Too much of something is bad enough

Dougco parents, board express concern on “testing madness”

Douglas County school officials met with parents on Friday to describe an educational landscape choked by tests and shed some light on why its board of directors has decided to attempt an opt out mechanism for state and federal testing mandates.

Officials also hoped to gather input on how the south suburban school district should proceed, but most parents were ambivalent about the current testing systems and were only beginning to process the board’s decision.

Douglas County schools administer some sort of mandated test nearly every day, leaving little time for instruction, said the district’s assessment chief Syna Morgan, who led the parent forum. Her hope is to create a balance of assessments and instruction, with more discretion from teachers in the classroom and less from the state.

“External testing demands have increased,” she said.

That’s because, as she explained to parents, the state’s educational infrastructure and accountability created by a series of laws — including the School Accountablity Act, the Educator Effectiveness Act and the READ Act — rely on the results of standardized tests.

Since 2010, Colorado schools and districts have been evaluated based on students’ proficiency and academic growth as measured by the state’s standardized tests. Soon, 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation will be calculated by how well their students perform on the same tests.

She called the laws and mandates an interdependent “spiderweb” that, if unwoven, would need to be done so carefully. She said the district was interested in representing all sides of the argument and making sure all parents voices are heard.

But the board’s unanimously passed resolution indicated the historically conservative district is already taking the necessary steps to author and lobby legislation allowing districts to opt out of the mandates.

The board is drafting legislation with an unnamed legislator and reaching out to other lawmakers to co-sponsor the bill, board members said Friday.

State Rep. Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, told Chalkbeat Colorado Monday that he’s talked with Dougco board members about such the idea but won’t decide whether to introduce a bill until after further discussions among school districts and state education officials. He also said he hasn’t yet talked to other legislators about a testing bill.

Board member Judy Reynolds, who attended the parent forum Friday, said the board’s position boils down to local control of schools, which is guaranteed in the state’s constitution.

“Our community should be in charge of our kids’ education,” she said.

The resolution, which was passed late in the evening Tuesday, has raised eyebrows from education activists and other metro school districts.

That wasn’t the intent, Reynolds said. “We don’t want to go rogue.”

Echoing Reynolds, board president Kevin Larsen said he believes several districts will join the district in supporting the not-yet-public legislation. And he believes the bill will have bipartisan support.

“This should cross ideology,” he said during an interview with Chalkbeat Colorado. “But politics is not my concern. The D-and-R count doesn’t matter. What matters is do we have enough legislators that will look at the issues the same way we do.”

The board believes, Larsen said, the district can provide its students and teachers with better and faster feedback. Currently, “the kids are tested in April and don’t get their results until August,” Larsen said.

Student performance on standardized tests should also have less to do with a teacher’s evaluation because, Larsen said, teachers have no control on students take or perform on the test.

“There are better ways to measure teacher effectiveness,” he said.

But one parent, who asked not to be identified because of her association with out-of-state education legislation efforts, said the state’s adoption of Common Core standards and the PARCC consortium tests, will provide parents with better context on their children’s aptitude and post-secondary competitiveness.

“To say we’re above this is crazy,” she said. “We need to know how we’re doing compared to the rest of country. We need comparable standards and tests. I need to know how my student does compared to students in Kentucky and Alabama.”

The district is hosting another set of back-to-back parent forums Jan. 31. The district is also building an advisory committee as it moves forward with its legislation.

A spokeswoman for the Colorado Department of Education, which implements all legislation and oversees standards and testing, said in an email Friday, “There have been no challenges or changes in CDE’s operational systems.”

— Todd Engdahl contributed to this report. 

oral history

‘It was much uglier on the adults’ part than the kids’: Reflecting on efforts — past and present — to integrate P.S. 191

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Students listened to their music teacher play violin at a P.S. 191 community event at Lincoln Center this spring. Fernando Taylor, a seventh-grade student who is the son of PTA President Charles Taylor, is seated far right.

This summer, P.S. 191 on the Upper West Side will move into a new space inside a gleaming condominium tower overlooking the Hudson River. It’s an extraordinary new chapter for a school that has come to symbolize the city’s stark racial and class divisions and its halting attempts at integration.

