a day in the life

Fist bumps and a war room: A day in the life of a community school director

Fiorella Guevara, left, looked at student writing samples with a bilingual teacher at M.S. 50 in Williamsburg.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Fiorella Guevara, left, looked at student writing samples with a bilingual teacher at M.S. 50 in Williamsburg.

Around 4 p.m. on a recent Friday, Fiorella Guevara got around to eating her lunch.

Then she leaned back in the student-sized chair where she was sitting in an empty classroom and let out a long sigh.

“Oh man I’m tired,” said Guevara, the new community school director at M.S. 50 in Williamsburg. “This is why I never sit down for too long.”

Instead, she bounds from room to room, checking on the classes she oversees, meeting with the principal or calling up parents, pausing just long enough to hug one of the students whose affection she’s earned in her few months on the job.

“She is a fireball,” said Franklin Tapia, the parent of an eighth-grader at M.S. 50, whom Guevara recently hired to work as a mentor and soccer coach. “I don’t know how she does it. She’ll come in 9 o’clock in the morning sometimes and she won’t leave until 9:30, 10 o’clock at night.”

Community school directors like Guevara play a key role in Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to revitalize 94 of New York City’s low-performing schools — including M.S. 50, where just one in 10 students passed last year’s state English tests, and 40 percent of students are considered chronically absent. Each school has a director responsible for coordinating the activities, social services, and parent workshops that the mayor is hoping will help set the schools on a different path.

That’s a tall order. But if anyone seems up to the task, it’s Guevara, who taught elementary school for five years before working with an advocacy group dedicated to creating service-rich schools that partner with parents.

“I truly, 100 percent believe in community schools,” she said.

Chalkbeat stopped by M.S. 50 recently to see how the job really worked. Here are highlights from Guevara’s day.

Guevara worked with a student during an art class.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Guevara worked with a student during an art class.

11:20 a.m. — Troubleshooting

The mission of community schools is to treat students’ physical or emotional ailments so they can focus on learning. For Guevara, that means switching from nurse to counselor to administrator.

When she walked into a bilingual class, where the children were eating a lunch of chicken and rice, she found a boy who had hurt his ankle. In fluent Spanish, she told him to get some ice and elevate it.

Then she read a letter a girl had received from the health department saying she was missing a mandatory physical exam, though the girl said she’d already had it. Guevara promised to investigate.

Next, she dropped by a peer-mediation class that she started at the school this year. She listened in as the students, munching on pizza, discussed the need to stay neutral when settling disputes between classmates. Then Guevara, whose iPhone is always on hand, took a snapshot of the attendance list: A few students were missing.

“My day-to-day is ensuring that the vision we’ve laid out is going,” she explained. “And also troubleshooting when there’s something that’s not going right with the plan.”

Moments later, she was in the main office showing the health department letter to Benjamin Honoroff, the principal brought in this year to spearhead the school’s turnaround. Then she stepped into the crowded hallway as students returned from lunch.

She hugged a girl, told a boy to spit out his gum, then pulled aside a girl wearing a “M.S. 50 is a bully-free zone” shirt — she was one of those who had skipped the peer-mediation class. Without scolding, Guevara told her how important it is to show up for class, then sent her on her way.

“Alright kids,” Guevara said, speed-walking to her next appointment, “get back to class.”

Guevara led an attendance meeting.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Guevara led an attendance meeting.

12:40 p.m. — Partnerships and pressure

Guevara and Honoroff sat down in a science room with two representatives from El Puente, a 34-year-old community organization headquartered in a former church around the corner from the school.

At the heart of each of the city’s new community schools is a marriage between the school and a nonprofit. With input from Honoroff, El Puente choose Guervara to run its operations at M.S. 50.

One of the group’s main initiatives is to send artists to work with classroom teachers to help students produce a creative project, like a play, that combines academic content with the arts. At the meeting, Guervara recounted a recent conversation with a boy who is struggling academically, but who had shined in his role as Hades in a play last year about Greek mythology.

“I love doing that,” she recalled the boy saying.

