College Readiness

Liu says city should pay CUNY tuition for top high school grads

john-liu-uft
Comptroller John Liu visited UFT headquarters after being elected in 2009. Today, Liu proposed new education and economic policies, including the "community schools" model the UFT favors.

The city should ease the path to college for top high school students by promising them free tuition at city colleges, Comptroller John Liu said today in a “State of the City” speech, his second in 2012.

In the speech, Liu put forth a slate of policy proposals, including several focused on education, that he said would enhance the city’s economic future. Liu is a likely mayoral candidate, but as comptroller his job is to safeguard the city’s financial prospects.

“The offer of free tuition would help motivate students and elevate CUNY, one of our city’s most valuable gems, to the level of a competitive prize,” Liu said, according to his prepared remarks. “It would also be a life-saver for many working families who are struggling to send their kids to college.”

Liu did not explain how the city could fund the initiative, but it would not cost much. With tuition set at $5,400 a year, even if every student in the top 10 percent of each graduating class enrolled and would not ordinarily receive financial aid — an unlikely scenario — paying their way would cost less than $12 million a year.

Other proposals Liu made today would cost the city a lot more.

He proposed spending $75 million a year to provide home visits by nurses to thousands of needy families with young children, $32 million a year to give computers to students at high-poverty middle schools, and $176 million a year to add more guidance counselors to city high schools. Liu first proposed expanding the city’s fleet of guidance counselors in October, arguing that the expenditure would pay for itself with economic contributions from people who would not have gone to college without the counselors’ help.

And he said he would add social services to every city school, something the teachers union and city are jointly attempting in six schools this year, at a price tag of $100,000 a school. Liu said the proposal was inspired by a trip he took with City Council Speaker Christine Quinn to Cincinnati, which has embraced the “community schools” model that the union has been promoting.

“I’d like to see every New York City public school become a community center before and after school,” Liu said. “In addition to after-school programs, it could include a health clinic, and offer resources to parents and adults in the evenings, like tax advisory services and financial literacy courses.”

Most mayoral candidates were slow to respond to Liu’s proposals today. But Tom Allon, whose candidacy as a Republican suffered a blow this week with the possible entrance to the race of former MTA Chairman Joseph Lhota, said he supported Liu’s call for a tuition break for top students and noted that it would require only a small expenditure. “Anything we can do to incentivize high school students to graduate and achieve high grades is a good public policy in my book,” Allon said.

The portion of Liu’s speech that focused on education is below:

We’ve discussed how we can make our workplaces and our tax code more equitable. Now we need to talk about how to get our young people into the workplace and how to develop our future workforce and taxpayers.

This requires a “cradle-to-career” approach in order to avoid a “school-to-prison” pipeline. There has been a lot of talk in this City about improving high school graduation rates. And that’s a good thing.

But as we all know, in today’s complex economy, it takes a college degree to make a decent living.

Yet four out of five New York City public high school students do not graduate from college. Let me repeat: four out of five of our high school students do not graduate from college.

In order to maintain New York City’s economic viability, we must work to increase the proportion of New Yorkers with either an associates or a bachelor’s degree from where it is now, at 42 percent, to 60 percent by the year 2025.

New York City should be the education capital of the country. Right now, we lag behind Seattle, San Francisco, and Boston. It’s time we reverse New York’s education gap and put our public schools back on track.

Earlier this year, along with Speaker Quinn, and many of our City’s teachers, I visited the school system in Cincinnati.

I was very impressed by what I saw there.

Cincinnati, a city that is home to some of the poorest neighborhoods in the country, takes a holistic approach to education, an approach we can learn a lot from.

We know, from our own research, that we have to start early; even before formal education begins. In fact, in certain situations, even before children are born.

The Nurse Family Partnership provides critical in-home prenatal care for Medicaid- eligible firsttime mothers, and continues parental support for up to 2 years after a child is born.

For less than $75 million annually we can expand this program in NYC from the 2,400 families  it now serves to 14,500 families.

