listening in

What do Bronx parents want from Mayor de Blasio?

In the quiet neighborhood around Bronx Latin, residents had no clue Tuesday that Mayor Bill de Blasio was inside the high-performing public school preparing for a major education speech he would deliver there the following morning.

But, when asked, they had plenty of thoughts about what they’d like to hear the mayor say.

They wanted him to attend to perennial concerns like crowded classrooms and outdated textbooks, and to deliver on promises like more after-school programs and better-trained teachers. Several of the parents and students interviewed in the Longwood section of the South Bronx have ties to both charter and district schools, so many said they wanted the mayor to signal his support of both types of schools by fostering more cooperation among them.

And while many praised the mayor’s signature education initiative — his vast expansion of free, full-day pre-kindergarten — they also wondered how he plans help the many older students whose troubles at home or experiences at school have caused them to fall behind.

“Yes, you have to have a strong foundation,” said Toya Guy, 32, who has students in P.S. 146 as well as Success Academy Bronx 3 Charter School, and who commended the pre-K expansion. “But what about the children who are there already who didn’t have a strong foundation?”

De Blasio’s speech will offer some answers to that question, according to previews that City Hall provided to some media outlets Tuesday.

For instance, the city will hire reading specialists to make sure all elementary school students can read materials at their grade level, and will add more Advanced Placement classes in high schools, according to an Associated Press report. It will also require all schools to eventually offer computer-science instruction, according to the New York Times.

But if the mayor plans to announce some buzzworthy initiatives, many Bronx residents said they’re still waiting for the basics in a borough that — as in years past — fared far worse than any other on this year’s state exams.

Amari Rolle, an eighth-grade student at Accion Academy, a district middle school in the Tremont section, said his teachers often struggle to manage the many students packed into their classrooms, which never seem to have enough textbooks or computers.

“We’re always sharing,” he said.

Gail Gadsden is the parent liaison at Dr. Richard Izquierdo Health & Science Charter School. Her son attends Bronx Career & College Preparatory High School, a district school in the same building. She said charter and district schools should work together more.
Gail Gadsden is the parent liaison at Dr. Richard Izquierdo Health & Science Charter School. Her son attends Bronx Career & College Preparatory High School, a district school in the same building. She said charter and district schools should work together more.

Strong teachers can be found in every school, including those in the Bronx, several people said. Yet so can educators who seem under-prepared or ill-suited for the job.

The South Bronx has more new teachers and higher teacher turnover than most parts of the city. And it has the largest share of struggling schools in the city’s Renewal turnaround program (43 of the program’s 94 schools are in the Bronx) — schools where teachers are twice as likely to have received low ratings.

“Poor neighborhoods like ours get the worst teachers,” said David Rodriguez, a graduate of the Bronx’s recently closed Samuel Gompers High School, who is field director of the United Hispanic Construction Workers, a local nonprofit. “Therefore, we get the worst education.”

Among those who lauded de Blasio’s pre-K push was Silvia Castialli, a 23-year-old medical assistant who said it will let her work a full day while her daughter, Rose, begins learning to read and write.

The city’s plan for helping older students was less clear to others, such as Daiquan Feimster. He attended the now-defunct New Day Academy, a small high school that shared a building with Bronx Latin for the eight years it operated. He said the school, which was both launched and shuttered under former-Mayor Michael Bloomberg, showed how that mayor’s approach had failed some students.

He said de Blasio must now do more to make sure all students leave the city’s high schools ready for college. Feimster, 21, said he has tried taking classes at a few local colleges, but it has exposed glaring holes in his education — such as an inability to write research papers.

In his senior English class, “what we did was fill-in-the-blank packets,” he said. “I really wasn’t prepared.”

The mayor isn’t expected to announce any major new policies involving charter schools in his speech, according to news reports, even though the building where he will deliver it also houses the Dr. Richard Izquierdo Health & Science Charter School. That school was in session Tuesday, so the mayor spoke briefly with its principal, Richard Burke, before heading to the auditorium to rehearse his address.

According to Burke, his school gets along well with Bronx Latin and the other district high school in the building, Bronx Career & College Preparatory High School. An apt symbol of that cooperation is Gail Gadsden, the charter school’s parent liaison whose son attends Bronx Career & College Prep. She said advocates on both sides of the charter-district debate have turned on one another rather than joining forces to improve public education.

“And it shouldn’t be that way,” said Gadsden, known by many in the school as “Mama G.” “All schools should be great schools.”

Future of Schools

How this Indiana district realized counselors weren’t spending enough time counseling

PHOTO: Denver Post file

About a year ago, the counselors in the Beech Grove school district made a discovery: They were spending less than half of their time on counseling.

