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.
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.
—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.
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.
Mitch Kurz is a math teacher and a college counselor, but the lessons he teaches don’t fall neatly into either subject area.
He and I spoke recently for a story I wrote for GothamSchools about the college readiness class he teaches at a small, South Bronx public school:
"On a recent winter morning, Kurz asked students in his college readiness class to describe their dreams. On the board, he wrote, “What do your dreams mean?” followed by “Sigmund Freud” and a list of vocabulary words more typical of a Psychology 101 class: id, ego, superego.
Most of Kurz’s two dozen South Bronx juniors and seniors had not heard of these concepts before. But after a semester learning a hodgepodge of lessons from Kurz meant to ease the transition to college — covering everything from the dreidel game, to basic French, to the elevator pitch — students say they come into class expecting the unfamiliar.
The class, which Kurz calls “Assimilation,” is meant to ease the transition to college for students at the Bronx Center for Science and Math, a small school with many poor students who would be the first in their families to attend college. The school emphatically urges all graduates to enroll in college, and the vast majority do — but they suffer the same academic and financial challenges that low-income, first-generation students often face. Nationally, 89 percent of those students who enter college leave without a degree within six years.”
Increasing students’ likelihood of graduating from college has emerged as a major frontier in education policy. The city’s approach is to toughen high school preparation so students have a better shot of handling the rigor of college-level work. Others, such as the KIPP network of charter schools, believe the problem lies more in students’ capacity to handle challenges and have developed programs to bolster traits such as resilience and “grit” that seem correlated with college success.
At Kurz’s school, academic standards are important, and so is character. But Kurz adds an additional approach.
Computers are cool now, right? This is what the venture capitalist Fred Wilson asked me this last week, when I interviewed him about his ambitious plans to recreate the rigorous Stuyvesant High School computer science curriculum in a new, software engineering-themed public school opening this fall. Unlike Stuy, which is a hyper competitive specialized school, the Academy for Software Engineering will be “limited unscreened” which is basically education jargon for “open to any student, regardless of their academic performance.”
In Room 307 of Manhattan’s Stuyvesant High School, 23 students spent a recent afternoon copying tables and number trees representing a mathematical problem-solving technique used in graphic design computer software.
The students, who all won admission to Stuyvesant by posting top scores on an entrance exam, listened raptly as their teacher, Mike Zamansky, walked them through the complex algorithm behind “seam-carving,” a process used in resizing images. Then Zamansky checked to make sure they understood.
“No problem? Seems reasonable? or ‘Huh’?” he asked, offering students the chance to signal by a show of thumbs whether they understood or needed more help. No one pointed a thumb down.
Zamansky has been teaching computer science since 1995, through a program he designed for students to follow from sophomore to senior year. Stuyvesant’s program is the only rigorous computer science sequence in the city’s public schools and one of the few in the country.
Now it is the inspiration behind a new city high school that aims to change that.
Founded by an influential venture capitalist with deep ties to the technology industry and a young principal fresh from the city’s training program, the Academy for Software Engineering will be the city’s first school to focus on software engineering. The goal is to extend the approach of Zamansky’s classes — which teach problem-solving, network communications, and programming language literacy — to any student in the city, even if they can’t make the cut for Stuyvesant or don’t even have a computer at home.
Read the rest here.
This fall, Orlando Geigel used his hour-long D train commute from the South Bronx to Brooklyn to practice math problems from a review sheet to prepare for his first set of college finals. The answers were written on the back, but he waited until the end of each ride to check his work.
Geigel, a 2011 graduate of the Bronx School for Law, Government and Justice, rarely studied in high school, and he didn’t think much about it in college, either — until he failed his first midterm in October.
That’s when Geigel turned to Bottom Line, New York City, a branch of a 14-year-old counseling program in Boston that aims to address the challenges that lead many low-income, first-generation college students to drop out.
Nationally, 89 percent of those students who enter college leave without a degree within six years. The City University of New York reports that just 24 percent of its full-time students — mostly graduates of city high schools — receive degrees within six years of entering college for the first time.
The striking statistics have prompted city and state officials to argue for the first time that schools should be judged by their students’ ability to succeed in college. They have also prompted a constellation of nonprofit groups to try to ease the transition from high school to higher education.
Some of those groups place privately funded counselors inside schools. Others outsource counseling entirely — in Bottom Line’s case, to an office in Downtown Brooklyn where high school and college students come for individual guidance about applying to college and adjusting to its demands.
This year, Bottom Line is working with 125 high school seniors and 20 college freshmen. Those numbers are set to rise to 800 high school students and 850 college students in 2016.
Of the 600 students Bottom Line has supported in Massachusetts, 74 percent have graduated from college within six years, according to the organization.
The boost came not from bolstering students’ algebra or grammar skills, but by teaching them study skills and work habits that their high schools might have ignored, according to Ruth Genn, Bottom Line NYC’s executive director.
“We don’t provide tutoring, but what we do help them with is time management, understanding the syllabus,” Genn said. “If they come to us and say, ‘hey I’m having trouble with math,’ we help them find a tutoring center. It’s advising, mentoring, parenting, advocating.”
That kind of attention is exactly what Geigel said propelled him to graduate from high school — and what he missed when he arrived at the New York City College of Technology in September.
