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Walcott touts Young Men's Initiative as DOE inches forward

Chancellor Walcott speaks at the Mayor's Young Mens Initiative Summit in Harlem.

Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott wanted attendees at the Mayor’s Young Men’s Initiative Summit to know that even programs with the best intentions can be tricky to execute.

This lesson, he said, would be particularly important for city officials as they implement a sweeping new initiative to address the educational and economic disparities between male students of color and their peers.

Walcott stopped by the day-long summit to represent the Department of Education, which is leading up the Expanded Success Initiative, one of several prongs of the Bloomberg administration’s  Young Men’s Initiative. At a cost of $24 million, the project will bring researchers into schools that are succeeding with male students of color. But nearly nine months after it was announced, the department still hasn’t picked which schools to show off.

The city has assembled a shortlist of 81 eligible schools and will by the end of May pick 40 who want to participate — and receive a $250,000 bonus. To be eligible, a school must have a four-year graduation rate above 65 percent, an A or B on its most recent progress report, and a student body where at least 35 percent are black or Latino males and 60 percent are qualified for free or reduced-price lunch. It must also promise to implement even more aggressive strategies to help black and Latino male students.

When he announced the Young Men’s Initiative in August, Mayor Bloomberg promised swift changes to schools serving the highest proportions of black and Latino students. Already, the department has begun giving high schools extra credit when those students make progress. Schools have started to benefit from a literacy program and a middle school mentoring initiative, neither of which the department is administering. But the Expanded Success Initiative has been slow to start.

The summit, which was held at Harlem Hospital and only open to the media in the morning, made good on the city’s promise to bring together leaders of local and national non-profits, foundations, city agencies to brainstorm how to connect students with mentors.

While skirting specifics of the Expanded Success Initiative during his short speech, Walcott got his audience of city employees and community organization leaders laughing this morning as he described his first foray into youth mentorship, the subject of the morning panel. In the 1970s he founded a Queens spin-off of Big Brothers, Big Sisters, a national mentorship program, to pair students ages 5 through 12 with older mentors.

Walcott pushed the program in the local media, and ran a television announcement adjacent to “Soul Train,” an iconic music show. But he said the response from community members who wanted to volunteer was too overwhelming for one person running the program alone.

“I didn’t have any researched strategies in place, I just had good intentions,” he said. “Between the Daily News article, which was a front page article, and the [Public Service Announcement] in front of ‘Soul Train,’ or during ‘Soul Train,’ there’s was a huge volume of information going in.”

Walcott fit this anecdote into a larger message about the importance of cross-agency collaboration to the success of the Young Men’s Initiative, an ambitious set of youth programs with a collective $127 million price tag.

“One size does not fit all. It’s not just having a big brother or a little brother,” he said. “It’s a variety of different ways of being a mentor to people who are out there, especially young men of color.”

Walcott spoke directly following a panel discussion about the value of youth mentorship, featuring Leslie Cornfeld, chair of the Interagency Task Force on Truancy, Chronic Absenteeism and School Engagement, and several community and youth mentoring organization leaders.

Walcott championed the notion of system-wide collaboration during the question-and-answer session, after one attendee raised a question central to the Young Men’s Initiative: How will the city make a long-term impact on the grim college readiness rate for black and Latino students, which hovers around 13 percent?

“It’s really great that we’ve raised this million dollars for this mentoring,” the speaker said, “but who is looking at this as an entire system, so that in ten years we’re not back looking at how we’re going to spend a million dollars to save a generation of kids?”

“Your question is right on. It’s a collective effort of the Department of Education, the people on the stage, and the people here in the audience as far as working together,” Walcott said. “Through the Expanded Success Initiative we are identifying schools that have done the job well, particularly with black and Latino males, and black and Latino students, and replicating that success in other schools.”

The Department of Education’s list of schools that are eligible to apply for the Expanded Success Initiative is below.

Weighing in

Parents rally to demand a voice in the search for New York City schools chief

PHOTO: Courtesy/Shino Tanikawa
Parents and ddvocates rallied on the steps of the New York City education department headquarters to call for a say in the search for a new schools chancellor.

The education department has made it a mission to boost parent involvement in schools. Now, parents are demanding a bigger role elsewhere: In the search for a new schools chancellor.

Parent leaders from across New York City took to the steps of the education department’s headquarters to demand that Mayor Bill de Blasio allow them to have a say in the process.

“For the mayor to deny parents the opportunity to represent the interests of our children in this critical decision is to ignore the voices of our most vulnerable, underrepresented New Yorkers,” Jessamyn Lee, co-chair of the Chancellor’s Parent Advisory Council, said in a statement.

Organizers say about 30 members from a range of parent groups gathered in the rain to call on de Blasio to follow through on a campaign promise made during his first run for mayor.

Before he was was first elected, de Blasio said the city needed a school leader who would be “presented to the public, not just forced down our throat.” But he went on to conduct a hushed search, pulling department veteran Carmen Fariña from retirement to become chancellor.

De Blasio recently won reelection for a second term, and, in December, Fariña announced plans to head back to retirement. This time around, the mayor has committed to a quiet, internal deliberation.

Among the organizations represented at the rally were the Chancellor’s Parent Advisory Council, which is made of leaders from school parent organizations; the Education Council Consortium, which represents members of the local Community and Citywide Education Councils; and the NYCKids PAC, a parent-led political committee. Those are not the only groups seeking more access and transparency in the hiring process. Advocates for different causes, including school integration efforts, have all called for the opportunity to weigh in.

One of those calls came this weekend in an online petition asking de Blasio to consider a well regarded state education official for the job. And the Coalition for Educational Justice, which held its own rally on Tuesday outside City Hall, is calling on the city to appoint a chancellor who “has a strong vision for racial justice in schools.” The organization has called on the city to focus on making sure that teachers have anti-bias training and that classrooms reflect all students’ cultures.

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.