New Directions

Principal for a Day is back with a new focus: college and career readiness

PHOTO: Flickr/Creative Commons

When the nonprofit PENCIL launched more than two decades ago, fewer than half of New York City students graduated from high school. The organization placed business leaders in schools across the city to wake them up to the challenges of the country’s largest education system and demand change.

Today, the city’s graduation rate has climbed to more than 70 percent, and the business community is looking for new ways to engage with schools. So PENCIL is changing its approach.

The organization is still focused on connecting business partners with local schools, but now PENCIL is shifting toward helping students prepare for college and the workforce. Last year, almost half the city’s graduates did not meet college readiness standards.

“There’s still a ways to go,” said Gregg Betheil, president of PENCIL. “I think the business community has got to step up right now and recognize that its self-interest is dependent on meaningful connections to schools.”

With a new mission, the organization has revived its high-profile Principal for a Day event after a years-long hiatus. But, just like PENCIL itself, the event has changed focus to meet the current needs of schools, businesses and students.

The old model played out just like it sounds: Business heads from around the city were recruited to spend a day in the shoes of a local school leader, sparking personal connections and, often, longtime partnerships. (Less successful matches include one infamous 1997 visit, when Donald Trump spent a “cringeworthy” day at P.S. 70 in the Bronx. Instead of footing the bill for the school send its chess team to a tournament, Trump offered new sneakers to a select group of students.)

This year’s event is different. Rather than shadow a principal, businesses will showcase the work they’re already doing in schools. Other companies that are considering partnering with schools can watch middle school students pitch their ideas for a new app, developed alongside the software company CA Technologies, or drop by mock interviews that students prepared for with the help of LinkedIn.

“Principal for a Day, for us, can’t be what it was in 1995. The idea isn’t to help the city become aware of the needs in public schools,” Betheil said. “It’s really to help folks see a successful partnership and what it means to be involved in a school in a meaningful way.”

PENCIL has also launched a massive expansion of its internship programs, aiming to place 700 students — up from about 200 just a few years ago. Last summer, a report from the Community Service Society highlighted the importance of pairing students with paid internships that can help them prepare for careers, rather than just finding them summer jobs.

PENCIL is still looking for partners to take on students for the summer and is working to streamline how businesses connect with internship-seekers across various city agencies and nonprofits.

“It’s a really confusing landscape.” Betheil said. “We’re a matching organization … Employers are looking for kids, and kids are looking for that opportunity.”

diversity plan

Advocates call on Chancellor Fariña to take ‘morally necessary’ steps to end school segregation

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Chancellor Fariña spoke about school diversity at a town hall in District 3 in 2015. She is seated next to Superintendent Ilene Altschul, second from right.

The deadline is fast approaching for New York City officials to release their “bigger vision” plan to promote school diversity, and advocates are once again demanding more input on the final proposal.

In a draft letter obtained by Chalkbeat, a self-described group of “parents, students, educators, advocates and elected officials” pushes the education department to declare integration a priority, include the community in any plans that will be put forward, and to adopt “systemic” approaches to desegregate city schools.

“We do not pretend that it will be easy,” states the letter, which is addressed to Chancellor Carmen Fariña. “But we insist that it is logistically possible, educationally sound, and morally necessary.”

In April, Councilman Brad Lander presented a similar letter to members of the “New York City Alliance for School Integration and Desegregation,” or ASID — a relatively new group of desegregation advocates from across the city.

Councilman Lander’s office declined to comment.

Mayor Bill de Blasio and the education department have said they will release a plan to address school segregation by June. The state has one of the most segregated school systems in the country, driven in large part by New York City, and advocates have been pushing for years for a large-scale remedy.

In 2015, advocates sent a similar letter to the department that included some of the same requests, including the adoption of a formal policy statement making integration a priority. When asked about that in an August 2016 interview, Fariña told Chalkbeat: “Proclamations, without a plan of action, are proclamations.”

