Change on the way

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio suggests changes to elite high school admissions are just the beginning

PHOTO: Benjamin Kanter/Mayoral Photo Office
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio is pushing for admissions changes at specialized high schools.

Overhauling admissions at the city’s prestigious specialized high schools could be just the opening salvo in more aggressive efforts to unravel segregation throughout the city’s school system, Mayor Bill de Blasio vowed Sunday.

“Changing them sends the message that everything is going to change,” de Blasio said at a press conference to formally announce the policies he first described in Chalkbeat. “If you can fix this problem, you can fix anything.”

Surrounded by lawmakers, teachers union representatives, students, and educators inside the gymnasium of J.H.S. 292 in East New York, de Blasio said he chose this moment to tackle diversity in elite high schools because he believes he has a mandate from his re-election last year — and noted the arrival of a new schools chancellor, Richard Carranza, who has been outspoken about inequity.

De Blasio, whose more aggressive proposals require legislative action, also pointed to potential power shifts in Albany and growing public pressure in New York City from integration advocates, suggesting bolder action is on the way.

“The stars have now aligned,” the mayor said. “The moment’s right for it.”

Chalkbeat reported exclusively on Saturday that the mayor is pushing to scrap the Specialized High School Admissions Test as the sole determining factor in admissions to eight specialized high schools — and is calling instead for a system that admits top-performing students from every middle school. The city will also expand its Discovery program, which extends admission to low-income students who score just below the cut-off on the entrance exam.

Specialized high schools reliably send students to top colleges and high-profile careers, but relatively few black and Hispanic students attend — one example of the racial segregation that extends to schools across New York City. Only 10 percent of admissions offers for the schools went to black and Hispanic students this year. Citywide, those students make up two-thirds of the population.

“These are the most respected, most prestigious schools in the city. We will not allow them to be agents of unfairness,” de Blasio said.

De Blasio made changing admissions at the specialized high schools part of his campaign when he first ran for office in 2013. After an initial push the next year for changes at the state, the issue largely faded from the mayor’s agenda as he focused his attention of expanding prekindergarten in the city.

The renewed campaign to eliminate the admissions test marks a shift in tone for a mayor who has avoided using the word “segregation.” And some observers have noted that it coincides with the start of a new schools chief who has been far more blunt in questioning how the city sorts students into schools, and who quickly inserted himself into a contentious debate about integration in Upper West Side middle schools.

At Sunday’s press conference, Carranza said the stark underrepresentation of black and Hispanic students at specialized high schools is a problem with “the system, not the students.”

Pursuing admissions changes at the schools pits de Blasio against an unfriendly legislature and powerful alumni groups that have fought to preserve the entrance exam. State law requires admission at three of the schools to be decided by a single test score, and de Blasio has had a contentious relationship with Republicans in the State Senate, who have repeatedly frustrated the mayor by extending his control of city schools by only one or two years at a time.

But the mayor said that with his educational priority — universal prekindergarten — implemented, he believes the time is right to pivot to another education issue and take this fight to Albany.

Assembly Member Charles Barron has sponsored legislation to nix the exam, and legislators such as state Sen. Roxanne Persaud were on-hand at Sunday’s press conference to pledge support. Under the proposed law, the entrance exam would be phased out over three years. A growing number of seats would be reserved for high-performing students at every middle school each year, until 90 to 95 percent of admissions offers would go to the top 7 percent of students. The rest of the seats would be reserved for a lottery for students in private schools or who are new to the city.

Power dynamics have been shifting in Albany, which could provide the city with an opening for change. A group of breakaway Democrats who worked with Republicans in the State Senate disbanded this year. Additionally, special elections won by new Democratic lawmakers paved the way for Democrats to control a majority of the seats in the Senate. However, one Democratic Senator from Brooklyn has continued to caucus with Republicans, allowing them to control the chamber — for now.

The two other crucial players in Albany, Governor Andrew Cuomo and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, expressed interest in reforming admissions at the city’s specialized high schools this weekend but did not specifically express support for the bill backed by de Blasio.

“I think the question of equity in education is very important,” Cuomo said at an unrelated event on Sunday. “I think the question on admissions and how schools are segregated, desegregated is a very important issue.” (A Cuomo spokesperson said officials are reviewing the specifics of the bill.)

Still, winning over lawmakers promises to be an uphill battle. New York State Sen. Toby Ann Stavisky, a Democrat who represents several Queens neighborhoods with heavily Asian populations, released a statement that she “couldn’t disagree more” with the mayor’s proposal. Asian students are disproportionately enrolled in the city’s specialized high schools, and some advocates have said that changing the admissions criteria will disadvantage a group of students who often come from low-income families.

Alumni groups also promise to be a leading voice of opposition. The alumni foundations of Stuyvesant and Brooklyn Technical called de Blasio’s plan “absolutely not the answer” to the schools’ diversity problems in a statement released Saturday, and made the familiar argument that the city should instead boost quality at its middle schools to serve as a pipeline to competitive high schools.

“The goal must be to address the systematic, long-term educational challenges facing far too many young people in underrepresented communities,” the alumni groups said. “And help to ensure that all New York City school children have access to the high-quality educational opportunities they deserve.“

While the legislative battle plays out, the city is pursuing other changes that it can make on its own. The city will reserve 20 percent of seats at every specialized high school for students who are in Discovery — just 4 percent of seats were offered through that program in 2017. In a push to make sure a more diverse range of students benefits from the expansion, the city will limit the program to students in schools serving mostly poor students.

Reporter Monica Disare contributed to this report.

Want more about de Blasio’s proposals? Read our earlier take on the plan here and de Blasio’s op-ed here.

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.”