hear me out

When these New York City schools want creative solutions to their challenges, they turn to the experts: students

Lisandro Mayancela, a student at Brooklyn Law Tech and member of the Student Voice Collaborative, hosts visitors at his school.

On a recent January morning, students Galeel Cora and Jenitza Jack sat in a conference room at Brooklyn High School for Law and Technology — a school that’s a 30 minute bus ride from the one they attend.

They came seeking advice on how their school, Brooklyn Community Arts & Media, can provide more opportunities for students to explore the themes promised by its name. They had the seed of a solution — a proposed event called “Fresh Fridays,” which would showcase students’ talents in painting, rap, dance, and other creative endeavors — but they weren’t sure how to get it off the ground.

The administrator they met with, Law and Tech Assistant Principal Melanie Werner, had plenty of ideas.

Maybe the event should be styled after a “gallery walk,” with each different classrooms featuring a different art medium, she suggested. The students nodded in agreement. Go after grants to fund it, she added. Galeel jotted that down. Reach across social cliques to recruit students to both contribute art and show up to the event, Werner offered.

“Get some kids together and come up with a game plan,” she said. “But it has to be fun, or it’s going to lose steam.”

The students were gathering this advice through a program called the Student Voice Collaborative, which trains students to analyze issues at their schools and come up with solutions. One important way they do that is by visiting partner schools — an approach to school improvement that Chancellor Carmen Fariña has also championed through similar programs that promote cross-campus collaboration among adults.

Launched in 2010 and run out of the Brooklyn North Field Support Center, the collaborative aims to add student voices to the mix. Equal parts research project, internship, and civics lesson, the program now spans seven districts and includes about 10 schools each year.

“A lot of times students aren’t involved in these types of conversations,” said Lisandro Mayancela, a senior at Law Tech. “You’re coming up with decisions that will affect the kids the most, so why not give those students a chance to sit down [and] actually voice their opinions?”

Students at each participating school are paired with groups from a different school through surveys and a speed-dating-style event at the start of the year. Then the teams meet every other week to discuss issues at their respective schools and brainstorm solutions. Students are also matched with an “action team” of adults at their own school, who help the students zero in on challenges and then follow through on their school-improvement ideas.

“We try to develop structures that promote youth-adult partnership, so the action team is like the heart” of the program, said Ari Sussman, an official at the support center who launched the collaborative. “Students and adults put their priorities side by side.”

One of the program’s highlights comes about halfway through the year when students take turns visiting and hosting partner schools. For Galeel and Jenitza, that meant taking an early morning bus ride to Law Tech to look for lessons to bring back to their own school.

During their visit, they dropped in on an art class and had a long discussion over pizza with Law Tech’s Student Government representatives, who shared how how they’ve managed to make their school events a success — tips for Galeel and Jenitza to keep in mind as they try to build Fresh Fridays. One Law Tech student suggested recruiting freshman, who would be too green to remember past school events that may have been boring. Another said good music would draw people in — and so would a little positive peer pressure, like a direct invite for popular students who hold sway with the rest of the school.

“I know for a fact that if a popular student is going to a party, I’m going, too,” he said.

They also met with art teacher Maria Pascual, who noted the funding challenges that Brooklyn Community Arts & Media is likely to face if it tries to adhere more closely to its theme. To illustrate her point, she mentioned that students have a hard time drawing on her school’s outdated iPads. Some funding riddles, she said, require creative solutions.

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Students Jenitza Jack and Galeel Cora visit Maria Pascual’s art class at Brooklyn Law Tech.

“Everybody in your school has a phone,” she told the visiting students as she whipped out her own cell phone and dragged her finger across the screen. “Get your teacher to download a sketchbook, and they can draw on their phones… Start thinking about, ‘What can I do right now.’”

While the program can help students come up with policy ideas, it’s up to their school leaders to give their ideas due consideration and carry them out.

One school that has done that is the Academy for Young Writers in Brooklyn, which was part of the Student Voice Collaborative last year.

After students in the program noticed that 9th-graders’ attendance and grades had taken a nosedive midyear, the principal hosted regular strategy meetings in his office where he and the students could brainstorm solutions. Once they decided to try pairing the freshmen with 11th-grade mentors, the team’s faculty advisor, English teacher Michelle Eisenberg, agreed to train the older students.

By the end of the school year, the 9th-graders’ academics and attendance had stabilized, Eisenberg said. The students’ mentoring idea seemed to have made a difference — but only because the administration took it seriously.

“It’s one thing to invite a group of students to sit down one time and hear what they have to say,” she said. “I think it’s another thing to have students sit down in the principal’s office once a week, being critical and being proactive.”

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Sayonara, SESIS: New York City to scrap its beleaguered special education data system

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat

New York City is scrapping a special education data system that has frustrated educators since it launched nearly a decade ago.

The troubles of SESIS, as the city’s Special Education Student Information System is called, are well known. Since its launch in 2011, the system — which required over $130 million to build — cost the city tens of millions of dollars in settlements, at times malfunctioned more than 800,000 times a day, and made it difficult to track whether students with disabilities are getting the services they need.

Education department officials said they have been able to “stabilize” the system in recent years. But they also have concluded that an entirely different system is needed. On Friday, they announced that they would phase SESIS out and replace it with something new — at a cost and on a timeline that is not yet clear.

The announcement comes on the eve of a City Council hearing set for Monday where council members say they will press for more transparency about special education.