A new element of the advocate’s proposal calls for integration efforts to start in pre-K. Parents can apply to any of the city’s universal pre-K sites, but pre-K classrooms are more segregated than kindergartens, according to a recent report. The letter also calls for the education department to set “measureable goals” towards desegregation.

In recent years, the education department has moved forward with some plans to increase diversity in schools, such as allowing schools to set aside a certain percentage of seats for students who are low-income, learning English, or meet other criteria. But advocates have criticized that approach as piecemeal and are eagerly awaiting the city’s promised diversity plan.

See full letter below:

Revised Letter to DOE 5 5 17 (Text)

schools' choice

Betsy DeVos’s comments on discrimination drew headlines, but her stance isn’t unique among private school choice backers

PHOTO: Matt Barnum
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos at Providence Cristo Rey in Indianapolis.

Betsy DeVos drew incredulous reactions this week when she said she would let states decide on the rules for voucher programs vying for federal money — including whether schools that discriminate against LGBT students could participate.

But the education secretary’s position isn’t out of the mainstream among voucher supporters, or out of step with how private school choice programs work across the country.

For instance, Robert Enlow of the Indianapolis-based EdChoice, a group that advocates for vouchers, emphasized that his group does not support discrimination but declined to take a position on whether private schools that receive public funds should be prohibited from discriminating based on sexual orientation.

“As an organization we are working [toward] our position” on that issue, he told Chalkbeat, the day before DeVos’s comments to Congress. “It is something we are concerned about and that we need to confront head on, but we don’t have a position yet.”

That stance is also reflected in model private school choice legislation from the American Federation for Children, the advocacy group that DeVos used to lead. It says only that schools should comply with federal discrimination law, and does not include rules regarding sexual orientation. A spokesperson for the group did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Voucher programs give families public funds to pay private school tuition. The vast majority of private schools in the country are religious; in Indiana there are just seven non-religious private schools participating in the state’s voucher program, compared to nearly 300 Christian schools.

Federal law bans discrimination based on “race, color, or creed” in private schools that receive tax exemptions but is silent on the issue of sexual orientation. According to a 2016 study, no school voucher program in the country includes such protections, meaning that students or families who elect to participate may have no legal recourse if they face discrimination based on sexual orientation.

And a number of schools that are part of publicly funded private school choice programs in Indiana, North Carolina, and Georgia — initiatives backed by national school choice groups — include explicitly anti-gay language.

Blackhawk Christian School in Fort Wayne, Indiana, says in its handbook that it may refuse admission or expel a student for “practicing homosexual lifestyle or alternative gender identity, promoting such practices, or otherwise having the inability to support the moral principles of the school.”

Another Indiana school highlights differences between public schools and private Christian schools on its website, including that while teachers in public schools “may be straight or gay,” those in private schools are “committed believers seeking to model Christ before their students.” Both schools participate in Indiana’s school voucher program.

Choice programs differ. Some, like Washington, D.C.’s federally backed initiative, prohibit discrimination based on religion or gender, while other don’t. Attempts to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation in D.C.’s program have been voted down by Republicans in Congress.

Public schools are not free from discrimination, according to survey data compiled by GLSEN, a group that pushes for fair treatment of LGBT students in school. According to the survey, LGBT students reported experiencing more discrimination in private religious schools as compared to public schools — but were less likely to experience verbal or physical harassment in private schools.

Supporters of school choice worry that banning discrimination would stop some private schools from participating in voucher programs and prevent them from practicing their religion.

“If you support private school choice, then you have to be comfortable with allowing private schools to remain private,” Michael Petrilli of the conservative Fordham Institute said earlier this year. “One part of that is allowing them to be religious, to have a set of values they believe in, and to have an admissions process to make sure kids are a good fit for their program.”

Enlow pointed to research compiled by EdChoice that private schools instill a greater sense of tolerance and civic virtue than public schools.

Enlow suggested that questions of discrimination can be addressed locally. “We believe that families and schools working together can solve this,” he said.