getting to know you

Back to class: New chancellor takes a tour of five city schools

Today marks Cathie Black’s first official day as chancellor of the city’s public schools and she’s following in former Chancellor Joel Klein’s footsteps by taking a five-borough tour. We’ll be following her throughout the day as she makes her way from Brooklyn to Staten Island and back to Tweed.

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Stephan Zuvich, a student at the Richard Hungerford School gives Black a tour.

3:00: And that’s all folks… We’ll post video once Maura returns from Staten Island.

2:40: Black’s visit to the Hungerford School may seem like a deviation from the rest of the day, but it is, yet again, another high performing school. Hungerford is the only special education school in all of New York State to be recognized as a national blue ribbon school.

In the sensory motor center, aka game room, Black and the remaining reporters watch one student play on a pinball machine while another plays Wii sports and a third shoots a basketball.

“I’m so excited,” Hecht says. “The questions that she [Black] was asking were so poignant and so on the mark for the students that we’re serving. I’d love to see the D75 schools become more integrated, so its not like D75, it’s part of the whole system.”

2:15: The press van has landed at Richard H. Hungerford School, a District 75 school with about 350 students in Staten Island. D75 schools like this one serve students with severe disabilities. Black is led around the school by Stephan Zuvich, a 21-year-old student at the school. She goes into a classroom where half a dozen students, all in wheelchairs, are getting physical therapy, and she walks around introducing herself to each student.

Maura reports that the PT class has Christmas music playing quietly in the background, and the ceiling is draped in white and colored lights, hanging mobiles, and planets. Principal Mary McInerney tells the group that the room is set up this way to stimulate the students.

D75 Superintendent Gary Hecht tells Black that she’s the first chancellor to visit one of his schools on the annual (or this year: biannual) five-borough schools tour. McIerney says that when chancellors have come in the past, it’s always been at the end, not the beginning, of their tenures. Black says that DOE officials picked this school because she told them she wanted to see all the different kinds of schools.

Black visits a second class where students are communicating through a machine called an ACD (augmented communication device).

One student asks her if she was nervous on her first day of work. Another, Sara Watson, compliments the chancellor on her outfit. She asks: “Did you buy it for your first day of work today?” Black says no, it’s not a new dress.

A third student, Anna Incantalupo, shows Black a picture of her family. “And guess what, I’m the prettiest!” she says.

1:20: And now to Staten Island, the very last leg of this tour. Most reporters usually hop out of the press van after three or four schools, but Maura says a surprising number are sticking around for the bumpy ride.

1:00: Black visits a Korean language class, which all Democracy Prep students take. Andrew says that the school chose Korean because it’s phonetic and has an alphabet (unlike Chinese and Japanese where there are thousands and thousands of characters) so it is actually possible to learn to read and write anything in Korean pretty quickly. Also, he figures it will give his students an advantage when they apply to college, as very few black and Latino students have studied Korean.

Maura says the students appear to have studied another language: New York City School Bureaucracy. A tenth grader named Malia Douyon tells Black about her trip to Korea, which was great she says, but would have been better “if we had more money per student.” Another student tells Black that the school “does more with less” — a phrase that has become ubiquitous after two years of continuous budget cuts.

Black is introduced to Daniel Clark Sr., a Democracy Prep parent and field director for the advocacy group Parent Power Now!; Andrew describes him as a “convert.” During Clark’s son’s first year at the school, he had 18 latenesses or absences and teachers called Clark in for a meeting. That was the turning point, Andrew says, and now Clark is one of the most involved parents in the school.

black412:40: Now to Manhattan, where Black visits Democracy Prep, a charter middle school in Harlem. Here’s another high performing school: on last year’s progress report Democracy Prep scored higher than any other middle school or charter school in the city.

On entering, Black meets a group of students who hurriedly tell her why their school is different from other schools. Edgar Sanchez, an eighth grader at the school, gives Black one of the charter school’s signature yellow baseball caps. Now that I think about it, I don’t think I’ve ever seen Democracy Prep founder Seth Andrew without his on.

