turnaround time

‘Everything you got’: How a Bronx principal is trying to restore hope to a once-troubled school, one student at a time

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Principal Asya Johnson chats with students during an AP class.

At 12:30 p.m. on a recent afternoon at Longwood Preparatory Academy in the South Bronx, Principal Asya Johnson was scheduled for three meetings at once.

So as she hurried out of her office and descended the stairs — picking up a few discarded candy wrappers along the way — she settled on a classroom where teachers were trying to figure out what concepts students had missed on the English Regents test, an exam students must pass to graduate.

“Usually I’m not in three places,” she quipped. “I’m in two.”

Johnson is a no-nonsense Philadelphia native short enough to be mistaken for a student. The 36-year-old is also responsible for breathing new life into Longwood Prep, a long-struggling school formerly known as Banana Kelly High School. She’s under intense pressure to perform: The school is part of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s $568 million “Renewal” program, which pours extra resources into troubled schools to spark a revival — but threatens to close those that falter.

When she arrived after a stint at a Harlem charter school, Longwood Prep had one of the highest dropout rates in the city, low staff morale, and had churned through four principals in five years — one of whom was doused with pepper spray in the school’s cafeteria and was later shot with a BB pellet. (Johnson’s immediate predecessor, whom she replaced in January 2016, abruptly resigned after reportedly fabricating reports of teacher observations.)

It’s too early to know whether she can transform the school. But schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña praised her on a recent visit, and some of her colleagues say she has already instilled a new sense of order and discipline.

Sometimes, that’s through a tough-love approach: pulling a distracted student’s headphones out of his ears or calling out dress-code violators in the hallway. Yet she’s also happy to offer students one of the fresh shirts she stashes in a cabinet, or invite them into her office to vent.

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Johnson settles into her desk before students arrive on a recent Thursday morning.

“She has that firm hand with the kid glove on the outside,” said Joahan Suarez, who works for a nonprofit embedded in the school. “Not too many people can pull that off.”

Crucially, many staffers say they support her vision rather than seeing her as just the latest in a rotating cast of leaders. Johnson’s office is lined with notes they wrote her. “This school is not the same school it was,” one reads.

Last week, Chalkbeat shadowed Johnson — from sunrise to sunset — to see what the job of turning around a struggling school looks like. Here are highlights from her day.

6:55 a.m. — Moment of peace

When Johnson settles into her desk, the streetlights outside have just started to flicker off and the halls are silent.

Johnson’s days are typically packed, a feature of running a school with an urgent to-do list, including: convince parents that it is no longer a school of last resort and improve its low graduation rate, which was 50 percent this year (according to preliminary figures) — an increase from 2016, yet still far below last year’s citywide rate of 73 percent and the 59 percent average among Renewal schools.

She leaves her Bronx home and arrives at her desk by 7 a.m. most days. She rarely walks out before 6 p.m.

She relishes the early morning as a time to catch up on emails and paperwork, since she spends most nights catching up with her three sons and husband (who’s an assistant principal at a different school) and doing assignments for a doctoral program in educational leadership.

This morning, she’s reviewing her notes from recent classroom observations that will help determine teacher ratings, which she enters in an online database despite a spotty internet connection.

But it isn’t long before the stillness in her office is broken. Her staff has started to arrive, which means she’s in troubleshooting mode.

One teacher drops in to report that she wasn’t able to print out students’ reading levels, which she planned to share during parent conferences. Another teacher, locked out of her classroom, asks to borrow a set of keys. And Suarez, the community school director, stops by to ask whether Johnson would consider adding a law-and-government program to entice prospective students.

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Johnson corrals a student between classes.

Next, Johnson meets with the school’s director of recruitment and retention, Enrique Lizardi, who spent his Sunday promoting the school at a Bronx high-school fair. Over the past five years, the school’s population has dwindled from 423 students to just over 200 — a slight uptick from last year. Still, the school must add students if it wants to survive: The city has shuttered several schools in recent years that it deemed too small to sustain.

For now, the pair agree to contact the guidance counselor of every student who expressed interest at the high school fair over the weekend. Her team has already peppered local bodegas and restaurants with fliers advertising Longwood Prep, which she argues is completely different than its precursor. But convincing parents is another matter.

“How do you get people to understand that this isn’t Banana Kelly with a new name?” she says later.

9:25 a.m. — ‘Glows and grows’

“This unit we’re learning how to write argument essays,” teacher Grace Fauquet booms over a group of seniors in her Advanced Placement writing class as Johnson slips into an empty student desk.

