Diversity Matters

Debate over high school admissions test divides City Council

Coalition of Specialized High School Alumni Organizations President Larry Cary rallies a crowd of alumni and parents of specialized high school students outside City Hall.

Deep divisions emerged at a City Council hearing Thursday on school diversity, as policymakers debated the merits of city’s specialized high school admissions test and city officials promised to consider a variety of enrollment policy changes.

Mayor Bill de Blasio wants state lawmakers to support a bill that would allow the three oldest specialized high schools to consider multiple criteria when admitting students, something he, Chancellor Fariña, and civil rights advocates say could increase diversity at those schools, where black and Hispanic enrollment has steadily fallen in recent years. Only 11 percent of the offers to the eight schools went to black and Hispanic students this spring.

“It has become the norm throughout our education system, our higher education system, that we look to multiple criteria for admissions to these venerated institutions,” Councilman Stephen Levin, of Brooklyn, said during the hearing. “To me, this seems like an antiquated system that reduced our student to one test on one day.”

But supporters of current system, from within and outside the council, point to the test as method that has worked successfully for generations. They point out that many of the city’s screened high schools, which look at factors like attendance and school grades when making admissions decisions, have a higher percentage of white students than the specialized schools.

“The test is not discriminatory,” Queens City Councilman Peter Koo said during the hearing. “If it’s discriminatory, how is it that second generation of immigrants can get in, people from India and the Caribbean? They have dark skin.”

“If I was trying to get into a multiple-criteria school I would not have gotten in,” said City Councilman Jumaane Williams, a Brooklyn Tech alumnus who is black. “The only way I got in was through testing.”

The City Council has no authority to make admissions policy changes. But the discussion activated alumni and parents of students at the schools, and dozens converged on the City Hall for Thursday’s meeting. Retaining the exam and additional diversity don’t need to be mutually exclusive, they said.

“Fundamentally, the test reflects the failure of New York City School system,” President of the Coalition of Specialized High School Alumni Organizations Larry Cary told reporters assembled outside City Hall on Thursday. His organization sent a five-page letter Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito earlier this month urging her to vote ‘no’ on the City Council’s resolution in support of the state bill.

The fact that few black and Hispanic students are winning spots based on the test “reflects racism and it reflects the lack of preparation the school system give the kids in the black and Hispanic community,” Cary added.

The admissions policies at Bronx Science, Brooklyn Tech and Stuyvesant high schools were enshrined in state law in 1971. The authority to change the admissions policy at the other five specialized high schools that rely on the specialized test lies with the city, though the Department of Education has not said it will make any moves without state support for changing the policies at the other three schools.

What city officials did say Thursday is that they are working to expand the number of students taking the specialized high school exam by asking all middle school guidance counselors to push the top 15 percent of their students to sign up for the SHSAT. Providing more and better access to test preparation, City Council members, the alumni coalition, and city officials agreed, should be a priority whether the admissions policy changes or not.

But a two-year tutoring program aimed specifically at preparing low-income students for the exam has gotten smaller. Ursulina Ramirez, the Chancellor’s chief of staff, said during her testimony that the program, called DREAM Specialized High School Institute, has been hamstrung by a lack of funding. Eight hundred students enrolled in DREAM when it launched in 2012, but only 450 slots were funded this year even though more than 6,000 students qualified.

“While we would like to expand the program to meet the demand, we are limited by funding constraints,” Ramirez said.

Department of Education officials also said they had trouble recruiting students for the program in the South Bronx, central Harlem and central Brooklyn, where students often have to care for younger siblings or problems at home that interfere with attendance.

“There are issues getting information out to students who qualify and keeping them enrolled in the test prep,” said Ainsley Rudolfo, executive director of program and partnerships at the Department of Education’s Office of Equity and Access. “Life has been getting in the way.”

The hearing also addressed broader issues of diversity in the city’s schools, including a bill that would require the city to release more information about school-level diversity and another that would require the city to “prioritize” diversity in its admissions policies, and when it creates new schools or rezones schools.

Department officials said the chancellor was committed to diversity and would support the resolution requiring annual diversity reports.

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.