Renewal Stories

Pan American International High School

Elmhurst, Queens

Making a Difference in the Lives of Immigrant Students

Nearly all ninth graders enrolling at Pan American International High School in Elmhurst, Queens, speak no English and come from a family who only recently arrived in the United States – primarily from Central and South America as well as the Dominican Republic. Some of them stopped attending school years earlier to work instead. Assistant Principal Leslie Aquino says, “We often get students who are sixteen years old and haven’t been to school in their home country since about the second grade.”

With that unusually challenging population of students, Pan American consistently struggled with low graduation rates, poor test results, persistent disciplinary problems, and high absenteeism. In 2014, the New York City Department of Education designated it as a Renewal School, providing additional support in order to improve its student outcomes. The next year, a new principal, George Badia, took the helm at Pan American.

In the two short years since Badia arrived, his leadership in managing the resources provided by the Renewal School program has produced results. On both the Common Core English and Algebra Regents tests in 2015–2016, Pan American’s seniors scored about six percentage points higher than similar students in other schools. School surveys and the Spring 2016 School Quality Review showed Pan American exceeding targets on virtually every benchmark. Suspensions plummeted and the graduation rate rose.

Pan American’s positive transformation hinges on the leadership of Principal Badia. When asked to name the single trait that makes Badia so effective, administrators and teachers consistently say “transparency.” Assistant Principal Aquino, who Badia hired shortly after he started, says, “From the first day I met George, he was very clear about the trajectory he wanted for the school and his non-negotiables. But he’s also very compromising and will meet you halfway. He knows the big picture and has really good ideas about how to move the school, but at the same time he wants to hear from different people and different points of view.”

Badia’s top priority when he became principal was increasing the school’s long struggling graduation rate. He recalls: “When I first came in, we had more than 30 seniors who weren’t going to pass the Regents math test. So I met one by one with each of them and talked about the extra math support we were going to provide to enable them to get to the level they needed to be at. We used time after school and on Saturdays to offer those opportunities with particular staff members assigned to each student.”       

By extending that same clarity, positivity, and team-based approach to the range of challenges confronting Pan American, in combination with the strategic use of the resources available from the Renewal program, Badia led a successful transformation that other educators can learn from.

One of Badia’s most important observations was discerning that the school’s past difficulties in graduating students had at least as much to do with the social and emotional challenges confronting students as with academic shortcomings. His willingness to personally leave the school for house calls with chronically absent students and their families also sets an example for his staff that they, too, should make extra efforts to form personal bonds with students to more effectively educate them. 

Assistant Principal Aquino says: “When George interacts with students who you can’t seem to break through with, he persists until he finds out the root cause of the problem. He deeply believes that ‘if you just give me a few minutes with them, I’m going to get at what’s really going on.’ And that connection has made a significant difference for our most challenging students. It’s not that they don’t want to come to school. It’s that they have legitimate trauma or reasons for why they’re struggling. Sometimes just having that conversation with George gives them that freedom to let it out, whatever their main issues are. And then they don’t feel so uncomfortable about being here. They find out, ‘Now somebody at the school knows what’s really going on in my life.’”

At the same time, Badia and his team have dedicated a significant portion of the resources available through the Renewal School program, which includes forming partnerships with local non-profit service providers following the city’s Community School model, for social and emotional support to students.  Badia hired additional guidance counselors and a substance abuse counselor, and engaged the CCNY Child Center of New York to deliver intensive services on site for students who are experiencing especially severe anxiety, including suicide ideation.     

Each weekday at Pan American, a large share of the students choose to remain at the school until the doors close around 6:15 or 6:30 in the evening. The Renewal School program incorporates extended learning time that Badia used to lengthen each class, followed by a 4 to 6 after-school program that includes tutoring, clubs, and arts. Aquino says, “It really is a long day for them, but I still have to kick a lot of students out when the time comes because they don’t want to go.”       

In addition to focusing on strengthening social and emotional supports for children, Badia took steps to make class time more rigorous. He says, “When I came here, teachers were dominating too much of the class time. Now we have moved toward student-centered instruction, with activities that involve students in discussion and doing hand’s-on projects. We devoted a lot of professional development to clearly defining constructive projects that are aligned with the Common Core. And we had to change the mindset of teachers who were skeptical about our students being able to handle certain challenging activities. Yes, they are ELLS, but they can do the work.”     

Another transformation under Principal Badia that the staff believes to be central to improvements at the school is the “Saturday Academy,” which meets from 8:30 to 12:30 and focuses on ESL and math. Although the school previously offered tutoring on Saturday mornings, Badia has communicated that he expects students who are struggling to come in for a sixth day of work. In contrast to 20 to 30 students showing up at the school on Saturday mornings in the past, now attendance at the academy is between 120 and 180 each week.

