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September 16, 2011
FDNY crackdown on fire hazards leads to removal of hallway art
Art on the walls makes a school environment beautiful, happy and bright – right? According to the FDNY, art on the walls can also make a school dangerous. Last year, the fire department stepped up its inspections of public school buildings, adding the public buildings unit to three others that check into whether schools are meeting fire codes. Schools were warned if more than 20 percent of their wall space was covered with flammable materials such as paper and cloth, a frequent situation in a system where principals and students have long been encouraged to plaster hallways and classrooms with student work. In total, FDNY cited approximately 1,500 violations in schools, and 500 of them were quickly fixed, according to an FDNY spokesman. This year, the Department of Education gave principals a heads-up that the policy would continue. Although no policy has actually changed, principals were reminded of the specific fire code parameters this week, and the DOE is working with the FDNY, school facilities staff and the principals union to ensure compliance with the 20 percent rule, said Marge Feinberg, a DOE spokeswoman. Many principals were caught off guard by the inspections and were worried about how their schools would be affected, said Chiara Coletti, a spokeswoman for the principals union.
September 15, 2011
School aides union and DOE in talks to prevent layoffs
Hundreds of Department of Education employees doomed to lose their jobs next month might not be laid off after all. Talks to avert the layoffs of 737 school aides were rekindled this afternoon between the DOE and labor officials representing the employees, according to union officials who are directly involved in the negotiations. "I can tell you that we made significant proposals to see if we can prevent these layoffs," said one of the sources, who requested anonymity because negotiations were ongoing. "I feel very positive about the meeting today." The layoffs to non-pedagogical school staff were abruptly announced last month by the DOE and came after the city blamed the employees' unions for not providing "any real savings that could have saved these jobs." The layoffs caught union leaders at DC-37, the city's largest municipal union and its affiliate Local 372 off guard. Local 372 President Santos Crespo, who said he attended this afternoon's meeting, criticized the layoffs as political and being too heavily concentrated in the city's poor and minority communities. The drama over layoffs at the Department of Education has persisted since last year, when Mayor Bloomberg first announced that thousands of teachers' jobs would have to be cut because of widening gaps in the budget. Those talks temporarily ceased in late June, however, when the teachers union agreed to concessions in an eleventh hour deal to avert the layoffs.
September 14, 2011
Walcott outlines steps to help principals focus on instruction
Principals will soon get back an hour every day to focus on instructional leadership, if Chancellor Dennis Walcott achieves his goal of taking tasks off of school leaders' plates. Walcott has said since taking office in April that he wanted to simplify principals' jobs. But even as he has directed principals to spend more time observing teachers and rolling out new curriculum standards, principals have still had to wade through a seemingly endless list of tasks handed down from Department of Education headquarters. That list is starting to shrink. In a message to principals today, Walcott said the city has taken concrete steps to simply principals' jobs. The steps include linking school records and city health records so that principals don't have to chase down students' immunization records; pre-populating some reporting forms with school data; and reducing the number of times principals have to give feedback about their satisfaction. The DOE has also convened a team of officials in the Office of School Support to find more ways to reduce the time principals spend on tasks assigned centrally, Walcott said. And the department is working on making some data systems more user-friendly, including the brand-new Special Education Student Information System, which some principals say has been problematic since launching. "You’ve sent a clear message: you are passionately engaged in raising the rigor of the work that your teachers and students do, but too many of you are frustrated by demands coming from outside of your school that do not contribute to your core work," Walcott wrote in the Principals Weekly newsletter last night.
September 8, 2011
Walcott on first day: All 11 elementary schools tested toxin-free
Chancellor Walcott speaks to a parent on the first day of school Between school visits today, reporters grilled Chancellor Dennis Walcott about the biggest issues the Department of Education faces today. Most of his answers tread familiar territory: When asked about the pool of teachers without permanent positions, which has grown, he suggested the same policy solution that former chancellor Joel Klein called for on his way out the door. But in a few cases Walcott broke new ground. Asked about the city's testing of schools for toxic chemicals, which he vowed to accelerate after the city precipitously closed a contaminated Bronx school this summer, the chancellor said all schools have come back clean. But testing is still ongoing at the majority of leased sites, he said. Read on for the highlights.
