a second look

Two years after escaping closure, a Bronx high school works to improve

PHOTO: Jessica Glazer

During the summer of 2012, Evan Schwartz was getting ready to lead a brand-new school in the South Bronx.

The new school would replace Alfred E. Smith Career and Technical Education High School, a 950-student school that had struggled to graduate even half of its students for years. Schwartz, charged with replacing much of the staff, had invited about half of the staff to stay.

Things didn’t all go according to plan.

In late June 2012, an arbitrator ruled that the city could not shutter Smith and 23 other schools that officials had deemed low-performing enough to close. For teachers and students who had fought to save the school and its storied automotive-repair program, it was an unexpected victory. But the decision also meant the disintegration of Smith’s “turnaround” plan, which included a $3 million grant — and meant that many of those staff members would return after all.

Schwartz, though frustrated, decided to stay to see what he could do with the 82-year-old school. His goal: “Let’s take this name and build it back up,” he said.

Two years later, attendance rates and morale have crept up at the mostly-male school, teachers and students say. New equipment for the automotive program, and new uniforms that better disguise grease stains, have made their debuts. But the school remains on the state’s list of low-achieving schools, and graduation and Regents exam pass rates remain below city averages.

Smith’s story is an example of what it looks like to attempt to quickly improve a low-performing school, even as officials disagree over strategies and resources come and go. Its successes, and remaining challenges, are especially relevant as critics of the de Blasio administration continue their calls for a clearer plan for improving the city’s struggling schools.

Improvements at Smith

If you ask Schwartz what his vision is for the school, he’ll give you an acronym: BHAG, which stands for “big, hairy, audacious goal,” an phrase he borrowed from a book about the habits of successful companies.

Parent Coordinator at Alfred E. Smith CTE High School, Nilda Delgado, has seen the school go through many ups and downs over the last 15 years.
PHOTO: Jessica Glazer
Parent coordinator Nilda Delgado has watched the school struggle and improve over the last 15 years.

His goal this year is to reach 90-80-70. That’s 90 percent attendance, 80 percent of first-year students earning 10 or more credits, and a 70 percent four-year graduation rate.

Smith has been known for its attendance problems — Schwartz said that in years past, you couldn’t tell when the day ended because students trickled in and out of the building all day — but last year, the attendance rate increased to 83 percent, according to his estimates. (Official numbers for last year are not yet available.) That’s up from 73 percent in 2011-12.

Graduation rates have been more stubborn. In 2012-13, Smith graduated just 51 percent of its students in four years, according to the city progress report, including August graduates. Last year, 61 percent of students graduated, Schwartz says.

That increase is likely related to the fact that the school convinced nearly 100 over-aged, under-credited students who attended class intermittently to transfer out of Smith and into transfer schools or more flexible Young Adult Borough Centers. One teacher said that these older students often stood at the end of the hallway in a group that was intimidating to younger classmates, something a number of the school’s current seniors also remembered.

Meanwhile, the school has shrunk dramatically. One of the city’s earlier plans was to improve the school by downsizing it, and more recently the school has struggled to attract students. Fewer than 400 students are enrolled this year, down from 950 the year before the proposed turnaround.

Students say the school is calmer now. Connie Jimenez, a senior and one of a few girls at the school, said that groups of boys would often surround and harass her in the hallways during her freshman year. “It was terrible,” she said.

While hallways are quieter, classroom experiences vary. In new, brightly lit classrooms in the basement one afternoon this October, students in AP English politely raised their hands to discuss “Beowulf,” and freshmen in earth science learned to use scales and rulers for lab work. In another earth science class down the hall, senior boys shouted randomly. They threw balled-up paper at each other’s heads and demanded to know why they hadn’t been given more time to study for a test that most of them had failed.

“Summer school is always an option,” their teacher told them.

Smith’s challenges

During the Bloomberg years, the city closed about 160 schools and replaced many larger high schools with smaller ones. Alfred E. Smith had already escaped closure once before it was slated for turnaround in 2012.

When the city proposed closing Smith again, “There was doom and gloom,” said Bruce Harris, an automotive teacher and 15-year Smith veteran. Even the decision that kept the school open brought troubles, many acknowledged.