Andrew explains that students have to work for their caps. “The scholars have to earn them through civic engagement work,” he says.

12:15: Maura asked DOE spokeswoman Natalie Ravitz which D and F graded schools Black has visited. Ravitz says Black has visited a “a mix so far in terms of progress report grades, mostly A’s, B’s, and C’s I believe.”

All the reporters along for the tour say they heard Black say that she’s visited schools at every grade level. Ravitz denies this and says she’ll check the transcript.

11:45: Black is now sitting down with students for another roundtable, but this one includes a bunch of alumnae. Black is asking the alums how prepared they felt they were for college. One student said she was assigned an eight page paper; for other students, that was a problem, she said, but not for her. Another alum is going to college in Delaware; the principal calls out, “Tell her your GPA.” The alumna says it’s a 3.98.

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Black talks to students and alumnae of the High School for Violin and Dance in the Bronx.

Black asks if there were any particular teachers who stood out. Immediately students begin telling stories about the teachers they loved. One English teacher came to a student’s house to bring books over the summer. Another math teacher is described by a student as being “like a father.”

A student asks Black what her first step will be. “Meeting parents,” she says. “If you see a school with a lot of parental involvement, then it’s a good school. Things are working if the parents are committed to it.”

As she says goodbye, one of the students says, “Remember our school! Don’t forget us!”

Afterwards Black chats with the principal about college preparedness and the school’s curriculum. “I’m pushing Mandarin Chinese,” she says, laughing. The principal tells her that students here can actually take a Mandarin class online.

11:30: Now at the High School for Violin and Dance in the Bronx, Black is getting a tour from two students and Principal Tanya John. Black and the reporters stop into a dance class. Black says to the principal, “I suppose if you told them it was a fitness class, it would be different, right?” John agrees.

After the dance class, the group heads over to watch a violin lesson in action. The students are playing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.”

Violin and Dance opened in 2002 and is one of four small schools in the Morris High School building, which used to hold one large high school that was closed. Students are supposed to take violin and/or dance classes three times a week. Those who don’t take dance have to take gym and those who don’t take violin have to take a technology class. Unlike some arts schools, this high school doesn’t have students audition to get in. It only has about 260 students and, like the first school Black visited, it has earned A’s on multiple progress reports. Last year, it had a graduation rate of 83 percent, which is well above the citywide average.

11:00: While Maura and the other reporters are in the van to the next school, the High School for Violin and Dance in the Bronx, a union spokesman explained the whereabouts of the missing UFT President Michael Mulgrew.

Union spokesman Dick Riley said that Mulgrew turned down an invitation to join Black’s tour because he already had plans to visit two schools today. First he’s going to a school in Staten Island where there’s a PCB contamination problem. Then he’s going to P.S. 114, one of the 26 schools the Department of Education plans to begin phasing out next year.

Riley said Mulgrew was particularly enthused about defending P.S. 114 against closure because the union had petitioned the city to remove what it considered a toxic principal who was dragging the school down. Though supervisors noticed problems with Principal Maria Pena-Herrera as soon as she was hired several years ago, she wasn’t removed until 2009.

By the time she was removed, Pena-Herrera had amassed a reputation as a “principal from hell” who unsuccessfully tried to bully parents into giving her good marks on the city’s survey. According to the report, she ran up a deficit of more than $100,000. None of those problems caused the city to remove Pena-Herrera. Instead, it was failing to follow proper procedure during an evacuation that cost Pena-Herrera her job.

“They put a bad principal in and ran the school into the ground,” Riley said.

10:30: Black sits down with a group of nine North Queens students for a roundtable discussion about their school. She’s just going around asking them how they came to the transfer school and how they feel about it. Student after student is saying that before they came here, school wasn’t a priority and this school — with its heavy counseling and lots of one-on-one teacher-student interaction — has really changed that. Now they want to go to college and have careers.

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Black talks to U.S. history teacher Keith Walter at North Queens Community High School

“How often do you see your counselor?” Black asks.
“Every hour,” more than one student answers in unison. “She calls me at home,” one student says.