September 7, 2011
In training, teachers learn new ways to talk about student work
Dennis Walcott joined principal Annabelle Martinez (standing) and teachers at P.S. 124 in Sunset Park for training on the Common Core standards. Huddled around tables in their school library, three dozen teachers at P.S. 124 in Sunset Park got a taste for how new standards being rolled out across the city would reshape their work in the classroom this fall. Principal Annabelle Martinez handed out photocopies of student writing samples and asked the teachers to evaluate the work according to the new standards. For a team of third-grade teachers, that meant looking at a short essay about weather and determining whether the author used "informative and explanatory text to examine a topic and convey ideas and information clearly." At first, the teachers found strengths in the essay's display of mechanics. One teacher pointed out that the student had used capitalization correctly. "He knows his paragraphs," another teacher said. "And he knows sentence structure too." Later, the teachers used a projector to present their notes to their colleagues. Under Martinez's guidance, the teachers revised how they discussed the student's strengths. Now, they called the essay "informative" and said it was organized well by topic and included a "clear introduction" and a "clear conclusion" — language that was more in line with the new standards. Scenes like this were playing out in schools across the five boroughs this morning as part of an extra day of professional development given to staff before students start class tomorrow.
September 7, 2011
City's Common Core rollout ramps up today with teacher training
When it comes to new "common core" standards, theoretical language is giving way to hands-on practice. The curriculum standards, accepted by 48 states, are being rolled out citywide this year after being piloted in 100 schools last year. Today, every teacher in the city is expected to get training on them. Chancellor Dennis Walcott sat in on a training session this morning at Brooklyn's PS 124, which took part in the pilot last year. But at many schools, today is likely to be the first time that teachers learn just how the common core standards are poised to change their jobs. Some principals put together their own plans for today, but they can also draw on four 90-minute lessons the city devised. One session asks teachers to evaluate student work from their own school to see if it meets the new standards. In another, they will practice assessing teachers according to a new evaluation rubric. A third lesson focuses on connecting two overarching citywide goals: strengthening student work and teacher practice. And a fourth lesson asks teachers to examine student work from a school that adopted the new standards last year. The lessons are part of the Department of Education's online "Common Core Library" of resources. In a letter to principals last week announcing the lesson plans, Walcott laid out a timeline for schools' common core-related accomplishments. This fall, he wrote, teams of teachers at each school should identify students' shortcomings. In the winter, teachers should ask all students to complete two common core-aligned "tasks," one in reading and one in math. Through it all, principals should be giving teachers frequent feedback based on classroom observations, Walcott wrote. Walcott's letter to principals is below:
September 1, 2011
Ten days before 10th anniversary, city launches 9/11 curriculum
As the city prepares to observe the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks that took place on Sept. 11, 2001, the Department of Education is making curriculum materials — and grief counseling — available to teachers. "As educators and parents of children who grew up in the years before and after 9/11, we have a responsibility to help them learn that the attacks of 9/11 were an attack on all New Yorkers, our nation as a whole, our freedoms, and our way of life," Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott wrote in an email to teachers today announcing the new materials. High school seniors had just started second grade on 9/11, and most city students have "little or no recollection" of the day, Walcott noted in the letter to teachers. That's one reason why a team of teachers and administrators at the DOE worked with the National September 11 Memorial and Museum, scheduled to open next year, to develop a collection of 9/11-themed lesson plans. Those plans went online today. The lesson plans are meant to be used in social studies, history, English, and art classes across all grade levels. The 10 to 20 lessons for each grade level are divided across the themes of "historical impact," "community and conflict," "heroes and service," and "memory and memorialization." Children in kindergarten through second grade might learn about bravery and examine mementos, now in the museum's permanent collection, that children sent to firefighters after 9/11. Middle schoolers might analyze memorial songs released shortly after 9/11. And a high school class might study the recent history of Islamist extremism or develop museum exhibitions of their own. Each lesson is connected to new Common Core curriculum standards being rolled out this year. The department is also planning to offer counseling services to teachers, staff, and students who need them, Walcott said. Walcott's letter to teachers is below.