The move follows a bitter debate over the city’s plan to reduce overcrowding at highly sought-after P.S. 199 by shifting some families to the zone of P.S. 191, which has lower test scores and was previously designated “persistently dangerous” by the state. The plan spotlighted the chasm between schools located just nine blocks apart: P.S. 199 is disproportionately white and Asian with a PTA that rakes in $800,000 annually, while P.S. 191 is overwhelming black and Hispanic and serves many children from the public-housing development across the street, called the Amsterdam Houses. The plan was approved in November, though it remains to be seen how many rezoned families will enroll at 191 or seek alternatives.

The rezoning battle was remarkable not just for its rancor, but also for how closely it mirrored the fight that erupted a half-century earlier when the city tried to integrate the same two schools. In 1964, the city proposed “pairing” the racially segregated schools so that students from their combined zones would attend 191 for the early grades and then transfer to 199. After opponents failed to block the plan, many white families abandoned the public schools entirely.

To mark the end of P.S. 191’s current chapter, Chalkbeat interviewed current and former parents, students and staffers to compile an oral history of its integration struggles, past and present. The interviews were conducted from fall 2016 to early 2017.

Just like today, the 1964 zone change was preceded by a series of public hearings. Most P.S. 199 parents railed against the pairing plan, but a small group of white families — many of them residents of the Lincoln Guild co-op building, like the women quoted below — supported it and sent their children to both schools.

Anita Stark: There were dozens and dozens of meetings. The pairing caused a great split in this neighborhood. Tremendous split. There were those who supported the pairing, and there were those who were ardently against it, and they just stopped talking to each other.

Bernice Silverman: All these upper-income articulate professionals would shout. They couldn’t control their anger; they couldn’t wait their turn. It’s not tolerated in kindergarten, but when you’re grown up you can do it.

Yvonne Pisacane: Once it was clear who was going to support it and who was against it, people didn’t talk to each other. You just didn’t talk. People walked past each other as if they didn’t know each other. I tell you the truth, it was much uglier on the adults’ part than the kids’.

Stanley Becker, P.S. 191’s principal from 1960 to 1980: You got the same situation with the pairing as we have now [with the rezoning hearings]. Parents from 199 got up at school-board meetings and said, “I bought this home for $200-, $300-, $400,000 dollars so I could watch my kid go to school and come home. I don’t want him on a bus going down to another school.”

Later, he said, he saw some of those same parents send their children on buses to private schools in other parts of the city rather than to P.S. 191.

Oh, so the parents who didn’t want their kids to go 10 blocks by bus to a local school had no objection to them going half an hour to the Bronx? You understand that this was just a guise. They don’t want their kids sitting in a school with black and Hispanic kids. That’s the bottom line.

Stark: There were a lot of white parents who really had some racist feelings about the pairing, but they were not going to admit to that. They were going to say there were 13 other reasons they rejected it.

Silverman: There were two things that white parents said: One, they didn’t want — if you mix levels of intelligence or acquired knowledge, it raises the level of the lower group — they didn’t want their kids to be the teachers, to be used as guinea pigs. And the other thing, I guess just fear of poor black people. I don’t know if people said it, but they were afraid there’d be thefts, that the black kids would beat up white kids.

The few white families who supported the pairing enrolled their children at P.S. 191. Students who were unlikely to have crossed paths outside of school became classmates. To help them bond, Principal Becker organized relay races during lunch.

Kenneth Birnbaum, who grew up in Lincoln Guild, said the relay races “transformed” his experience: Being pretty alone, feeling like a minority, scared a lot of the time, to sort of finding my way in this school and making friends with all these people. … The people I was scared of got to be some of my best friends.

Some of the students extended their friendships beyond school, including in the Amsterdam Houses community center.

Robert Stark, Anita’s son: So many of my friends were in the projects. We used to hang out, build models together [ in the community center]. I took a woodshop class there. We took dancing. … It was pretty racially mixed.