But, in a roundabout way, the group acknowledged that the program was struggling to stay on course as some classroom teachers focused their energy on other work. Honoroff pointed out that an official review of the school, and state exams, were both around the corner. The school’s results are sure to be scrutinized for signs of progress — or backsliding.

“There’s a bunch of pressure on the teachers coming up,” Honoroff said.

Frances Lucerna, El Puente’s executive director, said she understood.

“I get it,” she said. “There’s so much that’s at stake right now.”

J.H.S. 50 Principal Benjamin Honoroff at an attendance team meeting.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
J.H.S. 50 Principal Benjamin Honoroff at an attendance team meeting.

1:40 p.m. — The war room

Guevara perched on the edge of a desk in the computer lab, her attendance team assembled around her. It was the school’s equivalent of a war room, and the battle was getting kids to show up to class.

One of the central goals of the city’s community-school program is improved attendance. The idea is that no amount of instruction will get struggling students caught up if they don’t attend class.

Guevara asked for an update from Tapia, the parent and mentor. He described a “chill room” he’d set up, complete with posters of Beyoncé and Malcolm X, where students could hang out with their mentors during lunch.

Then Guevara read through a list of the most frequently absent students, asking each team member to choose a few to keep close tabs on.

Next, they went over the results of a survey of 15 students whose attendance had improved dramatically this year. In explaining why they had missed so much school last year, nine students cited illness and 11 mentioned “appointments.”

“Part of what this triggers for me is the health aspect of community schools,” Guevara told the group, saying the responses showed the need for a school-based health clinic.

Honoroff, who’d sat in the back of the room as Guevara led the meeting, found the results encouraging. If the appointments included parents taking their children with them to an immigration lawyer, he suggested, perhaps the school could offer free legal clinics.

“Great stuff, guys,” he said.

3:02 p.m. — Jumping jacks and fist bumps

The school day lasts an extra hour this year at the 94 struggling schools, part of the mayor’s plan to turn them around. But at M.S. 50, students weren’t complaining.

That’s because, in addition to receiving help with math or reading, they get to play soccer, learn to crochet, practice debating, try jazz dancing, or record podcasts, among other options.

Usually Guevara moves from room to room. But an art teacher was absent, so Guevara oversaw her mural-making class. The task that day was for students to sketch the signatures they would use to sign the mural, which will be painted in a third-floor hallway. At the end of the period, Guevara had the students unwind by doing jumping jacks, squats, and running in place.

After that, Guevara headed upstairs to meet with Carolina Hidalgo, the bilingual teacher. The two are experimenting with an alternative to parent-teacher conferences called “academic parent-teacher teams.”

Instead of the typical report-card meetings, this model has parents come into the school for three workshops throughout the year, where the teacher explains the skills that students must learn and gives parents tips for helping. It’s designed in particular for parents with limited formal educations and those still learning English, who want to be involved in their children’s learning, but don’t know how.

“It’s like you’re building your team,” Guevara explained. “Who’s going to be the support structure for the student in all their learning spaces?”

After the pair finished looking at student writing samples, Guevara stopped by Honoroff’s room to say goodbye before the break. They went over some last-minute business, then bumped fists.

“Get some rest,” she said.

Face-to-face

In ‘speed dating’ exercise, Detroiters grill school board candidates about third-grade reading, charter schools

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Corletta Vaughn, a candidate for Detroit school board, speaks to Detroiters at a forum Thursday evening as Nita Redmond (center) looks on. Vaughn says the district should be open to collaboration with charter schools and suburban districts.

On its face, the public forum Thursday night was about candidates for Detroit school board. In fact, the night belonged to the citizens.

Early in the evening, a tableful of Detroiters — most of them graduates of Detroit public schools, all of them concerned about the future of Michigan’s largest school district — set about deciding what they wanted to ask the candidates during a series of Q&A sessions that CitizenDetroit, which co-sponsored the forum with Chalkbeat, called “speed-dating.”

Shirley Corley, a first-grade reading teacher who retired from the city’s main district, honed in on the state’s “read-or-flunk” law, which could force schools in Detroit to hold back many of their third graders next year if they can’t pass a state reading exam.

