School Stories Education Reporting in NYC Mon, 12 Jul 2010 19:45:56 +0000 en hourly 1 Waiting for the Truth Sat, 05 Jun 2010 20:36:36 +0000 Susan Sawyers Op-Ed by SUSAN S. SAWYERS

An inconvenient truth about “Waiting for Superman” and our nation’s public schools

As our graduate studies in education reporting came to a close late last month, a few of us Columbia J-School kids and our professors had the chance to preview the provocative new documentary, “Waiting for Superman,” by Oscar winner Davis Guggenheim and Lesley Chilcott.

This new documentary film takes a brave crack at explaining what we had been trying to grasp all semester – a rudimentary understanding of the history of education reforms, the current state of our nation’s public schools, and all the complex and nuanced issues confronting our nation’s classrooms. We knew from our experience it would be a tough tale to tell.

The filmmakers ask us to accept their premise that American public schools, once the best in the world, are not so great after all. Despite increased spending and high-level attention from politicians in Washington and corporate philanthropists like Bill Gates, schools are still failing our kids. The law may say that no child will be left behind, but Guggenheim and Chilcott find plenty of kids lost in the shuffle.

The Sundance-winning film follows the lives of five students — Anthony, Bianca, Daisy, Emily and Francisco — who are caught in a public (but provincial) education system based on luck, or the lack thereof.  If a family is well-enough-off, like Guggenheim’s and my own, kids can attend private school. If you aren’t, then, the film suggests there’s only one way out for parents in the know: play the charter-school game. Parents can place their child’s name in a lottery in hopes of winning one of the very few coveted seats in charter schools, which serve only 3 percent of the nation’s children.

But here’s the thing: “The solutions we embrace,” wrote Luis Ubiñas, President of the Ford Foundation, in a November 17, 2009 letter to The Wall Street Journal, “must work for the majority of students across the country, however, not only a lucky minority.”

The film, which will open in the fall, follows the core group of students as they explore their options, and culminates in the heartbreaking lottery process. The children’s stories are set against a backdrop of interviews with education experts like Geoffrey Canada, president and CEO of the Harlem Children’s Zone,  Michelle Rhee, Chancellor of the Washington, D.C. public schools, and economist Eric Hanushek from the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.

The idea is that while kids like Anthony, Daisy and Francisco have promise, as all children do, the current public school system – especially in urban areas — is failing them and needs reform. Attention-grabbing ink drawings set to 3D animation by a company called Awesome and Modest show  “drop-out factories,” “academic sinkholes,” and the “lemon-dance” to illustrate “fun” facts like deplorable high-school graduation rates and the difficulty in ridding schools of incompetent teachers.  (Click here to read a New York Times post by Catherine Rampell about graduation rates, state by state.)

These are not points to be taken lightly. However, the film’s conclusion is as simplistic as it is misleading: charter schools are good, and public schools, as they stand currently, are bankrupt. We knew from some of our own reporting that New York City was home to a collection of successful and innovative public schools that could challenge this assumption. But even more curious, the film undercuts its own message midstream by reporting that “only one in five charters is producing good results.”

A Stanford University study last year found that only 17 percent of the nation’s charter schools were significantly better than neighboring public schools; about 37 percent were significantly worse, and 46 percent were roughly the same.

So is it reasonable to accept that charters are the answer to the nation’s failing schools?

“We’ve learned that all our schools — public, charter, and private — need four basics in order to succeed: outstanding teaching, sufficient and well-designed learning time, money to pay for it, and strong accountability to make sure both money and time are used well and that our children are getting ahead,” wrote Ford Foundation President Ubiñas. “The challenge now is how to bring this generation of innovation to scale for all our young people, especially in our poorest neighborhoods where the challenges are toughest and where few funders have focused resources.”

These not-so-subtle details remain unaddressed in the film. The fact is that charter schools are funded through a combination of public and private funds, but they are independently run. They are not subject to the same level of scrutiny or accountability as traditional public schools.

Furthermore, many charters have been criticized over the years for making little to no room for students with special needs or English language learners. These students tend to be sent instead to low-performing public schools, further eroding their chances for success and the school’s ability to improve.

Other school success factors go unmentioned, such as access to healthy food, exposure to rich language, a safe neighborhood, a stable home life and a supportive community. As in any story, there’s only so much space or time to make a point, but still.

After the success of “An Inconvenient Truth,” in which Guggenheim rallied viewers to heed the effects of climate change, the filmmaker has a respected voice and following. This film promises to enlighten audiences about the educational injustices school kids face. It will inevitably leave viewers moved by the plight of the children, yet also unable to see any workable solutions beyond creating more charter schools.

That’s more than inconvenient. It’s tragic.

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And sex ed for all Tue, 01 Jun 2010 16:12:16 +0000 Paige Rentz By PAIGE RENTZ

A new national study released by the Centers for Disease Control highlights the increased risk for HIV infection among men who have sex with men. According to the analysis, this demographic is more than 44 times more likely to become infected with HIV than other men and is the only subgroup whose infection rates are still on the rise. Among black and Hispanic men, the sharpest increase is among young men who have sex with men, aged 13-29.

HIV Infections in young MSM in New York City

HIV infections are on the rise for young men who have sex with men, even as the total number of infections in New York City are falling. This subgroup accounted for more than 18 percent of all new infections in 2008.

In New York City, new HIV infections have increased more than 50 percent among 13 to 29 year-old men who have sex with men since 2001, even as the total number of cases dropped by a third, according to rates released by the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. The new CDC study notes that particularly for young men, complacency about HIV may play a key role in HIV risk, since they are too young to have personally experienced the severity of the early AIDS epidemic. Additionally, they may harbor the false belief that because of treatment advances, HIV is no longer a serious health threat.

The study also highlighted social and economic factors, including homophobia, stigma, and lack of access to health care that may increase risk behaviors or be a barrier to receiving HIV prevention services.

Many behavioral studies and outreach programs to young men who have sex with men have been spurred by this drastic increase–including two studies focusing on 13-17 and 18-20 year-olds at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development.

But little has been done to address the broader issues surrounding the health of LGBT teens,  said Amy Liss, community outreach coordinator at Callen-Lorde Community Health Center. While HIV rates for young men who have sex with men are accessible, this data set is included as a risk factor along with intravenous drug. Very little research has been done with the sexual health of LGBT youth as the primary focus.

“There’s a whole population of youth being underrepresented in research,” Liss said, and additionally, there is a lack of funding for this kind of research for “kids who are underserved, at-risk and disenfranchised.”

Added to the dearth of research is a problem with accessibility to  health and sex education pertinent to the lives of LGBT students.  The law on health classes is actually unclear,  said Erica Braudy, an advocacy coordinator with the New York Civil Liberties Union. While LGBT students must be allowed access to health and sex education classes, there is nothing that says that the specific concerns of LGBT kids must be addressed. Gay and lesbian students are often left out of the lesson plans, which may account for the rampant myths and misconceptions about LGBT issues, and part of the rising HIV rates among young men who have sex with men.

Marisa Ragonese, director of Generation Q, a drop-in center for LGBT youth in Astoria, calls the lack of adequate health education one of the biggest problems faced by LGBT youth. “There is a real need for sex ed addressing what kids want and need to know,” she said, citing outrageous misconceptions harbored by her teens, such as “the act of gay sex makes AIDS be born.”

Jason Sirois, a consultant with the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Educators Network, has found as he has worked with teachers and administrators on anti-LGBT bias that the educators themselves are uncomfortable having conversations about these issues. “That’s why you see the situation of LGBT kids getting into situations where they aren’t safe and don’t know how to protect themselves,” he said.

Outside organizations find themselves trying to fill the gaps left by the school system. Generation Q hosts a peer sex education group that covers everything from condoms and other barriers to self-esteem. A trained peer educator facilitates the conversation. According to Ragonese, the youth-run and adult-supported program is confidential to the point that even she doesn’t sit in on sessions.

