mayoral (mind) control

New coalition aims to sway 2013 race using education research

Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer spoke at a January press conference on school closures that drew four mayoral contenders, including him.

Not satisfied with simply railing against the Bloomberg administration’s education policies in the lead-up to the 2013 mayoral election, more than 20 community and advocacy groups have formed a coalition to urge a different path.

And if the coalition, called A+ NYC, is successful, that path will be lined with education research.

A+ NYC is the latest entrant into a crowded field of education advocates aiming to influence the mayoral election. It is driven by many of the same advocacy groups that just four months ago signed on to New Yorkers for Great Public Schools, which aims to oppose Mayor Bloomberg’s schools policies.

But organizers of both coalitions say they have very different strategies. Participants in A+ NYC say their coalition doesn’t share the blanket opposition to his education policies that New Yorkers for Great Public Schools proclaimed when it announced itself in May. Instead, they say, the new coalition is about policy, not politics.

“I think that this coalition is not focused on Bloomberg at all,” said Megan Hester, a coordinator for the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, which supports the Coalition for Educational Justice. “It’s focused on what we want from the next mayor.”

Hester said A+ NYC, which convened for the first time last week, would focus on compiling education research to share with candidates as they develop their platforms. Eventually, she said, A+ NYC would establish its own policy recommendations and push candidates to adopt similar positions.

Education platforms have been hard to come by from the candidates so far. Bill Thompson has called for an end to school closures; Bill de Blasio said he’d cede some mayoral control to the Panel for Educational Policy; and Christine Quinn has said she’s a supporter of Bloomberg’s rent-free charter school co-location policies.

But put together, the six Democratic mayoral candidates have offered little indication about how they will ultimately govern the public school system if they are elected.

That’s because it has been a politically safe bet for candidates to spend more time bashing Bloomberg, whose popularity on education has withered in recent years, than talking about what they support.

And that’s largely the approach that the union-backed New Yorkers for Great Public Schools adopted when it launched as a direct response to the formation of StudentsFirstNY, a group that supports many policies that the teachers union typically opposes. To make sure that those policies — which include tenure reform, school closures, and more charter schools — do not pick up momentum in the next administration, New Yorkers for Great Public Schools plans to focus on political operations, such as voter registration drives and advertisements.

“We’re going to make sure the StudentsFirst New York agenda won’t become the agenda of New York City,” said Jon Kest, executive director of New York Communities for Change and a head organizer for the coalition. “We’re not advocating a specific policy agenda other than that the last 10 years have been an abject failure.”

The attitude has isolated some education advocates who hoped for a more proactive, forward-looking approach.

“There was no substance,” said Noah Gotbaum, a parent leader and candidate for public advocate who was briefed on New Yorkers for Great Public Schools’ plans earlier this year. Gotbaum said he considered himself part of the coalition and  supported its goals, but declined to sign its pledge. “There wasn’t really a discussion about what people wanted the coalition to stand for.”

Indeed, New Yorkers for Great Public Schools hasn’t gained steam since its arrival on the scene. Its social media pages have been dormant for months, and its online pledge list has attracted only about 100 signatures, a far cry from the 100,000 that its website says is the group’s goal. Kest said he expected more pledges to come as a result of union organizing efforts.

And even education leaders on the other side of the aisle have agreed that the conversation is growing old. Last month, Success Academy Charter Schools CEO Eva Moskowitz derided some candidates for not speaking with conviction on education.

Mark Winston Griffith, of the Brooklyn Movement Center, said he shared Gotbaum’s and Moskowitz’s concerns.

“I don’t want to be defined by what we’re against,” said Winston-Griffith, who is a member of the A+ coalition. “I want to be defined about what we’re for.”

That’s where organizers for A+ NYC believe they fit in.

Many of the coalition’s members are traditional opponents of Bloomberg and his education policies. The Alliance for Quality Education, New York Communities for Change, and New York’s chapter of the NAACP have received financial support from the teachers union and been a regular presence at school closure and charter school co-location protests in recent years.

But Hester said the policy recommendations that ultimately come out of the A+ NYC coalition won’t necessarily reflect an anti-Bloomberg line or a pro-union line.

“We’re really just trying to focus the conversation on research on what actually works,” she said.

But a hint of ideology can be found in early recruiting fliers that were sent out by A+ NYC to advocacy groups this summer. A one-page fact sheet describing the coalition uses much of the same language employed by New Yorkers for Great Public Schools to denounce StudentsFirstNY.

“Already a handful of wealthy individuals have joined together to pledge $50 million to stay the current course, dominate the public debate, and define the politics of education in our city,” reads the sheet, which Hester said was sent out in error.

