First Person

Big Schools Questions That Need Candidates’ Answers

As they make their way through dozens of debates and hundreds of interviews, the candidates for New York City Mayor have fallen into predictable mantras on charters, school closings, teacher evaluation, and parent involvement, usually citing cautious support for each, with “cautious” being the operative word for fear of alienating potential primary voters.

Trouble is, these high-profile issues, while important, have little to do with the ultimate success of city schools. The city’s schools face harrowing problems: inadequate school leadership, disgraceful student achievement, and crushing child poverty that undermines learning. Rather than attack these shortcomings, the Bloomberg administration created tiny, competitive oases as alternatives while most students and teachers are starved for academic resources required for widespread academic success.

The next mayor will face big, interconnected educational challenges. But politicians avoid nuanced positions in a hard-fought campaign. Voters must demand more than a contest of simplistic responses to rack up easy points. New York’s school system is too complex, our students too diverse, for yes/no answers to our most pressing problems. In electing someone to govern, rather than merely win, candidates should be made to answer these and other hard questions to earn their place in City Hall:

1. How would you meet or reduce the Department of Education’s stated annual need for 150 to 200 new principals and 350 to 400 assistant principals?

By tripling the number of schools, Bloomberg created a crippling shortage of school leadership, a crucial factor for school success. In its recent report , the Wallace Foundation quoted the DOE’s stated need for this unsustainable infusion of new talent. The problem is worse than the number suggests since, with so many new assistant principals serving under inexperienced principals, the profession has lost institutional memory and instructional acumen. A department insider told me that, in piloting the new state teacher evaluation system, few principals could suggest better instructional strategies when conducting observations. Whether to consolidate schools or make the job substantially more attractive, something must be done to stop the hemorrhaging of school leadership.

2. What actions would you take for improved instruction and graduation rates for English language learners (ELLs), especially those needing special education?

According to 2013 data, public school ELLs number 159,162 or 14.4 percent of the city’s entire student population. Yet the graduation rate for this large group is below 50 percent, well under the department’s official overall graduation rate of approximately 62  percent. Only 7 percent of ELLs from the 2006 cohort graduated on time college and career-ready, according to city data. Disproportionately identified as requiring special education services, over 20 percent of ELLs are classified for special education, with over 34 percent in Staten Island and 25 percent in the Bronx. Few of these children with special needs ever graduate. By targeting ELLs and especially those in special education for increased academic attention as required by state law, significant progress in overall system performance would result.

3. Which is the big-ticket funding priority: pre-kindergarten or class size reduction?

Mayoral candidate and current Public Advocate Bill de Blasio advocates full time pre-K for all children 4 years and up at a cost of almost half a billion dollars a year. But experts believe pre-K should start at 3 or before, as provided by most upper income parents. Programs like Educare, serving even infants from low-income families, cost approximately $20,000 per child per year. According to education reporter John Merrow and the 2012 NAACP report, “Finding Our Way Back to First,” Educare has produced huge payoffs in student achievement and social service savings. On the other hand, there has been proven success through class size reduction programs like Tennessee’s successful Project STAR . But this initiative, too, would be expensive, costing hundreds of millions of dollars for more teachers on top of increased capital costs for new classrooms. Though not mutually exclusive, these two broad reforms, while promising maximum positive impact, are likely too expensive for full implementation individually, let alone in tandem.

Instead of concentrating on school wars where battle lines have long been drawn with candidates burrowed deeply into their trenches, voters need to ask hard questions that go to the root of system success. If candidates would constructively address these issues, we would have keys to far-reaching reform and a strong basis for choosing a real education mayor.

David Bloomfield is Professor of Education Leadership, Law, and Policy at Brooklyn College and The CUNY Graduate Center.

First Person

I mentor students demoralized about not having a vote. Here’s their plan for getting civically involved before turning 18

Students in the Minds Matter program.

Every Monday night during the school year, I spend time with two wonderful young women. They’re high-achieving high school sophomores from low-income families whose success would be certain if they grew up in a more affluent ZIP code.

Along with a team of other mentors, I help the students improve their writing and communication skills to help them prepare for a successful college career. That’s what I’m prepared to do.

I was less prepared for what they brought to our meeting last week, the first time we met under the tenure of a new president. They talked about feeling the consequences of the national political shift, though at 15, they knew it would be years before they could cast a ballot of their own. “We feel left out of a system that affects us too,” they said.

So our task that night became to expand our ideas about what participation in the American political system really means.

Here are five ideas we came up with, designed to help high schoolers do just that.

1. Meet elected officials. Meeting state senators and representatives during their campaigns is often the easiest way to make contact. Attend a coffee event, a party meeting, or a fundraiser where students can introduce themselves and talk about their concerns. Encourage them to be more than just another face in the crowd.

