the day after

How one Bronx school helped students ‘drive the discussion’ around Trump’s election

East Bronx Academy for the Future students Carla Borbon, Justin Vargas, Jayla Cordero, and Hugo Rodriguez talk about the election. (Alex Zimmerman)

When Sarah Scrogin, principal of East Bronx Academy for the Future, woke up Wednesday morning to a stunning election result and questions from her staff about how to talk about it with students, she had to make a quick decision.

In a school where roughly 70 percent of the student body is Hispanic, and many have friends or relatives who could face the consequences of President-elect Donald Trump’s harsh stance on immigration, should teachers simply carry on with the day’s normal activities? Would it be appropriate for teachers to make their own political views known as a way of comforting students — or themselves?

Just after 8 a.m., Scrogin dashed off an email to the entire faculty, encouraging them to use the election as the ultimate teachable moment. “Our job as educators is not to tell others what to think,” she wrote, “but rather, to work together with young people to develop their own critical thinking.”

In Christine Montera’s AP U.S. History classroom, where the walls are adorned with Time magazine covers, that meant the usual rows of desks were molded into a circle where students spent the hour-long class period processing the news.

“A few of us had a conversation this morning: How can we go into our classrooms and say that someone who behaves in a manner that incites violence and hate on some occasions is the next president?” Montera said. “I was really going into it wanting the students to drive the discussion.”

Teacher Christine Montera
PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Teacher Christine Montera

As she asked her students about their reactions to the news, it was clear the election set off a wave of fear over the immigration status of friends and family, persecution of LGBT people, and the status of police reform.

“I truly believe that white privilege is a thing that has been in play for hundreds of years, even thousands,” noted sophomore Justin Vargas, who said he worries the police may become less restrained against people of color as a result. Trump “wants to make America great again for a certain kind of people. It’s racist people.”

Another student, Carla Borbon, expressed concern for LGBT people, whose reaction she’d seen on social media and on the news. “There were a whole bunch of people scared because of their sexuality because this man is homophobic,” she said. “A lot of people were wondering what is going to happen to them.”

Others were less worried about the election result. “I was annoyed about things people were saying about Donald Trump, saying that he’s a rapist and wanted to deport everyone — that’s not true,” said junior Hugo Rodriguez. “I actually don’t mind Trump as president.”

Still, the school’s assistant principal, Nick Lawrence, said many students were visibly distraught as they filtered into school Wednesday morning and throughout the day. He said parents’ concern over immigration policy “will certainly be on our minds,” but that it was too early to predict exactly how that might play out in the wider school community.

“We have a large immigrant population,” he said. “Our focus is making sure they feel supported and protected and okay with being in the building.”

Future of Schools

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

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Leila Hadd
A KIPP school in the Bronx.

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.”