I’m in transit a lot these days. I’m in Connecticut and Chicago and all over New York City. I’m also in the Wall Street Journal. And that’s where you’ll be able to find me until I settle down again.
In the Atlantic’s profile of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, he touted a system for tracking how well elected officials fulfill their campaign promises by the end of their terms. Then he said the news media don’t do enough of this:
And the thing that I find the most frustrating is that the Fourth Estate never picks up on it. They’ll write a story about those things that you said were a dumb idea, or those things that didn’t work, and never give you any credit for the other things. And never hold other elected officials to task.
Recently, GothamSchools did just that with Bloomberg’s school policies for the 2011-2012 academic year. We looked at every policy promise made by Bloomberg or top Department of Education officials in the past year and wrote about how much had been accomplished, started, tabled, and pushed aside. Here are parts 1, 2, and 3.
This GothamSchools story has everything: missing classes, mixed up schedules, poor leadership, a music room turned into a dump for thousands of unused books, and high school students wielding toilet plungers. I spent a full week visiting the school and interviewing dozens of students and staffers to get the story:
Manhattan’s long-struggling High School of Graphic Communication Arts was supposed to turn a corner this year. But instead, students and staff throughout the school say a recent string of poor leadership decisions is threatening the school’s ultimate fate.
The toilet plungers that students were told to wield as hall passes last month — until the Department of Education ended the practice — are a distressing symbol of much larger problems at the school, they say.
A month into the school year, longstanding programs are in disarray, materials and personnel are languishing unused, and many students have had such inconsistent schedules that their teachers say they have learned far less than they should have by now.
“They are all so off-track right now that the first projects we have, I can’t really truly grade them as I normally would,” one teacher said about students. “I’m going to have to try to make up the knowledge somehow, but I don’t know how yet. They should be much further along than they are now.”
GothamSchools spoke with nearly a dozen newly hired and veteran staff members under the condition of anonymity, as well as other people close to the school. The staffers span the school’s grade levels, program offerings, and organizational hierarchy.
All said that the ultimate responsibility for the problems should fall on Principal Brendan Lyons, who took over at the school last year and was the department’s pick to lead it through “turnaround.” The aggressive overhaul process for 24 schools was halted this summer after an arbitrator ruled the city’s plans violated its contract with the teachers union. Read the rest here.
One morning in a OneGoal class at a Chicago high school I watched as the school’s college counselor ran through a list of increasingly obscure scholarships.
“Is anyone here Greek?” she asked. Twenty-five black and Latino faces looked back at her skeptically. “Do we have any multiracial students?” she asked hopefully.
“Yeah,” replied one impeccably dressed African American boy, deadpan. “South Side black and West Side black.”
I thought I would use the summer lull in schools news to catch up on stories that didn’t make it to publication during the 2011-2012 school year.
I thought there would be a summer lull in news. But the city and state Education Departments had other plans, releasing a string of announcements on Thursday and Friday afternoons when most people were on vacation or wrapping up for the day, anyway.
This happened on Thursday, August 30—a day schools were closed and GothamSchools wasn’t even planning to publish. I was the only person in our office when the state announced a new list of struggling schools that could get the axe if they don’t make dramatic changes to improve.
We’ve heard this story before, with the No Child Left Behind Law’s list of ”Schools in Need of Improvement,” the list of “Persistently Low-Achieving Schools,” and the shortlist of “turnaround” schools the city says are so bad, it would funnel millions of federal dollars to them if it could.
So I had a lot of backstory to learn in just a few hours to make the 9:05 p.m. deadline for or evening digest email, and a frantic transcript of a 45 minute-long conference call with state officials to decipher.
I didn’t have an editor for this story, but I did have the last-minute help of one of my coworkers, who shared the byline. I think we nailed the news. And even though it went up during the school year’s true doldrums, it racked up 68 comments from readers.
But a month later I’m still struggling to figure out what will change (if anything) for the schools involved.
When Ife Lenard and her crew first entered the third-floor classrooms that will house the Children’s Aid Society Charter School this fall, they found a dusty rotary phone, a decades-old beer can, and lockers coated with grime from years of middle-schoolers’ use.
But Lenard, the founding principal, can already envision how the classrooms — now gutted — will look come September, when the school opens to 130 kindergarten and first-graders in a South Bronx public school building.
That vision includes lots of floor rugs and tables for small-group activities, computer stations, fall colors such as “squash yellow,” a terrarium, and an aquarium, Lenard said as she led a procession of Children’s Aid Society officials, clad in bright orange hard hats, including director Richard Buery, on a walking tour of the school earlier this week.