One of her greatest responsibilities is coaching her teachers, many of whom are new to the school. (In 2016, all 25 teachers were forced to reapply for their jobs — just 12 returned.) She helps them improve their craft by regularly visiting their classrooms and offering feedback, even beyond what is required by the official evaluation process.

After the lesson, she’ll send Fauquet — one of the school’s rising stars — an email with “glows, grows and next steps.”

Fauquet arrived in 2014 with just a few weeks of training through Teach For America, the nonprofit that places recent college graduates in high-poverty schools like Longwood Prep. That same year, Mayor de Blasio named the former Banana Kelly as one of nearly 100 low-achieving schools in his much-publicized Renewal program — a painful acknowledgement of the school’s challenges, but also a promise to send it relief. For Fauquet, that meant a new instructional coach provided through the program, which she credits with helping her survive her tumultuous first years of teaching.

For this lesson, Fauquet has arranged students in roughly 10 pairs and tasked them with researching and writing short presentations that explain different logical fallacies, such as ad hominem attacks or circular reasoning.

Before long, Johnson is weaving throughout the room, clipboard in hand, bending down to speak to students. “Did you take it right from the text or did you paraphrase?” she asks a young woman who appeared to have copied a definition verbatim. “Make sure you paraphrase.”

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Johnson observes teacher Grace Fauquet (left) during her AP writing class.

After the lesson, Johnson says she’s happy with what she saw, but plans to advise Fauquet to get her students to question each other during class — an engaging and subtle way for the teacher to gauge students’ understanding. She plans to return for another observation in two weeks, when she hopes to see tweaks based on her feedback.

“I’m not trying to catch people out there,” she says. But “if we’re not in classrooms, and just give them professional development and then come in to evaluate them — that’s not support.”

2:00 p.m. — Searching for “gray-area kids”

None of Johnson’s reforms will make a difference if students never make it to school.

So after quickly polishing off a microwaveable lunch in her office, she sets off for a meeting where her staff is discussing what’s keeping certain students out of class — and coming up with solutions.

In recent years, the school has struggled with high rates of absenteeism: Roughly 57 percent of students missed 10 percent or more of last school year — down from a crippling 75 percent in 2015. Chronic absenteeism doesn’t just have a detrimental effect on student learning, it also is linked to higher dropout and incarceration rates. It’s an issue education officials have identified across Renewal schools, and is a thermometer for the overall health of a school.

At a long rectangular table, a group of staffers led by teacher Cristina Abellas is trying to marshal the school’s resources to intervene with one student at a time.

Using new software that lets schools quickly identify chronically absent students, the educators take turns explaining why specific students have missed school: medical emergencies, court appearances, mental-health crises.

As in many of her meetings, Johnson participates without running the show. She’s delegated responsibility for overseeing certain meetings and programs to teachers who take on the extra work in exchange for a salary bump and slightly lighter course load.  

Johnson listens as the staffers describe what they’ve tried in each case and what steps should come next — including home visits, calling parents into the school for meetings, or calls to parole officers. One teacher described her strategy for working with a student whose absences seemed to stem from depression.

“I’m sharing poetry with her,” the teacher says, “trying to express her feelings in a positive way.”

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Cristina Abellas (center), community school director Joahan Suarez (right), and Johnson at an attendance meeting

Next, Johnson asks the group to identify one “gray-area kid” from each grade: Students on the precipice of chronic absenteeism who could thrive if the right adults gave them enough attention. It was an experiment in all-hands-on-deck crisis prevention.

“Everything you got,” she tells the group as they start suggesting names, “with every single one of these kids.”

3:18 p.m. — Is it working?

As the school day winds down, Johnson summons a small team to her office to tackle a crucial question hanging over many of the school’s turnaround efforts: How to tell whether they’re working?

Johnson, Abellas, the assistant principal, and a staffer from Replications, the school’s nonprofit partner, sit around a cramped conference table trying to articulate exactly what the attendance program’s goals are and how to describe them in a measureable way — a sometimes gruelling discussion at the end of a long day.

“We’re getting somewhere,” says Replications program manager John Elwell after the conversation stalls for a moment. “Let’s not get discouraged.”

During a recent visit, state officials asked the school to begin documenting the impact of social-emotional programs offered with help from Replications. The programs run the gamut from hip-hop therapy sessions, where students use the school’s recording studio to express feelings that can be hard to convey in traditional counseling, to intake interviews where Replications staffers assess students’ health needs.

More than an hour after the group started trying to list realistic objectives for the program, their work is still not finished. But they’ve made some progress and agree to meet again soon.