At Callen-Lorde, the Health Outreach to Teens (HOTT) program provides free or low-cost services ranging from general medical care and physical exams to HIV testing and counseling to cross-gender hormone therapy. Since teens are unable, or reluctant, to make it to the program’s dedicated facility at Callen-Lorde, the “HOTT Medical Van” travels to youth hangout spots in lower and mid-Manhattan to bring health care and education to their doorsteps.

Sirois said the problem comes back to people’s perceptions of LGBT youth as immediately sexualized — more so than other groups of teens. “People don’t realize when you’re talking about ‘gay,’ you’re not always talking about sex,” he said. Even with pregnant women, Sirois said, “we don’t see her and immediately think about how she got that way.”

Part of properly educating LGBT youth, said Sirois, lies in training their educators. His experiences tell him that there people still think a person’s sexual orientation is a choice.

“If people think it’s a choice, then if you talk about it you’re  encouraging kids to be gay,” said Sirois.

The key is to consistently challenge the perceptions teachers and administrators have about LGBT students.  “The truth is that a student who identifies as gay, as lesbian or bisexual or who is transgender is a student first,” said Sirois, “is a human being.”

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Melvin and Kia: in their own words Wed, 26 May 2010 00:24:28 +0000 Connor Boals Melvin and Kia have been given a second shot a getting their diplomas. Watch them tell their story in front of a mural at Aspirations Diploma Plus High School, in East New York, Brooklyn. These clips provide a glimpse into life as teens in a neighborhood known for its stubborn violence and poverty rates. School Stories reporter Nushin Rashidian has been chronicling life with Melvin and Kia. Read part one and part two of the series.

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A race for diplomas before Tilden High closes for good Fri, 21 May 2010 01:02:02 +0000 Vadim Lavrusik

Triston Williams works on a credit recovery course at Samuel J. Tilden High School. The school is using credit recovery to help students who are behind graduate on time before it closes for good in June. (Photo by Vadim Lavrusik)


A dean at Samuel J. Tilden High School slipped into a computer lab during school hours where a dozen students were working on online courses to make up credit for failed classes.

“We have to accelerate,” the dean shouted to the students, most of whom are 18 and older. “Time is running out, you guys, the school closes in two months.”

It was mid-April, weeks before the 81-year-old Brooklyn school would hold its final graduation ceremony. The Department of Education had ordered the East Flatbush school to phase out three years ago because of its low performance.

The last of its 159 seniors were desperate to collect enough credits to get their diplomas. Among them, 55 (or 34 percent) are registered for credit recovery courses. Most had previously failed a class at Tilden, where the majority of the students are new immigrants from Haiti. Stevenson Petit, a guidance counselor at the school, claims that the school is on track to graduate between 75 to 80 percent of the students–an incredible number considering it only graduated 39 percent of its students in 2009.

Stevenson Petit and other staff at Samuel J. Tilden are worried the students who don't graduate in June will fall through the cracks at other schools. (Photo by Vadim Lavrusik)

Critics worry that the students are accumulating empty credits at the expense of learning, and that credit recovery programs do not adequately prepare students for college.

Tilden staff members worry that students who don’t graduate will drop out altogether after being transferred to another school—putting them at more risk for fewer opportunities. They feel obligated to help them at least get a diploma, since the DOE abandoned them three years ago.

“No one else is going to be able to help them,” Petit said. “They’ve given up on them, but we haven’t.”

Students work on their online classes – contracted through Aventa Learning – in a computer lab set up for this purpose. Or, students can work on the classes from home. “Some students are able to complete a course in four to five weeks, and so they can complete more classes in a shorter amount of time,” said Petit, who makes sure to remind struggling students to go to their credit recovery class when they visit him in his office. “It helps them accelerate.”

Triston Williams, a senior taking three online credit recovery courses was working on an online quiz for a civil law course he said he had failed several times before. He said the computer coursework is more visual, whereas being in a classroom setting with a teacher was more hands on.

After reading a quiz question, he would click to a second browser where he had the session’s information available so that he could look up the answer.

“Even though it’s kinda of cheating, it’s easier for me to learn this way,” Williams said. After completing the quiz, he was given an option to retake the quiz if he wasn’t happy with his score. In fact, each student can take each quiz up to five times, using the last score as the final one. Williams was happy with his score. He answered 6 out of 10 questions correctly– students only need a 60 percent to pass on their online courses, which amounts to an “F” in normal graded terms.

Students work on their credit recovery courses at Tilden. (Photo by Vadim Lavrusik)

He continued on to a second session, mumbling the content out loud.

But despite Williams’ valiant efforts, he still will not be able to graduate in June. Even if he passes these three online courses by June, he will still be four credits short.

He said he will likely have to go to summer school, somewhere else. He is conflicted about the prospect of a new school. “It’s exciting ’cause I get to go somewhere new, and go outside of my boundaries,” said Williams. “I still can’t wait to be done with school, though.”

Because students are able to work on their online courses from home, some students are able to make up credits quickly – finishing classes in half the time it would take them in the classroom.

Treon Gittens, a 19-year-old senior who is anxious to graduate in June, was able to complete five courses through credit recovery this term alone, and is also enrolled in other regular courses. Gittens said he entered this spring term needing nine credits. Because of credit recovery, he will have enough credit to graduate in June, he said.

“I’m 19 years old, I want to be done with school,” Gittens said.

Gittens attends three hour-long class periods dedicated to credit recovery courses as part of his school schedule, and three hours every night working on the courses from home. The home option was the reason he will likely catch up, he said.

Teachers encourage students to work on courses from home. Mr. Steve Lampert, a social studies teacher who is assigned to keep students on track in the credit recovery program, said Gittens is an example of how the program can work well for motivated students. Gittens was able to complete so many courses because he put in the time, Lampert said. The program estimates 34 hours is spent to complete one course.

Lampert concedes that Gittens’ grades could be higher. But when the goal is to graduate, Gittens said he has only one regret: “I wish I would have done this earlier.”

The program, Lampert said, isn’t perfect.

“It’s a boondoggle,” He said. “But we’re trying to give these kids every chance to graduate, or get them as close as possible to graduating.”

Lampert said after the school was announced to be phased out, a lot of the top students transferred out and the kids that are left, are the ones that need the most help. “Most of these kids aren’t Rhodes scholars,” he said.

Because the school was being phased out, so were the resources, which included teachers, he said. Credit recovery is one of the only resources the school had left to help its students before it closes, Lampert said.

The online courses can never replace in-classroom learning, Lampert said. But they are not without their benefits.

For example, he said, the online courses give students a sense of ownership in their classwork. Each student has a customized program with their own assigned Aventa Learning instructor who helps facilitate questions from the student and communicates progress to a supervisor. He also said the environment of the online classwork is less distracting. It’s just them and the computer.

Tyce Johnson, a senior in the credit recovery program, said he appreciates the ability to concentrate only on the coursework.

Tyce Johnson works on his credit recovery course. (Photo by Vadim Lavrusik)

Johnson is taking an online American history course to make up for the class he failed. Many of the students use headphones that allow them to listen to the audio reading of the course content. Johnson had his headphones on as he worked on a quiz. He said it helps him block out any noise and concentrate. It’s his only credit recovery course and he’s set to graduate on time.

The structure of the program also gives students back their confidence in learning, Lampert said, which is one of the reasons for giving them five chances to pass each quiz.

“All of the sudden they are thinking, ‘I can do this,” Lampert said. “It gets rid of their fear of not succeeding, and they are then more willing to take other academic risks.”

Erica Lively is one of those students. Despite under-performing in high school, Lively has dreams of going to college, but she said she’s realistic too. She knows she might not have the best grades, and paying for college would be “almost impossible,” she said. Right now, the pressure is on graduating high school on time.

“My whole family knows I am supposed to graduate and that it’s my last year,” she said. “I hope I can.”

