Student Voices

‘We weren’t surprised’: Students react with a weary shrug to city’s plans to close Bronx school where boy was fatally stabbed

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

Some students at the Urban Assembly School for Wildlife Conservation in the Bronx heard the news from a superintendent, who went from classroom to classroom informing them that their school would be closed after this school year. Others learned secondhand from friends, or from letters they were told to bring home.

But if it came as a surprise that their school — which serves fewer than 500 students in grades 6 to 12 — was among 14 troubled schools that the New York City education department announced Monday it intends to shutter, the decision nonetheless made sense to many students: One of their peers had fatally stabbed one boy and seriously wounded another during history class this September. The violence shocked the city and school community, yet it did not seem totally out of place at a school where student clashes were commonplace and instability was the order of the day.

“People were happy that the school is closing because the school is not really a great school,” said Sarah Vega, a 12th-grader, during an interview Monday with four schoolmates that was arranged by the group, Teens Take Charge. “We weren’t surprised,” added Chloe Oliveras.

The school has been on the decline in recent years. Its state test scores have sunk further and further below the citywide average, with just 12 percent of students passing the English tests and 5 percent passing math last school year. (The high school’s 75 percent four-year graduation rate is on par with the city average, and 8 points above the Bronx rate.)

At the same time, it has churned through several leaders and, since last academic year, lost over 100 students — including about 45 who received department permission to transfer in the wake of the stabbing. In addition, just five students listed the school as their first choice when applying to high schools for next year.

In an email to reporters Monday, the education department’s press secretary, Toya Holness, listed steps the department had taken to stabilize the school, like boosting staff training, installing a new principal, and dispatching officials, including schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, to visit.

“Despite these additional interventions, there continues to be instability for students and staff,” Holness wrote, “and the Chancellor has determined that Wildlife students will be better served at another school.”

The school has been open since 2007, but students said a feeling of disorder began to take hold under Astrid Jacobo, who was principal from December 2015 until she was removed in October. In a survey last academic year, just 36 percent of teachers said they considered the principal an effective manager. (Jacobo did not respond to an email seeking comment.)

Meanwhile, only 55 percent of students said they felt safe in the school’s hallways and cafeteria, and just 22 percent said most students treat each other with respect. On Monday, students said fights were common, as were requests for “safety transfers” to other schools.

“It was like no discipline whatsoever,” Chloe said. Added Sarah: “I don’t feel safe in that school.”

Wildlife Conservation had started to implement “restorative justice” practices, which push students to reflect on their misbehavior and try to repair any harm they’ve caused. Part of that effort involved a “justice panel” of students who would interview their classmates about their actions, try to figure out what caused them, and come up with “sanctions,” which might include a written reflection or an apology letter to a teacher.

“Some kids take it seriously, some kids don’t,” said Sarah, who is on the panel. “Usually they don’t listen to us because obviously they’re not going to listen to someone who’s so close to their age.”

On Monday, Sarah added, the panel heard from a girl who had flown into a rage after a classmate flung a piece of paper at her; during her outburst, she threatened to throw a chair at her teacher.

The incident she described was eerily reminiscent of the one on Sept. 27, when 18-year-old Abel Cedeno reportedly snapped during history class after being pelted with bits of paper and pencils, before stabbing 15-year-old Matthew McCree to death and seriously wounding Ariane Laboy, 16. Cedeno, who has pleaded not guilty to manslaughter charges, later said that other students had taunted him with racist and homophobic slurs.

After the attack, the city sent in grief counselors and beefed up security, which included adding metal detectors. But, the students said, things still didn’t feel right.

They had to walk past the classroom where their friend was killed — the “crime scene,” as Chloe put it. Later, students objected when the administration wanted to reopen the room, so instead it was converted into an office, the students said. At one point, feeling unheard and out of sorts after the stabbing, some students held a silent sit-in in the hallway.

“Everyone was crying and throwing tantrums,” in the days after the stabbing, said Miarah Cabassa, also in 12th grade. “We all was hurt.”

In a statement, Frank Giaimo, the acting principal who replaced Jacobo, said he has focused on making sure all students and staff feel safe and welcomed at the school.

“Over the last several weeks, I’ve spent time getting to know the community and together, we will continue our work to provide students with high-quality instruction, support teachers and partner with families,” he said.

Separately, the education department has promised to work individually with students at the closing schools to ensure they are offered spots at higher-performing schools next year. (The normal high-school application period ended Dec. 1.)

Seniors who are preparing to graduate from the School for Wildlife Conservation will never get that second chance to attend a safe, orderly high school. But for some younger students like Jaidan Oliveras, a 9th-grader who learned of the city’s plans from his sister, Chloe, it felt like a reprieve.

