4 – 4 ÷ 4. But when DeAntonio prodded them to discuss their solutions, he found few willing volunteers.

The fourth-year math teacher paced between tables and hovered over students in hopes they would chime in. After giving them a few more minutes to huddle with a partner, DeAntonio changed tactics.

East Bronx Academy for the Future teacher Jasper DeAntonio found that relatively simple math problem stumped some of his new high school students.
East Bronx Academy for the Future teacher Jasper DeAntonio found that relatively simple math problem stumped some of his new high school students.

“If more of you raise your hands, it’s less likely you’ll get called on,” he said, nearing exasperation. A few students slowly lifted their arms.

After class, DeAntonio chalked the slow pace up to students’ nerves, but acknowledged that he’ll be battling some underlying issues all year. Many of East Bronx Academy’s students come from nearby neighborhoods — among the poorest in the country — and enter high school far behind grade level in math and reading.

One girl he pulled aside explained that it was more than first-day jitters that were keeping her from participating.

“I don’t want to work because I am always bad at math and I’ll always fail,” DeAntonio summed up. “She told me that to my face — ‘I don’t have anything against you, but I hate math and I don’t want to do it and I don’t want to be here.’”

That mindset is what DeAntonio and his colleagues are hoping to change. Before jumping into the meat of the school’s Algebra curriculum, students will spend the first several days in what the math team calls “Unit Zero.” Each class sets aside time to dispel notions that students often have about math and reinforce the idea that math isn’t an inherent ability, but something you get better at with practice.

DeAntonio said his relentless pursuit of his students’ participation on the first day — he spent more than 15 minutes trying to get them involved — was about establishing the expectation that no student would escape tough problems in his class.

“Now they know that I’m going to come around and ask them,” DeAntonio said.

At the end of a long day, students find ‘brain goals,’ ‘heart goals,’ and Yoda

Before the final period of the year’s first day, Alex Corbitt stood outside his seventh-grade English classroom inside the Bronx School for Young Leaders and greeted his last group of new students.

Bronx School for Young Leaders teacher Alex Corbitt tried to balance toughness and tenderness on the first day.
Bronx School for Young Leaders teacher Alex Corbitt tried to balance toughness and tenderness on the first day.

He knew the group, called 703, was tired and hungry (the school does not serve lunch until nearly 2 p.m.), and he’d heard that it contained more than a few troublemakers. Still, he was determined to follow Principal Serapha Cruz’s advice to her staff to balance toughness and tenderness on day one so that students would expect to work hard but also have fun at school.

“Alright 703, my name is Mr. Corbitt,” he told the line of students in the hallway. “I’ll talk to you more when you get inside.”

Inside, Corbitt asked them to create name cards and, on the back, to write the cell phone number of a loved one he could call whenever they did something praiseworthy. He waited until the class was silent, then he explained that every day they would have a “brain goal” having to do with English, and a matching “heart goal” meant to develop their character. He asked a girl what a heart goal might be.

“Let’s say you have anger,” she said. “A heart goal helps you get rid of that anger and be prepared to learn.”

Now it was time to tell them about himself. Cruz tells her teachers to ignore the old adage to avoid smiling in front of students before winter break; instead, they should open up and show the students they care. A third-year teacher, Corbitt had already seemed to master that concept.

He pointed to a whiteboard with a photo of him along with symbols of his interests: a guitar, a football, Yoda from “Star Wars.” A stock photo of students had the caption, “I’ve got your back,” which Corbitt said meant that they could seek his help with academics or “seventh-grade drama.”

Then he took students’ questions: Did he dye his beard? (No, it’s red because he’s Irish.) How old is he? (25.) Did he know he wanted to be a teacher when he was their age? (Nope. “That’s the crazy thing about life — you never know what’s going to happen next!”)

Corbitt showed a video of last year's seventh-grade class to inspire his new students.
Corbitt showed a video of last year’s seventh-grade class to inspire his new students.

Corbitt had learned that students digest rules and procedures best when they’re embedded in activities, so next he explained how to listen closely to peers by having them share details about themselves. Whenever they got off track, Corbitt crossed his arms and waited stoically, until the class fell silent.

Finally, it was time for the grand finale. Corbitt had produced a highlight reel of videos of last year’s 7th graders. On his iPhone, he’d captured them working diligently in class, conducting a mock trial, and swimming during a class camping trip.

“The eighth graders now, when they were in your desks, they worked 150 percent,” he said before starting the video. “But guess what’s kind of cool: Every year the students get better and work harder and achieve more.”