A typical response comes from a student named Harmony, who says she only had six credits in her third year of high school when she came to North Queens. “It feels good to know that you know things and you can have a conversation and sound smart,” she says.

All of the students are on a first name basis with principals and teachers.

Black asks the school leaders if they made any tweaks to the school as they’ve gone through the years (they’re now in their fourth year). Principal McCarthy describes the decision to institute a “gateway class” for new students.

10:00: The tour has moved onto its second stop: North Queens Community High School. North Queens is a small transfer school for Queens students who enrolled in a regular high school, but either dropped out after the ninth grade or were constantly truant. It’s relatively new; the school opened in 2007.

Black visits a small 11-student U.S. history class taught by “one of the best teachers in the school,” according to principal Winston McCarthy. Black sits down with Karla Fuentes, 17 and Ryan Rodriguez, 18. Maura notes that, unlike Klein, Black prefers not to interrupt instruction when she walks into a classroom. When Klein toured schools, he liked to pause the class and address students as a group.

Rodriguez and Fuentes are working on an assignment about US industrialism in late 19th century, charting causes and effects of various events.

“How’s your teacher?” Black asks.
“He’s a wonderful teacher.” Rodriguez says. Rodriguez transferred here this year and is a junior. He told Black that he’s taking the Regents in U.S. history later this month.

“I’ve never met a chancellor before,” he says of meeting Black. Black is moving from table to table, talking to the students who are working in pairs or groups of three.

9:30: Asked what her number one challenge will be, Black responds: “Budget.” She says she’s going to spend the next one to two months figuring out what her priorities are and that she expects the coming years to be a “hard slog” financially. “Most important is to keep progress and reform going as aggressively as possible,” she says.

She also tells reporters that by now she’s visited schools that run the full gamut: from A-ranking schools to F schools. As of mid-December she’d only been to schools getting A’s, B’s, or C’s.

When a reporter asks for her thoughts on the classroom instruction she’s seen so far, Black describes that first lesson in a fourth grade CTT class as “clear, strong.” Then she adds that those were students “with a lot of issues — this was not the A class.”

She says she doesn’t have any new ideas for changes she’d like to make to the schools just yet. Asked about the importance of class size in the student performance equation, she says:

“Certainly that class size matters has been a longstanding view…but at the end of the day we would say that an effective teacher is more important than any class size.”

9:12: Black tells reporters that she’s visited about 20 schools and says she’s been impressed with how candid people have been. She talks about how the most important thing is having great teachers and instruction (she mentions the common core.) She says said that she wants to make a big community outreach effort and mentions she’s meeting with Community Education Council members later today. A DOE spokeswoman says Black is meeting with a Staten Island CEC.

Asked how she’s improve schools that aren’t doing as well as P.S. 262, which has gotten A’s on its progress reports for the last several years, Black cites two of the Klein administration’s reforms: data inquiry teams and the proliferation of small schools.

“We must have schools that are successful or are showing promise, otherwise we have to take a different approach,” she says.

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Principals' union President Ernie Logan, Chancellor Cathie Black, and P.S. 262 principal Joeletha Ferguson

8:52: Mayor Bloomberg, who is on hand for this first stop as he usually is on these tours, says he hopes former Chancellor Joel Klein was just a “prelude” to Black’s tenure. Bloomberg says he wants Black to be the best chancellor in the city’s history.

“Joel is holding that title right now but nobody would be more pleased than Joel to pass that title on,” the mayor said.

Maura notes that Bloomberg is still claiming to have narrowed the city’s racial achievement gap. Though it appeared as though there had been progress on this front over the last several years, when the state recalibrated its exams last year, many of the gains were erased. Students who seemed to be meeting standards were actually ill-equipped to move onto the next grade, though the too-easy tests showed they were competent.

Currently, the racial achievement gap is still formidable. Last year, about 40 percent black students and 46 percent of Hispanic students in grades three through eight met the state’s proficiency standards in math, compared to 75 percent of white students. On the reading test, the gap was similarly large. About 33 percent of black students and 34 percent of Hispanic students were deemed competent, whereas 64 percent of white and Asian students met this bar.

