Diversity Matters

Debate over high school admissions test divides City Council

Coalition of Specialized High School Alumni Organizations President Larry Cary rallies a crowd of alumni and parents of specialized high school students outside City Hall.

Deep divisions emerged at a City Council hearing Thursday on school diversity, as policymakers debated the merits of city’s specialized high school admissions test and city officials promised to consider a variety of enrollment policy changes.

Mayor Bill de Blasio wants state lawmakers to support a bill that would allow the three oldest specialized high schools to consider multiple criteria when admitting students, something he, Chancellor Fariña, and civil rights advocates say could increase diversity at those schools, where black and Hispanic enrollment has steadily fallen in recent years. Only 11 percent of the offers to the eight schools went to black and Hispanic students this spring.

“It has become the norm throughout our education system, our higher education system, that we look to multiple criteria for admissions to these venerated institutions,” Councilman Stephen Levin, of Brooklyn, said during the hearing. “To me, this seems like an antiquated system that reduced our student to one test on one day.”

But supporters of current system, from within and outside the council, point to the test as method that has worked successfully for generations. They point out that many of the city’s screened high schools, which look at factors like attendance and school grades when making admissions decisions, have a higher percentage of white students than the specialized schools.

“The test is not discriminatory,” Queens City Councilman Peter Koo said during the hearing. “If it’s discriminatory, how is it that second generation of immigrants can get in, people from India and the Caribbean? They have dark skin.”

“If I was trying to get into a multiple-criteria school I would not have gotten in,” said City Councilman Jumaane Williams, a Brooklyn Tech alumnus who is black. “The only way I got in was through testing.”

The City Council has no authority to make admissions policy changes. But the discussion activated alumni and parents of students at the schools, and dozens converged on the City Hall for Thursday’s meeting. Retaining the exam and additional diversity don’t need to be mutually exclusive, they said.

“Fundamentally, the test reflects the failure of New York City School system,” President of the Coalition of Specialized High School Alumni Organizations Larry Cary told reporters assembled outside City Hall on Thursday. His organization sent a five-page letter Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito earlier this month urging her to vote ‘no’ on the City Council’s resolution in support of the state bill.

The fact that few black and Hispanic students are winning spots based on the test “reflects racism and it reflects the lack of preparation the school system give the kids in the black and Hispanic community,” Cary added.

The admissions policies at Bronx Science, Brooklyn Tech and Stuyvesant high schools were enshrined in state law in 1971. The authority to change the admissions policy at the other five specialized high schools that rely on the specialized test lies with the city, though the Department of Education has not said it will make any moves without state support for changing the policies at the other three schools.

What city officials did say Thursday is that they are working to expand the number of students taking the specialized high school exam by asking all middle school guidance counselors to push the top 15 percent of their students to sign up for the SHSAT. Providing more and better access to test preparation, City Council members, the alumni coalition, and city officials agreed, should be a priority whether the admissions policy changes or not.

But a two-year tutoring program aimed specifically at preparing low-income students for the exam has gotten smaller. Ursulina Ramirez, the Chancellor’s chief of staff, said during her testimony that the program, called DREAM Specialized High School Institute, has been hamstrung by a lack of funding. Eight hundred students enrolled in DREAM when it launched in 2012, but only 450 slots were funded this year even though more than 6,000 students qualified.

“While we would like to expand the program to meet the demand, we are limited by funding constraints,” Ramirez said.

Department of Education officials also said they had trouble recruiting students for the program in the South Bronx, central Harlem and central Brooklyn, where students often have to care for younger siblings or problems at home that interfere with attendance.

“There are issues getting information out to students who qualify and keeping them enrolled in the test prep,” said Ainsley Rudolfo, executive director of program and partnerships at the Department of Education’s Office of Equity and Access. “Life has been getting in the way.”

The hearing also addressed broader issues of diversity in the city’s schools, including a bill that would require the city to release more information about school-level diversity and another that would require the city to “prioritize” diversity in its admissions policies, and when it creates new schools or rezones schools.

