'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:

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.

Achievement School District

Here’s why another state-run charter school is closing in Memphis

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
GRAD Academy students work on a writing assignment during an African-American history class. The South Memphis charter school will shutter this summer.

The high cost of busing students from across Memphis to maintain the enrollment of GRAD Academy was a major factor in a national charter network’s decision to close the state-run high school.

Project GRAD USA announced plans last week to shutter its only Memphis school after four years as part of Tennessee’s Achievement School District. Besides high transportation costs, the burden of maintaining an older school building and a dip in enrollment created an unsustainable situation, charter organization officials said this week.

“Higher-than-projected transportation and facilities costs were major contributors to the operational challenges that GRAD Academy encountered,” CEO Daryl Ogden told Chalkbeat.

GRAD Academy will become the third state-run charter school to close in Memphis since the ASD began operating schools in the city in 2012. KIPP Memphis and Gestalt Community Schools closed one school each last year, citing low enrollment and rising operational costs.

This is the first school year that GRAD Academy didn’t meet its enrollment targets, according to Ogden. The high school started the school year with 468 students, a drop of about 13 percent from the 2016-17 year.

Ogden said enrollment constraints significantly hurt the operator’s ability to recruit students to the South Memphis school.

Unlike most ASD schools, GRAD Academy started from scratch. It was not an existing low-performing school taken from the local district and assigned to a charter operator with the charge of turning it around. As a “new start,” the high school could only recruit students zoned to other state-run schools or the lowest-performing “priority schools” in Shelby County Schools.

Most of the ASD’s 31 remaining schools were takeovers and are allowed to recruit up to 25 percent of their student bodies from non-priority schools. (Now, a 2017 state law prohibits the ASD from creating new schools.)

GRAD Academy was not required to provide cross-city transportation but, because the school did not have a neighborhood zone, chose to as a way to build enrollment.

“Students were coming from all over Memphis, since there is not a zoned area around the school, and that began to be a challenge with attracting students,” said Kathleen Airhart, the ASD’s interim superintendent. “Their transportation costs were much higher than their counterparts in the ASD.”

Airhart said the State Department of Education has been working closely with GRAD Academy since becoming aware of its financial issues last October. She noted concern over whether the school had the funds to stay open through May, and the state worked with administrators to reduce expenses and streamline funding.

PHOTO: Chalkbeat Tennessee
GRAD Academy rented and maintained the building that formerly housed  South Side High School, originally built for 2,000 students and shuttered in 2015 by Shelby County Schools.

Both state officials and Ogden declined to specify how much the school spent annually on transportation and building maintenance but said that the cost of facilities was also an issue. GRAD Academy rented and maintained the building that formerly housed South Side High School, originally built for 2,000 students and shuttered in 2015 by Shelby County Schools.

Airhart is working with two other ASD charter operators — Green Dot Public Schools and Frayser Community Schools — to offer GRAD Academy students a high school option next year. A meeting is scheduled at the school for 5 p.m. on Thursday to answer questions from parents and students about the closure and their options.

The impending closure of GRAD Academy is another blow to the ASD. It’s the state-run district’s highest-performing high school and has its largest percentage of high school students scoring on grade level, according to state data from 2017.

Airhart commended the school for its career and technical focus on engineering and coding — two pathways that could lead to dual certification for students.

“The goal would be to transition the two programs and equipment to Frayser Community Schools or Green Dot,” Airhart said, adding that the details haven’t been finalized.

Many GRAD students felt their voices were lost in the decision to shutter their school, according to Kyla Lewis, a 2017 alumna who is still involved in the school’s poetry team. She called the news “heartbreaking but not surprising” and added that teacher and principal turnover was high during her years there.

“South Memphis has seen so much school closure and this hits hard for kids actually from the neighborhood,” said Lewis, now a freshman at the University of Memphis. “I don’t agree with the decision, but the main issue I saw was the thinning out of teachers. Once the best teachers left, by my senior year, the school culture was starting to fall apart.”

Ogden commended his team for the school’s academic strides, but acknowledged that “faculty and staff turnover associated with urban school reform” was a major challenge.

“There has been a continual need to reinvest in our staff and introduce our culture process and learning and development philosophy to new colleagues, which can slow academic momentum,” he said. “There is a persistent national, state, and local shortage of highly qualified, experienced math teachers which we, along with all of our fellow Memphis school operators, especially at the secondary levels, have had to work hard to overcome.”