getting in

McCourt HS planners hunt for the perfect admissions policy

Hoping to bring a diverse mix of students to a new Upper West Side high school, parents and neighborhood activists are jumping at the chance to write rewrite its admissions rules.

Frank McCourt High School, which will have a writing and communications focus, is highly anticipated by middle and upper-middle class families on the Upper West Side who want a selective school close to home. But McCourt is also one of the small schools replacing Brandeis High School, a large school that has served needy students from Harlem. Some advocates fear these students will be displaced as the school phases out.

The challenge, those who’ve been involved in the school’s development say, is building a school that attracts both sets of students.

“You can’t change the quality of the program and not offer it to the same kids who have always gone to Brandeis High School; it’s a cruel joke,” said Michelle Fine, a professor of urban education at the City University of New York.

Fine is part of a group of parents, activists and academics who arrived at a meeting for the school on Tuesday night armed with ideas for a new kind of admissions policy that they say will not give preference to either set of students.

Fine and several neighborhood parents have spent the past few months working on a draft vision statement outlining a proposed admissions strategy. Chief among their suggestions is that a writing sample carry significant weight in the school’s admissions.

Fine said the goal would be to find students with “a spark for writing,” but that an admissions committee must consider students with talents for writing in a variety of forms. “So we’d be looking for students who do scientific writings and journalism as well as students who write poetry and hip-hop,” she said.

Equally important, Fine said, is that applicants be judged on a range of criteria, with no one standard like test scores trumping all others. Fine said that rather than admitting all students who score above a certain bar on a numerical scale, students could be considered in a more holistic fashion.

Donna Nevel, an Upper West Side parent and advocate at the Center for Immigrant Families, emphasized that an equitable and inclusive admissions process was just one part of a plan for building a diverse school. A plan for recruiting students from the neighborhoods that Brandeis High School historically served is also crucial, she said.

“You need both,” she said. “If you do the outreach, but admissions policy isn’t equitable, then the kids don’t get in. And if you have the policy but not the outreach, then you don’t get the applicants that you’re looking for.”

Nevel stressed that school planners and activists need to ensure that once a successful admissions process is created, it stays that way over time.

“We have all seen schools that begin in a positive way and, before too long, end up privileging white, upper income families over others,” Nevel said.

City Councilwoman Gale Brewer, who organized this weeks’ school planning meeting, said that she was gratified that the school’s principal, Danielle Salzberg, attended and jumped into the conversation about what the student body should look like. In an interview last month, Salzberg said that she was eager to incorporate community feedback into the school’s planning and was already working on ways of getting neighborhood groups involved in outreach.

Ultimately, the design of the school’s admissions process will be up to Salzberg, said DOE spokesman Will Havemann. Brewer said that neighborhood activists and elected officials are still working with the DOE to determinze the size of the school and whether or not admissions preference will be given to students who live on the Upper West Side.

Meanwhile, word of the school is spreading. Several members of the summer planning committee reported fielding phone calls from parents asking how their children can apply.

“There’s just a real buzz around this school, which makes me happy,” Brewer said. “I heard students leaving the meeting saying, ‘I want to go to McCourt. I want to go to McCourt.'”

Havemann said that students can apply to McCourt during the second round of the high school admissions process. Students who apply and are accepted to other selective schools in the first round will not be forced to commit to another school before hearing from McCourt, he said.

The next meeting on Frank McCourt High School is a space utilization hearing at Brandeis, scheduled for December 8, Brewer said. The Panel on Educational Policy will then have to grant the final approval for the school to open on the Brandeis campus.

money matters

Report: Trump education budget would create a Race to the Top for school choice

PHOTO: Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead
President Donald Trump and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos participate in a tour of Saint Andrews Catholic in Orlando, Florida.

The Trump administration appears to be going ahead with a $1 billion effort to push districts to allow school choice, according to a report in the Washington Post.

The newspaper obtained what appears to be an advance version of the administration’s education budget, set for release May 23. The budget documents reflect more than $10 billion in cuts, many of which were included in the budget proposal that came out in March, according to the Post’s report. They include cuts to after-school programs for poor students, teacher training, and more:

… a $15 million program that provides child care for low-income parents in college; a $27 million arts education program; two programs targeting Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian students, totaling $65 million; two international education and foreign language programs, $72 million; a $12 million program for gifted students; and $12 million for Special Olympics education programs.

Other programs would not be eliminated entirely, but would be cut significantly. Those include grants to states for career and technical education, which would lose $168 million, down 15 percent compared to current funding; adult basic literacy instruction, which would lose $96 million (down 16 percent); and Promise Neighborhoods, an Obama-era initiative meant to build networks of support for children in needy communities, which would lose $13 million (down 18 percent).

The documents also shed some light on how the administration plans to encourage school choice. The March proposal said the administration would spend $1 billion to encourage districts to switch to “student-based budgeting,” or letting funds flow to students rather than schools.

The approach is considered essential for school choice to thrive. Yet the mechanics of the Trump administration making it happen are far from obvious, as we reported in March:

There’s a hitch in the budget proposal: Federal law spells out exactly how Title I funds must be distributed, through funding formulas that sends money to schools with many poor students.

“I do not see a legal way to spend a billion dollars on an incentive for weighted student funding through Title I,” said Nora Gordon, an associate professor of public policy at Georgetown University. “I think that would have to be a new competitive program.”

There are good reasons for the Trump administration not to rush into creating a program in which states compete for new federal funds, though. … Creating a new program would open the administration to criticism of overreach — which the Obama administration faced when it used the Race to the Top competition to get states to adopt its priorities.

It’s unclear from the Post’s report how the Trump administration is handling Gordon’s concerns. But the Post reports that the administration wants to use a competitive grant program — which it’s calling Furthering Options for Children to Unlock Success, or FOCUS — to redistribute $1 billion in Title I funds for poor students. That means the administration decided that an Obama-style incentive program is worth the potential risks.

The administration’s budget request would have to be fulfilled by Congress, so whether any of the cuts or new programs come to pass is anyone’s guess. Things are not proceeding normally in Washington, D.C., right now.

By the numbers

After reshaping itself to combat declining interest, Teach For America reports a rise in applications

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Memphis corps members of Teach For America participate in a leadership summit in last August.

Teach for America says its application numbers jumped by a significant number this year, reversing a three-year trend of declining interest in the program.

The organization’s CEO said in a blog post this week that nearly 49,000 people applied for the 2017 program, which places college graduates in low-income schools across the country after summer training — up from just 37,000 applicants last year.

“After three years of declining recruitment, our application numbers spiked this year, and we’re in a good position to meet our goals for corps size, maintaining the same high bar for admission that we always have,” Elisa Villanueva Beard wrote. The post was reported by Politico on Wednesday.

The news comes after significant shake-ups at the organization. One of TFA’s leaders left in late 2015, and the organization slashed its national staff by 15 percent last year. As applications fell over the last several years, it downsized in places like New York City and Memphis, decentralized its operations, and shifted its focus to attracting a more diverse corps with deeper ties to the locations where the program places new teachers. 

This year’s application numbers are still down from 2013, when 57,000 people applied for a position. But Villanueva Beard said the changes were working, and that “slightly more than half of 2017 applicants identify as a person of color.”