getting the green light

Exclusive: After year delay, city will allow diversity plans at several schools

PHOTO: Anika Anand
Children play in the gym of P.S. 133 in Park Slope in 2013. The school's admissions system, which sets aside some seats for low-income students and English learners, has served as a model for other schools hoping to maintain a diverse mix of students.

The city will allow seven schools to change their admissions policies to make sure they enroll a diverse mix of students, sources said Thursday, more than a year after a group of principals began lobbying to do so.

The education department would not immediately confirm that the plans had been approved. But people with direct knowledge of the schools’ proposals, who were not authorized to speak publicly, said an official announcement was expected Friday.

The schools will be able to reserve a portion of their available seats — anywhere from 10 to 60 percent — for low-income students, English learners, students who are involved in the child-welfare system, or children who have incarcerated parents, according to sources.

The expected announcement would represent a significant shift for Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has spoken about the value of school diversity but has been reluctant to make policy changes to promote it. The previous administration let one district school, P.S. 133 in Park Slope, adopt a diversity-focused admissions policy, but the current administration has so far declined to sign off on similar policies that other schools have requested.

The policy shift comes as the city has faced increasing pressure to directly address school segregation and the lack of student diversity at many schools, a push partly sparked by racially charged debates over rezoning proposals in Brooklyn and Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Last month, education department officials bowed to that pressure by moving to strike a footnote from the city’s school admissions code that had been criticized for potentially blocking efforts to create diverse schools.

“Empowering elementary schools to use admissions processes that strengthen diversity is a strong step in our ongoing effort to confront the segregation of our schools,” City Councilman Brad Lander said in a statement. He and Councilman Ritchie Torres co-sponsored a bill, which de Blasio signed into law this spring, that will force the education department to report annually on school demographics and its efforts to increase diversity within schools.

Two schools in Lander’s district — Brooklyn New School and Brooklyn Children’s School — are among those that will be allowed to adopt new admissions policies. The other schools are: the Academy of Arts & Letters in Fort Greene, Brooklyn Arts and Science Elementary School in Crown Heights, the Earth School and the Neighborhood School in the East Village, and Castle Bridge School in Washington Heights, according to people with knowledge of the plans.

In Oct. 2014, a group of principals met with top department officials and floated diverse-enrollment plans similar to that at P.S. 133, which the Bloomberg administration allowed to reserve more than a third of its seats for low-income students and those still learning English. The idea is to preserve a diverse mix of students at the schools even as more white and affluent students enroll. At the start of this school year, several of the principals said they had yet to hear back from the city about their proposals.

But in recent days, advocates who have been pushing de Blasio to do more to promote school integration said they have heard that the city was preparing to allow some of the schools to save a portion of seats — or create “set-asides” — for particular student groups.

“My understanding is that now they’re granting set-asides to certain individual schools,” said David Goldsmith, president of the Community Education Council in Brooklyn’s District 13, where P.S. 133 is located.

Principals from P.S. 133 and three other District 13 schools attended last year’s diversity meeting with top officials, including Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña. One of the schools was the Academy of Arts & Letters, which has seen its share of low-income students fall from about three-quarters to less than 40 percent over the past several years as the school’s neighborhood has rapidly gentrified. Under its newly approved plan, the school will be able to reserve 40 percent of available seats for low-income students — effectively keeping its share of those students from shrinking any further.

Admissions systems like those the city is set to approve can help schools in gentrifying areas avoid “tipping,” or switching from a mix of students from different backgrounds to a majority of students from middle-class families that are settling in the school’s neighborhood.

While advocates have welcomed the prospect of the city granting individual schools permission to tweak their admissions policies to ensure diversity, they have also argued that district-wide policies are crucial. Otherwise, a school with set-asides might enroll a mix of students while surrounding schools could become increasingly segregated.

“If you solve a problem in one school and create a greater problem in five schools as a result,” said Goldsmith, the CEC president, “what are you really accomplishing?”

Education department spokeswoman Devora Kaye said that the city is working with educators, parents, and lawmakers to promote school diversity.

