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.

Time crunch

Specialized high schools lawsuit could delay admissions decisions, New York City says in court filings

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
Asian-American parents and community leaders gathered in Brooklyn to learn about a lawsuit against part of the city's plan to integrate specialized high schools.

New York City students may have to wait longer than usual to learn where they’ve been accepted to high school as the city prepares for a ruling in a lawsuit challenging integration efforts, according to court records filed Wednesday.

The city asked Judge Edgardo Ramos to rule by Feb. 25 on a preliminary injunction to block admissions changes aimed at enrolling more black and Hispanic students in the city’s prestigious but segregated specialized high schools.

A decision would be needed by then in order to meet the “latest feasible date to mail offer letters,” which the city says would be March 18 given the tight timeline around the admissions process.  The delay would apply to all students, not just those vying for a seat at a specialized high school. 

“DOE is mindful that a delay in the mailing of high school offers will increase anxiety for students and families, cause complications for those students considering private school offers, and require specialized high schools and non-specialized high schools to reschedule and restaff open houses,” the letter said.

A spokesman for the education department said the city will “communicate with families when a final offer date has been determined.” Letters were originally scheduled to be sent by March 4.

Filed in December, the lawsuit against the city seeks to halt an expansion of the Discovery program, which offers admission to students who scored just below the cutoff on the exam that is the sole entrance criteria for specialized high schools. The Discovery expansion, slated to begin this year, is one piece of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to diversify the elite high schools.

Asian-American parents and community organizations say the expansion unfairly excludes their children. Asian students make up 62 percent of enrollment at specialized high schools, but comprise only 16 percent of the student body citywide.

The suit calls for a preliminary injunction, which would put the Discovery expansion on hold while the case winds its way through the courts — and would disrupt the admissions cycle already underway for eighth-graders enrolling in high school next year. The process of matching students to specialized high schools was scheduled to begin this week, the city’s letter states.

The plaintiffs wrote a letter supporting the city’s timeline for a decision on the preliminary injunction, saying their aim is to stop the proposed admissions changes “before they can have the anticipated discriminatory effect.”

Hitting pause on the Discovery program expansion would mean the education department has to recalculate the cutoff score for admission to specialized high schools, consult with principals, work with the test vendor to verify scores, and generate offer letters to send to students, city attorney Marilyn Richter wrote in a letter to the judge.

The education department “has never made such a significant course adjustment midstream in the process before,” she wrote.

Education Inequalities

Is Michigan ready for a ‘grand bargain’ to improve its struggling education system?

PHOTO: Lori Higgins/Chalkbeat
Teresa Weatherall Neal, superintendent of the Grand Rapids school district, speaks during a panel discussion that also featured, from left, Detroit Free Press columnist Rochelle Riley, Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti and former U.S. Education Secretary John King.

A new political dynamic in Lansing has put Michigan in a position to potentially see the kind of education transformation that helped catapult Massachusetts to its status as the top-performing state in the nation, says a former U.S. Secretary of Education.

That bit of optimism from John King, who served as education secretary from 2016 to 2017 and is now the president and CEO of The Education Trust, came after nearly three hours of sobering discussion during an event Wednesday about the need to address inequities in education in Michigan.

Several times, King used the term “grand bargain” to describe what Michigan needs. It’s a term many Detroiters will remember from the Detroit bankruptcy and the deal that was a key part of getting the city out of bankruptcy.

As it relates to education, the term “grand bargain” has been used to refer to the bipartisan agreement struck more than two decades ago in Massachusetts that had broad buy-in from business and education groups, teachers, and parents, to improve academic achievement. The gist: The state invested more money in schools. In return, standards and accountability were increased.

King said Michigan is poised to reach the same consensus and invest more money in education, in particular investing money more equitably so the highest-need students are getting the most funding. He said there needs to be a thoughtful approach to accountability, as well as more investments in teacher preparation and support.

He sees it happening because of new leadership at the state level, including Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and new Republican leaders of the House and Senate.

“This is a moment where the new leadership in Lansing could come together … and it could be truly transformative.”

The event Wednesday, which took place at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, was organized by the Education Trust-Midwest, a Royal Oak-based education advocacy and research organization. The topic was inequities in education and the need to provide equitable opportunities for children regardless on where they live.

Amber Arellano, executive director of the organization, said Michigan ranks 43rd out of 47 states for the funding gap between poor and wealthy school districts.

“Students and families pay the price for this under-investment,” Arellano said.

She said the experiences of states like Massachusetts that have seen striking improvement provide hope for Michigan because they show transformation can happen over five to 10 years.

Michigan has been falling behind other states in performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a national exam that tests a representative sample of students in each state. The state’s performance, in fact, has shown little to no improvement over the last decade.

“We rise and we fall together. In Michigan’s case, we’re falling together,” Arellano said.

The audience at the event’s two panel discussions also heard from speakers such as Nikolai Vitti, superintendent of the Detroit school district. He said that often, when K-12 educators talk about the need for more resources, “you see the rolling eyes of lawmakers.”

But, Vitti said, “It takes funding to educate children. And it takes more funding to educate children who enter … with more challenges.”

Panelists agreed that Michigan is at a pivotal moment because of its new leadership. And they came up with solutions they think will make a difference.

Melody Arabo, outreach specialist at EdReports.org and former Michigan Teacher of the Year, said the state needs to address a lack of resources for educators. She said that in a classroom of 30 students, a teacher can have some reading at the kindergarten level and others “who can read better than I can.”

The materials that teachers have “are not meeting those needs. Teachers spend an average of 12 hours a week going online looking for resources.”

David Meador, vice chairman and chief administrative officer of DTE Energy, said Michigan should look at what successful states have done and adopt best practices. Just as important, he said:“Stick with it. Don’t change it every year.”

For King, the solution to improving schools is simple and starts at a young age.

“If Michigan is going to improve, it will need a surge in high quality early learning that prepares every child for kindergarten or beyond,” King said.