another round

In a growing push to promote school integration, New York announces new round of grants

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Carry Chan, left, will become acting superintendent in District 1 when Daniella Phillips, right, leaves this month to join the central education department.

New York State education officials on Tuesday announced they will launch the second round of a grant program that attempts to improve struggling schools by integrating them.

Called the Socioeconomic Integration Pilot Program, or SIPP, the initiative was eventually replicated at the federal level before being axed by President Trump’s education department. In New York City, the program helped spur a district-wide integration plan on the Lower East Side.

The state will award up to 30 districts with the new grants, whose purpose has expanded beyond just economic integration. At a Board of Regents meeting Tuesday, Assistant Commissioner Ira Schwartz said the state also wants to achieve a more even racial and ethnic balance in schools, in addition to a better mix of students who have disabilities or are learning English.

Richard Kahlenberg, who reviewed applications for the first round of grants in 2015, applauded the program’s expansion.

“Socioeconomic integration is a powerful lever for improving academic achievement, and racial and ethnic integration is an important way to strengthen our democracy,” said Kahlenberg, a senior research fellow at The Century Foundation, a progressive think tank. “So I think both goals are important and should be pursued.”

Extending the grant program is just the latest indication that state officials are serious about fostering diversity in New York, which has been described as having the most segregated education system in the country, according to a widely-cited 2014 report by researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles. The state’s many school districts span wealthy suburbs, poor rust-belt neighborhoods and New York City — with students largely separated by race and class in their schools and classrooms.

State officials are also working on a policy statement affirming their commitment to integration and plan on creating a commission of policymakers, researchers and educators who will help develop integration recommendations. And in its plan for improving low-performing schools that each state was required to submit under the new federal education law, New York listed integration as one of its interventions.

Mike Hilton, who reviewed grant applications for the initial pilot, said the moves make New York State unique.

“New York State is special in that there is no court order saying that the state has to pay attention to diversity or pursue these kinds of remedies,” said Hilton, who works on education policy for the Poverty & Race Research Action Council, and the National Coalition on School Diversity. “This is New York State leading the way.”

The state has not said how much it will spend on what officials informally called “SIPP 2.0,” which is funded through federal school-improvement money. Applications will open within the next month.

Initially, the funding will be used to provide district leaders a crash-course in integration research, policy and best practices. Each will receive between $30,000 and $50,000 and spend six months training and sharing ideas in what the state calls a “professional learning community.”

The community was created in response to feedback from districts in the pilot program, said Angélica Infante-Green, a deputy commissioner with the state education department.

“We heard back from the participants that they would have liked a little more support,” she said. “So we built that in so that they can create a community, learn from each other and learn from experts.”

District leaders can then apply for additional funding to turn their ideas into full-fledged integration plans, and a final round of grants would go towards carrying out those plans.

In the first pilot program, 25 schools across New York participated, using the grants for initiatives like creating magnet programs or conducting outreach to families.

In New York City, the grant served as the foundation for what became a district-wide integration plan in District 1, which includes the Lower East Side and East Village. Starting next school year, every elementary school will give preference to students who meet certain indicators of poverty or wealth, in an attempt to enroll a similar percentage of needy students across the entire district.

Putting the grant-funded integration plans into action has not always gone smoothly.

In District 1, planning fell far behind schedule and parents often clashed with city officials over how to carry out a new enrollment system. In Rochester, the grant was used to devise an interdistrict plan to attract families from the suburbs to schools in the city, but paying for transportation costs has been a major barrier.

In one of his last acts as state education commissioner, John B. King launched New York’s grant program. Experts said it was the first known state program of its kind.

King went on to become secretary of the U.S. Education Department, where he implemented a similar model. But in March, the department announced an end to the $12 million program — called Opening Doors, Expanding Opportunities. Federal officials told the Washington Post that it was a poor use of tax money since the funds were used for planning and not implementation.

“The federal climate and the lack of federal leadership on key education issues reinforces the importance of New York leading on issues like this,” said Ian Rosenblum, executive director of The Education Trust – New York. “There’s a lot that New York can and should be doing.”

The big sort

To win back families, Detroit district plans a sweeping search for gifted students

PHOTO: Christina Veiga

Detroit’s main school district could soon dramatically expand offerings for gifted students in its latest bid to woo back families who have fled in recent years.

Under a proposed policy to “develop the special abilities of each student,” the district would start screening all second-graders for giftedness as soon as next year. A school board committee took a first look Tuesday at the policy, which could undergo changes before a vote by the full board.

Exactly how students would be identified hasn’t been decided. But according to the policy, the district will consider students gifted if they have abilities “above their peers” in three categories: academic strength, creativity, and leadership.