The A+ coalition has laid out an ambitious agenda for the next six months. Reporters weren’t invited to attend last week’s meeting, but organizers and meeting attendees shared planning documents with GothamSchools that provided more insight about their activities.

The group plans to create a “policy clearinghouse” website where it will publish research summaries on more than 20 education topics. Hester said mayoral control would not be among the topics.

Eventually the coalition will begin meeting with candidates’ staff, host dozens of town halls across the city, and train parents to spread the word about its policy recommendations in local communities.

And even if its means are different from that of New Yorkers for Great Public Schools, the end goal for A+ NYC is still the same, according to its fact sheet, which was sent to advocacy groups recruiting them to join: “By election season, A+NYC will have the power to influence the education agenda of all major mayoral candidates.”

Counselor Comeback

Years after laying them off, Newark brings back attendance workers to track down absent students

PHOTO: Newark Public Schools
Superintendent Roger León (center) with more than 40 new attendance counselors the district has hired.

A new school-attendance squad is on the job in Newark, ready to phone families and track down truant students.

More than 40 new attendance counselors and truancy officers made their official debut this week — part of a campaign by Superintendent Roger León to curb rampant absenteeism in the district. The linchpin of León’s approach is the rehiring of the attendance workers, who were laid off nearly six years ago amid questions about their effectiveness.

The employees — some new and some returning — will help craft school attendance plans, contact families, and bring truant students back to class with the help of Newark police officers.

They have their work cut out for them: Nearly a quarter of students have already missed about two weeks or more of school since September, according to district officials.

In his drive to boost attendance, León also launched a back-to-school campaign last fall and eliminated some early-dismissal days when students tend to skip class. At a school board meeting Tuesday, León said those efforts have resulted in fewer “chronically absent” students who miss 10 percent or more of school days for any reason. So far this school year, 23 percent of students are chronically absent, down from 30.5 percent during the same period the previous school year, he said.

“Right now, we’re in a really, really good place,” León told the board. “Having hired these attendance officers will get us where we need to go.”

A long to-do list awaits the attendance workers, who will earn between $53,000 and $95,531, according to a district job posting. They will create daily attendance reports for schools, call or visit families of absent students, and make sure students who are frequently out of school start showing up on time.

They will also be tasked with enforcing the state’s truancy laws, which authorize attendance officers to arrest “habitually truant” students and allow their parents or guardians to be fined. Newark’s attendance counselors will gather evidence for potential legal actions, deliver legal notices to students’ homes, and appear in court “when required,” according to the job posting.

The district is also establishing a new “truancy task force” to track down truant students, as required by state law. The task force will include both district employees and police officers who will patrol the streets searching for truants to transport back to school.

The teams will be “going up and down every one of our corridors and getting kids in school,” León said Tuesday, adding that they will eventually be provided buses.

Criminal-justice reform advocates across the country have criticized state laws, like New Jersey’s, which criminalize truancy. As a result of such laws, parents can face fines or even jail time and students can be put on probation or removed from their homes. Meanwhile, a 2011 study found that truant students who faced legal action were more likely to earn lower grades and drop out of school than truant students who did not face those sanctions.

While truancy laws may be on the books, districts have discretion in how they enforce them.

Peter Chen, a policy counsel for Advocates for Children of New Jersey, has studied absenteeism in Newark and said he did not know how the district’s new attendance workers would carry out the law. But he cautioned against “punitive strategies,” such as issuing court summonses or suspending frequently absent students, which can temporarily boost attendance but eventually drive students further away from school.

“Once the school is viewed as the enemy, as somebody who is out to get the student, it’s incredibly difficult to rebuild a trusting relationship,” he said. “And what we see time and again is that a trusting relationship between a school and a family or student is a critical component to building a school-wide attendance strategy that works.”

Superintendent León declined to be interviewed after Tuesday’s board meeting, saying he would answer written questions. As of Wednesday evening, he had not responded to those questions.

At the meeting, he did not rule out the possibility of the district’s truancy officers making arrests. But he said the police officers’ job was not to arrest truant students, only to protect the attendance workers.

“I need to make sure that any staff members that we hire are safe,” he said.

In 2013, then-Superintendent Cami Anderson laid off all 46 of the district’s attendance counselors. She attributed the decision to budget constraints and limited evidence that the counselors had improved attendance.

The district shifted the counselors’ responsibilities to school-based teams that included administrators, social workers, and teachers. Critics said the district was expecting schools to do more with less, and the Newark Teachers Union — which had represented the attendance counselors — fought the layoffs in court. An administrative law judge sided with the union, but then-State Education Commissioner David Hespe later overturned the decision.

