BULLYING PREVENTION

After fatal Bronx school stabbing, New York City launches new anti-bullying programs

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Student activists held a conference outside City Hall Monday ahead of a City Council hearing on school bullying.

The city education department unveiled a suite of new anti-bullying initiatives Monday, just over a month after a student who claimed to have been the victim of bullying stabbed a 15-year-old classmate to death inside their Bronx school.

The $8 million package of programs includes a new online tool for families to reporting bullying incidents, anti-bullying training for students and school staff members, and funding for student-support clubs such as those for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students. In addition, the department will begin allowing bullying victims to request school transfers, will require schools to come up with individual plans for dealing with students who bully others, and will provide extra training and support to the 300 schools with the highest bullying rates.

“These new initiatives will build upon ongoing work to ensure that all schools have safe, supportive, and inclusive learning environments,” schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña said Monday during a City Council hearing on the issue of bullying Monday, which was scheduled after the Bronx stabbing that also left a 16-year-old student seriously wounded.

On Friday, Fariña announced that she had removed Principal Astrid Jacobo from the Urban Assembly School for Wildlife Conservation, the school where 18-year-old Abel Cedeno is accused of stabbing two classmates on Sept. 27. The local superintendent will help find a replacement and support the school in the interim, a department spokeswoman said.

Soon after the stabbings, reports of pervasive bullying and discipline problems at the school emerged; on surveys, just 55 percent of students there last year reported feeling safe in the school’s hallways, bathrooms, locker rooms, and cafeteria, compared to 84 percent of students citywide. In a jailhouse interview with The Daily News and the New York Post, Cedeno said schoolmates had long taunted him with racist and homophobic slurs. (Meanwhile, the slain student’s family has filed a notice that they plan to sue the education department for $25 million for failing to protect the victims, according to their lawyer.)

Fariña visited the school several times after the stabbing, which was the first student-on-student killing in a city school in over two decades. Still, as recently as last week she suggested during an interview on NY1 that no “red flags” had been “really apparent” before the violent episode, and that what had been reported by the media was not “necessarily the whole story” — though it was unclear what additional information she was referring to.

During Monday’s hearing, Bronx City Councilman Ritchie Torres criticized the department for failing to publicly explain why Principal Jacobo was removed from the school, and what discipline problems existed there prior to the stabbing.

“I’m concerned about the lack of transparency from the DOE,” he said.

Torres also asked the chancellor whether there was a “systemic” problem of bullying at that school. She responded that “there is obviously a problem” but that “systemic is a very big word,” adding that she would reserve judgement until the investigation is complete. Speaking to reporters after the hearing, Fariña did not offer any explanation as to why she chose to remove the principal other than to say it provided the school a “fresh start.”

“I think it’s a fresh start for everyone and I think it’s an opportunity to start with a clean slate,” she said.

Throughout Monday’s hearing, city council members raised questions about how the education department responds when school surveys reveal large numbers of staff or students who feel unsafe, and whether the city’s bullying statistics are reliable.

Councilman Daniel Dromm, chair of the education committee, rattled off statistics from multiple schools where large numbers students and staff reported that they did not feel safe or faced bullying.

Fariña said the city does review survey data, and that troubling results prompt extra scrutiny from education department officials. “Once the numbers skew in any one direction we have at least one person who’s looking at them very closely,” she said.

Officials also faced questions about whether the city’s bullying statistics reflect the true number of incidents.

Last school year, 3,281 incidents of bullying, harassment, or intimidating behavior in city schools were reported to the state, Fariña said. But more than 700 schools reported zero incidents of bullying, Dromm said, and a 2016 report by the State Education Department and attorney general found “significant underreporting.”

Education officials emphasized that many incidents of bullying are never reported to school personnel or are not serious enough to merit reporting to the state.

The new online bullying-complaint tool is set to launch in 2019, officials said. Families who report bullying or harassment will be informed within one day that their complaint was received, and within 10 days will be told the outcome of the investigation.

In the past, families could request that their children be transferred to a different school if they were the victim of a violent crime in the school or if they felt their children were unsafe there. The new policy will now allow “safety transfer” requests by any student who has experienced bullying, the department said.

In addition to the new programs and policies, the education department will begin publicly reporting the number of substantiated incidents of bullying, harassment, intimidation, or discrimination at each school. City Council members had previously proposed a bill that would require the department to release that information; on Monday, the department said Fariña supported the bill.

The anti-bullying measures announced Monday drew mixed reactions from advocates who said they were glad the city is taking action, but questioned whether these steps are enough to root out systemic problems.

Dawn Yuster, the school justice project director at Advocates for Children, said elements of the city’s plan were not yet clear, including precisely how the city will intervene in the 300 schools they plan to identify with higher rates of bullying.

“All of this is coming out on the day of a hearing prompted by a tragedy and we don’t know some of the details behind these initiatives,” Yuster said. “It’s promising, but it’s not enough.”

Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said she appreciated that officials are devoting more resources to bullying prevention, but said a larger investment is needed to fundamentally change how schools respond to student conflicts and misbehavior.

