ok computer

Harlem Success Academies lottery low-key, but high-tech

Yesterday evening, in a tiny room on the second floor of a Harlem school building, staff of the Success Charter Network of charter schools admitted 1,100 students for next year — in just over an hour.

Charter school lotteries have a reputation for being emotional public spectacles. Last year, thousands of Harlem Success Academy hopefuls filled the Fort Washington Armory for what was part enrollment event and part political rally led by the network’s controversial director Eva Moskowitz.

But many charter school admissions decisions are actually computer-generated, made in private days or even weeks before names of admitted students are announced at public events in front of anxiety-ridden parents. And this year, Moskowitz’s network, which currently runs four schools and is set to open three more in Harlem and the Bronx this fall, has quietly scrapped its boisterous public event. Instead, parents will be notified of the lottery’s results by mail, online and through a phone hot-line next week.

Success Charter Network spokeswoman Jenny Sedlis said the public event was abandoned because the sheer number of applicants — nearly 7,000 for 7 schools this year — would overwhelm organizers and because of tighter school budgets this year. Leaders of the network may also be feeling camera-shy this year after a winter of intense public scrutiny of charter schools and accusations that Moskowitz’s schools benefit from favoritism from Chancellor Joel Klein.

Yesterday, Matt Zacks, a software programmer from the educational data software company InResonance, peered at a large computer monitor filled with tables and lists of names. A smattering of Harlem Success staff, parents and visitors munched pizza and watched over Zacks’ shoulder as he moused and clicked through the lists.

“Here are the 6,095 applicants,” Zacks said, excluding the nearly 900 who applied after the April 5 deadline and who will be added to the end of the wait list. “And now we are going to check a button to make the names anonymous.” With a click, each applicant’s name was replaced with a randomly-assigned number. Then the list was reshuffled into numerical order.

Next, with a few keystrokes, Zacks launched the lottery for Harlem Success Academy 1’s kindergarten class. Though charters are legally required to select students through random lottery when applications exceed open spots, they must also give preference in the lottery to certain groups of students. This means the computerized selection program must make several sweeps through the list of students, picking out first students who fall into several preferred categories.

The first pass pulled out and listed all applicants with a sibling already enrolled in the school. A small counter box displaying the number of remaining seats in the class clicked down. The next pass-through picked the students who live in the school’s district and who are also “at-risk,” which the school defines as English language learners and students zoned for schools the state has designated as failing. Next up, at-risk students who live outside the district, and the next sweep ranked the remaining in-district students. Then finally, all the students passed over in previous rounds got their rankings.

With one more button click, the list of admitted students and a long wait list appeared on the screen and was saved and printed. The whole process took minutes for each grade.

The days of pulling names out of a box or a raffle drum are long gone for many city charter schools. Some high-profile charters attract thousands of applicants, and the task of sorting the applications by a school’s admissions preference criteria and pulling each name out one by one can be unwieldy and error-prone. Harlem Success pulled names the old-fashioned way in its first year, Moskowitz said. “You’d make more mistakes, paging through scraps of paper,” she said. “Pieces of paper would stick together.”

So in its second year, Moskowitz hired InResonance, a company that specializes in admissions and enrollment software, to custom build an lottery program for the Success Charter schools. InResonance works primarily with private schools, but in addition to Harlem Success, it also works with the Ross Global Academy Charter School in New York City. The Success charter schools’ program, with its anonymity and layers of preferences, is one of the most complicated pieces of admissions software InResonance has customized, Zacks said.

“This is pretty unique,” he said. Most schools are able to use their programs without him coming for an on-site visit. “This is the only time I do this, ever,” he said.

In a corner, Ny Whitaker and Phillip Nelson, both parents of second graders at two different HSA schools, traded anecdotes from their own experiences with the lottery. Now the heads of the parent groups at their respective schools, the two watched the process as proxies for the thousands of families who applied for a spot at the school.

“So many people have questions about the way it works, it’s good to be able to say, ‘I’ve seen it,'” Whitaker said. The lower-key admissions event might be easier on parents and students not accepted, she said.

“I think people are looking more for transparency,” Nelson added.

At 7:09 p.m., the computer generated its last lists of newly-admitted students for the new Bronx Success Academy 2. “That’s it,” said Holly Saso, the network’s assistant director of enrollment. “We just admitted 1,100 students,” she said to a teacher who passed by and poked her head in the door.

Sabrena Silver, an attorney who was recruited to be the lottery’s official outside observer by an acquaintance affiliated with the network, pored over the results with Zacks and Saso. The three matched the numbers of admitted students to the schools’ stated numbers of open seats. Then she signed the form.

“There you go,” said Saso. “Your magic signature makes it all official.”

after douglas

Betsy DeVos avoids questions on discrimination as school safety debates reach Congress

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos prepares to testify at a House Appropriations Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies Subcommittee hearing in Rayburn Building on the department's FY2019 budget on March 20, 2018. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos fielded some hostile questions on school safety and racial discrimination as she defended the Trump administration’s budget proposal in a House committee hearing on Tuesday.

