Keeping score

Report outlines what New York City schools are doing to increase diversity — and advocates respond

PHOTO: Mary Ellen McIntire
City Council members Carlos Menchaca (left) and Brad Lander hosted a parents forum in 2014 to discuss diversity in schools.

The New York City Department of Education expanded an initiative to help schools promote diversity in admissions, opened gifted programs in areas where there weren’t any, and helped more students prepare for tests to get into elite high schools.

Those are just a few of the efforts the department outlines in its second annual diversity report, released Tuesday.

For the first time, the report includes a demographic breakdown of the city’s pre-K students. And the admissions methods used at each school have been broken out into a separate, easier-to-read list.

The report was released along with a promise that the DOE is working on “a larger plan this school year” to improve diversity — something the mayor has also said publicly, though no details have been shared.

City Councilman Brad Lander, who championed the 2015 School Diversity Act, the local law that mandates the report, called that pledge “a big deal.”

“That’s the change we were hoping this law would help move forward, and we’re encouraged to see we’re moving in the right direction,” he said.

New York City’s schools are among the most segregated in the country — an issue that has attracted growing attention and advocacy.

On the same day the diversity report was released, Public Advocate Letitia James called for the city Department of Education to appoint a chief diversity officer to “implement and oversee efforts to reduce segregation in New York City’s public schools.”

Here are some of the city’s initiatives, as listed in the report:

— The DOE enabled all schools to apply for its “Diversity in Admissions” program, which allows schools to set aside some seats specifically for students who are poor, learning English or who have other risk factors, such as being involved in the child welfare system. After an initial pilot, the program has been expanded to a total of 19 schools.

— The department started new gifted and talented programs in Districts 7 and 12 in the Bronx, and Districts 16 and 23 in Central Brooklyn. None of those had offered a gifted program in at least five years. The new programs start in third grade, and allow teachers to consider multiple measures rather than rely on a test for admission.

— The Specialized High School Admissions Test, which is required to get into the city’s elite high schools, will be offered during class time at seven schools, as part of a pilot project. The city hopes this change, along with expanded test prep, will increase the number of black and Hispanic students who take — and pass — the exam.

While the new initiatives represent improvement, they are still relatively modest, said Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a think tank focused on inequity.

“I give these efforts a B-minus,” he said. “We’re making a good start, but now we need to really push further to make an important difference in students’ lives.”

The Diversity in Admissions plans affect only a tiny set of New York City’s roughly 1,800 schools, and gifted programs are often criticized for their segregating effects. Meanwhile, at least one of the city’s efforts to increase diversity at its specialized high schools actually does more to help white and Asian students.

Still, there has been “really significant progress,” said David Tipson, executive director of New York Appleseed, which has pushed for school diversity initiatives.

Tipson was particularly encouraged by the report’s mention of district-wide diversity initiatives.

Districts 1 and 13 are using state grants to explore socioeconomic integration models such as “controlled choice,” though some community members say the initiative has been tied up in bureaucratic red tape at the DOE. Still, last year’s report didn’t even acknowledge the district-wide plans, and instead focused on single-school efforts that are also a part of the grant.

That shift is “very significant,” Tipson said. “I have a lot of confidence that really means something.”

The city has also taken steps to encourage integration in pre-K classrooms, which a recent report found to be more segregated than kindergarten.

The city now allows low-income students, whose pre-K is funded by the Administration for Children’s Services, to be served in the same classrooms as other city pre-K students. It also increased outreach to make sure homeless families enroll their children and know about gifted programs.

“Students learn better in diverse classrooms – including their peers and educators,” schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña said in a statement. “We’re committed to using a range of localized and systemic strategies to get at this important issue.”

talking it out

At NAACP hearing on charter school moratorium, foes and fans find common ground

PHOTO: Cassi Feldman
Nyla Jenkins, a first-grader at KIPP STAR Harlem College Prep Charter School

When the NAACP called for a moratorium on charter schools last fall, the group’s president and CEO Cornell Brooks said the group wanted a “reasoned pause,” not a “doomsday destruction” of charters.

Still, it ignited a firestorm among charter school supporters and sparked a series of hearings nationwide, the last of which was held Thursday in New York City. But rather than a heated debate, the panelists and public speakers took pains to find common ground.

“We cannot have a situation where schools are pitted against each other,” Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, told the packed auditorium at Harlem Hospital Center.

Many panelists said the problem wasn’t school choice, but the fact that too many parents felt compelled to seek alternatives to struggling district schools.