“There are still a thousand more school safety agents than guidance counselors and social workers,” she said. “And that speaks too loudly about where the city is investing its resources.”

what's next?

Policymakers agree virtual schools should get more teachers and less money. Will they make it happen?

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
A view outside of Indiana Virtual School's office, located in an office park at the northern edge of Marion County.

After Chalkbeat revealed widespread low-performance and unusual spending at Indiana Virtual School, there were no immediate plans to change how the fast-growing but relatively little-known online charter school operates.

Rep. Bob Behning, the House Education Committee chairman who is one of Indiana’s most influential education lawmakers, has not commented after repeated requests for an interview.

Senate Democrats have no education priorities specified for the upcoming year.

And Senate Republicans and House Democrats haven’t yet released their 2018 plans. Sen. Dennis Kruse, the Republican chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said he largely thought Indiana’s charter laws were fine, although he was open to tweaking aspects of the law — such as whether authorizers of failing charter schools should be allowed to open additional schools.

But national and even local charter school advocates — including those who could affect public policy — agree changes need to be made at Indiana Virtual School and online charters more broadly across the state. Some were blunt in their assessment of the school, which since 2011 has enrolled thousands of students and failed to graduate most of them. It also has a barebones teaching force, low test scores, and two F grades from the state.

“The whole thing is a mess,” said Tony Walker, a pro-charter school Democrat on the Indiana State Board of Education.

Read: As students signed up, online school hired barely any teachers — but founder’s company charged it millions

And the school’s problems aren’t limited to academics. Walker also called out the school’s lenient attendance policy, lack of real-time teaching and choice not to provide computers to students.

“Them not having an online platform that permits them to have live courses should be a deal-breaker … You should never have an online school that exists without that,” he said. “You should never have an online school that’s chartered that does not provide the means to access the school to its students. If you’re not giving your students laptops, then you shouldn’t exist.”

What’s more, Thomas Stoughton, Indiana Virtual’s founder, previously headed a for-profit company that charged millions of dollars in management fees and rent to the school while he was school board president. Stoughton is also leading the school’s growth — a second Indiana school opened this year, and plans for Michigan and Texas schools are in the works.

Although Indiana’s legislative session won’t begin until January — and it’s looking like a year where education won’t be center stage — Democrat and Republican lawmakers indicated interest in making changes to laws governing virtual schools, but nothing more.

Doing nothing just isn’t acceptable, said Rep. Terri Austin, a Democrat from Anderson and a former educator.

“Surely given the statistics the General Assembly has an obligation to take a look what’s happening,” she said.

Walker said Indiana Virtual School’s student-teacher ratio jumped out at him. At the end of last school year, Indiana Virtual had one teacher for every 222 students.

Now, Indiana Virtual and the new Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy enroll about 6,332 students, served by 40 teachers, which makes the student-to-teacher ratio 158-to-1. The national average for online charter schools is 30-to-1, according to the National Education Policy Center.

“There’s absolutely no justification or reason that I can think of to permit a school to have a 221-1 faculty-student ratio,” Walker said. “That’s just ridiculous … There needs to be substantially more of the funds appropriated in the direction of instruction than I think this school has.”

Rep. Scott Pelath, the long-time leader of the House Democrats who stepped down from that role last week, was also surprised by the student-teacher ratio, even more surprised than he was by the tens of millions of dollars the state has set aside to fund the schools.

“That struck me as just outrageous, and I would think the public would think it was outrageous,” Pelath said. “Particularly when virtual schools are used as a substitute in places where you maybe have a lot more at-risk kids that need more attention, not less.”

Indeed, more than 80 percent of the students at Indiana Virtual qualify for meal assistance, but otherwise their demographics closely mirror those of the state — majority white, with relatively small populations of English-learners and students with special needs. The school says many of its students have been expelled from previous schools, and they say their students’ struggles are part of the reason graduation rates and test scores remain low.

But Karega Rausch, a former member of the Indiana Charter School Board who now works for the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, said online charter schools as a whole shouldn’t use student characteristics as an excuse. The group even has an entire set of online school-specific policies states should adopt in light of their poor performance.

“Just having lots of low-income kids is not a justifiable reason to not teach them well,” Rausch said. “Just having a lot of kids that may be mobile is not an excuse for not teaching them well. Traditional public schools and charter schools are finding ways of serving those kids at high levels.”

While traditional schools should serve as a model for instruction, Indiana’s school funding formula creates problems in a virtual environment. For schools like Indiana Virtual that have few barriers to entry and inconsistent attendance reporting practices, it can be hard to know if students who are enrolled are actually being educated. Yet schools get more money for every student they enroll.

Kruse and Walker, as well as national advocates, said they would support a funding model based on how much work students do, rather than whether they are on a school’s books on Count Day. New Hampshire and Florida already use this kind of system.

“There needs to be a different funding formula for these schools,” Walker said. “They should not be funded on a per-student basis like brick-and-mortar schools … it becomes a profit mill.”

An analysis from Florida Southwestern State College School of Education last year found that funding based on students finishing classes in virtual schools cost the state less money than the more traditional per-student model. Walker called on lawmakers to consider this change and put it into law “sooner rather than later.”

