talking points

With mixed messages, charter school backers lobby lawmakers

Harriet Tubman Charter School students were among several groups to visit Bronx Assemblyman Erik Stevenson's office on Tuesday.

When elected officials visit schools in their district, they generally follow a scripted routine. They cut ribbons, make speeches, and smile for pictures.

When the roles are reversed — as they were on Tuesday, when hundreds of charter school parents, students, and teachers convened in Albany to lobby lawmakers — the conversations aren’t always so predictable.

Some of the charter school advocates stuck to talking points determined in advance by the lobby day’s organizers. The New York City Charter Center and the New York Charter School Association want the legislature to give charter schools the right to operate pre-kindergarten programs, something state law currently precludes.  The agenda is a response to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposal to give $25 million to district schools that offer more full-day pre-K seats.

But in interviews and individual meetings with lawmakers, students and parents spoke about education issues that affected them personally. Almost all said they love the schools they attend, but they expressed concerns about their schools’ safety, space, and resources. One parent from an upstate charter school said her child’s special needs were not being adequately addressed.

The range of issues and concerns raised by the more than 1,200 people who made it to Albany (via 38 buses) illustrates just how big and diverse the charter sector has gotten in New York State. There are 159 charter schools in New York City, up from fewer than 100 just three years ago. Across the state there are now 208 charter schools, and organizers said 111 of them were represented on Tuesday.

People took different paths to get their voices heard. Some used connections to speak directly with Cuomo’s top education aides. Others refused to leave offices without a meeting, even after being told the representative was busy voting on bills across the street at the State Capitol.

After waiting outside the offices of Harlem Assemblyman Keith Wright, who was not there because he was in session voting on bills, dozens of students and parents from Democracy Prep Public Schools and Opportunity Charter High School were finally let in.

When Jeanine Johnson, Wright’s chief of staff, asked them what they wanted to talk about, a kindergartner was the first to reply.

“UPK,” the student fired back, referring to universal pre-kindergarten. DPPS wants add a pre-K program even if it has to set up a separate nonprofit organization to do so. It recently submitted a bid to the city to run one of its universal prekindergarten programs.

Another group from the network took their agenda straight to Cuomo’s deputy secretary of education, De’Shawn Wright. Wright’s predecessor, David Wakelyn, is now senior director of strategy and development at Democracy Prep and helped arrange the meeting. That group focused on a different agenda item: support for a state DREAM act that would give financial aid for college to students who are undocumented immigrants.

“Secretary Wright already supports the DREAM Act so we don’t have to try and persuade him to change his opinion,” said Ben Feit, a Democracy Prep official, before the group headed to the Capitol building to meet with Wright. “We’re going to thank him for his support for the DREAM Act and then we’re going to talk to him about UPK and other issues about charter schools that we’ve discussed so many times in the past.”

Reporters weren’t allowed in the meeting, but Feit said Wright said he needed to learn more about the pre-K issue before committing support. A Cuomo official later said the governor’s Education Reform Commission, which is expected to release another set of recommendations later this year, would take up the charter sector’s pre-K issues.

In a meeting with Assemblyman Eric Stevenson, a student from Harriet Tubman Charter School said her school wasn’t making a good enough effort to assign or provide books she wanted to read.

“They turned the whole library into the detention room and I felt like that was a bad thing to do,” said the student. A teacher who accompanied the students confirmed the renovation, citing space issues.

Some parents were also looking forward to air their grievances. Amy Kirklin, the mother of a student with special needs at Amani Charter School in Mount Vernon, said charter schools weren’t doing enough to serve the highest-need students. In New York City, just a quarter charter schools serve the same or a higher percentage of special education students than their districts’ average, according to the charter center.

“They’re trying,” Kirklin said of Amani. “My child is still attending, but we’ll give them three more years.”

Stevenson, whose office saw a steady stream of charter school supporters waiting to meet with him, said the full-day lobbying effort worked on him.

“Why not?” Stevenson said when asked if he’d support giving charter schools the right to operate pre-K programs. “It’s education at an early age so let’s do it. Let’s change the law.”

Stevenson, a Democrat who represents the South Bronx, added that he wouldn’t support a bill to put a moratorium on school closures, a controversial policy that in New York City has allowed charter schools to flourish but drawn criticism for concentrating high-need students in remaining large schools.

“Public schools are failing,” Stevenson said. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize it.”

