dance to the tune

Chancellor brings energy to bilingual MS as year-one ends

Chancellor Walcott dances the salsa with eighth-graders and their teacher, Joanne Vasquez, at Dual Language Middle School in Manhattan.

This has not been the easiest week for Chancellor Dennis Walcott.

He got to champion his middle school initiative at a policy symposium earlier this week. But he also had to reverse course on two policies — a ban on some words on tests and a plan to “turn around” seven schools — after public outcry. And today, as the first year of his appointment comes to a close, the Daily News reported that he has come under fire  for his staunch fidelity to the Bloomberg administration’s educational agenda and that little has changed in the school system since he replaced Cathie Black.

But those criticisms did not dampen Walcott’s usual eagerness to get involved in classroom activities, which was on full display this morning when he joined a group of middle schoolers caught in a frenzy of midterms and test preparations for an impromptu salsa dancing lesson.

Walcott has also gained a reputation for that seemingly-boundless energy. He often tells reporters about his early-morning running and swimming routines, and he was back at work the day after completing the New York Marathon last year. This morning, Walcott racked up points on the pedometer he wears at his waist while touring Manhattan’s Dual Language Middle School—a visit that gets him closer to his stated goal of visiting every school before Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s term ends.

The school was Walcott’s first stop of three on the last day of school before break. Later in the day, he traveled to the Young Scholars’ Academy for Discovery and Exploration in Brooklyn and P.S. 48 on Staten Island. This evening, he will fete the student selected to design the cover of next year’s high school directory.

State exams will be administered in less than two weeks, the day after Spring Break, but students at the successful Upper West Side middle school are already mired in midterms. Thursday morning, eighth-graders took a break between exams for a dance class with their teacher, Joanne Vasquez, who teaches dance to each grade level three times a week.

98 percent of students at the A-rated school are Latino, and one third are English Language Learners fluent in Spanish. Some classes are taught entirely in Spanish, Principal Claudia Aguirre explained, and the rest are taught in English.

The motivational words “Dedicación, Propósito, Éxito” (Dedication, Purpose, Success) are written on each classroom door, and students study culture and art from Latin American countries in their core classes.

“We take every opportunity we can to leverage for them some cultural capital,” Aguirre told Walcott as they walked through the third-floor art and English classrooms. Hers is one of more than 60 of dual-language programs in the city, which are aimed at helping students perfect their English skills while maintaining fluency in their first language—usually Spanish or Chinese.

“Who did not speak Spanish before you started here?” Walcott asked one classroom of sixth-graders. About one third raised their hands. “They all spoke Spanish,” Aguirre said, “but they weren’t very sure of their Spanish—academic Spanish is very different than speaking at home with mom and dad.”

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.”