the first draft

De Blasio’s spending plan would hike budgets at more than 650 schools

PHOTO: Demetrius Freeman/Mayoral Photography Office
Mayor Bill de Blasio presents New York City’s preliminary budget for fiscal year 2017.

Mayor Bill de Blasio wants to increase the budgets of hundreds of city schools next year and spend millions on his efforts to prepare more students for high-level classes and push them through to graduation.

His $82.1 billion city budget proposal, released Thursday, shows how the city plans to achieve the education goals de Blasio laid out last fall, when he pledged to raise the graduation rate, ensure second-graders could read on grade level, and offer more students the chance to take high-level math classes.

“Our budget will help lift up the next generation,” de Blasio said Thursday, “through a number of investments that will bring our ‘Equity and Excellence’ agenda to our schools.”

Here’s a breakdown.

Big budget boosts

Last year, the city pumped up struggling schools’ budgets. Now, the mayor is proposing do the same for nearly 660 additional schools.

The city would spend $159 million to raise the minimum funding level for all schools, a bump that would affect 657 schools currently below that threshold. That amounts to an average increase of $242,000 per school.

The cost of college access

De Blasio made college preparation the centerpiece of his agenda-setting speech at the start of the school year, where he said every high schooler should have access to advanced courses and help with college applications.

As a start, his budget sets aside $15 million next year to expand the number of Advanced Placement classes, an amount that will grow steadily each year until peaking at nearly $51 million in 2020. The goal is for every school to offer at least five AP classes.

Another $15 million will fund a pilot counseling program for over 16,000 students in two high-needs districts in the South Bronx and Brownsville, Brooklyn, where students are less likely to earn a diploma than almost anywhere else in the city. The “Single Shepherd” program will pair each middle and high school student there with a counselor to help with academic and personal problems, and guide them toward graduation.

The proposal puts $20 million toward the city’s “Algebra for All” initiative, which aims to get more eighth-graders prepared for algebra and more middle schools prepared to teach it. Today, about 40 percent of city middle schools do not offer algebra.

Another $16 million would pay for 400 literacy coaches to work with second-graders, keeping them on track through elementary school. The plan would also fund “transition coordination centers” in each borough designed to help older students with disabilities plan for college and careers.

Attention to overcrowding

De Blasio’s plan would allocate $868 million to add 11,800 new seats in schools, part of his administration’s long-term bid to reduce overcrowding. That would bring the number of new seats created by the city’s current five-year plan to more than 44,000.

A new capital plan, also released Thursday, notes that the city has made a dramatic adjustment to its estimate of how many more seats it truly needs — raising that figure by 33,000. Advocates of lower class sizes, and critics of the city’s methods of measuring school space, have long called for that kind of re-evaluation.

Funding for discipline and safety

The de Blasio administration has updated the school discipline code, urging schools to pivot away from suspensions and towards a less punitive “restorative justice” approach.

But advocates of that problem-solving take on discipline have complained that many educators lack the training to pull it off. The proposed budget takes a number of steps in that direction by funding training at 20 schools with the highest number of arrests and suspensions, along with all the schools in Brooklyn’s District 18 and ones that are experimenting with a warning card system in place of suspensions.

The budget would also fund training at schools where staffers frequently call 911, as well as more training for school safety agents. One hundred high schools with high suspension rates would also have more mental-health services made available for students. Together, those programs would cost more than $13 million next year.

Struggling schools

The city is continuing to invest heavily in its effort to improve more than 90 of its lowest-performing schools.

Overall spending for the “Renewal” program is increasing slightly to $189 million next year, and the budget adds a few new programs for those schools, including $1 million per year for doctor visits at schools without health clinics and another $1.5 million per year for staff training.

The budget also includes funds for a data system being used at the city’s Renewal and community schools. That system is designed to share data among city agencies, and cost the city nearly $2.5 million to set up this year.

Other items

Also included in the education portion of the mayor’s proposed budget, which still must be negotiated with the City Council:

  • More funding to coordinate transportation for students living in temporary housing
  • Training for pre-K staff and social workers focused on creating nurturing environments
  • Youth suicide prevention training for education department staffers

Not included

Funding for the summer after-school programs the city cut, and eventually restored, last year.

Behind the brawl

Three things to know about the Tennessee school behind this week’s graduation brawl

PHOTO: Arlington Community Schools
Arlington High School is a 2,000-plus-student school in suburban Shelby County in southwest Tennessee.

Arlington High School is considered the crown jewel of a 3-year-old district in suburban Shelby County, even as its school community deals with the unwelcome attention of several viral videos showing a fight that broke out among adults attending its graduation ceremony.

The brawl, which reportedly began with a dispute over saved seats, detracted from Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance and the more than $30 million in scholarships earned by the school’s Class of 2017. No students were involved.

“It was unfortunate that a couple of adults in the audience exhibited the behavior they did prior to the ceremony beginning and thus has caused a distraction from the celebration of our students’ accomplishments,” Arlington Community Schools Superintendent Tammy Mason said in a statement.

Here are three things to know about the 13-year-old school in northwest Shelby County.

With more than 2,000 students, Arlington is one of the largest high schools in Shelby County and is part of a relatively new district.