Then he played the video and the students were transfixed. As they lined up for lunch, they all looked excited for day two.

headcount

New York City school workforce grows, driven by 40 percent rise in teaching assistants

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
A teaching assistant worked with a pre-K student in East Harlem in 2014.

New York City’s public-school workforce grew 8 percent over the past decade, according to a new report, driven largely by the rising number of teaching assistants who work with preschool students and students with disabilities — two populations whose numbers have risen even as overall student enrollment declined.

The education department employed about 131,200 people this June — an increase of 10,200 workers since July 2007, according to an analysis by the city’s Independent Budget Office released Tuesday. The expansion comes even as student enrollment in district-run schools fell by 1.5 percent, or some 15,300 students, during that same period, the report notes.

While the number of teachers remained basically flat during that time, the department added nearly 8,600 additional teaching assistants, or “paraprofessionals,” as they’re known within the school system — an increase of over 40 percent.

“This is a story about the use of paraprofessionals — that’s the main thing,” said Yolanda Smith, a senior IBO analyst who prepared the report.

The majority of the paraprofessionals who were added during that period work with students with disabilities. Teachers union officials attributed the increase to a citywide effort since 2012 to place more students with disabilities in classrooms alongside their general-education peers, often with the support of a paraprofessional. (An education department spokesman said students are assigned paraprofessionals based on their unique needs.)

Nearly 2,000 of the paraprofessionals hired over the past decade work in pre-kindergarten classrooms, which are required to have both an assistant and a teacher. The number of assistants spiked after 2014, when Mayor Bill de Blasio rapidly expanded the city’s pre-K program.

Full-time paraprofessionals with a high school degree earn a starting salary of around $22,000. While the number of paraprofessionals focused on special-education and preschool students grew during this period, those assigned to general-education classrooms declined by roughly 1,100.

At the same time, the ranks of other school workers expanded 22 percent during this 10-year period. Those more than 2,200 additional employees include nurses, occupational and physical therapists, and “parent coordinators,” who answer families’ questions and help organize school events.

The number of teachers, principals, and assistant principals barely budged over that period, adding just over 500 additional workers. Union officials noted that there was a teacher hiring freeze from 2009 to 2014, but said that in recent years any new hires were essentially balanced out by teachers who retired or chose to leave the system.

Education department spokesman Will Mantell said in a statement: “We’re focused on recruiting and retaining talented staff that meet the needs of New York City students and families.”

Busing Ban

As school districts push for integration, decades-old federal rule could thwart them

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post
Several districts across the country want to use federal money to pay for school buses as part of their desegregation plans. A federal spending restriction could get in the way.

In Florida, officials plan to use federal money to shuttle students across vast Miami-Dade County to new science-themed magnet programs in a bid to desegregate several schools.

In South Carolina, a tiny district west of Myrtle Beach intends to spend federal funds on free busing for families who enroll at two predominantly black schools, hoping that will draw in white and Hispanic students.

And in New York, state officials want to deploy federal school-improvement money to help integrate struggling schools, believing that may be the secret to their rebirth.

But each of these fledgling integration efforts — and similar ones across the country — could be imperiled by obscure budget provisions written during the anti-busing backlash of the 1970s, which prohibit using federal funding for student transportation aimed at racial desegregation. The rules have been embedded in every education spending bill since at least 1974, as Rep. Bobby Scott of Virginia pointed out in September when he tried unsuccessfully to remove the provisions from the latest appropriations bill.

The rules are “a relic of an ugly history when states and school districts across the nation resisted meaningful integration,” said Scott, the top Democrat on the House education committee, during a floor speech where he called the persistence of the rules “morally reprehensible.”

After Scott’s amendment to eliminate the provisions was blocked, advocates are now working behind the scenes to convince members of the Senate from both parties to strike the rules from the latest spending bill during negotiations. More than 40 integration advocates and experts have signed onto a letter to lawmakers calling for the anti-busing language to be removed, and members of that coalition plan to meet with lawmakers in the coming days.

Advocates are especially worried about funding for magnet programs, like those in Miami and the South Carolina district, which rely on special science or art offerings or rigorous academic courses to draw students of different races into the same school — a choice-based approach that has become the primary way districts now pursue desegregation.

This is the first year districts that receive federal magnet-school grants are allowed to spend some of that money on transportation, after Congress changed the rules as part of its education-law overhaul in 2015. Among the 32 districts that received a total of nearly $92 million in magnet grants this year, at least six plan to use some of that money for transportation, according to their applications.

Now, just as those funds are about to flow to busing — which many families insist upon before they will enroll their children in magnet schools across town — the decades-old spending restriction could cut them off, advocates warn.