The tone for the hearing was set early by ranking Democrat Rep. Rosa DeLauro, who called aspects DeVos’s prepared remarks “misleading and cynical” before the secretary had spoken. Even the Republican subcommittee chair, Rep. Tom Cole, expressed some skepticism, saying he was “concerned about the administration continuing to request cuts that Congress has rejected.”

During nearly two hours of questioning, DeVos stuck to familiar talking points and largely side-stepped the tougher queries from Democrats, even as many interrupted her.

For instance, when Rep. Barbara Lee, a Democrat from Texas, complained about proposed spending cuts and asked, “Isn’t it your job to ensure that schools aren’t executing harsher punishments for the same behavior because [students] are black or brown?” DeVos responded by saying that students of color would benefit from expanded school choice programs.

Lee responded: “You still haven’t talked about the issue in public schools as it relates to black and brown students and the high disparity rates as it relates to suspensions and expulsions. Is race a factor? Do you believe that or not?” (Recent research in Louisiana found that black students receive longer suspensions than white students involved in the same fights, though the difference was very small.)

Again, DeVos did not reply directly.

“There is no place for discrimination and there is no tolerance for discrimination, and we will continue to uphold that,” she said. “I’m very proud of the record of the Office of Civil Rights in continuing to address issues that arise to that level.”

Lee responded that the administration has proposed cuts to that office; DeVos said the reduction was modest — less than 1 percent — and that “they are able to do more with less.”

The specific policy decision that DeVos faces is the future of a directive issued in 2014 by the Obama administration designed to push school districts to reduce racial disparities in suspensions and expulsions. Conservatives and some teachers have pushed DeVos to rescind this guidance, while civil rights groups have said it is crucial for ensuring black and Hispanic students are not discriminated against.

That was a focus of another hearing in the House on Tuesday precipitated by the shooting last month at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican, falsely claimed in his opening statement that Broward County Public Schools rewrote its discipline policy based on the federal guidance — an idea that has percolated through conservative media for weeks and been promoted by other lawmakers, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Utah Sen. Mike Lee. In fact, the Broward County rules were put into place in 2013, before the Obama administration guidance was issued.

The Manhattan Institute’s Max Eden, a leading critic of Obama administration’s guidance, acknowledged in his own testimony that the Broward policy predated these rules. But he suggested that policies like Broward’s and the Obama administration’s guidance have made schools less safe.

“Faced with pressure to get the numbers down, the easiest path is to simply not address, or to not record, troubling, even violent, behavior,” he said.

Kristen Harper, a director with research group Child Trends and a former Obama administration official, disagreed. “To put it simply, neither the purpose nor the letter of the federal school discipline guidance restrict the authority of school personnel to remove a child who is threatening student safety,” she said.

There is little, if any, specific evidence linking Broward County’s policies to how Stoneman Douglas shooter Nicholas Cruz was dealt with. There’s also limited evidence about whether reducing suspensions makes schools less safe.

Eden pointed to a study in Philadelphia showing that the city’s ban on suspensions coincided with a drop in test scores and attendance in some schools. But those results are difficult to interpret because the prohibition was not fully implemented in many schools. He also cited surveys of teachers expressing concerns about safety in the classroom including in Oklahoma CityFresno, California; and Buffalo, New York.

On the other hand, a recent study found that after Chicago modestly reduced suspensions for the most severe behaviors, student test scores and attendance jumped without any decline in how safe students felt.

DeVos is now set to consider the repeal of those policies on the Trump administration’s school safety committee, which she will chair.

On Tuesday, DeVos said the committee’s first meeting would take place “within the next few weeks.” Its members will be four Cabinet secretaries: DeVos herself, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar, and Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen.

on the run

‘Sex and the City’ star and public schools advocate Cynthia Nixon launches bid for N.Y. governor

Cynthia Nixon on Monday announced her long-anticipated run for New York governor.

Actress and public schools advocate Cynthia Nixon announced Monday that she’s running for governor of New York, ending months of speculation and launching a campaign that will likely spotlight education.

Nixon, who starred as Miranda in the TV series “Sex and the City,” will face New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in September’s Democratic primary.

Nixon has been active in New York education circles for more than a decade. She served as a  longtime spokeswoman for the Alliance for Quality Education, a union-backed advocacy organization. Though Nixon will step down from that role, according to a campaign spokeswoman, education promises to be a centerpiece of her campaign.

In a campaign kickoff video posted to Twitter, Nixon calls herself “a proud public school graduate, and a prouder public school parent.” Nixon has three children.

“I was given chances I just don’t see for most of New York’s kids today,” she says.

Nixon’s advocacy began when her oldest child started school, which was around the same time the recession wreaked havoc on education budgets. She has slammed Gov. Cuomo for his spending on education during his two terms in office, and she has campaigned for New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

In 2008, she stepped into an emotional fight on the Upper West Side over a plan to deal with overcrowding and segregation that would have impacted her daughter’s school. In a video of brief remarks during a public meeting where the plan was discussed, Nixon is shouted down as she claims the proposal would lead to a “de facto segregated” school building.

Nixon faces steep competition in her first run for office. She is up against an incumbent governor who has amassed a $30 million war chest, according to the New York Times. If elected, she would be the first woman and the first openly gay governor in the state.