New option

As Upper West Side rezoning debate rages, a private school sells itself as an option for angsty parents

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Parents filled the auditorium at P.S. 75 during a CEC meeting in October to discuss rezoning plans.

If timing is everything, the backers of a new private school on the Upper West Side couldn’t have stumbled on a more opportune moment.

The district has been roiled in a school rezoning dispute for more than a year, with some unhappy parents threatening to go elsewhere if their neighborhood school changes.

Starting next fall, families will have a new alternative to consider: Basis Independent Manhattan, a private school that seems to be capitalizing on parents’ angst, is opening on Columbus Avenue.

“School tension on UWS sends parents searching for new options. Meet Basis Independent Manhattan,” the school proclaims in the subject line of a promotional email.

In an interview, Mark Reford, chief of business development for Basis, pointed out that the school would be opening regardless of the current uproar.

“We play no role in the public policy discussion,” he said.

But he did say the rezoning has come up in interviews with parents and admissions counselors.

“This whole process is really making them think about what are the alternatives, and we offer a pretty amazing alternative for these parents,” Reford said.

With campuses in Silicon Valley and Brooklyn, the school promotes itself as a relatively affordable private school. For $29,000 per year, parents can enroll their children in Mandarin and engineering classes — starting in kindergarten.

According to its advertising materials, Basis offers liberal arts and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math). The school culture is “joyful.” Younger students benefit from two teachers per classroom in the early grades, and teachers in the upper grades hold PhDs.

Just as the rezoning debate comes to a climax — the city Department of Education is expected to unveil its final rezoning proposal on Wednesday — Basis is holding information sessions ahead of its grand opening.

Reford called it “extraordinarily good timing.”

“There’s a tremendous amount of anxiety on the Upper West Side at the moment with the zoning process,” he said. “This whole process is really making them think about what are the alternatives, and we offer a pretty amazing alternative for these parents.”

The new school hopes to enroll 450 students in kindergarten through eighth grade.

In addition to its private schools, Basis runs 20 charter schools — mostly in Arizona and Texas. They have been rated among the top charter schools in the country, according to Newsweek rankings. But some of its schools in Arizona have also been criticized for having student bodies that aren’t reflective of the local demographics, according to media reports.

Reford said the charter schools “reflect the communities in which they’re placed, and we don’t target any particular group of people.”

measuring progress

At some Renewal schools, the city’s new ‘challenge’ targets require only tiny improvements

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Mayor Bill de Blasio

When education officials settled on the goals each school in its high-profile Renewal program would have to meet, they allowed them to take three years to meet what are typically one-year goals.

And though some schools have struggled to meet those initial goals, most of them, it turned out, met at least one benchmark ahead of time. So the city came up with new ones — called “challenge targets” — to replace and “strengthen” the goals that schools reached early.

But, according to new data released last week, dozens of those challenge targets require the lowest possible amount of improvement: one hundredth of one point.

In total, just over a third of the 86 Renewal schools have to improve scores on either state math or reading tests by only .01 points above their current averages, according to a Chalkbeat review of the city’s benchmarks for this school year.

P.S. 154 in the Bronx, for instance, needs to boost its average score this spring from 2.48 to 2.49 in math, and 2.49 to 2.50 in reading — both of which are considered challenge targets. (The scores refer to state tests that are graded from one to four, and only scores of three or higher are considered passing.)

The modest goals continue to raise questions about the pace of change the city is expecting from the $400 million Renewal program, which infuses schools with social services and extra resources.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has promised “fast” improvements, rhetoric that is in tension with the benchmarks the city has released. (At a panel discussion last week, the head of the city’s principals union expressed frustration with the program’s incrementalism.)

In interviews, city officials defended the challenge targets, arguing that they are designed to give schools that already met “rigorous and realistic” goals an extra incentive to maintain or surpass their progress. But some observers noted the challenge targets are so similar to the original goals, in some cases, that calling them a challenge is hard to justify.

“When you see a challenge target that’s so close to current performance, you think, ‘What the heck is going on here?’” said Aaron Pallas, a sociology and education professor at Teachers College. “It’s really hard to see a .01 expected increase as a challenging target.”

Pallas said the modest gains expected in the city’s challenge targets could be the product of a central struggle baked into school turnaround efforts: the political need to have regular benchmarks to track progress, while knowing that low-performing schools can take years to accrue gains, if it happens at all.

Still, setting expectations too low is not likely to yield much useful information about school progress, Pallas said. And while it’s “hard to know what a challenging target is,” he said, “it’s probably greater than .1,” — ten times higher than some of the city’s targets for this school year.

For their part, education officials insist that the new goals are challenging — even if they only represent fractional increases — because they are technically all higher than the original goals, which the city has claimed were “rigorous.”

“If they’re ahead of [the original goals], keeping them on that target is definitely a challenge for them,” said Eric Ashton, the education department’s executive director for school performance.

Ashton noted that many of the city’s Renewal goals — which include measures such as attendance, graduation rates, and progress on state tests — are aggressive and require some schools to improve certain metrics by double-digit percentages. (Coalition School for Social Change, for instance, must improve its four-year graduation rate to 63.4 percent this year, a 17 percent increase.)

The city also defended the challenge targets on the grounds that if they were set too high, they might offer a misleading picture of which schools should be merged, closed or face other consequences.

“Targets do not keep increasing as high as possible each year,” education department spokeswoman Devora Kaye wrote in an email, “because we need the Renewal benchmarks to help differentiate between schools that are in need of more intensive interventions such as school redesign or consolidation, closure, or leadership change — and schools that need other forms of support like professional development or curriculum changes.”

“We believe schools must always work towards continued progress,” she added. “And a challenge target sets the bar above their achievement.”

moving forward

New York City officials: Large-scale school desegregation plan likely coming by June

Deputy Chancellor Josh Wallack, third from left, discussing the city's integration efforts.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has promised a “bigger vision” to address segregation in New York City schools, but officials have thus far kept details under wraps.

But they’ve been dribbling out some details, most notably a timeline for when a large-scale plan could be released. Officials at a town hall discussion in Brooklyn Thursday night reiterated that a plan would likely be released by June.

We’re “going to propose some new thinking that we have, both about some of the systems that we run and about ways that we can work together locally to make change,” said Deputy Chancellor Josh Wallack, who is heading the department’s diversity efforts. “We expect it to come out by the end of the school year.”

BRIC TV host Brian Vines, who moderated the panel co-produced with WNYC, pushed for details. “Is there any one thing that you can at least give us a hint at that’s a concrete measure?” he asked.

But Wallack didn’t take the bait. “What I will say is that we are actually still engaged in conversations like this one, trying to get good ideas about how to move forward,” he said, adding that the education department is talking with educators, parents and schools interested in the issue.

New York City officials have been under pressure to address school segregation after a 2014 report called its schools some of the most racially divided in the country. More recently, debates over how best to change zone lines around schools on the Upper West Side and in Brooklyn have grown heated.

“We have a lot of hard work to do,” Wallack said. “But the mayor and chancellor are deeply committed to that work and to working with all of you to make that happen.”

Correction (Dec. 2, 2016): This story has been corrected to reflect that the town hall event was not the first time officials had described a timeline for releasing a plan.