Many charter school advocacy groups are hoping that the city’s next mayor will adopt many of the Bloomberg administration’s hallmark education policies, including closures and letting charter schools operate rent-free in public space.

But parents in Albany on Tuesday consistently said they were ready for anyone but Bloomberg.

“Personally, I like John Liu,” said Owen McFadzean, a parent at Bronx Preparatory Charter School.

“I can’t wait for Bloomberg to get out,” said McFadzean’s wife, Therese.

pre-k for all

New York City will add dual language options in pre-K to attract parents and encourage diversity

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Schools Chancellor Carmen FariƱa, back right, visits a Mandarin pre-K dual language program at P.S. 20 Anna Silver on the Lower East Side.

Education Department officials on Wednesday announced the addition of 33 dual language pre-K programs in the 2018-19 school year, more than doubling the bilingual opportunities available for New York City’s youngest learners.

The expansion continues an aggressive push under the current administration, which has added 150 new bilingual programs to date. Popular with parents — there were 2,900 applications for about 600 pre-K dual language seats last year — the programs can also be effective in boosting the performance of students who are learning English as a new language.

Another possible benefit: creating more diverse pre-K classrooms, which research has shown are starkly segregated in New York City.

Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña said the new programs reflect the city’s commitment to serving all students, even as a national debate rages over immigration reform.

“It’s important to understand that immigrants or people who speak a second language are an asset,” Fariña said. She called bilingual education “a gift that I think all schools should have.”

Included in the expansion are the city’s first dual language pre-K programs in Bengali and Russian, which will open in Jamaica, Queens, and the Upper West Side, Manhattan, respectively. The other additions will build on programs in Spanish, Mandarin and Italian. Every borough is represented in the expansion, with 11 new programs in Manhattan, nine in Brooklyn, six in Queens, five in the Bronx, and two on Staten Island.

In the dual-language model, students split their time between instruction in English and another language. At P.S. 20 Anna Silver, where the recent expansion was announced, pre-K students start the morning in English and transition to Mandarin after nap time. Experts say the model works best when the class includes an equal mix of students who are proficient in each language so they can learn from each other as well as the teacher, though it can often be difficult to strike that balance.

Officials and some advocates view dual-language programs as a tool for integration by drawing middle-class families eager to have their children speak two languages into neighborhood schools that they otherwise may not have considered. Research has shown that New York City’s pre-K classrooms tend to be more segregated than kindergarten. In one in six pre-K classrooms, more than 90 percent of students are from a single racial or ethnic background. That’s compared with one in eight kindergarten classrooms, according to a 2016 report by The Century Foundation.

Sharon Stapel, a mother from Brooklyn, said she knew early on that she wanted her daughter to learn another language and strike relationships across cultures. So she travels to the Lower East Side with her four-year-old, Finch, to attend the Mandarin dual-language pre-K program at P.S. 20 Anna Silver. On Wednesday, the city announced it will add a Spanish dual language program at the school.

“We really see it as how you build community with your neighbors and your friends,” Stapel said. “It was also an opportunity for Finch to become involved and engage in the cultures and in the differences that she could see in the classrooms — and really celebrate that difference.”

Citywide, about 13 percent of students are learning English as a new language. That number does not include pre-K since the state does not have a way to identify students’ language status before kindergarten. However, based on census data, it is estimated that 30 percent of three- and four-year-olds in New York are English learners.

Dual-language programs can benefit students who are still learning English — more so than English-only instruction. Nationally and in New York City, students who are learning English are less likely to pass standardized tests and graduate from high school. In one study, students who enrolled in dual-language courses in kindergarten gained the equivalent of one year of reading instruction by eighth grade, compared with their peers who received English-only instruction.

The city has been under pressure to improve outcomes for English learners. Under the previous administration, New York City was placed on a state “corrective action plan” that required the education department to open 125 new bilingual programs by 2013. Though the city fell short of that goal, the current administration has agreed to place every English learner in a bilingual program by the 2018-19 school year.

Among the greatest barriers to achieving that is finding qualified teachers, Fariña said. In some cases, it can be hard to find teachers who are fluent in the target language. In others, teachers who are native in a foreign language may only be certified in their home country, and it can be hard to transfer that certification to New York.

In order to open an Urdu program recently, Fariña said, the teacher, who holds a degree from another country, went through Teaching Fellows, an alternative certification program that usually caters to career-changers or recent college grads.

