'small steps'

Under pressure from advocates, city inches toward district-wide integration plan

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

Top New York City education department officials are exploring a plan to more evenly spread low-income students and their affluent peers across a Manhattan school district. If approved, experts say it would represent the city’s first district-wide desegregation plan in decades.

Earlier this year, the city launched an initiative that lets individual schools adopt socioeconomic-diversity plans — but officials have yet to sign off on a larger overhaul. However, the education department’s enrollment chief recently met with a consultant who helped develop the proposal for Manhattan’s District 1, which includes about two-dozen schools in the East Village and Lower East Side. The new system could be ready as soon as this fall when parents apply to schools for the 2017-18 school year, according to the consultant, Michael Alves, though that would leave the city relatively little time to prepare families for the change.

Still, officials’ apparent openness to the plan represents a major victory for the local parents and educators who proposed it, and for advocates across the city who have successfully persuaded Mayor Bill de Blasio and his schools chancellor to make integration a priority.

“The administration at first, I think, was hesitant to engage on such a big issue,” said City Councilman Brad Lander of Brooklyn, who has emerged as a leader of the newly energized school integration movement in New York. He said the school-by-school approach showed progress, but that the city must now explore broader plans — such as the one being considered in Manhattan.

“We’ve seen some small steps, but nothing approaching systemic action or even a coherent plan,” he said. “That’s what we want to see from the mayor and the chancellor in the fall.”

A meeting in District 1 earlier this year where district leaders presented a socioeconomic integration plan that crafted.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
A meeting in District 1 earlier this year where district leaders presented a socioeconomic integration plan they crafted.

Experts consider District 1 a natural place for the city to experiment with a district-wide integration plan.

The district is small, diverse, and already allows families to apply to any school regardless of their address, which is a key component of the proposed enrollment system. Known as “controlled choice,” the plan would still allow families to apply to schools they choose, but it would add information about their income levels and educational background into the matching process. The goal is to reduce the clustering of affluent and needy students in a district where 100 percent of the students at some schools are low income, while just over 20 percent are at others.

Using a state integration grant, local parents and educators partnered with the district superintendent to develop the plan and to hire Alves as a consultant. (He is also working with a Brooklyn district that received a state grant and is exploring a controlled-choice system for its middle schools.)

Alves said that Robert Sanft, chief executive officer of the education department’s enrollment office, recently invited him to a two-hour meeting with his team to discuss District 1. He said he expects to meet next with Josh Wallack, the deputy chancellor overseeing the city’s nascent integration efforts. Alves said the department has not officially signed off on the new enrollment system, but he expects it will.

“I feel very strongly that the administration is committed now to moving forward,” he said, adding, “It’s very significant that Deputy Chancellor Wallack is now engaged in this, [along with] Rob and his staff.”

The current wave of integration advocacy kicked off in 2014 when researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles’ Civil Rights Project declared New York’s schools to be the most segregated in the country. That prompted the City Council to hold a hearing on school segregation, and to pass a bill requiring the education department to release new demographic data and report on any desegregation steps it has taken.

Those efforts were led by Councilman Lander and Bronx City Councilman Ritchie Torres, who also convened several meetings of integration advocates from across the city. In October, that coalition sent a letter to Chancellor Carmen Fariña offering a list of seven recommendations to promote integration.

Since then, the city has taken a few of their suggestions: It launched the initiative in November letting individual schools reserve a portion of their seats for high-needs students — a policy inspired by several principals who had asked for permission to do so nearly a year earlier. It also allowed more high schools to enroll a mix of low and high-performing students by design.

In addition, it has taken some steps that were not listed in the recommendations, but which officials say can lead to more diverse schools. For example, it has added more dual-language programs, which offer lessons in two languages and can appeal to families from a mix of backgrounds. It also started gifted-and-talented programs in several low-income districts that lacked them, and announced a $15 million effort to help more black and Hispanic students gain entry into elite public high schools that use admission exams.

