leveling the playing field

New York City’s racial disparities spill into gym class, according to new report

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Nearly half of New York City’s students are missing out on physical education, according to a report released Wednesday — including the “vast majority” of black students and those with disabilities.

Issued by New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, the report looked at newly released data about how much physical education students are receiving. It finds that over two-thirds of students in grades K-3 aren’t receiving the 120 minutes of weekly PE required by state law — illustrating just how far the city is from its goal of ensuring that all elementary students meet those requirements by 2019.

City officials have struggled for years to address gaps in access to physical education, which are often attributed to space constraints, lack of personnel, and pressure to curtail PE in favor of other academic subjects. (A 2015 report from the city comptroller’s office found that 28 percent of schools lacked a dedicated “physical fitness space,” and about one-third of schools did not have a full-time certified PE teacher.)

The report, which is based on the first round of data made available under a new city law, reveals wide variations in access to PE at different grade levels and among various racial groups.

Third-graders, for instance, fared worse than students at any other level, with just 20 percent receiving the required amount of physical education. That trend flips dramatically in middle and high school, where most students are getting enough PE.

On average, black students received less PE than any other racial group, with just 19 percent getting the required level of instruction across grades K-5. By contrast, 30 percent of white students and 27 percent of Asian students received enough physical education, while 26 percent of Hispanic students did.

Percentage of students who get enough PE under state requirements

But those numbers can vary widely across different grade levels and districts. In Manhattan, just 8 percent of black students in grades K-5 received enough PE, compared with 21 percent in Brooklyn. And in Queens District 29, just 5 percent of all students in grades K-3 had full access to PE.

The report does not offer an explanation for the racial gaps, saying only that they are “likely tied to broader disparities in resources in the New York City school system.” The report suggests that city “should closely examine the racial disparities revealed by the DOE data and identify factors that are causing them.”

The picture is slightly more complex for students with disabilities, in part because of missing data. Students with disabilities were slightly less likely to receive required levels of PE compared with their peers.

Students who attend District 75 programs, who typically have more profound disabilities, fared consistently worse than other students. But those findings come with a caveat: The city did not report how many students who required “adaptive physical education” — a modified form of PE that would allow disabled students to participate — actually received it. (The education department has regularly failed to accurately report statistics on whether students with disabilities are receiving required services.)

Mayor Bill de Blasio has vowed to improve access to PE across the board, and earlier this month he announced the city will invest $385 million over the next four years to provide all schools with a designated space for physical education.

The city has also committed to adding 500 PE teachers by 2019, and help schools come up with plans to overcome barriers to PE through a $100 million program launched last year called PE Works.

“The lack of physical education classes in our schools has been a concern of mine for over 20 years,” de Blasio said in a statement earlier this month. “Incorporating physical activity into the day isn’t just the healthy thing for our young people, it is the law and one that was ignored for far too long.”

Correction: Due to an error in the original report, the percentages on racial disparities have been corrected

transfer talk

This seemingly small change could make it easier for guidance counselors to send students to transfer schools

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
A guidance counselor at Bronx Academy of Letters

New York City is planning to make it easier to refer students to alternative high schools — part of a broader effort to remove obstacles for students seeking admission to them.

The change will affect the city’s 52 transfer schools, which are designed to catch up students who have dropped out, are over-age or behind in credits. Guidance counselors at traditional high schools will be able to electronically recommend up to three transfer school options for students they believe would be better served in different settings.

That change might seem minor, but it is at the center of a wider debate playing out behind the scenes between the city’s education department — which has indicated that transfer schools are being too picky about who they admit — and transfer schools themselves, some of which worry the new policy could lead to an influx of students who have been pushed out of their high schools.

“There’s a significant fear from transfer schools that these will essentially be over-the-counter placements,” said one Manhattan transfer school principal, referring to a process through which the city directly assigns students who arrive after the admissions process is over, often mid-year. “It doesn’t necessarily make for a better fit for a student.”

Unlike most high schools in New York City, transfer schools admit students outside the centrally managed choice process. Instead, they set their own entrance criteria, often requiring that students interview, and meet minimum credit or age requirements. The schools themselves largely determine which students they admit, and accept them at various points during the year.

Some transfer school principals say this intake process is essential to maintaining each school’s culture, which depends on enrolling students who genuinely want to give school another try after dropping out or falling behind elsewhere.

But city officials have quietly scaled back the type of sorting transfer schools can do, banning them from testing students before they’re admitted, for example, or looking at attendance or suspension records. The transfer school superintendent also now has the power to directly place students if they are rejected from three transfer schools.

