School Desk

Getting into the act


Joel Conde, a junior at Bronx Theatre High School, crept out from behind a grey screen, and stalked across the stage while describing life as a homeless New Yorker.

“The street breeds new species. And new silence. No spoken language works there. There are no verbs to describe the cold air as it sucks on your hands. And if there were words to describe it, Marisol, you wouldn’t believe it,” Joel said while rehearsing his role as Lenny for the high school’s upcoming production of Marisol on Jan. 18.

The play follows Marisol Perez, a 26-year-old Puerto Rican from the Bronx, Lenny, who is obsessed with Marisol, and his sister June as they struggle to adjust to life without guardian angels. New York City is enveloped in chaos after most angels stop watching humans to fight against God, who is dying.

Daniel Rodriguez, the director of Marisol and an English and performance teacher at Bronx Theatre, said the juniors’ staging of Marisol started with a careful analysis of the play in English classes. A committee of the school’s art teachers chose the work because they felt its magical realism, allegory and symbolism would enliven class discussions. 

Marisol is Bronx Theatre High School’s first production of a play written by a Latino, according to Mr. Rodriguez.

“We felt it would be beneficial to have a Latino voice because so many of our kids are Latino,” he said of Mr. Rivera, the first Puerto Rican playwright to be nominated for an Oscar. “It’s a powerful piece and it’s also set in the city, places in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, places they know. It’s also people who look and sound like them.”

Junior art classes then began planning for the show. Performance students were assigned roles and began rehearsing. Students in fashion design classes sewed the costumes, some from scratch. Those enrolled in the school’s theater business course planned advertising and marketing campaigns promoting Marisol’s February debut. 

Set design students helped reconfigure old props and construct new lighting fixtures, tables, a bed, a chair and other furniture.

David Tillman and Alejandro Garcia, both juniors, stayed after school on Jan. 18, coating long wooden boxes in white paint. The apparatuses will eventually hold lights that beam up from the floor of the stage.

Marisol sort of has to do with heaven. So it’s supposed to look heavenly,” David said of the color choice.

Paul Estrada, a set design teacher, said students enjoyed learning to use tools that could come in handy outside the classroom. He took pride in recycling the doors, steps, walls and other stables of sets, noting that a coffin had been transformed into a Barbie box. 

Bronx Theatre High School will perform Marisol on Thursday, Feb. 7, from 7 to 8:30 p.m. The suggested donation for tickets is $5. For more information, contact Zena Cordero at 718-329-2902.

Hammering out a deal 

The failure of the teachers’ union and Department of Education to negotiate a teacher evaluation deal by Jan. 17 will cost the city $250 million in state aid and $200 million in grants. 

After the United Federation of Teachers and DOE missed the deadline, state Education Commissioner John King Jr. tried to motivate them to return to the negotiation table by threatening to withhold more than $1 billion in federal funds. 

In a Jan. 18 letter to schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott, Mr. King said the state would bar the city from Race to the Top and School Improvement grants and Title 1 and Title IIa funding unless the DOE submits an evaluation plan by Thursday, Feb. 14. The city would need to show it could implement a new teacher evaluation system by Friday, March 1.

“It is unfortunate that I am forced to take these actions, but the 1.1 million children who attend New York City schools deserve the very best education we can give them. The ongoing impasse regarding evaluations continues to deny them that education; we must take action,” Mr. King wrote.

The state legislature approved an evaluation system in 2010 that called for instructors to be rated as highly effective, effective, developing or ineffective. Sixty percent of teachers’ grades would be based on classroom observations, 20 percent on how much their students improved on fourth-through-eighth-grade state exams and the remaining 20 percent on criteria unions negotiated with education officials. How to measure educators who don’t teach fourth through eighth grade was also up for negotiation.

Both Mayor Michael Bloomberg and UFT President Michael Mulgrew said they were close to hammering out a deal, but accused each other of walking out at the last minute.

Mr. Bloomberg said the UFT was determined to include a clause that would expire the evaluation agreement in June 2015 and make it difficult for the city to fire teachers who were deemed ineffective. The union also sought to double the number of hearings teachers may file to challenge their ratings, which Mr. Bloomberg said would drag out the process.

“Everything our administration has accomplished in turning our schools around these past 11 years has been based on setting standards and requiring accountability. A new teacher evaluation process is a crucial part of that,” Mr. Bloomberg said in a statement. “And the saddest part is that our students will pay the cost.”

Mr. Mulgrew said the mayor “blew the deal up” by refusing to budge on key issues.

“Thousands of parents have gotten a lesson this week, as they mayor’s ‘my way or the highway’ approach has left thousands of schoolchildren stranded at curbs across the city by the school bus strike. That same stubborn attitude on the mayor’s part now means that our schools will suffer a loss of millions of dollars in state aid,” he said in a statement.

David Pena, a press representative with the DOE, said the department would have to make cuts, but hadn’t decided where yet.