The Bronx is learning

Second graders at Icahn Charter School 2 perform a play based on The Odyssey at the end-of-year Core Knowledge Assembly Program, July 2015.

The Bronx is Learning, writes Charles Sahm in Education Next.  In New York City’s poorest borough, three charter networks are thriving. The common factor is a coherent, content-rich curriculum.

Next to the controversial Success Academy and South Bronx Classical, Icahn is the city’s top-scoring charter school network.

Icahn’s superintendent, Jeff Litt, is a fan of the Core Knowledge approach. All his K-8 students study history, science, geography, literature and the arts, writes Sahm. “I toured one art class where students were learning the finer points of drawing the human face from an artist. In another, students were practicing ballroom dancing.”

About half of Icahn’s English language arts curriculum is based on the Core Knowledge sequence; the other half is developed by teachers and principals. Decoding skills are emphasized in early grades, but as early as kindergarten, students are simultaneously exposed to lively collections of stories, poetry, and fables. English instruction comprises guided reading, read-aloud, shared text, and independent reading.

. . . In one 3rd-grade class I visited at Icahn 3, the teacher was reading the Roald Dahl novel Matilda (an above-grade-level text) aloud while students followed along with their own copies of the book. The class read a chapter together each day, discussed the book, answered comprehension questions, and practiced writing from the viewpoint of various characters in the novel. The teacher hung a new poster in the classroom daily, containing vocabulary from that day’s chapter, words like “diabolical” and “indelible.” At semester’s end, students were rewarded with a trip to see the musical Matilda on Broadway.

Icahn tends to hire more experienced teachers than other charters, writes Sahm. Class size is limited to 18 students. The attrition and suspension rate is much lower than in district-run schools and the atmosphere is “warm.”

Schools create haven for troubled kids

In the impoverished South Bronx, an elementary charter school designed for children in foster care is thriving, writes Richard Whitmire on The 74.

At Mott Haven Academy, which opened in 2008, a third of students live in foster homes, another third receive “protective services” and another third live in the gritty neighborhood. About a fifth stay in homeless shelters.

Credit: Richard Whitmire

Credit: Richard Whitmire

Despite family instability, Haven students outperform students at the traditional school across the street, writes Whitmire. Ninety-five percent of students come back for a second year.

Class size is limited to 25 with two teachers in every class. The school also has two behavior interventionists, two social workers, a counselor and a special education specialist.

Principal Jessica Nauiokas hires experienced teachers.

“We need our teachers to empathize or they are not going to be able to educate this population,” said (New York Foundling CEO Bill) Baccaglini. “But the minute they become the social worker we lose the class. They are there to be teachers. So they have to empathize, not sympathize, or we’ll never move these young scholars down the road.”

Whitmire wonders why the school has so few visitors eager to learn from its success.

In Brooklyn, P.S. 446 Principal Meghan Dunn structured the school to handle her students’ “myriad physical and emotional needs,” Meredith Kolodner writes in Schoolbook.

More students are reading at grade level and fewer are getting into trouble.

At the heart of many success stories is an “uncommon principal,” writes Larry Cuban.

Principal Jack Spatola has led P.S. 172 in Brooklyn for 31 years, building a “strong, stable staff” and a “culture that prizes both student and adult learning.” His students — most are Latino and poor — are high achievers, reports the New York Times.

“But it may not be scaleable,” warns Cuban.

Boys (and girls) on the bus

Bronx high school kids riding home on the bus on the last day of school are “impressively wise, amazingly clueless, casually mean, and extremely sweet” in The We And The I, writes Alexander Russo.

The movie, which stars teenagers recruited from a Bronx community center rather than actors, “neither scolds nor sentimentalizes its young characters,”  according to the New York Times review. “Instead the film invites viewers, of whatever age, to immerse themselves in the chaos, glee and heartache of a long ride home on the last day of school.”

Bronx students can’t get English, math classes

Students are begging for math and English classes at the Bronx High School for Medical Science, a magnet school. While honors students can take enough classes to graduate after three years, juniors in the non-honors track are being told they’ll be able to make up core classes — eventually — and earn enough credits to graduate.

Two juniors, Eddie Duarte and Kavoy Mayne, met with a guidance counselor, who also insisted that the school was short on teachers, the students said.

Duarte even asked his wrestling coach, who teaches math and science at another school in the Taft Educational Campus where Medical Science is located, if the coach could teach him trigonometry.

“Our SATs are coming up,” Eddie said. “I don’t understand how we’re supposed to be ready for those without math or English.”

The school employs five English teachers and six math teachers for its 460 students, which should be enough, says the school district. Do they have tiny classes for the honors students?

Bronx teachers make house calls

Before school starts, teams of sixth-grade teachers at a public middle and high school meet new students and parents at home, reports the New York Times. Dressed in his new school uniform, Christopher Lopez signs a contract promising to be “respectful to everyone” and to “ask for help when I need it and offer help to others.”

The can’t-fail school

New York City’s top-ranked school is under investigation for cooking the books, reports the New York Times. Theater Arts Production Company School, a middle and high school located in a low-income Bronx neighborhood,  graduated 94 percent of seniors, more than 30 points above the citywide average. The school earned a near-perfect score in “student progress,” based partly on course credits earned by students.  The school’s no-failure policy requires teachers to pass all students who attend class, regardless of their performance; no more than 5 percent of students can get D’s.

In practice, some teachers said, even students who missed most of the school days earned credits. They also said students were promoted with over 100 absences a year; the principal, rather than a teacher, granted class credits needed for graduation; and credit was awarded for classes the school does not even offer.

The school’s former Advanced Placement calculus teacher said he was pressured to pass students who didn’t deserve it.

Last year, every student passed the class even though each received a 1 — the lowest score — on the Advanced Placement test, in part because they had not taken precalculus, he said. Only one had passed the Math B Regents, a minimal standard.

Even some students complained to the Times about the no-failure policy.

Some said that it sometimes hurt their motivation to know that a classmate would pass even if he did not come to class. One said that his current average was a 30 — but that he could bring it up to a 95 with a few days of work — and that teachers sometimes handed out examples of student work that he copied from.

“You would have to be an epic failure to fail at this school,” said Deja Sawyers, a 10th grader. When students do not do their work, “there’s no consequences,” she said, adding that she did not get homework.

Another student, Luisa Cruz, said, “Everybody always passes; it’s really rare to fail.”

“It makes no sense,” she said. “You’ve got to learn from your mistakes.”

The college acceptance rate for graduates is 100 percent, but students’ SAT scores are low and many end up in remedial classes in college.

College acceptance is meaningless: It includes students who go to open-admissions or not-very-selective colleges, take a few remedial classes and drop out.  Sending graduates to college to retake eighth-grade English and math is nothing to brag about.