And what does the Nurse Family Partnership do? It results in higher scores on children’s reading and math achievement tests. It produces a 67 percent reduction in behavioral and intellectual problems per child at age 6. It improves a child’s cognitive ability and language development and reduces language delays.

In short, it makes kids from struggling families better able to handle school.

The initial Nurse Family Partnership program in Elmira, N.Y., is now on track to save as much as $4 in taxpayer money for every dollar the program costs.

Now that’s what I call a real return on investment.

Once children are in school, we need to continue to partner with their families. When our Secretary of State was first lady she said: “It takes a village to raise a child.” And she was right.

By the way, I think the world of Secretary Clinton and eagerly await her announcement to jump into the New York City mayoral race…

But seriously, families need to know that there is support for them in the community. That there are people who care. That’s why I’d like to see every New York City public school become a community center before and after school. In addition to after-school programs, it could include a health clinic, and offer resources to parents and adults in the evenings, like tax advisory services and financial literacy courses.

We know that middle school is a particularly vulnerable time for kids. So we need to do more to support our middle school students. In fact, my son Joey is in middle school.

We are privileged today by the presence of a group of very impressive fifth and sixth graders from PS 45 in South Ozone Park, Queens. These kids are on the student council and are here with their principal, Samantha Severin. Please stand up and say hello to everyone. Thank you for coming.

Middle school students often need extra help. That is why I believe we need to expand the Computers for Youth program to every public middle school in New York City where at least 75 percent of the students receive free lunch.

Computers for Youth provides refurbished computers, pre-loaded with educational software, to 6th graders. The program teaches these students and their families how to use the computers. And we can expand this program for only $32 million annually. In today’s day and age, no child, regardless of their family’s income, should live without a computer and internet access in their home.

We also know that guidance counselors are particularly important for college success. Best practices advise that guidance counselors have caseloads no larger than 100.

But in the New York City public schools the average is 259 students to one counselor, and many of our counselors are struggling to care for more than 400 students on their own.

I proposed in October that we change the current unmanageable ratio from 259 students to 100 students per counselor. This will cost $176 million, or about $2,000 per high school student. We already spend $227,000 on every New York City public school child’s education, kindergarten through twelfth grade. Why not give that child the best chance to succeed, for just another $2,000 per kid?

And there are other things we can do. We know from the great results at some of the newest specialized high schools: American Studies at Lehman College as well as Math, Science, and Engineering at City College, that putting a high school on a college campus can create wonderful synergies.

Why can’t we do this for every New York City public high school? We don’t have to move the schools. We can create “sister college” relationships for every high school with the many terrific colleges and universities we have right here in New York City.

We happen to have with us today a class of 12th-grade government students from one of New York City’s historic high schools, Abraham Lincoln in Coney Island. They are here with their teacher, Ellen Levitt. Can you all stand up?

We are also honored to have Mr. George Israel here with us today. He graduated from Abraham Lincoln 64 years ago. George, can you stand up?

There is a lot we can do to make sure our kids graduate from college. In addition to the Macaulay Honors Program that already exists at CUNY, we can and should offer free CUNY tuition to the top 10 percent of New York City public high school graduates. Top graduates from every New York City high school should be eligible for this program.

The offer of free tuition would help motivate students and elevate CUNY, one of our City’s most valuable gems, to the level of a competitive prize. It would also be a life-saver for many working families who are struggling to send their kids to college. We must do more to make college affordable.

Let’s bring diversity to New York City’s Specialized High Schools, so that every child has access to an elite education and the privileges that go with it.

Let’s help President Obama, who has worked so hard for all of us, pass the DREAM Act so that immigrants can pursue a higher education.

As many of you know, I came to this country as a five-year-old from Taiwan who didn’t speak a word of English. And if it wasn’t for the great public school teachers I had at PS 203 in Flushing and at Hunter High School and at Bronx Science, I would never be where I am today.

In addition to benefiting from a first-rate New York City public school education, I had a tightknit family and community behind me, supporting me every step of the way.