The 18-year-old needs to earn seven credits this semester, several of which she will earn through credit recovery courses. She said her mom, who dropped out of college in order to take care of her, is pushing Lively to graduate and think about college.

“She just wants me to have a better life than she had,” Lively said.

Unlike some of the other students in the program, Lively said she still prefers in-classroom teaching. She said she has a hard time absorbing all the information, and said she feels like she learns more from a teacher. So why did she fail the classes she’s working to recover credit for?

“I was doing more talking than actually working,” she said.

But Lively said she learned her lesson, and is determined to get a job and save money for college. She wants to be a pediatrician because she’s good with kids and has a lot patience.

Though credit recovery can help put kids like Lively on track to graduation, Lampert admits, it works a lot better when there isn’t the added pressure to graduate everyone at the end of the year.

“If they don’t graduate here, their needs won’t be fulfilled elsewhere.”

- Stevenson Petit

Even with credit recovery, the students have to first show up. And like many other under-performing schools, Tilden’s attendance is low – hovering around 50 percent in early April, according to school records.

Lampert worries that as the weather gets nicer, fewer students will show up. He noted some of the later periods during the day already starting to see fewer students come to class.

With time running out, the reality is sinking in that many of the students will still not be able to graduate, and so the school is hoping to prepare those students by at least having them pass all the state regents exams, which they will take in June.

The school provides tutoring for regents tests, and is beginning a three-day a-week after-school regents prep program for students to get one-on-one tutoring from teachers.

So far, Petit said, the turnout is low, but they have a list of 30 to 40 students they are recruiting to come – students that either haven’t passed a test or some that are hoping to raise their score to a 65 for a regents diploma.

As students walked in to visit Petit in his office, he asked each one about their regents scores, encouraging them to come to the after-school regents prep; each time reminding them of the score required for a regents diploma, or the number of credits they have left to graduate. And each time, they would nod. They’ve heard it all before.

“If they don’t graduate here, their needs won’t be fulfilled elsewhere,” Petit said. “They’ll fall through the cracks and so we’re doing all we can. We gotta get them to graduate.”

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Jurassic farts Wed, 19 May 2010 15:53:22 +0000 anb2133

Fifth and sixth graders at the Ella Baker School work on their newspaper, "EB News." (Photo: Alex Berg)



This semester, I attempted to teach so-called journalism to first, second, fifth and sixth graders at the Ella Baker School, a public school on the Upper East Side for children with parents who work in the area. I’ve tried to teach the students the fundamentals of the field—and to some degree I have—but I’m convinced I’ve learned more from them. Over the last three months, the students worked on newspapers about issues relevant to life in Ella Baker, from cafeteria food to sustainability to the latest Apple technology, and it’s been a collaborative effort between their creativity and my technological know-how. 

Every Wednesday morning at Ella Baker, I worked with a mixed first and second grade group and two mixed fifth and sixth grade groups. The 45 minutes I spend with each group begins with examining a piece of journalism and discussing what the students think makes it “work.” The best part of the process is when students say something unexpected. One morning we listened to an episode of “This American Life” about summer camps and one of the students noted that, as someone who rarely left the city, the idea of a pastoral camp was foreign to her.  This led to a stimulating discussion on the content of documentaries, if they have to be relevant to all audiences and whether or not documentaries constitute news. 

Working with all of the students has been a pleasure, but the biggest hurdle was figuring out how to communicate abstract notions like newsworthiness and ethics to first and second graders. Though my prior teaching experience consisted of teaching writing in a maximum security prison, I underestimated the difficulty of teaching these concepts. I’ve learned to be much more literal with the first and second graders, while I direct discussion with the older students. Early on I learned this lesson when a few seven-year-old students pitched stories to me about “John Lennon smoking cigarettes” and “Jurassic farts.”  

The "EB News" staff poses in the Ella Baker School's hallway. (Photo: Alex Berg)


I imagine most teachers must confront the challenges I’ve had teaching, and for a reporter, the experience has given me an inside look at how big policies impact the youngest students. This is evident in the fifth and sixth graders newspaper, “EB News,” where their concerns are voiced through stories on cafeteria food, feeling shorted on time for art class and art supplies. Click here to read their stories.

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In an uncertain economy, students turn to certificate programs Fri, 14 May 2010 18:33:45 +0000 Althea A. Fung By ALTHEA A. FUNG

Chris Robinson was at a crossroads in his life. A customer service associate at Home Depot, Robinson dreamed of being a lawyer but lacked the focus to stay in school long enough to finish an undergraduate degree.

In the fall of 2006, he enrolled at SUNY IT in Utica, the State University’s only institute for technology,  but dropped out by the end of the spring semester because he “majored in drinking.”

He returned home to the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn and enrolled at Interboro Institute, a for-profit college in New York City. But he dropped out again because he “didn’t feel like going to school.”

With no financial burden from school – financial aid covered Robinson’s tuition at Interboro and his mother took out loans for him to attend SUNY IT that she is repaying without his assistance – he felt like he had no reason to stay in school.

By the spring of 2009, Robinson, 22, realized he needed to return to college. One afternoon, while hanging out in Downtown Brooklyn, he noticed a group of people leaving 111 Livingston St., a SUNY-owned building. Curious, he went in and found the Brooklyn Educational Opportunity Center (BEOC).

The Brooklyn Educational Opportunity Center has offered free certificate programs since 1966.

The BEOC is an educational and vocational training service that has been offering free job training to New York City residents since 1966. Students get certificates in subjects such as bookkeeping or medical billing and coding after attending short courses. They can then look for work even though they don’t have a college degree. Programs like BEOC have become particularly popular during the recessions as more and more people look for ways to become qualified for higher paying jobs.

Robinson enrolled in the hospitality management certificate program. It wasn’t the field he wanted – he was more interested in the web design course – but it was the one being offered at the time. For three months, Robinson and 20 other students met for three-hour classes four nights a week.

Taught by a professional chef, Robinson learned about  all ends of the restaurant and hotel industry – food inspection, hotel maintenance and customer service. In the end, Robinson received 14 credits that he eventually transferred to TCI, a for-profit college that took over Interboro.

According to BEOC’s enrollment manager, Darron Henry, there hasn’t been an increase in enrollment in the past few years. But the program has had a 10 percent increase in applicants: it received over 8,000 last year but has funding for only 25 percent.

BEOC isn’t the only school offering low-cost or free certificate programs.

Most community colleges have these programs. At the Borough of Manhattan Community College the Continuing Education and Workforce Development program offers 30 certificate programs.

According to Patrick Bails, director of career training for the Continuing Education Program, BMCC has seen an increased enrollment especially in the certificate programs. In the past, the certificate programs attracted students looking for programs that fulfilled personal goals but now many more students want certificates for job training.

Both Henry and Bails say the students in the certificate programs go on to find work.

While many believe an undergraduate degree is important in finding a job, Bails has found employers welcome those with certificates. In fields like real estate, a certificate is more important to employers.

“We do find that while a degree is important, certificates are just as much in demand that’s why our chancellor focuses on certification,” he said.

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Teaching for America but longing for Haiti Fri, 14 May 2010 18:30:57 +0000 Eno Alfred By ENO ALFRED

The English practice papers to prepare the kids for their standardized tests had been handed out and only a few of the fifth-grade students at P.S. 31 sat quietly at their desks listening to their teacher’s lengthy directions. Most of the 20 children talked so loudly that it was hard to hear the teacher’s instructions.

“Shut up Mohammad-doo-doo,” said a girl named Carmen, who had her name printed on her large pink and blue earrings.

“I don’t wanna do another stupid test,” said a small olive-skinned boy named Andrew who had already left his seat twice in less than 10 minutes to sharpen his pencil.

“When did she say we even have a test?” moaned a girl named Marie who sat alone at a single-seated desk, as did seven other children. The remaining 12 were evenly split onto two tables with six small chairs.