Afterwards, Johnson says goodbye to some staffers who’d stopped by, checks her email, and gathers up her belongings to leave — nearly 12 hours after she stepped into her office that morning.

She acknowledges that there’s still lots of work ahead, and that change can be slow. But she plans to stay long enough for the baby steps to turn into strides.

“If I could retire from this school and this job that would be my dream,” she says, the light fading outside. “I want to be able to say: ‘Here’s a model to turn around a school.’”

Indiana's 2018 legislative session

Indiana’s plan to measure high schools with a college prep test is on hold for two years

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Thanks to last-minute legislative wrangling, it’s unclear what test Indiana high schoolers will take for the next two years to measure what they have learned in school.

Lawmakers were expected to approve a House bill proposing Indiana use a college entrance exam starting in 2019 as yearly testing for high schoolers, at the same time state works to replace its overall testing system, ISTEP. But the start date for using the SAT or ACT was pushed back from 2019 to 2021, meaning it’s unclear how high schoolers will be judged for the next two years.

This is the latest upheaval in testing as the state works to replace ISTEP in favor of the new ILEARN testing system, a response to years of technical glitches and scoring problems. While a company has already proposed drafting exams for measuring the performance of Indiana students, officials now need to come up with a solution for the high school situation. ILEARN exams for grades 3-8 are still set to begin in 2019.

“Our next steps are to work with (the state board) to help inform them as they decide the plan for the next several years,” said Adam Baker, spokesman for the Indiana Department of Education. “We take concerns seriously and we will continue doing all we can to support schools to manage the transition well.”

The delay in switching from the 10th grade ISTEP to college entrance exams for measuring high school students was proposed Wednesday night as lawmakers wrapped up the 2018 legislative session. Rep. Bob Behning, the bill’s author, said the change came out of a desire to align the testing plan with recommendations on high school tests from a state committee charged with rewriting Indiana’s graduation requirements.

It’s just the latest road bump since the legislature voted last year to scrap ISTEP and replace it with ILEARN, a plan that originally included a computer-adaptive test for grades 3-8 and end-of-course exams for high-schoolers in English, algebra and biology. Indiana is required by the federal government to test students each year in English and math, and periodically, in science.

The Indiana Department of Education started carrying out the plan to move to ILEARN over the summer and eventually selected the American Institutes for Research to write the test, a company that helped create the Common-Core affiliated Smarter balanced test. AIR’s proposal said they were prepared to create tests for elementary, middle and high school students.

Then, the “graduation pathways” committee, which includes Behning and Sen. Dennis Kruse, the Senate Education Committee chairman, upended the plan by suggesting the state instead use the SAT or ACT to test high schoolers. The committee said the change would result in a yearly test that has more value to students and is something they can use if they plan to attend college. Under their proposal, the change would have come during the 2021-22 school year.

When lawmakers began the 2018 session, they proposed House Bill 1426, which had a 2019 start. This bill passed out of both chambers and the timeline was unchanged until Wednesday.

In the meantime, the Indiana Department of Education and the Indiana State Board of Education must decide what test high schoolers will take in 2019 and 2020 and how the state as a whole will transition from an Indiana-specific 10th grade ISTEP exam to a college entrance exam.

It’s not clear what approach state education officials will take, but one option is to go forward with AIR’s plan to create high school end-of-course exams. The state will already need a U.S. Government exam, which lawmakers made an option for districts last year, and likely will need one for science because college entrance exams include little to no science content. It could make sense to move ahead with English and math as well, though it will ultimately be up to the state board.

Some educators and national education advocates have raised concerns about whether an exam like the SAT or ACT is appropriate for measuring schools, though 14 states already do.

Jeff Butts, superintendent of Wayne Township, told state board members last week that using the college entrance exams seemed to contradict the state’s focus on students who go straight into the workforce and don’t plan to attend college. And a report from Achieve, a national nonprofit that helps states work on academic standards and tests, cautioned states against using the exams for state accountability because they weren’t designed to measure how well students have mastered state standards.

“The danger in using admissions tests as accountability tests for high school is that many high school teachers will be driven to devote scarce course time to middle school topics, water down the high school content they are supposed to teach in mathematics, or too narrowly focus on a limited range of skills in (English),” the report stated.

House Bill 1426 would also combine Indiana’s four diplomas into a single diploma with four “designations” that mirror current diploma tracks. In addition, it would change rules for getting a graduation waiver and create an “alternate diploma” for students with severe special needs.The bill would also allow the Indiana State Board of Education to consider alternatives to Algebra 2 as a graduation requirement and eliminates the requirement that schools give the Accuplacer remediation test.

