Back to school

This school year in NYC: extra guidance counselors, computer science classes, literacy coaches and more

First Lady Chirlane McCray (far left), walks with guidance counselor Rashida Sealy (left), student Chyna Huertas (center), Mayor Bill de Blasio (right) and schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña.

More than a million students flooded New York City classrooms on Thursday, the first day of classes for 2016-17.

In what has become a back-to-school tradition, Chancellor Carmen Fariña went on a five-borough tour to showcase the education department’s priorities and new initiatives. Mayor Bill de Blasio joined for a few stops, and made others on his own, to highlight the department’s Equity and Excellence agenda.

7:55 a.m.: The day started with a stroll to I.S. 392 in Brownsville, Brooklyn, with de Blasio, first lady Chirlane McCray and Fariña accompanying Chyna Huertas, a seventh-grade student, to school.

Also along for the walk was Rashida Sealey, a Single Shepherd guidance counselor who will keep an eye on Chyna as she works her way through middle school.

The Single Shepherd initiative is new this year. It brings about 100 additional counselors to schools in District 23 in Brooklyn and District 7 in the South Bronx — both of which have among the lowest graduation rates in the city.

The ratio of students to counselors in those schools will be 100 to one — a potentially heavy load in a challenging community, but still below the nationally recommended limit for guidance counselors.

“Sometimes, all it takes is an additional adult in a young child’s life,” McCray said. “The Single Shepherd program is going to be so helpful with that.”

Each middle- and high-school student in the targeted districts will be paired with a counselor who will do “whatever it takes,” Fariña said recently, to make sure the student ultimately graduates and goes to college. That means working not only with students, but families too.

“This is going to make a real difference for our school,” said I.S. 392 Principal Ingrid Joseph.

Students in Claudia Ramirez's third-grade class at P.S. 254 The Rosa Parks School in Queens learn the basics of computer programming.
Students in Claudia Ramirez’s third-grade class at P.S. 254 The Rosa Parks School in Queens learn the basics of computer programming.

10 a.m.: Claudia Ramirez wasted no time. Within the first hours of the new school year, her third-graders at P.S. 254 The Rosa Parks School in Queens were busy learning computer programming.

Groups of students arranged colorful sheets of construction paper in a grid on the floor. Under one of them, a picture of Superman was hidden. One student gave directions to help another move forward and backward, left and right, to find the hidden image.

Though the lesson was “unplugged” — students didn’t touch a computer or look at a screen — it was designed to demonstrate a basic aspect of computer programming: the concept of an algorithm.

“We are growing our kids to ultimately be programmers,” Fariña said.

Ramirez was trained over the summer in how to deliver these kinds of lessons and said the experience had an immediate impact on her teaching. Without it, she explained, she would probably be doing a simple get-to-know-you activity on the first day of school.

“As a teacher, you see the interest of students is video games, Minecraft and technology, and I wanted to get better [at reaching them],” she said.

The Department of Education is launching its Computer Science for All program in 200 additional elementary, middle and high schools this year, bringing officials closer to their goal of offering the subject in every school by 2025.

Schools Chancellor Carmn Fariña reads to second grade students at PS 218 Rafael Hernandez Dual Language Magnet School in the Bronx.
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña reads to second grade students at P.S. 218 Rafael Hernandez Dual Language Magnet School in the Bronx.

11:15 a.m.: Ronny Veloz was excited to talk to his partner. He had some ideas about why David, a character in the book their literacy coach was reading aloud, was making a mess in the lunchroom.

“Maybe because he didn’t wait his turn,” Ronny guessed.

Later the coach, Yokasta Sanchez, would coax Ronny to use complete sentences when sharing his reasoning with the whole class. It was one of the strategies that Sanchez was trained in over 15 days this summer before starting her new position at Rafael Hernandez Dual Language Magnet School in the Bronx.

The Department of Education has flooded Districts 9, 10, 17 and 32 — which have among the lowest reading scores in the city — with additional literacy coaches this year. They will support teachers by providing tips and modeling lessons to help build better readers. Their focus will be on kindergarten through second grade.

“They are not assigned to school to do coverages or be substitutes. They are there for one purpose only, and that is to be literacy coaches assisting teachers,” Fariña said. “And that is a real shift from things in the past.”