We need to reweave the fabric of our communities and neighborhoods so that we catch every kid before they fall.

That’s the way we will minimize gun violence on our streets.

That’s the way we will get every kid to earn a college degree.

That’s the way we can help every New Yorker achieve their full potential.

chronically absent

Newark’s absenteeism problem persists as thousands of students miss several days this year, new data show

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
Superintendent Roger León addressed ninth-graders in September. That month, about 30 percent of those students were considered "chronically absent."

Thousands of Newark students have already missed multiple school days this year, newly released data show, even as the district’s new superintendent makes improving attendance a top priority.

About one in five students missed more than a week’s worth of class during the first three months of school, according to the district data. Those roughly 8,000 students are already considered “chronically absent.”

Newark has long grappled with exceptionally high rates of chronic absenteeism, which is defined as missing 10 percent or more of school days in an academic year for any reason. Students who miss that much school tend to have lower test scores, higher dropout rates, and greater odds of getting in trouble with the law.

The district’s new superintendent, Roger León, has promised to attack the issue — even going so far as to set a district goal of 100 percent attendance. But the new data, which León released this week, show how far the district has to go.

Nearly 9 percent of of the district’s 36,000 students have already missed the equivalent of more than two school weeks, according to the data. Those 3,200 or so students are labeled “severely chronically absent.”

Experts say that tracking and publicizing attendance data, as León has done, is the first step in combating absenteeism. Now, some district leaders are calling for the next phase of work to begin — analyzing why so many students are missing class and taking steps at the district and school level to help get them to school.

“It’s great that we have all this great data,” Newark Board of Education member Kim Gaddy said at a board meeting last month. “But if you have the data and you’re not using the data to change the situation, we won’t do any justice to our children in this district.”

Students who missed six or more school days from September through November qualify as chronically absent. If they continue at that pace, they are on track to miss the equivalent of a month or more of school by June. Students who missed 10.5 days or more during those three months count as severely chronically absent.

Attendance from Sept. to Nov. 2018. | Green = absent 0-2.5 days | Yellow = absent 3-5.5 days | Orange = absent 6-10 days | Red = absent 10.5 or more days. | Credit: Newark Public Schools

The early data show that Newark’s long-standing absenteeism patterns are continuing. The chronic absenteeism rates over the past three months were about the same as in 2016, according to the data.

The problem remains most acute among the district’s youngest and oldest students: 41 percent of pre-kindergarteners were chronically absent this November, as were 45 percent of 12th-graders. At least a third of students at five high schools — Barringer, Central, Malcolm X Shabazz, Weequahic, and West Side — were severely chronically absent last month.

While absenteeism rates varied among schools, they tended to be highest in the city’s impoverished South Ward.

“I’m concerned particularly about the South Ward,” Gaddy said at the Nov. 20 board meeting. “That’s where our children need the most assistance.”

León, a former principal who became schools chief on July 1, has already taken some early steps to improve attendance.

His most visible effort was a back-to-school campaign called “Give Me Five,” where he ordered every district employee to call five families before the first day of school. The campaign, for which León himself recorded robocalls to families, appears to have made a difference: 91 percent of students showed up the first day, the highest rate of the past four years, according to district data. (In 2013, when former Superintendent Cami Anderson launched her own attendance campaign, about 94 percent of students attended school the first day.)

The district also eliminated some early-dismissal days, which typically have low attendance. And students with mid-level test scores whom León has targeted for extra support have had better attendance this year than their peers, officials said.

Attendance in Nov. 2018 | Green = 0-0.5 days absent | Yellow = 1-1.5 days absent | Orange = 2-2.5 days absent | Red = 3 or more days absent | Credit: Newark Public Schools

However, León hit a snag trying to enact the crux of his attendance plan — reinstating more than 40 attendance counselors whom Anderson laid off years ago to cut costs. The state’s civil service commission has said the district must offer the jobs to the laid-off counselors before hiring anyone new, León told the board — forcing the district to track down former employees who, in some cases, have moved to different states. Only eight counselors have been hired to date, but León said he hopes to fill the remaining positions next month.