How do teachers feel about the higher expectations that Badia has for them? Kristin Donnelly, who has taught upper grade Social Studies at Pan American since 2012, says: “Thinking back to the past, I don’t think there was a lack of teachers wanting to invest the time that we do now. It’s more that if you don’t ask people to do something, they don’t know what they can accomplish. So when you make the expectation explicit -- guys, I really need our staff to stay here after school and on Saturdays to help the kids if you can -- then people will rise to the occasion. Just as with the kids, if you let them know – hey, we want to help you, but you will be more likely to succeed if you stay after school and come in on Saturdays -- then they will. And it’s not like you have to put in the extra time. It’s just one of the things that will help us reach our goals. And most of us do put in the extra time, and the payoff for our kids and for us has been really satisfying.”

Before becoming a Renewal School, Pan American had been plagued by high rates of absenteeism combined with significant disciplinary problems. Juana Adames, who has been the parent coordinator at the school for nine years, recalls how the climate used to be: “We had a lot of challenges with how the students behaved. It seemed like every Friday we had to go around the corner outside to break up big fights. There were lots of fights, though not too often inside the school.”

This past year, Badia designated one of his guidance counselors to be a “restorative circles coordinator” to continue to shift the school’s response to disciplinary issues away from punitive measures like suspensions toward a process that engages students in reflecting on how they should be accountable for mistakes they made.  Assistant Principal Guido Gonzalez says, “The mindset of most teachers here used to be that pretty much any infraction required a suspension: If I can’t deal with a kid [snaps fingers], I’m going to send him out. But what George and I started to get people to do is to talk with the student and listen closely, and the training we have done with the restorative circles has demonstrated that there’s a much more positive way to do deal with these situations. It’s an approach that directly confronted the culture that was here. By replacing the dean -- who was responsible for punitive decisions -- with another guidance counselor, George sent a strong signal about the shift he wanted to make.”  

Badia continues to burst with ideas for new initiatives that he has in the works, including a Career and Technical Education program in computer coding, web design and robotics; a Learning Partners collaboration with Thomas Edison High School; and a bridge program for graduates who are admitted to college to help ensure they enroll and remain in college.

In short, Pan American International High School is demonstrating what renewal looks like.

PS 154 Bronx

South Bronx

 A NYC Renewal School Reborn

When Alison Coviello took over as principal at PS 154 Bronx Jonathan D. Hyatt in May of 2012, the high-poverty, predominantly minority South Bronx elementary school was in a state of chaos. After a series of leadership changes, the teachers had become deeply demoralized, student misbehavior was out of control, the hallways were a mess, and test scores had fallen to rock bottom. At the tail end of the Bloomberg administration, just six months after Coviello became principal, the Department of Education informed her that PS 154 Bronx would be closed before later deciding instead to send a strong message by opening a charter school upstairs in the same building.

Under the new administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio in 2014, PS 154 Bronx became one of the first cohort of schools selected for the Renewal School Program that he launched with Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña. Today, a visitor to PS 154 Bronx would have a hard time imagining that it had so recently been dysfunctional. In each classroom, students actively engage with their work while respectfully interacting with their teachers and each other. From kindergarten through the top fifth grade level, the culture is upbeat and supportive, but also focused on learning in every minute of class time. Test scores are rising rapidly.

Teacher with a student at a computer.The progress at PS 154 Bronx demonstrates that even deeply challenged high poverty schools can be transformed to significantly improve student outcomes and sustain a culture of continuous improvement. That work is without question enormously difficult and requires skillful, energetic leadership within schools combined with assistance from the DOE to drive positive change grounded in the best available research. With the backing of the Renewal School support systems – which include “community school” partnerships with community-based organizations, additional resources to enhance professional development, and extra learning time – Coviello led PS 154 Bronx’s rebirth by adhering to the elements of the Framework for Great Schools espoused by the DOE. Those guideposts focus on effective school leadership; a supportive environment; collaborative teachers; rigorous instruction; strong family-community ties; and trust.

Effective School Leadership. Coviello recognized that she needed to fundamentally transform the school’s culture and began that process by putting into place simple structures and routines to create a much stronger sense of order. Those new systems includes having the children wait at supervised cafeteria tables before school before teachers escort them up to their classes; creating a “responders on duty” system that ensured teachers would have someone to support them if a child was putting himself or others in danger; and providing a genuine ‘safe room’ where kids in crisis could calm down.

In addition, Coviello set clear, much higher expectations for teachers while creating new opportunities for them to work together to improve. For the first year of her tenure, that entailed a great deal of friction among a cohort of teachers who were unwilling to adapt to those expectations. Nonetheless, a significant share of the teachers still at the school eventually came to welcome Coviello’s vision and say they and the students have benefitted from her leadership.

