MERGE AHEAD

School merger proposal would cap long struggle for STEM Institute in Harlem

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
The city Department of Education has proposed merging P.S. 241 the STEM Institute of Manhattan into P.S. 76 A. Philip Randolph, about eight blocks away in Harlem.

Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña is making good on her promise to consolidate the city’s smallest and lowest-performing schools.

The city Department of Education is proposing a school merger that will fold the tiny P.S. 241 STEM Institute of Manhattan into P.S. 76 A. Philip Randolph, about eight blocks away in Harlem.

If the plan moves ahead, it will end STEM Institute’s long fight to keep its doors open as enrollment at the elementary school has hovered around 100 students. It could also play into a contentious battle to redraw school boundaries on the Upper West Side.

The STEM Institute has struggled on state tests, with only 8 percent of students scoring proficient in math last year. It serves a high-needs population: almost 40 percent of students have disabilities. The school has also had difficulty attracting students, even after landing a multi-million dollar federal grant in 2010 to start a magnet program focusing on science, technology, engineering and math.

P.S. 76’s state test results are comparable to STEM’s. But its enrollment was five times higher last year, and the school has its own building — unlike STEM, which shares its space with two charter schools.

Chancellor Fariña has embraced consolidations as a way to save money on staffing and spend more on services for students. Department spokeswoman Devora Kaye said the consolidation would allow more students to benefit from P.S. 76’s partnership with the Harlem Children’s Zone, and lead to more arts programming for students and more training for teachers.

But the merger plan is also an acknowledgement that the high-profile magnet grant — and some small enrollment gains in recent years — weren’t enough to keep STEM Institute afloat. Kaye said that school’s curriculum would transfer to P.S. 76.

The district superintendent has begun meetings with staff at both schools, and parents will be informed of the proposal on Tuesday, Kaye said in an email. The merger will also require approval from the Panel for Educational Policy.

“Each school consolidation involves an individualized approach,” Kaye wrote. “The goal is always to provide a strong learning environment and expanded resources to best serve all students.”

The news comes at the tail end of a separate rezoning process that has dragged on for more than a year in District 3, which encompasses the Upper West Side and a portion of Harlem. Families, school leaders and the Community Education Council have debated the best way to redraw zone lines to reduce overcrowding and boost student diversity at a handful of schools in the district’s southern end.

So far, none of those proposals affect schools north of 110th Street.

With the merger now on the table, CEC President Joe Fiordaliso said the city should rework those rezoning plans to include the STEM Institute.

“Parents for [P.S.] 241 need and deserve to know where their children will be zoned,” he said.

That would be an extraordinarily tight timeline for engagement with families further uptown, given that the city is expected to present a final draft proposal for the Upper West Side’s rezoning on Wednesday and the CEC is scheduled to cast an up-or-down vote on Nov. 9.

Kaye said the department would “work with the CEC to address zoning issues raised by this potential consolidation.” City planning officials have indicated at recent meetings that they do not want to delay a decision on the Upper West Side plan.

As students lined up to buy after-school empanadas on Monday, a handful of parents said they had not heard about the possibility of a merger between the STEM Institute and P.S. 76.

One parent, Luis Diaz, said he had been impressed with STEM Institute, especially a partnership with a local community center that offers tutoring.

“So far, the school has been good,” said Diaz, who has two daughters at the school.

second chance

An embattled Harlem charter school that serves kids with disabilities will be allowed to keep its middle school — for now

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Opportunity Charter School

A Harlem charter school will be allowed to keep its middle school next school year, despite the fact that top city education officials have repeatedly ruled that it is too low performing to stay open.

That decision offers at least temporary relief for Opportunity Charter School, which has been embroiled in a dispute with the education department since March. The disagreement centers on whether city officials properly took into account the school’s students — over half of whom have a disability — when it judged the school’s performance.

The city’s education department, which oversees the school as its charter authorizer, tried to close the middle school and offered only a short-term renewal for the high school when the school’s charter came up for review earlier this year. The school appealed that decision, and was denied late last month.

But the education department is backing down from its position — at least for now. That reversal appears to be based mostly on logistics: A Manhattan Supreme Court judge has temporarily blocked the closure through at least mid-July in response to a lawsuit filed by the school and some of its parents last month, complicating the process of finding students new schools outside the normal admissions cycle.

“Students always come first, and given where we are in the school year, we will allow the middle school grades to remain open in 2017-18,” education department spokesman Michael Aciman wrote in an email on Thursday. Still, he noted, the department will continue to push to close the middle school in the future.