“They’re showing tremendous openness and enthusiasm for this, which is so different from what we saw in 2014,” said David Tipson, executive director of the integration advocacy group New York Appleseed, and a member of the coalition that wrote the letter. “They’ve clearly made a decision to make this a priority and not bury their heads in the sand anymore.”

City Councilman Ritchie Torres said he did not think the city would have taken the steps it has to address school segregation were it not under pressure from advocates.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
City Councilman Ritchie Torres said he did not think the city would have taken the steps it has to address school segregation were it not under pressure from advocates.

Still, some in the coalition question whether the recent action reflects a real commitment to integration or simply a response to public pressure.

They point out that the education department has not adopted an official policy affirming its support for integration, nearly two years after the City Council passed a resolution calling on it to do so. (Officials said they have “heard the call” for a diversity policy and are considering it.)

Meanwhile, some of the city’s recent efforts fall short of what the coalition recommended. For instance, the group proposed that the city offer the top students at every middle school a spot at one of the elite “specialized” high schools, which some studies have concluded is the best way to make the schools more diverse. Rather than overhaul the schools’ admissions requirements, as de Blasio promised on the campaign trail, he opted instead to expand programs to help more students pass the entrance exam.

“We think that’s insufficient, to say the very least,” said David Jones, president of the Community Service Society, an anti-poverty organization, which is part of the coalition. “We think there has to be a much more systemic look at this.”

Some advocates also remain deeply skeptical of the administration’s approach to integration, which is centered on building consensus for changes rather than mandating them.

Fariña has said she wants integration to happen “organically,” and has asked principals and superintendents to craft their own plans. And when the education department proposed a rezoning on the Upper West Side last year that would have helped integrate two schools, it retracted the plan after affluent parents rallied against it.

“If changing every heart and mind is the standard for a more integrated school system, then we’ll be like Godot waiting for an outcome that will never come,” said Torres, the Bronx lawmaker, who argued that the de Blasio administration would not have launched its recent integration efforts without the pressure from advocates.

“I suspect the administration sees integration as politically treacherous territory,” he added. “If we leave it to its own devices, there’s going to be no progress.”

Josh Wallack, the deputy chancellor overseeing enrollment, disagreed. He said the education department is focused “first and foremost” on improving the quality of every school, but that Chancellor Fariña is also deeply committed to fostering diverse schools, which she has done both by launching programs and by asking schools and districts to come up with their own ideas.

“The chancellor has been very clear that this is a priority for her,” he said. “During the last year, the focus has sharpened on this even a little bit more.”

The private Oct. 2015 letter from integration advocates to Chancellor Carmen Fariña, which coalition members provided to Chalkbeat:

Charter schism

Independent charter schools look to raise their profile, apart from networks and Betsy DeVos

PHOTO: Coalition of Community Charter Schools
Veter education journalist John Merrow moderates a panel at the Independent Charter School Symposium.

Stand-alone charter schools say they’re often overlooked in favor of big-name networks like KIPP — while at the same time being unfairly tied to Betsy DeVos’s agenda.

At a symposium last week, a number of school leaders agreed to try to change that by launching a new national organization dedicated to independent, or “mom-and-pop,” charters.

“When people think of charters, they do not think of us,” said Steve Zimmerman, an organizer of the conference and founder of two independent charter schools.

In a hotel conference room in Queens, leaders from nearly 200 schools across 20 states unanimously called for the group’s creation. They also adopted a progressive manifesto that tried to separate the members from the Trump administration and common criticisms of the charter schools.

It marks yet another fissure in the nation’s charter school movement, which has seen political and philosophical divides open up in the wake of U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s appointment.

And while the loose group of independent charters does not yet have a name or a clear funding plan, its leaders believe they can provide a louder, more democratic voice for their concerns than existing charter advocacy groups, which they say are too focused on expanding networks.

“The National Alliance [for Public Charter Schools] truly believes they act in the interest of all charter schools. And to some degree they do,” said Zimmerman, referring to the country’s top national charter advocacy group. “The truth is, though, that they can’t really represent the real interests of independent charter schools because their funders really believe in the network model.”