August 19, 2011
Calling DOE 'cheap,' councilwoman demands bedbug answers
With school doors set to open in just weeks, City Councilwoman Gale Brewer wants to know why the education department hasn't hired a contractor to handle the resurgence of bedbugs in its classrooms. “I ask that you immediately initiate a bedbug treatment contract to deal with this issue before the start of the school year,” Brewer wrote to Chancellor Dennis Walcott last month. Brewer penned the letter in response to a GothamSchools report that showed a tripling in the number of bedbugs cases found in schools last year, to 3,590. The surge of cases has placed strain on the Department of Education's pest management division, which is required to treat every case of bedbugs. Normally, that work is handled by a private pest management company, but schools have been without a specialized contractor for nearly a year. Bidding on the new contract began nine months ago, but the DOE has yet to award it, spokeswoman Marge Feinberg said. Feinberg said that the city planned to respond to the letter, which also requested a list of the schools that were treated for bedbugs, but had not yet done so.
August 16, 2011
Bridge-building no metaphor at engineering-themed high school
Ninth-grader Ikiya Devonish prepares to load weight onto her group's bridge, with the help of City Tech Professor Anthony Cioffi. Many schools have summer "bridge" programs to bring new students up to speed. City Polytechnic High School of Engineering, Architecture, and Technology has ninth-graders build actual bridges. The two-year-old school's summer orientation program includes a bridge-building competition where incoming freshmen can showcase their newly acquired engineering skills. The orientation kicks off an intensive program that condenses all of high school plus a taste of college into three years. That's a steep challenge for many students at the Downtown Brooklyn school, which admits students without considering their grades or test scores. But school officials say about three-quarters of the small school's first entering class is on track to spend a fourth year studying full-time at the New York City College of Technology, the high school's partner, free of charge. Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott attended this year's competition today, offering congratulations and consolations as students pushed their popsicle-stick bridges to the breaking point. Tension mounted as students, teachers, and supporters watched to see whether any bridges would bear more than last year's record 109 pounds. One bridge did: The winning team, Building Fanatics, loaded 114 pounds of geometry textbooks onto their structure before it collapsed. Stephon Stevens, a ninth-grader who came to City Poly from Explore Charter School, said the team guessed that moving popsicle sticks from the bottom to the top of the bridge design would make it stronger. Four of every five students at City Poly are boys, in keeping with a trend that cuts across many of the city's career and technical education schools.
August 4, 2011
DOE dealt large portion of funds to narrow achievement gap
One of the largest pots of money in the city's new initiative to aid black and Latino young men is going to the Department of Education. Of the initiative's $127 million price tag, $24 million will be used to study and develop the best practices of city high schools that have best prepared male minority students for college and work. Billionaire philanthropist George Soros will foot the bill for the three-year program, called the Expanded Success Initiative. The funding will allow the Department of Education to hire a team of research consultants to study 40 high schools with a track record of bridging the achievement gap for black and Latino male students. Josh Thomases, the DOE's deputy chief academic officer charged with coordinating the program, said the city had not yet identified the schools that would be studied. “We’re looking for schools with a high concentration of black and Latino boys, with high poverty and Title I funding, but with an evidence of success,” Thomases said. “We’re agnostic to what kind of school it is,” he added. “We’re looking at the schools that have had success graduating black and Latino boys at a high school level and expanding it to other schools." Thomases, citing a study published by Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation (MDRC) last year, said that he would look particularly close at small high schools in New York City, which have shown higher rates of graduation and credit accumulation.
August 3, 2011
Probe underway after staff blows whistle on illicit credit recovery
A Philip Randolph High School is under investigation for credit accumulation fraud. (Credit: NYC DOE school web site) A high school that posted suspicious swings in graduation rates in recent years is under investigation for giving students credits they didn’t earn. Teachers and other staff members at A. Philip Randolph High School said they blew the whistle after seeing administrators abuse a practice that allows students to quickly make up credits in classes that they previously failed. Department of Education officials said the Office of Special Investigations began probing A. Philip Randolph last month after Chancellor Dennis Walcott received several emails earlier this summer alleging illicit use of the practice, known as "credit recovery," to artificially improve the school's graduation numbers. After years of mediocre performance, the school’s graduation rate increased nearly 30 points two years ago and was one of the city’s highest. This year, with less than a week before graduation day, school administrators ordered guidance counselors to enroll all failing seniors into online credit recovery courses so that they could graduate on time, one of the counselors said. She said the courses were crammed into one or two days and often went unsupervised. When she and the school’s programming coordinators protested to administrators, they were rebuffed, the guidance counselor said. “I said to them, ‘That is not right,’” she said. “You’re asking us to do something unethical.”
