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They wanted him to attend to perennial concerns like crowded classrooms and outdated textbooks, and to deliver on promises like more after-school programs and better-trained teachers.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.”

breaking

Breaking: Indiana didn’t set aside enough money for schools. Senate leader says a fix is ‘top priority.’

PHOTO: Photo by Shaina Cavazos/Chalkbeat
Students at Global Prep Academy, a charter school, learn about comparing shapes. All schools could see less funding if lawmakers do not fix the funding shortfall.

State education officials are expecting a shortfall in school funding this year that could be as high as $9 million because state and local officials underestimated Indiana’s student enrollment.

If the legislature does not act to increase funding, districts, charter schools and private schools that receive state vouchers could all get less money than they were promised this year.

Senate President David Long said new legislation to appropriate more money to schools would be proposed, though other lawmakers involved in budget-making were less certain on what a solution would look like this early.

“It’s our top priority, education is, so it’ll have our full focus when we come back in January,” Long said.

But on the upside, he said, public school enrollment increased since last year.

“It’s not a bad problem,” Long said. “We have more kids going into public schools than we did last year, but it’s a challenge for us only in a sense that we need to adjust our numbers.”

A memo from the Indiana Department of Education said the legislature’s budget appropriation was short by less than one-half of 1 percent. When the amount the legislature allocated for school funding does not line up with its funding formula, “the law requires the Department to proportionately reduce the total amount to be distributed to recipients,” the memo said.

It’s not clear how the miscalculation in enrollment numbers occurred, said Rep Tim Brown, a key budget-writer and chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. The budget dollars are estimated based on projected school enrollment counts from districts themselves, the education department and the legislative services agency, which helps provide information and data to lawmakers.

Brown urged people to keep the number in perspective, especially since the budget is crafted based on estimates. Brown said this was the first year since he became involved with budget writing in 2013 that projected budget allocations ended up being less than school enrollment, which was calculated based on counts from September Count Day.

“We’re looking at what our options are, but let us keep in mind it is $1.50 out of every $10,000 a school gets,” Brown said, adding that he wasn’t sure this early on how lawmakers would act to make up the shortfall.

But J.T. Coopman, executive director for the Indiana Association of Public School Superintendents, said even small amounts of money make a difference for cash-strapped schools. Districts have already started making contracts and have obligations to pay for teacher salaries and services at this point. It’s pretty late in the game for this kind of news, he said.

“I did see that it’s less than a half a percent, but for schools that’s a lot of money,” Coopman said. “Can we get this fixed before it becomes a real problem for school districts?”

Neither Brown nor Long knew how much public school enrollment had increased. The $32 billion two-year budget passed in April increased total dollars for schools by about 3.3 percent from 2017 to 2019, for a total of about $14 billion. Included within that was a 2.5 percent average increase for per-student funding to $6,709 in 2019, up from $6,540 last year.

The news of a funding shortfall comes as the state continues to see declining revenue. The Northwest Indiana Times reports that state revenue is down $136.5 million (2.8 percent) from what lawmakers estimated this past spring for the next two-year budget.

During the annual ceremonial start to the 2018 legislative session today, leaders discussed a need to provide more resources to schools and the state board of education. So far, many of the priorities involving education this year look to address workforce needs and encourage schools to offer more computer science courses.

But House Speaker Brian Bosma also shouted out “innovative” steps made by Indianapolis Public Schools and Fort Wayne Public Schools.

“People are trying something different and they are having great results with it,” Bosma said. “We need to give them more tools, we need to give them more opportunities.”

what's next?

Policymakers agree virtual schools should get more teachers and less money. Will they make it happen?

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
A view outside of Indiana Virtual School's office, located in an office park at the northern edge of Marion County.

After Chalkbeat revealed widespread low-performance and unusual spending at Indiana Virtual School, there were no immediate plans to change how the fast-growing but relatively little-known online charter school operates.

Rep. Bob Behning, the House Education Committee chairman who is one of Indiana’s most influential education lawmakers, has not commented after repeated requests for an interview.

Senate Democrats have no education priorities specified for the upcoming year.

And Senate Republicans and House Democrats haven’t yet released their 2018 plans. Sen. Dennis Kruse, the Republican chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said he largely thought Indiana’s charter laws were fine, although he was open to tweaking aspects of the law — such as whether authorizers of failing charter schools should be allowed to open additional schools.

But national and even local charter school advocates — including those who could affect public policy — agree changes need to be made at Indiana Virtual School and online charters more broadly across the state. Some were blunt in their assessment of the school, which since 2011 has enrolled thousands of students and failed to graduate most of them. It also has a barebones teaching force, low test scores, and two F grades from the state.

“The whole thing is a mess,” said Tony Walker, a pro-charter school Democrat on the Indiana State Board of Education.