Pelath said based on what he’s learned about online schools, he doesn’t see them as a good substitute for traditional education. (Former state Superintendent Glenda Ritz agrees.)

“The oversight and accountability is not anywhere close to what we would have in traditional education,” Pelath said. “It’s entirely reasonable that some virtual experiences can be part of the larger overall experience, but as a substitute they are just woefully inadequate.”

The first step is to stop growth immediately, he said. Virtual schools enroll about 12,000 students across the state — about 1 percent of all students — and the number has been growing each year.

As far as upcoming legislation, Pelath was less sure, and new House Democrat leadership will certainly play a role in the caucuses’ goals for next year. Pelath was optimistic change could happen, but he was also realistic about the fact that a Republican supermajority in the House can make it difficult to get Democrats’ bills through.

“I think there’s a very good chance of that,” Pelath said in regards to possible legislation on virtual schools in the upcoming session. “Whether those things come in the form of originally introduced bills, of which there’s a risk of them staying bottled up in committee, or in the form of amendments to alter legislation that is moving in the process …This is going to have to be a debate.”



student teaching

Building a teacher pipeline: How one Aurora school has become a training ground for aspiring teachers

Paraprofessional Sonia Guzman, a student of a teaching program, works with students at Elkhart Elementary School in Aurora. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

Students at Aurora’s Elkhart Elementary School are getting assistance from three aspiring teachers helping out in classrooms this year, part of a new partnership aimed at building a bigger and more diverse teacher pipeline.

The teachers-to-be, students at the University of Northern Colorado’s Center for Urban Education, get training and a paid job while they’re in college. Elkhart principal Ron Schumacher gets paraprofessionals with long-term goals and a possibility that they’ll be better prepared to be Aurora teachers.

For Schumacher, it’s part of a plan to not only help his school, but also others in Aurora Public Schools increase teacher retention.

“Because of the nature of our school demographics, it’s a coin flip with a new teacher,” Schumacher said. “If I lose 50 percent of my teachers over time, I’m being highly inefficient. If these ladies know what they’re getting into and I can have them prepared to be a more effective first-year teacher, there’s more likelihood that I’ll keep them in my school in the long term.”

Elkhart has about 590 students enrolled this year. According to state data from last year, more than 95 percent of the students who attend the school qualify for subsidized lunches, a measure of poverty. The school, which operates with an International Baccalaureate program, has outperformed the district average on some state tests.

The three paraprofessionals hired by the school this year are part of the teaching program at UNC’s Lowry campus, which has long required students to work in a school for the four years they work on their degree.

Students get paid for their work in schools, allowing them to earn some money while going to college. Students from the program had worked in Aurora schools in the past, but not usually three students at once at the same school, and not as part of a formal partnership.

The teaching program has a high number of students of color and first-generation college students, which Rosanne Fulton, the program director, said is another draw for partnering with schools in the metro area.

Schumacher said every principal and education leader has the responsibility to help expose students to more teachers who can relate to them.

One of this year’s paraprofessionals is Andy Washington, an 18-year-old who attended Elkhart for a few years when she was a child.

“Getting to know the kids on a personal level, I thought I was going to be scared, but they’re cool,” Washington said.

Another paraprofessional, 20-year-old Sonia Guzman, said kids are opening up to them.

“They ask you what college is like,” Guzman said.

Schumacher said there are challenges to hiring the students, including figuring out how to make use of the students during the morning or early afternoon while being able to release them before school is done for the day so they can make it to their college classes.

Schumacher said he and his district director are working to figure out the best ways to work around those problems so they can share lessons learned with other Aurora principals.

“We’re using some people differently and tapping into volunteers a little differently, but if it’s a priority for you, there are ways of accommodating their schedules,” he said.

At Elkhart, full-time interventionists work with students in kindergarten through third grade who need extra help learning to read.

But the school doesn’t have the budget to hire the same professionals to work with older students. The three student paraprofessionals are helping bridge that gap, learning from the interventionists so they can work with fourth and fifth grade students.

Recently, the three started getting groups of students that they pull out during class to give them extra work on reading skills.

One exercise they worked on with fourth grade students recently was helping them identify if words had an “oi” or “oy” spelling based on their sounds. Students sounded out their syllables and used flashcards to group similar words.

Districts across the country have looked at similar approaches to help attract and prepare teachers for their own schools. In Denver, bond money voters approved last year is helping pay to expand a program this year where paraprofessionals can apply for a one-year program to become teachers while they continue working.

In the partnership at Elkhart, students paraprofessionals take longer than that, but in their first and second year are already learning how to write lessons during their afternoon classes and then working with teachers at the school to deliver the lessons and then reflect on how well they worked. Students say the model helps them feel supported.

“It’s really helping me to become more confident,” said Stephanie Richards, 26, the third paraprofessional. “I know I’m a lot more prepared.”

Schumacher said the model could also work in the future with students from other teaching schools or programs. It’s a small but important part, he said, toward helping larger efforts to attract and retain teachers, and also diversify the ranks.

“You’re doing something for the next generation of folks coming in,” he said.