Invisible opportunities

City schools struggle to connect students with summer options

Lettie Edgerton says it's a struggle to keep her grandaughter Kyndal busy over the summer.
Lettie Edgerton says it’s a struggle to keep her granddaughter Kyndal busy over the summer.

Jovani Nias’s 21 years as a mail carrier in Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn has given her unique insight into how families in the neighborhood spend the year. Now that school is out, she said, differences among families even in the same building are even more obvious.

“You see some kids leaving for programs or summer school, and the other kids are just out, hanging on the corners,” Nias said.

Which direction a student takes over the summer can change the course of her education. Researchers have pegged students’ academic regression — known as the “summer slide” — as the equivalent of two months of school or more. Students who are occupied in summer learning are more likely to sustain their progress from the previous year.

But whether city students can avoid the summer slide is often a matter of luck, depending largely on how their school’s approach to summer learning and their family’s access to information that schools don’t always provide.

“There are opportunities that are invisible in my community that are more visible in other communities,” said Sheryl Davis, a Brooklyn parent. “We all have that conversation, what are you kids doing this summer? And I find that a lot of schools do not help with that.”

What schools do and don’t do

The Department of Education Department of Family and Community Engagement and the Division of Equity and Access each play a role in overseeing summer options and funneling information about them to schools and communities. But it largely leaves the decision about how aggressively to pair students with summer opportunities up to individual schools.

“I’d like to say there’s one centralized place but there isn’t,” said Marcus Liem, a department spokesman. “The Division of Family and Community Engagement provides information that ideally trickles down to all principals and parent coordinators, and hopefully they get the information to families as well.”

How well the information trickles down varies widely among schools.

At the Urban Assembly School for Law and Justice, a full-time student enrichment coordinator provides detailed information about summer options and coaches families through the application process.

Elissa Martel, who plays that role, said that if she hears about a theater camp, she’ll track down students she knows love acting and guide them through the application process. If the program costs more than their families can afford, Martel said she finds scholarships and helps the students apply.

“A lot of our students’ families are single-parent families,” Martel said. “Parents working evenings or weekends don’t necessarily have a schedule that’s conducive even to helping with homework in some cases, or going the extra mile and getting students involved in after-school or summer opportunities. It’s very time-consuming, and some of our students’ families don’t have Internet access at home or don’t have a computer that functions.”

Davis said the personal assistance is a main reason her daughters have a packed summer schedule that includes volunteering at the Brooklyn library and interning a few days a week for their assemblyman, Walter Mosley.

But Martel doesn’t actually work for the school, which Davis’s older daughter attends. A foundation connected to the school, called the Adams Street Foundation, pays her salary. And she said it’s hard to imagine how a school could offer such extensive support without adding positions like hers.

“Most of the other partnership coordinators or enrichment focused people I’ve interacted with have some other job title as well,” Martel said. “Job counseling, guidance counselors — a lot of people are struggling with balancing all the hats that they’re wearing.”

Parents try to fill the gap

More common is the experience of Sharon Gross. She said her children’s school, Brooklyn College Academy, had passed along some information about summer programs, but it was informal parent networks that helped her twins find something meaningful to do.

One of those networks is run by Davis, who said she was struck by the experiences of colleagues in the customer service department at Con Edison, from which she recently retired.

Jovani Nias has watched how summer plays out in Bed-Stuy for 21 years.
Jovani Nias has watched how summer plays out in Bed-Stuy for 21 years.

“When I would go to work and say, ‘I’m going go to see about this program,’ my coworkers didn’t know anything about these programs,” Davis said. So she started sharing any information she received through regular email blasts.

In a recent message from Davis, Gross learned about CAMBA, a Brooklyn nonprofit that provides paid work for teenagers. Her twins will make $8 an hour as program assistants at a summer camp, where they will also receive mentoring. Last summer they worked at Long Island College Hospital, an opportunity Gross found out about through another parent on her son’s swim team.

“There’s so much that the kids can benefit from,” Gross said. “But if you don’t get the information or you don’t know anyone to give you the information, you can miss out.”

Gross said she also relies on parent networks for information about colleges and scholarships.

“It’s still time-consuming because you have to go through each and every one and see which one applies for your kids and then do the work that’s required to get the scholarship. But, I have to say, I’d rather go sift through it as opposed to not having anything,” she said.

Continuity brings benefits

On a recent a recent afternoon in Bed-Stuy, after some local schools had already finished the year, many parents said they didn’t know what their kids were doing next. But children whose schools offer summer programs or who already participated in after-school programs that run summer camps were most likely to have plans.

