satisfactory/unsatisfactory

Pace of change yields mixed reactions at Bryant closure hearing

Bryant High School teachers and students rally outside the school's 31st Avenue entrance before the closure hearing.

Over a hundred teachers, students, and alumni converged at from William Cullen Bryant High School closure hearing last night to warn city officials that undergoing “turnaround” next year would harm the school.

But some teachers said that rapid changes are already hitting the school under the hard-charging leadership of first-year principal Namita Dwarka.

Bryant is one of eight Queens schools proposed for turnaround, which would require them to close and reopen this summer with a new name and many new teachers. The school counts former schools chancellor Joel Klein among its graduates, but it has struggled in recent years to meet the city’s expectations. It landed on the turnaround list because of its lagging graduation rate, which last year was 56.5 percent, slightly lower than the city average.

City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer invoked Bryant’s century-old legacy in a press conference outside the school and during the hearing. Sporting a lapel pin with the school’s mascot, an owl, and other alumni, Van Bramer said the school’s tradition of excellence brought pride to the community and should be preserved.

Many teachers who spoke at the hearing shared his concern. But others expressed enthusiasm about changes at the school. The conflicting feelings reflected some of the tensions that have arisen since Dwarka took over as principal in September and, according to at least half a dozen teachers who have spoken with GothamSchools, began issuing low ratings to teachers who had never received them before.

Dwarka, who arrived when Bryant began a less agressive reform process last year, has the Department of Education’s support.

“We stand behind Namita Dwarka’s leadership, and we believe she is the right person to be the proposed new leader of the proposed new school,” said Deputy Chancellor Laura Rodriguez, to shouts and boos from students in the crowded auditorium. “In her time here at W.C. Bryant she has shown commitment and a strong will to improve student achievement and learning.”

One way that Dwarka has shown that commitment, according to the six Bryant teachers I spoke to in the last month, is by offering more bracing criticism than most teachers have gotten in the past.

“I was always satisfactory,” one teacher who asked not to be named told me by phone. “This is the principal’s first year and she never, ever observed me, not even a first time.”

“The environment in the school is not good,” she continued. “Many people complain. I get depressed, I cry. I personally believe that I work very hard during the whole year and every day, every class I try to do my best.”

The half dozen teachers said they learned in recent weeks, via letters from assistant principals who conducted classroom observations, that they would likely receive “unsatisfactory” ratings this spring. The U-rating is the first step in a contractual process that could lead to job termination. Last year, 2,118 teachers received unsatisfactory ratings citywide.

The news came as a shock to several of the teachers who testified last night — but none of them mentioned the U-rating spree they fear was underway in their public comments.

A handful of teachers did testify that they have brought a strong work ethic to the school but were not given enough time to meet the administration’s rising expectations. In private, several told me that they thought the new principal was laying the groundwork to reopen this fall with fewer veteran teachers.

Cracking down on subpar instruction is a typical first step for new principals, and one teacher who asked to remain anonymous  said Dwarka was working to help teachers improve by adding professional development sessions and more classroom observations.

But the teacher also said Dwarka’s leadership had caused a rift in the teaching staff, and rumors were swirling that many teachers would receive unsatisfactory job ratings in June, which could cost them their positions at Bryant.

The rumors have been exacerbated by the city’s approach to rehiring in turnaround schools, which will be conducted according to a process outlined in the city’s contract with the teachers union. The process, known as 18-D, requires that at least half of applicants to the new school from the old school must be hired according to seniority — provided that they are qualified. The hiring committees won’t be formed and the qualifications can’t be set until after the turnaround plans have been approved. But union officials have said in the past that the committees could reasonably decide to exclude from consideration teachers who have recently received U-ratings.

“With the present administration we’ve seen a sharp rise in unsatisfactory reviews — there’s nothing to compare it to. And the number of people who have been told officially that they are in danger of getting an end-of-the-year unsatisfactory rating is extremely high,” Sam Lazarus, the union chapter leader said in an interview. “These are veteran teachers who’ve never received an unsatisfactory. [The principal] is insisting on these decisions.”

Dwarka did not speak at the hearing, where she sat next to Rodriguez on stage and smiled as student athletes praised her leadership, the school culture, and their teachers during two and a half hours of public comments. She declined to comment on her leadership philosophy and referred all questions to Department of Education press officials.