“You don’t recover from that whiplash,” said Mary Conway-Spiegel, an advocate who has worked with a number of closing schools.

Smith faces challenges similar to those at struggling schools across the city: high percentages of English language learners and students with special needs, and the stigma of being a low-performing school for years. Almost 90 percent of students at Smith were eligible for free or reduced price lunch last year, according to Insideschools.

Seniors at Alfred E. Smith CTE High School learn the automotive trade and take newly added Advanced Placement classes.
PHOTO: Jessica Glazer
Seniors at Alfred E. Smith CTE High School learn the automotive trade and take newly added Advanced Placement classes.

But Smith is unique among the 24 schools that avoided closure in 2012 because it has received significant new federal money to enact a new improvement plan.

Only handful of the other 23 received federal School Improvement Grants after the 2012 turnaround plan was nixed. Smith became a “transformation” school in 2013-14, and was awarded a total of $3 million over three years. Schwartz has used the money to bring on a full-time college and career guidance counselor, add after-school and tutoring programs, and hire additional teachers.

After the arbitrator’s decision, many teachers also left the school on their own. Schwartz said about five retired and nine were excessed because they had been teaching out of license.

That was less of a shake-up than would have happened through the initial turnaround plan, but those changes helped change the culture of the school, he said. “It was either, ‘Get on board, or you can move to a different place,’” Schwartz said.

Nilda Delgado, who has been the parent coordinator for 13 years, says the changes brought out tensions among teachers, especially in the first months. “There is still some resistance,” but not nearly as much, she said.

Now, the school sorts students into advisory periods that stay intact for a student’s four years. Teachers meet three times a week in grade-level and departmental groups, and outside consultants from Teachers College assist with Common Core-aligned unit planning. Schwartz also switched the dress code to darker colors, which showed auto-body grease stains less visibly — an indication to some teachers that the school administration was in touch with its main program.

Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña has yet to outline formal plans for some of the city’s other struggling schools, but the de Blasio administration has resisted the idea that struggling schools should close. So while Smith likely won’t face closure again, next year will be the last year of its $3 million transformation grant — and it still has to find ways to continue to raise graduation rates and student achievement. Its latest college-and-career readiness rate, from 2011-12, stands at 6.6 percent.

“We’re more competitive now,” said Esteban Peralta, a senior in the automotive program, noting the school’s new AP classes. “We’re not progressing as fast, but we’re working on it.”

Future of Schools

Mike Feinberg, KIPP co-founder, fired after misconduct investigation

PHOTO: Photo by Neville Elder/Corbis via Getty Images

Mike Feinberg, the co-founder of the KIPP charter network, has been fired after an investigation into sexual misconduct, its leaders announced Thursday.

KIPP found “credible evidence” connected to allegations that Feinberg abused a student in the late 1990s, according to a letter sent to students and staff. Feinberg denies the allegations.

“We recognize this news will come as a shock to many in the KIPP Team and Family as we struggle to reconcile Mr. Feinberg’s 24 years of significant contributions with the findings of this investigation,” the letter says.

It’s a stunning move at one of the country’s best-known charter school organizations — and one where Feinberg has been in a leadership role for more than two decades. Feinberg started KIPP along with Dave Levin in Houston in 1994, and Levin brought the model to New York City the next year. The network became known for its “no excuses” model of strict discipline and attention to academic performance.

KIPP says it first heard the allegation last spring. The network eventually hired the law firm WilmerHale to conduct an external investigation, which found evidence that Feinberg had sexually harassed two adults, both alums of the school who were then employed by KIPP in Houston, the network said.

“In light of the nature of the allegations and the passage of time, critical facts about these events may never be conclusively determined. What is clear, however, is that, at a minimum, Mr. Feinberg put himself into situations where his conduct could be seriously misconstrued,” KIPP wrote in the letter, signed by CEO Richard Barth and KIPP’s Houston leader, Sehba Ali.

Feinberg’s lawyer, Chris Tritico, told the Houston Chronicle that Feinberg had not been fully informed about the allegations against him.

“The treatment he received today from the board that he put in place is wrong, and it’s not what someone who has made the contributions he’s made deserves,” Tritico said.

Read KIPP’s full letter here.