Read: As students signed up, online school hired barely any teachers — but founder’s company charged it millions

And the school’s problems aren’t limited to academics. Walker also called out the school’s lenient attendance policy, lack of real-time teaching and choice not to provide computers to students.

“Them not having an online platform that permits them to have live courses should be a deal-breaker … You should never have an online school that exists without that,” he said. “You should never have an online school that’s chartered that does not provide the means to access the school to its students. If you’re not giving your students laptops, then you shouldn’t exist.”

What’s more, Thomas Stoughton, Indiana Virtual’s founder, previously headed a for-profit company that charged millions of dollars in management fees and rent to the school while he was school board president. Stoughton is also leading the school’s growth — a second Indiana school opened this year, and plans for Michigan and Texas schools are in the works.

Although Indiana’s legislative session won’t begin until January — and it’s looking like a year where education won’t be center stage — Democrat and Republican lawmakers indicated interest in making changes to laws governing virtual schools, but nothing more.

Doing nothing just isn’t acceptable, said Rep. Terri Austin, a Democrat from Anderson and a former educator.

“Surely given the statistics the General Assembly has an obligation to take a look what’s happening,” she said.

Walker said Indiana Virtual School’s student-teacher ratio jumped out at him. At the end of last school year, Indiana Virtual had one teacher for every 222 students.

Now, Indiana Virtual and the new Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy enroll about 6,332 students, served by 40 teachers, which makes the student-to-teacher ratio 158-to-1. The national average for online charter schools is 30-to-1, according to the National Education Policy Center.

“There’s absolutely no justification or reason that I can think of to permit a school to have a 221-1 faculty-student ratio,” Walker said. “That’s just ridiculous … There needs to be substantially more of the funds appropriated in the direction of instruction than I think this school has.”

Rep. Scott Pelath, the long-time leader of the House Democrats who stepped down from that role last week, was also surprised by the student-teacher ratio, even more surprised than he was by the tens of millions of dollars the state has set aside to fund the schools.

“That struck me as just outrageous, and I would think the public would think it was outrageous,” Pelath said. “Particularly when virtual schools are used as a substitute in places where you maybe have a lot more at-risk kids that need more attention, not less.”

Indeed, more than 80 percent of the students at Indiana Virtual qualify for meal assistance, but otherwise their demographics closely mirror those of the state — majority white, with relatively small populations of English-learners and students with special needs. The school says many of its students have been expelled from previous schools, and they say their students’ struggles are part of the reason graduation rates and test scores remain low.

But Karega Rausch, a former member of the Indiana Charter School Board who now works for the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, said online charter schools as a whole shouldn’t use student characteristics as an excuse. The group even has an entire set of online school-specific policies states should adopt in light of their poor performance.

“Just having lots of low-income kids is not a justifiable reason to not teach them well,” Rausch said. “Just having a lot of kids that may be mobile is not an excuse for not teaching them well. Traditional public schools and charter schools are finding ways of serving those kids at high levels.”

While traditional schools should serve as a model for instruction, Indiana’s school funding formula creates problems in a virtual environment. For schools like Indiana Virtual that have few barriers to entry and inconsistent attendance reporting practices, it can be hard to know if students who are enrolled are actually being educated. Yet schools get more money for every student they enroll.

Kruse and Walker, as well as national advocates, said they would support a funding model based on how much work students do, rather than whether they are on a school’s books on Count Day. New Hampshire and Florida already use this kind of system.

“There needs to be a different funding formula for these schools,” Walker said. “They should not be funded on a per-student basis like brick-and-mortar schools … it becomes a profit mill.”

An analysis from Florida Southwestern State College School of Education last year found that funding based on students finishing classes in virtual schools cost the state less money than the more traditional per-student model. Walker called on lawmakers to consider this change and put it into law “sooner rather than later.”

Pelath said based on what he’s learned about online schools, he doesn’t see them as a good substitute for traditional education. (Former state Superintendent Glenda Ritz agrees.)

“The oversight and accountability is not anywhere close to what we would have in traditional education,” Pelath said. “It’s entirely reasonable that some virtual experiences can be part of the larger overall experience, but as a substitute they are just woefully inadequate.”

The first step is to stop growth immediately, he said. Virtual schools enroll about 12,000 students across the state — about 1 percent of all students — and the number has been growing each year.

As far as upcoming legislation, Pelath was less sure, and new House Democrat leadership will certainly play a role in the caucuses’ goals for next year. Pelath was optimistic change could happen, but he was also realistic about the fact that a Republican supermajority in the House can make it difficult to get Democrats’ bills through.

“I think there’s a very good chance of that,” Pelath said in regards to possible legislation on virtual schools in the upcoming session. “Whether those things come in the form of originally introduced bills, of which there’s a risk of them staying bottled up in committee, or in the form of amendments to alter legislation that is moving in the process …This is going to have to be a debate.”