Principal, King frame tensions over school choice changes

A back-and-forth between State Education Commissioner John King and a Brooklyn high school principal today provided a window into the tensions at play when high-needs students are placed in city schools — at a moment when additional shifts in enrollment policies may be imminent.

As King toured the High School for Public Service, principal Sean Rice outlined his worries about serving 35 special education students, up from “almost none” two years ago, in a school with about 440 students. Five or six have been added to his rolls in just the past week, he said.

Commissioner John King spoke with principal Sean Rice, center, about special needs students at his school.

“It is a major concern,” Rice said. “It’s going to be challenging for us this year, because we have a teaching staff that has not had extensive experience with students with disabilities.”

But Rice’s situation is rare for how few special education students he has, since some high schools, like William E. Grady High, have more than 20 percent special education students. Figures like that have created a schism between the city and the state for years, as King has criticized the city’s school choice policies for allowing some schools to become overloaded with needy students.

“I think this is the balance, though, between our concern—which we’ve long expressed—of students being concentrated in isolated buildings, and attempts by the city, which I think is the right direction, to try and avoid those overconcentrations of students,” King said to Rice during a discussion with Chancellor Merryl Tisch and other state education officials.

King has pushed the city to more equitably distribute those students for years, starting when he prompted the city to address the issue in order to receive federal funds for school ‘turnaround’ efforts. Chancellor Walcott said he would take steps to change enrollment practices in a 2012 letter.

While those commitments were technically rendered meaningless when the city was unable to secure School Improvement Grants, the city has still taken steps to distribute students more evenly. In the last two years, the city has reduced the number of students admitted “over-the-counter,” or just before or during the regular school year, who are assigned to low-achieving schools. The city announced earlier this year that nearly 1,300 students would be placed in 71 selective high schools for the 2013-14 school year without going through those schools’ specific admissions processes.

DOE officials said that those assignments, and the other recent changes to enrollment policy, didn’t affect Public Service, and added that there have been no changes in enrollment policy for special education students in recent months.

But a $2.6 million contract being voted on next week by the Panel for Educational Policy is an indication that more changes may be on the way. The contract is with Vanguard Direct, the company that built the city’s online Student Enrollment System, for “data management system changes” to “provide fair and equitable student enrollment opportunities.” Department officials would not comment on that contract proposal.

King said Wednesday that he expects to see more movement in enrollment procedures from the city in the months ahead, especially in the high school admissions process. The issue remains on a personal priority list, he added, and that he hopes a broader look at student assignment policies will be a priority of the next mayor.

Today, Rice signaled that additional city involvement in enrollment decisions would be difficult for some principals, no matter the intentions.

“I think it’s time that schools that have been protected from special-needs populations are getting their share of students with disabilities to educate,” Rice said. His fear is “just growing too quickly in a school that’s never had the experience.”

King pushed back, though, saying he understood Rice’s concerns but the only way to more evenly distribute high-needs students is to make sure schools serving few end up with higher numbers. “You’re right, you don’t want to overwhelm any single school. But this new influx of students here is reflection of a policy change we actually have advocated for, which is to not concentrate the students,” King said.

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”

moving forward

After Confederate flag dispute at Colorado football game, schools pledge to bring students together

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty
Manual High students.

Acknowledging “we may never have a conclusive picture of what happened,” two Colorado school districts sought to move past a controversy over whether a Confederate flag was displayed at a football game and open a conversation between the two school communities.

The principal of Manual High, Nick Dawkins, wrote in a community letter over the weekend that the visiting Weld Central High School team “displayed a Confederate flag during the first quarter of the (Friday night) game, offending many members of the Manual community.”

Officials from Denver Public Schools and Weld County School District Re-3J released a joint letter Tuesday saying that based “on what we have learned to date, however, the Weld Central team did not display the Confederate flag.” At the same time, it said, multiple Manual eyewitnesses “reported seeing spectators who attempted to bring a Confederate flag into the game and clothing with flag images.”

Going forward, students from the two schools — one rural and one urban — will participate in a student leadership exchange that has student leaders visit each other’s schools and communities to “share ideas and perspectives,” the letter says.

“At a time in our country when so many are divided, we want our students instead to come together, share ideas and learn together,” says the letter, which is signed by the principals of both schools and the superintendents of both school districts.

The alleged incident took place at a time when issues of race, social injustice, politics and sports are colliding in the United States, making for tough conversations, including in classrooms.

Weld Central’s mascot is a Rebel. Manual, whose mascot is the Thunderbolts, is located in one of Denver’s historically African-American neighborhoods.

Dawkins in his initial community letter also said “the tension created by the flag led to conflict on and off the playing field,” and that three Manual players were injured, including one who went to the hospital with a leg injury. He also said some Manual players reported that Weld Central players “taunted them with racial slurs.”

Weld Central officials vehemently denied that their team displayed the flag. In addition, they said in their own community letter they had “no evidence at this point that any of our student athletes displayed racially motivated inappropriate behavior.”

They said district officials “do not condone any form of racism,” including the Confederate flag.

Weld Central fans told the Greeley Tribune that they didn’t see any Confederate flag.

Read the full text below.