“In high school, I used to have the teachers on my back every day telling me, you, do this or I’ll call your parents, you’ll get in trouble,” he said. “In college, the professors give you the work and if you don’t do it, it’s your fault.”
He had trouble adjusting to that culture shock until he began meeting with Risa Dubow, a Bottom Line counselor, in October after a friend urged him to apply to be part of Bottom Line’s inaugural class. For the first year, Bottom Line recruited students through word of mouth, in addition to partnerships with nonprofits that manage schools and CUNY’s Center for School Support and Success.
“It’s important to talk to your professors,” Dubow told him. “They’re not always going to be on your back.”
Dubow, who previously worked as a college adviser with the Harlem Children’s Zone, also suggested he use an array of organizational and study tools he hadn’t considered before, such as reviewing his essays for grammar and coherence before submitting them to a professor, blocking out schedules for work time and free time, and renting a sociology textbook for his sociology class.
Bottom Line structures its programs around one-on-one counseling that takes place by appointment. Geigel meets with Dubow as often as three times a week, and he is also one of many students who visit the classroom-like office overlooking Brooklyn’s Borough Hall frequently to do schoolwork. He spent a recent December afternoon there studying for a sociology exam on immigration patterns in the United States.
“This place got me back on track,” Geigel said. “I think I’d be failing without it. I would think about dropping out already.”
I don’t have any idea what I want to get out of this Tumblr account, and that’s a problem for it. I created it to document my journey through graduate school. But now that I’m a beat reporter for a wonderful website and permanently on-deadline, there is no point in re-posting all of my stories. Especially when I’m writing as many as six stories a week.
But I have been thinking a lot about what I want to get out of New York City, now that I’ve finally warmed to the notion that I’m here to stay, and my personal belongings have finally migrated over here from Chicago (my bike, 50-plus pounds of books, my immersion blender). The problem is, I’m usually so tired when I’m done with work that I spend most of my free time staring at the floor of my apartment trying to figure out where I’m supposed to go.
What am I supposed to be doing right now? It’s a question I always knew how to answer in college. I used to duck into the bathroom in the middle of a lecture on global warming, or Don Quijote, to take calls from my editor at the New York Times. I always had my priorities straight.
When I’m lucky, I have friends who bring me along to explore Lower East Side bars, a chef who gives me food and compliments, and an Upper West Side grandmother to visit who bears many, terrifying similarities to me and is quietly losing her mind. She still gives me the best advice, even if it’s usually, “Get your feet off the sofa!” This is how I fill my time, but there’s not much intention behind it.
I feel compelled to keep posting (barely), because I’ve been reading a lot about what young people in big cities are supposed to be doing with themselves, and most articles say that being lost is what your early 20s are really about.
So that’s a relief.
My work life is the one place where I’m starting to feel un-lost. I think that’s because I’m doing meaningful work.
I say this in part because I don’t need anyone to convince me that journalism can be a great calling in at least as many ways as it can be an echo-chamber of sniping and shallowess. And I also say this because the type of journalism I get to do means something to people in government and the teachers in the classroom—our readers. And it means something to me—how cool is that?
Here’s an example of a story I’m pretty proud to have told. A few weeks ago, GothamSchools published a series of stories about a recently-opened high school in Queens that was facing some debilitating administrative problems. My story brought more attention to the school, where the Chancellor’s daughter works, and city officials said they’d take action.
On November 15, after my editor received some emails from people at the school, I made some phone calls and ran out to Queens to cover a PTA meeting. The next day I wrote this story:
A year-old Queens high school that expanded to meet community demand is struggling under the weight of its own ambitions.
Located in a suburban section of Queens, Queens Metropolitan High School promised rich course offerings and a rigorous academic program to its 650 ninth- and 10th-grade students. But the ambitious plans left little room for error, and because of staff changes, space issues, and poor planning, Queens Metropolitan students have gotten new schedules as many as 10 times since September.
On Monday, up to three periods of classes were canceled for many 10th-grade students, who sat in the auditorium and cafeteria as administrators feverishly worked to hash out new schedules, according to accounts from parents, students, and staff… (Click the headline to read more.)
On November 17, Department of Education officials discussed the story at their monthly Panel for Education Policy meeting (this is why I love covering local government):
The agenda for tonight’s Panel for Educational Policy meeting, held in Queens, contained just two topics: School locations and the Department of Education’s financial contracts.
But it was scheduling crises at two Queens high schools that dominated most of the meeting at Astoria’s Frank Sinatra High School of the Arts, drew just a few dozen parents.
We reported this week that Queens Metropolitan High School had revised students’ schedules as many as 10 times this year amid an organizational crisis. Last month, NY1 reported that thousands of students at Long Island City High School were enraged after the school changed their schedules midyear.
Tonight, Department of Education officials vowed to repair the damages. Chief Academic Officer Shael Polakow-Suransky, who stepped in at Queens Metropolitan on Wednesday, called the debacles “rare” and vowed that they “will not be repeated.”
After the meeting, the schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott said his role in the school was “limited” because his daughter works there as a gym instructor. Gym was one of the subjects affected by the school’s problems.
The following week, I wrote a final story based on a follow-up with the parents who originally shared the issues their son encountered at the school: DOE officials promise swift changes for Queens high school.