Call Turnaround Possible
Tilden Teachers Bid To Revamp School
By MEREDITH KOLODNER
(The Chief, June 29, 2007)
Teachers at Tilden High School who are fighting the planned phase-out of their school may be allowed to convert to a charter school or form a new one, but they will be swimming against the tide of small schools.
'Create a Community'"The idea is to create a community," said Nancy Miller, an art Teacher at Tilden. "It is a medium-sized, student-centered school with the excitement and traditions of a large school, and the personal focus and academic attention of a small school."
The Teachers and Principal Diane Verano say that the Tilden community, which is 92 percent black, with a large Caribbean population and about 10 percent not proficient in English, needs a holistic approach to learning. They are setting up four academies that could each accommodate about 250 students. The academies will be buttressed by after-school classes for students who are not succeeding during the day, extensive counseling and peer mediation services and bilingual classes in Creole. But the school is running out of time. Next year it will not admit a ninth grade class, and each year the school will shrink until this year's ninth graders graduate. The two new schools can admit up to 108 students into their first ninth grade classes and will grow every year. But at full capacity, the two schools combined will not come close to Tilden's total student body, which was better than 2,300 last September. The change has prompted Teachers to question where the future ninth graders in the neighborhood will go, since the last three years' incoming classes had more than 800 students.
Teachers were hoping that they might be able to go the way of Columbus High School, which was slated to be phased out but was "phased down" instead, based on a model put together by its educators.
DOE: Won't 'Phase Down'"Tilden is phasing out," said DOE spokeswoman Melody Meyer. "There is no possibility that it will phase down, but we have been talking to staff about a new school proposal that would be in the Tilden building, and we will consider their plan."
DOE officials point to "20 years of failure," low test scores and a graduation rate of 43 percent last year as their reason for phase-out. But Teachers say the new Principal, who is well-respected and has been making changes, is only in her second year and has not been given a chance to turn the school around. Ms. Verano declined to comment, and some educators said she has seemed determined not to antagonize DOE officials.
The Teachers also point to less-than-ideal working conditions to help explain the school's problems. "What kind of message do you send to kids when you don't give them books?" asked Jessica Simonian, who has been teaching social studies for seven years. She said that she had about 35 to 40 books for her 150 global history students this year.
The school also didn't use an automated parental notification system until Ms. Verano showed up, which automatically calls parents when their children are absent. "Some parents might not do anything about it," Ms. Simonian said, "but some are outraged. Even 10 more kids is 10 more kids."
Four years ago, a summer flood destroyed all of the school's musical instruments. "They could have applied for emergency funding," said Rusty Bracher, the school's only music Teacher for the past decade, "but they just let it go." Instead, the band room has been turned into a lounge for security and police officers. The Teachers say the size of their proposed school is important and will give students the breadth of experience and the resources they need to be successful. "Kids will come to school for activities and electives who won't come to school for other reasons," said Art Teacher and United Federation of Teachers chapter chair Joe Cook.
The students would take their core academic courses in the morning and then take their electives in the afternoon. The academies would function like majors or concentrations in college, allowing students to focus on law and public policy, math and technology, the arts or health and physical education.
Give Students a SayThe Teachers say they want to emphasize student choice. "So much of the time it's like school is just something that happens to the kids," said John Lawhead, who teaches English Language Learners. He believes the new schools coming into the building were imposed by the DOE without regard to the community. "It's destroying a community instead of saying what's been working and what hasn't been," he commented. "Now there's less accountability, because you can't judge the new schools for another four years."
Teachers point to the thriving athletic program, after-school or "P.M." classes where students who are behind can make up credits - which have a passing rate of 80 percent - and their bilingual program as examples of successful components that should be retained.
The bilingual Creole language program at Tilden is one of a handful in the city and has been utilized by many of the 23 percent of students who are recent immigrants. Teachers say the smaller schools will not be able to accommodate them adequately. About 75 students from Haiti have joined Tilden since the school year started.
By law, a school that has 20 or more students with the same home language in one or two contiguous grades is entitled to a bilingual program. That number can be more difficult to reach in smaller schools, but DOE officials stress that both new schools are getting $40,000 English Language Learner grants that pay for staff at schools that enroll at least 18 students not proficient in English. They have until September to enroll that number.
'We're Not Anti-DOE'Teachers have been told by educators familiar with the two small schools that current enrollment is about 30 to 40 at each. DOE officials could not confirm or deny that number. Messages left for the Principals of It Takes a Village Academy and the Kurt Hahn Expeditionary Learning School on school answering machines were not returned.
Not all Teachers are hostile to the new schools, and some praise the new Principals. They stress that they are not looking for a confrontation. "We're not anti-DOE; we're just pro-Tilden," said Eric Eidenberg, the athletic director who has been at Tilden for 15 years.
But there is clearly a difference in philosophy between the new Tilden model and some of the initiatives that trickle down from Tweed. "Enthusiasm has to pervade the culture, and kids who are doing well in this environment have to be celebrated," said Mr. Bracher, who has been teaching music for 35 years. "Paying them $25 for passing a test is not inspiring the passion for learning and values that are important." Mayor Bloomberg recently announced a plan to pay children who pass state-mandated standardized exams.
One of the elements Tilden has already begun to implement is a Social Emotional Learning plan, which is in place in a handful of other city schools. "We have students who might have a low emotional quotient; that's a low E.Q. and a high I.Q.," said English Teacher Deidre DeLoatch, "but they won't succeed because they can't pay attention in class, because their anger or inability to resolve conflict distracts them and gets in their way." She added that coping and emotional skills were being taught in classes such as Health and English, which blended well with the curriculum.
'Children in Need'Under Tilden's new model, each Teacher would also be an advisor to about 20 students and would stay with those students, meeting twice a week, through graduation.
Teachers are excited about a larger senior class graduating on June 26 than in recent years. But the end of the school year has also had its grim side. An Assistant Principal and 46 Teachers were excessed June 15, including all but three physical education instructors and a 42-year veteran Teacher who commutes to Tilden by bus, ferry and subway from Staten Island. Nonetheless, the Teachers say they are not discouraged and will pursue their plan. They met with the UFT head of charter schools last week and will continue meeting and strategizing over the summer.
"Even though the school is being phased out, we still have children who are in need," said Ms. DeLoatch. "We have to put our plan in place."