Tiffany Hall’s son Tyrone is going into second grade at Beginning with Children Charter School 2. She said she got a call from the school giving him the option of attending optional summer school, which she accepted.

Sheryl Connelly, the school’s director of operations, said the summer school was originally only open to students at risk of failing, as is the case at most district schools. “But then we ended up taking more children, as parents heard about it and knew there was a free program,” she said.

But funding summer programs for students who are not failing can be a challenge for budget-strapped schools.

Community groups, such as Children of Promise in Bed-Stuy, also run summer programs, but Lakisha Adams, who lives in Flatbush, said the organizations typically give priority to kids already involved in their programming during the year.

There simply aren’t enough spots to go around in programs that are “affordable to the average person who’s struggling and paying more than half their income for rent,” she said.

Even parents determined to find summer programs said the demand for affordable options exceeds the supply. Bronx father Mohamed Sheriff said all the programs he looked into for his 6- and 12-year-old sons last year and this year were full. Both sons attend the Bronx Academy of Promise.

“Even the waiting list is so high. There is no hope they will be able to take either one of them,” Sheriff said. “I didn’t discuss it with the children’s school, because they don’t tell us about it and I don’t think they do such programs.”

Safwan Akhder says the only summer program she heard about from her daughter Sazidah’s school, P.S. 93, is too far away, so she’ll stay home and read books with her brother Sumi, a rising sophomore at Brooklyn Tech who wants to join a summer soccer team.
PHOTO: Courtesy betsydevos.com
Safwan Akhder says the only summer program she heard about from her daughter Sazidah’s school, P.S. 93, is too far away, so she’ll stay home and read books with her brother Sumi, a rising sophomore at Brooklyn Tech who wants to join a summer soccer team.

The stakes are high, for safety as well as academics. As PTA president at an Explore charter school, Adams said she saw kids who had not attended summer programs struggle to re-adjust to the structure and rigor of a new school year. And “with the gang activity and all this stuff that happens on the streets, it’s dangerous and you want your kids in as much structure as possible,” she said.

Without a plan

For many families in Bed-Stuy, summer is starting with open questions about how their children will spend their time. Kyndal Williams, a rising junior at Gotham Professional Arts Academy, wants a summer job but hasn’t found one. What does she plan to do instead? “Nothing,” Williams said.

Her younger sister Sierra jumped to explain what “nothing” means. “Chilling. She likes to walk places or take the bus places. And stuff like that, and talk to people.”

On her son Shaleek’s last day of second grade at P.S. 93, Aebony Morris said she “wanted him to go to a summer program” but didn’t know of any options nearby that she could afford.

Safwan Akhder said the only summer program she heard about from P.S. 93, which her daughter Sazidah attends, was too far away. Sazidah will stay home and read books with her brother Sumi, a rising sophomore at Brooklyn Technical High School, who said he wants to join a summer soccer league.

“Still undecided!” another parent said about her daughters’ summer plans, then turned to them. “What do you want to do?”

Francine, who declined to share her last name, said if she had heard of any summer options for her son Shyheem, a rising third grader at P.S. 44, she would have signed him up.

“I hope the school has something for [kids] to do,” Francine said. “I know some schools do stuff for kids in the summer. Does that school? I don’t know.”

This story is part of a multi-city series on expanded learning time, with funding from the Ford Foundation, which supports “more and better learning time” in high-need communities. Also participating in the series are the Notebook (Philadelphia), Catalyst Chicago, EdSource (California), and GothamSchools’ sister site EdNewsColorado.

Top 10

From forest preschools to a secret apology, here are Chalkbeat Colorado’s must-read stories of 2018

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat
Megan Patterson works with children to make a dam in a creek during a recent "forest school" class.

We spend a lot of time at Chalkbeat chasing the news to keep our readers informed about controversial policy changes, fast-moving debates, and late-breaking decisions.

But we also relish the opportunity to dig deep into issues affecting students and families, shine light on innovative ideas, and hear from dedicated educators making a difference. With that in mind, we’ve gathered 10 of our best stories from 2018.

These stories don’t necessarily chronicle the biggest education issues of 2018, from teacher walkouts to unprecedented state interventions. But they are stories we think are important and insightful, and that we enjoyed reporting and writing. We hope you enjoy reading them.

No walls: Forest preschools let kids run free, but can they change to reach diverse families?

