Field test

For storm-swept Rockaway football team, a brief bright moment

Coach Victor Nazario had no shortage of material to draw on as he launched into a pep talk for the Beach Channel Campus Dolphins before their playoff football game on Saturday.

Less than two weeks before, the Rockaway Peninsula — home to Beach Channel and many of its students — had borne the full force of Hurricane Sandy. Since the storm, members of the football team, like so many others, had been camped out in cold, dark apartments or bouncing among family, friends, and hotels elsewhere — anywhere with power and heat and access to food.

On Thursday, Nazario rushed to organize a practice to prepare for the Saturday matchup, but he was not sure if enough players would show up. A day earlier, just 15 percent of Beach Channel students made it to the school’s first day in a new location.

Now, just before kickoff, Nazario looked around the Port Richmond High School cafeteria, the team’s makeshift locker room, and saw that he had enough players to field a team. His voice cracked with emotion almost as soon as he opened his mouth.

“Needless to say, the last two weeks have really tested our character and our resilience and, in my opinion, you guys passed in flying colors,” Nazario said.

Before heading out onto the field, Nazario reminded the players to relish their time on the field.

“We handle our business,” he said. “And then we go home to deal with the dark.”

Coaches Victor Nazario (right) and John Coscia hug senior co-captains Justin Zemser and Breland Archbold after their loss Saturday.

Darkness has been a resolute companion after sunset for the tens of thousands of Rockaway residents still without power two weeks after the storm. Cell phone service on the peninsula remains spotty, basic needs are in short supply, and traffic is clogged with vehicles from the National Guard and other organizations brought in to assist in recovery.

For the players, talk of “the darkness” is one part communal joke, one part shorthand to describe their new normal.

Seniors Marcus Wilcox, a co-captain, and Nkoze Stewart said the kitchen has become the most popular room in their apartments — not for what food gets cooked, but because huddling around an open stove is the only way to stay warm.

Junior running back Chris Reed and his family decided to stay in their 10th-floor apartment because his grandmother, who lives four floors above, didn’t want to evacuate. Reed said he’s spent the last two weeks shuttling supplies up and down dozens of flights of stairs for his family.

“At least you’re staying in shape,” Nazario told Reed by way of consolation.

“How can a carpet be cold?” said Michael Stanley, a junior wide receiver. Stanley had been been staying in East New York but slept on his cousin’s floor Friday night back on the peninsula so he could make the early morning team bus to Staten Island. “I’ve never felt anything like that.”

Stanley is one of several Beach Channel plays to have fled the remote, 11-mile-long Rockaway peninsula entirely. Senior co-captain Justin Zemser, a wide receiver, headed to Long Island after a gas leak in his apartment building forced all of the residents out. Star defensive lineman and University of Connecticut-bound Folorunso Fatukasi is living in a Brooklyn motel room with his parents and two brothers. Senior left tackle Roger Arrington evacuated more than 100 miles away upstate.

Of course, if Sandy never struck, the 12th seeded Dolphins (5-3) still would have been steep underdogs against the fifth-seeded Port Richmond Red Raiders (6-2). Port Richmond recruits from a student body of more than 2,100, but because the city is in the process of closing Beach Channel, its student body has shrunk to just 400. New schools in the building, whose students are also eligible for the team, add only 1,200 more potential recruits.

Still, the storm added to the odds against the Dolphins.

Nazario found out on Tuesday that the Public Schools Athletic League, which oversees sports in the city’s public school system, intended to move forward with the playoffs with or without the Dolphins.

Nazario had a choice to make: forfeit or round up players he hadn’t seen in weeks and ask them to take a break from their families to play the game.

But after he spoke with Zemser, Wilcox, and Breland Archbold, his senior co-captains, the decision became clear: The Dolphins would not cede the game to Sandy.

“We told [the coaches] that we’d get the players if they get us the equipment,” Wilcox said.

