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Here’s one way New York City is encouraging more school collaboration

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
P.S. 154 Assistant Principal Jessica Cruz chats with other educators at a Monday event for the city's Showcase Schools.

Nigel Pugh knows many of his students can’t have open conversations about gender and sexuality with their parents, and that it can be risky for them to bring those discussions to school.

So as principal of Manhattan’s Richard R. Green High School of Teaching, a school that has a reputation for attracting LGBT students, Pugh has made sure there are opportunities to talk about everything from controversial transgender bathroom ordinances, to what it means to be a non-traditional family.

“Most people in a high school have a very traditional view of gender,” said Pugh. “But we have a number of students and one visiting teacher who are in the process of transitioning and rethinking their gender.” Some students, he added, “wanted to bring more sophisticated, more nuanced discussions to the table.”

But those discussions won’t necessarily stay confined to that school. Starting this fall, Richard R. Green will open its doors to dozens of educators from around the city to show off the ways those conversations are unfolding: from lunchtime and afterschool groups, to a training program — partially developed by a student — that helps teachers understand the terminology surrounding different gender identities.

Richard R. Green is one of the city’s “Showcase Schools,” a program designed to help spread effective teaching practices by asking schools to host dozens of educators at least three times throughout the year. Launched three years ago with 17 schools, the program will include 37 this coming school year, 11 more than last year.

Nigel Pugh (left) chats with Lorraine Pierre, a teacher leader at West Side Collaborative Middle School
PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Nigel Pugh (left) chats with Lorraine Pierre, a teacher leader at West Side Collaborative Middle School.

Its expansion highlights schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña’s philosophy of school improvement, which centers on expanding opportunities for teacher training and collaboration. Roughly 300 of the city’s 1,800 public schools will participate in one of three initiatives designed to encourage schools to share ideas — including the Learning Partners Program, where one host school partners with a small cluster of others to share its strengths; the Middle School Quality Initiative, which focuses on literacy; and Showcase.

“We know that top-down solutions […] and competition aren’t going to help us get better,” Deputy Chancellor Phil Weinberg told a room full of next year’s Showcase schools, which the education department gathered earlier this week to launch this year’s program. “We have an obligation to be teachers not just of our students, but each other,” he said.

The participating Showcase schools were chosen for a variety of strengths, ranging from early childhood literacy, to the arts. Some school leaders said the program is already making a difference.

After visiting a “Showcase” interdisciplinary arts program at P.S. 69 in Brooklyn, Kasandra Lopez-Garcia, assistant principal at P.S. 39 in Staten Island, helped revamp her own school’s curriculum to include art in multiple subjects. In social studies, for instance, students at P.S. 39 now make models of covered wagons in a unit about westward exploration of the United States. “It gives students with different kinds of intelligence a chance to shine,” she said.

The Showcase program also features schools that aren’t always celebrated, including one from Mayor Bill de Blasio’s “Renewal” turnaround program.

That school, the South Bronx’s P.S. 154, was chosen partly because it encourages its paraprofessionals (who often work one-on-one with disabled students) to also work with small groups of students. That frees up the classroom teacher to shuttle around the room and check in on each student’s progress.

“It helps you utilize the resources you already have,” said Assistant Principal Jessica Cruz, of the school’s use of paraprofessionals. “What we found is [they] don’t just want to sit there” when their assigned student doesn’t need immediate attention, she added.

Still, some leaders acknowledged that despite being selected as model schools, there is still room for improvement within their own walls. Pugh, whose school is being spotlighted for its attention to LGBT students, said it will likely take years of work before all sexual orientations and gender identities are accepted outside of the “safe spaces” that have been constructed for them.

“I hope that other schools will realize this work is important and urgent,” Pugh said. “The work we’re doing is maybe slightly ahead of the curve.”

Finding a home

Denver school board permanently co-locates charter elementary in middle school building

Students and staffers at Rocky Mountain Prep's first charter school in Denver cheer in 2012. (Photo by The Denver Post)

A Denver elementary charter school that was temporarily granted space in a shuttering district-run middle school building will now be housed there permanently.

The school board voted Thursday to permanently place Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest charter school in the Kepner Middle School building, where it is sharing space this year with three other school programs. Such co-locations can be controversial but have become more common in a district with skyrocketing real estate prices and ambitious school quality goals.

Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest is part of a homegrown charter network that has shown promising academic results. The network also has a school in Aurora and is expected to open a third Denver school next year in the northwest part of the city.

Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest was first placed at Kepner for the 2015-16 school year. The placement was supposed to be temporary. The district had decided the year before to phase out low-performing Kepner and replace it a new district-run middle school, Kepner Beacon, and a new charter middle school, STRIVE Prep Kepner, which is part of a larger network. The district also temporarily placed a third charter school there: Compass Academy.

Compass has since moved out of Kepner but the other four schools remain: Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest, Kepner Beacon, STRIVE Prep Kepner and the Kepner Legacy Middle School, which is on track to be completely phased out and closed by June 2019.

In a written recommendation to the school board, district officials acknowledged that permanently placing Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest at Kepner would create a space crunch.

The Kepner campus has the capacity to serve between 1,100 and 1,500 students, the recommendation says. Once all three schools reach full size, officials expect the schools will enroll a total of approximately 1,250 students. Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest currently serves students in preschool through third grade with a plan to add more grades.

“DPS facilities staff are currently working with all three schools to create a long‐term vision for the campus, including facility improvements that ensure all three schools have what they need to continue to excel,” says the recommendation from Chief Operating Officer David Suppes and Director of Operations and Support Services Liz Mendez.

District staff tried to find an alternate location for Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest but were unsuccessful, the recommendation says. The district does not have many available buildings, and competition for them among district-run and charter schools can be fierce. In northeast Denver, seven secondary schools are currently vying for the use of a shuttered elementary.

Future of Schools

Indianapolis needs tech workers. IPS hopes that George Washington will help fill that gap.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

Indiana companies are looking for workers with computer expertise, and Indianapolis Public Schools leaders want their students to fill that gap.

Next year, George Washington High School will launch a specialized information technology academy designed to give students the skills to pursue careers in IT — and the exposure to know what jobs even exist.

“Half of what kids aspire to be is either someone they know does it or they’ve seen it on TV,” said Karen Jung, president of Nextech, a nonprofit that works to increase computer science preparation in K-12 schools. Nextech is partnering with IPS to develop the new IT program at George Washington.

For teens who don’t know anyone working in computer science, meeting role models is essential, Jung said. When teens see women of color or artists working in computer sciences, they realize there are opportunities for people like them.

“Once we put them in front of and inside of workplaces … it clicks,” Jung said. They believe “they would belong.”

The IT program is one of three academies that will open in George Washington next year as part of a broad plan to close nearly half of the district’s high schools and add specialized focus areas at the four remaining campuses. In addition to the IT academy, George Washington will have programs in: advanced manufacturing, engineering, and logistics; and business and finance.

The district is also moving to a model without neighborhood high schools. Students will be expected to choose high schools based on focus area rather than location. This year, many current high schoolers were required to reapply in an effort to make sure they enroll in academies that fit their interests.

The district will host a showcase of schools to help parents and students with their selections. The showcase runs from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday at the Indiana State Museum.

Stan Law, principal of Arlington High School now, will take over George Washington next year. (Arlington will close at the end of this year.) He said the new academies offer an opportunity for students to see what they need to master — from soft skills to knowledge — to get good jobs when they graduate.

“I want kids to really make the connection of the purpose of high school,” Law said. “It is that foundation for the rest of your life, in terms of the quality of life that you are going to live.”

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Stan Law

When the IT academy launches next year, students who select the program will be able to spend about one to two classes per year focused on information technology, said Ben Carter, who runs career and technical education for IPS.

Carter hopes the academies will reshape George Washington and other IPS campuses by connecting potential careers with the work students do everyday at school. Students who share a focus area will be in a cohort, and they will share many of the same core classes such as English, math and history, said Carter. Teachers, in turn, will be able to relate what students are studying in their history class to projects they are working on in the IT program, for example.

To show students what a career in information technology might look like, students will have the chance to tour, connect with mentors and intern at local companies.

“If I’m in one of these career classes — I’m in software development, but then I get to go to Salesforce and walk through and see the environment, to me as a student, that’s inspiring,” said Carter. “It’s like, ‘oh, this is what I can have.’ ”

He added. “It increases engagement but also gives them a true sense of what the career is.”