Teachers union president Michael Mulgrew has not joined Black, the mayor, and elected officials for today’s tour, as he has in the past (though last September he gave his own tour). Asked why Mulgrew is absent, Bloomberg says: “I think Mulgrew would say he is well represented here and I think that his chapter leader here would agree.”

The mayor doesn’t say whether the teachers union president was invited or not.

8:40: Black has moved onto the next classroom without interrupting the first lesson she stopped by. This one is a fifth grade class. All the students are working on laptops and Black asks one girl to explain what she’s doing but reporters can’t hear her answer because there are so many video cameras filling the room. The visit is brief — now Black is on to the library for a Q&A with reporters.

8:05: New Chancellor Cathie Black is touring five schools today — one in each borough – and she’s making her first stop now at P.S. 262 El Hajj Malik El Shabazz Elementary School in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn.

Maura reports that Black is visiting a collaborative team teaching (CTT) classroom, which means it has two teachers (one with a general education background and one special education).

P.S. 262 is part of the Innovation Zone, or iZone, pilot program, which emphasizes online learning. In the fourth grade classroom Black is visiting, teacher Stephanie Forcer is going over the writing process: prewriting, drafting, and revising. Black is sitting at a table with students and listening.

“You see all the media in here?” Forcer asks reporters.  “They had to learn all this too.”

Foster switches and talks to the students about what she calls “results based” learning.

“We don’t entertain level 2s in here, do we? We shoot only for level 3s and 4s.” She’s referring to the rankings assigned to students based on their scores on New York State’s annual math and reading exams.

“You have to show me that you are meeting your goals. If you were a 2 you should be going to a 3,” she tells the students.

Busing Ban

As school districts push for integration, decades-old federal rule could thwart them

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post
Several districts across the country want to use federal money to pay for school buses as part of their desegregation plans. A federal spending restriction could get in the way.

In Florida, officials plan to use federal money to shuttle students across vast Miami-Dade County to new science-themed magnet programs in a bid to desegregate several schools.

In South Carolina, a tiny district west of Myrtle Beach intends to spend federal funds on free busing for families who enroll at two predominantly black schools, hoping that will draw in white and Hispanic students.

And in New York, state officials want to deploy federal school-improvement money to help integrate struggling schools, believing that may be the secret to their rebirth.

But each of these fledgling integration efforts — and similar ones across the country — could be imperiled by obscure budget provisions written during the anti-busing backlash of the 1970s, which prohibit using federal funding for student transportation aimed at racial desegregation. The rules have been embedded in every education spending bill since at least 1974, as Rep. Bobby Scott of Virginia pointed out in September when he tried unsuccessfully to remove the provisions from the latest appropriations bill.

The rules are “a relic of an ugly history when states and school districts across the nation resisted meaningful integration,” said Scott, the top Democrat on the House education committee, during a floor speech where he called the persistence of the rules “morally reprehensible.”

After Scott’s amendment to eliminate the provisions was blocked, advocates are now working behind the scenes to convince members of the Senate from both parties to strike the rules from the latest spending bill during negotiations. More than 40 integration advocates and experts have signed onto a letter to lawmakers calling for the anti-busing language to be removed, and members of that coalition plan to meet with lawmakers in the coming days.

Advocates are especially worried about funding for magnet programs, like those in Miami and the South Carolina district, which rely on special science or art offerings or rigorous academic courses to draw students of different races into the same school — a choice-based approach that has become the primary way districts now pursue desegregation.

This is the first year districts that receive federal magnet-school grants are allowed to spend some of that money on transportation, after Congress changed the rules as part of its education-law overhaul in 2015. Among the 32 districts that received a total of nearly $92 million in magnet grants this year, at least six plan to use some of that money for transportation, according to their applications.

Now, just as those funds are about to flow to busing — which many families insist upon before they will enroll their children in magnet schools across town — the decades-old spending restriction could cut them off, advocates warn.

That could create a major problem for districts like Miami-Dade County.