“I heard that one on the TV, and I couldn’t believe my ears,” she said.

As a gong sounded, she hurried to shape her outrage into a question: “What are your plans about holding back third-grade readers, and why aren’t they reading better?”

Then Terrell George, one of the candidates for two openings on the school board, sat down across the table. She asked her question.

All across a packed union hall in Detroit’s historic Corktown neighborhood, similar scenes were playing out. Candidates rotated between tables, where they sat face-to-face with roughly 10 Detroit residents armed with prepared questions and many lifetimes-worth of combined experience with the city’s main school district. Every five minutes, someone hit a gong, and candidates got another chance to lay out their vision for the troubled district and impress the voters who will decide their future at the polls in November.

It is Detroit’s first school board election since the board regained control of Michigan’s largest district, which was run for nearly a decade by state-appointed emergency managers. And it marks a crucial milestone in the district turnaround effort led by Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, whose reforms have so far enjoyed the board’s support.

(Six of the nine candidates attended the event. Deborah Lemmons and M. Murray [the full name listed on the ballot] didn’t respond to an invitation, according to CitizenDetroit. Britney Sharp said she had a scheduling conflict and was unable to attend.)

From Natalya Henderson, a 2016 graduate of Cass Technical High School, to Reverend David Murray (his legal name), a retired social worker and minister who previously served a long, sometimes controversial stint on the school board, a broad field of candidates are vying to help steer a district through a historic turnaround effort. The winners will help decide what to do about the $500 million cost for urgent school renovations and test scores that are persistently among the worst in the nation.

(Click here to watch the candidates introduce themselves in two-minute videos, and here for short bios.)

candidate statements
PHOTO: Koby Levin
Deborah Hunter-Harvill, the lone incumbent running for school board, makes an opening statement. Candidates made one-minute opening statements, then rotated through a roomful of 130 people answering questions about their plans for the district. From left: Corletta Vaughn, Shannon Smith, Natalya Henderson, Hunter-Harvill.

The low scores are the reason the state’s third-grade reading law, which calls for students reading below grade level to be held back, will disproportionately affect Detroit. But at Table 1, Corley gleaned some hope from George’s answer to her question about the law. He said more attention should be paid to early literacy instruction: “We must start from the beginning in preschool and kindergarten.”

Corley shook her finger in approval: “That’s right.”

On the other side of the table, Viola Goolsby wanted to know how George would respond if the state attempted to close the district’s lowest-performing schools.

“I would be opposed to any school shutting down any school in any district…” George began.

Then the gong sounded. “That was quick,” George said, standing up.

The table had a five-minute break — with roughly 130 people in the room, there were more tables than the six candidates who attended — and then another candidate, Corletta Vaughn, slid into the seat reserved for candidates.

Lewis EL, a realtor who works in Detroit, read a question from the list provided by Chalkbeat and CitizenDetroit, the non-profit that hosted the event: “What are the pros and cons for the district in collaborating with charters and suburban school districts?”

Vaughn’s voice fell: “I firmly believe that the district alone is without resources. We just don’t have it. So I would like to see a collaboration.” She said other districts could help Detroit train its teachers: “I think we have to do a better job in terms of exposing our teachers to better development.”

“Are they not coming with that knowledge already?” Lula Gardfrey asked.

“But I think that we can support them more,” Vaughn replied. “Our students have mental health issues. They have economic issues. Just what the teacher learned in school isn’t going to be enough when that child arrives at 8 a.m. in the morning.”

detroiters
PHOTO: Koby Levin
Shirley Corley and Lula Gardfrey work on the questions they planned to put to candidates for Detroit school board.

When the gong sounded again, Nita Redmond felt torn. She believed Vaughn had good intentions but was suspicious of any collaboration with charter schools.

The rise of charter schools, which enroll about one-third of the city’s 100,000 students, “should have never happened,” she said. “It seems like it has lowered the regular schools.” When another candidate, Shannon Smith, joined the table, Corley got to hear a different take on her question about the third-grade reading law.