It’s the pride of a suburban municipality that is one of six that seceded from Shelby County Schools in 2014 following the merger of the city and county districts the year before. (School district secessions are a national trend, usually of predominantly white communities leaving predominantly black urban school systems.) More than 70 percent of Arlington’s students are white, and 6 percent are considered economically disadvantaged — in stark contrast to the Memphis district where less than 8 percent are white, and almost 60 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

The school’s graduation rate is high … and climbing.

Last year, after adding interventions for struggling students, the school’s graduation rate jumped a full point to more than 96 percent. Its students taking the ACT college entrance exam scored an average composite of 22.5 out of a possible 36, higher than the state average of 19.9. But only a fifth scored proficient or advanced in math and a third in English language arts during 2015-16, the last school year for which scores are available and a transition year for Tennessee under a new test.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits with students at Arlington High School during a 2016 tour.

The school was in the news last August when Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visited its campus.

The commissioner spoke with students there to kick off her statewide listening tour that’s focused on ways to get students ready for college and career. McQueen highlighted the school’s extracurricular activities and students’  opportunities to intern for or shadow local professionals. She also complimented Arlington for having an engaged education community. 

poster campaign

How one Memphis student is elevating the conversation about school discipline

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Posters created by junior Janiya Douglas have amplified student voices about the culture of White Station High School in Memphis.

Now in her third year of attending a premier public high school in Memphis, Janiya Douglas says she’s observed discipline being handed out unevenly to her classmates, depending on whether they are on the college preparatory track.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
From left: Janiya Douglas and Michal Mckay are student leaders in Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

“We’re heavily divided in an academic hierarchy,” said Janiya, a junior in the optional program for high-achieving students at White Station High School. “It’s obvious students are treated differently if they are in traditional classes.”

Janiya also has observed racial disparities in how students are disciplined, and the state’s data backs that up. White Station students who are black or Hispanic are suspended at significantly higher rates than students who are white.

Frustrated by what she’s seen, Janiya took her concerns last Friday to the hallways of White Station and hung 14 posters to declare that “our school doesn’t treat everybody equally.”

By Monday morning, the posters were gone — removed by school administrators because Janiya did not get prior approval — but not before other students shared images of some of the messages on social media.

Now, Janiya is seeing some fruits of her activism, spawned by her participation in Bridge Builders CHANGE, a student leadership program offered by a local nonprofit organization.

In the last week, she’s met with Principal David Mansfield, a school counselor and a district discipline specialist to discuss her concerns. She’s encouraged that someone is listening, and hopes wider conversations will follow.

The discussions also are bringing attention to an online petition by the education justice arm of Bridge Builders calling for suspension alternatives across schools in Memphis.

White Station often is cited as one of the jewels of Shelby County Schools, a district wrought with academic challenges. The East Memphis school is partially optional, meaning some students test into the college prep program from across the county.

But Janiya and some of her classmates say they also see an academically and racially segregated school where students zoned to the traditional program are looked down upon by teachers. Those students often get harsher punishments, they say, than their optional program counterparts for the same actions.

“Our school doesn’t treat everybody equally. A lot of groups aren’t treated equally in our school system,” junior Tyra Akoto said in a quote featured on one poster.

“If we get wrong with a teacher, they’ll probably write us up. But if a white student was to do it, they’ll just play it off or something like that,” said Kelsey Brown, another junior, also quoted in the poster campaign.

A district spokeswoman did not respond to questions about disciplinary issues raised by the posters, but offered a statement about their removal from the school’s walls.

White Station is known for “enabling student voice and allowing students to express their opinions in various ways,” the statement reads. “However, there are protocols in place that must be followed before placing signs, posters, or other messages on school property. Schools administrators will always work with students to ensure they feel their voices are heard.”

PHOTO: @edj.youth/Instagram
Members of the education justice arm of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program

To create the posters, Janiya interviewed about two dozen students and had been learning about about school discipline disparities as part of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

State discipline data does not differentiate academic subgroups in optional schools. But white students in Shelby County Schools are more likely to be in an optional school program and less likely to be suspended. And statewide in 2014-15, black students were more than five times as likely as white students to be suspended.

White Station reflects those same disparities. About 28 percent of black boys and 19 percent of black girls were suspended that same year — significantly higher than the school’s overall suspension rate of 14 percent. About 17 percent of Hispanic boys and 7 percent of Hispanic girls were suspended. By comparison, 9 percent of white boys and 2 percent of white girls were suspended.

Shelby County Schools has been working to overhaul its disciplinary practices to move from punitive practices to a “restorative justice” approach — a transition that is not as widespread as officials would like, according to Gina True, one of four specialists implementing a behavior system called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, or PBIS.

“The whole goal is to not get them suspended, because we want to educate them,” said True, who met this week with Janiya and several other students from Bridge Builders. “When students are cared for emotionally, they perform better academically. As counselors, that’s what we’ve been saying for years.”

Janiya acknowledges that she didn’t follow her school’s policy last week when hanging posters without permission at White Station. But she thinks her action has been a catalyst for hard conversations that need to happen. And she hopes the discussions will include more student input from her school — and across the district.

“Those most affected by the issues should always be a part of the solution,” she said.

Correction: April 10, 2017: A previous version of this story said Janiya put up 50 posters at her school. She designed 50 but actually posted only 14.