“If you go into communities where education is working, you don’t see people scrambling around, trying to figure out what school to put their child in,” said Lester Young, a member of the state Board of Regents. “We have communities in New York City right now where parents say there is not one middle school I can place my child in. Now, that’s the issue.”

Still, many of the speakers also acknowledged problems with charter schools, particularly in states where the laws governing them are more lax than they are in New York.

“We want to make sure that those schools are going to accept students that have special needs,” said Rebecca Pringle, vice president of the National Education Association. “We want to make sure that we do not create separate systems that are unequal.”

The charter school advocates on the panel seemed to agree that some charters weren’t working. They were quick to denounce for-profit charters, for instance. “For-profit operators have no business in education,” said Katie Duffy, CEO of Democracy Prep Charter School. Our children “are not assets and liabilities and they shouldn’t be treated as such.”

Rafiq Kalam id-Din II, who founded a charter school in Bedford-Stuyvesant, spoke about the need for more schools like his, founded and staffed by black and Hispanic community members. Without naming names, he called out charter schools that believe “if you don’t sit a certain way, you can’t learn” or are using suspension as a “first response” rather than a last resort.

“Criminalizing the behavior of our children — there should be a moratorium on that,” he said.

But it was Nyla Jenkins, 7, a first-grader at KIPP STAR Harlem College Prep Charter School, who drew the most applause of the night when she took the microphone and declared herself a junior lifetime member of the NAACP. “Let’s find a solution for all of us,” she said.

Building Better Schools

IPS broke its own rules to work with a for-profit charter operator. Now it’s having second thoughts.

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Donnan Middle School was taken over by the state and handed off to be run by Charter Schools USA in 2012. The school now includes an elementary school in partnership with Indianapolis Public Schools.

An unusual partnership between a for-profit charter operator and Indianapolis Public Schools could be on the rocks.

That’s because during its first year of operation, Emma Donnan Elementary School students had some of the lowest test scores in the district and did not make significant gains from the prior year — landing it on the shortlist for district intervention.

If scores are not good this year or in 2018, the district might terminate its contract with Charter Schools USA to operate Donnan, according to Superintendent Lewis Ferebee.

“They struggled in last year’s performance,” he said. “They did not perform at our standard.”

Florida-based CSUSA began managing three Indianapolis schools, including Emma Donnan Middle School, after the schools were taken over by the Indiana State Board of Education six years ago. In 2015, they opened Donnan Elementary as an IPS innovation school in the same building as the middle school. The district is responsible for the school’s — so far low — test scores, but the staff are employed by the charter operator, which handles daily operations.

IPS suspended a policy against working with for-profit operators when it agreed to work with CSUSA to launch Donnan Elementary. The move was intended to give the district more involvement in a building that otherwise would be state-controlled and give CSUSA a chance to work with students earlier. Middle schoolers at Donnan often enroll far behind grade level.

Eric Lewis, a senior official with CSUSA, said the organization is “thrilled to be in partnership” with IPS, and he is not concerned about pressure from the district to improve test scores because “we always intend to improve.”

CSUSA operates 77 schools across the country, many of which also have struggled academically. In the six years since Indiana handed management of three IPS schools over to the charter-manager, those schools have not shown significant improvement.

In recent years, CSUSA has appeared poised to expand in Indiana, but earlier this week the Indiana Charter School Board canceled charters for two schools that were expected to be managed by CSUSA because the company had stopped communicating about its plans.

IPS board members have been skeptical of Donnan Elementary’s progress in the past, but they were relatively quiet during a presentation from CSUSA at their meeting Thursday. (Innovation schools must present their progress to their board twice a year.)

Board member Diane Arnold said the report, which included information on enrollment and scores on tests used to track student progress throughout the year, showed more improvement than the last report school leaders presented to the board.

She is cautiously optimistic Donnan will improve with support.

“We kind of pushed the envelope to give them the elementary school,” she said. “My expectation is we should see results. … And I am hopeful.”

But it’s unclear what help the school will get from the district to improve test scores. Lewis said he did not “have any sense” of what resources the district could provide the school through its new intervention process, but “we look forward to partnering with them.”

Board president Mary Ann Sullivan said she was concerned that Donnan appeared on the list of low-performing schools, and she is relying on the staff overseeing innovation schools to track its progress.

“When we have partners … their purpose is to improve student achievement, and (if) that doesn’t happen, then yes, we will absolutely intervene in those schools,” she said. “We are going to be looking for accountability.”