Instead of meeting with students one-on-one or in small groups, they were spending most of their days on routine tasks, such as overseeing lunch, proctoring exams, and filling in for secretaries.

When they realized how much time those other tasks were taking away from counseling work, it was “an eye-opener for everyone,” said Paige Anderson, the district college and career coordinator.

The counselors began tracking their time as part of a planning grant from the Lilly Endowment, a prominent Indianapolis-based philanthropy. In 2016, the foundation launched Comprehensive Counseling Initiative for Indiana K-12 Students, a $49 million effort to improve counseling in Indiana. Experts say meaningful counseling can help schools support students as they navigate problems both at home and in the classroom. (The Lilly Endowment also supports Chalkbeat. Learn more about our funding here.)

What Beech Grove staff members learned during their planning process is already changing their approach to counseling, said Trudi Wolfe, a counselor at Central Elementary School, who was instrumental in applying for the Lilly grants. Now, administrators are taking on more tasks like proctoring tests. And one intermediate school hired a new counselor.

“The schools will take counselors and meet the needs of the school,” Wolfe said. “Part of the process is helping administrators understand, school counselors need to be doing school counseling.”

Last month, the endowment announced its second round of implementation grants, which awarded about $12.2 million to 39 schools and districts. Beech Grove will receive $259,727 to redesign its counseling program to focus on the social and emotional needs of students, with the largest chunk of that money going to staff training.

The aim is to develop a strategy for handling the trauma that students face at home, said Wolfe. Over the past 10 years, the number of students in the district who are poor enough to get subsidized meals has risen by about 25 percentage points to 72 percent of students.

Beech Grove has also been affected by the opioid crisis, said Wolfe. “We have kids living with parents who are dependent on drugs, and they are not meeting the needs of their children.”

Those growing challenges mean that it is essential for counselors to have a plan for helping students instead of just meeting the needs of each day, Wolfe said.

Counseling is an investment that can have long-term benefits. After Colorado began an initiative to hire more school counselors, participating schools had higher graduation rates, increased enrollment in career-and-technical programs, and more students taking college-level courses. A 2016 report found that by keeping students from dropping out, the Colorado program saved taxpayers more than $319 million.

But in Indiana schools, counselors often have large caseloads. In 2014-2015, Indiana had an average of 543 students per counselor, above the national average and significantly higher than the American School Counselor Association recommendation of no more than 250 students per counselor.

Hiring more counselors alone is not enough to create stronger school counseling programs, said Tim Poynton, an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston who studies counseling. They also have to spend their time on meaningful counseling work.

“You need more school counselors. That’s necessary, but it’s also not sufficient,” said Poynton. “If you hire more school counselors, and you have them doing lunch duty and things that basically you don’t need a master’s degree in school counseling to do, then you’re not going to see those important metrics move.”

When schools were applying for the Lilly Endowment grants, many reported that counselors were focused on urgent social and emotional challenges and struggled to help students plan for the future, according to the endowment.

Those challenges can have ripple effects, making it harder for school staff to tackle long-term goals such as ensuring that students sign up and meet the requirements for the state’s scholarship program, 21st Century Scholars.

If counseling is done well, most students will be prepared to go to college, even if they do not seem interested when they are in high school, Poynton said. But when counselors are dealing with urgent problems, they have significantly less time to devote to college preparation, he said.

“In urban schools, school counselors are often focused on getting students to school and meeting their immediate needs,” Poynton said. “In the higher-performing suburban schools, where the students and families don’t have those same kind of issues or concerns, the emphasis is almost entirely on the college-going process.”

In a statement from the endowment, Vice President for Education Sara B. Cobb said the response to the Lilly grants shows increased awareness of the crucial need for counseling programs.

“We are impressed with how school leaders have engaged a wide variety of community partners to assess the academic, college, career and social and emotional needs of their students, and respond to them,” Cobb said.

The Lilly grants are going to a broad array of schools, and they are using the money in different ways. At Damar Charter Academy, which educates students with special needs, few students earn traditional diplomas or have good options for higher education. That’s why school staff plan to use the $100,000 counseling grant they received to build relationships with employers and create training programs for skills such as small engine repair, automotive maintenance, landscaping, and culinary arts, said Julie Gurulé, director of student services.

“If we can commit to getting them the skills they need while they are with us,” she said, “they will be able to go out and gain meaningful employment, and … lead the kind of lives that we all want to.”

These are the districts and schools in Marion County that received counseling grants. (Find the full list here.)

