listening in

What do Bronx parents want from Mayor de Blasio?

In the quiet neighborhood around Bronx Latin, residents had no clue Tuesday that Mayor Bill de Blasio was inside the high-performing public school preparing for a major education speech he would deliver there the following morning.

But, when asked, they had plenty of thoughts about what they’d like to hear the mayor say.

They wanted him to attend to perennial concerns like crowded classrooms and outdated textbooks, and to deliver on promises like more after-school programs and better-trained teachers. Several of the parents and students interviewed in the Longwood section of the South Bronx have ties to both charter and district schools, so many said they wanted the mayor to signal his support of both types of schools by fostering more cooperation among them.

And while many praised the mayor’s signature education initiative — his vast expansion of free, full-day pre-kindergarten — they also wondered how he plans help the many older students whose troubles at home or experiences at school have caused them to fall behind.

“Yes, you have to have a strong foundation,” said Toya Guy, 32, who has students in P.S. 146 as well as Success Academy Bronx 3 Charter School, and who commended the pre-K expansion. “But what about the children who are there already who didn’t have a strong foundation?”

De Blasio’s speech will offer some answers to that question, according to previews that City Hall provided to some media outlets Tuesday.

For instance, the city will hire reading specialists to make sure all elementary school students can read materials at their grade level, and will add more Advanced Placement classes in high schools, according to an Associated Press report. It will also require all schools to eventually offer computer-science instruction, according to the New York Times.

But if the mayor plans to announce some buzzworthy initiatives, many Bronx residents said they’re still waiting for the basics in a borough that — as in years past — fared far worse than any other on this year’s state exams.

Amari Rolle, an eighth-grade student at Accion Academy, a district middle school in the Tremont section, said his teachers often struggle to manage the many students packed into their classrooms, which never seem to have enough textbooks or computers.

“We’re always sharing,” he said.

Gail Gadsden is the parent liaison at Dr. Richard Izquierdo Health & Science Charter School. Her son attends Bronx Career & College Preparatory High School, a district school in the same building. She said charter and district schools should work together more.
Gail Gadsden is the parent liaison at Dr. Richard Izquierdo Health & Science Charter School. Her son attends Bronx Career & College Preparatory High School, a district school in the same building. She said charter and district schools should work together more.

Strong teachers can be found in every school, including those in the Bronx, several people said. Yet so can educators who seem under-prepared or ill-suited for the job.

The South Bronx has more new teachers and higher teacher turnover than most parts of the city. And it has the largest share of struggling schools in the city’s Renewal turnaround program (43 of the program’s 94 schools are in the Bronx) — schools where teachers are twice as likely to have received low ratings.

“Poor neighborhoods like ours get the worst teachers,” said David Rodriguez, a graduate of the Bronx’s recently closed Samuel Gompers High School, who is field director of the United Hispanic Construction Workers, a local nonprofit. “Therefore, we get the worst education.”

Among those who lauded de Blasio’s pre-K push was Silvia Castialli, a 23-year-old medical assistant who said it will let her work a full day while her daughter, Rose, begins learning to read and write.

The city’s plan for helping older students was less clear to others, such as Daiquan Feimster. He attended the now-defunct New Day Academy, a small high school that shared a building with Bronx Latin for the eight years it operated. He said the school, which was both launched and shuttered under former-Mayor Michael Bloomberg, showed how that mayor’s approach had failed some students.

He said de Blasio must now do more to make sure all students leave the city’s high schools ready for college. Feimster, 21, said he has tried taking classes at a few local colleges, but it has exposed glaring holes in his education — such as an inability to write research papers.

In his senior English class, “what we did was fill-in-the-blank packets,” he said. “I really wasn’t prepared.”

The mayor isn’t expected to announce any major new policies involving charter schools in his speech, according to news reports, even though the building where he will deliver it also houses the Dr. Richard Izquierdo Health & Science Charter School. That school was in session Tuesday, so the mayor spoke briefly with its principal, Richard Burke, before heading to the auditorium to rehearse his address.

According to Burke, his school gets along well with Bronx Latin and the other district high school in the building, Bronx Career & College Preparatory High School. An apt symbol of that cooperation is Gail Gadsden, the charter school’s parent liaison whose son attends Bronx Career & College Prep. She said advocates on both sides of the charter-district debate have turned on one another rather than joining forces to improve public education.

“And it shouldn’t be that way,” said Gadsden, known by many in the school as “Mama G.” “All schools should be great schools.”


Colorado schools are getting a major bump in the state’s 2018-19 budget

Students waiting to enter their sixth-grade classroom at Kearney Middle School in Commerce City. (Photo by Craig Walker, The Denver Post)

Colorado’s strong economy has opened the door for state lawmakers to send a major cash infusion to the state’s public schools.

As they finalized the recommended budget for 2018-19, the Joint Budget Committee set aside $150 million, an additional $50 million beyond what Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper had asked for, to increase funding to schools.

“We believe this is the most significant reduction in what used to be called the negative factor since it was born,” said state Rep. Millie Hamner, the Dillon Democrat who chairs the Joint Budget Committee.

Colorado’s constitution calls for per pupil spending to increase at least by inflation every year, but the state hasn’t been able to meet that obligation since the Great Recession. The amount by which schools get shorted, officially called the budget stabilization factor, is $822 million in 2017-18. Under state law, this number isn’t supposed to get bigger from one year to the next, but in recent years, it hasn’t gotten much smaller either. 

But a booming economy coupled with more capacity in the state budget created by a historic compromise on hospital funding last year means Colorado has a lot more money to spend this year. In their March forecast, legislative economists told lawmakers they have an extra $1.3 billion to spend or save in 2018-19.

