raise your hand

A day in the life of the staffer tasked with removing a Bronx building’s bad reputation

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Juanita Rodriguez, the director of School Renewal for District 11 in the Bronx, meets with community-based organizations at the Richard R. Green campus.

As she roams the halls of the Richard R. Green middle school campus, she picks up stray pens on the way to evaluate a classroom and returns a student’s missing notebook before talking to principals about how best to use their extra teaching time.

Tasked with overseeing four long-struggling schools in the Bronx’s District 11 in the city’s “Renewal” school turnaround program, Rodriguez is trying to ensure they make academic progress and become more welcoming places for students and families. Since three of the schools share a building in the Williamsbridge neighborhood of the Bronx, walking the halls with her offers a concentrated glimpse at the challenges the schools face from the ground up — as she is making sure a student gets to class on time one minute and meeting with city officials the next.

Of all of those efforts, the one Rodriguez says is most critical is raising awareness in the neighborhood of the building’s new programs, including the mental health clinic on the way.

“It’s not the safest neighborhood in the Bronx, let’s put it that way,” she said, “so it’s turned a lot of people away from the campus and, potentially, students that we want to attract.”

That’s why Rodriguez turned to Chalkbeat’s Raise Your Hand series, asking, “How do you remove a long-standing negative reputation from a school? Are there examples of schools that have successfully done this?”

As we start digging into that question, we spent part of a school day with her at the Richard R. Green campus — which houses three Renewal schools: School of Diplomacy, Young Scholars Academy, and Globe School for Environmental Research.

Rodriguez goes over classroom environment improvements with assistant principals at the School of Diplomacy.
PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Rodriguez goes over classroom environment improvements with assistant principals at the School of Diplomacy.

First up: Meeting with staff of the building’s partner organization

Early in her day, Rodriguez checked in with the campus’s program director for Phipps Neighborhoods. Phipps is the community-based organization chosen by the three Renewal schools as the building’s official partner.

Rodriguez got a status update on several initiatives: vision screenings for all students, the creation of a new on-site mental health clinic, plans to bring a food pantry to the building for families, and a campus-wide “Halloween harvest festival” — complete with a haunted house.

She made her own suggestions, including starting a campus Facebook page, creating colorful pamphlets for each school to pass out to neighbors, and making sure local politicians were kept in the loop.

“My big job is to help market the campus inside and out,” she said. If the community doesn’t know what’s going on, she added, “They’re going to keep talking badly about the school.”

Even since the first day of school, changes in the building are visible. The black fencing surrounding the building is changing to a bright blue. Pumpkins and garlands of fall leaves line the entryway. College banners and bulletin boards decorate the halls, and new desks were being delivered this past week.

“We want to see kids coming to school more and their attendance going up, suspensions going down,” she said. “We want kids to go home and say, ‘I really like my school and I’m learning in my classroom.’”

Rodriguez speaks with School of Diplomacy principal Sean Licata.

Next up: Evaluating classrooms with assistant principals

Inside the classroom, it’s not just about hanging curtains and creating a friendly aesthetic. The Renewal initiative is also meant to improve academic instruction, and Rodriguez wants their classrooms to reflect the standards being set for the year.

On her way to meet with School of Diplomacy assistant principals to start “informal” classroom environment checks, Rodriguez ran into principal Sean Licata in the hall.

”Do the teachers know I’m coming?” she asked.

“No, but they’re used to you being here,” Licata said. “She lives here,” he added with a laugh.

With School of Diplomacy assistant principal Vivian Hernandez by her side, the pair visited a handful of classrooms to see how teachers had made progress on their room setup.

Their checklist asked: Does each classroom have a well-labeled independent reading library? Is the agenda for the day on the board? Are students being grouped by achievement level in ways that rely on data? Is high-quality student work displayed on the walls? Are student notebooks being checked for content and organization?

When teachers came up short, Rodriguez has armed with suggestions for assistant principals to pass along to their staffs.

“Kids need to be using those libraries. It doesn’t matter if it’s math class or science class,” she told Hernandez. “The chancellor is very big on that.”

On her way to the next classroom, Rodriguez was called back to the Phipps Neighborhoods office because its director has arrived to meet with her and a representative from the city’s community-schools office. It was still before noon.

“You’ll see I get interrupted a lot,” she said.

Rodriguez was still facing a full agenda of classroom visits, meeting with the Globe School principal to go over how the extra hour of daily instruction should be best used. She then needed to finalize a presentation for her fourth Renewal school, an elementary school in a different building, that is showcasing its progress at a meeting next week with Chancellor Carmen Fariña, the city’s Renewal elementary schools, and other department officials.

“We’re coming up with as much as we can come up with on our own to transform our school, but it would be great to see what other schools in other boroughs, what they’ve done to turn their schools around,” she said.

We want to hear from you: While

Rodriguez meets with the community school director for Phipps Neighborhoods and a representative from the city’s Office of Community Schools.
PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Rodriguez meets with the community school director for Phipps Neighborhoods and a representative from the city’s Office of Community Schools.

Rodriguez said she has been able to visit other Renewal schools to get ideas on how to move the campus forward, she said she doesn’t want to “be isolated in just the Renewal world” when it comes to turning around a school.

“Renewal schools are supposedly the most struggling ones, so we want to look at best practices and highly effective practices,” she said. “I want to know what else is happening in other boroughs, if there are any other schools outside of our own little community and district that we can actually tap into.”