It hopes to attract students from across the district to three heavily black and Hispanic schools by launching magnet programs that focus on zoology, cybersecurity, and mobile-app development, according to its application. To pull that off, it requested $245,000 for buses next year since, as the application notes, the “most limiting factor” for many families is “the cost associated with transporting their child to the magnet school.”

The district in Lake City, South Carolina wants to pull new families from different neighborhoods into an elementary school and a middle school that suffer from sagging enrollment and intense poverty. Previous recruitment efforts that didn’t provide transportation amounted to “failed attempts,” the district said in its application.

However, if the anti-busing provisions are not removed from the next federal spending bill, they would cancel out the new rule allowing those districts to spend some of their magnet money on transportation (though districts could still use local funds to fill in the gap). As such, magnet-school representatives are pushing hard for lawmakers to remove the provisions during budget negotiations.

“We’re hoping this doesn’t see the light of day,” said John Laughner, legislative and communications manager at Magnet Schools of America, an association of magnets from across the country. He plans to discuss the issue with lawmakers next week.

Beyond magnet schools, other desegregation efforts could be undercut by the anti-busing provision, which was included in a spending bill for fiscal year 2018 that the House approved and one the Senate has yet to vote on.

At least one state — New York — listed socioeconomic and racial integration among the ways it could intervene in low-performing schools under the new federal education law. In addition, New York officials announced a grant program this week where up to 30 districts will receive federal money to develop integration plans.

Advocates fear the anti-busing rule could disrupt any of those plans that require transportation and aim to reduce racial segregation. (New York education officials said they did not want to speculate on the impact of a spending bill that hasn’t been approved.)

A Democratic Congressional aide who has studied the issue said the provision could even block federal funding for planning or public outreach around desegregation programs that involve busing, not just busing itself.

Either way, advocates say the provision could dissuade districts from using the new education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, to pursue integration — even though research suggests that student achievement on tests and other measures improve when they attend less segregated schools.

“We shouldn’t have this,” said Philip Tegeler, a member of the National Coalition on School Diversity, which is leading the charge to remove the restriction. He added that the provision stemmed from mandatory desegregation busing of an earlier era: “It’s clearly an anachronism that doesn’t really fit any more with what states and districts are doing voluntarily.”

A U.S. education department spokeswoman said Secretary Betsy DeVos would be bound to enforce any funding prohibitions that Congress approves, though she noted that state and local funds are not subject to the same restrictions.

Negotiators from the House and Senate must still agree on a single spending bill, which would go before the full Congress for a vote. Until then, lawmakers have voted to temporarily extend 2017 spending levels through December. It’s possible Congress will pass another extension then, meaning a final deal — and a decision on the anti-busing language — may not arrive until early next year.

In the meantime, advocates are pressing lawmakers like Sen. Lamar Alexander, the Republican chairman of the Senate education committee who helped craft ESSA, with the argument that the anti-busing provision limits the flexibility and local control the law was meant to provide districts.

Margaret Atkinson, a spokeswoman for the senator, would not say whether he is open to removing the provision, but said he would continue working to ensure ESSA “is implemented as Congress intended.”

The anti-busing language — found in two sections of the current appropriation bills — prohibits using federal funds for transportation “to overcome racial imbalance” or “to carry out a plan of racial desegregation,” or forcing students to attend any school other than the one closest to home. (A separate education law contains a similar restriction, but ESSA exempted magnet schools from it.) The provisions emerged in the early 1970s, just after the Supreme Court ruled that busing students to schools outside their own racially isolated neighborhoods was an appropriate tool for school desegregation.

At the time, many white parents raged against what they called “forced busing.” In response, the U.S. House of Representatives passed at least one law annually from 1966 to 1977 meant to curb school integration, according to historian Jason Sokol, and in 1974 the full Congress voted in favor of an anti-busing amendment to an education bill. The restrictions in the current spending bills appear to have originated around the same time.