“I think the biggest challenge we have right now is ensuring our teacher preparation courses are keeping up with our need and demand for teachers who can teach another language,” she said.

college plans

As Washington decides their fate, ‘Dreamers’ preparing for college are stuck in limbo

PHOTO: Joe Amon/The Denver Post
Randi Smith, a psychology teacher at Metro State University, marched to support Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals during a citywide walkout in downtown Denver, CO.

While many high schoolers spend spring of their senior year coasting through classes and waiting to hear back from colleges, undocumented students who hope to attend college spend their time calling lawyers, consulting school counselors, and scouring the internet in search of ways to pay for school without the help of federal financial aid or student loans — assuming they even get in.

That process, anxiety-provoking even in a normal year, has become incalculably more chaotic this admissions season — even traumatic — as these young undocumented immigrants watch President Trump and lawmakers wrangle over Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the program that has until now allowed them to remain in the country without having to fear deportation.

As the policy battle nears a climax, these students aren’t just breathlessly waiting to learn whether they’ll be accepted into college — they’re waiting to see whether they have a future in this country.

“It’s different for me. It’s definitely more stressful and there are times when you want to give up,” said an undocumented student at KIPP NYC College Prep High School, who is graduating this year and applying to colleges. She requested anonymity because of her legal status. “But then I remind myself that regardless of what’s going on, I’m still going to do what I’ve set myself to do.”

High school counselors are also feeling the strain. They already faced the difficult task of helping undocumented students compete for private scholarships, and finding schools that will support those students once they’re on campus. Now those counselors also must monitor each twist and turn of the immigration debate in Washington, while, somehow, trying to keep their undocumented students focused on college.

One of those counselors is John Kearney, who works at Guadalupe Centers Alta Vista High School, a charter school in Kansas City, Missouri. Dozens of his soon-to-graduate students are beneficiaries of DACA, a program created under former President Obama that allows undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country as children to avoid deportation and work here legally. Lately, they have been asking him why they should even consider college when their fate in the U.S. is so uncertain.

“The big question is, ‘Why? Why go to college, and then I can’t even work, then why?’” said Kearney, who also helped start a nonprofit that provides scholarships to undocumented students. “It’s a really tough question.”

As of Friday, President Trump and lawmakers were still locked in heated negotiations over DACA, which Trump said this fall that he would eliminate unless Congress enshrined it in law. Without an agreement, it is set to expire March 5, just as graduating seniors firm up their college plans. If that happens, young immigrants, often called Dreamers, could lose the few crucial protections they have. For many, their DACA status has already lapsed.

Even with DACA’s protections, Dreamers face massive hurdles to enroll in college: They don’t qualify for federal aid or loans, and, in some states, are barred from receiving financial aid or even attending public universities. Out of the estimated 65,000 undocumented students who graduate from high school every year, only 5-10 percent enroll in college.

Following Trump’s announcement in September, counselors have also had to race against the clock counting down to DACA’s expiration: That meant juggling college application deadlines with the October cutoff for students to apply for renewed DACA status.

The KIPP charter school network received a donation this year to help students pay for the renewal fee, which has been a godsend for many students — including the young woman who is graduating from KIPP NYC College Prep High School.

As soon as she learned the school would pay the fee for her, she immediately called her father, who is also undocumented and repairs beauty-salon equipment for a living.

“My dad was definitely trying to round up the money before the deadline, so it was a blessing that the school was able to find a donor,” she said. “I told him not to worry about it and it was a relief — like a weight off his shoulders.”

If the girl was trying to relieve her father’s stress, her college counselor, Rob Santos, was trying to do the same for her. Even as she balanced college-application essays, transcripts, and the rest, she was also coming to realize how quickly her life would change if DACA is not extended.

“There was definitely extra emotional support that I’ve had to provide this year,” Santos said. “I definitely had my DACA student in my office, and tears were happening.”

Santos keeps a running list of the colleges that accept students who don’t have permanent legal status and the few scholarships available to them. Many of those scholarships require undocumented students to have DACA status. If the program ends, it’s unclear whether students will still be eligible.

Still, Santos said his dreamer student rarely talks about the political furor surrounding her future in the U.S. as she awaits her college-acceptance letter. Instead, she’s more likely to discuss her hope of one day studying business and fashion.

“Our DACA students are resilient. They’re optimistic,” Santos said. “But they’re also realistic for what could actually happen.”