'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:

another path

‘They’re my second family.’ Largest Pathways to Graduation class earn their diplomas

Jasmine Byrd receives an award for excellence after giving a speech to her fellow graduates.

Before last fall, Jasmine Byrd never envisioned herself striding across the stage to receive a diploma at a graduation ceremony.

But then Byrd moved to the Bronx from Utah and entered New York City’s Pathways to Graduation program, which helps 17- to 21-year-olds who didn’t graduate from a traditional high school earn a High School Equivalency Diploma by giving them free resources and support.

Just walking into this space and being like, this is what you’ve accomplished and this is what you’ve worked hard for is a great feeling,” said Byrd, who also credits the program with helping her snag a web development internship. “I’ve built my New York experience with this program. They’re my second family, sometimes my first when I needed anything.”

Byrd is one of about 1,700 students to graduate during the 2017-2018 school year from Pathways, the program’s largest graduating class to date, according to officials.  

This year, students from 102 countries and 41 states graduated from Pathways, which is part of District 79, the education department district overseeing programs for older students who have had interrupted schooling.

The program also saw the most students ever participate in its graduation ceremony, a joyful celebration held this year at the Bronx United Palace Theater. According to Robert Evans, a math teacher at one of the program’s five boroughwide sites and emcee of the graduation, about 600 students typically show up to walk the stage. But students can be a part of the ceremony even if they received their passing test results that morning, and this year more than 800 graduates attended.

There were still students coming in last night to take photos and to pick up their sashes and gowns,” said Evans.

The graduation ceremony is unique in part because the program is. Students who have not completed high school attend classes to prepare to take the high school equivalency exam. But the program also prepares students to apply for college, attend vocational school, or enter the workforce by providing help applying for colleges, creating resumes and other coaching.

To make sure that the program is accessible to all students, there’s a main site in every borough and 92 satellite sites, located in community centers and youth homeless shelters like Covenant House. Students who want to work in the medical field, like Genesis Rocio Rodriguez, can take their courses in hospitals. Rodriguez, who graduated in December, is now enrolled in the Borough of Manhattan Community College, and passing the exam meant being one step closer to her dream of becoming a nurse.

When I got my results I was with my classmate, and to be honest I thought I failed because I was so nervous during it. But then I went online, and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh I did it!’ My mom started crying and everything.”

Byrd said the program worked for her because of the supportive teachers and extra resources.

“The teachers are relatable,” said Byrd. “They don’t put on an act, they don’t try to separate the person from the teacher. They really reach out, even call you to get you out of bed in the morning.”

Carmine Guirland said the supportive environment of social workers, guidance counselors, and teachers is what attracts him to the work at Bronx NeOn, a site where students who are on probation or who are involved with the court system can prepare for the exam, college, and careers.

When students are on parole they will have really involved [parole officers] who would text me at the beginning of class to check in so that we could work together,” said Guirland. “It’s really about that village thing. The more support systems that are available the more success the students will have.”

Reflecting on his experiences with the graduating class, Guirland’s most treasured memory was when one of his students proposed to his girlfriend in a guidance counseling session. Even though they aren’t together anymore, the moment was a reflection of the relationships that many of the students build during their time at Pathways to Graduation.

“It’s this amazing high moment where this student felt like the most comfortable place for him to propose to his girlfriend and the mother of his child was in our advisory circle,” said Guirland.

New Standards

Tennessee updates science standards for first time in 10 years. New guidelines stress class discussion, inquiry

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Fourth grade science teachers Lamarcus Marks, of Rivercrest Elementary, and Angie Clement, of Bartlett Elementary, test out a lesson on kinetic and potential energy at Arlington High School, one of 11 statewide sites where Tennessee teachers are training for next year's new science standards.

How can a wolf change the river? Why doesn’t a cactus have leaves? Why can’t you exterminate bats in Tennessee?

