diversity of opinion

State law keeps charters from helping to reduce New York school segregation, report says

PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki

A new report points to charter schools as a potential avenue for fighting school segregation, but cautions that New York State law could make promoting diversity difficult in the Empire State.

In theory, charter schools are well positioned to achieve racial integration because they do not admit students based on their home address, writes researcher Halley Potter in “Charters Without Borders.” That makes them more like magnet schools, which can enroll students from all over a city, than like many elementary and middle schools in New York City, which admit students based on where they live.

But in New York, where state law requires charter schools to fill seats with students who live within the local district before offering seats to those who live outside it, that benefit is limited. New York is one of seven states with such a law.

New York City’s 32 school districts include some with racially and socioeconomically diverse populations. But many, including in parts of the Bronx and Brooklyn where the charter sector is strongest, do not have many residents who are white or middle-class.

Potter argues that the state’s enrollment rules limit chances to mix students of different backgrounds, which she said results in students attending racially isolated charter schools.

“It’s such a missed opportunity to restrict charter schools to in-district enrollment,” said Potter, who is a fellow at The Century Foundation and co-author of “A Smarter Charter: Finding What Works for Charter Schools and Public Education.” “If this were allowed for charter schools it would be a huge tool.”

The report comes as segregation in New York City schools is attracting more attention. A UCLA report issued last year found that New York Schools are among the most segregated in the country. The same report found that in the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Manhattan, nearly all charter schools were intensely segregated in 2010, with less than 10 percent white enrollment. The mayor and schools chancellor responded to a recent Chalkbeat story about stalled school diversity plans. The state has offered millions in new grants to city school districts and individual schools with plans to boost their diversity.

In crucial ways, racial segregation in charter schools stems not only from the letter of New York’s law, but from its spirit, too.

Some states permit charter schools simply as alternatives to local schools, opening them to middle-class families that prefer a different instructional approach or a focus on the arts, for example. In New York, the schools were created specifically to offer options to families whose children would otherwise be required to attend low-performing neighborhood schools.

That ethos has led charter operators to focus on enrolling local students, rather than engineering diverse student bodies.

“Our belief is that every community deserves great schools,” said Eve Colavito, the head of school for DREAM Charter School in East Harlem. “We do everything in our power to make sure that our scholars are from the surrounding neighborhoods.”

Potter said Colavito’s approach should not be treated as the only way forward.

“The public narrative around charter schools focuses on one particular kind of school,” Potter said. “That doesn’t take into account that some charter schools use their flexibility precisely to integrate.”

Indeed, some city charter operators have sought to use charter school enrollment rules, which require that students be admitted by lottery, to achieve diverse student populations. They include Daniel Kikuji Rubinstein, who runs Brooklyn Prospect Charter School and helped start the National Coalition of Diverse Charter Schools, as well as Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz, who argued in an op-ed earlier this month that charter school admissions lotteries could be used as tools to create diverse schools.

But New York City charter schools that enroll diverse populations are in racially and socioeconomically diverse districts. Moskowitz pointed to her schools on the Upper West Side and in Brooklyn’s Cobble Hill as evidence that residential diversity can translate into school diversity, but she did not note that her network’s Bronx and eastern Brooklyn schools are far less diverse.

James Merriman, CEO of the New York City Charter School Center, said charter operators chose early on to employ strategies other than integration to boost students’ skills.

The attitude was: “I’m not going to spend a lot of time trying to persuade white folks to go to school with black folks … I’m going to do what I can control,” Merriman said.

Though Merriman and Potter both believe charter schools can help foster school diversity, neither said they are the sole solution to school segregation.

“I don’t think [charter schools are] uniquely qualified,” Merriman said. “I think they are one part of the answer.”

another path

‘They’re my second family.’ Largest Pathways to Graduation class earn their diplomas

Jasmine Byrd receives an award for excellence after giving a speech to her fellow graduates.

Before last fall, Jasmine Byrd never envisioned herself striding across the stage to receive a diploma at a graduation ceremony.

But then Byrd moved to the Bronx from Utah and entered New York City’s Pathways to Graduation program, which helps 17- to 21-year-olds who didn’t graduate from a traditional high school earn a High School Equivalency Diploma by giving them free resources and support.

Just walking into this space and being like, this is what you’ve accomplished and this is what you’ve worked hard for is a great feeling,” said Byrd, who also credits the program with helping her snag a web development internship. “I’ve built my New York experience with this program. They’re my second family, sometimes my first when I needed anything.”

Byrd is one of about 1,700 students to graduate during the 2017-2018 school year from Pathways, the program’s largest graduating class to date, according to officials.  

This year, students from 102 countries and 41 states graduated from Pathways, which is part of District 79, the education department district overseeing programs for older students who have had interrupted schooling.

The program also saw the most students ever participate in its graduation ceremony, a joyful celebration held this year at the Bronx United Palace Theater. According to Robert Evans, a math teacher at one of the program’s five boroughwide sites and emcee of the graduation, about 600 students typically show up to walk the stage. But students can be a part of the ceremony even if they received their passing test results that morning, and this year more than 800 graduates attended.

There were still students coming in last night to take photos and to pick up their sashes and gowns,” said Evans.

The graduation ceremony is unique in part because the program is. Students who have not completed high school attend classes to prepare to take the high school equivalency exam. But the program also prepares students to apply for college, attend vocational school, or enter the workforce by providing help applying for colleges, creating resumes and other coaching.

To make sure that the program is accessible to all students, there’s a main site in every borough and 92 satellite sites, located in community centers and youth homeless shelters like Covenant House. Students who want to work in the medical field, like Genesis Rocio Rodriguez, can take their courses in hospitals. Rodriguez, who graduated in December, is now enrolled in the Borough of Manhattan Community College, and passing the exam meant being one step closer to her dream of becoming a nurse.