The teacher’s soft voice was no match for these uncooperative students’ abrupt questions and for a few minutes, the frown on her face made her seem just moments from shouting at her class in a way that was bound to get their attention.

“I’ll begin now…I’ll begin now…I’ll begin now,” she repeated, until finally a thick silence filled the room.

The silence lasted less than a minute. Marie publicly announced that she didn’t understand the test. Perhaps that was because she and Carmen had been discussing the color she would paint her nails.

It was to be another difficult morning for Teach for America recruit Jessica Jean-Francois, who at the age of 24, regularly goes to bed by 9 p.m. and rises at 4.20 a.m. to feel more prepared for hectic mornings like this one at the school on 250 East 156 St. in the Bronx.

Jean-Francois decided she wanted to launch her career in the classroom after spending a year abroad at the London School of Economics and Political Science. She returned to complete her bachelor’s degree at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C., where she majored in economics and minored in statistics. A career on Wall Street would be a logical career path to take, but she discovered that business was not her passion.

“I like to go against the grain,” Jean-Francois said about her career choice.

Jean-Francois turned to education, because, she said, “It was the one thing that I could do that would make the most impact in everything that I thought about.”

Teach For America appealed to her because the average New York City Teacher Salary is $45,530 before taxes. She had accumulated thousands of dollars in debt from her undergraduate days and wanted to study while earning money.

Jean-Francois also liked Teach For America’s stated goal: to help close the academic achievement gap between poor and rich kids. The organization recruits recent college graduates like Jean-Francois to teach for two years in low-income communities throughout the United States in schools like P.S. 31, which is 66 percent Hispanic and 30 percent African-American. Ninety-two percent of the children are eligible for the National School Lunch Program, which provides nutritionally balanced, low-cost or free lunches to children in households with incomes at or below 130 percent of the federal poverty level. For example a family of four that has an income at or below $28,665 a year would qualify for free and reduced lunch.

Jean-Francois was hopeful at the start of her journey. That has since changed.

“I didn’t know what I was getting myself into,” Jean-Francois said.

Like many of her students, her life has had some rough moments. Jean-Francois was born in Dorchester, Mass., in 1986 to Haitian parents. Her mother and father were soon divorced and because money was tight, her mother sent her to live with an aunt in Haiti.

For the next seven years, Jean-Francois assembled memories in Haiti that she still holds dear. Her uncle taught her to ride a bike and play sports. Her aunt helped her with her homework. She played in their yard with her three cousins. When she was five, her older sister came to live with the family as well. But some of her best memories are of the classroom. “I went to a Catholic school,” Jean-Francois said. “I remember the uniform…friends, walking through the streets.”

Eventually, her mother moved to Florida and Jean-Francois and her sister would visit her on school vacations and briefly stay together as a family. But for the rest of the year, their only contact was through letters and phone calls.

“It was kind of like oh ok, now we go to Florida, ok now we go back home because that’s what I do, because I follow directions,” Jean-Francois said.

Constantly adjusting to different surroundings and people would prove to be valuable skills when she entered the classroom in the Bronx.

Jean-Francois’ reservations about Teach for America are not unique. Even people involved in the program concede that the work is extremely challenging. Scott Wolfson, an adjunct assistant professor at Lehman College in the Bronx, teaches an ethics class to Jean-Francois and other Teach for America recruits. He worries that too many idealistic young teachers get discouraged and leave.

“I think it’s great to bring new teachers into the field of education but I think more importantly what we need to do is keep them here,” he said. “Having a new stream of new teachers constantly is not particularly good for our children and for education in general.”

Many of the Teach for America recruits in Wolfson’s class said they were struggling. Some of the issues are bureaucratic. When they signed up, they hoped to teach elementary students but budget cuts led to a hiring freeze for all but a few subjects in New York City. Most of the jobs available were for middle school science and math teachers.

A program that enabled certified elementary teachers to teach middle schools in New York City was created to accommodate these new teachers. Instead of teaching little kids, Jean-Francois took a job as an eighth-grade math teacher.

“That first year in 2009 was very tough,” Jean-Francois said. “I would spend hours trying to figure out what to teach because I didn’t have a clear grasp on how to lesson plan for that grade.”

Nonetheless, Jean-Francois stayed on as an eighth-grade teacher in the school that was both a middle and elementary school until her assistant principal told her about an opening in fifth grade. Having struggled to manage her eighth-grade class, who saw her as simply the ‘nice’ teacher, Jean-Francois jumped at the opportunity to have a fresh start with new students.

But fifth grade has been just as challenging. On the day of the practice tests, Jean-Francois patrolled the classroom in an effort to keep the constant noise level down for the few students that were trying to complete the exercise.

Many of the students raised their hands to get help from the collaborative team teacher, a man, whose job was to provide support in the classroom that had a 40:50 ratio of general and special education students.

“That’s not dessert like food,” he said as he crouched down over Marie, who had blurted out her question. “That’s desert as to leave,” he said, while Marie giggled gently tapping her head.

“Being the only adult in the classroom means you can run things your own way but when you’re dealing with another teacher it can be challenging because it’s two voices in a room and things might not work out the way that you wanted them to,” Jean-Francois said.

Jean-Francois had refrained from sitting at her desk. It was piled with books and sheets and a Poland Spring bottle filled with a few coins with a sticker with “Hope for Haiti” written on it.

Even as she struggled with her classroom, thoughts of her earthquake-ravaged childhood home were on her mind. She knows that her uncle and some of her friends survived, but she hasn’t heard anything from her father.

“No news is good news right?” Jean-Francois asked.

Sometimes, she thinks she would do more good in Haiti than in the Bronx. She would like to return sometime this year and work in Haitian schools.

“I’m looking at what’s happened with the earthquake as a perfect opportunity to start from scratch,” she said. “Whatever happens now is going to mean so much for the future of what happens in Port-au-Prince and I want to be part of that.”

But for the moment, she’s still at P.S. 31. At lunch, she’s savoring her quiet classroom and happy to have survived the morning.

“I’ve learned a lot and I’ve grown and I feel more mature… but this experience was not supposed to be about me,” Jean-Francois said. “ It was supposed to be about what came out of it for students and to be honest I think I would have been better fit for another profession.”

A few minutes later, some of the children who had seemed to want to be anywhere but in the classroom returned to play Hangman on a small whiteboard while two boys begin a game of Uno with Jean-Francois.

Her time in the classroom has had some moments of joy as well as frustration.

“Now that I’m in it, I’m dedicated to it and I’m doing what I can. But if I knew then what I knew now, I never would have done it.”

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Saving kids in trouble with the law Fri, 14 May 2010 18:28:18 +0000 Alec Johnson By ALEC JOHNSON

It was just after five on a Thursday evening in March. Pots and pans clanked on an industrial stove top and the crack of ping-pong paddles connecting with balls echoed up a narrow stairway from the basement. A 55-year-old man with slicked-back black hair wearing a white button-down shirt partially open to expose a gold medallion peered into a large stainless steel stockpot. He stirred it with a wooden spoon and decided that dinner was ready.

Angel Rodriguez serves pasta during a Thursday night dinner at the Robert Siegal Center in Lower Manhattan. (Photo by Alec Johnson)

He called the kids to the table. Slowly, they arrived, one at a time with Styrofoam plates in their hands. Angel Rodriguez buried the white plates in red sauce, pasta and meatballs. They bent under the weight as the teens turned towards an old conference table, where they would eat.

The ping-pong paddles had been stowed and the only sounds that remained when their plates were filled were a quiet banter at the table, the spoon scraping the bottom of the pot, and a faint radio playing pop music.

“Richard, work your way over here,” hollered Rodriguez to a straggler who was glued to a computer at the front of this narrow townhouse on Avenue B on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

A group of five young men and one young woman shook grated Parmesan cheese on their pasta and passed around garlic bread and a two-liter bottle of 7 Up.

With all the plates full, Rodriguez sat down on the left-hand side of the table, leaned on his forearms and clasped his hands. “How is school?” he asked.