Department officials said the chancellor was committed to diversity and would support the resolution requiring annual diversity reports.

union power

Charter teachers won big in nation’s first strike. What now?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Teachers from Acero charter schools in Chicago protest stalled negotiations Oct. 24, 2018, as they readied to vote on authorizing a strike.

Some 500 unionized teachers joined in the nation’s first charter strike last week, and succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day. Their gains could foreshadow next year’s citywide contract negotiations — between the Chicago Teachers Union, with its contract expiring in June, and Chicago Public Schools.

“The issue of class size is going to be huge,” said Chris Geovanis, the union’s director of communications. “It is a critically important issue in every school.”

Unlike their counterparts in charters, though, teachers who work at district-run schools can’t technically go on strike to push through a cap on the number of students per class. That’s because the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act defines what issues non-charter public school teachers can bargain over, and what issues can lead to a strike.

An impasse on issues of compensation or those related to working conditions, such as length of the school day or teacher evaluations, could precipitate a strike. But disagreements over class sizes or school closures, among other issues, cannot be the basis for a strike.

The number of students per class has long been a point of contention among both district and charter school teachers.

Educators at Acero had hopes of pushing the network to limit class sizes to 24-28 students, depending on the grade. However, as Acero teachers capped their fourth day on the picket line, they reached an agreement with the charter operator on a cap of 30 students — down from the current cap of 32 students.

Andy Crooks, a special education apprentice, also known as a teacher’s aide, at Acero’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz school and a member of the teachers bargaining team, said that even having two fewer students in a classroom would make a huge difference.

“You really do get a lot more time with your students,” Crooks said. “And if you are thinking about kindergarten in particular, two less 5-year-olds really can help set the tone of the classroom.”

In district-run schools, classes are capped at 28 students in kindergarten through third grade, and at 31 students in fourth through sixth grade. But a survey by the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers, which supports educators taking on inequality, found that during the 2017-2018 school year, 21 percent of K-8 classrooms had more students than district guidelines allowed. In 18 elementary school classrooms, there were 40 or more students.

The issue came up at last week’s Board of Education meeting, at which Ivette Hernandez, a parent of a first-grader at Virgil Grissom Elementary School in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood, said her son’s classes have had more than 30 students in them. When the children are so young and active — and when they come into classrooms at so many different skill levels — “the teachers can’t handle 30 kids in one class,” she told the board.

Alderman Sue Garza, a former counselor, accompanied Hernandez. She also spoke before the board about classroom overcrowding — worrying aloud that, in some grades at one school in particular, the number of students exceeded the building’s fire codes. (Board chair Frank Clark said a district team would visit the school to ensure compliance fire safety policies.)

While the Chicago Teachers Union aren’t technically allowed to strike over class sizes, the union does have a history of pushing the envelope when it comes to bargaining.

Back in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union last went on strike, they ended up being able to secure the first limit on class sizes in 20 years because the district permitted the union to bargain over class size.

They also led a bargaining campaign that included discussion over racial disparities in Chicago education and school closures, arguing that these trends impacted the working conditions of teachers.

“Even if you can’t force an employer to bargain over an issue, you can push them to bargain over the impact of an issue,” Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, explained.

The Chicago Teachers Union also emerged from its 2012 negotiations with guarantees of additional “wraparound services,” such as access to onsite social workers and school counselors.

What's Your Education Story?

As the 2018 school year begins, join us for storytelling from Indianapolis educators

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Sarah TeKolste, right, and Lori Jenkins at a Teacher Story Slam, in April.

In partnership with Teachers Lounge Indy, Chalkbeat is hosting another teacher story slam this fall featuring educators from across the city.

Over the past couple of years, Chalkbeat has brought readers personal stories from teachers and students through the events. Some of our favorites touched on how a teacher won the trust of her most skeptical student, why another teacher decided to come out to his students, and one educator’s call to ramp up the number of students pursuing a college education.

The event, 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 13, is free and open to the public — please RSVP here.

Event details:

5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018
Tube Factory artspace
1125 Cruft St., Indianapolis, IN 46203
Get tickets here and find more on Facebook

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