But the Dolphins still didn’t have a practice field. The field at Beach Channel campus was turned into a landing pad for emergency helicopters and Nazario said he cringed when he first saw what they’ve done to his 50-yard line. On Thursday and Friday, the team practiced at nearby Far Rockaway High School, which is located further in land.

On Saturday, 25 Beach Channel players suited up to take on about 40 Red Raiders in a contest that Nazario compared to the battle between David and Goliath.

“Everything that you’ve endured, it’s like ridiculous that you guys even thought about playing this football game,” Nazario said in his speech. He added, “Everything that we’ve been through for the last two weeks, winning this football game should actually be easy.”

In the Hollywood version of the playoff game, Nazario’s speech would have foreshadowed a come-from-behind victory over both Port Richmond and tragedy. But in real life, the Red Raiders jumped out to a quick 14-0 lead and never looked back.

Beach Channel gained momentum briefly in the second quarter. Archbold, the team’s star quarterback, ran the ball 80 yards for a touchdown to make the score 14-6. He had the Dolphins driving again when Port Richmond intercepted a bobbled pass and returned it  for a touchdown. The final score was 38-6, sending the Red Raiders on to the next round of the playoffs.

For Beach Channel, the loss marked the end of the season. After the game, Nazario cried some more, but this time he had company. As he gathered his team for a final sendoff, he thanked his players again for overcoming steep odds even to step on to the field.

Fatukasi told his teammates to stop crying, to be proud of their performance. Then he was wiping tears from his own eyes [VIDEO].

Spirits were higher back in the cafeteria. The players ate pizza — courtesy of Port Richmond — and basked in the last few minutes of fluorescent light and radiated heat.

“I wouldn’t have been able to live with that feeling of ‘what if?’” said Zemser, the senior. “At least now I know we had a shot at it.”

“Now we gotta go fix this town up,” he added.

After the game: “No more crying…We’re leaving this field with respect.”

 

Top 10

From forest preschools to a secret apology, here are Chalkbeat Colorado’s must-read stories of 2018

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat
Megan Patterson works with children to make a dam in a creek during a recent "forest school" class.

We spend a lot of time at Chalkbeat chasing the news to keep our readers informed about controversial policy changes, fast-moving debates, and late-breaking decisions.

But we also relish the opportunity to dig deep into issues affecting students and families, shine light on innovative ideas, and hear from dedicated educators making a difference. With that in mind, we’ve gathered 10 of our best stories from 2018.

These stories don’t necessarily chronicle the biggest education issues of 2018, from teacher walkouts to unprecedented state interventions. But they are stories we think are important and insightful, and that we enjoyed reporting and writing. We hope you enjoy reading them.

No walls: Forest preschools let kids run free, but can they change to reach diverse families?

One day this past summer, about a dozen children frolicked by a Jefferson County creek — making pretend tea in small metal buckets, and building dams with sticks and mud.

They were students at Worldmind Nature Immersion School, where children spend all their time outside. So-called forest preschools like Worldmind are beloved by many families but face significant regulatory and logistical barriers in expanding their footprint nationwide. Here in Colorado, a pilot program could lead a new kind of child care license designed for them.

And being licensed could help the schools confront another problem: a lack of diversity among their students. Read more.

Colorado was never ranked 46th for teacher pay. Does this change the debate?

It was an oft-cited statistic: that Colorado, despite its booming economy, ranked 46th in the nation for teacher pay. The eye-popping number found its way onto social media posts and signs at massive teacher rallies last spring. News outlets latched on to it, too.

But it was wrong. Colorado was actually ranked 30th in the nation.

Our story breaks down how the mistake happened (hint: a new data system, an unrevised report) — and how groups with different agendas seized on the snafu to score points. Read more.

This is the letter of apology that Adams 14 leaders never sent

The Adams 14 district in Commerce City is arguably the most troubled and low-performing in Colorado. Just last month, state officials directed Adams 14 to hire an external manager to oversee the district’s operations for at least the next four years.