With new state science standards coming to classrooms next fall, these are the kinds of questions students will explore in their science classes. They’ll be tasked not only with memorizing the answers, but also with asking questions of their own, engaging on the topic with their teacher and classmates, and applying what they learn across disciplines. That’s because the changes set forth are as much about teaching process, as they are about teaching content.

“At the lowest level, I could just teach you facts,” said Detra Clark, who is one of about 300 Tennessee educators leading teacher trainings on the new standards to her peers from across the state. “Now it’s like, ‘I want you to figure out why or how you can use the facts to figure out a problem.’”

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Detra Clark, a science coach in Shelby County’s iZone, demonstrates a sample lesson for sixth grade science teachers.

On Wednesday, Clark — a science coach for the iZone, a group of underperforming schools that Shelby County Schools is looking to turn around — unpacked for her peers, who gathered at Arlington High School, a key component of the new material: three-dimensional modeling. Under three-dimensional modeling, students should be able to do something with the content they learn, not just memorize it.

In recent years, Tennessee students have performed better on state science tests than on their math and English exams. But state science standards for grades K–12 haven’t been updated since 2008. By contrast, math and English benchmarks have undergone more recent changes. To give the stakeholders time to adjust, results from next year’s science test, the first to incorporate the new standards, won’t count for students, teachers, or schools.

At the training session, Clark, standing before a room of sixth-grade science teachers, held up a chart with the names of woodland animals, such as elk and deer. Under each name, she tracked the population over time.

“At our starting population, what do we see?” she asked.

“The deer, it decreases again because it’s introduced to a predator,” a teacher responded.

“More resources, more surviving animals” another teacher chimed in.

“How can we explain what happened in year two, when we’re dealing with students?” Clark asked the group.

“The population went up,” a teacher said.

“They start to reproduce!” another teacher interjected.

Clark nodded.

In another classroom, this one composed of kindergarten teachers, Bridget Davis — a K-2 instructional advisor for Shelby County Schools — clicked through a video of fuzzy critters, each paired with a close relative, such as two different breeds of dogs.

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
In a teacher training session on Wednesday, kindergarten teachers highlight the three dimensions of three-dimensional modeling, a key part of new state science standards.

She encouraged the teachers to ask their students what traits the animals shared.

“The first thing they’re going to say is, ‘Well, one’s big and one’s small,” she said. “What we really want them to say is, ‘Well, their fur is the same color,’ or, ‘Mom has a patch of black hair here and the baby doesn’t.’ We want them to look at detail.”

She added, “We want them to get used to being a detective.”

The science standards that have been in place for the past decade fulfills the first dimension of three-dimensional modeling.

Doing something with that knowledge satisfies the second dimension, and the third dimension requires teachers to apply to their lessons a “cross-cutting concept” — strategies that students can apply to any subject, like identifying patterns or sequences.

Under the existing standards, a student may not have been introduced to physical science until the third grade. But starting next year, Tennessee schoolchildren will learn about life science, physical science, earth and space science, and engineering applications, beginning in kindergarten and continuing through high school.

“I do believe that this is the best our standards have ever been, because of the fact that they are so much more detailed than they have been in the past,” Davis said.

About a thousand Shelby County teachers made their way to trainings this week, which were free and open to all educators. Several administrators also met to discuss ways they can ensure the new standards are implemented in their schools.

As with anything new, Jay Jennings — an assistant principal at a Tipton county middle school and an instructor at Wednesday’s training — expects some pushback. But he’s optimistic that his district will have every teacher at benchmark by the end of the 2018–2019 school year.

“We talked before about teachers knowing content, and that’s important,” he said. “But what we want to see is kids knowing content and questioning content. We want to see them involved.”

He reminded other school leaders about last year’s changes to English and math standards, a transition that he said was challenging but smoother than expected.  

“Teachers are going to go out of their comfort zone,” he explained. “But it’s not changing what a lot of them are already doing.”