budget basics

Pre-K expansion will be pricier than expected, budget shows

Mayor Bill de Blasio pushing pre-K applications in Staten Island. (Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)

Expanding pre-kindergarten will be more expensive than expected, Mayor Bill de Blasio said Thursday as he revealed a spending plan that includes additional funding for pre-K and the city’s school-turnaround program.

The 2016 budget includes $409 million for the city’s growing pre-K program, which is expected to enroll more than 70,000 four-year-olds next year. The city had estimated the cost at $340 million in February, a figure de Blasio said had grown because of increased demand and the steep cost of finding private space for pre-K classrooms in areas where the public schools had none to spare.

“It’s more popular than even we knew it would be, so we’re hitting the high end of our numbers,” de Blasio said. “We know the costs are going to be higher than anticipated, but it’s absolutely worth it.”

Nearly 69,000 families applied for a pre-K seat last month, according to the city. The borough with the biggest increase in applications was Queens, where many neighborhoods have perennially overcrowded schools.

“The physical build-out is proving to be a challenge in the sense that we have to find a lot more space in a number of neighborhoods where there’s school overcrowding, so we didn’t have the option to go into our existing schools and find additional space,” de Blasio said.

The city is also set to spend $108.3 million on the “Renewal” turnaround program next fiscal year, up from $30.7 million this fiscal year, officials said, a sign that the program will shift toward more intensive support and student services next year. Last fall, de Blasio promised to invest $150 million in 94 low-performing schools over three years to pay for extra services for students and training for staffers.

Officials added that the education department had repurposed more than $40 million in federal funds to use for struggling schools. That is in addition to another $34 million being allocated to boost the budgets of those schools, and other schools with low attendance that are getting extra services in order to become “community schools.”

Struggling schools will also receive funding to offer more academic help to overage eighth graders, vision screenings for students, additional science programs, and access to a substance abuse prevention specialist, according to budget documents, and 63 new guidance counselors will head to “high-needs” schools.

“We are going to just keep adding elements to turn these schools around,” de Blasio said.

The city isn’t allocating extra money for its after-school programs, which it also expanded to all middle schools last year. In February, the city said it would spend $190 million to serve 100,000 students; on Thursday, it said it would only spend $163 million but serve 107,000 students.

The city will allocate funding for 444 new programs in the Public School Athletic League, a significant increase. The city has faced ongoing criticism for the options available to students at small schools, prompting some recent student protests.

Meanwhile, the results of an experiment offering free lunch to middle-schoolers this year haven’t been convincing enough to expand it to other grades, de Blasio said. Middle schools will offer free lunch again next year to allow for a “more thorough test.”

“The results are mixed so far in terms of the impact it’s having, meaning the additional number of children who are taking advantage of it,” de Blasio said. “It’s not been that large so far.”

City Council members and Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito have called for extending the program to all students, as have advocates, who say the pilot program was effective. In March, Fariña told the City Council that there was a 6.4 percent increase in the share of students eating free lunch at the 291 middle schools that were part of the program.

“Universal free school lunch in middle schools this year is proving to be an amazing and well-documented success. It is a no-brainer to ensure that all 1.1 million students are included in the June final budget,” said Liz Accles, executive director of Community Food Advocates.

Overall, the education department’s operating budget for 2016 stands at $21.7 billion, which includes $533 million more from the state than the city received last year.

The City Council will hold hearings on the budget before a final version is adopted in June. An education committee’s hearing is scheduled for May 28, and the new fiscal year starts July 1.

New Partner

Boys & Girls Clubs coming to two Memphis schools after all

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Principal Tisha Durrah stands at the entrance of Craigmont High, a Memphis school that soon will host one of the city's first school-based, after-school clubs operated by the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Memphis.

Principal Tisha Durrah says her faculty can keep students focused and safe during school hours at Craigmont High School. It’s the time after the final bell rings that she’s concerned about.

“They’re just walking the neighborhood basically,” Durrah says of daily after-school loitering around the Raleigh campus, prompting her to send three robocalls to parents last year. “It puts our students at risk when they don’t have something to do after school.”

Those options will expand this fall.

Craigmont is one of two Memphis schools that will welcome after-school programs run by the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Memphis following this week’s change of heart by Shelby County’s Board of Commissioners.

Commissioners voted 9-4 to foot the bill for operational costs to open clubs at Craigmont and Dunbar Elementary. The decision was a reversal from last week when the board voted down Shelby County Schools’ request for an extra $1.6 million to open three school-based clubs, including one at Riverview School. Wednesday’s approval was for a one-time grant of $905,000.

Commissioners have agreed all along that putting after-school clubs in Memphis schools is a good idea — to provide more enriching activities for neighborhood children in need. But some argued last week that the district should tap existing money in its savings account instead of asking the county for extra funding. Later, the district’s lawyers said the school system can only use that money legally to pay for direct educational services, not to help fund a nonprofit’s operations.

Heidi Shafer is one of two commissioners to reverse their votes in favor of the investment. She said she wanted to move ahead with a final county budget, but remains concerned about the clubs’ sustainability and the precedent being set.

PHOTO: Boys & Girls Club
The Boys & Girls Club provides after-school programs for children and teens.

“If we give (money) to something that’s para-education, we have less to give to education,” she said. “There’s only a limited amount of dollars to go around.”