Supportive Environment

Two initiatives were essential to building PS 154 Bronx’s sense of community and support systems. One was the DOE Renewal School program and the other was an approach to classroom management called Responsive Classroom.

PS 154 Bronx ELA Proficiency has increased by 19.1 percent since 2014. Perhaps the most significant benefit of the Renewal School program for PS 154 Bronx has been the “community school” component. As part of that effort, the DOE directly provides for health services. For example, last year all 391 of PS 154 Bronx’s students received vision testing and 57 of them ended up with glasses they didn’t have previously; this fall, 100 students received eye glasses for the first time. The school also now has a full-time asthma case manager and mental health clinic, along with dental checkups provided in the auditorium twice a year. As the lead community school partner, the YMCA provides a range of after-school services as well as support for teachers in each classroom.

“Responsive Classroom” program is an approach to social and emotional development for students that virtually all of the teachers have been trained in. Its impact has been to strengthen the sense of community among everyone in the school by giving the children an opportunity to share with each other difficulties they may be experiencing outside of school while supporting each other. The approach also emphasizes the importance of respectful interactions and engaging purposefully with children who cross boundaries. Everyone at the school believes the Responsive Classroom model was instrumental to transforming its culture.        

Collaborative Teachers

Coviello, who taught at PS 154 Bronx for ten years before becoming principal, was familiar with extensive research demonstrating the importance of teacher collaboration for improving student outcomes. But she also recognized how difficult a challenge that would be. “We were all in our own classrooms and no one was talking with each other,” she says. “We were so used to being told how bad we were by outsiders that everyone was afraid of the shadow walking down the hall. No one wanted to go into anyone’s classroom, give feedback, or open their classroom, because we were scared.”     

PS 154 Bronx Math Proficiency has increased by 12.5 percent since 2014. But through a variety of calibrated steps, Coviello was able to gradually get the teachers to work together and learn from each other in ways that they all recognized have improved the learning conditions for students as well as their own enthusiasm for work. “When we first started, people were scared out of their minds to walk into someone else’s classroom,” Coviello says. “They did not want to go. I’ll never forget the following year, eventually there was a collaborative walk where the teachers were now well ahead of me and went right into the classroom by themselves. That’s how you know things are shifting.”

Rigorous Instruction

Three major changes to pedagogy at PS 154 Bronx during Coviello’s tenure include emphasizing an active role for children in the learning process, more focused and purposeful instruction, and close attentiveness to data. All of those transformations are a direct outgrowth of Renewal School professional development supports that include teacher participation in the Teachers College Reading and Writing Program at Columbia University and the DataWise inquiry approach led by the district’s Director of School Renewal.   

José Fernandez, a fifth grade teacher who has been at the school for 15 years, says the impact of those changes has been profound: “When we look at data, we look at what skills does this child have and what skills does he need, as opposed to, oh my goodness, he’s below reading level. We focus in on what skills does this child need to get to the next level and figure out strategies for accomplishing that, then we communicate how to present those strategies to the child so everyone is on the same page. Often in the past, we almost covertly looked at it as a negative thing if a child was performing below reading level without any clear plan of positively responding.”

Strong Family-Community Ties

Like most other schools serving predominantly low socioeconomic families, PS 154 Bronx has long had difficulty engaging all parents in coming to the school or responding to communications from teachers. Coviello has instituted a variety of initiatives with support from the Renewal Program that have significantly enhanced those bonds. Those include monthly “principal’s breakfasts” structured as workshops, weekly “coffee times” with the community school director, a food pantry, English as a Second Language classes for parents (with a grant from the Community Schools office), and  a mobile, web-based platform called SchoolCNXT, which enables school personnel to communicate with parents by texting as well as e-mail.

Trust. Conversations with PS 154 Bronx’s administrators, faculty, parents, and students make clear that mutual respect has become pervasive in a building that not very long ago experienced toxic levels of distrust. Claire Hollocou, a new teacher fifth-grade special education teacher at PS 154 Bronx whose previous jobs included working at a Success Academy chart school, offers perspective on the issue of trust and support. She says, “Like Success, this school is a very data-driven, high intensity environment – more so than other schools I had offers from. In both schools, teachers feel it is incredibly important to be able to get their kids to a place where they are able to go to middle school and be successful. In both places, every single minute of the lesson is maximized. But I find that this is a much more nurturing environment.”

Victoria Wailes is a mother of two children now at PS 154 Bronx who previously sent her four older children to the same school. She says, “It’s totally different. My kids study a lot more now. They actually want to come to school. I used to have to force them. Every day my son gets dressed before I do. He is always waiting for me to get ready. I tell him he’s got plenty of time, but he wants to get going to school."

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