computer science for all

Report: Brooklyn schools lack laptops, strong Wi-Fi, as city expands computer science education

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Mayor Bill de Blasio learns about computer science from a student at the Laboratory School of Finance and Technology in the Bronx.

As the city embarks on a massive push to expand computer science education, many Brooklyn schools lack laptops, adequate access to Wi-Fi, and computer science teachers, according to a new report released Thursday by Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams.

The report, which surveyed 136 Brooklyn schools, found that only about 20 percent of students have access to laptops at any given time, and only 30 percent of schools have an established computer science curriculum. These findings provide a glimpse at how difficult it will be for Mayor de Blasio to achieve his ambitious goal of offering computer science in every city school by 2025.

“We have a lot to do,” said Borough President Eric Adams. “It has to be some real concrete action. We have to sign on and make this happen.”

The mayor’s Computer Science for All initiative has been hailed by many as a bold plan to prepare city students for the 21st century working world. But its critics have questioned whether the city has the infrastructure and teaching force to bring the plan to fruition.

This report, which breaks down findings by district and school, paints a detailed picture of which schools in Brooklyn need extra support. Throughout Brooklyn, schools rated their Wi-Fi at about a 3.2 on a 5-point scale, which likely means the school’s Wi-Fi slows when too many students are logged on, said Jeff Lowell, the borough president’s deputy policy director.

Just over half of schools felt they had a qualified computer science teacher, and some districts have laptops for as few as 11 percent of students. Students may have access to computer labs in lieu of tablets or laptops, but in order to create a robust computer science curriculum, Lowell estimates more students will need access to devices they can use outside of a computer room.

Despite these hurdles, the mayor and education department officials have remained optimistic. De Blasio announced this September that fundraising for the initiative is “ahead of schedule” and education department officials said 246 schools are already participating in the program. Officials also praised Adams for his spirited support of computer science education.

“We thank Borough President Adams for his partnership in bringing computer science to every public school,” said education department spokesman Will Mantell.

The mayor’s initiative is meant to ensure that low-income students have the same access to computer science as their wealthier peers. The report provides a mixed picture on how equitably computer access is currently spread across Brooklyn schools. Some of the poorest districts in the report, such District 16, which encompasses Bedford-Stuyvesant and Crown Heights, had above-average access to laptops, while others like District 32, which includes Bushwick, have below-average access.

Still, Adams said, high-poverty schools are in great need of Wi-Fi and computer support.

“Just as they don’t have access to Wi-Fi [in schools], they typically don’t have access in their community or in their home,” Adams said. “We need to do more to stop that.”

head to head

Protesters face off with member of New York City’s Absent Teacher Reserve outside the mayor’s gym

PHOTO: Cassi Feldman
Karen Curley, left, talks with Andrea Jackson of StudentsFirstNY

Karen Curley ran into something surprising as she headed into her Park Slope gym on Wednesday: protesters pushing back against the city’s strategy to give her a job.

Curley, 61, a Department of Education social worker who used to work in District 17, has been rotating through different positions for at least two years. She is a member of the Absent Teacher Reserve, the pool of teachers without permanent assignments that is once again at the center of debate over how the city should manage teachers and spend money.

The protesters had gathered outside the Prospect Park YMCA to confront its most famous member, Mayor Bill de Blasio, about the city’s plans to place roughly 400 teachers from the ATR into school vacancies come October. They say the city is going back on an earlier vow not to force the teachers into schools.

“These are unwanted teachers. There’s a reason why they’re just sitting there,” said Nicole Thomas, a Brooklyn parent and volunteer with StudentsFirstNY, an advocacy group that organized the protest and often opposes the mayor. “We don’t want these teachers in our schools.”

In fact, the ATR pool includes both teachers whose positions were eliminated because of budget cuts or enrollment changes, and also teachers who have disciplinary records. The city has not disclosed how many teachers in the pool fall into each camp, or which ones will be assigned to positions this fall.