The funding will help bring to Memphis the first-ever school-based Boys & Girls clubs opened through Shelby County Schools, the largest district in Tennessee, said Keith Blanchard, the organization’s Memphis CEO.

While the nonprofit has had a local presence since 1962 and is up to seven sites in Memphis, it’s had no local government funding heretofore, which is unusual across its network. Nationally, about 1,600 of the organization’s 4,300 clubs are based in schools.

Blanchard plans to get Dunbar’s club up and running by the beginning of October in the city’s Orange Mound community. Craigmont’s should open by November.

“We hope to maybe do another school soon. … A lot will depend on how this school year goes,” he said. “I certainly hope the county sees the value in this and continues to fund in a significant way.”

At Craigmont, the club will mean after-school tutoring and job training in computer science and interviewing skills. Durrah says the activities will provide extra resources as the district seeks to better equip students for life after high school.

“It looks toward the long term,” Durrah said of the program. “This really fits in with the district’s college- and career-ready goals.”

diplomas for all

Education commissioner floats idea of allowing a work readiness credential to confer benefits of a diploma

Parent rally outside the state education building for more diploma options. (Courtesy Betty Pilnik)

A high school diploma opens doors to matriculating in college, qualifying for certain jobs and entering the military.

But many students struggle with New York state’s arduous requirements, which generally include passing at least four Regents exams. During a discussion Tuesday about creating more diploma options, New York state’s education commissioner floated a radical solution: Allow students to use a work-readiness credential to obtain a “local diploma” instead.

“I think what we need to look at is the opportunity of saying can the CDOS [Career Development and Occupational Studies credential] be, can the completion of the CDOS sequence, be an appropriate end to receiving a local diploma?” Elia said during a Board of Regents conversation about graduation requirements.

The CDOS credential was originally crafted in 2013 as an alternative to a diploma for students with disabilities. They can show they are ready for employment by completing hundreds of hours of vocational coursework and job-shadowing or by passing a work-readiness exam. The rules were changed last year to also allow general education students to obtain the credential, which can substitute for a fifth Regents exam for students who pass four.

Allowing the credential itself to confer the benefits of a diploma would mark a seismic shift in what it means to graduate in New York state. Students would potentially avoid having to pass a series of Regents exams — which would mark a huge victory for advocates who argue those exams unfairly hold students back.

But it would also raise questions about whether standards are being watered down. Chalkbeat has reported that the work-readiness exams used to obtain a CDOS credential often test fairly basic life skills, such as how to overcome obstacles when throwing a company party. The state itself is currently reviewing these exams to see if they have “sufficient rigor.”

The state cautioned that there is no formal proposal on the table. Also, the commissioner’s statement Tuesday morning was vague. If state officials decide to move forward with the proposal, for instance, they would need to decide if it is for all students or only students with disabilities. Officials would also need to clarify whether the work-readiness exam itself was sufficient for a diploma, or whether extra coursework would be tacked on.

“The Board of Regents and the State Education Department have made it a priority to allow students to demonstrate their proficiency to graduate in many ways. This is not about changing our graduation standards. It’s about providing different avenues – equally rigorous – for kids to demonstrate they are ready to graduate with a meaningful diploma,” said education department spokeswoman Emily DeSantis. “Today, the Board of Regents and the Department started a discussion to examine all of New York’s diploma options and graduation requirements. This discussion will continue over the coming months. It is premature to speculate on any changes that could be made as a result of this process.”

Regardless of any changes, all students would likely be required to complete the same number of high school courses, which includes 22 credits of required work, state officials said.

Still, just having the head of the state’s education department float this concept suggests a dramatic policy reversal. Starting in 2005, the Regents began a process to make it more difficult to earn a diploma in an attempt to prepare more students for college and career. Local diplomas exist today but are only offered in limited cases, for students with disabilities who complete a set of requirements, including the math and English Regents, and for general education students who just miss passing two of their Regents exams.

Recently, state education officials have been looking for ways to help students just shy of the passing mark. In 2014, they created a “4+1” option, which allows students to substitute a final Regents exam for a pathway in areas like the arts or Career and Technical Education, and then last year added CDOS as a potential pathway.

In 2016, another rule change allowed students to appeal Regents exam grades with scores below passing and let students with disabilities graduate after passing two Regents exams and getting a superintendent’s review. Last year, the number of New York City students successfully appealing Regents exam scores in order to graduate tripled, likely contributing to a boost in the city’s graduation rate.

By placing a discussion about diploma options on Tuesday’s agenda, state officials suggested the Regents want to do even more. Allowing students to earn a local diploma without passing any Regents exams would be the biggest change to date.

Stephen Sigmund, executive director of High Achievement New York, did not comment specifically on this provision and said he generally supports recent changes to graduation requirements. But he said looking forward, it will be important to maintain high standards.

“Ensuring that there’s rigor and that graduates are ready for what comes next is very important,” Sigmund said.

Many education advocates are likely to be supportive by the change. A group of activists rallied at the State Education Department on Monday, carrying signs that said “diplomas for all.”

These and other advocates argue that students across the state — particularly those with disabilities or those who struggle with tests — have had their life options severely limited by the exams.

State Senator Todd Kaminsky, who has been active in fighting for more diploma options, said for him, finding solutions for these students outweighs critics’ concerns about rigor.

“I think this is a major victory for parents who had seen their potential for their children stifled,” Kaminsky said. “I am firmly of the belief that we need to err on the side of giving children options to graduate.”