There are plenty of young, local elected officials to learn from. Dominick Moreno, a prominent Senate Democrat on the state of Colorado’s powerful Joint Budget Committee, got his start running for class president as a high school sophomore. Still only 32, he has already served in the House of Representatives and as mayor pro tem of a Denver suburb.

2. Volunteer on a campaign. This is the best opportunity for students to get an inside look at the political process and can help them establish lasting relationships with real people working in politics.

Some legislators face tough races and are out knocking on doors for months. Others spend their time differently, and in either case, candidates need help reaching out to voters, managing social media accounts, answering emails or organizing events. Plus, this work looks great on student résumés.

I tell students about my own experience. It started small: When I was 10, I passed out stickers for local elected officials at holiday parades. When I was 16, I got the chance to intern at the South Dakota state capitol. At 21, I got my first job in Washington, and at 23 I started lobbying in Colorado, affecting policy that now touches all citizens of the state.

3. Think locally. There are so many small things that students can do that will help their community become a better place on their own timeline. Help students organize a neighborhood clean-up day or tutor at an elementary school. These might feel inadequate to students when they look at the big picture, but it’s important to remind them that these actions help weave a fabric of compassion — and helps them become local leaders in the community.

4. Pre-register to vote. Voting matters, too. It sounds simple, but pre-registering addresses a root cause of low voter turnout — missing deadlines. In Colorado, one must be a U.S. citizen, be at least 16 years old, and reside in the state 22 days prior to the date of the election.

5. Affiliate with a party.
This assures full involvement in the process. Before turning 18, students can still attend party meetings or even start a “Young Democrats/Republicans” group at school. If they don’t feel like they fit with either the Republican or the Democratic parties, that’s OK — unaffiliated voters can now take part in the primary elections and help name either Republican or Democratic leaders.

Talking through these ideas helped the students I work with realize voting isn’t the only way to make a difference. One of my students has started a group that helps other young women know about birth control options, after seeing girls in her high school struggle and drop out after getting pregnant. Other students in the group have asked to learn more about the legislative process and want to testify on legislation.

They’re proving that democracy doesn’t begin and end with casting a ballot — but it does depend on taking interest and taking action.

Zoey DeWolf is a lobbyist with Colorado Legislative Services, based in Denver. She also works with Minds Matter of Denver, a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to help prepare accomplished high school students from low-income families for successful college careers.

First Person

It’s time to retire the myth that any counselor can do the job alone — even at a tiny school

A few of the author's students who graduated last year.

I waited five years to get my dream job as a counselor in a New York City public school. After all of that waiting, I was full of ideas about how I would be able to use my experience to help students navigate what can be an overwhelming few years.

I wanted to make our school counseling more individualized and full of innovative support mechanisms. I wanted our guidance department to be a place that anyone could leave with a grand plan.

A few months into that first year, in fall 2015, it was clear that my vision would be, to put it bluntly, impossible to achieve.

When I received my position at a Harlem high school in District 5, I was assigned to not only take on the responsibilities of a school counselor, but also to act as the college advisor, assign (and then frequently re-shuffle) class schedules for every student, and several other tasks. My school had just under 200 students — enrollment low enough that it was assumed this could all be managed.

This proved to be a very inaccurate assumption. I was working with a group of students with low attendance rates, and many were English language learners or students with disabilities. Many students were overage and under-credited, others were in foster care or homeless, some had returned from incarceration, and a couple were teen parents or pregnant.

The American School Counselor Association recommends a maximum school counselor-to-student ratio of one to 250. I know from experience that extremely high student need makes that ratio meaningless. Almost all of these students needed help in order to be ready to learn. Their needs tripled the feel of our enrollment.

This frequent mismatch between need and numbers puts school counselors like me in the position to do a great disservice to so many students. As the only counselor available, a seemingly small mishap with a task as crucial as graduation certification or credit monitoring could have spelled disaster for a student. I know some seniors missed certain financial aid opportunities and application deadlines, and some ninth, 10th, and 11th graders could have used more academic intervention to help them transition to the next grade level successfully.

My success at keeping our promotion and college admissions rates on the upswing was largely due to my outreach and partnership with community-based organizations that helped support several of our students. Had it not been for their assistance, I wouldn’t have achieved anything near what I did.

I’m still a counselor at my small school, and some aspects of the job have gotten easier with time. I love my job, which I think of as the most rewarding yet intense position in the building. But I still believe that there is almost no case in which only one counselor should be available for students.

Principals and school leaders directly involved with the budget must make sure to effectively analyze the needs of their student population, and advocate for an appropriately sized counseling staff. Small schools face real funding constraints. But ones serving students like mine need more than they’ve gotten.

Students’ social and emotional development and their academic success go hand in hand. Let’s not make the mistake of conflating enrollment numbers with need.

Danisha Baughan is a high school counselor and college advisor. She received her masters in school counseling in May 2010 and has held elementary, middle, and high school counseling positions since then.