National Alliance spokeswoman Vanessa Descalzi said the group supports independent charters.

“Advocating for independent, community-based schools is in the National Alliance’s DNA,” she said. “Where folks feel we could do more, we look forward to continued discussion and seeking solutions together.”

A response to testing, and to Trump

Zimmerman is the co-director of the Coalition of Community Charter Schools, an organization for independent charters based in New York City that co-sponsored last week’s conference. That symposium, he said, came out of a desire to shift the discussion around measuring schools away from just test scores.

“We felt that there was too much thinking of outcomes as being the bottom line of the enterprise … and that was keeping our schools from being innovative,” he said. “It felt like a zero sum pissing game of comparing test scores all the time.”

When the Trump administration took office, a new set of concerns arose for many leaders of schools like his. In Zimmerman’s telling, there was “too much coziness between major players in the charter world and the incoming administration.”

He declined to offer specifics. But Eva Moskowitz, the head of the Success Academy network in New York, met with Trump soon after he was elected, and the National Alliance initially praised a Trump budget proposal featuring deep cuts to education spending but an increase for charter schools. Both have since distanced themselves further from the administration.

“To have in any way the charter world associated with that felt that it was really going to hurt our message,” Zimmerman said.

A distinct approach to judging charter schools

The manifesto adopted at the conference emphasizes a community-oriented vision for charter schooling — and a response to many common criticisms of charter schools.

Charters should be “laboratories of innovation” that seek to collaborate with districts, it says. Charter schools should serve “students who reflect our communities and neighborhoods, particularly students with the greatest educational needs,” and their leaders should create workplaces that are “collaborative, not adversarial” for teachers.

And while the group calls for schools to be held accountable for results, the mission statement says “real accountability must be rooted in the development of the whole child and the needs of society.” That’s a different emphasis from advocates who promote charter schools because they are more effective, as measured by test score gains.

In some ways that philosophy is more aligned with that of more conservative charter school supporters, including DeVos, who have argued for more innovation and less emphasis on test results.

“Some of these folks really feel like [charter] authorization has gotten too strict and has cut back innovation,” Zimmerman said. “And I believe so too.”

But Zimmerman distanced the group from a free-market approach. He is strongly opposed to private school vouchers, though said that’s not a stance the new organization has codified in its manifesto.

Zimmerman also points to issues with the Trump administration more broadly. The new group’s manifesto offers thinly veiled criticism: “We embrace our diverse communities, which include immigrants, people of color, children with disabilities, the homeless, English language learners, people of all faiths, and the LGBTQ community.”

A spokesperson for DeVos did not respond to a request for comment.

There is evidence that nonprofit charter networks do a slightly better job, on average, boosting test scores than independent charter schools. Those findings may explain, in part, why independent charter school leaders bristle at focusing on those metrics.

Zimmerman offered raised specific concerns about the National Alliance, which is funded by philanthropies including the Arnold, Broad, Gates, and Walton foundations. (Chalkbeat is also supported by the Gates and Walton foundations.) Those funders are focused on the replication of networks with high test scores, making the Alliance limited in its ability to represent independent schools, he said.

Christopher Norwood, who runs Florida’s independent charter school group, agreed that the networks exert outsized influence. He pointed to his state, where a recently passed bill to support the creation of new charters in areas where traditional public schools are struggling was limited to networks already operating at least three schools.

“There’s no charter management association of America because their interests are being promoted through the charter associations,” said Norwood, who along with Zimmerman, emphasized that he is not opposed to networks of charters.

Descalzi disputed that characterization of the Alliance.

“The National Alliance represents all public charter schools — including those which belong to a network or function as independent single sites — and we appreciate when any of our constituents take proactive steps to identify areas of need and provide resources to their communities,” she said.

Challenges await a new national organization

The top challenge for any nonprofit getting started is garnering funding. That will be amplified for the independent charters seeking to offer an alternative to charter school establishment — and the groups that financially supported them.