Dwarka’s approach has won her support from within the school. Alyson Roach, an English teacher, testified that Dwarka has “not been afraid” to push teachers and had set the school on a path toward improvement.

“We have a great school, but of course we have areas where we could improve. We are fortunate enough to have an energetic new principal who is herself an alumna of Bryant,” she said. “I believe everyone here would describe Ms. Dwarka as someone who is truly transforming our school. No one can question her relentless quest for excellence. Why then, after marked improvement, after only six months, have we been threatened with the possible closing of our school?”

A second school whose turnaround hearing took place Tuesday night also has a brand-new principal who was handpicked to lead the school through a reform effort. Brendan Lyons took over at Manhattan’s High School for Graphic Communications Arts in September, before that school had been selected for any reform process.

“Every crisis is an opportunity,” Lyons said when the turnaround plans were announced in January. “I’d like to show how our school is a model turnaround that other schools can learn from.”

another path

‘They’re my second family.’ Largest Pathways to Graduation class earn their diplomas

Jasmine Byrd receives an award for excellence after giving a speech to her fellow graduates.

Before last fall, Jasmine Byrd never envisioned herself striding across the stage to receive a diploma at a graduation ceremony.

But then Byrd moved to the Bronx from Utah and entered New York City’s Pathways to Graduation program, which helps 17- to 21-year-olds who didn’t graduate from a traditional high school earn a High School Equivalency Diploma by giving them free resources and support.

Just walking into this space and being like, this is what you’ve accomplished and this is what you’ve worked hard for is a great feeling,” said Byrd, who also credits the program with helping her snag a web development internship. “I’ve built my New York experience with this program. They’re my second family, sometimes my first when I needed anything.”

Byrd is one of about 1,700 students to graduate during the 2017-2018 school year from Pathways, the program’s largest graduating class to date, according to officials.  

This year, students from 102 countries and 41 states graduated from Pathways, which is part of District 79, the education department district overseeing programs for older students who have had interrupted schooling.

The program also saw the most students ever participate in its graduation ceremony, a joyful celebration held this year at the Bronx United Palace Theater. According to Robert Evans, a math teacher at one of the program’s five boroughwide sites and emcee of the graduation, about 600 students typically show up to walk the stage. But students can be a part of the ceremony even if they received their passing test results that morning, and this year more than 800 graduates attended.

There were still students coming in last night to take photos and to pick up their sashes and gowns,” said Evans.

The graduation ceremony is unique in part because the program is. Students who have not completed high school attend classes to prepare to take the high school equivalency exam. But the program also prepares students to apply for college, attend vocational school, or enter the workforce by providing help applying for colleges, creating resumes and other coaching.

To make sure that the program is accessible to all students, there’s a main site in every borough and 92 satellite sites, located in community centers and youth homeless shelters like Covenant House. Students who want to work in the medical field, like Genesis Rocio Rodriguez, can take their courses in hospitals. Rodriguez, who graduated in December, is now enrolled in the Borough of Manhattan Community College, and passing the exam meant being one step closer to her dream of becoming a nurse.

When I got my results I was with my classmate, and to be honest I thought I failed because I was so nervous during it. But then I went online, and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh I did it!’ My mom started crying and everything.”

Byrd said the program worked for her because of the supportive teachers and extra resources.

“The teachers are relatable,” said Byrd. “They don’t put on an act, they don’t try to separate the person from the teacher. They really reach out, even call you to get you out of bed in the morning.”

Carmine Guirland said the supportive environment of social workers, guidance counselors, and teachers is what attracts him to the work at Bronx NeOn, a site where students who are on probation or who are involved with the court system can prepare for the exam, college, and careers.

When students are on parole they will have really involved [parole officers] who would text me at the beginning of class to check in so that we could work together,” said Guirland. “It’s really about that village thing. The more support systems that are available the more success the students will have.”

Reflecting on his experiences with the graduating class, Guirland’s most treasured memory was when one of his students proposed to his girlfriend in a guidance counseling session. Even though they aren’t together anymore, the moment was a reflection of the relationships that many of the students build during their time at Pathways to Graduation.

“It’s this amazing high moment where this student felt like the most comfortable place for him to propose to his girlfriend and the mother of his child was in our advisory circle,” said Guirland.

