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As state budget debate rages on, Board of Regents set to push back on Success Academy renewals

Lawmakers in New York’s Capitol have been consumed with a heated fight over the budget, which will determine the future of education spending, fate of charter schools and whether the state will pick up students’ tab for college tuition.

The drama continued into Sunday night, when Governor Andrew Cuomo, around midnight, said he would introduce an “extender” of the current budget to keep the government functioning until May 31 — and that legislative leaders have agreed to approve the measure by Monday afternoon.

But across the street at the State Education Department building, policymakers are also meeting, though the agenda is likely to spark fewer fireworks.

The Board of Regents appears poised to send a series of Success Academy charter school renewals back to their authorizer with comments, rather than approve them, saying that SUNY jumped the gun and has proposed renewing them too early.

It would be a largely symbolic gesture, since the Regents do not have final say over the controversial charter network, according to SUNY officials, but they say the move is a break from precedent.

The Regents will also talk about creating standards for the arts — which has some bearing on the Regents’ goal of revamping graduation requirements. And they will discuss how to reshape education policy under the new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act.

Here’s more on the meeting items:

Success Academy

The Board of Regents plans to vote on whether to kick 10 proposed Success Academy charter school renewals back to SUNY, saying they were renewed too early.

Success Academy, New York City’s largest charter school network, is authorized by SUNY, but the Regents have the power to suggest changes and send the renewals back to SUNY for further consideration.

State officials say SUNY is giving Success schools full-term renewals, even though they are not technically up for renewal until either 2018 or 2020. The Regents materials indicate this is a departure from normal practice. Officials argued that it’s important to renew charters at the appropriate date, in order to review the most recent data in areas including student enrollment.

SUNY officials said it is normal practice for SUNY to give early renewals in some cases. Susie Miller Carello, executive director of the SUNY Charter Schools Institute, said the institute has done so several times in the past. But the last time the Regents sent any decision back to SUNY with comments was seven years ago, she said.

The State Education Department sees the renewal situation differently. “According to our records, there is no precedence for a charter to be submitted to the Board of Regents other than in the last academic year of the charter, which we believe is good practice and is in line with the intent of the law,” wrote a spokesperson via email.

In the end, SUNY will make the final decision, so tomorrow’s vote wouldn’t derail the renewals, said Joseph Belluck, the charter school committee chair on the SUNY board of trustees. He said he does not see any reason the board would modify its original request, but said he disagrees with state officials’ interpretation.

“I am extremely troubled by the Regents rejection of these schools,” Belluck said. “It seems to me that there isn’t a single substantive basis for the rejection.”

Several Regents and Chancellor Betty Rosa have raised concerns about charter schools in the past — specifically that they do not always enroll enough high-needs students. Success Academy is at the epicenter of this debate. The networks’ schools have produced very high test scores, but critics have long held they do so by kicking out students who are hardest to serve.

Arts standards

The Regents will vote to adopt a “strategic plan for the arts,” which includes a vow to revise arts education standards, discussions about how to use the arts as an alternative graduation pathway, and a plan to improve mentorship and research opportunities. Policymakers will also vote to adopt a timeline for the new arts standards, which, if all goes as scheduled, would be fully implemented in the 2018-19 school year.

ESSA

On Tuesday, the Regents will recap their March meeting, where they had a day-long retreat to discuss how the state will reshape education policy under the Every Student Succeeds Act. There are no items posted for this meeting yet, but the material says they will “provide direction to department staff.”

Computer science teachers

The Regents will hear a presentation about establishing a computer science teaching certificate. That may be particularly consequential for New York City schools, since Mayor Bill de Blasio has made providing computer science education in every school a major priority. One of the biggest hurdles to expanding computer science education is finding qualified teachers.

another path

‘They’re my second family.’ Largest Pathways to Graduation class earn their diplomas

Jasmine Byrd receives an award for excellence after giving a speech to her fellow graduates.

Before last fall, Jasmine Byrd never envisioned herself striding across the stage to receive a diploma at a graduation ceremony.

But then Byrd moved to the Bronx from Utah and entered New York City’s Pathways to Graduation program, which helps 17- to 21-year-olds who didn’t graduate from a traditional high school earn a High School Equivalency Diploma by giving them free resources and support.

Just walking into this space and being like, this is what you’ve accomplished and this is what you’ve worked hard for is a great feeling,” said Byrd, who also credits the program with helping her snag a web development internship. “I’ve built my New York experience with this program. They’re my second family, sometimes my first when I needed anything.”

Byrd is one of about 1,700 students to graduate during the 2017-2018 school year from Pathways, the program’s largest graduating class to date, according to officials.  

This year, students from 102 countries and 41 states graduated from Pathways, which is part of District 79, the education department district overseeing programs for older students who have had interrupted schooling.

The program also saw the most students ever participate in its graduation ceremony, a joyful celebration held this year at the Bronx United Palace Theater. According to Robert Evans, a math teacher at one of the program’s five boroughwide sites and emcee of the graduation, about 600 students typically show up to walk the stage. But students can be a part of the ceremony even if they received their passing test results that morning, and this year more than 800 graduates attended.

There were still students coming in last night to take photos and to pick up their sashes and gowns,” said Evans.

The graduation ceremony is unique in part because the program is. Students who have not completed high school attend classes to prepare to take the high school equivalency exam. But the program also prepares students to apply for college, attend vocational school, or enter the workforce by providing help applying for colleges, creating resumes and other coaching.

To make sure that the program is accessible to all students, there’s a main site in every borough and 92 satellite sites, located in community centers and youth homeless shelters like Covenant House. Students who want to work in the medical field, like Genesis Rocio Rodriguez, can take their courses in hospitals. Rodriguez, who graduated in December, is now enrolled in the Borough of Manhattan Community College, and passing the exam meant being one step closer to her dream of becoming a nurse.