  • Beech Grove City Schools $259,727
  • Damar Charter School $100,000
  • Metropolitan School District of Decatur Township $671,300
  • Purdue Polytechnic Indianapolis High School $100,000

Delayed decision

Officials promised to update a Giuliani-era agreement between the NYPD and city schools almost a year ago. So where is it?

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
A school safety agent at Staten Island's New Dorp High School.

Last October, city officials said they were on the cusp of announcing changes in the way the New York Police Department interacts with schools — an overhaul that began more than three years ago and sparked months of negotiations with advocacy groups.

But nearly 10 months later, the city has not announced any revisions to the “memorandum of understanding” that governs police involvement with school security, leaving in place a nearly two-decade-old agreement that has not been altered since Rudy Giuliani was mayor and “zero tolerance” discipline policies were in vogue.

Now, police and education officials say revisions won’t be made public until this fall. That timeline has infuriated advocates who said they made progress with senior city officials but have recently been kept in the dark and fear their recommendations are being ignored.

“Here we are three years later without any explanation from the administration,” said Kesi Foster, an organizer with Make the Road New York and the Urban Youth Collaborative who serves on a mayoral task force charged with revising the agreement. “It’s extremely frustrating and disheartening.”

As Mayor Bill de Blasio has worked to overhaul school discipline policies, which have reduced suspensions and student arrests, advocates say the outdated MOU has become a roadblock.

The 1998 agreement officially gives the city’s police department authority over school safety agents, a force that rivals Houston’s entire police department in size. The agreement was controversial at the time, with some city officials saying the presence of police officials made student misbehavior more likely to end in arrests.

Mark Cannizzaro, head of the city’s principals union who was a school administrator in the 1990s, said it was not unheard of for principals to consider calling the police for incidents as minor as shoving. “There was, at one point, a zero tolerance approach that didn’t make sense,” he said.

The current memorandum is a reflection of that era, advocates say, and is one of the reasons students of color are disproportionately likely to wind up in the criminal justice system instead of the principal’s office. It was supposed to be updated every four years, but has still never been revised.

De Blasio seemed to agree that the memorandum needed to be reformed, and convened a group of advocates and senior city officials who recommended changes. Among the group’s recommendations, released in 2016, were giving school leaders the lead role in addressing student misbehavior, making it more difficult for school safety agents to place students in handcuffs, and ensuring students are informed of their rights before they’re questioned.

Johanna Miller, the advocacy director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said senior officials — including Mark Rampersant, the education department’s director of security, and Brian Conroy, the chief of the police department’s school safety division — participated in the task force and seemed receptive to changes. The group agreed there should be limits to the type of offenses that could trigger police involvement, multiple participants said, excluding offenses such as smoking cigarettes, cutting class, and certain instances of insubordination.

But when the city presented the group with a draft agreement, many of their recommendations had vanished, according to people who were present during the meetings, some of whom requested anonymity because the city required that participants sign nondisclosure agreements.

“They basically eliminated all of the major changes that we made,” Miller said, adding that the group requested another opportunity to change the agreement more than a year ago. “And that was the last we heard of it.”

City officials would not comment on why the process has been delayed or why key recommendations never made it into the draft agreement. Some task force members said they believed education and police department lawyers, who had not participated in the group’s discussions, played a role in stripping the draft agreement of the most important changes.

An education department spokeswoman acknowledged in an email that “agency lawyers have been involved in order to ensure the MOU is aligned with existing local, state, and federal laws and in the best interest of students and families,” but did not comment further on why certain changes were not included.

Asked why task force members were required to sign nondisclosure agreements, the official said the decision was made “To protect the confidentiality of any shared student data and remain within (The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) compliance.”

The task force still meets quarterly, although several of its members say they have not received updates and did not know the city planned to release an updated memorandum this fall.

“The DOE and NYPD have been working in close partnership to finalize updates to the MOU and ensure that the changes are done correctly in the best interest of students and families,” education department spokeswoman Miranda Barbot wrote in an email.

Cannizzaro, the principals union chief, said he has not been informed about potential changes to the agreement, adding that school leaders should have discretion in how misconduct is handled and noted the police play an important role in school safety. “We certainly appreciate their presence — we need their presence,” he said.

Some members of the task force wondered whether the selection of a new schools chief has delayed the process, and at their most recent meeting in May, schools Chancellor Richard Carranza stopped by. “He said something to the extent of, he knew it was an issue and was going to put eyes on it,” said Nancy Ginsburg, a lawyer at the Legal Aid Society and a member of the task force.

Ginsburg said she appreciates that changes take time, but also stressed that the current memorandum can make it difficult to hold officials accountable since the agreement is so vague.

“It’s impossible to hold the agencies to anything if there are no rules,” she said.