One day this past summer, about a dozen children frolicked by a Jefferson County creek — making pretend tea in small metal buckets, and building dams with sticks and mud.

They were students at Worldmind Nature Immersion School, where children spend all their time outside. So-called forest preschools like Worldmind are beloved by many families but face significant regulatory and logistical barriers in expanding their footprint nationwide. Here in Colorado, a pilot program could lead a new kind of child care license designed for them.

And being licensed could help the schools confront another problem: a lack of diversity among their students. Read more.

Colorado was never ranked 46th for teacher pay. Does this change the debate?

It was an oft-cited statistic: that Colorado, despite its booming economy, ranked 46th in the nation for teacher pay. The eye-popping number found its way onto social media posts and signs at massive teacher rallies last spring. News outlets latched on to it, too.

But it was wrong. Colorado was actually ranked 30th in the nation.

Our story breaks down how the mistake happened (hint: a new data system, an unrevised report) — and how groups with different agendas seized on the snafu to score points. Read more.

This is the letter of apology that Adams 14 leaders never sent

The Adams 14 district in Commerce City is arguably the most troubled and low-performing in Colorado. Just last month, state officials directed Adams 14 to hire an external manager to oversee the district’s operations for at least the next four years.

Back in September, Adams 14 officials considered taking a rare step: saying sorry to the community. But an apology letter was never signed nor sent out.

Chalkbeat obtained a copy of the letter, which makes mention of “various and conflicting priorities, coupled with constant turnover and organizational disarray.” Read more.

Rising test scores and dwindling trust: Denver’s Tom Boasberg leaves a complicated legacy

Colorado’s largest school district experienced a big change this year when longtime leader Tom Boasberg announced he would step down after nearly 10 years in Denver Public Schools.

Because of his school improvement strategies — some of which were controversial and heightened tensions with the community — the district that the new superintendent, Susana Cordova, will inherit in January is vastly different than it was a decade ago.

One tangible difference: Schools that once served as anchors of the community but struggled academically have been closed or replaced. That disappearance was on display on one of Boasberg’s last days, when he held his cell phone close to his mouth and enunciated each word so his GPS would understand his direction: “Montbello High School.” Read more.

Parents in one Aurora high school are visiting classrooms and giving teachers feedback

Like many schools in Colorado, Aurora’s Rangeview High School has a test score gap between white and black students. But the assistant principal there came up with a unique way to try to address it: by inviting black parents to visit classrooms and observe how students are — or are not — engaging with the teacher’s lesson, and then provide suggestions for improvement.

“We give true and honest feedback,” said one parent involved, “if they looked or appeared comfortable, how they interacted with the environment, the temperature of the room.”

Although the assistant principal considers the African American Parent Committee an experiment, she said it’s generating uncomfortable but necessary conversations. Read more.

How education reform became a wedge issue among Colorado Democrats this election year

For years, more moderate Democrats, often working in unison with like-minded Republicans, championed education reform efforts ranging from school choice to holding educators accountable for student performance.

But partly because of backlash against President Donald Trump and his education secretary, those strategies no longer fly with many Democrats — especially left-leaning Democrats who see them as undercutting public education and devaluing the work of teachers.

That sentiment was palpable in Colorado’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, and could shape the next legislative session, which starts in January. “Education is the issue that really stands to divide the left in a very substantial way,” one observer said. Read more.

How a Colorado school district turned things around at 10,000 feet above sea level

School improvement efforts look a little different high in the Rocky Mountains. While many of the strategies used by the 1,000-student Lake County school district are familiar to urban settings, they’ve been retrofitted to meet the needs of a district that’s 100 miles west of Denver.

For example, instead of firing teachers and principals who weren’t accelerating student learning fast enough, the district adopted a new curriculum and gave its teachers lots of training.

“The belief that the people are the problem is wrong,” the superintendent said. “Our teachers are professionals, and we believe in them. We’re proving that there is a framework or a pathway for rural schools to improve that’s about building capacity within your own community.” Read more.

7 things to know about how Colorado schools punish their youngest students

After state lawmakers rejected a bill to limit the use of suspensions in the earliest grades, Chalkbeat wanted to know more about the early childhood discipline landscape in Colorado. Data from the Colorado Department of Education revealed several trends.

Among them: Young black boys are suspended at disproportionate rates. Some rural school districts have the highest early childhood suspension rates in the state.

And despite nationwide debate about the impact of harsh discipline on young children and local efforts to bring the numbers down, suspensions in the early grades are actually going up. Read more.

