education

How Pennsyl­vania schools erased a cheating scandal

Please note: This article is published as an archive copy from Philadelphia City Paper. My City Paper is not affiliated with Philadelphia City Paper. Philadelphia City Paper was an alternative weekly newspaper in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The last edition was published on October 8, 2015.

"I was blown away by the level of cheating that was happening. It was just absurd."

How Pennsyl­vania schools erased a cheating scandal

Evan M. Lopez

The odds that 11th-graders at Strawberry Mansion High School would have randomly erased so many wrong answers on the math portion of their 2009 state standardized test and then filled in so many right ones were long. Very, very long. To be precise, they were less than one in a duodecillion, according to an erasure analysis performed for the state Department of Education.

In short, there appeared to be cheating — and it didn’t come as a total surprise. In 2006, student members of Youth United for Change protested being forced out of class for test-preparation sessions and won concessions from the district. In 2010, principal Lois Powell-Mondesire left Strawberry Mansion; after her departure, test scores dropped sharply. 

But despite the erasure analysis and those suspicious circumstances, neither Powell-Mondesire nor any other teacher or administrator at Strawberry Mansion was ever disciplined. On the contrary, Powell-Mondesire was promoted — to a job at school-district headquarters, earning more than $145,000 as a “turnaround principal” charged with helping other administrators boost student achievement. (Powell-Mondesire, who retired July 1, could not be reached for comment. Neither the District nor the state would say whether her exit was related to the cheating investigation.)

Strawberry Mansion is far from the only school flagged for suspected cheating. In 2009, 225 schools statewide, including 88 Philadelphia district schools and 11 Philly charters, showed suspicious patterns of wrong-to-right erasures or other standardized-testing anomalies, like unusual rates of participation by certain categories of students (such those with special-education needs) and improbable swings in scores. 

The report that summarized those allegations, however, was buried. The findings saw the light of day only in July 2011, after reporters at the Philadelphia Public School Notebook filed a public-records request. The Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) pledged a thorough investigation and ordered forensic analyses of the 2010 and 2011 Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) exams. Yet the state then denied a request from Notebook reporters to discuss the findings with the Data Recognition Corp., the firm that undertook the analysis — all the while insisting that the report was “not information the average person would understand.”

Over the last two years, inquiries were closed or altered with little explanation, and state and school administrators refused to answer basic questions about the investigations’ nature or methods. Some schools were left to investigate themselves. Only a handful of administrators and one teacher have been publicly held to account.  

“It’s dragging on at an incredibly slow pace compared to investigations elsewhere,” says Bob Schaeffer, public-education director at FairTest, an organization critical of high-stakes testing. “And it makes you wonder: What’s going on?”

The Notebook and, to a lesser extent, the Inquirer have covered each turn in this story. But despite continued questions, few answers have been forthcoming. “Some people probably want this story to go away,” says Notebook editor Paul Socolar. “Some people may think it has gone away because there hasn’t been a lot of information coming out about what actually happens. That’s not for lack of effort. We’re not getting a lot of information from the authorities about what they found out in their investigations.”

After all, politically, the state would have a great deal to lose by prosecuting cheaters. Some of the most damning evidence of cheating has come from Philadelphia, a district run by the state since 2002, and from charters, including a Chester school run by a prominent leader in Pennsylvania’s self-described school-reform movement who is a backer of Gov. Tom Corbett. But more than that, bubble tests have become the high-stakes centerpiece of American public education; when the scores are tainted, it could throw an entire way of running schools into question. 

Given the scope of the issue and the lack of action since, it appears Pennsylvania is covering up one of the country’s largest cheating scandals — and doing so in plain sight. 

 

For Arlene Ackerman, Aug. 20, 2010, was a day to celebrate before an adoring crowd: More than half of Philadelphia students had met state performance benchmarks in reading and math, known as Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), for the first time since No Child Left Behind was implemented in 2002. 

Then-superintendent Ackerman had gathered hundreds of administrators at Lincoln High School gym for the festivities. Theodore Roosevelt Middle School Principal Stefanie Ressler was a guest of honor: Roosevelt, a Germantown school where 85 percent of students lived in poverty, had seen math scores jump 52 points on a 100-point scale. Reading scores also went up 51 points in just two years’ time. Ressler called it a “miracle.” 