De Blasio and Fariña have set ambitious literacy goals for the city’s young learners. By 2026, they aim to have every third-grade student reading on grade level. When de Blasio first took office, only about 30 percent of city students were proficient in English by third grade.

Lucia Herndon, a seventh-grade student at Washington Heights Academy M.S. 366, talks about her college plans.
Lucia Herndon, a seventh grade student at Washington Heights Academy M.S. 366, talks about her college plans.

Noon: Lucia Herndon just started seventh grade, but she is already thinking about college.

On the first day of school, Lucia was in a college advisement class at Washington Heights Academy M.S. 366, thinking about careers she might want to pursue. She has already visited Barnard College and several others.

“I like the idea of going to a women’s college that encourages female empowerment,” she said.

After a pilot this spring, the Department of Education is rolling out College Access for All at 167 middle schools across 10 districts this school year. Designed to get students thinking about college and careers early, the program aims to eventually include campus tours for all middle schoolers, advising sessions like the one Lucia was in Thursday, and family supports like workshops on how to apply to schools.

“It’s really important to have a goal in your mind, and know where you want to go,” Fariña told the students in Washington Heights.

Mayor Bill de Blasio and schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña touted their "community schools" model at Port Richmond Community High School in Staten Island on the first day of the 2016/2017 school year.
Mayor Bill de Blasio and schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña touted the “community schools” model at Port Richmond Community High School on Staten Island on the first day of the 2016-17 school year.

1:45 p.m.: The day ended at Port Richmond Community High School on Staten Island, a community school that partners with organizations to offer students health care and mentoring along with family assistance like a food pantry and parent fitness programs.

“This is one of the things that really typifies community schools: The notion of reaching a child, every part of them, everything they need to excel,” Mayor de Blasio said at a press conference after touring the school.

De Blasio has made community schools a key feature of his effort to turn around struggling schools. There are more than 100 already throughout the city, and plans to add another hundred by the end of 2017. The model has been lauded nationally, though there are questions over whether the added supports translate into academic gains.

Controversy

Boundary lines of proposed South Loop high school drive wedge between communities

PHOTO: Cassie Walker Burke
About 30 speakers weighed in on a boundary proposal for a new South Loop high school at a public meeting at IIT.

The parent, wearing an “I Love NTA” T-shirt, said it loudly and directly toward the end of the public comment section Thursday night. “It sickens me to be here today and see so many people fighting for scraps,” said Kawana Hebron, in a public meeting on the boundaries for a proposed South Loop high school on the current site of National Teachers Academy. “Every community on this map is fighting for scraps.”

The 1,200-student high school, slated to open for the 2019-2020 school year near the corner of Cermak Road and State Street, has become a wedge issue dividing communities and races on the Near South Side.

Supporters of NTA, which is a 82 percent black elementary school, say pressure from wealthy white and Chinese families is leading the district to shutter its exceptional 1-plus rated program. A lawsuit filed in Circuit Court of Cook County in June by parents and supporters contends the decision violates the Illinois Civil Rights Code. 

But residents of Chinatown and the condo-and-crane laden South Loop have lobbied for an open-enrollment high school for years and that the district is running out of places to put one.

“I worry for my younger brother,” said a 15-year-old who lives between Chinatown and Bridgeport and travels north to go to the highly selective Jones College Prep. She said that too many students compete for too few seats in the nail-biting process to get into a selective enrollment high school. Plus, she worries about the safety, and environment, of the schools near her home. “We want something close, but good.”

PHOTO: Courtesy of Chicago Public Schools
The “general attendance” boundary for the proposed South Loop high school is outlined in blue. The neighborhoods outlined in red would receive “preference,” but they would not be guaranteed seats.

One by one, residents of Chinatown or nearby spoke in favor of the high school at the meeting in Hermann Hall at the Illinois Institute of Technology. They described their long drives, their fearfulness of dropping off children in schools with few, if any, Chinese students, and their concerns about truancy and poor academics at some neighboring open-enrollment high schools.

