'small steps'

In Brooklyn’s segregated District 15, a plan to boost diversity emerges

PHOTO: Sarah Darville
City Councilman Brad Lander, left, talking about Chancellor Carmen Fariña to a group of parent leaders in 2014.

A Brooklyn city councilman who is becoming a leading voice against segregation wants every middle school in his local school district to reserve some spots for poor students.

Under Councilman Brad Lander’s proposal, each middle school in District 15 would set aside a percentage of seats for students from low-income families — just like schools in the city’s new Diversity in Admissions initiative, which allows schools to change their enrollment policies to boost student diversity.

But parent leaders say more comprehensive reform is needed to take advantage of the district’s unusual potential for diversity. According to Lander’s own simulation, the proposal might increase the number of poor students at only three schools in the district, which is heavily stratified by race, class and academic achievement.

“It’s not going to achieve something like full integration in which every school would have demographics that would match the demographics of the district. What it is, in my opinion, is a meaningful step forward,” Lander said.

Lander called his proposal an “idea” rather than a concrete plan — and only one step towards broader changes.

It’s unclear how a district-wide set-aside would be implemented. So far, the Diversity in Admissions program has required individual schools to opt-in. The District 15 Community Education Council is expected to further debate the proposal at its next meeting.

In District 15, 16 percent of students are Asian, 15 percent are black, 38 percent are Hispanic and 28 percent are white. But 81 percent of white students are concentrated in just three of the district’s most selective schools, according to an analysis by parents.

And while 66 percent of students are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced price lunch, they are not distributed evenly throughout the district. Some schools serve virtually only poor students, while others have as little as a quarter of students from low-income families.

A group called Parents for Middle School Equity argues that the district’s admissions policy ultimately must change to make a real difference.

School segregation is often blamed on housing patterns and attendance boundaries. But District 15 has a “choice” policy for its middle schools, and each school sets its own admissions criteria. Reyhan Mehran, a member of the parent group, said the system favors plugged-in parents with the time and resources to navigate an opaque and complicated process.

“It ultimately sorts the kids in this district into two groups of schools: one that educates the majority of our higher-needs kids, and those schools happen to educate most of the Latino kids,” she said. “And another group of schools that educates most of our lower-needs kids. And those schools happen to educate most of the white kids in our district.”

Lander has said he also supports “broader reform” when it comes to the admissions process. Parents for Middle School Equity has not advocated for any particular solution, only saying that community input is needed to pinpoint the problems and come up with potential fixes.

Superintendent Anita Skop said the district has already taken steps to make the application process more fair, like making sure selective schools conduct outreach in both well-heeled and working-class communities. She has also started a diversity committee to start talking about district-wide issues.

Before making wide-scale changes, Skop said she wants to make sure she hears from a broad range of parents.

“I do not have the right to speak for people whose skin I don’t live in, whose shoes I don’t wear,” she said.

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.”