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Exploring Our Options: Transforming Struggling Schools in NYC

September 26, 2011

Zakiyah Ansari, CEJ/AQE

“Closing schools cannot be the only option,” said Zakiyah Ansari, parent leader with the Coalition for Educational Justice and the opening speaker at the Conference on Effective Alternatives to School Closings. 200 students, parents, community advocates, teachers, principals, and elected officials gathered Saturday at The Bank Street College of Education to explore a variety of options to transform struggling schools and discuss next steps to implement these changes.

Dr. Charles Payne from the University of Chicago provided opening remarks focusing on how to unleash the great potential already in our students, teachers, school leaders, and communities. Payne said establishing and maintaining trust is a crucial part of unleashing this potential, but district policies and procedures often hinder the ability of school leaders to build trust with community members. Payne noted, “the way in which school closings are being done right now across the country is unacceptable.”

Dr. Charles Payne

Parents, students, and community members agree. In fact, they created this first-ever conference in response to the need to find better solutions. The conference organized by the Coalition for Educational Justice, Urban Youth Collaborative, and Alliance for Quality Education, featured numerous workshops and lunchtime discussion groups with school leaders, parents and students from school districts across the country who have successfully transformed struggling schools.

In a morning session, Ann Clark, Chief Academic Officer of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and Jesse Register, Superintendent of Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, discussed how school districts can create the conditions for school transformation. Register shared best practices from Nashville including how he has reduced bureaucracy in his district and focused on engaging all major stakeholders in school reform. Clark shared how her district has concentrated resources and expertise in the highest-need schools and deployed teams of the most expert teachers, principals and district staff to turn those schools around.

During the panel question period, Deputy Chancellor Marc Sternberg of the NYC Department of Education admitted that school districts and schools generally don’t do parent engagement well but he stated the DOE is committed to an open dialogue. As Register mentioned, comprehensive reform requires dealing with all areas of weakness at the same time. If parent engagement is a weakness, how can our district leaders, principals, teachers, parents, and students overcome this and join together to improve our schools?

In a lunch discussion, Barbara Gambino from New Visions for Public Schools and Edward Hui from NYC Department of Education spoke with parents, teachers, and community members about their experiences with the new restart and transformation in NYC schools. The group discussed how the process can affect students; some students have asked if their school is being shut down because the children didn’t do their work. There is a need to make sure students know a school closing, phase out, restart, etc is not students’ fault, and that the goal is to provide them with a better education.

Monique Lindsay, CEJ

The lunch group also discussed the importance of reaching out to all constituencies and ensuring parents are included in discussions and made aware of school changes. Many great ideas were introduced such as providing separate and specific parent engagement trainings for elementary, middle, and high school parents. Monique Lindsay, CEJ member and parent of a student at a transformation school (William Grady High School) who serves as Vice President on the Citywide Council on High Schools in Brooklyn, remarked, “it’s so enlightening as a parent to be part of a conference that gives us enough information to move forward.”

Chancellor Merryl Tisch, Assistant Commissioner Ira Schwartz, Warren Simmons ED of Annenberg Inst. for School Reform

Other packed lunchtime discussion groups focused on raising achievement for Black and Latino boys, led by Charles Payne, and making school transformation work, led by Advocates for Children. Meanwhile, Chancellor Merryl Tisch and Assistant Commissioner Ira Schwartz spoke to about 100 conference participants about state policies for school transformation.

Parents and community leaders can move forward toward comprehensive school reform inspired and enriched by the knowledge of the many speakers and leaders who attended the conference. Two New York City principals with a strong record of success, Nyree Dixon from PS 12 in Brownsville and Deirdre DeAngelis from New Drop High School shared their strategies and advice in a session on successful school transformation. Both speakers highlighted the need for a thorough self-evaluation, finding and utilizing each person’s strengths, and continually assessing student data to plan future changes. DeAngelis brought up the key question of what happens when a student fails as a litmus test of he current state of the school. If a student fails a test, does the teacher offer extra help, assign more work, and ignore it? If a student fails a class does the school notify the parents, offer a way to make up the class, tutoring to help retake the class, or continue ignoring it?

Other workshops included a conversation on sustaining funding for school transformation, led by Assemblywoman Cathy Nolan (Chair of the Education Committee) and Councilmember Robert Jackson (Chair of the Education Committee). Also, on fixing schools without firing teachers or principals, led by John Simmons, the Director of Strategic Learning Initiatives in Chicago and other experts from across the country. Ocynthia Williams, CEJ member and organizer with Highbridge Community Life Center explained that this conference is the first step in a greater movement for reform. A working group of principals, educators, parents, students and representatives of school partner organizations will take the information from the conference and create a set of policy recommendations for school transformation.

In the closing remarks, Warren Simmons, Executive Director of the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University, reminded attendees, “We have values and beliefs we have to fight for in the next election. Our job is to make them earn our votes by changing the direction of their policy.”

Taffy Sourov, an Urban Youth Collaborative leader, closed the conference and rallied the crowd behind the need to unite all our voices and make changes in our schools now. Taffy stated, “we will only move together through unity…this is the first time I’m coming together with parents, teachers, community members. I feel a new power. A revolution is being born with al of you. Think about the part you play in revolutionizing our schools. It only takes one stone to cause a huge ripple.” How will you revolutionize our schools today?

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