It’s been a tale of two school tours for MaryEllen Elia during the last few weeks of visits to New York City’s struggling schools.
Last month, the state education commissioner struck a harmonious tone with Chancellor Carmen Fariña during their tour of School of Diplomacy in the Bronx, where Fariña touted the school’s partnership with a nonprofit. Such partnerships are meant to bring new services into struggling schools, a key component of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s high-profile “Renewal” improvement program for 94 low-performing schools.
But the other half of the program — academics — have been slower to roll out, even as many of the schools face state takeover if they fail to post academic gains within the next two years. On Wednesday’s visit, Elia made it clear she was looking for evidence that the city is revamping what happens inside the schools’ classrooms.
At P.S. 298 in Brownsville, Fariña sought to provide Elia with some answers, highlighting a shift in writing instruction. But there was a noticeable disconnect between the writing on display and the kind of language skills measured by the state exams. After the tour, Elia and other state education officials applauded the school’s efforts, but said more improvement was needed.
“One of the things that we have to really focus on is reading and writing and all of those language arts skills,” Elia said during brief remarks at the end of the tour. “So, excellent work and more to go.”
While Fariña selected the school to visit in October, Elia insisted on picking the schools on Wednesday, which included an afternoon stop at a school in Queens. Both schools are among more than more than 60 schools that have two years or less to show improvement or risk getting turned over to an outside operator, a state-led program that Elia oversees.
With a gaggle of reporters and other education officials and staff in tow, Elia and Fariña stopped by classrooms to observe new teachers and to scrutinize student work. Elia took note of the many personal essays and memoirs that lined the hallways, whose topics ranged from pet cats to trips to the beach and Chucky Cheese (titled: All About Chucky Cheeses), but emphasized that “that kind of very specific writing” should not be the only type students practice.
The student work on display at P.S. 298 is symbolic of the instructional shift that Fariña has gradually overseen during her nearly two years as chancellor. Fariña has been sending teachers in the Renewal program to Teachers College for training sessions on its writing program. That “writing workshop” approach is often associated with students writing personal essays about their own lives.
“You’re having kids work individually to get to their own personal best,” Fariña said as she flipped through fourth grade essays that were pinned on a hallway bulletin board. “And it’s not about everybody being evaluated the same way.”
But that approach is the subject of a debate over how to teach literacy in the age of the Common Core, which pushes students to closely interpret texts rather than write about their own experiences. Critics have argued that method gives students too little guidance, which they say is especially important for low-income students who typically enter school with less language skills. The majority of students are low-income in the city’s 94 Renewal schools, where reading proficiency is in the single digits.
Regent Kathleen Cashin, the former Brooklyn superintendent who once oversaw P.S. 298, said she leaned toward the more structured teaching approach, especially for struggling schools in the city’s Renewal program and under state receivership.
“I really look for structure because structure in the poorest schools is the underpinning that allows good pedagogy to occur,” said Cashin, who accompanied Elia and Fariña on the visit.
This week marks the one-year anniversary of de Blasio’s announcement that 94 of the city’s lowest-ranked schools would be corralled into an ambitious improvement program. The program promised to flood schools with resources for both social services to academic support, but the city has moved slower to implement changes to the classroom.
P.S. 298 in District 23 landed in the Renewal program after years of posting low test scores, dwindling enrollment, and unsteady school leadership. Situated in the middle of one of New York City’s poorest neighborhoods, students are exposed to violence and poverty that can cause trauma and seep into the classroom.
“PTSD in Ocean Hill-Brownsville is very real,” said Mauriciere de Govia, the district superintendent.
De Govia and Principal Jonathan Dill, who’s led the school for five years, pointed to several academic changes underway at the school. In addition to five more hours per week of learning time, Dill said he was able to recruit stronger and more experienced teachers to come work at the school because of state-funded performance bonuses that they are now eligible for. And de Govia said her empowered role as district superintendent has allowed her to provide more direction and coaching for Dill.
After the visit, Fariña defended the city’s pace of rollout of academic reforms at Renewal schools. She said she worried that teachers and principals had grown weary of rapid changes as part of the Common Core implementation and decided to only change writing instruction this year.
“We did not want to shift everything overnight because I think that would have been too much for teachers to absorb,” Fariña said.