Back in September, Adams 14 officials considered taking a rare step: saying sorry to the community. But an apology letter was never signed nor sent out.

Chalkbeat obtained a copy of the letter, which makes mention of “various and conflicting priorities, coupled with constant turnover and organizational disarray.” Read more.

Rising test scores and dwindling trust: Denver’s Tom Boasberg leaves a complicated legacy

Colorado’s largest school district experienced a big change this year when longtime leader Tom Boasberg announced he would step down after nearly 10 years in Denver Public Schools.

Because of his school improvement strategies — some of which were controversial and heightened tensions with the community — the district that the new superintendent, Susana Cordova, will inherit in January is vastly different than it was a decade ago.

One tangible difference: Schools that once served as anchors of the community but struggled academically have been closed or replaced. That disappearance was on display on one of Boasberg’s last days, when he held his cell phone close to his mouth and enunciated each word so his GPS would understand his direction: “Montbello High School.” Read more.

Parents in one Aurora high school are visiting classrooms and giving teachers feedback

Like many schools in Colorado, Aurora’s Rangeview High School has a test score gap between white and black students. But the assistant principal there came up with a unique way to try to address it: by inviting black parents to visit classrooms and observe how students are — or are not — engaging with the teacher’s lesson, and then provide suggestions for improvement.

“We give true and honest feedback,” said one parent involved, “if they looked or appeared comfortable, how they interacted with the environment, the temperature of the room.”

Although the assistant principal considers the African American Parent Committee an experiment, she said it’s generating uncomfortable but necessary conversations. Read more.

How education reform became a wedge issue among Colorado Democrats this election year

For years, more moderate Democrats, often working in unison with like-minded Republicans, championed education reform efforts ranging from school choice to holding educators accountable for student performance.

But partly because of backlash against President Donald Trump and his education secretary, those strategies no longer fly with many Democrats — especially left-leaning Democrats who see them as undercutting public education and devaluing the work of teachers.

That sentiment was palpable in Colorado’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, and could shape the next legislative session, which starts in January. “Education is the issue that really stands to divide the left in a very substantial way,” one observer said. Read more.

How a Colorado school district turned things around at 10,000 feet above sea level

School improvement efforts look a little different high in the Rocky Mountains. While many of the strategies used by the 1,000-student Lake County school district are familiar to urban settings, they’ve been retrofitted to meet the needs of a district that’s 100 miles west of Denver.

For example, instead of firing teachers and principals who weren’t accelerating student learning fast enough, the district adopted a new curriculum and gave its teachers lots of training.

“The belief that the people are the problem is wrong,” the superintendent said. “Our teachers are professionals, and we believe in them. We’re proving that there is a framework or a pathway for rural schools to improve that’s about building capacity within your own community.” Read more.

7 things to know about how Colorado schools punish their youngest students

After state lawmakers rejected a bill to limit the use of suspensions in the earliest grades, Chalkbeat wanted to know more about the early childhood discipline landscape in Colorado. Data from the Colorado Department of Education revealed several trends.

Among them: Young black boys are suspended at disproportionate rates. Some rural school districts have the highest early childhood suspension rates in the state.

And despite nationwide debate about the impact of harsh discipline on young children and local efforts to bring the numbers down, suspensions in the early grades are actually going up. Read more.

In Denver’s gentrifying neighborhoods, some middle-class parents are avoiding the school down the block

Many neighborhoods in Denver are gentrifying, with middle-class families moving into what have historically been working-class communities. That type of demographic shift could easily lead to neighborhood schools that are more integrated by family income and race.

But that doesn’t always happen in Denver. Instead, data show that wealthier families – more often than low-income families – are using Denver Public Schools’ universal school choice process to send their kids to schools elsewhere in the city.

That’s a problem because research shows integrated schools boost test scores for students from low-income families without lowering the scores of those from wealthier ones. Denver officials want to see those benefits, but allowing parents to choose may be thwarting them. Read more.

