lowest common denominator

City might take special ed funding back from schools midyear

Changes meant to help schools overhaul their special education programs have instead left principals scrambling for a budget fix.

Middle and high school principals are learning this week that the Department of Education is planning to take back thousands of dollars earmarked to help their schools serve students with special needs — over a budget technicality.

“Students with disabilities are the ones who lose out in this — and schools’ ability to provide what [students] need,” said a principal whose school faces a cut.

The issue stems from a new funding formula adopted this year as part of the Department of Education’s efforts to bring students with disabilities out of self-contained classes whenever possible.

Previously, schools received funding based on the number of their students assigned to different kinds of special education classes. Students in self-contained special education classes brought one amount, while students who were pulled out of general education classes for extra help brought another. But as the department has moved to a more flexible model, where students can switch among types of settings based on their needs, the funding model had to change.

The new model allots funds based on the percentage of time students spend in each kind of special education class. Students who spend more than 60 percent of their time in Integrated Co-Teaching classes — which mix special education and general education students and have two teachers, one with special education certification — each bring their school $7,100. Students who spend less time in the classes, which are expensive to run, bring their schools fewer dollars.

Schools programmed students this year with the funding formula in mind. So many middle and high school principals were surprised this week to learn that their calculations were off and they would have to relinquish the very funds they had used to create the integrated classes this year.

Principals said they calculated that students with four Integrated Co-Teaching classes and two other classes, a common arrangement, would land solidly over the 60 percent threshold. More than half a dozen principals in four boroughs each told GothamSchools that they made the same calculation.

But they left physical education classes out of the equation. The Department of Education includes P.E. in its calculation, meaning that students with the same schedule land just short of the cutoff. Out of a schedule of seven classes, four integrated classes constitute only 57 percent of a student’s time.

Principals said they are just finding out this week about the department’s math — and the $2,000 per miscalculated student that schools might have to give back.

Some schools could lose well over $100,000 from their budgets in the middle of the year.

“No one advised us this is how this is going to play out,” said a high school principal, who added that school administrators learned about the issue on Monday during a phone call with officials from the school’s network. Other principals also reported being surprised by the potential budget crunch this week, when the Department of Education held a budget meeting for network officials.

Department officials said the budget materials that principals received this year stated clearly that only lunch should be excluded from the time calculations. They said the issue is arising now because, as part of a “data clean-up,” the department is asking schools to certify that information about students’ schedules is correct in two different places by Jan. 14.

The information in the two systems — the department’s attendance system and its new Special Education Student Information System — doesn’t always match up, principals said. They said they worry that the discrepancies could cause their schools to lose funding even for students who do hit the 60 percent requirement.

“Your school will not receive funding for student services that are not properly coded,” this week’s Department of Education bulletin cautioned principals.

Because any adjustments would come in the middle of the year, principals could not cut teachers, even though that’s what the special education funds were used to pay for. Instead, they would have to slash everything else.

“It could be a real disaster,” said one person who works in a city school.

Department of Education officials said principals could appeal the take-backs.

“We understand that some principals may have concerns about their school’s budget and we will make sure to address those on a case by case basis and ultimately do what is right and fair for the students,” said Erin Hughes, a spokeswoman.

But some principals said they thought the department should simply round up, at least for this year. They said so many schools are likely to be affected that the adjustments will amount to, in effect, a systemwide budget cut, without a tidy number to make headlines. (Like all city agencies, the Department of Education was ordered in September to reduce its spending for the year.)

They also said reaching the 60 percent threshold in the future would also be a challenge, because adding additional integrated classes is both expensive and impractical. Many students who need help from a special education teacher in their academic classes can succeed in other subjects without them, principals said. And they said it doesn’t make sense to assign a special education teacher to physical education classes unless there are students whose disability is physical, a relative rarity.

Several principals also noted that the schools that face the largest cuts are the ones that strive to enroll students with disabilities and also include them in integrated classes — exactly what the Department of Education wants schools to do.

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.

college plans

As Washington decides their fate, ‘Dreamers’ preparing for college are stuck in limbo

PHOTO: Joe Amon/The Denver Post
Randi Smith, a psychology teacher at Metro State University, marched to support Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals during a citywide walkout in downtown Denver, CO.