“We need to communicate with parents,” Smith said. “There are a lot of parents that aren’t aware. Second, we need to work together with the administrators and the teachers on the curriculum, and figure out which curriculum would best support the students in reading.”

On the opposite side of the hall, another table asked Deborah Hunter-Harvill, the only incumbent in the race, about her plans for improving instruction in the district.

“Because nationally we’re at the bottom in reading and math, I start from the bottom,” she said. One of our policies is that parents attend parent training free to understand what their kids are being taught. All of our parents don’t come, but if you just get 40 in one classroom in one day, they go home and tell other parents.”

Theresa White had a seat right next to Hunter-Harvill, and she liked what she saw. “That has been a culprit, the lack of participation by parents,” she said.

In the next seat over, Rainelle Burton, who attended high school in Detroit and has lived in the city for decades, came to a different conclusion.

“I’m not hearing anything that says, ‘this is inventive and creative,’” she said.

The up-close-and-personal format didn’t make things easy for the candidates.

“It was definitely not comfortable,” Vaughn said, adding that she wished she’d had access to the pre-written questions beforehand.

reverend david murray
PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Reverend David Murray, who served on the school board member for 16 years during a period when the district was largely controlled by emergency managers, said those managers were responsible for the district’s decline.

But for voters in the room, the format made things easy. In a straw poll after the event, virtually everyone in attendance said they planned to vote.

“We were able to talk to them one-on-one, it’s not just looking on TV,” Nita Redmond said, adding that she came away with a good idea of who would get her vote (she declined to say who). “We were able to talk to them and evaluate ourselves if this would be the best person to lead my district.”

Surveying the room as the forum wound down, Michelle Broughton was of two minds. She carries with her four generations of experience with the district — she is a computer instructor at Renaissance High School, her father graduated from Chatsey High School, a Detroit Public School, in 1961, her children attended the district, and her grandson is in the eighth grade at McKinsey Elementary — and she said she’d heard a lot of what she called “pie-in-the-sky” ideas at the forum.

No one had offered a solution for the roughly 90 classrooms in the district that were without a teacher on the first day of school — a problem that had affected her family in the past.

“If my child goes to school every day and comes home and says, ‘Grandma, I don’t have a math teacher,’ that child is losing weeks,” she said.

But she said the event gave her a feel for the candidates — and reminded her how many Detroiters share her dream of a thriving school district.

“I’m here because I have hope,” she said. “I see a brighter future, and I hope that I pick somebody who will help.”

Future of Schools

Here’s how new federal rules could impact Indiana’s $14M private school tax credit scholarship program

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Students at the Oaks Academy in Indianapolis, a private school, play during music practice. The Oaks accepts tax credit scholarships.

Some school choice advocates are uneasy that new federal tax rules could be detrimental to Indiana’s $14 million tax credit scholarship program.

In August, the U.S. Department of the Treasury released rules clarifying new tax law that limited how much state and local taxes an individuals could deduct from their federal taxes. Some fear the changes might discourage donors from contributing to charities like the state’s tax credit scholarship program, in which individuals and businesses can give money to fund students’ private school tuition in exchange for a tax credit from the state.

“Our primary concern is to make sure that the families who are relying on these scholarships, that they can continue to do so,” said Leslie Hiner, vice president of legal affairs for EdChoice, a national school choice advocacy organization based in Indianapolis. “There are a lot of unknowns.”

Jerry Stayton, superintendent of Elkhart Christian School, submitted a public comment about the regulations saying the scholarships are vital to helping private schools stay afloat and give opportunities to low-income families. The tax incentives have “encouraged giving to schools on a scale never before seen.”

“For the federal government to impose a tax on a state tax credit represents a strange and dangerous precedent,” Stayton wrote. “While the federal government is supreme in the United States, its strength is derived from strong, growing, supportive states with great local economies and excellent education.”

There’s optimism, though, that the regulations’ impact could be far more limited in Indiana than in other states,  given how established its scholarship program is, how low income taxes are here, and how many donors are individuals making smaller contributions.