Mumbling, the kids said school was alright and then when a Beyonce song came over the radio, they perked up and talked about the day’s news—Beyonce’s reported pregnancy.

Almost immediately, Rodriguez entered the conversation. “Some people have their children first, when they are young and others wait until they have a career in place,” he said. “Which do you think makes more sense?”

The teens around the table agreed that waiting until you have an established life and a way to support a baby makes the most sense. They talked about a friend whose 16-year-old girlfriend had had a baby the previous week.

Not mentioning his name, because he wasn’t in the room, Rodriguez said. “Is he ready for a child?”

“No,” said a 20-year-old named Joe, who didn’t want his last name used. “He’s starting his offspring in a bad position.”

Teens talk with Angel Rodriguez over dinner at the Andrew Glover Youth Program's center in lower Manhattan. (Photo by Alec Johnson)

It sounds like a regular, all-American family dinner. Dad is lecturing about not getting someone pregnant and asking about school. The kids respond with anecdotes about kids from school who are pregnant. But this is a very different kind of gathering. It is a Thursday night dinner at the Andrew Glover Youth Program and Rodriguez is its executive director.

The teens around the table are participants in the program that serves many functions, but in this instance is an alternative to jail. All the young people been charged with crimes ranging from petty misdemeanors to drug-related felonies and are required to attend Rodriguez’s program after school. Some come every day and others come a few times a week, depending on how much supervision Rodriguez believes they need. In the evenings, The Robert Siegal Center, or the center, as Rodriguez calls it, serves as a “safe place,” for troubled kids. It keeps them off the street and gives them the opportunity to spend time with adults they respect.

Rodriguez personally mentors many of the 13 to 21-year-old young men and women who come to the program through court or personal recommendations. They must pass an evaluation in which they are questioned about their life in order to determine if they will benefit from the program. Many come from single-parent homes and live in East Harlem or the Lower East Side, where drugs and street crime are prevalent.

In New York City, according to a study in the journal Child Welfare Watch, 12,588 children under the age of 18 were arrested in 2008 for the pettiest misdemeanors to violent felonies. Of those, about 2,400 are sentenced to alternative programs. Some come through the family court and others are charged as adults. Some go to jail and others are offered alternatives because judges and people like Rodriguez believe they have potential to become something. An adult who has met and evaluated them believes they have the ability to change so they get a second chance.

Joe was arrested two years ago for selling crack cocaine. He was 18 at the time, but had been in and out of the juvenile justice system since he was 14 when he was charged with his first felony—counterfeiting. “I tried to use fake $100 bills,” he said. He believes his biggest mistake was stupidity; he didn’t get caught the first two times he passed the bills that he got from a friend in payment for packs of gum and pocketed $98 in change — so he decided to try again.

“I went to K-Mart three times in a row,” he said. “That’s when I got caught.” It was the same K-Mart. Slapped with a felony, he was sent to the city’s main jail on Rikers Island, but was released shortly afterwards on bail. When he got back to his home — which was often empty, because his mother worked two jobs — he found a new way to make money.

One of the Glover program's participants draws a design that later will be silk screened onto a T-shirt during an evening art class at the Robert Siegal Center. (Photo by Alec Johnson)

Joe took the little bit of cash he had and told a friend to give him as much crack as he could, and then he turned it around for a profit. Eventually he hooked up with a dealer who supplied him with drugs and a pager and paid him handsomely for his work. “The streets are always hiring,” Joe said. “Other than the fact that it was illegal, it was the best paying job I’ve ever had.”

Three years later, Joe was busted with 98 bags of crack and sent to Rikers Island again. This time he stayed for six months. When he got out and was having trouble with his probation officers, Rodriguez, who has known Joe for years from the neighborhood , finally caught up with him and brought him to the Andrew Glover program. He wanted to help him get on the right track.

Joe joined a long line of young people who have found refuge in the program. Started 30 years ago, Glover’s mission is to help preserve the rights of young people who have gotten in trouble with the law and are caught in a system that was designed for adults. Rodriguez spends long hours working directly with participants. “I am on call around the clock,” he said. Rodriguez appears with them in court, negotiates with judges and prosecutors on their behalf and then gives them a positive place to hang out at one of two centers either on the Lower East Side or on Second Avenue in East Harlem. “These kids are growing up in some of the worst scenarios around,” he said. They end up on the streets and then in trouble.

“We have a system that is very quick to punish and incarcerate as a solution to perhaps the outcry of the public,” he said. “Our systems do not correct and help young people become better citizens in prison.” Rodriguez believes that sending a kid to jail for a long period of time causes them to “learn how to be better criminals.”

Rodriquez has been involved with the program since his friend Robert Siegal founded it in 1976. Siegal, then a political science major at New York University, tutored children for class credit. His tutoring brought him to the Boys Club of New York, where Rodriguez worked evenings. “He walked through my office to get to his office so I got to know him very well,” said Rodriguez.

While tutoring, Siegal became respected by the children and wanted to help them. “Kids were drawn to him like flies,” said Rodriguez. In addition to tutoring at the Boys Club, Siegal recruited more NYU students to tutor children on the college’s campus. “He had them tutoring students in the NYU dorms,” Rodriguez said. “If they did that today, they would be arrested.”

When the teenagers were at the college being tutored, Siegal made sure they were fed. “Bob would collect NYU meal tickets from people who weren’t using them and feed the kids,” he said.

One day, Siegal got a telephone call from one of the kids he worked with at the Boys Club. He had been arrested and didn’t know what to do. He had to go to court but didn’t have anyone to stand up for him. “He was scared,” Rodriguez said. Not knowing what they were doing, Siegal and Rodriguez made their first court appearance that day.

“We both stood in front of the courtroom in jeans and t-shirts,” said Rodriguez. And that began the court advocacy program, which later became the Glover program. Siegal named the program for Andrew Glover, a police officer who was shot and killed in the line of duty in 1975. Glover had been known as a friendly cop who liked to help kids whenever he could.

Around this time Siegal rented an apartment on Seventh Street on the Lower East Side and continued to tutor. Rodriguez said it served as a “safe place” for kids to do their homework and helped keep them off the streets.

“The Lower East Side was a different world back then—there were not many white people that could walk into our community without being mugged, stabbed or shot,” Rodriguez said. “Bob never had a problem.”

Rodriguez enjoyed helping his friend with the program, but never thought it would become his life’s mission. “I wanted to play professional golf,” he said. “I said to my friend, ‘If I make it on the PGA tour I will fund you.’ ”

That all changed in 1979. “One day we had to go to Spofford to see a kid—Bob didn’t show up,” Rodriguez said. He knew that Siegal had been ill, but didn’t think much about his disappearance. It was around a Jewish holiday, and Rodriguez thought he might have taken a last-minute trip home to visit family in Pennsylvania.

On Monday, Rodriguez went to his apartment to check on him. “I looked in the window and saw him lying there,” Rodriguez said. “I ran around the building and kicked down the door. He had been dead for three days.”

Siegal’s death, of natural causes, led Rodriguez to make the Andrew Glover Youth Program his life’s work. “I’ve been at this ever since,” he said. “Bob put me here for a reason.”

The center provides computers for teenagers to check e-mail and complete homework assignments. (Photo by Alec Johnson)

In the beginning, critics said there was no way the program could continue without the passion of its founder, but Rodriguez defied them. In the years since, Rodriguez has balanced fundraising with working with children. The Glover Program is a not-for-profit program that does not receive any support from the government. It is entirely supported by philanthropic ventures such as family and business foundations and operates on a budget of about $1 million a year.

About 300 juveniles are enrolled in the program at any given time. The number stays pretty steady, because they come in and complete the program on a rolling basis.

Last December, a report by Gov. David Paterson’s Task Force on Transforming Juvenile Justice concluded that the state spends an average of $210,000 per year to hold a juvenile in jail. In contrast, it costs the Glover program about $2,600 per child for a year of treatment. Rodriguez’s costs are kept low because he doesn’t need to pay rent on the center, which he bought in 1984 and paid off.