It next heads to Gov. Eric Holcomb’s desk to be signed into law.

Keep Out

What’s wrong with auditing all of Colorado’s education programs? Everything, lawmakers said.

Students at DSST: College View Middle School work on a reading assignment during an English Language Development class (Photo By Andy Cross / The Denver Post).

State Rep. Jon Becker pitched the idea as basic good governance. The state auditor’s office examines all sorts of state programs, but it never looks at education, the second largest expenditure in Colorado’s budget and a sector that touches the lives of hundreds of thousands of children. So let the auditor take a good, long look and report back to the legislature on which programs are working and which aren’t.

The State Board of Education hated this idea. So did Democrats. And Republicans. The House Education Committee voted 12-0 this week to reject Becker’s bill, which would have required a systematic review of all educational programs enacted by the legislature and in place for at least six years. Even an amendment that would have put the state board in the driver’s seat couldn’t save it.

As he made his case, Becker, a Republican from Fort Morgan in northeastern Colorado, was careful not to name any specific law he would like to see changed.

“I don’t want people to say, ‘Oh, he’s coming after my ox,’” he told the House Education Committee this week. “I know how this works. And that’s not the intent of this bill. It’s to look at all programs.”

But members of the committee weren’t buying it.

State Rep. Alec Garnett, a Denver Democrat, pressed school board members who testified in favor of the bill to name a law or program they were particularly excited to “shed some light on.” If there’s a law that’s a problem, he asked, wouldn’t it make more sense to drill down just on that law?

They tried to demur.

“I feel like you’re trying to get us to say, we really want you to go after 191 or we really want you to go after charter schools,” said Cathy Kipp, a school board member in the Poudre School District who also serves on the board of the Colorado Association of School Boards. “That’s not what this is about.”

Kipp said committee members seemed to be “scared that if their pet programs get looked at, they’ll be eliminated. Why be scared? Shouldn’t we want these programs to be looked at?”

But proponents’ own testimony seemed to suggest some potential targets, including Senate Bill 191, Colorado’s landmark teacher effectiveness law.

As Carrie Warren-Gully, president of the school boards association, argued for the benefits of an independent evaluation of education programs, she offered up an example: The schedules of administrators who have to evaluate dozens of teachers under the law are more complicated than “a flight plan at DIA,” and districts have to hire additional administrators just to manage evaluations, cutting into the resources available for students, she said.

The debate reflected ongoing tensions between the state and school districts over Colorado’s complex system for evaluating schools and teachers and holding them accountable for student achievement. The systematic review bill was supported by the Colorado Association of School Boards, the Colorado Association of School Executives, and the Colorado Rural Schools Alliance.

Lawmakers repeatedly told school officials that if they have problems with particular parts of existing legislation, they should come to them for help and will surely find allies.

Exasperated school officials responded by pointing to the past failure of legislation that would have tweaked aspects of evaluations or assessments — but the frustration was mutual.

“Just because people don’t agree with one specific approach doesn’t mean people aren’t willing to come to the table,” said committee chair Brittany Pettersen, a Lakewood Democrat.

There were other concerns, including the possibility that this type of expansive evaluation would prove expensive and create yet another bureaucracy.

“When have we ever grown government to shrink it?” asked state Rep. Paul Lundeen, a Monument Republican. “There’s a paradox here.”

And state Rep. James Wilson, a Salida Republican who is also a former teacher and school superintendent, questioned whether the auditor’s office has the expertise to review education programs. He also asked what standard would be applied to evaluate programs that are implemented differently in more than 170 school districts across the state.

“If it’s effective more often than not, will they keep it?” Wilson asked. “If it doesn’t work in a third of them, it’s gone?”

State Board of Education members had similar questions when they decided earlier this year that this bill was a bad idea. Many of Colorado’s education laws don’t have clear measures of success against which their performance can be evaluated.

The READ Act, for example, stresses the importance of every child learning to read well in early elementary school and outlines the steps that schools have to take to measure reading ability and provide interventions to help students who are falling behind their peers.

But how many children need to improve their reading and by how much for the READ Act to be deemed effective or efficient? That’s not outlined in the legislation.

Proponents of the bill said outside evaluators could identify best practices and spread them to other districts, but state board members said they already monitor all of these programs on an ongoing basis and already produce thousands of pages of reports on each of these programs that go to the legislature every year. In short, they say they’re on the case.

“The state board, I can assure you, are very devoted and intent to make sure that we follow, monitor, and watch the progress of any programs that go through our department and make sure they’re enacted in the best way possible within the schools,” board member Jane Goff said.