Gov. Ed Rendell was on hand, and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan called Ackerman on her cell phone with congratulations. Rising test scores at schools like Roosevelt made Ackerman a star, justifying a $65,000 bonus on top of a $325,000 salary. The Council of the Great City Schools named her the country’s top superintendent. Ressler hailed Ackerman as a “visionary” and extolled her Empowerment Schools program, which was billed as giving extra support to low-performing schools. 

A year later, in an auditorium at the very same school, an embattled Ackerman would challenge the SRC to fire her. But for now, Ackerman was talking up what everyone agreed mattered most: improving student achievement.

But fear was always the flip side to the rosy boosterism projected by Ackerman, who died in February. Low-performing schools could be converted into Renaissance Schools, unveiled in 2010 as the district’s newest initiative under the No Child Left Behind law, which requires that low-performing public schools be restructured, closed or taken over by privately managed charter operators. The district handed 17 Renaissance Schools over to private charter-school managers with the power to replace teachers.

At West Philadelphia High School, a radical overhaul turned into disaster in July 2010. Ackerman, citing low test scores, orchestrated the ouster of Principal Saliyah Cruz, infuriating many who credited her with improving the school climate. A sharp increase in violent incidents followed, and staff turnover reached nearly 90 percent. Students walked out in protest. The school ultimately became a Promise Academy — a form of Renaissance conversion that brings close central-office oversight and support.  

Under No Child Left Behind, signed by President George W. Bush in 2002, schools that miss AYP for four years must enter something called “Corrective Action” status. After a fifth year below AYP, they are placed in Corrective Action II. Corrective Action II schools that fail to make AYP for an additional year must undergo a radical turnaround, such as being converted to Renaissance Schools. 

In Philadelphia, low-performing schools in Corrective Action II became Empowerment Schools, subjected to a rigorous test-preparation regime that focuses intensively on test-taking methods. Other troubled schools that did not fall under Corrective Action II also became Empowerment Schools (now called High-Needs Schools).

 

Teachers quickly complained that No Child Left Behind had turned their classrooms into test-prep boot camps. Time for arts, music, literature, social studies and even recess has declined, national studies indicate. Frantic teachers, burdened with scripted curricula, dedicated a growing share of classroom time to test-ed reading and math topics and to teaching test-taking skills and strategies. The phenomenon is called “curriculum narrowing.” 

“The stranglehold standardized testing and its incentives have on education is turn-ing productive, thoughtful and creative thinking into a thing of dreams,” says Steve Teare, who taught art at Bok Tech, one of 24 district schools that closed for good in June. He describes monotonous days of proctoring. “I lost close to a month’s worth of valuable teaching time.”

Bok had been in Corrective Action II just after the implementation of No Child Left Behind, teetering on the edge of a takeover. Teare says administrators steered teachers “away from our regular curriculum and towards the idea of effectively preparing students for these tests.”

A teacher who taught corrective-action reading and math at Austin Meehan Middle School in 2009-’10 described the difficulty of “keep[ing] students engaged, despite boring them.” The Empowerment School dedicated half the year to specific “skills the data found the school to be weak in.”

“We spent our time ‘analyzing’ data rather than trying to figure out how to better help our students,” that teacher, who like some others requested anonymity, wrote in an email to CP. “I felt that administrators looked at the kids as numbers.”

A teacher at one Empowerment high school says her students were pulled out of non-tested classes like social studies, art and gym twice a week for “small-group” test prep. According to a district document the teacher provided to CP, such schools were required to develop a specialized plan to train students in the open-ended “constructed responses” common on standardized tests. 

The teacher also says that cheating at her school, which was flagged by the 2009 analysis for highly abnormal erasure patterns, was widespread. Teachers told students to take a second look at questions they had answered incorrectly and even guided them to the correct answer. “Math teachers proctoring were helping kids with problems,” she says. That form of cheating cannot be detected by erasure analysis. When the teacher reported the incidents to her principal, she was rebuffed. “He said he didn’t want to hear about it. He walked away.” 

A teacher leader at another school, she says, openly told colleagues that she violated state rules in order to “get the test ahead of time [and] make similar problems so her kids could practice.”  