Why this Colorado principal hand delivers birthday cards to more than 2,000 students and staff

Northglenn High School Principal Sharee Blunt is Colorado’s 2018 School Principal of the year — but perhaps even more impressive is the enormous number of birthday cards she hand delivers each year. If you’re one of those people who can barely remember your spouse’s birthday, you’ll be floored by Blunt’s annual feat.

In our interview with Blunt, part of Chalkbeat’s “How I Lead” Q&A series with distinguished school leaders, she talks about what she realized after a mother’s emotional reaction, and why she gave a teacher a pass during a lesson that went awry. Read more.

union power

Charter teachers won big in nation’s first strike. What now?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Teachers from Acero charter schools in Chicago protest stalled negotiations Oct. 24, 2018, as they readied to vote on authorizing a strike.

Some 500 unionized teachers joined in the nation’s first charter strike last week, and succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day. Their gains could foreshadow next year’s citywide contract negotiations — between the Chicago Teachers Union, with its contract expiring in June, and Chicago Public Schools.

“The issue of class size is going to be huge,” said Chris Geovanis, the union’s director of communications. “It is a critically important issue in every school.”

Unlike their counterparts in charters, though, teachers who work at district-run schools can’t technically go on strike to push through a cap on the number of students per class. That’s because the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act defines what issues non-charter public school teachers can bargain over, and what issues can lead to a strike.

An impasse on issues of compensation or those related to working conditions, such as length of the school day or teacher evaluations, could precipitate a strike. But disagreements over class sizes or school closures, among other issues, cannot be the basis for a strike.

The number of students per class has long been a point of contention among both district and charter school teachers.

Educators at Acero had hopes of pushing the network to limit class sizes to 24-28 students, depending on the grade. However, as Acero teachers capped their fourth day on the picket line, they reached an agreement with the charter operator on a cap of 30 students — down from the current cap of 32 students.

Andy Crooks, a special education apprentice, also known as a teacher’s aide, at Acero’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz school and a member of the teachers bargaining team, said that even having two fewer students in a classroom would make a huge difference.

“You really do get a lot more time with your students,” Crooks said. “And if you are thinking about kindergarten in particular, two less 5-year-olds really can help set the tone of the classroom.”

In district-run schools, classes are capped at 28 students in kindergarten through third grade, and at 31 students in fourth through sixth grade. But a survey by the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers, which supports educators taking on inequality, found that during the 2017-2018 school year, 21 percent of K-8 classrooms had more students than district guidelines allowed. In 18 elementary school classrooms, there were 40 or more students.

The issue came up at last week’s Board of Education meeting, at which Ivette Hernandez, a parent of a first-grader at Virgil Grissom Elementary School in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood, said her son’s classes have had more than 30 students in them. When the children are so young and active — and when they come into classrooms at so many different skill levels — “the teachers can’t handle 30 kids in one class,” she told the board.

Alderman Sue Garza, a former counselor, accompanied Hernandez. She also spoke before the board about classroom overcrowding — worrying aloud that, in some grades at one school in particular, the number of students exceeded the building’s fire codes. (Board chair Frank Clark said a district team would visit the school to ensure compliance fire safety policies.)

While the Chicago Teachers Union aren’t technically allowed to strike over class sizes, the union does have a history of pushing the envelope when it comes to bargaining.

Back in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union last went on strike, they ended up being able to secure the first limit on class sizes in 20 years because the district permitted the union to bargain over class size.

They also led a bargaining campaign that included discussion over racial disparities in Chicago education and school closures, arguing that these trends impacted the working conditions of teachers.

“Even if you can’t force an employer to bargain over an issue, you can push them to bargain over the impact of an issue,” Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, explained.

The Chicago Teachers Union also emerged from its 2012 negotiations with guarantees of additional “wraparound services,” such as access to onsite social workers and school counselors.