Rodriguez and his staff of 12 keep a cramped office on the 15th floor of the Criminal Court Building at 100 Centre St. in Downtown Manhattan. When not in court or at one of the centers, Rodriguez works from a small desk in a room partitioned off from the rest of the office. It is just big enough for an L-shaped desk and two small chairs. There is no computer, just a telephone and stacks of files.

During an interview in March, his phone rang. It was a mother with questions about her son who had been arrested and sent to jail by a judge. With the phone set on speaker, Rodriguez took her call.

“My home is so peaceful that Dante isn’t here,” she said. “When I hear sirens outside, my heart doesn’t miss a beat.”

Dante was arrested for robbery and taken from his home, where, according to Rodriguez, he routinely disrespects his mother and has no respect for authority. According to his mother, Dante leaves the house whenever he pleases in the middle of the night, and often doesn’t even close the door. Rodriguez and Dante’s mother agree that incarceration isn’t the right thing for her son, but something must be done. When he goes to school he throws chairs and then doesn’t think he did anything wrong. “He’s a jerk,” Rodriguez said. “But I like him.”

Rodriguez sees potential in Dante and is willing to work with him to find the appropriate anger-management classes and then have him come to the center to keep him off the streets.

“I’m looking out to help the kid that is an idiot and makes a mistake, but not the kid that was trying to kill you and chased you down the block with a knife,” he said. “I’m not supportive of that kind of violence.”

In violent cases, Rodriguez agrees that teens need to be incarcerated for the public’s protection. The Glover program’s comprehensive approach to finding alternatives to incarceration separates them from several other programs that operate in the city. While other programs usually become involved after the youngster has been ordered to one by a judge, Rodriguez often enters the picture early, sometimes just after the crime. Both parents and probation officers call him when something happens. “I surrender the defendant to the cops,” he said. “I will protect their rights.”

He knows they need to be turned in, but also knows that the police do not have a right to question them without a lawyer or parent present. A 1967 Supreme Court case gave juveniles the same rights as adults.

Angel Rodriguez speaks with a new entrant to the Andrew Glover Youth Program at the Robert Siegal Center in Lower Manhattan. (Photo by Alec Johnson)

Back in the center, Rodriguez connects on a more personal level with the kids. The court proceedings are in the past and he talks to them like they are his own. Some nights they have tutoring, on others there is anger management, art class or dinner. On Fridays, they watch movies on an old boxy big-screen TV that is wedged into the corner near the large table.

Before dinner that night, Rodriguez cornered Joe at the table to inquire about an inch-long cut above his left eyebrow that Rodriguez believed Joe received from falling down when he was drunk. “You still haven’t given me an answer,” he said.

“I hit it on a bottle,” Joe said.

“That means you’re drinking again?” Rodriguez said.

Joe swore that it was from a coke bottle and he bashed his face on it while head banging to heavy metal music with his friends.

“I was acting a fool,” he said. “I know it sounds ridiculous.”

“That cut,” Rodriguez said, “There is no way you cut that on a soda bottle.”

Joe said his mother was upstairs at the time and she would back him up.

“Give me her number,” Rodriguez said.

Joe handed over his mother’s phone number and Rodriguez dialed it into his phone. As he dialed he looked at Joe and said, “If you’re drinking, my man, you are going to need to deal with treatment.”

On the phone with Joe’s mother, Rodriguez didn’t get a straight answer. She had been sick so wasn’t sure. Joe—For the meantime—was off the hook.

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Broker hedges his bets on a new Rockaway high school Fri, 14 May 2010 15:19:38 +0000 Alec Johnson By ALEC JOHNSON

The Rockaway Park High School for Environmental Sustainability is scheduled to utilize classrooms on the third floor of this building in September. (Photo by Alec Johnson)

Chris Barriteau was firmly ensconced in a lucrative Wall Street career as an investment manager when the economy collapsed in 2008. For 16 years, he calculated risks and worked between the wall and the wallpaper. He was a broker. He managed the deals between two people–one selling, one buying, as all three of them tried to make money, big money. When he calculated his risks correctly, he usually scored.

But then, Wall Street melted down and thousands were told to pack their careers in a cardboard box and not to return to their desk the following morning. “Nobody saw this coming,” he said. “We had doubled down on get rich schemes.”

Barriteau did not get fired in the maelstrom. He had a job, and a very good one at that, as vice president of a hedge fund trading company. The crash, however, caused Barriteau to reassess his values and look beyond Wall Street. Barriteau began seeing the business he was in as one that created cash, but no value.

“Everyone wanted to get rich quick,” said Barriteau of his colleagues. “And folks weren’t developing skills to design, create and build.”

By Barriteau’s calculus, the failed get-rich schemes of the Street’s fast traders had their corollary to the lives of some of the city’s most underprivileged kids. From Morrisania in the South Bronx to East New York in Brooklyn and Far Rockaway in Queens, Barriteau believed that some kids, for some reason, did not want to learn. Too many were not graduating from high school, which put them at greater risk for ending up in jail. The trajectory that began with bad schools and ended in jails even included trading prisoners across state lines to fill prison cells. “If Texas had open beds a middle man would call Louisiana,” he said. “Prisoners were becoming a commodity.”

As a risk calculator by nature, Barriteau researched urban education and concluded that if the high school graduation rate continues to be poor, the results will be disastrous. “Wall Street is always looking forward to what is going to happen,” he said. “If we allow this trend to continue with so many normal kids flunking out of school… I am looking at a catastrophe down the road where there is panic mode and a need for drastic action. Why wait for that to happen?”

Like many other fellow hedge fund managers, Barriteau turned towards funding education as a way of tackling this newly discovered issue. In November 2008, he quit his hedge fund job and a month later founded The Artisan School Center, a non-profit organization focused on creating new schools where kids would want to learn. He had had enough of the brokerage business. The schools would be hands on, and in the sense of the artisan times of ancient Europe, students would be taught a trade.

The chancellor’s pledge last January to close down 19 failing city schools and replace them with a series of new small schools opened the door for Barriteau. The city needed more than 19 schools to replace them, and Barriteau, who is a soft spoken and sharply dressed African-American man, was on hand with deep pockets, lots of ideas, and a desire to work with their needs to provide a new public school.

Although the decision to close the schools is now mired in legal limbo, ever since a Manhattan Supreme Court judge ruled in March that the city did not follow proper procedures. Scores of teachers, principals and future students’ futures hang in the balance.

A short walk to Rockaway Beach, students at the new "sustainability" school may study this ecosystem during science class. (Photo by Alec Johnson)

But there is at least one small school in Queens that is pressing forward. It is the school that Barriteau helped create, The Rockaway Park High School for Environmental Sustainability, the new name for The Artisan School. Plans are in place to open the school on September 8, taking over about six classrooms on the third floor of Beach Channel High School, a Rockaway school slated for closure. Citing three years of poor progress reports, the education department announced in December that Beach Channel would phase out and close for good in June 2013.

“We still have space and we are still opening,” said Jennifer Connolly, the new Sustainability school’s principal. “We are moving forward.”

This new school is one of 32 public district schools approved by the education department over the past year to replace failing larger comprehensive schools, 16 of which are high schools. They represent just one-third of proposals pitched by teachers, principals and individuals interested in opening their own schools. In the time since Mayor Michael Bloomberg was granted control of the city’s schools, 338 new schools have opened.

In the fall, 108 ninth graders will enter as the school’s first class. Each year, thereafter, another class will be added so that in four years from now, Rockaway Park High School for Environmental Sustainability will serve ninth through twelfth graders. Students may choose one of two technical education areas to focus their studies–organic culinary arts or green carpentry–two fields its founders believe could lead to important careers after college.