“It was originally designed as a document management system,” Lauren Siciliano, the education department’s Deputy Chief Operating Officer, said about SESIS. “Think more of a filing cabinet right now as opposed to being able to follow a student through the process.”

Special education teachers often spent hours navigating a maze of drop-down menus — inputting data such as whether they met with a student and for how long — only to experience error messages that erased their answers.

Megan Moskop, a former special education teacher at M.S. 324 in Washington Heights, said she once encountered 41 error messages in two hours. What’s more, she said, the system didn’t reflect the experiences she had with her students.

“At the end of the day, I would be expected to go in, mark that they are present, mark whether they made progress toward a goal,” Moskop said. “It’s very standardized.”

It is not yet clear how quickly the education department will phase SESIS out. Officials said the city would begin a multistage process of identifying a vendor to create a new system by the end of March, then would ask for more detailed plans by the end of 2019. An official purchasing process would happen after that, Siciliano said, meaning that construction of  a new system will not begin for well over a year. Families and educators would be consulted throughout, officials said.

Linda Chen, the department’s chief academic officer, said a new system would lead to tangible improvements for students with disabilities.

“I do think that if we have clear and reliable visibility into the data it would absolutely allow us to better serve our students,” Chen said.

Flaws with SESIS have made it difficult to know how well the city is serving students with disabilities. Because the system was not set up to communicate with other city databases, city officials have had to manually tabulate data across systems. And the annual reports that show whether students are receiving required services may not be accurate because of the system’s flaws, officials have warned.

The system’s glitches also made the user experience so cumbersome that teachers had to spend time on nights and weekends entering data. An arbitrator eventually ordered the city to pay over $38 million in teacher overtime.

Additionally, the system has sparked legal action. Former Public Advocate Letitia James filed a lawsuit claiming that SESIS was to blame for some children not receiving services as well as lost Medicaid payments. Between 2012 and 2015, according to the IBO, the city collected $373 million less in Medicaid reimbursements than officials projected.

Some advocates said that given SESIS’s troubled history, it makes sense to find alternatives.

“There has to be a strong data system in place,” said Maggie Moroff, a disability policy expert at Advocates for Children, a nonprofit advocacy organization. “We are eager to see a better system to be put in place, but are really worried about that transition period.”

Advocates have also pushed the city to make the data SESIS tracks directly available to parents.

“We will absolutely be looking at that,” Siciliano said.

next steps

Charter schools racing to find new buildings as district ends their leases

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Escuela Avancemos will move to a new building.

At least two Detroit charter schools are racing against the clock to find new buildings for more than 500 students next fall after the city district decided not to renew their leases.

It’s the latest move in an ongoing effort by the Detroit Public Schools Community District to get out of the charter business, and it means another bout of uncertainty for schools that enroll hundreds of children in Detroit.

Leaders of GEE-Edmonson Academy and GEE-White Academy face the daunting challenge of finding new buildings before the start of the next school year. Another school, Escuela Avancemos, already found a new building. More schools, including Rutherford Winans Academy, have leases that expire this year, but their representatives did not return requests for comment on whether their lease was renewed.

Most students at the two schools run by Global Educational Excellence (GEE) walk every day, Superintendent Michael Conran said. If a new building can’t be found in those neighborhoods, the school’s would face new transportation challenges, casting doubt on their ability to maintain their enrollment.

“We were clearly not anticipating that the leases would not be renewed,” Conran said. “That news came pretty late, I believe it was after the New Year. That’s quite a notification to the boards in such a short period of time.”

The challenges for these schools don’t end there. The district could also decline to renew their charters for the GEE schools when they expire in June, potentially forcing them to find new backers as well as new buildings.

More than one charter school has already jumped ship. Escuela Avancemos, a small school in southwest Detroit, will begin the coming year in a new building and with a new authorizer, Central Michigan University. Officials had begun searching for a new building even before they were notified last month that their lease would not be renewed.

“For the protection of our school, we’ve had to take matters into our own hands to guarantee our future,” said Sean Townsin, principal at Escuela Avancemos.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti made clear soon after he took the helm of the district in 2017 that he believed the district’s resources should be channeled toward its own students, not toward charter schools.

He reiterated that position last year when the district severed its ties with a three-school network of charter schools, forcing it to scramble to find new buildings and a new charter. Parents were forced to choose between an extraordinarily long commute to the new site and making an unwanted switch to another school. Enrollment was cut in half.

Supporters of the move pointed out at the time that those schools had been district schools until they were spun off by state-appointed emergency managers. In a city with lots of school options and few quality schools, they argued, some consolidation is necessary.

Most charters in Detroit are overseen by Michigan’s public universities, but 10 schools are supervised by the Detroit district.

A handful of those schools also rent their school buildings from the district, putting them in a particularly vulnerable position should the district decide that it would rather not support charter schools — its chief competitors for students and state funding.

In a statement about those schools, Chrystal Wilson, a spokeswoman for the district, said the the charter schools could eventually be replaced with district schools.

“Now that we have the leadership to rebuild the district, we need to review and maximize our property assets. This means possibly re-using currently leased schools for new DPSCD schools, replacing older buildings with high repair costs, or adding a school in an area where facility usage and class sizes are high where another traditional public school does not exist. We understand and accept if district charters are leaving for other authorizers.”

No matter the district’s plans, Conran said the Global Educational Excellence schools would continue trying to serve students.

But he asked for transparency from the district and time to plan.

“I’m just simply waiting to hear from DPS any decisions they anticipate making in as timely a manner as we need to make sure we can continue to support these students and their families,” he said.