That could create a major problem for districts like Miami-Dade County.

It hopes to attract students from across the district to three heavily black and Hispanic schools by launching magnet programs that focus on zoology, cybersecurity, and mobile-app development, according to its application. To pull that off, it requested $245,000 for buses next year since, as the application notes, the “most limiting factor” for many families is “the cost associated with transporting their child to the magnet school.”

The district in Lake City, South Carolina wants to pull new families from different neighborhoods into an elementary school and a middle school that suffer from sagging enrollment and intense poverty. Previous recruitment efforts that didn’t provide transportation amounted to “failed attempts,” the district said in its application.

However, if the anti-busing provisions are not removed from the next federal spending bill, they would cancel out the new rule allowing those districts to spend some of their magnet money on transportation (though districts could still use local funds to fill in the gap). As such, magnet-school representatives are pushing hard for lawmakers to remove the provisions during budget negotiations.

“We’re hoping this doesn’t see the light of day,” said John Laughner, legislative and communications manager at Magnet Schools of America, an association of magnets from across the country. He plans to discuss the issue with lawmakers next week.

Beyond magnet schools, other desegregation efforts could be undercut by the anti-busing provision, which was included in a spending bill for fiscal year 2018 that the House approved and one the Senate has yet to vote on.

At least one state — New York — listed socioeconomic and racial integration among the ways it could intervene in low-performing schools under the new federal education law. In addition, New York officials announced a grant program this week where up to 30 districts will receive federal money to develop integration plans.

Advocates fear the anti-busing rule could disrupt any of those plans that require transportation and aim to reduce racial segregation. (New York education officials said they did not want to speculate on the impact of a spending bill that hasn’t been approved.)

A Democratic Congressional aide who has studied the issue said the provision could even block federal funding for planning or public outreach around desegregation programs that involve busing, not just busing itself.

Either way, advocates say the provision could dissuade districts from using the new education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, to pursue integration — even though research suggests that student achievement on tests and other measures improve when they attend less segregated schools.

“We shouldn’t have this,” said Philip Tegeler, a member of the National Coalition on School Diversity, which is leading the charge to remove the restriction. He added that the provision stemmed from mandatory desegregation busing of an earlier era: “It’s clearly an anachronism that doesn’t really fit any more with what states and districts are doing voluntarily.”

A U.S. education department spokeswoman said Secretary Betsy DeVos would be bound to enforce any funding prohibitions that Congress approves, though she noted that state and local funds are not subject to the same restrictions.

Negotiators from the House and Senate must still agree on a single spending bill, which would go before the full Congress for a vote. Until then, lawmakers have voted to temporarily extend 2017 spending levels through December. It’s possible Congress will pass another extension then, meaning a final deal — and a decision on the anti-busing language — may not arrive until early next year.

In the meantime, advocates are pressing lawmakers like Sen. Lamar Alexander, the Republican chairman of the Senate education committee who helped craft ESSA, with the argument that the anti-busing provision limits the flexibility and local control the law was meant to provide districts.

Margaret Atkinson, a spokeswoman for the senator, would not say whether he is open to removing the provision, but said he would continue working to ensure ESSA “is implemented as Congress intended.”

The anti-busing language — found in two sections of the current appropriation bills — prohibits using federal funds for transportation “to overcome racial imbalance” or “to carry out a plan of racial desegregation,” or forcing students to attend any school other than the one closest to home. (A separate education law contains a similar restriction, but ESSA exempted magnet schools from it.) The provisions emerged in the early 1970s, just after the Supreme Court ruled that busing students to schools outside their own racially isolated neighborhoods was an appropriate tool for school desegregation.

At the time, many white parents raged against what they called “forced busing.” In response, the U.S. House of Representatives passed at least one law annually from 1966 to 1977 meant to curb school integration, according to historian Jason Sokol, and in 1974 the full Congress voted in favor of an anti-busing amendment to an education bill. The restrictions in the current spending bills appear to have originated around the same time.

The attacks on busing reflect how crucial free transportation is to school desegregation, said Erica Frankenberg, a professor at Pennsylvania State University who studies segregation. Busing was included in guidelines outlining how districts should comply with desegregation requirements in the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and later upheld by the Supreme Court, she pointed out.

More recently, studies have shown that non-white parents are more likely to opt into magnet schools when they provide transportation, and that magnets that don’t offer busing are more likely to enroll students of a single race, Frankenberg said. Yet, many politicians remain reluctant to endorse busing for desegregation — which may reflect a deeper ambivalence, she added.

Resistance to busing, she said, “is a very politically acceptable way to be opposed to integration.”