all eyes on you

De Blasio hails ‘rebirth’ at Boys and Girls HS, whose new leader has made big changes

PHOTO: AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews
Mayor Bill de Blasio visited Boys and Girls High School, a Renewal school, in March 2015.

After a turbulent year at Boys and Girls High School that was marked by a high-profile leadership change and intense official scrutiny, Mayor Bill de Blasio told this year’s graduates on Thursday that their accomplishment represented a “rebirth” for one of the city’s most troubled schools.

Ninety-three Boys and Girls students graduated on Thursday, double the number expected to earn diplomas at the start of the year, de Blasio said. But even as he celebrated their accomplishments and commended the school’s new principal, Michael Wiltshire, urgent questions hung over the school, including whether it could reverse its steadily declining enrollment and how it will continue to raise its strikingly low graduation rate.

“I want you to know the eyes of the city are on you,” de Blasio said at the school’s graduation ceremony Thursday, where the girls wore white caps and gowns and the boys wore red. As if to prove his point, two opposing education advocacy groups sent out dueling statements Thursday after de Blasio’s speech to either praise or condemn the city’s efforts to rehabilitate Boys and Girls.

After the school’s outspoken principal left the school in October after publicly clashing with the city over its improvement plan for the school, Wiltshire agreed to take over. The city wooed him there with a bonus and a new title that let him keep oversight of the high-performing Brooklyn high school he’s run for many years, Medgar Evers College Preparatory School.

He faced a formidable challenge at Boys and Girls. The school had a 42 percent graduation rate last year — 26 points below the city average and 10 points under the average of schools in de Blasio’s “Renewal” improvement program, which includes Boys and Girls. It had gone so long without making gains or enacting a turnaround plan that it was one of just two schools last year to earn the state’s “out of time” label, forcing the city to make drastic changes that included requiring all staffers to reapply for their jobs.

A joint Medgar Evers-Boys and Girls choir performed at Thursday's graduation.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
A joint Medgar Evers-Boys and Girls choir performed at Thursday’s graduation.

Wiltshire moved quickly. He added an extra period to the school day so students could take more classes, and hired Kaplan to offer test preparation courses. Since Boys and Girls offered few advanced classes, he let top students take classes at Medgar Evers (“I was not with you for most of my senior year — I was at Medgar,” salutatorian Oliver Gaussaint said in his speech Thursday). He also raised expectations for both the students and staff, telling athletes they had to “pass to play” and ordering struggling students to attend tutoring, several students said Thursday after graduation.

“He made us strive harder,” said graduate Gail Romain, adding Wiltshire’s higher expectations also rubbed off on teachers. “The approach everyone had toward us was different — everyone strived harder for us to be the best we can be more than they normally did.”

Considering the state’s closure warning, Wiltshire entered the school with a mandate to make rapid gains.

One of his first actions was to encourage about 30 students who were significantly behind academically to transfer to schools designed to catch them up. (Overall, the school shed nearly 100 students this year, with its enrollment falling from an adjusted 580 students in October to 487 today, officials said.) Some students and staffers said Thursday that those students could not have graduated without the help of an alternative high school program, but others said that struggling students were urged to leave even if they could have caught up at Boys and Girls with extra help.

Sherried Velez said a staffer called her after Wiltshire’s arrival and urged her to sign off on a transfer for her son, David Lewis, who was 20 years old and needed to pass several Regents exams this year to graduate. She declined and he remained at Boys and Girls, where he got tutoring and was able to earn a less rigorous “local” diploma, she said. (The state has eliminated the local diploma option for students who entered high school more recently.)

“If you fought back,” she said after Thursday’s ceremony, “they couldn’t push your child out.”

Wiltshire and an education department spokesperson did not immediately respond to requests to comment on the incident. However, Assistant Principal Andrea Toussaint said that, in general, students who were encouraged to transfer were sent to programs where “they got exactly what they needed.” She pointed to one student who transferred to an alternative program, where he was able to graduate this month and secure a full scholarship to a community college.

The administration also apparently went to great lengths to help get students to graduation. Two staff members said they were told students had until June 24 — one day before graduation, and after teachers had entered final grades — to make up work in order to pass classes they were in danger of failing.

Other questions loom over the school’s coming year.

One is whether it will be able to attract enough new students to stay afloat, a major challenge for a school whose enrollment plummeted from 2,300 in 2010 to under 500 today. Officials said applications are up, with 154 students applying this year compared to 97 last. But a teacher said only 65 freshmen have enrolled so far.

Another question is who will work at the school. Under state pressure, the city and teachers union agreed to a rehiring plan that required all Boys and Girls employees to reapply for their positions if they wanted to work at the school next year. Those who are not rehired by the committee, which includes city and union representatives, will be sent to other Brooklyn high schools with job openings. Some staffers said Thursday they had not yet been notified about the committee’s decision, but expected to by Friday, the last day of the school year.

After the mayor spoke at Boys and Girls’ graduation ceremony, valedictorian Salomon Djakpa gave his speech. After arriving in the U.S. from Senegal his freshman year, Salomon went on to earn a 94.29 grade-point average, to play varsity soccer and volleyball, and finally to win a full scholarship to Cornell University.

“My family and I migrated to the United States approximately four years ago in search of a dream,” he told the audience. “I took with me the shirt on my back, the fire in my belly.”

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.”