August 1, 2011
In wake of national scandals, state is reviewing test security
New York State has launched a fast-moving process to tighten test security before it risks following Georgia, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey into cheating scandals. State Education Commissioner John King has convened a group to review "all aspects of the state's testing system," according to a statement from Jonathan Burman, a State Education Department spokesman. The group, which Deputy Commissioner Valerie Grey is leading, is planning to work quickly, Burman said: It was formed in mid-July and will announce a "series of measures" to ensure test integrity before the school year begins a month from now. The announcement comes days before the state is set to release this year's reading and math test scores and amid growing revelations about widespread cheating in Atlanta, Philadelphia, and New Jersey. It also follows mounting anxiety among state officials about whether schools' performance had been inflated: Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch said in February that New York wished to avoid becoming "the Enron of test scores, the Enron of graduation rates." Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott said he appreciated the state's efforts but emphasized that New York City has for years "gone above and beyond" state requirements when it comes to ensuring test integrity. “We welcome the state examining its standards, as it has always been its regulatory responsibility to ensure the reliability and security of state tests," he said in a statement.
July 29, 2011
Mulgrew: Mayor's tenure tone not conducive to evaluation talks
Far from living up to its promise, the city's tenure reform in fact amounts to a quota system for teacher evaluations, UFT President Michael Mulgrew said today. Mulgrew was responding to comments made by Mayor Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott during Bloomberg's weekly radio address this morning. They said they expect the number of tenure denials to rise next year. Mulgrew questioned how they could predict more denials when evaluations for teachers up for tenure next year have not yet happened. He said that Bloomberg's comments signal that the city has set up a quota system for teacher evaluations rather than using them as a tool to help educators improve. "If it's more about setting up a set of numbers for political reasons ... then what they’re doing is wrong," Mulgrew said. "If they're already predetermining they’re setting this up with quotas, that’s absurd." The number of teachers who receive poor ratings could change when an evaluation system mandated under state law goes into effect. That is supposed to happen in September, but first the union and the city must agree on the system's terms. Mulgrew said they are nowhere near an agreement, even after reaching a deal for 33 low-performing schools two weeks ago.
July 29, 2011
Mayor ratchets up his criticism of tenure as McCarthy-era relic
Mayor Bloomberg escalated his critique of teacher tenure on his weekly radio show this morning, calling tenure outdated and questioning whether it should even exist. Bloomberg was discussing the latest tenure data, which were released Wednesday and showed an all-time high number of teachers whose probation were extended rather than receiving tenure. He said he'd continue to comply with the laws that required him to award tenure, but wouldn't like it. "The state law has tenure, whether you like it or not. We have to work with that," Bloomberg said. "It may have been necessary in the McCarthy era or maybe even today at the university level. But in public education you’re not writing papers about things that are very controversial, which was the idea of tenure: to protect your ability to do that." Bloomberg launched the last school year with a pledge to overhaul the way tenure is granted, and he previously has criticized tenure as being too "automatic." But he has never called for an outright end to tenure; indeed, in a 2009 speech at the Center for American Progress, he declared, "let me be clear: We are not proposing an end to tenure."
July 27, 2011
Fewer teachers granted tenure this year, but denials hold steady
Percentage of Teachers Who Had Tenure Denied or Extended In a stark departure from tradition, more than 40 percent of city teachers up for tenure this year did not get it. Just over 5,200 teachers were up for tenure this year. Of them, 58 percent received tenure and 3 percent were denied it, effectively barring them from working in city schools. The remaining portion -- 39 percent -- had their probationary periods extended for another year. The number of extensions inched up in 2010 to 8 percent, but skyrocketed this year after the Department of Education revamped the tenure evaluation process in an effort to make the protection tougher to receive. Yet the rate of tenure denials actually fell slightly from last year, from about 3.3 percent in 2010 to 2.7 percent in 2011, or 151 teachers, despite Mayor Michael Bloomberg's insistence that the figures were the first step toward "ending tenure as we know it." The numbers, which Bloomberg touted at a press conference today, confirm anecdotal reports pointing to a sharp rise in the number of probation extensions under the new system. Before last year, that option was rarely used and the vast majority of teachers received tenure almost as a formality.
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