“Students learn from the diverse experiences and cultures of their fellow students, and it’s important that our schools reflect the diversity of our City,” she said in a statement.

charter talks

Hopson weighs charters as school turnaround tool for Shelby County Schools

PHOTO: TN.gov
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson leads Shelby County Schools in Memphis, home to Tennessee's highest concentration of low-performing schools.

Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has opened a crack in the door to charter school partnerships that might help his district avoid losing more schools to Tennessee’s turnaround district.

Hopson emailed his principals this week to clarify his recent comments to the editorial board of The Commercial Appeal about possibly recruiting charter organizations for turnaround work. The report’s original headline read: “Hopson says he’s willing to hand schools over to charters, if they have a plan for improvement.”

The superintendent quickly turned to Twitter to label the headline “misleading and inaccurate” and, as he sought to regain control of dialogue on the thorny matter, dispatched an email to his school principals.

“It is my top priority to ensure all of our schools have the necessary resources to provide students with the high-quality education they deserve,” he wrote on Tuesday. “If the Tennessee Department of Education offers us the opportunity to select a charter operator that is willing to collaborate closely with District leaders to improve a school instead of losing it to the (Achievement School District), then I believe it is our responsibility to explore the option.”

Hopson’s comments hint at a potentially significant shift for a district that has battled openly with the charter sector over students being absorbed by the state’s 6-year-old turnaround initiative known as the ASD.

They also point to the tough spot that the superintendent is in.

On the one hand, the growth of the city’s charter turnaround sector has been a thorn in the side of local school leaders since 2012 when the state-run district began taking control of low-performing schools and assigning them to charter operators. Now with 29 Memphis schools, the ASD has siphoned off thousands of students and millions of dollars in an already under-enrolled and under-funded school environment — and made mostly anemic academic gains. (The local district also oversees about 50 charter schools that it’s authorized.)

On the other hand, Shelby County Schools has its hands full trying to improve a substantial number of struggling schools. It’s made some important headway through its Innovation Zone, which adds resources, extends the school day, and pays more to top principals and teachers who are willing to do some of the toughest education work in America. But the iZone is an expensive model, and few of its schools have exited the state’s priority school list.

In addition, some education reform advocates are lobbying to shift Memphis to a “portfolio model,” in which districts actively turn over schools to charter operators and manage them more like stocks in a portfolio. In other words, successful ones are expanded and failing ones are closed. Indianapolis has a robust portfolio model and, last fall, the philanthropic group known as the Memphis Education Fund took several Memphis school board members there for a tour. (The Memphis Education Fund receives support from several local philanthropies, including The Pyramid Peak Foundation and the Hyde Foundation. Chalkbeat also receives support from Hyde; read about our funding here.)

In his email to principals, Hopson said the school board ultimately would decide whether to authorize charter schools for the district’s turnaround work, and that he expects to discuss the matter with members in the coming weeks.

“All that said, I want to be very clear that my preference would always be to keep schools under the governance of (Shelby County Schools),” the superintendent added.

Hopson has been in discussions with the state Department of Education about several school improvement avenues available in Tennessee’s education plan under a new federal law. Among them is an option for Shelby County Schools to voluntarily convert priority schools to a charter, according to department spokeswoman Sara Gast.

One school board member told Chalkbeat he needs more information from the district and state before he would support any move forward. Chris Caldwell added that he thinks the board isn’t up to speed on options under the state’s new education plan.

“At this point, there’s so little information that I’ve been given,” Caldwell said. “I don’t want to conjecture what (a charter conversion) would actually will be like, but I have reservations with any kind of collaboration with the state.”

What would it take for such a shift to be successful?

One Memphis charter advocate says the ground rules are already in place because of a charter compact developed in recent years to address turf issues such as facilities, funding, and accountability.

“In order for a charter to manage a district school that’s underperforming and for it to be successful, that charter needs to have supports from the district to be successful,” said Luther Mercer, the Memphis advocacy director for the Tennessee Charter School Center.

