admissions season

Few black and Hispanic students admitted to top high schools, adding to calls for admissions rules changes

Few black and Hispanic students won seats in eight of the city’s specialized high schools this year, prompting Mayor Bill de Blasio to repeat a campaign trail declaration that the admissions process needs an overhaul.

Just 11 percent of the offers to eight of the city’s top high schools went to black and Hispanic students, though they make up about 70 percent of the city’s eighth graders. That figure is similar to last year’s, though for some schools the number of offers to black and Hispanic students continued to fall. Just seven of 952 students accepted to Stuyvesant High School are black, and 21 are Hispanic. No black students were admitted to Staten Island Tech, down from five last year.

Students get those admissions offers based solely on their performance on the Specialized High School Admissions Test. Civil rights groups and de Blasio himself have said that process contributes to inequity, since lower-income families have less access to high-quality elementary and middle schools or external test preparation,

On Tuesday, the mayor and Chancellor Carmen Fariña signaled that they would be revisiting the admissions requirements—though their time frame isn’t soon enough for some.

“Over time we’re going to have a series of steps we take,” de Blasio said. “I think ultimately we need to reform the admissions system. That’s something we’d have to do with Albany.”

That’s partially true, since three of the eight specialized schools that use the exam have their admissions rules codified in state law. But the mayor could change admissions rules for the other five, including Staten Island Tech, to include other measures like student grades at any time.

Fariña said in a statement that the department will be looking into the admissions gap “in the coming months.”

Their statements represented an official shift from former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who repeatedly said that the admissions process was an equitable one because all students were judged by the same criteria.

“You pass the test, you get the highest score, you get into the school — no matter what your ethnicity, no matter what your economic background is. That’s been the tradition in these schools since they were founded, and it’s going to continue to be,” Bloomberg said in 2012.

To Lazar Treschan, the director of youth policy at the Community Service Society of New York,  today’s numbers were just the latest confirmation that the admissions process needs to reflect more than a test.

“Zero [black students] at Staten Island Tech and three at Lehman? It’s not like there are no black students in Staten Island and the Bronx,” Treschan said, referring to the High School of American Studies at Lehman College, which is not required by law to use the Standardized High School Admissions Test for admission. “It’s academic apartheid.”

Treschan co-authored a report last year with the the NAACP Legal Defense Fund that laid out options for a “fairer and more effective” process for determining who gets the city’s most-coveted high school seats. The report points out that most of the nation’s highest performing, selective high schools already use more than one measure to determine admission.

The NAACP Legal Defense Fund also filed a civil rights complaint about the specialized high school admissions process in 2012. Lawyer Monique Lin-Luse, special counsel to the education group at the Legal Defense Fund, said the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights is still investigating that claim.

The civil rights complaint is one of three fronts on which the group is fighting to change the admissions policy, Lin-Luse said, including state legislation and lobbying City Hall to change the procedure for the five schools in their control as soon as possible.

“There is a sense of urgency that decisions need to be made so so that students can prepare,” Lin-Luse said. “We shouldn’t wait another year.”

The state legislation would allow city officials to determine the admissions criteria for Stuyvesant, Brooklyn Tech, and Bronx Science. State Assemblyman Karim Camara sponsored the bill in the Assembly, where it has stalled for the last two years. But Camara said today that he’s hopeful that de Blasio’s support could help push a more ambitious, amended version through the legislature.

“Over the next few weeks we will be announcing a very specific piece of legislation,” Camara said. “What we have now is a plan that we’re developing that would lay out the measures, from expanding the pool of applicants to having more notification to children of color.”

The Department of Education also announced the results of its regular high school admissions process today, and officials said that 45 percent of eighth graders who applied got into their first-choice school—down slightly from 47 percent last year. 73 percent of applicants got into one of their top three choices.

10 percent of the applicants didn’t receive a high school match and will need to go through round two, when they can rank schools that still have available seats and apply to a group of newly announced schools.

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a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.