Curley said she was heartbroken when she realized the protest was directed against the Absent Teacher Reserve. “We don’t want to be absent,” she said. “We’re educators.”

She said cost was likely an impediment to their hiring. “The truth is, at this point, I have 20 years in [the school system], which isn’t a lot for someone my age,” she said. But after 20 years, “we’re not likely to be hired elsewhere because we’re high enough on the pay scale that new people can be hired for a lot less money.”

Earlier Wednesday, Chalkbeat cited new figures from the Independent Budget Office placing the cost of the Absent Teacher Reserve at $151.6 million last school year, an average of roughly $116,000 per teacher in salary and benefits. Some principals have balked at the idea of having staffers forced on them in October — and vowed to avoid having vacancies.

Shortly after 10 a.m., the mayor emerged from the gym and hurried into a waiting car without addressing the protesters, who chanted, “Hey hey, ho ho, forced placement has got to go.”

Thomas was disappointed he didn’t stop. “He didn’t even acknowledge us,” she said. “And we voted for him.”

New Partner

Boys & Girls Clubs coming to two Memphis schools after all

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Principal Tisha Durrah stands at the entrance of Craigmont High, a Memphis school that soon will host one of the city's first school-based, after-school clubs operated by the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Memphis.

Principal Tisha Durrah says her faculty can keep students focused and safe during school hours at Craigmont High School. It’s the time after the final bell rings that she’s concerned about.

“They’re just walking the neighborhood basically,” Durrah says of daily after-school loitering around the Raleigh campus, prompting her to send three robocalls to parents last year. “It puts our students at risk when they don’t have something to do after school.”

Those options will expand this fall.

Craigmont is one of two Memphis schools that will welcome after-school programs run by the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Memphis following this week’s change of heart by Shelby County’s Board of Commissioners.

Commissioners voted 9-4 to foot the bill for operational costs to open clubs at Craigmont and Dunbar Elementary. The decision was a reversal from last week when the board voted down Shelby County Schools’ request for an extra $1.6 million to open three school-based clubs, including one at Riverview School. Wednesday’s approval was for a one-time grant of $905,000.

Commissioners have agreed all along that putting after-school clubs in Memphis schools is a good idea — to provide more enriching activities for neighborhood children in need. But some argued last week that the district should tap existing money in its savings account instead of asking the county for extra funding. Later, the district’s lawyers said the school system can only use that money legally to pay for direct educational services, not to help fund a nonprofit’s operations.

Heidi Shafer is one of two commissioners to reverse their votes in favor of the investment. She said she wanted to move ahead with a final county budget, but remains concerned about the clubs’ sustainability and the precedent being set.

PHOTO: Boys & Girls Club
The Boys & Girls Club provides after-school programs for children and teens.

“If we give (money) to something that’s para-education, we have less to give to education,” she said. “There’s only a limited amount of dollars to go around.”

The funding will help bring to Memphis the first-ever school-based Boys & Girls clubs opened through Shelby County Schools, the largest district in Tennessee, said Keith Blanchard, the organization’s Memphis CEO.

While the nonprofit has had a local presence since 1962 and is up to seven sites in Memphis, it’s had no local government funding heretofore, which is unusual across its network. Nationally, about 1,600 of the organization’s 4,300 clubs are based in schools.

Blanchard plans to get Dunbar’s club up and running by the beginning of October in the city’s Orange Mound community. Craigmont’s should open by November.

“We hope to maybe do another school soon. … A lot will depend on how this school year goes,” he said. “I certainly hope the county sees the value in this and continues to fund in a significant way.”

At Craigmont, the club will mean after-school tutoring and job training in computer science and interviewing skills. Durrah says the activities will provide extra resources as the district seeks to better equip students for life after high school.

“It looks toward the long term,” Durrah said of the program. “This really fits in with the district’s college- and career-ready goals.”