Given those changes, some transfer school principals are wary of the latest policy, which will allow guidance counselors at traditional schools to electronically “refer” students for up to three specific transfer schools, and requires transfer schools to track their interactions with those students.

The city says the new system will make it easier to find the right match between schools and students. It will “make the transfer high school admissions process easier and more transparent for students and families, while also ensuring better tracking and accountability,” education department spokesman Will Mantell said in a statement.

He noted the city is still working on implementation and the change won’t will happen before spring 2018. (The education department currently doesn’t have a way to track how many students are being recommended to transfer schools versus how many are actually accepted.)

Mantell could not say whether guidance counselors would need a student’s consent before electronically referring the student to a transfer school, and could not point to any specific policies on when it is appropriate for guidance counselors to refer students — though he noted there would be additional training for them.

Ron Smolkin, principal of Independence High School, a transfer school, says he appreciates the change. He worries about students who have fallen behind being told they “don’t qualify” for a transfer school, he said. “That’s why we exist.”

But other principals say it will make it easier for traditional schools to dump students because they are difficult to serve, regardless of whether they are good candidates for a transfer.

“There’s a greater risk of pushouts,” the Manhattan transfer school principal said.

Transfer school principals also worry about the consequences of accepting students who might be less likely to graduate than their current students — a potential effect of the new policy. The federal Every Student Succeeds Act requires high schools to graduate 67 percent of their students; those that don’t will be targeted for improvement.

Some transfer schools have called that an unfair standard since, by design, they take students who have fallen behind. The state has said transfer schools will not automatically face consequences, such as closure, if they fail to meet that benchmark, but it remains to be seen whether that entirely solves the problem.

One transfer school principal said the city’s desire to better monitor the admissions process makes sense, but won’t prevent schools from gaming the system — and is being implemented without adequate input from principals.

“Our voices haven’t been heard in this process,” the principal said, “and there are a lot of reasons to distrust.”

try try again

Why this Bronx middle school believes in second — and third — chances

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Vincent Gassetto, the principal M.S. 343, hugs a staff member after winning the Teaching Matters prize in July 2017.

Teachers at M.S. 343 in the South Bronx had a problem: Their lessons weren’t sticking.

Students initially would test well on fundamental concepts — such as multi-digit long division or calculating the rate of change. But that knowledge seemed to melt away on follow-up exams just months or even weeks later.

The solution that teachers developed, based on providing constant feedback to students and encouraging regular collaboration among staff, has helped M.S. 343 beat district averages on standardized tests. It has also landed the school a $25,000 prize.

This week, M.S. 343 won the Elizabeth Rohatyn Prize, which is awarded to public schools that foster great teaching. Presented by the nonprofit Teaching Matters, the award money will go toward building a digital platform that students and teachers can use to track their progress from anywhere, at any time.

The work at M.S. 343 starts with determining which skills teachers will emphasize and test throughout the year. Working together, teachers draw on what they already know about which concepts are most likely to trip students up, contribute to success in later grades or appear on standardized tests. A key concept could be understanding ratios in sixth grade or mastering scientific notation by eighth grade.

“It’s all in the teachers’ hands,” said Principal Vincent Gassetto.

Students are regularly tested with “learning targets.” But they’re also given three chances to prove they’ve mastered the skills. Gassetto said the approach is backed by neuroscience, which suggests the best way to learn is to use the knowledge multiple times, instead of cramming for a single test.

“That actually tells the brain: You’re being tested on this, it’s important. And that stores it in a part of the brain that’s easily retrievable,” he said.

Only the highest score will be recorded, which serves a different purpose: boosting students’ confidence in themselves as learners.

“We’re celebrating their progress, not necessarily the end result,” math teacher Lola Dupuy explained in a video the school produced. “It can be very confusing for a student to receive a failing grade and very discouraging for them if they don’t know … what they’re doing wrong and what they need to do to improve it.”

In between tests, each department comes together to analyze students’ answers. They zero in on common misconceptions and come up with a list of questions for students to ask themselves when reviewing their work.

Using the questions as a guide, it’s up to the students to figure out where they went wrong, often by working in groups with peers with varying skill levels.

“Students are more engaged in their work and the outcomes are better because they’re self-reflecting,” Dupuy said.

M.S. 343’s approach also gets at a common knock on testing: The results are rarely used to improve teaching and students often don’t have the opportunity to learn from their mistakes. At M.S. 343, teachers spend entire weeks meeting as a team to go over results and fine-tune their instruction. That time, Gassetto said, is a valuable resource.

“Most of the time, when you give a big assessment,” Gassetto said, “you’re testing, but for what purpose? We don’t do that. If we’re going to ask kids to sit down and take an assessment, we need to look at it and get it back to them right away, so it’s useful.”