Valerie Washington, who grew up in the Amsterdam Houses, made friends with a girl who lived on Central Park West: I remember going to her house. Wow. She had a party. I’ll never forget that, I was impressed … Those apartments were huge. You took an elevator and it’s just your apartment on the floor.

Chris Pisacane, Yvonne’s son: I will say this, I know from going to those schools with those kids that it made me a better person. That I am 100 percent sure of. … Overall, it was a very good experience. And I think it would be a good experience now if it was like that.

The pairing is believed to have officially ended in the 1980s, but by that time white families had almost entirely stopped enrolling at P.S. 191. The school had returned to serving nearly all black and Hispanic students, many of whom lived in poverty.

Gladys Curet, a former 191 student, taught at the school from 1982 to 2011: I saw the change in the kids, and the lack of support from the system. The need for more and getting less. I say that money-wise, supplies, support … I remember once having 34 kids. I took it on. I said I could do this. … But it wasn’t fair to them. I literally had kids sitting on the windowsill.

Even as P.S. 191 struggled, its neighbor, P.S. 199, thrived. Today, it’s one of the city’s top-performing elementary schools and its PTA is among the highest grossing. Their students rarely interact, but last year fifth-graders at the two schools teamed up for a service project. They made peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches for hungry New Yorkers.

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Aaliyah Santana, a P.S. 191 eighth-grader who’s graduating this month, with her mother, Joselin

Stacie Lorraine, a P.S. 191 teacher: So everyone was just mixed up together and given this task. And they were all working together and having so much fun and really enjoying each other. These were kids who live in the same neighborhood. Some of them knew each other because they’d been to camp together or had seen each other in other places. And it was such a beautiful moment of what could be. … Then we all go home.

The city first proposed the P.S. 191-199 rezoning in October 2015. The subsequent hearings were dominated by parents in P.S. 199’s zone who opposed the plan.

Susannah Blum, a P.S. 191 teacher: At the last zoning meeting at our school, someone got up and said, “This is very unfair to have on a Saturday meeting.” I’m thinking, “My God, this is probably the only time that some of our parents can come.” … They’re fighting more for their survival and their lives and their financial stability than some of the families from 199.

Joselin Santana, a P.S. 191 parent who lives in the Amsterdam Houses and works as a home-health aide: I work 12-hour days, 7 to 7 … I come home, I do cooking, I have to watch if [her daughter, Aaliyah] has homework, if she does it. If I don’t tell her, sometimes she forgets because she’s too busy, she’s at basketball. I say, “No, no, no.” … I have to be sure she takes her shower, she’s eating, she does her homework, and everything.

Lorraine: I don’t want to speak for our families, but they probably feel marginalized in this whole process. When they do come to the meetings, they’re listening to people say only slightly concealed racist things.

Yvette Powell, a P.S. 191 grandparent who lives in the Amsterdam Houses: I heard one parent say they didn’t want their children with these children. They don’t want what these children do to rub off on their children. And I’m like, these are all children.

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Charles Taylor is a P.S. 191 parent and president of the school’s PTA

Charles Taylor, president of P.S. 191’s parent-teacher association: It’s saying, “We don’t want our kids with your kids.” That’s the message. It doesn’t matter how the message is packaged. That’s the message. It may not even be the intent. I can’t say what people are actually feeling when people are advocating for their own children. I can certainly understand that. But that’s not the way it sounds to the people that you don’t want your children to be with.

Lauren Keville, P.S. 191’s principal: The thing that was hardest for me to hear was when people made judgements about our kids. Because our kids are amazing. And so, you know, that’s hard to take. But what I would say to our parents, “This is not the opinion of all. … We know how great our school is.”

Fernando Taylor, Charles’s son, who is in seventh grade: There’s no bullying in our school. There’s no gossiping in our school. It’s just a really nice school.

Sandra Perez, P.S. 191’s assistant principal, said she warned her older students that outsiders might make assumptions about the school based on their behavior: That’s hard. They don’t understand that. They’re like, “I’m just being a kid.” Yeah, I’m sorry, but everybody’s watching us. For years that I was here, nobody ever looked at us twice. No one ever visited. No one cared. And all of a sudden, now schools are overcrowded, and they need our building. All of a sudden, we matter.