“I was just happy because I’ll get to transfer because I don’t want to be at that school,” said Jaidan, who has attended the school since the 6th grade. “At first, I actually enjoyed it. But at the end, I started getting tired of it.”

To and Through

Newark’s post-grad paradox: More students are entering college, but few earn degrees

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
Newark Mayor Ras Baraka wants 25 percent of residents to have college degrees by 2025, up from 19 percent today.

When it comes to college, Newark faces a good news-bad news paradox.

More students than ever are graduating high school and enrolling in college, according to a new report. Yet fewer than one in four Newark students earns a college degree within six years of graduating high school — leaving many with limited job prospects in a city where an estimated one-third of jobs require a four-year college degree.

Now, city officials are promising to build on the report. They want to ramp up the rigor of high-school classes and create more early-college programs to increase the odds of students entering college and leaving with a degree.  

“How do we teach our children to perform — to graduate?” Mayor Ras Baraka asked at a press conference Wednesday to mark the official release of the report of Newark students’ college outcomes. “We got them in the door,” he said of students who attend college. “Now how do we make them stay?”

The city’s plans, to which Superintendent Roger León is lending his support, reflect a growing recognition that simply getting students into college is not sufficient — and can even backfire if they drop out before graduation, leaving them with college debt but no degree.

Until recently, the charge given to high schools in Newark and across the country was to foster “college-going cultures.” And these efforts showed promising results: On average, 51 percent of Newark Public School students who graduated high school between 2011 and 2016 immediately enrolled in college, up from 39 percent who did so between 2004 and 2010, according to the report by the Newark City of Learning Collaborative, or NCLC, and Rutgers University-Newark’s School of Public Affairs and Administration.

But entering college didn’t guarantee its completion. Of those students who started college straight after high school, only 39 percent earned a degree within six years, the report found.

As a result, educators and policymakers have begun to think harder about how to help students “to and through” college — to ensure they actually earn degrees. Toward that end, Baraka and the NCLC — which includes roughly 40 colleges, schools, nonprofits, and corporations — has set a goal of 25 percent of Newark residents earning college degrees or comparable credentials by 2025.

Today, just 19 percent of Newark adults have associate degrees or higher — compared to 45 percent of adults across New Jersey and 40 percent nationally.

Superintendent León, who began overseeing the city’s schools on July 1, said his main strategy for supporting these efforts will be to expose students to challenging work early on.

“If we don’t do something dramatically in classrooms to improve instruction and make it rigorous,” León said after Wednesday’s event, then students are “getting into college but they’re not completing it.”

Source: “Post-Secondary Outcomes of Newark High School Graduates (2011-2016)” report. Note: The four-year rate is an average of the classes of 2011 to 2013. The six-year rate is from the class of 2011. Graphic: Sam Park/Chalkbeat

For starters, León said he wants high schools to offer more college-level classes. In the 2016-17 school year, just 21 percent of Newark students were enrolled in one or more Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate classes — compared to 42 percent of students statewide.

He also vowed to raise the quality of instruction in the district’s traditional high schools. Only 14 percent of their graduates earn college degrees within six years, compared to 42 percent of graduates from the city’s selective magnet schools, the report found.

To do that, León said he will create specialized academies within the traditional schools modeled on the magnets, which have specialized themes such as science, technology, or the arts. The academies, which will partner with colleges, will most likely feature admissions criteria similar to those of magnet schools, which select students based on their academic and attendance records, León added.

And, for the first time, all ninth-grade students this academic year will take the Preliminary SAT, or PSAT, León said Wednesday. An additional 1,100 eighth-graders who passed at least one of their seventh-grade PARCC exams will also take the PSAT when it’s administered on Oct. 10.

Since 2016, the district has provided the PSAT to all 10th and 11th-grade students. But León said that giving the test to younger students will focus their attention on college and help identity those who are ready for advanced classes. The PSAT is designed to help students prepare for the SAT, which is used in college admissions, and to qualify for National Merit Scholarships.

The district, which was under state control for 22 years until February, is getting some assistance in its effort to improve students’ college outcomes.

For instance, KIPP, the national charter-school network with eight schools in Newark, is sharing its strategies for helping students choose the right college with guidance counselors at three district high schools.

And the higher-education institutions in the Newark City of Learning Collaborative, including Essex County College and Rutgers University-Newark, plan to create more “dual-enrollment” programs that allow high-school students to earn college credits, said NCLC Executive Director Reginald Lewis.

“We’re all going to do a better job,” Lewis said, “of making sure that once Newark residents get in our doors, that we help them persist.”

Time crunch

In victory for teachers union, Newark superintendent scraps longer hours for low-performing schools

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
Superintendent Roger León at Hawkins Street School, one of the schools that will lose its extended hours.