A teacher at a middle school also flagged for suspicious erasures tells CP that she was “blown away by the level of cheating that was happening. It was just absurd.”

“It didn’t matter how you got” scores up, she says. Kids were pulled out of class by an assistant principal and a teacher leader and, she alleges, had their answers changed. Students were instructed not to turn in their tests until teachers confirmed that they had a certain percentage of answers correct.

The teacher was recently interviewed by a law firm working for the School District. But she says that she received no response after calling both a state and district hotline in the 2010-’11 school year. She blames teachers to a degree, and administrators more. But she blames the practice of high-stakes testing the most.

“Rather than giving [the troubled school] more resources or giving it more help, it was given more testing,” she says. “A lot of people involved in the cheating would say, ‘We’re in the middle of an unfair system, and this is the only thing we can do to keep people off our backs.’”

But troubling data went unheeded. So did warnings from teachers and unions — even when they supplied hard evidence.  

A teacher at FitzSimons High School marched into the Inquirer newsroom in March 2011. It was a day before testing began, but the teacher handed reporters what appeared to be two PSSA booklets that, per state rules, should have been locked away. The whistle-blower alleged that teachers were told to check out booklets ahead of time and drill students on their content.

Teachers at Roosevelt also came forward, telling the Inquirer that answers were written on blackboards and that administrators told teachers to instruct students based on questions from the exam. One teacher reported witnessing Principal Stefanie Ressler, Roosevelt’s self-described miracle worker, talking with a group of children over open testing booklets and answer sheets.

The Inquirer’s startling revelations, however, failed to provoke much curiosity in state and district leaders. “The district has a very robust test-monitoring system in place,” Shana Kemp, one member of an expensive communications team dedicated to promoting Ackerman, told the newspaper.

Notably, both Roosevelt and FitzSimons were in probationary Corrective Action II status when the alleged cheating occurred.

Bernadette McHenry started teaching at Bartram High School, which has long been in Corrective Action II, in September 2009, before being laid off with thousands of other district employees this summer. She found the focus on moving a particular number of students from one status to another — just to avoid sanctions — unnerving. But McHenry does say that “the data-based instruction” was “helpful because we were able to work on specific skills with the students that they were not proficient in.”

It is unclear, however, whether high-stakes tests possess solid diagnostic value.

Data from the no-stakes National Assessment of Educational Progress, which registered stagnation or very small gains, indicate that Philadelphia’s rising PSSA scores did not reflect actual gains in student aptitude. Results in other parts of the country have been similarly underwhelming.

Yet in 2010, President Obama’s Race to the Top leveraged billions of federal dollars to encourage states to incorporate test scores into teacher evaluations and to expand charter schools. Many worry that the new Common Core standards rolling out nationwide, and the accompanying tests, will further narrow schools’ focus. Meanwhile, No Child Left Behind’s utopian distance from the realities of the American classroom will come to a head in 2014, when all students — every last one — must be proficient in reading and math. The Obama administration has encouraged states, all of which are unlikely to hit these goals, to apply for waivers. Most states have applied, including Pennsylvania; the 550-page application is under review.

In Philadelphia, severe underfunding from the state has yielded mass layoffs of teachers and school staff. Despite that potentially catastrophic setback, the demand for accountability marches on: Pennsylvania’s new teacher-evaluation system will, for the first time, this fall require that student achievement, largely based on PSSA scores, make up half of teacher evaluations.

 

Cheating scandals have spread to school districts nationwide — particularly cash-strapped districts where teachers are increasingly blamed for the poor academic performance of students living in poverty. 

In April, PBS correspondent John Merrow uncovered a secret memo indicating former Washington, D.C., Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee was provided, and failed to act on, evidence of cheating at 70 schools in 2009. Rhee and current Chancellor Kaya Henderson say that they do not recall seeing the memo.

And in March 2013, Atlanta Superintendent Beverly Hall and 34 other administrators, teachers and staff were indicted on multiple counts for systemic, organized cheating. While Education Secretary Duncan called it a “very isolated” incident that would be fixed through “better test security,” prosecutors zeroed in on school reformers’ high-stakes approach to accountability, citing Hall’s hefty score-based performance bonuses and the fact that she told teachers, “Excuses for not meeting targets would not be tolerated.” 