By the numbers

Do any schools’ populations mirror the city average? Just two.

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty / © 2013

It’s not quite Powerball odds, but it’s pretty rare for a school’s demographics to line up perfectly with the city average.

Still, when a reader asked us which schools closely reflect the racial and economic diversity of New York City, amid a spate of headlines addressing the city’s severe school segregation, we were up for the challenge. We analyzed nearly 1,800 district and charter schools to identify the ones that come closest to sharing the racial breakdown of the city’s overall student population.

We found just two schools that came within five percentage points of the city school system’s overall student demographics for Hispanic, black, Asian, and white students during the 2014-15 school year: P.S. 97 in the Bronx and International High School at Prospect Heights in Brooklyn.

For many reasons — including school zones, high school choice, geography and residential patterns — the New York City school system is not set up to evenly distribute students.

In the case of these two schools, one is in an unusually diverse neighborhood, while the other is set up to enroll recent immigrants from all over the world and illustrates the limitations of looking at a school’s racial breakdown to assess school diversity.

First, there’s P.S. 97 in the Pelham Gardens neighborhood of the Bronx.

This District 11 elementary school is zoned, meaning it accepts students who live in the surrounding neighborhood. Its state test proficiency rates (27 percent of students passed English, and 39 percent passed math) surpassed those of the district, but were very close to the city averages.

And the nearly 750-student school also looks pretty similar to the city when it comes to its share of low-income students and students with disabilities.

Then, there’s International High School at Prospect Heights in Brooklyn.

While the school has similar racial demographics to the city school system, Principal Nedda DeCastro said all of the enrolled high school students have been in the United States for four years or less and city data shows that 90 percent of students last year were still learning English.

“It’s a diverse school, but I don’t think it’s representative of the city,” DeCastro said.

Beyond racial diversity, where are the city schools that reflect the city’s economic and academic diversity?

Not including demographic data, five schools come with three percentage points of the city statistics for poverty, English learners, and students with disabilities.

  • PROGRESS High School for Professional Careers in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, which has a 68 percent four-year graduation rate.
  • Business, Computer Applications & Entrepreneurship High School in Cambria Heights, Queens, which is currently in its last year of being phased out.
  • P.S. 58 The School of Heroes in Maspeth, Queens, where about half the students passed the state English and math exams last year.
  • I.S. 228 David A. Boody in Gravesend, Brooklyn, which offers dual-language programs in Russian, Chinese, Spanish, and Hebrew.
  • Brooklyn Studio Secondary School, which enrolls students in grades six through 12 in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn.

letter to the editor

Letter to the editor: City needs systemwide solutions for school diversity

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Mishi Faruqee talks to her daughter, Naima, who is in kindergarten at P.S. 38 The Pacific School in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn.

This letter comes from Mishi Faruqee, who Chalkbeat profiled last week after her question was selected to become the focus of our next Raise Your Hand series.

To the Editor:

Chalkbeat New York has played a major role in furthering the public conversation about how to address school segregation in New York City’s public schools. That is why when your Raise Your Hand series asked readers to submit questions about school segregation and diversity, I asked Chalkbeat to investigate: which public schools reflect the diversity of New York City?

I asked this question not because, as a public school parent, I was simply looking for more diverse schools to choose from. Rather, I asked Chalkbeat to investigate diverse public schools in New York City because I want to know if the diversity in these schools is a result of policies and practices that can be replicated systemwide – so that New York City can move forward rather than backward in integrating its public schools.

Like many New Yorkers, I am very concerned the city’s schools are the most segregated in the country. A recent report from the New Schools’ Center for NYC Affairs found that school segregation in New York City is not just a function of residential segregation. There are many diverse neighborhoods in New York City that still have segregated schools.

It is important to recognize that school segregation, like residential segregation, is not an accident. Segregation is a result of deliberate policy choices, and, hence if we want to reverse segregation, New York will have to adopt specific policy reforms to make this happen. The city took a first step by adopting a new law requiring schools to report on diversity and what steps they are taking to improve school diversity. Also, the city recently announced that seven schools — six of which are unzoned schools — will adopt diversity plans to set aside seats for low-income students.

But much more needs to be done. First, we need to reframe the debate to move away from a false dichotomy between diverse schools and “high-performing” schools. In fact, diversity adds to a school’s quality. Research indicates that all students – white, African-American, Latino, affluent, middle-class, low-income – benefit from attending diverse schools.

That is why I am hoping the Chalkbeat investigation will illuminate possible policy and practice choices by looking into diverse schools in New York. Many middle class and affluent parents seem to favor progressive schools that emphasize critical thinking and project-based learning. Can the city implement this educational philosophy in more schools to attract a more diverse mix? Should New York City eliminate residential school zones as they have done in Manhattan’s District 1? What policies can New York City introduce to prevent displacement and ensure inclusive school cultures? School choice within school districts has sometimes exacerbated class and racial differences among schools, but what role can “controlled choice” policies play in integrating schools?

As a public school parent, I have been lucky to find diverse, high-quality schools for my two children. But ultimately, if we want to dismantle school segregation, we have to broaden the discussion away from individual choices or even individual schools to the larger system changes that the city must undertake to ensure educational equity for all students.


Mishi Faruqee