Cathie Black's school visits take her to the good, skip the bad

Chancellor-designate Cathie Black visited Medgar Evers College Preparatory School today.

More than a month after being named the next schools chancellor, Cathie Black has yet to see the system at its most troubled.

Black has been to 13 schools, making stops in each of the five boroughs and in schools at each grade level. The majority of schools she’s visited have earned either an A or a B on their annual progress report, meaning they are in no danger of being closed for poor performance. She has been to five “C” schools, none of which are on the city’s “to-be-closed” list.

Asked today if she thought she was getting a “realistic” view of the city’s schools, Black said she had.

“I’ve been to the South Bronx, and that’s about as realistic as you can get, and I felt the same thing,” she told Daily News reporter Rachel Monahan. “The principal has been there for four years. And I asked if [the school] looked like that four years ago, and she said no it did not look like that. So that comes from leadership.”

Black visited Medgar Evers College Preparatory School today, a high school in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, that admits students based on their middle school test scores and other academic measures. Nearly all Medgar Evers students graduate with a Regents diploma and some go on to top universities. President Obama praised the school back in July for giving its students the opportunity to earn college credits at the Medgar Evers College of The City University of New York before they graduate from high school.

Department of Education officials allowed only four reporters to enter Medgar Evers with Black today. Descriptions of the visit were provided by Sharon Otterman of the New York Times.

Black visited four classrooms today, spending 45 minutes at the school and chatting with students as she passed through. In a Mandarin class, students sang her a welcome song and performed a dance with bands of colored cloth.

“Some of you may not know this, but I have been in magazine publishing, and we have a company in Shanghai and Beijing, and we publish seven magazines in China,” Black told the class.

“It’s been very exciting to see the growth in China. So maybe someday one of you will have a good job at a magazine in China. Good luck to you all, and keep studying,” she said.

Administrators at the school said they were proud to have boosted the graduation rate from 60 to 95 percent in the last decade. They said they wished Black had spent more time in the school.

“That was the speed of light,” said Assistant Principal Delroy Burnett of Black’s visit.

Medgar Evers Principal Michael Wiltshire said he didn’t have time to thoroughly explain his school’s philosophy to Black. But he hoped she would walk away remembering his school as one “that believes in the total education of the child,” he said.

“It’s not just the academic development of the child; it’s the holistic development, where we take into consideration the total child. That I think is what the city lacks,” Wiltshire said. “They’re not talking about the total education of the child; they’re talking about test prep.  We’re not into that.”

Black will officially become chancellor on January 3. Asked how she planned to spend the holiday, she replied: “Studying.”

List of schools Black has visited:

PS 172K Beacon School of Excellence: Sunset Park, Brooklyn. The school has shown success with its large population of ELL students and was one of the first schools Klein visited when he became chancellor. Progress report grade: A

PS 109X Sedgwick: Morris Heights, Bronx. For her first visit to a public school as chancellor designate, Black went to P.S. 109, an elementary school with a large population of Latino students who’ve recently immigrated and are not fluent in English. Progress report grade: A

PS 111Q Jacob Blackwell and PS 78Q: Assemblywoman Cathy Nolan chose these two schools in her district for Black to visit. Both of them have a majority of low-income students and are ethnically diverse. Blackwell got a C on its most recent progress report and P.S. 78 got a B.

PS 33M Chelsea Prep: Last week, Black spent an hour at this elementary school in Chelsea with Times’ reporter Susan Dominus. She chatted with students and suggested that the school hold a “pet day,” so everyone could bring their pets to school. Later, she noted this was not a very practical suggestion.   Progress report grade: A

PS 185K Walter Kassenbrock: Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. This elementary school routinely posts high test scores and has become very popular, so it now has to manage an overcrowding problem. Its gifted and talented program is being phased out. Progress report grade: C

PS 71X Rose Scala: Pelham Bay, Bronx. A K-8 school where about half the students qualify for free or reduced lunch. Roughly 60 percent of its 3rd graders passed the state’s math and reading tests last year, which was about the citywide average. Progress report grade: C

PS 329K Surfside and I.S. 239K Mark Twain: Coney Island, Brooklyn. Surfside is a K-5 school where the majority of students are low-income and minority. It has few students who are learning English, but has a high percentage of special education students. About 44 percent of its 3rd graders passed the state’s math and reading tests last year. Progress report grade: C. Mark Twain is a nearby selective middle school that admits students from all over the city and sends many of its students on to the specialized high schools. Students audition for the school’s art, music, and dance programs and take written tests for other subject areas like science and creative writing. Progress report grade: A.

Hillcrest High School: Jamaica, Queens. A large high school that reorganized itself into seven programs in 2006, Hillcrest has a four-year graduation rate of 69 percent, which is higher than the citywide average. Like many high schools in Queens, it is overcrowded. Progress report grade: C.

IS 75R Frank Paulo: Staten Island. A middle school where about a quarter of the students are low-income and students in all grades score above the citywide averages on the state’s math and reading tests.  Progress report grade: B

Medgar Evers College Prep: Crown Heights, Brooklyn. A 6-12 school that admits high performing students from all over the city. Students have access to more AP classes than your average high school can offer, and many graduate having already earned college credits. Progress report grade: B

PS 376K: Bushwick, Brooklyn. An elementary school where nearly all the students come from low-income families and most are Latino. P.S. 376 has a gifted and talented program and it also has a large number of students who are recent immigrants and don’t speak English. Progress report grade: B.