“It’s a huge hurdle,” Zimmerman said.

Zimmerman said the Walton Family Foundation, one of the charter sector’s largest benefactors turned down requests to sponsor last week’s conference. “They don’t necessarily see how we fit into their strategic vision, but I’m hoping they will,” he said.

Marc Sternberg, the Walton Foundation’s education program director, disputed the idea that the philanthropy is focused on replicating existing schools, saying they support “all types of schools,” including both “proven charter management organizations” and single schools. In the past eight years, nearly half of the schools funded by Walton’s charter start-up grant program were independent charters, according to the foundation.

Norwood says the new group for independent charters will look into funding itself through membership dues and from sponsorships. (The symposium was supported by a number of businesses that work with charters.)

It’s also unclear how much interest there truly is among the diffuse independent charters across the country for an alternative membership group. The conference brought together a few hundred leaders of the many thousands of such schools.

For now, the organization is its infancy, and Zimmerman says the next step will be creating a national advisory committee to craft a strategic plan.

The work is necessary, he said, if independent charters want to sidestep the problems of the broader sector, which has seen its popularity drop.

“They win battles but they’re losing the war, if the war is hearts and minds of people,”  Zimmerman said, referring to existing charter school advocacy groups and their funders. “We really have to separate ourselves from them as a matter of definition.”

college knowledge

‘This levels the playing field’: How New York City is trying to get more high school students to apply to college

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña spoke with Bryant Ramirez about his college plans at Pace High School on Monday.

Bryant Ramirez hunched over a worksheet Monday listing the private colleges where he plans to apply and, next to each one, whether he thinks he has a good shot of getting in.

It wasn’t long before the senior had written out his top choice — the Pratt Institute, a private college in Brooklyn — and fired up a school laptop to begin filling out an electronic application.

“I feel confident,” Ramirez said of his chances of landing a spot at one of his preferred schools. “But you never know.”

On Monday, schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña visited Ramirez and more than 20 of his peers at Manhattan’s Pace High School to showcase a growing citywide program designed to give schools more time and resources to help students through the college application process.

The program, called “College Access for All,” is meant to address the gap between students whose families already understand the application process and can help give them a leg up, and those who might be first-generation college students or who might not apply at all. This year, the education department expanded the program to include roughly 274 of the city’s high schools, or more than half of the total.

Participating schools help students craft post-graduation plans for specific careers or colleges, and ease the application process through school-sponsored college visits and additional counseling.

“More students are saying ‘I want to go to college,’” Fariña said. “This levels the playing field.”

At Pace, which is part of the program, students begin conversations about college in their advisory groups junior year, and later take college counseling classes where they are given time to fill out applications, financial aid forms, and learn about the college application process. The school also offers the SAT during a school day (instead of the weekend, when some students might not make it), and takes juniors and seniors on college visits — trips that school leaders are planning to extend to ninth and tenth graders.

Lancia Burke, the school’s college counselor, said some of those initiatives didn’t exist when she started at Pace 11 years ago and tried to cram as much information as possible into a single workshop with the entire senior class. (She also met with students individually.)

At one point, she felt overwhelmed as she tried helping students craft their college essays, so she approached the English department.

“‘Hey, I can’t handle going through all these personal essays,’” Burke recalled saying. After that, the department added college essay writing into their curriculum, she said.

The College Access for All program is part of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s “Equity and Excellence” agenda, which aims to get 80 percent of students to graduate high school on time and two-thirds of graduates college-ready by the year 2026.

About 51 percent of New York City’s graduates were considered college ready in 2016, meaning they could enroll at a CUNY school without having to take remedial classes, a 4 percentage point increase since 2014. The proportion of students who enroll in college or a work-training program within six months of graduating has also ticked up to 55 percent, also 4 percentage point increase since 2014.

Fariña said she hopes the program boosts the number of students who apply to college. But simply applying to college isn’t enough, she added.

“We always want to see the numbers going up in terms of applying,” Fariña said. “But once you get there, do you stay there?”