2011-2012 progress report (part 3)

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, NYParentAcademy.org, 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.


To promote virtual schools, Betsy DeVos cites a graduate who’s far from the norm

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos spoke to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools in June.

If Betsy Devos is paying any attention to unfolding critiques of virtual charter schools, she didn’t let it show last week when she spoke to free-market policy advocates in Spokane, Washington.

Just days after Politico published a scathing story about virtual charters’ track record in Pennsylvania, DeVos, the U.S. education secretary, was touting their successes at the Washington Policy Center’s annual dinner.

DeVos’s speech was largely identical in its main points to one she gave at Harvard University last month. But she customized the stories of students who struggled in traditional schools with local examples, and in doing so provided an especially clear example of why she believes in virtual schools.

From the speech:

I also think of Sandeep Thomas. Sandeep grew up impoverished in Bangalore, India and experienced terrible trauma in his youth. He was adopted by a loving couple from New Jersey, but continued to suffer from the unspeakable horrors he witnessed in his early years. He was not able to focus in school, and it took him hours to complete even the simplest assignment.

This changed when his family moved to Washington, where Sandeep was able to enroll in a virtual public school. This option gave him the flexibility to learn in the quiet of his own home and pursue his learning at a pace that was right for him. He ended up graduating high school with a 3.7 GPA, along with having earned well over a year of college credit. Today, he’s working in finance and he is a vocal advocate for expanding options that allow students like him a chance to succeed.

But Thomas — who spoke at a conference of a group DeVos used to chair, Advocates for Children, in 2013 as part of ongoing work lobbying for virtual charters — is hardly representative of online school students.

In Pennsylvania, Politico reported last week, 30,000 students are enrolled in virtual charters with an average 48 percent graduation rate. In Indiana, an online charter school that had gotten a stunning six straight F grades from the state — one of just three schools in that positionis closing. And an Education Week investigation into Colorado’s largest virtual charter school found that not even a quarter of the 4,000 students even log on to do work every day.

The fact that in many states with online charters, large numbers of often needy students have enrolled without advancing has not held DeVos back from supporting the model. (A 2015 study found that students who enrolled in virtual charters in Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin did just as well as similar students who stayed in brick-and-mortar schools.) In fact, she appeared to ignore their track records during the confirmation process in January, citing graduation rates provided by a leading charter operator that were far higher — nearly 40 points in one case — than the rates recorded by the schools’ states.

She has long backed the schools, and her former organization has close ties to major virtual school operators, including K12, the one that generated the inflated graduation numbers. In her first week as education secretary, DeVos said, “I expect there will be more virtual schools.”

expansion plans

Here are the next districts where New York City will start offering preschool for 3-year-olds

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, left, and Mayor Bill de Blasio, center, visited a "Mommy and Me" class in District 27 in Queens, where the city is set to expand 3-K For All.

New York City officials on Tuesday announced which school districts are next in line for free pre-K for 3-year-olds, identifying East Harlem and the eastern neighborhoods of Queens for expansion of the program.

Building on its popular universal pre-K program for 4-year-olds, the city this year began serving even younger students with “3-K For All” in two high-needs school districts. Mayor Bill de Blasio has said he wants to make 3-K available to every family who wants it by 2021.

“Our education system all over the country had it backwards for too long,” de Blasio said at a press conference. “We are recognizing we have to reach kids younger and more deeply if we’re going to be able to give them the foundation they need.”

But making preschool available to all of the city’s 3-year-olds will require an infusion of $700 million from the state or federal governments. In the meantime, de Blasio said the city can afford to expand to eight districts, at a cost of $180 million of city money a year.

Funding isn’t the only obstacle the city faces to make 3-K available universally. De Blasio warned that finding the room for an estimated 60,000 students will be a challenge. Space constraints were a major factor in picking the next districts for expansion, he said.

“I have to tell you, this will take a lot of work,” he said, calling it “even harder” than the breakneck rollout of pre-K for all 4-year-olds. “We’re building something brand new.”

De Blasio, a Democrat who is running for re-election in November, has made expansion of early childhood education a cornerstone of his administration. The city kicked off its efforts this September in District 7 in the South Bronx, and District 23 in Brownsville, Brooklyn. More than 2,000 families applied for those seats, and 84 percent of those living in the pilot districts got an offer for enrollment, according to city figures.

According to the timeline released Thursday, the rollout will continue next school year in District 4 in Manhattan, which includes East Harlem; and District 27 in Queens, which includes Broad Channel, Howard Beach, Ozone Park and Rockaways.

By the 2019 – 2020 school year, the city plans to launch 3-K in the Bronx’s District 9, which includes the Grand Concourse, Highbridge and Morrisania neighborhoods; and District 31, which spans all of Staten Island.

The 2020 – 2021 school year would see the addition of District 19 in Brooklyn, which includes East New York; and District 29 in Queens, which includes Cambria Heights, Hollis, Laurelton, Queens Village, Springfield Gardens and St. Albans.

With all those districts up and running, the city expects to serve 15,000 students.

Admission to the city’s pre-K programs is determined by lottery. Families don’t have to live in the district where 3-K is being offered to apply for a seat, though preference will be given to students who do. With every expansion, the city expects it will take two years for each district to have enough seats for every district family who wants one.