In Denver’s gentrifying neighborhoods, some middle-class parents are avoiding the school down the block

Many neighborhoods in Denver are gentrifying, with middle-class families moving into what have historically been working-class communities. That type of demographic shift could easily lead to neighborhood schools that are more integrated by family income and race.

But that doesn’t always happen in Denver. Instead, data show that wealthier families – more often than low-income families – are using Denver Public Schools’ universal school choice process to send their kids to schools elsewhere in the city.

That’s a problem because research shows integrated schools boost test scores for students from low-income families without lowering the scores of those from wealthier ones. Denver officials want to see those benefits, but allowing parents to choose may be thwarting them. Read more.

Why this Colorado principal hand delivers birthday cards to more than 2,000 students and staff

Northglenn High School Principal Sharee Blunt is Colorado’s 2018 School Principal of the year — but perhaps even more impressive is the enormous number of birthday cards she hand delivers each year. If you’re one of those people who can barely remember your spouse’s birthday, you’ll be floored by Blunt’s annual feat.

In our interview with Blunt, part of Chalkbeat’s “How I Lead” Q&A series with distinguished school leaders, she talks about what she realized after a mother’s emotional reaction, and why she gave a teacher a pass during a lesson that went awry. Read more.

union power

Charter teachers won big in nation’s first strike. What now?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Teachers from Acero charter schools in Chicago protest stalled negotiations Oct. 24, 2018, as they readied to vote on authorizing a strike.

Some 500 unionized teachers joined in the nation’s first charter strike last week, and succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day. Their gains could foreshadow next year’s citywide contract negotiations — between the Chicago Teachers Union, with its contract expiring in June, and Chicago Public Schools.

“The issue of class size is going to be huge,” said Chris Geovanis, the union’s director of communications. “It is a critically important issue in every school.”

Unlike their counterparts in charters, though, teachers who work at district-run schools can’t technically go on strike to push through a cap on the number of students per class. That’s because the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act defines what issues non-charter public school teachers can bargain over, and what issues can lead to a strike.

An impasse on issues of compensation or those related to working conditions, such as length of the school day or teacher evaluations, could precipitate a strike. But disagreements over class sizes or school closures, among other issues, cannot be the basis for a strike.

The number of students per class has long been a point of contention among both district and charter school teachers.

Educators at Acero had hopes of pushing the network to limit class sizes to 24-28 students, depending on the grade. However, as Acero teachers capped their fourth day on the picket line, they reached an agreement with the charter operator on a cap of 30 students — down from the current cap of 32 students.

Andy Crooks, a special education apprentice, also known as a teacher’s aide, at Acero’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz school and a member of the teachers bargaining team, said that even having two fewer students in a classroom would make a huge difference.

“You really do get a lot more time with your students,” Crooks said. “And if you are thinking about kindergarten in particular, two less 5-year-olds really can help set the tone of the classroom.”

In district-run schools, classes are capped at 28 students in kindergarten through third grade, and at 31 students in fourth through sixth grade. But a survey by the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers, which supports educators taking on inequality, found that during the 2017-2018 school year, 21 percent of K-8 classrooms had more students than district guidelines allowed. In 18 elementary school classrooms, there were 40 or more students.

The issue came up at last week’s Board of Education meeting, at which Ivette Hernandez, a parent of a first-grader at Virgil Grissom Elementary School in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood, said her son’s classes have had more than 30 students in them. When the children are so young and active — and when they come into classrooms at so many different skill levels — “the teachers can’t handle 30 kids in one class,” she told the board.

Alderman Sue Garza, a former counselor, accompanied Hernandez. She also spoke before the board about classroom overcrowding — worrying aloud that, in some grades at one school in particular, the number of students exceeded the building’s fire codes. (Board chair Frank Clark said a district team would visit the school to ensure compliance fire safety policies.)

While the Chicago Teachers Union aren’t technically allowed to strike over class sizes, the union does have a history of pushing the envelope when it comes to bargaining.

Back in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union last went on strike, they ended up being able to secure the first limit on class sizes in 20 years because the district permitted the union to bargain over class size.

They also led a bargaining campaign that included discussion over racial disparities in Chicago education and school closures, arguing that these trends impacted the working conditions of teachers.

“Even if you can’t force an employer to bargain over an issue, you can push them to bargain over the impact of an issue,” Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, explained.

The Chicago Teachers Union also emerged from its 2012 negotiations with guarantees of additional “wraparound services,” such as access to onsite social workers and school counselors.