the education agenda

Looking beyond pre-K, de Blasio unveils wide-ranging education agenda with big goals

Every year, about 120 Colorado children are hospitalized because of falls from playground equipment. All photos from Tom Peeples.

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s agenda-setting speech Wednesday could have been titled: What comes after pre-K? In a word, his answer was college.

After the mayor’s widely heralded expansion of full-day pre-kindergarten, which accompanied the launch of a turnaround program for struggling schools and a reorganization of the education department, many critics and parents were waiting for a clear vision for improving the rest of the school system.

In his speech at a high-performing Bronx high school, de Blasio sought to offer one, saying that his disparate school initiatives would operate in tandem to propel students toward college.

After pre-K, new programs will ensure students can read fluently by third grade and take algebra by ninth grade. In high school, every student will have access to advanced courses and help with college applications. And at all levels, students will learn the basics of computer science, which should make them more competitive as college applicants and job seekers.

The end goal of the these efforts — which are expected to cost $186 million annually when fully in place — is that a decade from now 80 percent of students will graduate high school each year and two-thirds will leave prepared for college-level work, the mayor said. Today, 68 percent of students graduate within four years, and less than half are considered ready for college classes.

[Read more about the specific initiatives, and their timelines, here.]

The speech seemed to strike the right chords. Observers said it balanced ambitious targets with student-focused initiatives that filled in policy gaps and are likely to appeal to parents and outside partners, such as technology companies and philanthropists.

“We can finally see a working vision for school reform taking shape under Mayor de Blasio’s leadership,” said Zakiyah Ansari, a public-school parent and advocacy director for the Alliance for Quality Education, in one of dozens of statements from advocates, businesspeople, and politicians that City Hall sent to reporters.

Still, the policy speech came with a heap of caveats and questions.

Most of the new programs won’t launch until next fall — after state lawmakers will have had to decide whether or not to extend his control over the city school system — and he will be out of office by the time his 2026 graduation deadline arrives.

Will the city be able to pull off the new programs, which will require extensive teacher hiring and training along with philanthropic funding? And even if the efforts go as planned, will they guarantee that students read proficiently and graduate high school in record numbers?

“Those are lovely goals,” said New York University research professor Leslie Santee Siskin, “but it would take a lot of work and reconfiguring of practice to make them reachable.”

The essence of de Blasio’s new agenda, he said, was summed up in the giant banner that hung over him in the Bronx Latin auditorium Wednesday: “Equity and excellence.” The idea is to improve the quality of all city schools, while making sure every student has access to the same learning opportunities.

That means that all second-grade students will eventually be able to get help from an on-site reading specialist, all eighth-grade students will be able to take algebra at their schools, and all high-school students will be able to take a range of Advanced Placement courses, according to the mayor’s plan. In addition, all 1.1 million city school students will get a chance to study coding, robotics, and other aspects of computer science.

Kim Nauer, education research director at the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs, said the mayor made a convincing argument that every school should offer stronger reading, math, and computer programs.

Those “struck me as something that the middle class and upper-middle class have always assumed for their children,” she said. “And so here he’s saying, all kids should have access to this quality of curriculum.”

Still, each program faces formidable challenges.

The city is proposing that within six years the reading specialists, combined with teacher training, will be able to more than double the number of incoming third graders who are proficient readers — from 30 percent today up to 66 percent. At the same time, more than 15,000 more eighth-graders who lack access to algebra classes and nearly 40,000 high-school students without AP options will need to receive them.

Meanwhile, the system-wide computer science classes will require some 5,000 trained teachers, officials estimate. And it will cost $81 million over a decade, with half that amount coming from private sources. So far, only about 30 percent of the private money has been committed, officials said.

Even if the city pulls off the extraordinary amount of hiring, training, and curriculum development that those programs will demand, it’s far from certain that they will lead to a 12-point increase in the graduation rate within a decade.

Aaron Pallas, a sociology and education professor at Teachers College, recalled a national education panel in the 1990s setting the goal of a 90 percent U.S. graduation rate by 2000. By 2013, the rate had hit 81 percent. While Pallas commended de Blasio for setting an ambitious target, he said detailed plans are needed.

“It’s easy to set those kinds of aspirations,” he said. “It’s harder to figure out the specific strategies.”

back to the future

On display at Automotive High School: A plan to revitalize technical education

PHOTO: Monica Disare
At vocational education panel at Automotive High School

Brooklyn’s Automotive High School has long offered students the chance to learn how to fix a car’s engine or replace its brakes. But a different type of “vocational ed” was on display Thursday, when a neuroscientist, theoretical physicist and artificial intelligence engineer were among those gathered to talk about the future of career and technical education.

They were invited by Kate Yourke, founder of a program called Make: STEAM, which attempts to inspire learning by connecting students with hands-on activities in the sciences and arts.

Yourke says she has seen the demographics of Williamsburg and Greenpoint change and, at the same time, watched Automotive High School transition from a well-respected community hub to one of the lowest-performing schools in the city.