But their comments were sandwiched by dissenting views. A member of South Loop Elementary’s Local School Council argued that Chicago Public Schools has not established a clear process when it comes to shuttering an elementary and spending $10 million to replace it with a high school. “CPS scheduled this meeting at the same time as a capital budget meeting,” she complained.

She was followed by another South Loop parent who expressed concerns about potential overcrowding, the limited $10 million budget for the conversion, and the genesis of the project. “It’s a terrible way to start a new high school – on the ashes of a good elementary school,” the parent said.

The most persistent critique Thursday night was not about the decision to close NTA, but, rather, of the boundary line that would determine who gets guaranteed access and who doesn’t. The GAP, a diverse middle-class neighborhood bordered by 31st on the north, 35th on the South, King Drive to the east and LaSalle Street to the west, sits just outside the proposed boundary. A parade of GAP residents said they’ve been waiting for decades for a good option for their children but have been locked out in this iteration of the map. Children who live in the GAP would have “preference” status but would not be guaranteed access to seats.

“By not including our children into the guaranteed access high school boundaries – they are being excluded from high-quality options,” said Claudia Silva-Hernandez, the mother of two children, ages 5 and 7. “Our children deserve the peace of mind of a guaranteed-access option just like the children of South Loop, Chinatown, and Bridgeport.”

Leonard E. McGee, the president of the GAP Community Organization, said that tens of millions in tax-increment financing dollars – that is, money that the city collects on top of property tax revenues that is intended for economic development in places that need it most – originated from the neighborhood in the 1980s and went to help fund the construction of NTA. But not many of the area’s students got seats there.

Asked how he felt about the high school pitting community groups against each other, he paused. “If we’re all fighting for scraps, it must be a good scrap we’re fighting for.”

The meeting was run by Herald “Chip” Johnson, chief officer of CPS’ Office of Family and Community Engagement. He said that detailed notes from the meeting will be handed over to the office of CEO Janice Jackson. She will make a final recommendation to the Board of Education, which will put the plan up for a vote.

departures

As fate of ‘Newark Enrolls’ is debated, top enrollment officials resign

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

The top officials overseeing Newark’s controversial school-enrollment system have resigned just weeks after the school board blocked the new superintendent from ousting them.

Their departure creates new uncertainty for Newark Enrolls, one of the few enrollment systems in the country that allows families to apply to district and charter schools through a single online portal. Proponents say the centralized system simplifies the application process for families and gives them more options, while critics say it undermines traditional neighborhood schools while boosting charter-school enrollment.

Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon, chief of the Newark Public Schools division that includes enrollment, and Kate Fletcher, executive director of the enrollment office, both departed on Friday. The district did not provide information about why they left or who — if anyone — will replace them, and neither of the two could be reached for comment.

Their departure comes after Superintendent Roger León, who took over on July 1, included them among 31 officials and administrators who were given the option to resign or face being fired. Days later, the school board approved all but nine of the dismissals; Ramos-Solomon and Fletcher were among those spared.

Both officials were hired in 2013 shortly before former Superintendent Cami Anderson unveiled the enrollment system, then called One Newark, as part of a sweeping overhaul that also included closing some schools. Parents were outraged by the closures and the system’s glitchy rollout, which left some students without school placements and separated other students from their siblings.

In recent years, Ramos-Solomon has overseen improvements to the system, including tweaking the computer algorithm that matches students with schools to give a greater boost to families who live near their chosen schools. While district data shows that most students are matched with one of their top choices, critics remain wary of the system and some — including some board members — call for it to be dismantled.

León, a veteran Newark educator who was expected by some observers to oppose Newark Enrolls, said in a private meeting with charter-school leaders that he intends to keep the process in place. But he will have to win over the board, whose members have asked the district skeptical questions about the system in recent months, such as why some students are reportedly matched with charter schools they didn’t apply to. (The district says that does not happen.)

Board member Tave Padilla said he was not aware that Ramos-Solomon or Fletcher had resigned, and did not know whether replacements had been lined up. He added that the board had not discussed the fate of Newark Enrolls since a meeting in June where Ramos-Solomon provided information about the system, nor has the full board discussed the matter with León.

“The district now does have the option to keep what we have in place, modify it, or do away with it,” he said. “Whether we choose to do that or not, I don’t know.”