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.

regents roundup

Regents support a new way of evaluating charter schools and soften penalties for schools with high opt-out rates

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Chancellor Betty Rosa, center, at a recent Board of Regents meeting.

New York’s top education policymakers tentatively approved new rules Monday on two hot-button issues: the penalties for districts and schools where many students opt out of state tests — and how nearly 100 charter schools across the state will be evaluated.

Here’s what you need to know about the new policies that the state’s Board of Regents set in motion.

Potential penalties for high opt-out rates were softened

After criticism from activists and parents within the opt-out movement and pushback from the state teachers union, the Regents walked back some of the consequences schools and districts can face when students refuse to take state exams.

Among the most significant changes, which state officials first floated last week, is that districts with high opt-out rates will not be required to use a portion of their federal funding to increase their testing rates.

“I do not ever want to be the person who takes money away from children,” State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said.

The regulations are part of the state’s plan under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act and stem from a federal mandate that 95 percent of students take the state’s annual reading and math exams.

The Regents tweaked other rules requiring schools to create improvement plans if they fall below the 95 percent threshold. Schools with average or higher test scores will not have to come up with those plans.

Still, some parents who support the opt-out movement and who attended Monday’s meeting said the changes don’t go far enough and that schools with lower test scores should also be exempt from coming up with plans to boost participation rates.

“There’s still so much left to be addressed,” said Kemala Karmen, a New York City public school parent who attended the meeting.

The new regulations will likely not have a major effect in New York City, where opt-out rates have remained relatively low. Although New York State has been the epicenter of the test-boycott movement — with roughly one in five students refusing to take the tests, according to the most recent data — less than 4 percent of the city’s students declined to take them.

The Regents unanimously approved the changes, although their vote is technically preliminary. The tweaks will still be subject to a 30-day public comment period and will likely be brought to a final vote in December.

New criteria for evaluating charter schools

The Regents also narrowly approved a new framework for evaluating the roughly 100 charter schools that the board oversees across the state, 63 of which are in New York City.

The new framework is meant to bring charter schools in line with how the state judges district-run schools. Under the new federal education law, the Regents have moved away from emphasizing test scores as the key indicator of a school’s success.

In keeping with that shift, the new charter framework will require schools to have policies covering chronic absenteeism, out-of-school suspension rates, and other measures of school culture to help decide whether they are successful enough to remain open.

And while the new framework does not spell out specific rates of chronic absenteeism a school must fall below, for example, it does explicitly add those policies to the mix of factors the Regents consider. (Officials said that test scores and graduation rates would still remain among the most important factors in evaluating charter schools.)

At Monday’s meeting, discussion of the charter framework prompted broad complaints about the charter sector from some Regents. The state’s framework for evaluating charters was last updated in 2015; the board has added several new members and a new chancellor since then.

The current board has repeatedly sent mixed messages about the sector, approving large batches of new charters while also rejecting others and raising questions about whether the schools serve a fair share of high-need students.

“We’re giving money away from our public schools to charters,” Regent Kathy Cashin said, emphasizing that she believes the state should more deeply probe when students leave charter schools and survey families to find out why.

Charters receive some freedom from rules governing most district-run schools, but in exchange the schools are expected to meet certain performance benchmarks or else face closure.

State officials said the new framework does not include new standards for how New York judges enrollment and retention. Under the current rules, schools must enroll a similar number of students with disabilities, English learners, and low-income students as other nearby district schools. If they don’t, they must show that they’re making progress toward that goal.

Ultimately, the new framework was approved eight to five in a preliminary vote and will be brought back to the full board for approval on Tuesday.

school security

How Chicago schools’ fingerprinting requirements are scaring away undocumented parents

PHOTO: Scott Olson/Getty Images
Demonstrators at a June rally in the Little Village neighborhood called for the elimination of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. A letter circulating among public school parents warns of unintended consequences of fingerprinting school council members because of concerns over deportations.

Parents and community leaders are calling on Chicago Public Schools to back away from a requirement for fingerprinting elected school council members, in light of widespread immigrant fears of deportation. The letter, which you can read below, is addressed to Mayor Rahm Emanuel and district leadership.

A group of Local School Council members at New Field Elementary, in Rogers Park, started the letter in English and Spanish after a fellow council member whom they believe to be undocumented refused to be fingerprinted because of fears of deportation.

“They want to have say in the education of kids — but it’s not worth it to risk deportation or be separated from their families,” said Annie Gill-Bloyer, a New Field LSC member who is helping circulate the notice.  

Gill-Bloyer, the parent of a second-grader at the school, said that the adults on the elected councils don’t have any unsupervised contact with children. “There are always several adults in that meeting, including the principal,” she said.

Per Illinois state law, all school council members are required to undergo a fingerprint-based background check, and prospective candidates are made aware of this requirement upon filing as a candidate. But some of them told Chalkbeat that the policy was not previously enforced. Local School Councils help select principals, review school-level budgets, and monitor school improvement plans. 

The issue highlights the balancing act that is bridging communities and schools, while keeping students safe. “The district remains committed to improving efforts to bolster student safety and protections and we also remain a district that welcomes and values all families from all backgrounds,” said CPS spokeswoman Emily Bolton in a statement.

Starting this summer, Chicago Public Schools began doubling down on background rechecks and fingerprinting in the wake of a series of articles from the Chicago Tribune that exposed gaps in how the district handled allegations of student sexual misconduct at the hands of adults. The district announced several new policy changes and precautions before the start of school, including new trainings for staff, hiring for a 20-person Office of Student Protections and Title IX, and a districtwide poster campaign that spells out how to report suspected misconduct.

The district also has required all employees, vendors, coaches, and other adults who spend a significant amount of time working or volunteering in schools to undergo background rechecks and fingerprinting. Snafus with background checks threatened to delay the start of school for dozens of teachers and have held up staffing in other areas, such as nurses.

Gill-Bloyer said her group decided to write the letter after they called the Office of Local School Council Relations and were told the background checks would be enforced. The group was told that council members who didn’t comply could be removed as early as this fall.    

Calling the background checks and fingerprinting an “unacceptably high barrier to participation” for Hispanic/Latinx families, whose children make up nearly half of the Chicago’s public school population, the letter asks district leadership to reclassify Local School Council members as Level II volunteers — a category that doesn’t require fingerprinting. Council members tend to meet only a few hours per month in schools, often after school hours, and are not typically alone with children.

We understand the necessity of thoroughly screening all adults who work with and around our children in light of the horrifying revelations of sexual abuse and assault,” the letter reads. But, with respect to Local School Council members, “a blanket solution has created unwanted and unintended consequences.”

A Level II volunteer is the same status conferred to a parent who volunteers to go on a field trip or who volunteers in a school for fewer than 10 hours a week. Similarly, those volunteers are not allowed to be alone with children. Level I volunteer status — which requires fingerprinting and background checks — covers coaches and chaperones of overnight field trips.

The letter says that requiring school council members to submit their fingerprints and personal information to an electronic database for background checks exposes undocumented members and their dependents to “the very real risk” of having their information shared with Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents.

Chicago has adopted the “sanctuary city” designation, which essentially means that city officials pledge to limit cooperation with federal law enforcement in deportation cases, unless a resident was involved in a serious crime. The letter notes that stance when asking for the reclassification of school council members to Level II volunteer status.