While many high schoolers spend spring of their senior year coasting through classes and waiting to hear back from colleges, undocumented students who hope to attend college spend their time calling lawyers, consulting school counselors, and scouring the internet in search of ways to pay for school without the help of federal financial aid or student loans — assuming they even get in.

That process, anxiety-provoking even in a normal year, has become incalculably more chaotic this admissions season — even traumatic — as these young undocumented immigrants watch President Trump and lawmakers wrangle over Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the program that has until now allowed them to remain in the country without having to fear deportation.

As the policy battle nears a climax, these students aren’t just breathlessly waiting to learn whether they’ll be accepted into college — they’re waiting to see whether they have a future in this country.

“It’s different for me. It’s definitely more stressful and there are times when you want to give up,” said an undocumented student at KIPP NYC College Prep High School, who is graduating this year and applying to colleges. She requested anonymity because of her legal status. “But then I remind myself that regardless of what’s going on, I’m still going to do what I’ve set myself to do.”

High school counselors are also feeling the strain. They already faced the difficult task of helping undocumented students compete for private scholarships, and finding schools that will support those students once they’re on campus. Now those counselors also must monitor each twist and turn of the immigration debate in Washington, while, somehow, trying to keep their undocumented students focused on college.

One of those counselors is John Kearney, who works at Guadalupe Centers Alta Vista High School, a charter school in Kansas City, Missouri. Dozens of his soon-to-graduate students are beneficiaries of DACA, a program created under former President Obama that allows undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country as children to avoid deportation and work here legally. Lately, they have been asking him why they should even consider college when their fate in the U.S. is so uncertain.

“The big question is, ‘Why? Why go to college, and then I can’t even work, then why?’” said Kearney, who also helped start a nonprofit that provides scholarships to undocumented students. “It’s a really tough question.”

As of Friday, President Trump and lawmakers were still locked in heated negotiations over DACA, which Trump said this fall that he would eliminate unless Congress enshrined it in law. Without an agreement, it is set to expire March 5, just as graduating seniors firm up their college plans. If that happens, young immigrants, often called Dreamers, could lose the few crucial protections they have. For many, their DACA status has already lapsed.

Even with DACA’s protections, Dreamers face massive hurdles to enroll in college: They don’t qualify for federal aid or loans, and, in some states, are barred from receiving financial aid or even attending public universities. Out of the estimated 65,000 undocumented students who graduate from high school every year, only 5-10 percent enroll in college.

Following Trump’s announcement in September, counselors have also had to race against the clock counting down to DACA’s expiration: That meant juggling college application deadlines with the October cutoff for students to apply for renewed DACA status.

The KIPP charter school network received a donation this year to help students pay for the renewal fee, which has been a godsend for many students — including the young woman who is graduating from KIPP NYC College Prep High School.

As soon as she learned the school would pay the fee for her, she immediately called her father, who is also undocumented and repairs beauty-salon equipment for a living.

“My dad was definitely trying to round up the money before the deadline, so it was a blessing that the school was able to find a donor,” she said. “I told him not to worry about it and it was a relief — like a weight off his shoulders.”

If the girl was trying to relieve her father’s stress, her college counselor, Rob Santos, was trying to do the same for her. Even as she balanced college-application essays, transcripts, and the rest, she was also coming to realize how quickly her life would change if DACA is not extended.

“There was definitely extra emotional support that I’ve had to provide this year,” Santos said. “I definitely had my DACA student in my office, and tears were happening.”

Santos keeps a running list of the colleges that accept students who don’t have permanent legal status and the few scholarships available to them. Many of those scholarships require undocumented students to have DACA status. If the program ends, it’s unclear whether students will still be eligible.

Still, Santos said his dreamer student rarely talks about the political furor surrounding her future in the U.S. as she awaits her college-acceptance letter. Instead, she’s more likely to discuss her hope of one day studying business and fashion.

“Our DACA students are resilient. They’re optimistic,” Santos said. “But they’re also realistic for what could actually happen.”