Knock knock

House call: One struggling Aurora high school has moved parent-teacher conferences to family homes

A social studies teacher gives a class to freshman at Aurora Central High School in April 2017. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

When Aurora Central High School held traditional parent-teacher conference nights, fewer than 75 parents showed up.

This year, by taking the conferences to students’ homes, principal Gerardo De La Garza says the school has already logged more than 400 meetings with parents.

“This is something a lot of our families wanted,” De La Garza said. “We decided we wanted to add home visits as a way to build relationships with our community. The attendance at the traditional conferences was not where we wanted it to be.”

The home visits aren’t meant to reach every single student, though — the school has more than 2,000 enrolled this year. Instead, teams of teachers serving the same grade of students work together to identify students who need additional help or are having some issues. On Fridays, when the school lets out early, teachers are to go out and meet with those families. In some cases, they also schedule visits during other times.

Some parents and students say they weren’t made aware about the change and questioned if it was a good idea, while others welcomed the different approach.

“I felt when we go home that’s kind of our space, so I wasn’t comfortable with it,” said Akolda Redgebol, a senior at Aurora Central. Her family hasn’t had a home visit. “My parents, they thought it was a little odd, too.”

A father of another Aurora Central senior spoke to the school board about the change at a meeting earlier this month.

“There’s been a lot of changes over all these years, but one thing we could always count on was the opportunity to sit down with our child’s teachers during parent teacher conferences,” he said. “I hope this new program works, I really do, but why stop holding parent teacher conference nights at the high school? I haven’t had a single meeting. I haven’t met any of his teachers this year. Also why weren’t the parents told? I got two text messages, an email, and a phone call to let me know about a coffee meeting, but not a single notice about cancelling parent teacher conferences.”

Research examining the value of parent-teacher conferences is limited, but researchers do say that increased parent engagement can help lift student achievement. This year, the struggling Commerce City-based school district of Adams 14 also eliminated traditional parent-teacher conference nights from their calendar as a way to make more use of time. But after significant pushback from parents and teachers, the district announced it will return to the traditional approach next year.

Aurora Central High School is one of five in Aurora Public Schools’ “innovation zone,” one of Superintendent Rico Munn’s signature strategies for turning around struggling schools.

The school reached a limit of low performance ratings from the state and last year was put on a state-ordered improvement plan. That plan allowed the school to press on with its innovation plan, which was approved in 2016 and grants it some autonomy for decisions on its budget, school calendar, and school model.

As part of the school’s engagement with parents, the school in the last few years has hired a family liaison, though there’s been some turnover with that position. The school also hosts monthly parent coffee nights, as has become common across many Aurora schools.

As part of the innovation plan, school and community leaders also included plans to increase home visits.

Home visits have also become popular across many school districts as another way to better connect with families. Often, teachers are taught to use the visit as a time to build relationships, not to discuss academic performance or student behavior issues.

That’s not the case at Aurora Central. Principal De La Garza said it is just about taking the parent-teacher conference to the parent’s home. And teachers have been trained on how to have those conversations, he said.

The innovation plan didn’t mention removing conference nights, however.

De La Garza said that’s because parent-teacher conferences are still an option. If parents want to request a conference, or drop by on Fridays to talk to teachers, they still can.

Those Fridays when students end classes early are also the days teachers are expected to make house calls to contact families.

Teachers are expected to reach a certain number of families each Friday, though school and district staff could not provide that exact number.

Bruce Wilcox, the president of the Aurora teachers union, said that it’s important to better engage families, but that balance is needed so not all of the responsibility is put on teachers who are already busy.

Wilcox said he would also worry about teachers having less access to resources, such as translators, during home meetings.

Maria Chavez, a mother of a freshman at Aurora Central, just had a home visit last week. She learned about the school’s strategy when she was called about setting up the visit.

Another, older daughter, was the interpreter during the home meeting with three teachers.

“For me, it was a nice experience,” Chavez said. “As parents, and even the kids, we feel more trust with the teachers.”

Chavez said she goes to parent-teacher conferences with her elementary-aged daughter, but doesn’t always have time for conferences with her high-school-aged daughter, so the home visit was convenient. Chavez also said she was able to ask questions, and said the teachers were able to answer her concerns.

“Maybe I wouldn’t say this should be how every conference happens,” she said, “but it is a good idea.”