By the third week in April, 40 students had signed up and Connolly believed she would have no trouble filling the other 68 positions in the coming weeks. For teachers, Connolly is currently reading applications. She has received 425 resumes to fill six teaching positions. “There is lots of interest,” she said.

On a recent Saturday morning, a handful of students and their parents vying for an opportunity to attend the environmental school spoke with Connolly at an information session in Beach Channel’s auditorium. Raquan Jean, 14, an eighth grade student at MS 43 in Rockaway Beach and his mother, April Ankum, attended.

Jean, who wants to be a judge someday, was intrigued by the school’s focus on the environment. But he was even more interested in being at the top of the food chain as a freshman. “Usually when you start High School you are the youngest,” Connolly said. “Here you’re the oldest. You are going to be shaping the school.”

The small school will also partner with Beach Channel High School for sports teams so students, like Jean, can have the personalized aspect of a small school with the amenities of a large school. Jean wants to play football. “It’s the best of both worlds,” said Connolly.

Jean was sold. He hopes he can start in the fall, the only drawback he thought was the uniform, navy dress pants, a white button down shirt and clip-on tie. “What happens if I don’t wear the uniform?”

“You will get a warning, then you might get sent home,” Connolly, 31, a petite, friendly but stern young principal said with a smile.

“Oh, you don’t need to worry about that,” said Jean’s mother who told Connolly to call her on her cell next year if her son creates any problems. Liking what they saw, they left hoping Jean would be able to attend. “I think this [school] is good for the kids.”

The path to creating this new school began when Barriteau, 41, walked away from his Wall Street career and formed the The Artisan School Center, an independent non-profit organization to design skills-based academic programs to improve the education of students in New York City public schools.

Barriteau teamed up with Howard Rosenberg, 55, who left a career of business management consulting for Fortune 500 companies. The goal, Barriteau said, “was to provide our students with multiple pathways of success, having the opportunities to pursue higher education while simultaneously learning a meaningful living.”

Although the two men had little experience in education, they believed it was imperative to try to help revamp the educational landscape of the city and give students better schools that would change the trajectory of their lives. “When I heard there were more African American kids in the state of Alabama in jail than in college,” Barriteau said he realized intervention was imperative. He chose New York, because he lives in Brooklyn and because he sees tremendous potential in changing the city’s public schools.

Barriteau, whose background is in economics, refused to follow the trend practiced by most Wall Street traders who became involved in education. Many have chosen recently to back charter schools, which are privately run public schools, funded by both tax payer dollars and private donations. It’s hard to tell how many charter schools in the city have been financed in part by hedge fund managers, but the numbers are growing.

The Robin Hood Foundation, a charity with strong Wall Street backing that supports charter schools and other poverty programs, raised a surprising $88 million at a one-night fundraiser in mid-May.  Last year, it spent $23.9 Million of its annual giving budget on charter schools and educational programs. According to Bloomberg News, more than half of its $150 million in donations comes from investment banks, brokerage firms and hedge funds.  (To read more about Robin Hood and Wall Street Click Here)

“Charter schools are great,” Barriteau said. “But a big part of their budget doesn’t necessarily go to education. It goes to real estate and overhead. Money is taken away from teachers and classroom resources.”

Barriteau envisioned a school where students could learn a trade, much like an artisan would in ancient Europe. They researched schools and the high drop out rates for urban schools and concluded that Career & Technical Education (CTE) schools, which teach more with activity and project-based learning as opposed to traditional classroom teaching, are more successful.

This new school is one of two CTE schools opening in 2010. The second is the Academy for Health Careers, which is scheduled to open in Brooklyn. According to the education department Web site there are 30 designated CTE schools in the city. Barriteau believes that a school that emphasizes creativity, design and craftsmanship is critical to motivating students to be goal oriented. He said, “We want to engage kids in the classroom to both learn basic academics as well as skills to survive and thrive in the 21st century.”

They chose “sustainability” as a theme because the school is constantly changing and evolving, allowing for a curriculum tailored to society’s changing needs. Rosenberg said, “Sustainability is a way of thinking as much as it is about the technology. It is about changing the systems of thinking and not just about changing disposable cups into recyclable cups.”

The official process to open a new school for 2010 began with an April 2009 informational fair attended by more than 100 people aspiring to start their own schools. To get started, Barriteau submitted an abstract of his general idea for The Artisan School. A few months later a full proposal including curriculum and how the school fits in with the district needs was submitted. Barriteau’s was one of 110 full proposals. According to an education department official from the new school’s team, 70 of “the best developed proposals” were advanced to the interview stage. From there, 32 were approved, and for a reason not disclosed, the name “The Artisan School,” was not approved and Barriteau’s school was renamed the Rockaway Park High School for Environmental Sustainability.

Early in the process they chose Connolly to be the school’s leader. Connolly is a third generation Rockaway native, and former middle school math teacher, guidance counselor and assistant principal. She is currently working on creating a rigorous curriculum and meeting with members of the community she hopes will form partnerships with the school. The partners will provide internships for students and bring the community and the school together. Despite the controversy over closing the Beach Channel, which has been a large comprehensive high school in the neighborhood for years, Connolly said the community has been supportive. “People have been pretty positive.”

Science classes will be taught in real life situations, like the ecosystem of Rockaway Beach where students will be able to study biology and learn how to test water for contaminants. “We want to bring curriculum to life instead of it being flat in a book,” said Rosenberg.

Trips down to the water, that Connolly calls “learning voyages” will expand further from just science. She said they will bring the water samples back to the lab, test them for contaminants and then write about the findings in English language arts class, give a presentation in technology class about why the water is contaminated and what can be done to clean it up. The final stage will require students to report their findings to the community.

In the coming years, Connolly plans on expanding the school’s community outreach and eventually she hopes the culinary arts students will be able to create an organic garden and catering service that Rockaway Beach residents can purchase and learn from.

Even before the Sustainability school opens, Barriteau has his sites already trained on opening another school the year after. Barriteau has no intention of working in the school. “I’m simply the guy working with the school to try to make sure we do our best job possible,” he said, “to make sure kids are excited to come to school and really want to learn.”

The Wall Street broker, who once traded only in dollars, would not put a dollar amount on his investment. But he did pledge to remain committed for years to come. “I have put my entire life’s savings into this,” he said. “That’s in light of me losing my portfolio.”

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Three’s a crowd? Fri, 14 May 2010 10:31:33 +0000 Scott Sell

As soon as the third period bell rang at World Journalism Preparatory School in Flushing, Queens, secretary Kathy Vitale’s phone did the same. It was someone from P.S. 223, the elementary school for kids with special needs, down three flights of stairs on the basement level, trying to negotiate for space.

Vitale covered the mouthpiece of the phone and called over to Ginger Spellman, her fellow secretary who was busy making copies of permission slips.

“Can you check the calendar? They want to use the auditorium on June 25th,” said Vitale. “What do we have on June 25th?”

“June 25th?” Spellman said, one hand on her hip. “That’s our kids’ graduation!”

They both cackled for a moment, knowing this was not negotiable.

“Yeah, hi hon,” Vitale said, getting back on the line. “Did you hear us? Yeah, we reserved the auditorium on that day already. So I would check in with Joan in I.S. 25 and look at the calendar to see what day would work for you.”

Vitale hung up and rubbed her forehead.

“When things overlap like this,” she said. “Man, that’s when it gets complicated.”

World Journalism, a new sixth through 12th grade public school with 560 students, is in its fourth year of sharing space with P.S. 223, and I.S. 25 – a middle school. The schools occupy the three floors of the Adrien Block Campus, a concrete box of a school on 92nd Street in Flushing, Queens. With the help of secretaries, principals, custodians, cafeteria workers, and security guards, the schools spend most of their days trying to cohabitate peacefully, coordinating everything from lunch and recess to plays and graduations. Some days they get through the day unscathed, sometimes not.