But the vision also requires some big changes, including rewiring classrooms and demolishing a wall that separates two rooms.
Lenard has overseen the fledgling charter school’s $130,000 construction process since June, when the building’s two other schools, I.S. 318 and P.S. 211, ceded half of the third floor. The renovations, which the Children’s Aid Society is paying for, have allowed her to add interior decorator to the many roles she has taken on since she was named principal in late March and began hiring teachers and recruiting families.
—Phil Weinberg, the principal of Brooklyn’s High School of Telecommunication Arts and Technology.
Like many city principals, he tries to offer a summer program to incoming ninth graders to give them a jump start on the transition from middle to high school. But funding the program is always a struggle, and only about a third of his incoming class can participate.
I wrote a story on small changes to New York State’s mathematics teaching and learning standards, and it quickly became one of our most viewed stories ever.
This was a big surprise. The story is not especially sexy or political, but it is one of just a few journalistic looks at a national education policy that impacts teachers in almost every state: the adoption of the Common Core Standards. The lede and nut graphs are below:
This year, Jackie Xuereb is teaching her sixth grade math students how to add and subtract fractions with unlike denominators. But next year, new standards will call for students to know that information before they enter her class.
Xuereb, a sixth grade math teacher at Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School, is among the city math teachers preparing to swap the state’s learning standards for the Common Core this fall. And like many, she is struggling to keep the two sets of standards straight as the new standards move some topics an entire grade-level earlier than in the past.
“A lot of what used to be sixth grade standards are now taught in fifth grade,” Xuereb said. “I feel that I’m going to have to be really mindful and cognizant of this in my planning for next year. The kids are going to have these huge gaps.”
New York City piloted the Common Core standards in 100 schools last year and asked all teachers to practice working with them this year. Next year, every teacher in every elementary and middle school will be expected to teach to the new standards, and state tests will be based on them.
Department of Education officials have argued that a full-steam-ahead approach is required because moving slowly would deprive students of the Common Core’s long-overdue rigor. But some say that this approach will pose a special challenge for math teachers, particularly in the middle school years, as students begin learning advanced concepts that build on each other sequentially.
Since becoming an education reporters, I’ve found one of the toughest parts of the job is writing about classroom instruction. I’m not trained to observe teachers or judge their methods and I’ve never taught, so I’m trying to find creative ways to tell readers, many of whom are teachers, what others are doing in the classroom.
Here’s another recent attempt—a “live-blog” of an eighth grade math class, with corresponding commentary from the teacher, who recapped the lesson with me after class.
The writer Thomas Beller knows how I feel. He splits his time between New York City, the place he calls home, and New Orleans, the place where he has a house.
I split my time between Chicago—my first love, the place of dozens of friendships, loves, memories, streets and storefronts that would embrace me if they could—and New York City, ostensibly my home because it’s where I have an apartment, a job, a hopeful future.
When I am here, I am straining to meet professional expectations and embody the lifestyle traits of other college-educated 20-something women. It’s the fabled Big City life you can see mocked and aggrandized everywhere on TV right now.
When I am there, everyone wants to know how long I’ve been there, when I’m leaving, whether I have time for coffee or lunch or something else. I never have enough time but there’s always another visit lurking two to eight weeks around the corner. One friend says he sees me more now that I’ve moved out. (Maybe that’s just because I really like his company).
Beller gets it (From the NYTimes magazine):
The question, “Are you still here?” made me feel like I was being rushed at a nice restaurant. If you divide your time between two distant points on a map, “here” is a loaded word. …
The first notable, strange thing about living in two places is that whenever you are “here,” you carry within you a “there.”…
The new Yorkers miss us at first when we leave, and greet us warmly when we return. In between, they have lives of which we are not part. Did they think of us any less than they would have if we were 20 blocks away? Maybe not, because we are still in touch by phone and email, and actually seeing someone is a rare occurrence. But maybe yes. Without really noticing the change, my wife and I had come to look at our New York friendships as hothouse flowers, lovely indulgences in need of sun and water.
I’m happy if the stories I write help readers think differently or more deeply about a subject—whether it’s a school, a neighborhood or a policy issue. But usually the impact is invisible.
Less so with the piece I wrote last week about a clothing billboard ad near Harlem. The response to the billboard, and my story, from hundreds of educators, union leaders and advocates prompted the clothing company to remove the ad.