“So far, Indiana is in a better position, I’d say, than some of the high-tax states,” Hiner said. “Nonetheless, that uncertainty is the thing … I have a lot of faith that people in Indiana, and I’m hoping, that any impact in Indiana because of its long history of charitable giving will not be great.”

Below, we break down how this news could impact Indiana’s school choice programs, as well as how the program works and got its start.

First, what are tax credit scholarships?

Indiana’s tax credit scholarship program, which lawmakers passed in 2009, lets taxpayers donate money to nonprofit, state-approved “scholarship granting organizations” in exchange for a 50 percent credit on their state taxes.

Those donations are then distributed to the nonprofits and given out to income-eligible Hoosier families as private school tuition scholarships. To participate, a family of four can’t make more than $92,870 per year.

In 2018-19, the program could distribute as much as $14 million in tax credits, though the amount that can be donated has no cap. Indiana’s tax credit cap has steadily increased up from $2.5 million since 2009.

While the use of vouchers far outstrips the tax credit scholarships, the program is still sizable. It serves 348 private schools across the state. In 2017, the program awarded 9,349 scholarships totaling more than $16 million.

The National Conference of State Legislatures reports that as of 2017, 17 states had tax credit scholarship programs. The largest one in the country is in Florida, where many corporations participate and the program collects and doles out hundreds of millions of dollars each year.

Is the program controversial?

Yes, though it gets far less attention than Indiana’s voucher program, where families use state tax dollars to pay for private school tuition. It also predates vouchers, which weren’t allowed in the state until 2011.

Tax credit scholarship supporters say the donations benefit students in need who otherwise could attend the school of their choice. They also argue the programs can results in savings for states, as the cost for the tax credits is lower than the cost to educate students in public schools.

Critics of the program say it’s just another version of state-subsidized private school, not unlike vouchers. They also point out it is unclear whether these programs allow states to save money — partially because data on where students go to school and how they transfer between public and private schools can be hard to track.

In Indiana, students do not need to have attended a public school before receiving a tax credit scholarship, and the scholarships can pay up to the full tuition amount at their desired school.

What’s the IRS rule change that is causing the concerns?

It comes in response to a part of the 2017 federal tax bill that limited how much state and local taxes someone could deduct from their federal taxes — up to $10,000. Hiner said federal officials proposed the change to allow the government to get more revenue. Giving fewer opportunities for deductions means the government collects more in tax dollars.

In order to get around the $10,000 cap, some high-tax states, such as New York, California, and New Jersey, took advantage of tax credit programs. As a result, the IRS proposed new rules that prohibit the tax credit workaround, and that’s what has school choice supporters up in arms.

“The IRS had a good reason for taking action, but unfortunately in taking action against those bad actors, they swept in thousands of nonprofits across the country,” Hiner said.

How will the rule change affect Indiana?

Advocates hope is that Indiana won’t take as big a hit as other states with higher taxes.

In a press release, the treasury department said most taxpayers will not be affected by the change, with about 1 percent of taxpayers seeing “an effect on tax benefits for donations to school choice tax credit programs.”

It’s really not clear yet if that will come to pass, Hiner said, because taxes won’t be filed until next year. No one can really say now how donors might change their behavior.

The state-approved nonprofit “scholarship granting organizations” that manage private tuition scholarship funds are already fielding questions from donors. Indiana has seven such organizations, six of which are currently granting scholarships.

“The one thing we’re stressing with everyone is to always contact your accountant, financial advisor, or tax preparer to walk through what the impacts could be,” said Betsy Wiley, executive director of the Institute for Quality Education, one of the state’s scholarship granting organizations.

But in Indiana, according to an analysis from CNBC, taxpayers on average don’t claim deductions over $10,000. While the rule change could impact corporations or very large individual donors, most Hoosiers don’t fall in those categories. The vast majority of donors are individuals, and 43 percent of those donations are for less than $1,000, Wiley said.

Wiley hopes the federal government decides to pause implementing these new rules until after taxes for 2018 are filed. This would give donors and nonprofits more time to understand what the effect might be so they can adjust at the state level.

Federal officials are collecting feedback through November, when there will be another hearing on the rules.