Photos taken by Ed Reed of the mayor’s office:





after douglas

Betsy DeVos avoids questions on discrimination as school safety debates reach Congress

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos prepares to testify at a House Appropriations Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies Subcommittee hearing in Rayburn Building on the department's FY2019 budget on March 20, 2018. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos fielded some hostile questions on school safety and racial discrimination as she defended the Trump administration’s budget proposal in a House committee hearing on Tuesday.

The tone for the hearing was set early by ranking Democrat Rep. Rosa DeLauro, who called aspects DeVos’s prepared remarks “misleading and cynical” before the secretary had spoken. Even the Republican subcommittee chair, Rep. Tom Cole, expressed some skepticism, saying he was “concerned about the administration continuing to request cuts that Congress has rejected.”

During nearly two hours of questioning, DeVos stuck to familiar talking points and largely side-stepped the tougher queries from Democrats, even as many interrupted her.

For instance, when Rep. Barbara Lee, a Democrat from Texas, complained about proposed spending cuts and asked, “Isn’t it your job to ensure that schools aren’t executing harsher punishments for the same behavior because [students] are black or brown?” DeVos responded by saying that students of color would benefit from expanded school choice programs.

Lee responded: “You still haven’t talked about the issue in public schools as it relates to black and brown students and the high disparity rates as it relates to suspensions and expulsions. Is race a factor? Do you believe that or not?” (Recent research in Louisiana found that black students receive longer suspensions than white students involved in the same fights, though the difference was very small.)

Again, DeVos did not reply directly.

“There is no place for discrimination and there is no tolerance for discrimination, and we will continue to uphold that,” she said. “I’m very proud of the record of the Office of Civil Rights in continuing to address issues that arise to that level.”

Lee responded that the administration has proposed cuts to that office; DeVos said the reduction was modest — less than 1 percent — and that “they are able to do more with less.”

The specific policy decision that DeVos faces is the future of a directive issued in 2014 by the Obama administration designed to push school districts to reduce racial disparities in suspensions and expulsions. Conservatives and some teachers have pushed DeVos to rescind this guidance, while civil rights groups have said it is crucial for ensuring black and Hispanic students are not discriminated against.

That was a focus of another hearing in the House on Tuesday precipitated by the shooting last month at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican, falsely claimed in his opening statement that Broward County Public Schools rewrote its discipline policy based on the federal guidance — an idea that has percolated through conservative media for weeks and been promoted by other lawmakers, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Utah Sen. Mike Lee. In fact, the Broward County rules were put into place in 2013, before the Obama administration guidance was issued.

The Manhattan Institute’s Max Eden, a leading critic of Obama administration’s guidance, acknowledged in his own testimony that the Broward policy predated these rules. But he suggested that policies like Broward’s and the Obama administration’s guidance have made schools less safe.

“Faced with pressure to get the numbers down, the easiest path is to simply not address, or to not record, troubling, even violent, behavior,” he said.

Kristen Harper, a director with research group Child Trends and a former Obama administration official, disagreed. “To put it simply, neither the purpose nor the letter of the federal school discipline guidance restrict the authority of school personnel to remove a child who is threatening student safety,” she said.

There is little, if any, specific evidence linking Broward County’s policies to how Stoneman Douglas shooter Nicholas Cruz was dealt with. There’s also limited evidence about whether reducing suspensions makes schools less safe.

Eden pointed to a study in Philadelphia showing that the city’s ban on suspensions coincided with a drop in test scores and attendance in some schools. But those results are difficult to interpret because the prohibition was not fully implemented in many schools. He also cited surveys of teachers expressing concerns about safety in the classroom including in Oklahoma CityFresno, California; and Buffalo, New York.

On the other hand, a recent study found that after Chicago modestly reduced suspensions for the most severe behaviors, student test scores and attendance jumped without any decline in how safe students felt.

DeVos is now set to consider the repeal of those policies on the Trump administration’s school safety committee, which she will chair.

On Tuesday, DeVos said the committee’s first meeting would take place “within the next few weeks.” Its members will be four Cabinet secretaries: DeVos herself, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar, and Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen.

on the run

‘Sex and the City’ star and public schools advocate Cynthia Nixon launches bid for N.Y. governor

Cynthia Nixon on Monday announced her long-anticipated run for New York governor.

Actress and public schools advocate Cynthia Nixon announced Monday that she’s running for governor of New York, ending months of speculation and launching a campaign that will likely spotlight education.

Nixon, who starred as Miranda in the TV series “Sex and the City,” will face New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in September’s Democratic primary.

Nixon has been active in New York education circles for more than a decade. She served as a  longtime spokeswoman for the Alliance for Quality Education, a union-backed advocacy organization. Though Nixon will step down from that role, according to a campaign spokeswoman, education promises to be a centerpiece of her campaign.

In a campaign kickoff video posted to Twitter, Nixon calls herself “a proud public school graduate, and a prouder public school parent.” Nixon has three children.

“I was given chances I just don’t see for most of New York’s kids today,” she says.

Nixon’s advocacy began when her oldest child started school, which was around the same time the recession wreaked havoc on education budgets. She has slammed Gov. Cuomo for his spending on education during his two terms in office, and she has campaigned for New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

In 2008, she stepped into an emotional fight on the Upper West Side over a plan to deal with overcrowding and segregation that would have impacted her daughter’s school. In a video of brief remarks during a public meeting where the plan was discussed, Nixon is shouted down as she claims the proposal would lead to a “de facto segregated” school building.

Nixon faces steep competition in her first run for office. She is up against an incumbent governor who has amassed a $30 million war chest, according to the New York Times. If elected, she would be the first woman and the first openly gay governor in the state.