Newer, smaller public schools like World Journalism are being placed into bigger schools at a rapid rate across the city. Since mayoral control began in 2002, more than 300 small public schools have been created and now, about half of all New York schools share space with other schools and programs, according to the Department of Education. And teachers, students and parents are learning to share what they have.

“For everyone in a shared school, transitions are tough,” said Dr. Mak Mitchell, executive director of school governance for the DOE. “But the hope is that decisions can be made democratically, resources can be shared and all principals can support their own school’s mission as well as their building’s growth.”

Butting Heads

After two minutes of chaos as students scrambled to their fourth period classes, the hallways on the third floor of World Journalism suddenly turned quiet. Brian Melendez, a 17-year-old senior with square-framed glasses and sinewy arms, slipped from room to room as though he had built the school himself. He enrolled in World Journalism when it first opened four years ago, the year principal Cynthia Schneider – a former news producer and teacher – was awarded space for her school from Chancellor Joel Klein. Hers was one of the smaller, more specialized schools that opened in 2006, as part of his initiative.

That first year, Melendez said, relations were fairly hostile.

Up to that point, I.S. 25 had been using the first and second floors of the building, and had turned the old third-floor classrooms into administrative offices. World Journalism came onto the scene and took over the entire third floor.

But that wasn’t enough space. Schneider soon had to ask I.S. 25’s former principal if she could have four more classrooms on the second floor.

For months, he wouldn’t budge. He was reluctant, Schneider said, to hand over what he believed was his turf.  It took a string of meetings and lots of butting heads to finally get those classrooms. And that tension started trickling down to the teachers, and even the students. Even the substance abuse counselor, Richard DeCosta – who is supervised by the principals but is paid from an outside organization – had to sneak World Journalism students down to the first floor of I.S. 25 for meetings.

“When we saw each other in the hallway, there would be some dirty looks and yelling matches,” he said, running his hand along the tiled walls. “And it was uncomfortable because it was like, yeah, we came into your school and we took half of your hallway.”

Today, the jostling and clashing has calmed down considerably. The schools still share access to the building’s library, gym, auditorium and cafeteria, but a new I.S. 25 principal, Mary Ellen Kociszewski, helped establish new boundaries this fall: the two schools have different exits, different schedules, different bells. Still, scheduling conflicts arise, Brian said, because the school’s periods don’t line up.

Brian peeked his head into the auditorium at the end of World Journalism’s fourth period. I.S. 25 was finishing up an assembly and students from World Journalism were waiting in the back of the room – some more patiently than others – for it to be over so they could start their gym class.

“See?” Brian said, pointing through the glass. “That’s what happens.”

Getting Creative

Once they got settled, five minutes late into the period, pairs of World Journalism students took turns on the stage, presenting traditional and modern dances they had researched and practiced. They did the waltz, the jitterbug and the Macarena.

“We had to get creative with our classes, because sometimes we don’t know where we’ll be,” said gym teacher Christian Maroney, who stood at the side of the stage, complete with whistle, wind pants and a water bottle. “We created this dance and drama unit because I.S. 25 will sometimes need the gym for a project and we’ll need to shift gears.”

Gym class for World Journalism consists of the entire grade, sometimes 80 kids with two teachers splitting the group in half. That’s a lot of bodies. The first year, the schools weren’t at the point where they could share the gym space so they came up with alternatives, such as yoga and ballroom dancing. But usually these  would be in classrooms, right next door to I.S. 25 classrooms.

“Teachers would come and tell us to turn down the music or constantly knock on the wall, saying we were a disturbance,” said 17-year-old senior Divya Diaz, whose dark bangs hair nearly cover her eyes. “The year after, we started to get more space in the gym. So things evolved.”

World Journalism students leave the schoolyard as I.S. 25 students come out for gym. (Photo by Scott Sell)

Wasted Space

To get to the World Journalism’s parent coordinator office, you has to walk down the aisles of the auditorium, up the risers, across the stage and through a maze of doors. The space used to be dressing rooms. Now it is home to copy machines, a PTA meeting area, and Helen Reed’s office, where the sink faucet is broken and there’s no natural light. But she feels lucky: most parent coordinators don’t get a space of their own. And nearly every World Journalism teacher shares  classrooms throughout the day.

“You walk into a room,” Reed said, “and you can’t tell if it’s the eighth-grade English teacher’s room or the ninth-grade Spanish teacher’s room or the art teacher’s room, using it third period on Thursdays.”

A couple years ago, the Adrien Block Campus was used for the first District 25 middle school fair. World Journalism was assigned a room in I.S. 25 to greet visitors and Reed  and Schneider came early to move the desks around. But Reed noticed something strange: every desk had a textbook and a notebook inside, all with kids’ names on them.

“And I realized, that room is only used once a day!” Reed said. “Here, they assigned us – of all people – a room that’s only used once a day. That would never happen at our school. The idea that a classroom is only used four out of the eight periods is crazy because that’s wasted space.”

Running Things Smoothly

Schneider took a notepad, a pen and a bottle of water and hustled down the stairs.  Two eighth graders coming back from gym class tugged playfully on each other’s WJPS hooded sweatshirts.

“Hey,” Schneider said, pointing as she brushed by them. “Knock it off and get to class, will you please?”

The boys straightened up and marched the rest of the way up the stairs in silence, smiling.

Downstairs, in Kociszewski’s office, Schneider joined everyone who was already gathered around a meeting table. There was Lisa McAllister, a school safety officer, in full uniform  representing the four security guards that man the front entrance desk and roam the halls of the building. There was John Kleiber, the head of the custodial staff. Brenda Roberts, a nurse at P.S. 233, came in late, excusing herself quietly.

“Alright,” Schneider said, waving her pen. “Let’s get this party started!”

“So is this a Building Council meeting?” Kleiber asked, turning from one person to another. “Or what?”

“I thought it was a safety meeting,” Kociszewki said, crossing her arms.

“I think it was supposed to be,” Schneider said slowly. “But we decided this would be the best day for Building Council. There were a few different memos floating around.”

“Okay,” Kociszewski laughed. “Since we’re all here, let’s get to it!”

All buildings that share space have Building Councils like these, said Mitchell. These Councils help school leaders sharing the same building to collaborate on sharing the campus, facilitating administrative decision-making and ensuring that all schools in a building operate smoothly and safely. Under Mitchell’s guidance, the Department of Education released a Building Council Tool Kit in 2006. The tool kit, which took eight moths to complete, is a  67-page guide on how schools sharing space should work together. All three schools are making a point to meet regularly and discuss problems as they arise and potential solutions for them.

Kociszewski and Schneider came to an agreement early on: because they were both public schools and all members of the Department of Education, they should do their best to meet each other halfway when it came to space issues.

“Thankfully, we can work together to strategize what can do to remedy any situation,” Schneider said. “There’s optimism about our combined vision to move the entire campus to a better place.”

Changing the Flavor


World Journalism school aide Gino Myrtle’s voice boomed from the speakers and bounced off of the cafeteria walls. He held the microphone for a few moments while students finished their conversations and their lunches.

“Everyone make sure you clean up after yourself, clear your trays and trash,” he said. “And, if you want to go to the dance tomorrow and you haven’t bought your ticket yet, come right up and here and get one.”

Richard DeCosta, the substance abuse counselor, sat on the stage with a mini treasure chest on his lap, paper tickets and a pile of dollar bills overflowing. He organized the dance as a way for I.S. 25 and World Journalism students to interact in a way they ordinarily weren’t able to.

“We had our first dance three weeks ago with 520 kids from both schools and there were zero incidents,” DeCosta said. “Everyone is starting to accept each other. Once the staff and students get to know everyone from the other school, the flavor around here is going to change. And I think we’re already heading that way.”

The fifth period bell rang and the kids shot up. The din of I.S. 25 students could be heard coming down their stairwell. It was now their lunchtime. Brian Melendez picked up his tray and sighed.

“Things have gotten better,” he said, stepping aside as seventh graders filtered into the cafeteria. “But, you know, it’s just taken some time.”

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