Meanwhile, León is arguing that some of the responsibility for improving attendance falls on families. At November’s board meeting, he said some parents and guardians “believe that, in fact, they can keep their children home” from school. At a parent conference this month, he took that message directly to families.

“I don’t care if school ends at 10 and they’re only going to come for an hour, and half an hour is on a bus,” he told several hundred parents who showed up for the daylong summit. “When I tell you that your child is coming to school, it’s your job to make sure the child comes to school.”

Afterwards, several parents and school employees said they welcomed León’s tough talk on attendance.

“It was about parents ensuring kids are in school and they are doing good,” said Bilikis Oseni, who has a child in first grade at Camden Street School. “Attendance is very key.”

Still, Newark families face many obstacles in getting their children to school, according to a 2016 report on chronic absenteeism among young students. Parents cited a lack of school busing, asthma and other childhood health problems, and work schedules that make it hard to drop off their children in the morning. High school students listed uninspiring classes, mental-health challenges, and safety concerns when traveling to school as reasons why they don’t show up, according to a 2017 report.

At the November board meeting, several members asked León whether he planned to dig deeper into the causes of absenteeism.

“I was looking through all the statistics here in the packet,” said Andre Ferreira, the board’s student representative, who attends Science Park High School. “But there were none that looked towards having a survey of students themselves telling you why they aren’t coming to school.”

León noted that he held forums with high-school students in September where he stressed the importance of showing up. He also said he has a student-only email address that some students have used to explain why they miss school.

“So I’m gathering data that lets me know why a particular student in fact hasn’t been to school,” he said. “Ultimately, we would have to do that for every single student, in every classroom, in every grade, in every school. That’s really the work — and it’s hard to do.”

Peter Chen, who co-authored the two reports on chronic absenteeism in Newark, said the superintendent had taken a crucial first step by raising awareness about the city’s attendance challenges. The district also appears to be sharing attendance data more regularly with schools, he said.

The next step is for the district to help schools identify and assist students who are chronically absent. The central office can do that by sharing effective attendance strategies, training school workers on how to support students’ social and emotional well-being, and offering grants to fund schools’ own attendance campaigns, he added.

“This is something that requires tailored, school-level responses,” said Chen, who is a policy counsel for Advocates for Children of New Jersey. “The district can help support some of that — but it’s not something that’s easy to impose from on high.”

Newark Enrolls

Want to attend one of Newark’s coveted magnet schools? Get ready to take a test.

Newark students who hope to attend one of the district's six magnet schools will have to take a new exam in January.

Newark students will soon face a new hurdle when trying to snag seats at the city’s most popular high schools.

Next month, any student who wants into one of the city’s six magnet schools will have to take a new exam that gauges their academic prowess as well as their interest in each school’s theme.

“If you would like to go to any of those schools,” Superintendent Roger León told parents at a conference Wednesday, “you better get ready for the test to get in.”

The exam, which will be given to students on Jan. 11-12, has not yet been announced on the district’s enrollment site. In fact, the test itself is still being developed and logistical details, such as where students will take it, are still being determined, officials said.

In addition to the new test, each school will also begin interviewing applicants, León said — something only two magnet schools did last year, according to an admissions guide. It’s unclear whether the interviews will take place this admission cycle. If so, schools may have to schedule dozens or even hundreds of interviews in the coming weeks.

Meanwhile, enrollment for next school year began on Dec. 3 and continues through February — giving students and schools little time to prepare for the new requirements.

“I know as much as you know right now,” one principal said. “Obviously the superintendent is revamping some items, but he hasn’t really shared the details with everyone.”

The district-run magnet schools, which have themes such as science and American history, include some of the city’s most sought-after high schools. Last year, nearly 1,800 eighth-graders listed a magnet school first on their high-school applications even though the schools had space for only 971 students.