Many consider the Atlanta investigation to be the gold standard. Pennsylvania, by comparison, exhibits numerous deficiencies. Perhaps most importantly, the state has failed to employ the means — including the subpoena power that accompanies a criminal investigation — that proved critical in unearthing the unsavory truth in Atlanta. 

It’s still possible that Attorney General Kathleen Kane or District Attorney Seth Williams could mount a tougher investigation. Neither office would comment.

In the meantime, state and district investigations have plodded along slowly, secretly — and sometimes not at all. 

Statewide, 225 schools were initially flagged as suspicious. But only 89 schools, including 28 Philadelphia District schools and seven city charters, were targeted for investigation. It is tough to say why. The criteria by which schools with suspicious answer sheets were targeted — or not — for investigation is a mystery.

In early 2012, the state reshuffled the list of schools under investigation, apparently after reviewing forensic analyses of exams from 2010 and 2011. The number of Philadelphia District schools under state investigation was expanded to 53.

The Department of Education sorted schools into three tiers: Tier I schools would be investigated by the state Office of the Inspector General; Tier II would be investigated by the districts; Tier III would not necessarily be investigated at all. Neither the state nor the district will reveal which schools are in which tiers or what criteria were used, though information about particular schools has appeared in media reports. Even more confusing, many schools flagged for improbable erasure patterns were never placed into any tier, apparently by way of a loophole in the criteria that excluded schools not flagged for multiple types of irregularities in a single grade.

The District’s investigation into its own alleged cheating cases has raised similar questions. “My opinion is that they’re pretty committed to not doing anything at all,” says Daniel Piotrowski, the Philadelphia School District’s former executive director of accountability and assessment. “If the School District had its way, they would not discipline anyone.”

The District, which is receiving pro bono assistance in its investigation from Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP, has, like the state, proceeded in obscurity. According to Piotrowski, it refused offers of aid from other firms, even though that meant it would not have the capacity to investigate all schools.

Piotrowski’s cynicism derives from personal experience.

In March 2012, Piotrowski was in charge of implementing what the state characterized as a tough new security regimen including, most controversially, barring teachers from administering tests to their own students. 

On the second day of testing, Piotrowski visited Wagner, a West Oak Lane middle school with a student body that is 97 percent black and 94 percent “economically disadvantaged.” He reported that he witnessed 13 definite and four possible infractions, including one teacher coaching students taking the PSSA. (An assistant principal contended that the teacher may have been reading questions out loud to special-education students, which is permissible.) His call for a full investigation was overturned, and the School District removed Piotrowski from the school. Last July, he was fired. 

The School District will not comment on his dismissal, but Piotrowski says he was told it was because his office had botched the calculations behind a school-ranking system called the School Performance Index. Piotrowski believes he was fired for reporting cheating. In January, the state took direct control over the investigation into Wagner.

School District chief academic officer Penny Nixon, who in June resigned to take over as senior vice president at Universal charter schools, served as Wagner’s principal in 2009. That year, the odds that the school’s erasure patterns on eighth-grade reading and math tests happened by chance were less than one in 100 trillion. Nixon, according to the Notebook, helped plan the District’s response to Piotrowski’s allegations.

The District tells CP they expect Tier II investigations to be completed this summer, after which they will move on to Tier III. 

 

 The state’s overcautious approach may have been driven by fear. Contracts totaling $750,000 with the law firm Pepper Hamilton, obtained by the Notebook, reveal that lawyers attempted to discern whether the state had subpoena power, and noted that “some schools may resist PDE’s investigation, and litigation may ensue.” Most of the legal work appeared to involve Philadelphia schools and area charters — including Chester Community Charter School. 

The latter would make for a fearsome legal opponent. CSMI, a management company to which the school, according to a 2012 Inquirer article, pays $16.7 million (more than 41 percent of the charter’s budget), is run by businessman and political powerhouse Vahan Gureghian, Gov. Tom Corbett’s top campaign contributor and a member of his education transition team. The charter enrolls the majority of Chester Upland district’s kindergarten-through-eighth-grade students. In December, the chronically broke Chester Upland district was placed under state control; they had just exited 16 years of state control in 2010. 