When I got my results I was with my classmate, and to be honest I thought I failed because I was so nervous during it. But then I went online, and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh I did it!’ My mom started crying and everything.”

Byrd said the program worked for her because of the supportive teachers and extra resources.

“The teachers are relatable,” said Byrd. “They don’t put on an act, they don’t try to separate the person from the teacher. They really reach out, even call you to get you out of bed in the morning.”

Carmine Guirland said the supportive environment of social workers, guidance counselors, and teachers is what attracts him to the work at Bronx NeOn, a site where students who are on probation or who are involved with the court system can prepare for the exam, college, and careers.

When students are on parole they will have really involved [parole officers] who would text me at the beginning of class to check in so that we could work together,” said Guirland. “It’s really about that village thing. The more support systems that are available the more success the students will have.”

Reflecting on his experiences with the graduating class, Guirland’s most treasured memory was when one of his students proposed to his girlfriend in a guidance counseling session. Even though they aren’t together anymore, the moment was a reflection of the relationships that many of the students build during their time at Pathways to Graduation.

“It’s this amazing high moment where this student felt like the most comfortable place for him to propose to his girlfriend and the mother of his child was in our advisory circle,” said Guirland.

New Standards

Tennessee updates science standards for first time in 10 years. New guidelines stress class discussion, inquiry

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Fourth grade science teachers Lamarcus Marks, of Rivercrest Elementary, and Angie Clement, of Bartlett Elementary, test out a lesson on kinetic and potential energy at Arlington High School, one of 11 statewide sites where Tennessee teachers are training for next year's new science standards.

How can a wolf change the river? Why doesn’t a cactus have leaves? Why can’t you exterminate bats in Tennessee?

With new state science standards coming to classrooms next fall, these are the kinds of questions students will explore in their science classes. They’ll be tasked not only with memorizing the answers, but also with asking questions of their own, engaging on the topic with their teacher and classmates, and applying what they learn across disciplines. That’s because the changes set forth are as much about teaching process, as they are about teaching content.

“At the lowest level, I could just teach you facts,” said Detra Clark, who is one of about 300 Tennessee educators leading teacher trainings on the new standards to her peers from across the state. “Now it’s like, ‘I want you to figure out why or how you can use the facts to figure out a problem.’”

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Detra Clark, a science coach in Shelby County’s iZone, demonstrates a sample lesson for sixth grade science teachers.

On Wednesday, Clark — a science coach for the iZone, a group of underperforming schools that Shelby County Schools is looking to turn around — unpacked for her peers, who gathered at Arlington High School, a key component of the new material: three-dimensional modeling. Under three-dimensional modeling, students should be able to do something with the content they learn, not just memorize it.

In recent years, Tennessee students have performed better on state science tests than on their math and English exams. But state science standards for grades K–12 haven’t been updated since 2008. By contrast, math and English benchmarks have undergone more recent changes. To give the stakeholders time to adjust, results from next year’s science test, the first to incorporate the new standards, won’t count for students, teachers, or schools.

At the training session, Clark, standing before a room of sixth-grade science teachers, held up a chart with the names of woodland animals, such as elk and deer. Under each name, she tracked the population over time.

“At our starting population, what do we see?” she asked.

“The deer, it decreases again because it’s introduced to a predator,” a teacher responded.

“More resources, more surviving animals” another teacher chimed in.

“How can we explain what happened in year two, when we’re dealing with students?” Clark asked the group.

“The population went up,” a teacher said.

“They start to reproduce!” another teacher interjected.

Clark nodded.

In another classroom, this one composed of kindergarten teachers, Bridget Davis — a K-2 instructional advisor for Shelby County Schools — clicked through a video of fuzzy critters, each paired with a close relative, such as two different breeds of dogs.

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
In a teacher training session on Wednesday, kindergarten teachers highlight the three dimensions of three-dimensional modeling, a key part of new state science standards.

She encouraged the teachers to ask their students what traits the animals shared.

“The first thing they’re going to say is, ‘Well, one’s big and one’s small,” she said. “What we really want them to say is, ‘Well, their fur is the same color,’ or, ‘Mom has a patch of black hair here and the baby doesn’t.’ We want them to look at detail.”

She added, “We want them to get used to being a detective.”

The science standards that have been in place for the past decade fulfills the first dimension of three-dimensional modeling.

Doing something with that knowledge satisfies the second dimension, and the third dimension requires teachers to apply to their lessons a “cross-cutting concept” — strategies that students can apply to any subject, like identifying patterns or sequences.

Under the existing standards, a student may not have been introduced to physical science until the third grade. But starting next year, Tennessee schoolchildren will learn about life science, physical science, earth and space science, and engineering applications, beginning in kindergarten and continuing through high school.

“I do believe that this is the best our standards have ever been, because of the fact that they are so much more detailed than they have been in the past,” Davis said.

About a thousand Shelby County teachers made their way to trainings this week, which were free and open to all educators. Several administrators also met to discuss ways they can ensure the new standards are implemented in their schools.

As with anything new, Jay Jennings — an assistant principal at a Tipton county middle school and an instructor at Wednesday’s training — expects some pushback. But he’s optimistic that his district will have every teacher at benchmark by the end of the 2018–2019 school year.

“We talked before about teachers knowing content, and that’s important,” he said. “But what we want to see is kids knowing content and questioning content. We want to see them involved.”

He reminded other school leaders about last year’s changes to English and math standards, a transition that he said was challenging but smoother than expected.  

“Teachers are going to go out of their comfort zone,” he explained. “But it’s not changing what a lot of them are already doing.”