Powell said the rezoning battle reminded her of other interactions in the neighborhood.

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Lauren Keville is P.S. 191’s principal

Powell: I go to Riverside Drive [playground] and the kids start playing together. It’s the parents. The parents go, “Get over here.” My granddaughter’s like, “Why can’t she play with me?” I said, “Maybe they’re going home.” … I don’t want my granddaughter to know what’s going on yet. She’s going to know, but not yet.

Aaliyah Santana, Joselin’s daughter, who is in eighth grade: People get scared of other races. That’s probably because they haven’t been near other races. They’ve probably just been near their race. So when they go to a new job or a new school and there’s different races, they’re like, “Oh my God.” I think that would [get better] if there was more diversity.

Elena Nasereddin, a former P.S. 191 principal who left in 2003, said she hopes parents who were rezoned for 191 will consider enrolling: I would be ecstatic if this opportunity were to be seized by a group of parents who are progressive and who believe in equal opportunity. Who believe that black lives matter, that brown lives matter. Working together, they can make that a wonderful school.

leveling the playing field

New York City’s racial disparities spill into gym class, according to new report

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Nearly half of New York City’s students are missing out on physical education, according to a report released Wednesday — including the “vast majority” of black students and those with disabilities.

Issued by New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, the report looked at newly released data about how much physical education students are receiving. It finds that over two-thirds of students in grades K-3 aren’t receiving the 120 minutes of weekly PE required by state law — illustrating just how far the city is from its goal of ensuring that all elementary students meet those requirements by 2019.

City officials have struggled for years to address gaps in access to physical education, which are often attributed to space constraints, lack of personnel, and pressure to curtail PE in favor of other academic subjects. (A 2015 report from the city comptroller’s office found that 28 percent of schools lacked a dedicated “physical fitness space,” and about one-third of schools did not have a full-time certified PE teacher.)

The report, which is based on the first round of data made available under a new city law, reveals wide variations in access to PE at different grade levels and among various racial groups.

Third-graders, for instance, fared worse than students at any other level, with just 20 percent receiving the required amount of physical education. That trend flips dramatically in middle and high school, where most students are getting enough PE.

On average, black students received less PE than any other racial group, with just 19 percent getting the required level of instruction in across grades K-5. By contrast, 31 percent of white and Asian students received enough physical education, and 25 percent of Hispanic students did.

Percentage of students who get enough PE under state requirements

But those numbers can vary widely across different grade levels and districts. In Manhattan, just 8 percent of black students in grades K-5 received enough PE, compared with 21 percent in Brooklyn. And in Queens District 29, just 5 percent of all students in grades K-3 had full access to PE.

The report does not offer an explanation for the racial gaps, saying only that they are “likely tied to broader disparities in resources in the New York City school system.” The report suggests that city “should closely examine the racial disparities revealed by the DOE data and identify factors that are causing them.”

The picture is slightly more complex for students with disabilities, in part because of missing data. Students with disabilities were slightly less likely to receive required levels of PE compared with their peers.

Students who attend District 75 programs, who typically have more profound disabilities, fared consistently worse than other students. But those findings come with a caveat: The city did not report how many students who required “adaptive physical education” — a modified form of PE that would allow disabled students to participate — actually received it. (The education department has regularly failed to accurately report statistics on whether students with disabilities are receiving required services.)

Mayor Bill de Blasio has vowed to improve access to PE across the board, and earlier this month he announced the city will invest $385 million over the next four years to provide all schools with a designated space for physical education.

The city has also committed to adding 500 PE teachers by 2019, and help schools come up with plans to overcome barriers to PE through a $100 million program launched last year called PE Works.

“The lack of physical education classes in our schools has been a concern of mine for over 20 years,” de Blasio said in a statement earlier this month. “Incorporating physical activity into the day isn’t just the healthy thing for our young people, it is the law and one that was ignored for far too long.”