When I got my results I was with my classmate, and to be honest I thought I failed because I was so nervous during it. But then I went online, and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh I did it!’ My mom started crying and everything.”

Byrd said the program worked for her because of the supportive teachers and extra resources.

“The teachers are relatable,” said Byrd. “They don’t put on an act, they don’t try to separate the person from the teacher. They really reach out, even call you to get you out of bed in the morning.”

Carmine Guirland said the supportive environment of social workers, guidance counselors, and teachers is what attracts him to the work at Bronx NeOn, a site where students who are on probation or who are involved with the court system can prepare for the exam, college, and careers.

When students are on parole they will have really involved [parole officers] who would text me at the beginning of class to check in so that we could work together,” said Guirland. “It’s really about that village thing. The more support systems that are available the more success the students will have.”

Reflecting on his experiences with the graduating class, Guirland’s most treasured memory was when one of his students proposed to his girlfriend in a guidance counseling session. Even though they aren’t together anymore, the moment was a reflection of the relationships that many of the students build during their time at Pathways to Graduation.

“It’s this amazing high moment where this student felt like the most comfortable place for him to propose to his girlfriend and the mother of his child was in our advisory circle,” said Guirland.

New Standards

Tennessee updates science standards for first time in 10 years. New guidelines stress class discussion, inquiry

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Fourth grade science teachers Lamarcus Marks, of Rivercrest Elementary, and Angie Clement, of Bartlett Elementary, test out a lesson on kinetic and potential energy at Arlington High School, one of 11 statewide sites where Tennessee teachers are training for next year's new science standards.

How can a wolf change the river? Why doesn’t a cactus have leaves? Why can’t you exterminate bats in Tennessee?

With new state science standards coming to classrooms next fall, these are the kinds of questions students will explore in their science classes. They’ll be tasked not only with memorizing the answers, but also with asking questions of their own, engaging on the topic with their teacher and classmates, and applying what they learn across disciplines. That’s because the changes set forth are as much about teaching process, as they are about teaching content.

“At the lowest level, I could just teach you facts,” said Detra Clark, who is one of about 300 Tennessee educators leading teacher trainings on the new standards to her peers from across the state. “Now it’s like, ‘I want you to figure out why or how you can use the facts to figure out a problem.’”

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Detra Clark, a science coach in Shelby County’s iZone, demonstrates a sample lesson for sixth grade science teachers.

On Wednesday, Clark — a science coach for the iZone, a group of underperforming schools that Shelby County Schools is looking to turn around — unpacked for her peers, who gathered at Arlington High School, a key component of the new material: three-dimensional modeling. Under three-dimensional modeling, students should be able to do something with the content they learn, not just memorize it.

In recent years, Tennessee students have performed better on state science tests than on their math and English exams. But state science standards for grades K–12 haven’t been updated since 2008. By contrast, math and English benchmarks have undergone more recent changes. To give the stakeholders time to adjust, results from next year’s science test, the first to incorporate the new standards, won’t count for students, teachers, or schools.

At the training session, Clark, standing before a room of sixth-grade science teachers, held up a chart with the names of woodland animals, such as elk and deer. Under each name, she tracked the population over time.

“At our starting population, what do we see?” she asked.

“The deer, it decreases again because it’s introduced to a predator,” a teacher responded.

“More resources, more surviving animals” another teacher chimed in.

“How can we explain what happened in year two, when we’re dealing with students?” Clark asked the group.

“The population went up,” a teacher said.

“They start to reproduce!” another teacher interjected.

Clark nodded.

In another classroom, this one composed of kindergarten teachers, Bridget Davis — a K-2 instructional advisor for Shelby County Schools — clicked through a video of fuzzy critters, each paired with a close relative, such as two different breeds of dogs.

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
In a teacher training session on Wednesday, kindergarten teachers highlight the three dimensions of three-dimensional modeling, a key part of new state science standards.

She encouraged the teachers to ask their students what traits the animals shared.

“The first thing they’re going to say is, ‘Well, one’s big and one’s small,” she said. “What we really want them to say is, ‘Well, their fur is the same color,’ or, ‘Mom has a patch of black hair here and the baby doesn’t.’ We want them to look at detail.”

She added, “We want them to get used to being a detective.”

The science standards that have been in place for the past decade fulfills the first dimension of three-dimensional modeling.

Doing something with that knowledge satisfies the second dimension, and the third dimension requires teachers to apply to their lessons a “cross-cutting concept” — strategies that students can apply to any subject, like identifying patterns or sequences.

Under the existing standards, a student may not have been introduced to physical science until the third grade. But starting next year, Tennessee schoolchildren will learn about life science, physical science, earth and space science, and engineering applications, beginning in kindergarten and continuing through high school.

“I do believe that this is the best our standards have ever been, because of the fact that they are so much more detailed than they have been in the past,” Davis said.

About a thousand Shelby County teachers made their way to trainings this week, which were free and open to all educators. Several administrators also met to discuss ways they can ensure the new standards are implemented in their schools.

As with anything new, Jay Jennings — an assistant principal at a Tipton county middle school and an instructor at Wednesday’s training — expects some pushback. But he’s optimistic that his district will have every teacher at benchmark by the end of the 2018–2019 school year.

“We talked before about teachers knowing content, and that’s important,” he said. “But what we want to see is kids knowing content and questioning content. We want to see them involved.”

He reminded other school leaders about last year’s changes to English and math standards, a transition that he said was challenging but smoother than expected.  

“Teachers are going to go out of their comfort zone,” he explained. “But it’s not changing what a lot of them are already doing.”