Kevin Quinn, a lawyer representing Opportunity Charter, said the city’s decision was the only responsible one, given that the school has already held its admissions lottery and made offers to parents.

“This is a wise decision by the [education department],” Quinn wrote in an email, “and [we] appreciate their acknowledgment that placement of this population at this time would be significantly disruptive.”

language proficiency

Educators working on creating more bilingual students worry new state requirements aren’t high enough

A second grade class at Bryant Webster K-8 school in Denver (Joe Amon, The Denver Post).

Colorado educators who led the way in developing high school diploma endorsements recognizing bilingual students worry that new legislation establishing statewide standards for such “seals of biliteracy” sets the bar too low.

Two years ago, Denver Public Schools, Eagle County Schools and the Adams County School District 14 started offering the seal of biliteracy to their students. The three districts worked together to find a common way to assess whether students are fluent in English and another language, and recognize that on high school diplomas. Advocates say the seal is supposed to indicate to colleges and employers that students are truly bilingual.

A bill passed by state legislators this year that will go into effect in August sets a path for districts that want to follow that lead by outlining the minimum that students must do to prove they are fluent in English and in another language.

According to the new law, students must meet a 3.0 grade point average in their English classes and also earn a proficient score on the 11th grade state test, or on Advanced Placement or IB tests. For showing proficiency in the second language, students can either earn proficient scores on nationally recognized tests — or meet a 3.0 grade point average after four years of language classes.

Although educators say the law sends a message of support for bilingual education, that last criteria is one part of what has some concerned.

“It allows for proficiency in a world language to be established solely by completing four years of high school language classes,” said Jorge Garcia, executive director of the Colorado Association for Bilingual Education. “Language classes in one school district may have a different degree of rigor than they do in another.”

The second language criteria should be comparable to the English criteria, several educators said. In the requirements set by Denver, Eagle County and Adams 14, students must at a minimum demonstrate language proficiency through a test score, or in some cases with a portfolio review and interview if a test is not available.

The three districts also catered their requirements based on what each community said was important. In Adams 14 and in Eagle schools, students must perform community service using their language skills. Students also have to do an interview in both languages with a community panel.

“Our school district team developed the community service criteria because we wanted our kids to have authentic practice in their languages,” said Jessica Martinez, director of multilingual education for Eagle County Schools. “We also wanted students to be a bridge to another community than their own. For example, one group of students created academic tutoring services for their peers who don’t yet speak a lot of English. Another student started tutoring her mom and her parents’ friends so they could get their GED.”

The state law doesn’t require students to do community service. But it does allow school districts to go above the state’s requirements when setting up their biliteracy programs.

“Thoughtful school districts can absolutely address these concerns,” Garcia said.

Several school districts in the state are looking to start their own programs. In March, the school board for the Roaring Fork School District in Glenwood Springs voted to start offering the seal. Summit School District also began offering the seal this year.

Leslie Davison, the dual language coordinator for Summit, said that although her program will change in the next year as she forms more clear requirements around some new tests, she will continue to have higher requirements than the state has set.

This year her students had prove proficiency in their second language by taking a test in that language. They also had to demonstrate English proficiency through the ACT. In addition, students did oral presentations to the community in both languages.

“Their expectations aren’t as high as mine are,” Davison said. “We’ll probably stay with our higher-level proficiencies. I do have some work to do in terms of how that’s going to look for next year, but I certainly don’t want to just use seat time.”

Meanwhile, the districts that started the seal are increasing their commitment to biliteracy so as many students as possible can be eligible to earn seals in the future.

The Adams 14 school district in Commerce City is using Literacy Squared, a framework written by local researchers for teaching students to read English by strengthening literacy in the native language. The program is being rolled up year by year and will serve students in 34 classrooms from preschool through fourth grade in the fall.

In Eagle County, Martinez said parents have shown such a strong demand for biliteracy that most elementary schools are now dual language schools providing instruction to all students in English for half of the school day and in Spanish for the other half.

Both districts are also increasing the offerings of language classes in middle and high school. The options are important for students who are native English speakers so they too can become bilingual and access the seal. For students whose primary language is not English, the classes can help ensure they don’t lose their primary language as they learn English.

Of Eagle’s 25 students who graduated with a seal of biliteracy this year, 17 were native Spanish speakers and eight were native English speakers.

“We want all kids to see their bilingualism is an asset,” Martinez said. “It’s huge for them.”