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City slowly backs up shifted rhetoric on parents, needy students

Like the Bloomberg administration’s schools reform efforts, our series tracking the city’s progress toward fulfilling its recent education policy promises started last month with teachers and schools. Now we are turning toward the students and families they serve.

It’s a shift that city officials also made in the last year. For nearly a decade, the Department of Education’s approach to helping needy students focused largely on creating excellent new schools and closing ones that don’t work. But its policies drew fierce criticism that families were shut out of decisions and that some student groups had not benefited from years of initiatives.

Last year, the first that Chancellor Dennis Walcott led in full, city officials announced some changes to its approach, introducing policies aimed at helping students and parents. Concrete actions have been slow to come, but we found that the department is slowly plugging away at creating programs to back up last year’s rhetoric shifts. (Each promise is in bold, followed by an explanation of how far the city has come toward meeting it.)

On students:

  • The city will study high schools that graduate black and Latino students at high rates to find out what they are doing right. (Mayor Bloomberg’s Young Men’s Initiative speech, August 2011)
    The study is the intended outcome of the Expanded Success Initiative, the flagship education program of Mayor Bloomberg’s recent effort to help black and Latino young men. The three-year, $24 million program got underway in June, when the city named 40 schools to monitor as they pioneer new college-readiness strategies funded with grants of $250,000 each.
  • The city will decrease the concentration of high-need students in some schools. (Communication with the state, June 2012)
    Responding to pressure from State Education Commissioner John King, the city quietly embarked on a pilot program to distribute students who enroll during the school year and summer over a wider swath of schools, despite steadfastly maintaining that high concentrations of needy students do not make it harder for schools to succeed. The city gets about 20,000 new high school students, called “over-the-counters,” each year, and they have traditionally wound up in a small number of struggling schools. Last year, about 800 of them went to 54 high schools that have not usually accepted midyear arrivals. But many schools still receive few or no over-the-counter students, while others complain they receive more than they can handle.
  • All city high schools, even those with selective admissions processes, will accept students with disabilities. (Directive to schools, June 2012)
    The department set aside spots at dozens of selective schools and opened them to students with disabilities in the second round of high school admissions this spring. But the department has never disclosed how many students were admitted as a result, even when asked. And about a third of the new seats at a popular middle school in Brooklyn remain open after the city set them aside for students with who require special education services.
  • The city will lobby for a state law to help students who are undocumented immigrants attend college. (March 2012)
    Despite city advocacy, the New York State Dream Act didn’t make it to a vote before the legislative session ended in June. Undocumented students received some additional security — but not college funds — when President Barack Obama announced changes to immigration policy in June so that students who would have been eligible for relief under the Dream Act would not have to fear deportation.

On parents:

  • A “Parent Academy” will ramp up parent engagement. (Chancellor Walcott’s “Partnering with Parents” speech, October 2011)
    Since Walcott announced that the city would open a Parent Academy like one in Charlotte, N.C., city officials haven’t said much about the plan. But work has been happening behind the scenes: The city contracted Long Island University to run the academy and in August placed job ads for a “Parent Academy Project Director.” No programming has yet been announced, but in recent weeks, a website quietly went up that invites parents to apply for the “inaugural class.” The main site advertised on that page,, is not yet live — but that could change next week, when the city has a full agenda planned for its annual Parents as Partners Week.
  • A new section on the department’s website will give more information for parents. (“Partnering with Parents” speech)
    The internal Department of Education website launched the same day. So far, the site has a back-to-school guide and information on new curriculum standards, sex education, and resources for special education and English language learner students.
  • The parent coordinator role will be enhanced. (“Partnering with Parents” speech)
    Parent coordinators have long run interference between schools and their parents, putting out fires and making sure families get important news. But Walcott said they should be trained to more often lead programming in their schools, with the goal of galvanizing families about college preparedness. So far, the department has compiled some resources on a portion of its website for parent coordinators. Officials say they will announce ways in which the role is evolving next week during the Parents as Partners events.
  • The city will convene a task force of parents and parent coordinators to give advice to middle schools. (“Partnering with Parents” speech)
    Department officials say the advisory committee is up and running, with a total of 15 parents, principals, parent coordinators, and representatives from local nonprofits. The committee met three times in the 2011-2012 school year to brainstorm ideas for supporting middle schools, according to the department.
  • The city will pilot “partnership standards” in 10-15 schools, then use them to measure schools citywide. (“Partnering with Parents” speech)
    Actually, 26 schools from around the city piloted the standards, which Walcott described as “characteristics that make schools effective at getting parents involved in their students’ success.” But if and how the standards will be implemented citywide is unclear, as is whether the city plans to follow through on assessing how well individual schools are meeting the standards.
  • The city will help parents learn what ratings their children’s teachers received. (Bloomberg’s WOR Radio Interview, June 2012)
    Bloomberg vowed to have school administrators call parents and guardians of every single student in the school system — who number about 1 million — to let them know when they can request to see their teachers’ evaluations in accordance with a new state law. But since there still are no new evaluations, there has been no opportunity to follow through.

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