León, who became superintendent in July, promised to promptly restore the attendance counselors. However, his plans were delayed by a legal requirement that the district first offer the new jobs to the laid-off counselors, some of whom had moved out of state. By the beginning of February, all the positions had been filled and, on Friday, León held a roughly 90-minute meeting with the new attendance team.

To create lasting attendance gains, experts advise schools to consider every aspect of what they do — their discipline policies, the emotional support they provide students, the quality of teaching, and the relationship between staffers and families. Simply outsourcing attendance to designated employees will not work, they warn.

Superintendent León appears to agree. In an interview last year, he said he expects all school employees to join in the work of improving attendance.

“The last thing that needs to happen is for people to walk away saying, ‘Oh, attendance is going to be solved because now we have the attendance counselors,’” León said. “No, everyone has to worry about attendance.”

Newark Enrolls

After changes and challenges, Friday’s deadline to enroll in Newark schools finally arrives

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
A student fills out an information sheet at Central High School's booth at the citywide school fair in December.

Newark families have just a few hours left to apply to more than 70 public schools for next fall.

At noon on Friday, the online portal that allows families to apply to most traditional and charter school will close. After that, they will have to visit the district’s enrollment center. Last year, nearly 13,000 applications were submitted.

The stakes — and stress — are greatest for students entering high school. Each year, hundreds of eighth-graders compete for spots at the city’s selective “magnet” high schools, which many students consider their best options.

This year, those eighth-graders have to jump through an extra hoop — a new admissions test the magnets will use as they rank applicants. District students will sit for the test Friday, while students in charter and private schools will take it Saturday.

That’s news to many parents, including Marie Rosario, whose son, Tamir, is an eighth-grader at Park Elementary School in the North Ward.

“I don’t know nothing about it,” she said. District officials have been tight-lipped about what’s on the new test, how it will factor into admissions decisions, or even why introducing it was deemed necessary.

Students can apply to as many as eight schools. Tamir’s top choice was Science Park, one of the most sought-after magnet schools. Last year, just 29 percent of eighth-graders who ranked it first on their applications got seats.

“I’m going to cross my fingers,” Rosario said.

Students will find out in April where they were matched. Last year, 84 percent of families applying to kindergarten got their first choice. Applicants for ninth grade were less fortunate: Only 41 percent of them got their top choice, the result of so many students vying for magnet schools.

This is the sixth year that families have used the online application system, called Newark Enrolls, to pick schools. Newark is one of the few cities in the country to use a single application for most charter and district schools. Still, several charter schools do not participate in the system, nor do the vocational high schools run by Essex County.

Today, surveys show that most families who use the enrollment system like it. However, its rollout was marred by technical glitches and suspicions that it was designed to funnel students into charter schools, which educate about one in three Newark students. Some charter critics hoped the district’s newly empowered school board would abolish the system. Instead, Superintendent Roger León convinced the board to keep it for now, arguing it simplifies the application process for families.

Managing that process has posed challenges for León, who began as schools chief in July.

First, he ousted but did not replace the district’s enrollment chief. Then, he clashed with charter school leaders over changes to Newark Enrolls, leading them to accelerate planning for an alternative system, although that never materialized. Next, the district fell behind schedule in printing an enrollment guidebook for families.

Later, the district announced the new magnet-school admissions test but then had to delay its rollout as León’s team worked to create the test from scratch with help from principals, raising questions from testing experts about its validity. Magnet school leaders, like families, have said they are in the dark about how heavily the new test will be weighted compared to the other criteria, including grades and state test scores, that magnet schools already use to rank applicants.

Meanwhile, León has repeatedly dropped hints about new “academies” opening inside the district’s traditional high schools in the fall to help those schools compete with the magnets. However, the district has yet to hold any formal informational sessions for families about the academies or provide details about them on the district website or in the enrollment guidebook. As a result, any such academies are unlikely to give the traditional schools much of an enrollment boost this year.

District spokeswoman Tracy Munford did not respond to a request Thursday to speak with an official about this year’s enrollment process.

Beyond those hiccups, the enrollment process has mostly gone according to plan. After activating the application website in December, the district held a well-attended school fair where families picked up school pamphlets and chatted with representatives. Individual elementary schools, such as Oliver Street School in the East Ward, have also invited high school principals to come and tell students about their offerings.

American History High School Principal Jason Denard said he made several outings to pitch his magnet school to prospective students. He also invited middle-school groups to tour his school, and ordered glossy school postcards. Now, along with students and families across the city, all he can do is wait.

“I’m excited to see the results of our recruitment efforts,” he said. “Not much else is in my control — but recruitment is.”