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.”

Sticker shock

In Illinois, child care costs eclipse rent, making it one of least affordable states  

The average annual cost of child care now outpaces what families spend on a year of rent in Illinois, according to a new report that examines child care costs nationwide.

Illinois is one of the 15 least affordable states in the country, according to the report from the Virginia-based nonprofit Child Care Aware of America. The nonprofit examined costs across the United States and adjusted them for median income and cost of living.

“Families are seeing that child care is a significant portion of the bill they have to pay,” rivaling the cost of college tuition, rent, and even sometimes mortgage payments in some areas of the country, said Dionne Dobbins, senior director of research at Child Care Aware.  

The average annual cost of center-based care for an infant in Illinois has reached $13,474 — which is a staggering 52 percent of the median income of a single-parent family in the state and nearly 15 percent of the state’s median married couple’s income.

That figure put it 13th among the least affordable states, which were ranked by the percentage of a single-parent family’s income spent on child care. Massachusetts topped out at nearly 65 percent of a single-parent family’s median income for center-based infant care.

In Illinois, care for toddlers and older children before and after school also consumed a greater percentage of a family’s income compared with other states. Illinois ranked 14th for toddler care as a percentage of median income, with an average cost of $11,982 for full-time toddler care at a center.

The state was among least affordable for the cost of three months of summer care.


Illinois offers a child care subsidy intended to offset the costs of care for low-income working families, but that program has been rocked by shifting eligibility requirements and compliance issues. Participation in the program has dropped by a third since 2015, when Gov. Bruce Rauner’s administration changed eligibility requirements.

Dobbins said that, across the United States, child care subsidy programs are under pressure as states tighten compliance and lower reimbursement rates. In some states like Illinois, rising minimum wages have rendered some families ineligible for subsidies or staring down co-pays that they can’t afford.

Dobbins said that nationally, only one in six children eligible for subsidized child care actually ends up using it.


words of advice

Here’s advice from a social worker on how schools can support transgender students right now

PHOTO: Getty Images
A flag for transgender and gender noncomforming people is held up at a rally for LGBTQ rights at Washington Square Park.

Soon after news broke that the Trump administration could further roll back civil rights protections for transgender students, one New York City teacher sent an email blast to her fellow educators.

She was searching for materials to use in biology class that reflect people of different gender identities, but couldn’t find anything.

Many city educators may similarly grapple with how to support transgender students after it was reported that the Trump administration is considering whether to narrowly define gender based on a person’s biology at birth — a move that could have implications for how sex discrimination complaints in schools are handled under federal Title IX.

Olin Winn-Ritzenberg — a social worker at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center — has some tips for navigating the questions and emotions this latest proposal might surface. He runs a support group for transgender teens and their peers who want to be allies, and says the most important advice is to just be willing to talk and listen.

“I don’t think it’s the kind of thing that you want to wait until somebody is in crisis,” he said. “By bringing it up ourselves, we’re modeling support.”

Here’s what he had to say about recognizing transgender students, the protections that New York City and state offer, and some mistakes to avoid.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What are your tips for how to explain the news to students and young people?

If it’s news like this, that’s hard to maybe pin down what it exactly means (this was a memo, and does it have teeth? What does it mean?) I would look to them for the feeling of it. That’s what’s really important and a lot of what’s going on is just fear mongering, and a denial of trans existence. And that is something our young people will be able to speak to, to no end, and that they’re not strangers to — especially under this administration.

I would want to help ground things and offer some reassurance that a memo doesn’t have teeth and that we can look to our local New York City and state protections — that we’re lucky to live in a place that has such strong protections, especially for students.

What kinds of protections should New York City students expect to have in schools?

A student in New York City could expect to use the facilities that align with their identity, and could expect to possibly see all-gender facilities in their schools — as there are more and more of those being converted. They can expect to be able to file or register a complaint of discrimination against other students or even staff, and can expect to have an LGBT liaison within the Department of Education. They can expect to have their name and pronoun respected and utilized, and come up with a plan with a staff member around, if they’re transitioning socially or in any form at school, how they would like to be supported and how that looks in each unique situation.

It doesn’t always happen. But the fact that we do have it in policy means that there’s a means to pursuing it and that the institution is on the side of the trans or gender non-conforming student and would help to rectify any situation that’s feeling unsafe or unsupportive.

How can teachers and adults show support for their transgender students right now?

I don’t think it’s the kind of thing that you want to wait until somebody is in crisis. It shouldn’t be necessarily on any student to bring it up. By bringing it up ourselves, we’re modeling support. Even though this is a memo and we’re all waiting to see what they’re going to try to do with it, we know the intentions behind it…

I think we can speak directly to that and not make the debate about, ‘Is there or isn’t there a trans experience?’ That’s maybe one of the most powerful things. Yes, we exist. And if you’re an ally: ‘I’m a witness. You exist. You’re valid and as valid as anybody else.’

What would that validation look like in a school setting, say, if you’re a math teacher?

I think that making things visible is powerful. So if there’s a public bulletin board in a hallway and it says, ‘We stand with our trans staff and students,’ and then people have an opportunity to sign it.

I really think it can be an individualized response by a school depending on that school’s culture and if there is leadership by students, say, ‘We would like to be vocal and explicit in our support. You come up with the idea.’ Or, not to put it on them but say, ‘We’d love to be guided or get input from you on how to do that,’ so it is, wherever possible youth and trans-led.

Say, ‘What do you need and what can we provide?’

What should teachers and adults avoid saying or doing at a time like this?

I think a common, misguided mistake — that’s not necessarily hateful, but is really harmful nonetheless — is propping up a debate that’s going to hinge on ‘Do trans people exist?’ Or, ‘Defend or argue against sex being a binary, scientific, biological basis to view narrowly.’  

If a teacher wanted to engage with this but the assignment were more like, ‘What are your thoughts,’ there is so much education that needs to be done first — and that can put a person’s very identity and being up for debate in a classroom setting.

Another really bad thing would be just to ignore it because people are maybe scared of going there or don’t know what to do.