D.O.E. Wraps Up Early Engagement Process

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Francisco Mantilla, Shamell Lee and Eric Fridia recently graduated from Juan Morel Campos Secondary School and returned this month to defend their alma mater during the early engagement process.

The Department of Education said it completed its meetings and site visits with 60 schools as part of an annual process known as "early engagement," a precursor to the city releasing a list of struggling schools it plans to close.

Education officials have not said when they will announce schools proposed for phase-out.

School staff have spent the last few weeks defending their schools' accomplishments and capacity to provide quality instruction to students.

One of those schools is the Juan Morel Campos Secondary School, a sixth through 12th grade school in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. This is the second year in a row that the high school has been tapped for early engagement, a move that surprised many students and school staff.

Though the school received another "C" on its progress report, its fourth in a row, it received a "proficient" rating on its most recent Quality Review in May, when evaluators visited the school for assessment.

"We had worked really hard from last year to, sort of, you know, pick ourselves up by our boot straps so to speak," said John Gitto, one of Juan Morel's high school guidance counselors.

And Shamell Lee, a recent graduate, wondered what the Department of Education expected from the school within a year's time. He supported Juan Morel during the early engagement process last year and returned to the school this month to do the same.

"Not too much growth can happen in the period that they gave us," he said. "They're not giving us room to actually try."

Who Gets on the List

The Education Department said it identifies schools for early engagement that have poor educational outcomes, like those identified on annual school progress reports, and that cannot demonstrate the capacity to improve quickly.

"These are schools that are at the very bottom," said Deputy Chancellor Marc Sternberg on the day that the D.O.E. released the list of high schools targeted for early engagement. "Schools whose parents and students and staff say it’s not safe to be in the building, who say they’re not being challenged."

In addition to Juan Morel's overall "C" grade, education officials pointed out that the student performance and school environment sections of the progress report each fell by more than a letter grade. Juan Morel's four-year graduation rate was 46 percent, well below the citywide rate of 65.5 percent. The school also remained on the state's list of priority schools, a category reserved for the bottom 5 percent of schools in the state.

"Obviously, there's room for improvement," said Keith Miller, an English teacher for the middle school grades and a union chapter leader for all of the school's teachers. But he and Gitto, along with other school staff who spoke anonymously, said these metrics do not provide context for the school and the student population it serves.

Nearly a quarter of Juan Morel's high school students are English language learners, and 27 percent of students have disabilities. The school is more than 97 percent black and Latino. All the students qualify for free or reduced price lunch. Most students come from the neighborhood in south Williamsburg.

"If I had to deal with half the stuff they walk into the door with, I don't know that I would even function," said Miller.

He said he has counseled students who have witnessed drug or gang activity in the neighborhood, or within their own families. "And then sometimes, you just never know what's going on," he said.

Early Engagement, Again

Given the student population, and after having come through the early engagement process last year, Gitto said that he and other school staff thought they would get increased financial support even though they know that all schools are having to do more with less.

Still, in the past, said Gitto, the school benefited from smaller classes and more after-school programs. In the last three years, the number of staffing positions dropped by about 30, according to the school's budget data, including fewer teachers and guidance counselors.

For the first time this year, Juan Morel gave up its space on the first floor to share the building with the Beginning with Children Charter School II.

Miller said teachers have been working to tighten instruction and meet goals set after last year's early engagement period. They work in "inquiry" teams to discuss student achievement and work together to analyze performance data, according to the Quality Review. School staff have rallied around the school's new principal, Eric Fraser, who declined to be interviewed.

At the recent forum to defend the school's credentials, it was apparent from the students and staff in the auditorium that going through the early engagement process, again, felt undeserved.

"We're on the right track," said Miller. "It's clear that our school is providing a service to the community and our students and that we should be given the opportunity to continue the work that we're doing."