Gureghian unsuccessfully sued the Inquirer over a 2008 investigation that examined “whether the school is spending too much of its budget on administration and too little on teaching.” The next year, he sued the 18-year-old proprietor of a blog, Homes of the Rich, for posting a photo of his 10-bedroom, $13.5 million, Main Line mansion. It is surrounded by a moat. So, it appears, is his school.

A state forensic analysis found that the odds that erasure patterns were random on the reading portion of Chester Community Charter School seventh-graders’ 2009 PSSAs were between one in a quadrillion and one in a quintillion. Analyses done in 2010 and 2011, according to the Department of Education, also found “a very high number of students with a very high number of wrong-to-right erasures.” But the state left the charter to investigate itself. 

In September 2012, the Department of Education announced it was closing its inquiry into the charter. The school’s “internal investigation” had failed to “yield clear conclusions, notwithstanding the overwhelming evidence of testing irregularities.” A press release from the school’s chief executive, Dave Clark, celebrated that no “disciplinary action was taken” and that the school was “pleased” that the investigation was “now behind us.” The school’s public-relations strategy had been somewhat less congenial in 2009, when the suspicious scores surfaced. The charter emailed the Notebook with a demand to “cease and desist all defamatory communications concerning alleged PSSA ‘cheating’ at CCCS.”

Notably, the school was required to implement extraordinary test-security measures. Administrators now must store “test materials in a locked location, which shall be monitored with a 24-hour surveillance camera and monitored by an outside security firm,” according to a letter from the state. Security cameras must be placed in all testing rooms, and protocols must be overseen by an independent auditing firm. The Department of Education would not say whether these measures had been required anywhere else in the state, and will not answer questions about the school’s self-investigation. 

Two years ago, however, during an April 2011 visit, Corbett was effusive: The school’s test-score success “needs to be reported to all the people of Pennsylvania,” he said, so they could witness school choice in action. At the time, Corbett was under fire for proposing massive cuts to education. 

“It is unfortunately typical that the people who initially investigate allegations of test cheating are folks with a vested interest in finding no problem: either school personnel or even district personnel,” says FairTest’s Schaeffer. “When your reputation and livelihood depend on test-score ratings, there are incentives to look the other way.”

At Philly’s Walter D. Palmer Leadership Partners Charter School, an investigation was closed without reaching a conclusion — or adding severe security requirements. 

Citywide, an initial internal review in August 2011 determined that only 13 of 28 schools warranted further investigation.

Eric Hartline/Delco Daily Times
GRADE INFLATION: Gov. Tom Corbett, visiting Chester Community Charter School in April 2011, touted the school’s vastly improved test scores as news that “needs to be reported to all the people of Pennsylvania.” Subsequently, following an investigation of alleged cheating, test scores plummeted and security measures including surveillance cameras in testing rooms were put in place.

In August 2012, the state’s decade-long upward trajectory in test scores came to a sudden halt. Philadelphia PSSA test scores fell 8.7 percentage points in math and 7.1 points in reading. Nineteen schools suspected of cheating witnessed drops of at least 20 points in both subjects. Fifty-one of 53 schools under investigation for cheating experienced declines in both subjects, according to a Notebook analysis, and most saw declines greater than 10 points. Only two of the 200 district schools not under investigation showed drops of 20 points or more in both subjects. At Chester Community Charter School, the drop was enormous: Scores fell an average of 30 points in both math and reading across all grades.

Education Secretary Ronald Tomalis said the scores validated new test-security measures, calling them “a reset point for student achievement in Pennsylvania” and “the first year the department can confidently report that PSSA scores are a true reflection of student achievement and academic progress.” 

Liberal critics, however, preferred to blame the governor’s budget’s deep cuts to education funding — just as, only a few years before, they had cited rising test scores to justify Rendell’s increased spending. In 2009, Rendell Secretary of Education Ger-ald Zahorchak touted that year’s scores as proof that increased school funding and a fair funding formula yielded measurable gains.

Each side of the schools debate had long clung to test scores as a vindication of their preferred public policy. Even school-choice icon Chester Community Charter School sent a letter to parents in September 2012 claiming that “financial stress” required that “reforms … that had resulted in measurable improvements in academic performance … be reduced or eliminated.” The result: a “significant negative impact on student performance, including test scores.”