The magnets, which vastly outperform the district’s six traditional high schools, already screen applicants. They look at grades, state test scores, attendance records, and — in the case of Arts High School — an audition or visual-art portfolio, when deciding which students to let in.

But even with those screens, some admitted students are not prepared for the rigor of work at the magnets or lack a strong interest in their programs, León said.

“The idea is to make sure that students who choose to go to these schools are going to meet whatever are the demands of that school,” he told Chalkbeat. “It’s not that your parents have the right to choose for you to go.”

Even as he moves to make magnet schools more selective, León — who became superintendent in July — also hopes to make traditional schools more appealing to top students.

On Wednesday, he also announced plans to create gifted-and-talented programs at each of the traditional high schools. To qualify, students will also take the new magnet-school exam.

León did not go into detail about what the programs will entail. But he may be drawing from his previous experience as principal of University High School, a magnet school that advertises a gifted-and-talented program on its website. Students must test into the program, which includes a “rigorous curriculum” in English, math, and another language, according to the site.

“Students are going into magnets because they think that’s where they can get their high-performing education,” he said. “Now they’ll be given a reason to not do that.”

The traditional schools will also develop specialized “academies” to train students for various careers, including engineering, teaching, and health services. Each school will partner with a higher-education institution and a professional organization to develop those programs.

Many Newark schools have tried to offer vocational programs, but often struggle to find qualified teachers and meet the stringent requirements to receive federal funding. It’s unclear how the district will help them overcome those challenges, especially if the timeline is also aggressive.

Traditional schools, for their part, seem eager for any support they can get. Angela Mincy, principal of Barringer High School, said the school created an honors program last year in an effort to retain high-achieving students.

“If I don’t create an isolated experience for them, I will lose them,” she said in an interview last month, adding that the goal is to keep attracting more and more top students. “The hope is that one day, one honors track will become two will become three.”

With their selective admissions and college-oriented courses, the city’s magnet schools have long been seen as a refuge for high-achieving students who cannot afford private school. County-run vocational schools, which also screen applicants, are another popular option along with some charter high schools — though they often have few seats left over for students who did not attend their lower-grade schools.

The district’s traditional, or “comprehensive,” high schools are viewed by many families as schools of last resort. On nearly every academic measure — attendance rates, test scores, college enrollment and completion — the traditional schools lag far behind the magnets.

In a sense, this disparity is built into the system. Magnet schools are designed to enroll academically and artistically accomplished students. Traditional schools take the rest, including almost all students who are still learning English and the majority of those with disabilities.

Other cities have begun to rethink this practice of tracking students into separate schools according to ability — at least as measured by a single test. In New York City, where a debate has raged over admissions to the district’s coveted “specialized” high schools, the mayor has proposed scrapping the schools’ entrance exam. Instead, he said, they should reserve spots for the top students from every middle school.

Some Newark parents have floated a similar plan for the city’s most exclusive magnet school, Science Park High School. Instead, Superintendent León is pursuing the opposite approach — adding new entrance exams for all magnet schools. In other cities, exam schools tend to be highly segregated by race and class, favoring families with the wherewithal to help students prepare for the exams or pay for test prep.

León said he expects the new magnet exams will measure students’ reading and math proficiency, as well as their interest in each school’s particular focus, such as science or technology.

“The whole concept that anyone and everyone can get into the magnet high schools — that’s not why they were designed,” said León, who graduated from Science High School. “You actually have to qualify to get into those schools.”

Karen Gaylord, Science Park High School’s community engagement specialist, said some teachers and  parents may grumble about the new test because they haven’t had a chance to prepare students for it. But she noted that families had become “resigned” to entrance exams when magnet schools used them in the past.

She also said many people would welcome the admissions interviews as a way for students to highlight skills and interests that aren’t reflected on their transcripts. The question, she said, is how schools will carry out these changes on such a tight timeline.

“It feels like there are so many opportunities to get this right,” she said. “I’m just not sure we’re going to get them all in this year. The clock is ticking.”