The recommended shortfall for next year is now just $672.4 million. That would bring average per-pupil spending above $8,100, compared to $7,662 this year.

Total program spending on K-12 education, after the budget stabilization factor is deducted, should be a little more than $7 billion, with the state picking up about $4.5 billion and the rest coming from local property taxes.

The budget debate this year has featured Republicans pressing for more ongoing money for transportation and Democrats resisting in the interest of spreading more money around to other needs. The positive March forecast reduced much of that tension, as a $500 million allocation for transportation allowed a compromise on roads funding in the Republican-controlled Senate. That compromise still needs the approval of the Democratic-controlled House, but suddenly a lot of things are seeming possible.

“We knew we were going to have more revenue than we’ve ever had to work with,” Hamner said of the status at the beginning of the session. But that presented its own challenges, as so many interest groups and constituencies sought to address long-standing needs.

“The fact that we’ve been able to reach such incredible compromises on transportation and K-12 funding, I think most members will be very pleased with this outcome,” Hamner said. “Where we ended up is a pretty good place.”

The big outstanding issue is proposed reforms to the Public Employees Retirement Association or PERA fund to address unfunded liabilities. A bill that is likely to see significant changes in the House is wending its way through the process. The Joint Budget Committee has set aside $225 million to deal with costs associated with that fix, which has major implications for teachers and school districts budgets.

The Joint Budget Committee has also set aside $30 million for rural schools, $10 million for programs to address teacher shortages, and $7 million for school safety grants.

The budget will be introduced in the House on Monday. Many of the school funding elements will appear in a separate school finance bill.

Going forward, there is a question about how sustainable these higher funding levels will be.

“It does put more pressure on the general fund,” Hamner said. “If we see a downturn in the economy, it’s going to be a challenge.”

outside the box

Program to bring back dropout students is one of 10 new ideas Jeffco is investing in

File photo of Wheat Ridge High School students. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Jeffco students who drop out will have another option for completing high school starting this fall, thanks to a program that is being started with money from a district “innovation fund.”

The new program would allow students, particularly those who are older and significantly behind on credits, to get district help to prepare for taking a high school equivalency test, such as the GED, while also taking college courses paid for by the district.

The idea for the program was pitched by Dave Kollar, who has worked for Jeffco Public Schools for almost 20 years, most recently as the district’s director of student engagement.

In part, Kollar’s idea is meant to give students hope and to allow them to see college as a possibility, instead of having to slowly walk back as they recover credits missing in their transcripts.

“For some kids, they look at you, and rightfully so, like ‘I’m going to be filling in holes for a year or two? This doesn’t seem realistic,’” Kollar said. “They’re kind of defeated by that. As a student, I’m constantly looking backwards at my failures. This is about giving kids something like a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Jeffco’s dropout rate has decreased in the last few years, like it has across the state. At 1.7 percent, the rate isn’t high, but still represents 731 students who dropped out last year.

Kollar’s was one of ten winning ideas announced earlier this month in the district’s first run at giving out mini-grants to kick-start innovative ideas. Kollar’s idea received $160,000 to get the program started and to recruit students who have dropped out and are willing to come back to school.

The other ideas that the district gave money to range from school building improvements to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act at Fletcher Miller Special School, from new school health centers to a new district position to help work on safety in schools. One school, Stott Elementary, will create a “tinker lab” where students will have space and supplies to work on projects as part of the school’s project-based learning model.

The Jeffco school board approved $1 million for the awards earlier this year. It was an idea proposed by Superintendent Jason Glass as a way of encouraging innovation in the district. This spring process is meant as a test run. The board will decide whether to continue investing in it once they see how the projects are going later this spring.

Officials say they learned a lot already. Tom McDermott, who oversaw the process, will present findings and recommendations to the board at a meeting next month.

If the board agrees to continue the innovation fund, McDermott wants to find different ways of supporting more of the ideas that educators present, even if there aren’t dollars for all of them.

That’s because in this first process — even though educators had short notice — teachers and other Jeffco staff still completed and submitted more than 100 proposals. Of those, 51 ideas scored high enough to move to the second round of the process in which the applicants were invited to pitch their ideas to a committee made up of Jeffco educators.

“We’re extremely proud of the 10,” McDermott said, but added, “we want to be more supportive of more of the ideas.”

McDermott said he thinks another positive change might be to create tiers so that smaller requests compete with each other in one category, and larger or broader asks compete with one another in a separate category.

This year, the applicants also had a chance to request money over time, but those parts of the awards hang on the board allocating more money.

Kollar’s idea for the GED preparation program for instance, includes a request for $348,800 next year. In total, among the 10 awards already granted, an extra $601,487 would be needed to fund the projects in full over the next two years.

Awards for innovation fund. Provided by Jeffco Public Schools.

The projects are not meant to be sustained by the award in the long-term, and some are one-time asks.

Kollar said that if that second phase of money doesn’t come through for his program, it should still be able to move forward. School districts are funded per student, so by bringing more students back to the district, the program would at least get the district’s student-based budget based on however many students are enrolled.

A similar program started in Greeley this fall is funded with those dollars the state allocates to districts for each student. So far, eight students there already completed a GED certificate, and there are now 102 other students enrolled, according to a spokeswoman for the Greeley-Evans school district.

But, having Jeffco’s innovation money could help Kollar’s program provide additional services to the students, such as a case manager that can help connect students to food or housing resources if needed.

And right now Kollar is working on setting up systems to track data around how many students end up completing the program, earning a high school equivalency certificate, enrolling in a college or trade-school, or getting jobs.

Helping more students on a path toward a career is the gold standard, he said, and what makes the program innovative.

“It’s not just about if the student completes high school,” Kollar said. “It’s are we making sure we are intentionally bridging them into whatever the next pathway is?”