Students who meet the standards will be able to take special classes just for gifted students, according to the policy. The district says its goal is to create gifted classes in all subjects — including reading, math, science, social studies, and electives.

The move is part of first-year Superintendent Nikolai Vitti’s push to restore special programs that were cut during years when state-appointed emergency managers controlled the district. Vitti said the cost-cutting moves had driven families from the district, which shrunk by more than 100,000 students — or two thirds of the student population — in the last two decades.

“Quite a few students have left the district who are identified as gifted because the district was not providing gifted services, so I think this is also a way to recruit students back from charter schools and suburban districts,” he said.

By trying to appeal to families of gifted students, Detroit is also wading into a national debate about separating students by ability. Gifted programs can be a popular option for parents whose children test into them, but in many communities, they also tend to exacerbate racial and socioeconomic segregation.

In Detroit, the programs could also face another challenge: a well documented teacher shortage that could make it difficult to staff the new classes. According to the proposal, teachers would need to have special certification to work in the gifted program.

Vitti said the district is putting together a plan to create a pathway for teachers to get their certificates.

“There are a likely limited number of teachers who have gifted certification, but that’s something we would work on,” he said. “A teacher could provide the services and work through courses to gain that certification.”

The district policy lists several goals for students in the new programs: academic growth; stimulating curiosity, independence, and responsibility; developing creativity and a positive attitude; developing leadership skills; and exploring different career options.

The initiative would also help the district comply with federal education law, which requires districts to understand and work to improve the achievement of all students, including ones considered gifted.

If the board approves the new initiative, Vitti and his team would start putting it in place. That work would include deciding exactly how to screen students and creating the program’s curriculum. The first gifted classes could launch in the spring of 2019, according to district officials.

Read the full proposed policy below.

Measuring schools

State education officials prepare 0 to 100 index to measure schools, slam push for A-F grades

PHOTO: Denver Post file

State education officials are preparing to roll out a new tool for parents to quickly learn which schools are succeeding and which ones are struggling. They’re also lashing out at another school measurement approach that’s been proposed in the legislature.

The dueling options are part of a national debate about the best way to measure schools.

Michigan’s elected board of education last year scrapped plans to assign letter grades to every school in favor of providing parents with a dashboard of information about test scores, graduation rates, and other measures of success such as attendance rates and student discipline.

That “parent dashboard” was unveiled last month. As soon as next week, the state is planning to beef up the dashboard with a new score, from 0 to 100, that is intended to summarize the quality of every school in the state.

The new index will give each school a single number based on seven factors, including test scores and graduation rates, the availability of classes like art and music, and proficiency rates for English learners. The index was part of the state’s plan to comply with the new federal school accountability law. 

Several factors will go into the index, though most points will be determined by test scores: 34 percent will be based on the percent of students who pass state exams. while 29 percent will be determined by whether test scores show students are improving. The rest of the score will be driven by school quality factors such as availability of arts and music (14 percent), graduation rates (10 percent), and progress by students learning English (10 percent). The last 3 percent will measure the percentage of students who take the state exam — a factor designed to discourage schools from giving the exam only to their highest-performing students.

Venessa Keesler, deputy superintendent at the Michigan Department of Education, said the index is not a ranking system, so multiple schools could end up with the same index score.

That’s a switch from the school ranking system Michigan has been using in recent years in which every school was placed against all other state schools, primarily on test scores. The schools in the bottom 5 percent of state rankings faced intervention, including the threat of closure.  

But GOP lawmakers say the parent dashboard and the index are too complicated, and they want to see an A-F letter grade system.

Lawmakers introduced legislation last week that would give every school a report card with six A-F grades measuring their performance in different categories. Bill sponsor Tim Kelly called it a “middle of the road” option that isn’t as simplistic as giving schools a single letter grade.

That plan came in for significant criticism Tuesday from the state board of education.

“This really isn’t OK,” said Nikki Snyder, a Republican board member. “If we want parents, students and teachers to be empowered, this is not the kind of chaos and confusion we should inject into our system. I absolutely do not support it.”

Another school board member, Casandra Ulbrich, the board’s Democratic co-president, raised concerns over how the scores would be decided.

“Someone has to create a complicated algorithm to determine the difference between A to B to C,” she said. “I have some real concerns about that.”

“I generally agree with Rep. Kelly,” said Richard Zeile, the Republican board co-president, “but school letter grades would be more misleading than helpful.”

A-F school ranking systems, which were used in 18 states as of last spring, have been divisive across the country, with some hailing them is a tool to increase transparency and others viewing them as too simplified and too easy for parents to misunderstand.