Students exited John Dewey High School today where people said scheduling issues were disrupting their learning.
PHOTO CREDIT: Patrick Wall

Most years at John Dewey High School, scheduling mistakes were scattered and quickly corrected, students say. But this year, they say, entire programs are wrong. And they say that so far, little has been fixed.

“All of our schedules are messed up, and a lot of the classes we want to take we can’t,” said Darlene Tinsley, a senior at the Brooklyn high school.

“I passed my classes in summer school, and they gave me all sophomore classes. I’m supposed to be a junior,” said Debra Galindez. “I heard everything was done in mid-August and they didn’t really look at anyone’s transcripts.”

Over at High School of Graphic Communication Arts in Hell’s Kitchen, Jamie Striharsky, a senior studying photography, said disorganization reigned on the first day of school, with many students scheduled for classes they did not request — including one calculus class with so many students it filled three classrooms.

“There were 90 something kids,” she said in a phone interview last week. “As of now, I don’t even think there’s a teacher for the class. there was a security guard, and to be honest they were just like, ‘let’s move the kids out, the first 30 come here, the next 30, come here.'”

It’s not what the city planned for Dewey and Graphics, two of dozens of struggling schools the city had selected to undergo an overhaul process known as “turnaround.” Starting in January, Department of Education officials threw themselves into revamping the schools’ names, staffs, and programs. But after an arbitrator ruled that the city’s hiring plans violated its contract with the teachers union, many changes were reversed or revised.

Last week, the schools opened for the new year with their old names intact but some new features after months of confusion. For example, Dewey lost a handful of teachers, including at least two guidance counselors, and several classes ballooned in size, students said. Some students and teachers said the changes have made September’s regular challenges much more acute — and they worried the issues could set a negative tone for the rest of the year.

Some were especially alarmed by a 52-page staff handbook with a host of mandates that got distributed by Kathleen Elvin, who took over for Barry Fried as Dewey’s principal in February. The handbook tells teachers they must revamp their bulletin boards monthly and make phone calls to all students who are absent, in addition to fulfilling many other responsibilities. Teachers union officials said they were reviewing the handbook to make sure that all of the mandates are permissible under its contract with the city.

The Department of Education’s training for principals of the would-be turnaround schools focused on how to build better teaching staffs and shake up school cultures that weren’t conducive to student achievement. Elvin did not immediately respond to requests for comment today, but teachers at Dewey said that more attention should have been given to student schedules so that the first weeks of the year wouldn’t be lost to tumult.

“It seems like there was no preparation for programming the school,” said one teacher, who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of reprisal.

Not all of the turnaround schools reported problems. At Long Island City High School, programming hasn’t been a problem, according to Geraldine Caulfield, a culinary arts teacher who opposed the overhaul plans. Last year, the school struggled to place students in the proper classes for months, resolving programs only in November.

“As far as I know, we’ve had none of these problems,” she said. “Everybody’s coming in with a new attitude. In a meeting today [administrators] said we would only have to make minor program changes.”

And Chancellor Dennis Walcott said that scheduling issues were usual in the early day of a new school year.

“It is unfair to a school to say that if a student or several students have a programming glitch then there are massive problems,” he told reporters tonight. “Within the fifth day, you’re going to hear changes. We have until October 31st to finalize our registers because you have an ebb and flow of students in and out of the schools, and it is a constant challenge. It goes with the territory.”