The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers and the Pennsylvania Association of School Employees, which have heavily criticized testing, have not demanded a more aggressive investigation. They, like the union representing principals, must defend individual members against any charges. 

Everyone, it seems, wants to put the scandal-that-almost-was behind them.

The state, according to Piotrowski, could not be happier. The 2010 and 2011 forensic analyses ordered by Tomalis, he says, were limited to erasure analysis, and did not include the more sophisticated review of score changes and demographic participation used in 2009: “Teachers just giving kids answers, that’s much harder to prove because there’s no evidence trail. And that’s why the state was pursuing the erasure piece only.” The state refuses to make the 2010 and 2011 forensic analyses public. And while PDE stated that “it’s highly probable that tampering took place prior to 2009,” those earlier tests will never be examined. 

Indeed, Piotrowski says a forensic analysis of 2012 tests found multiple irregularities, but no investigation would follow. PDE would not comment on whether that analysis exists.

 

Punishment is issuing forth in a slow, individualized drip — a principal decertified here, new test-security measures implemented there. Tomalis had said that more than 100 educators were under investigation. But there will be nothing like the headline-grabbing indictments issued in Atlanta, nothing that could cause the high-stakes testing regime and leaders from both parties acute embarrassment.

In April of this year, Philadelphia principals Lola Marie O’Rourke and Barbara McCreery surrendered their administrative credentials. O’Rourke, former principal at West Philly’s Locke Elementary, was accused of providing answers directly to students. Ousted West Philly High Principal Saliyah Cruz, whom Ackerman placed at Communications Technology High School in 2010, told the Notebook that “those kinds of things didn’t add up for me.” The school’s scores plummeted under Cruz’s leadership — but so did evidence of suspicious erasure patterns. “If my kids were out in the street when they belong in school, how were they scoring [75]-percent proficient?”

Two more disciplinary actions have since been announced (“announced” being a generous term, since they are actually posted quietly to an obscure state certification website). In May, the state said it had suspended the administrative and supervisory credentials of former Philadelphia Electrical and Technology Charter High School assistant principal Thomas Conway. Last week, it was reported that Bok Tech English teacher Ronald B. Paulus agreed to have his teaching certificate briefly suspended to settle allegations that he violated test rules — allegations he denies.

The state has closed its investigations into 43 districts and charter schools, nine of which will continue under special monitoring. The School District of Philadelphia and an unknown number of its schools continue under investigation, with both the state and the District refusing to tell the public what they are doing.   

In the meantime, standardized-testing opponents are getting organized. In Chicago last September, striking teachers protested not only for wages and benefits but against charter-school expansion and a proposal from Mayor Rahm Emanuel to make test scores count for 40 percent of teacher evaluations. Teachers succeeded in scaling that down to 30 percent. In Seattle, teachers and students last year staged a mass boycott of standardized tests. It has caught the attention of teachers around the country, including in Philadelphia.

Rachel Toliver, who teaches at the prestigious magnet Central High School, complains that the testing regime will “erode people’s critical-thinking skills, because the tests really don’t draw on critical thinking, they don’t draw on nuance.”

She hopes that the movement spreads. “The stakes are very high for the future of public education,” she says. In June, the School Reform Commission put the Renaissance Schools program on hold. There’s simply not enough money.

In April, the district recalculated PSSA-based School Performance Indexes (SPI), for both 2009-’10 and 2010-’11, because of a calculation error — the same one that Daniel Piotworski was ostensibly fired for. 

But the questionable scores from 2009-’11 — the ones potentially effectuated by the sort of cheating that Piotworski says that he tried to stop — may never be revised. 

“It is important to note that the underlying data feeding into the SPI was not in question nor considered to be faulty,” said Philadelphia’s new superintendent, William Hite, emphasizing that cheating was not a concern.

Those scores still matter tremendously: This spring, the School Reform Commission closed 24 schools. One of the factors it considered? Poor performance on standardized tests.  

(daniel.denvir@citypaper.net)

If you have observed cheating on standardized tests, please contact City Paper.

Update: This story has been updated to clarify that PBS correspondent John Merrow was investigating Rhee's memo as part of his reporting for a Frontline documentary but posted the finding on his personal blog.

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