Newark’s new superintendent is eliminating a program that extended the hours of struggling schools, which the teachers union has long attacked as ineffective and unfair to educators.

Teachers at roughly 30 schools will no longer receive $3,000 annual stipends for the extra hours, a provision written into the current teachers contract, which extends to 2019. Instead, all 64 district schools will get extra funding for before and after-school programs, Superintendent Roger León said in an email to employees on Tuesday.

The changes will go into effect Monday, Sept. 10, resulting in new hours for the affected schools just days after the new school year began. The district is still working to adjust pickup times for students who are bused to school, according to León’s email. A few of the schools will phase out their extended hours later in the year, the email said.

“We will not continue to do the same things as before and be surprised when the results do not change,” León wrote, adding that cutting the extra hours would save the district $5 million.

In an interview with Chalkbeat Thursday, León said the move is intended to create more uniformity among schools and the services they provide. Now, all schools will get additional money to pay for programs outside of the regular school day, which schools can tailor to their individual needs, though students who are struggling academically will continue to receive “intensive” support, he said.

“Ultimately, the idea would be by October having completely different after-school and before-school programming that meets the needs of each respective school,” León said.

The extended time was first included in the teachers contract in 2012 as part of a larger improvement plan for the targeted schools, which was developed by Cami Anderson, Newark’s former state-appointed superintendent. The plan also designated some low-performing schools as “renew” schools, where teachers had to reapply for their positions and work longer hours.

Anderson also closed some schools and gave principals new hiring authority. Both actions left dozens of tenured teachers without positions, so Anderson created a fund to pay those teachers to perform support duties in schools. In 2014, that fund for “employees without placement” cost the district $35 million out of its nearly $1 billion budget, though by last year the fund had shrunk to $8 million for about 100 unassigned teachers, according to officials.

León said in Tuesday’s email that he was also eliminating the fund, which he said would save the district another $6 million. The teachers union president said he believed all the unassigned teachers now have placements, but the district did not respond to a request to confirm that.

León is also removing the “renew” and “turnaround” labels from low-performing schools, citing their “progress and student achievement,” according to the email.

“I applaud everyone’s efforts at renew or turnaround schools and acknowledge what has been accomplished,” he wrote.

Now that León has abolished his predecessors’ school-improvement program, he will be expected to create his own. Many schools remain mired in poor performance, even as the district overall has made strides in recent years.

When the teachers union agreed to the extended hours in its 2012 contract with the district, it was hailed nationally as a major breakthrough in efforts to revamp troubled schools. But even as the union agreed last year to keep the provision in its current contract, union officials have assailed the turnaround effort as a failure.

NTU President John Abeigon told Chalkbeat on Thursday that the program had been a “scam” and “nothing more than extended childcare.” He added that the stipend teachers received amounted to about $7 per hour for the extra time they worked.

In 2016, a district-commissioned survey of 787 teachers at schools with extended hours found that two-thirds of teachers at schools where the extra time was spent on student instruction said the time was valuable. But in a survey the union conducted in April, the 278 teachers who responded gave the extended hours low ratings for effectiveness in boosting student achievement.

Some teachers in the union survey praised the longer hours, saying their schools used them effectively to lengthen class periods, run after-school clubs, or allow teachers to plan lessons or review student data. But others said the extra time was squandered, leaving staff and students exhausted with little evidence of improved student outcomes to show for it. (Students’ pass rates on state tests stayed flat or declined at most “renew” schools in the first years of the program.)

The union also has complained that many teachers felt compelled to work the extra hours because those who refused to could be transferred to different schools. Under the terms of the original extended-day agreement, teachers were required to work an extra hour per day and attend trainings during the summer and some weekends.

In León’s email to employees, he said every extended-day school had set different work requirements and “none are consistent with the original design.” The longer days may also be contributing to high teacher turnover in those schools, he wrote, adding that principals of schools with regular hours told him they did not want to extend their hours.

Abeigon, the union president, applauded León’s decision to scrap the extra work hours.

“He came to the conclusion that we expected any true educator to reach: that the program was not working and was never going to work,” he said.

León said Thursday that he is now working on a new turnaround program. Once it’s ready, he promised to share the details with affected families before publicly announcing which schools are part of it — an effort to avoid the student protests that erupted when Anderson identified her “turnaround” schools.

He also said he was still considering whether he would ever close schools that fail to improve or to reverse their declining enrollments. Anderson’s decision to shutter nearly a dozen long-struggling schools continues to fuel resentment among her critics even years later.

“I think the whole idea of how much time does a school get to correct itself is a very important one and I’m going to need to be really reflective on it,” León said. “I’ve seen what closing schools does with people who do not feel that they were aware of it or a part of fixing it.”