Yourke wants to help the school, in part by offering students the kind of technical education that will energize them. While she hopes to work with several schools in the neighborhood, Automotive is at the top of her list.

“I’ve always had this school in my heart because it’s incredible,” she said. “It’s an incredible place.”

Nationally, there has been a push to redefine vocational education and include career paths like computer science that, unlike traditional vocational ed, require more than a high school degree. (These newer programs, however, are often to difficult start in New York City.)

Yourke hopes that high-quality, hands-on learning will give students a deeper understanding of the world around them, crucial preparation for any career path.

Even complicated topics like theoretical physics can be broken down for students, she added. “There’s no reason why you can’t access this information in a way that they’re going to make meaning out of it,” she said.

To that end, Yourke is running a “Festival of Curiosity” on Saturday at Automotive High School, where students can participate in activities like making hot air balloons or learning to sew.

“I think the school needs to serve the community that it’s in,” Yourke said. “It needs to be a resource for our children.”

College-bound

How one Memphis charter school’s ACT scores jumped 2.6 points in one year

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
A graduating senior speaks during an Academic Signing Day ceremony for Freedom Preparatory Academy, a Memphis charter school whose entire first graduating class is headed to college. Banners were on display to represent the schools they'll attend.

When Roblin Webb launched Freedom Preparatory Academy in 2009 with a class of sixth-graders, she made a promise to their parents: College would be a reality for their children.

Now, as those students and others make up the Memphis charter network’s first graduating class, all 50 are heading to college.

Helping the students get there was a remarkable 2.6-point boost in the group’s average ACT composite score — from 16.7 to 19.3 in one year. That’s considered below college-ready, but the score is higher than average for Shelby County Schools and other high schools in the low-income neighborhood served by Freedom Prep.

“Our results tell us that although we still have work to do to ensure our students are highly competitive nationwide, our success locally and statewide lets us know that we are on the right track,” said Webb, a former lawyer and a graduate of Rhodes College. “We expect this success to continue next year and beyond!”

Chief Academic Officer Lars Nelson traces the boost to integration of ACT prep last fall into classes for English and math; three required practice tests throughout the year; and adding a third counselor for the school of 315 students.

The school’s small size helped, too. Most Memphis schools have more seniors and fewer counselors.

But Nelson also emphasizes the foundational learning that happened in the charter network’s elementary and middle schools, as well as an emphasis on teacher development and being an early adopter of the Common Core academic standards, which began in Tennessee in 2012.

“The way to truly prepare students is to see them through 12th grade,” Nelson said. “It’s not just one year of phenomenal teaching. It’s year after year, and then kids are ready for college.”

Like other Memphis schools, Freedom Prep has to manage a high student mobility rate. Freedom Prep had 96 students in its first sixth-grade class, 70 by 11th grade and 50 in their senior year. A spokeswoman said the network does not recruit students to its senior class.

The four schools in the Memphis-based network are considered some of the most successful in the city. Among charter schools overseen by Shelby County Schools, Freedom Prep is the top performer in English and Algebra I and the second highest in biology, according to the district’s latest charter report.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Elijah Tyler speaks at the school’s academic signing day.

But it’s Freedom Prep’s culture that attracted students like Elijah Tyler, a senior who has attended since sixth grade and earned a 27 on his ACT.

“You know for a fact if you need something, you can go to a teacher; not just academics but social issues,” said Elijah, who got a full scholarship to Rhodes College. “Everyone knows coming into Freedom Prep that the goal is to get into college and get that 4-year degree.”

The high school culture is grounded in a three-week teacher orientation every summer. During the school year, it’s not unusual for Principal Kristle Hodges-Johnson to pop in a classroom up to 10 times a week to give teachers quick pointers that “help them hone their craft at a greater rate,” Nelson said.

Vivek Ramakrishnan, a first-year high school teacher, said the overlap between ACT math and Bridge Math curriculum made integrating ACT prep a natural fit.

“Our leadership recognized how integral writing is to college academic success and prioritized writing in all content areas. Our history and (language arts) teams have pushed kids to writing college-length research papers,” he said. “…We also shifted towards making students interpret and justify their mathematical solutions in writing.”

Though Common Core isn’t perfectly aligned with the ACT, findings from the test company’s national survey helped inform its development in 2009. So, Freedom Prep leaders set out to adapt their classroom instruction early and provided time in the school day for students to prepare, especially since many don’t have access to the internet at home.

“This is a really hard shift for adults to make; it’s hard for students too,” Nelson said of Common Core, which is the basis for the state’s newly revised academic standards that will reach Tennessee classroom this fall.

The charter network focused on bite-size changes over time to help teachers teach differently and ask students more evidence-based questions. When it got hard, teachers reminded students that perseverance is key to the ultimate educational goal: graduating from college.

“We don’t try to insulate kids from that frustration and that’s an important lesson to have,” Nelson said. “We connect the transition with what they came here to do… (which) matters so much more than a standard.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include information about student mobility.