Back to school

This school year in NYC: extra guidance counselors, computer science classes, literacy coaches and more

First Lady Chirlane McCray (far left), walks with guidance counselor Rashida Sealy (left), student Chyna Huertas (center), Mayor Bill de Blasio (right) and schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña.

More than a million students flooded New York City classrooms on Thursday, the first day of classes for 2016-17.

In what has become a back-to-school tradition, Chancellor Carmen Fariña went on a five-borough tour to showcase the education department’s priorities and new initiatives. Mayor Bill de Blasio joined for a few stops, and made others on his own, to highlight the department’s Equity and Excellence agenda.

7:55 a.m.: The day started with a stroll to I.S. 392 in Brownsville, Brooklyn, with de Blasio, first lady Chirlane McCray and Fariña accompanying Chyna Huertas, a seventh-grade student, to school.

Also along for the walk was Rashida Sealey, a Single Shepherd guidance counselor who will keep an eye on Chyna as she works her way through middle school.

The Single Shepherd initiative is new this year. It brings about 100 additional counselors to schools in District 23 in Brooklyn and District 7 in the South Bronx — both of which have among the lowest graduation rates in the city.

The ratio of students to counselors in those schools will be 100 to one — a potentially heavy load in a challenging community, but still below the nationally recommended limit for guidance counselors.

“Sometimes, all it takes is an additional adult in a young child’s life,” McCray said. “The Single Shepherd program is going to be so helpful with that.”

Each middle- and high-school student in the targeted districts will be paired with a counselor who will do “whatever it takes,” Fariña said recently, to make sure the student ultimately graduates and goes to college. That means working not only with students, but families too.

“This is going to make a real difference for our school,” said I.S. 392 Principal Ingrid Joseph.

Students in Claudia Ramirez's third-grade class at P.S. 254 The Rosa Parks School in Queens learn the basics of computer programming.
Students in Claudia Ramirez’s third-grade class at P.S. 254 The Rosa Parks School in Queens learn the basics of computer programming.

10 a.m.: Claudia Ramirez wasted no time. Within the first hours of the new school year, her third-graders at P.S. 254 The Rosa Parks School in Queens were busy learning computer programming.

Groups of students arranged colorful sheets of construction paper in a grid on the floor. Under one of them, a picture of Superman was hidden. One student gave directions to help another move forward and backward, left and right, to find the hidden image.

Though the lesson was “unplugged” — students didn’t touch a computer or look at a screen — it was designed to demonstrate a basic aspect of computer programming: the concept of an algorithm.

“We are growing our kids to ultimately be programmers,” Fariña said.

Ramirez was trained over the summer in how to deliver these kinds of lessons and said the experience had an immediate impact on her teaching. Without it, she explained, she would probably be doing a simple get-to-know-you activity on the first day of school.

“As a teacher, you see the interest of students is video games, Minecraft and technology, and I wanted to get better [at reaching them],” she said.

The Department of Education is launching its Computer Science for All program in 200 additional elementary, middle and high schools this year, bringing officials closer to their goal of offering the subject in every school by 2025.

Schools Chancellor Carmn Fariña reads to second grade students at PS 218 Rafael Hernandez Dual Language Magnet School in the Bronx.
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña reads to second grade students at P.S. 218 Rafael Hernandez Dual Language Magnet School in the Bronx.

11:15 a.m.: Ronny Veloz was excited to talk to his partner. He had some ideas about why David, a character in the book their literacy coach was reading aloud, was making a mess in the lunchroom.

“Maybe because he didn’t wait his turn,” Ronny guessed.

Later the coach, Yokasta Sanchez, would coax Ronny to use complete sentences when sharing his reasoning with the whole class. It was one of the strategies that Sanchez was trained in over 15 days this summer before starting her new position at Rafael Hernandez Dual Language Magnet School in the Bronx.

The Department of Education has flooded Districts 9, 10, 17 and 32 — which have among the lowest reading scores in the city — with additional literacy coaches this year. They will support teachers by providing tips and modeling lessons to help build better readers. Their focus will be on kindergarten through second grade.

“They are not assigned to school to do coverages or be substitutes. They are there for one purpose only, and that is to be literacy coaches assisting teachers,” Fariña said. “And that is a real shift from things in the past.”

De Blasio and Fariña have set ambitious literacy goals for the city’s young learners. By 2026, they aim to have every third-grade student reading on grade level. When de Blasio first took office, only about 30 percent of city students were proficient in English by third grade.

Lucia Herndon, a seventh-grade student at Washington Heights Academy M.S. 366, talks about her college plans.
Lucia Herndon, a seventh grade student at Washington Heights Academy M.S. 366, talks about her college plans.

Noon: Lucia Herndon just started seventh grade, but she is already thinking about college.

On the first day of school, Lucia was in a college advisement class at Washington Heights Academy M.S. 366, thinking about careers she might want to pursue. She has already visited Barnard College and several others.

“I like the idea of going to a women’s college that encourages female empowerment,” she said.

After a pilot this spring, the Department of Education is rolling out College Access for All at 167 middle schools across 10 districts this school year. Designed to get students thinking about college and careers early, the program aims to eventually include campus tours for all middle schoolers, advising sessions like the one Lucia was in Thursday, and family supports like workshops on how to apply to schools.

“It’s really important to have a goal in your mind, and know where you want to go,” Fariña told the students in Washington Heights.

Mayor Bill de Blasio and schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña touted their "community schools" model at Port Richmond Community High School in Staten Island on the first day of the 2016/2017 school year.
Mayor Bill de Blasio and schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña touted the “community schools” model at Port Richmond Community High School on Staten Island on the first day of the 2016-17 school year.

1:45 p.m.: The day ended at Port Richmond Community High School on Staten Island, a community school that partners with organizations to offer students health care and mentoring along with family assistance like a food pantry and parent fitness programs.

“This is one of the things that really typifies community schools: The notion of reaching a child, every part of them, everything they need to excel,” Mayor de Blasio said at a press conference after touring the school.

De Blasio has made community schools a key feature of his effort to turn around struggling schools. There are more than 100 already throughout the city, and plans to add another hundred by the end of 2017. The model has been lauded nationally, though there are questions over whether the added supports translate into academic gains.

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.”