The next school board work session is scheduled for Jan. 23.

pre-k for all

New York City will add dual language options in pre-K to attract parents and encourage diversity

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Schools Chancellor Carmen FariƱa, back right, visits a Mandarin pre-K dual language program at P.S. 20 Anna Silver on the Lower East Side.

Education Department officials on Wednesday announced the addition of 33 dual language pre-K programs in the 2018-19 school year, more than doubling the bilingual opportunities available for New York City’s youngest learners.

The expansion continues an aggressive push under the current administration, which has added 150 new bilingual programs to date. Popular with parents — there were 2,900 applications for about 600 pre-K dual language seats last year — the programs can also be effective in boosting the performance of students who are learning English as a new language.

Another possible benefit: creating more diverse pre-K classrooms, which research has shown are starkly segregated in New York City.

Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña said the new programs reflect the city’s commitment to serving all students, even as a national debate rages over immigration reform.

“It’s important to understand that immigrants or people who speak a second language are an asset,” Fariña said. She called bilingual education “a gift that I think all schools should have.”

Included in the expansion are the city’s first dual language pre-K programs in Bengali and Russian, which will open in Jamaica, Queens, and the Upper West Side, Manhattan, respectively. The other additions will build on programs in Spanish, Mandarin and Italian. Every borough is represented in the expansion, with 11 new programs in Manhattan, nine in Brooklyn, six in Queens, five in the Bronx, and two on Staten Island.

In the dual-language model, students split their time between instruction in English and another language. At P.S. 20 Anna Silver, where the recent expansion was announced, pre-K students start the morning in English and transition to Mandarin after nap time. Experts say the model works best when the class includes an equal mix of students who are proficient in each language so they can learn from each other as well as the teacher, though it can often be difficult to strike that balance.

Officials and some advocates view dual-language programs as a tool for integration by drawing middle-class families eager to have their children speak two languages into neighborhood schools that they otherwise may not have considered. Research has shown that New York City’s pre-K classrooms tend to be more segregated than kindergarten. In one in six pre-K classrooms, more than 90 percent of students are from a single racial or ethnic background. That’s compared with one in eight kindergarten classrooms, according to a 2016 report by The Century Foundation.

Sharon Stapel, a mother from Brooklyn, said she knew early on that she wanted her daughter to learn another language and strike relationships across cultures. So she travels to the Lower East Side with her four-year-old, Finch, to attend the Mandarin dual-language pre-K program at P.S. 20 Anna Silver. On Wednesday, the city announced it will add a Spanish dual language program at the school.

“We really see it as how you build community with your neighbors and your friends,” Stapel said. “It was also an opportunity for Finch to become involved and engage in the cultures and in the differences that she could see in the classrooms — and really celebrate that difference.”

Citywide, about 13 percent of students are learning English as a new language. That number does not include pre-K since the state does not have a way to identify students’ language status before kindergarten. However, based on census data, it is estimated that 30 percent of three- and four-year-olds in New York are English learners.

Dual-language programs can benefit students who are still learning English — more so than English-only instruction. Nationally and in New York City, students who are learning English are less likely to pass standardized tests and graduate from high school. In one study, students who enrolled in dual-language courses in kindergarten gained the equivalent of one year of reading instruction by eighth grade, compared with their peers who received English-only instruction.

The city has been under pressure to improve outcomes for English learners. Under the previous administration, New York City was placed on a state “corrective action plan” that required the education department to open 125 new bilingual programs by 2013. Though the city fell short of that goal, the current administration has agreed to place every English learner in a bilingual program by the 2018-19 school year.

Among the greatest barriers to achieving that is finding qualified teachers, Fariña said. In some cases, it can be hard to find teachers who are fluent in the target language. In others, teachers who are native in a foreign language may only be certified in their home country, and it can be hard to transfer that certification to New York.

In order to open an Urdu program recently, Fariña said, the teacher, who holds a degree from another country, went through Teaching Fellows, an alternative certification program that usually caters to career-changers or recent college grads.

“I think the biggest challenge we have right now is ensuring our teacher preparation courses are keeping up with our need and demand for teachers who can teach another language,” she said.