The attacks on busing reflect how crucial free transportation is to school desegregation, said Erica Frankenberg, a professor at Pennsylvania State University who studies segregation. Busing was included in guidelines outlining how districts should comply with desegregation requirements in the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and later upheld by the Supreme Court, she pointed out.

More recently, studies have shown that non-white parents are more likely to opt into magnet schools when they provide transportation, and that magnets that don’t offer busing are more likely to enroll students of a single race, Frankenberg said. Yet, many politicians remain reluctant to endorse busing for desegregation — which may reflect a deeper ambivalence, she added.

Resistance to busing, she said, “is a very politically acceptable way to be opposed to integration.”

Yes and No

In a first, New York officials reject 2 proposed charter schools, but sign off on 5 for New York City

PHOTO: Geoff Decker
Charter-school advocates staged a rally outside the state capitol building 2015.

New York’s top education policymakers voted Monday to approve five new charter schools in New York City – but, for the first time, rejected two proposed charters.

The moves by the state Board of Regents sent a mixed message on charter schools. While the Regents have approved more this year than at any point since 2013, the rejections suggest they won’t rubber stamp applications – even those, like the two shot down Monday, that have earned the state education department’s blessing.

Four of the approved schools will be based in the Bronx, and one in Staten Island. (Technically, Monday’s vote is preliminary and the board must finalize its decision at Tuesday’s full-board meeting.)

A new charter high school on Staten Island plans to enroll a significant number of students with disabilities — an area of great need in a borough where a quarter of students have some disability. Students will have the opportunity to graduate with as many as 60 college credits through a partnership with St. John’s University.

The Bronx charters include a new elementary school that will serve high-functioning students on the autism spectrum, an all-boys middle school inspired by an Obama-era program aimed at uplifting young men of color, and a high school for students who have fallen behind academically.

The final Bronx school is KIPP Freedom, slated to open in 2018, which will mark the first time the national network has opened a new school in New York City in six years.

“The community has tremendous support for the charter,” said Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa about KIPP, who suggested the school could even help reduce segregation if sited in the right location.

The two schools the board rejected would have been located in districts in Mount Vernon, in Westchester County, and Homer, in upstate New York.

Board members raised concerns about the applications, including that their curriculums were not very innovative. They also worried that the schools would drain resources from their surrounding districts, potentially forcing them to cut extracurricular programs from traditional schools.

Regent Judith Johnson, who represents the Mount Vernon district, expressed concern that the school only planned to serve students grades 6-8, while the district is moving towards a model that keeps children in the same school from kindergarten through eighth grade. She suggested waiting to see how the district’s efforts pan out.

“I would suggest this is premature,” Johnson said. “I’m not going to support this at this time.”

The vote comes as top state officials have been skeptical of charter schools and policies regulating them.

At past meetings, Regents have wondered aloud whether the schools are serving their fair share of high-needs students. And Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa and State Commissioner MaryEllen Elia have been on a warpath against a new policy that will allow some charter schools to certify their own teachers.

However, those concerns have not stopped the Regents from approving new charter schools. During a low point for approvals in 2015, when the state approved only four charters, few applications made it past the education department’s vetting process and to the board for final approval.

Since then, there has been a steady uptick in approvals. The board signed off on seven new schools last year, and is set to approve at least eight this year. (The board, which typically accepts applications in two or three rounds each year, approved three schools earlier this year.)

State education department officials on Monday also presented new ways to evaluate charter schools and decide whether they should remain open, based on proposals that the Board of Regents floated last month.

The additions to the state’s “Charter School Performance Framework” could include measures of student chronic absenteeism, the schools’ suspension rates, and the results of student and staff surveys. In previous meetings, Regents have also suggested surveying families who decide to leave charter schools.

Charter schools are already required to meet certain enrollment and retention targets, or to make “good faith efforts” to reach them. The state also considers the quality of a school’s curriculum and its outreach to families.

At Monday’s meeting, some Regents proposed adding yet another measure: whether charter schools are sharing innovative practices with the district schools.

“If the original intent [of charter schools] was to create opportunity for innovation,” said Regent Johnson, “we have to decide now, after those twenty plus years, did that happen?”