New Standards

Tennessee updates science standards for first time in 10 years. New guidelines stress class discussion, inquiry

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Fourth grade science teachers Lamarcus Marks, of Rivercrest Elementary, and Angie Clement, of Bartlett Elementary, test out a lesson on kinetic and potential energy at Arlington High School, one of 11 statewide sites where Tennessee teachers are training for next year's new science standards.

How can a wolf change the river? Why doesn’t a cactus have leaves? Why can’t you exterminate bats in Tennessee?

With new state science standards coming to classrooms next fall, these are the kinds of questions students will explore in their science classes. They’ll be tasked not only with memorizing the answers, but also with asking questions of their own, engaging on the topic with their teacher and classmates, and applying what they learn across disciplines. That’s because the changes set forth are as much about teaching process, as they are about teaching content.

“At the lowest level, I could just teach you facts,” said Detra Clark, who is one of about 300 Tennessee educators leading teacher trainings on the new standards to her peers from across the state. “Now it’s like, ‘I want you to figure out why or how you can use the facts to figure out a problem.’”

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Detra Clark, a science coach in Shelby County’s iZone, demonstrates a sample lesson for sixth grade science teachers.

On Wednesday, Clark — a science coach for the iZone, a group of underperforming schools that Shelby County Schools is looking to turn around — unpacked for her peers, who gathered at Arlington High School, a key component of the new material: three-dimensional modeling. Under three-dimensional modeling, students should be able to do something with the content they learn, not just memorize it.

In recent years, Tennessee students have performed better on state science tests than on their math and English exams. But state science standards for grades K–12 haven’t been updated since 2008. By contrast, math and English benchmarks have undergone more recent changes. To give the stakeholders time to adjust, results from next year’s science test, the first to incorporate the new standards, won’t count for students, teachers, or schools.

At the training session, Clark, standing before a room of sixth-grade science teachers, held up a chart with the names of woodland animals, such as elk and deer. Under each name, she tracked the population over time.

“At our starting population, what do we see?” she asked.

“The deer, it decreases again because it’s introduced to a predator,” a teacher responded.

“More resources, more surviving animals” another teacher chimed in.

“How can we explain what happened in year two, when we’re dealing with students?” Clark asked the group.

“The population went up,” a teacher said.

“They start to reproduce!” another teacher interjected.

Clark nodded.

In another classroom, this one composed of kindergarten teachers, Bridget Davis — a K-2 instructional advisor for Shelby County Schools — clicked through a video of fuzzy critters, each paired with a close relative, such as two different breeds of dogs.

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
In a teacher training session on Wednesday, kindergarten teachers highlight the three dimensions of three-dimensional modeling, a key part of new state science standards.

She encouraged the teachers to ask their students what traits the animals shared.

“The first thing they’re going to say is, ‘Well, one’s big and one’s small,” she said. “What we really want them to say is, ‘Well, their fur is the same color,’ or, ‘Mom has a patch of black hair here and the baby doesn’t.’ We want them to look at detail.”

She added, “We want them to get used to being a detective.”

The science standards that have been in place for the past decade fulfills the first dimension of three-dimensional modeling.

Doing something with that knowledge satisfies the second dimension, and the third dimension requires teachers to apply to their lessons a “cross-cutting concept” — strategies that students can apply to any subject, like identifying patterns or sequences.

Under the existing standards, a student may not have been introduced to physical science until the third grade. But starting next year, Tennessee schoolchildren will learn about life science, physical science, earth and space science, and engineering applications, beginning in kindergarten and continuing through high school.

“I do believe that this is the best our standards have ever been, because of the fact that they are so much more detailed than they have been in the past,” Davis said.

About a thousand Shelby County teachers made their way to trainings this week, which were free and open to all educators. Several administrators also met to discuss ways they can ensure the new standards are implemented in their schools.

As with anything new, Jay Jennings — an assistant principal at a Tipton county middle school and an instructor at Wednesday’s training — expects some pushback. But he’s optimistic that his district will have every teacher at benchmark by the end of the 2018–2019 school year.

“We talked before about teachers knowing content, and that’s important,” he said. “But what we want to see is kids knowing content and questioning content. We want to see them involved.”

He reminded other school leaders about last year’s changes to English and math standards, a transition that he said was challenging but smoother than expected.  

“Teachers are going to go out of their comfort zone,” he explained. “But it’s not changing what a lot of them are already doing.”