question and answer

"Equity and access" czar describes city's gap-closing efforts

Deputy Chancellor of Equity and Access Dorita Gibson spoke at an event promoting the Young Men's Initiative in October 2012.

After the state released lower test scores earlier this month, city and state officials disagreed over whether the achievement gap had gotten bigger. But all agreed that performance disparities between subgroups of students — most notably between white students and black and Latino students — were far too wide.

In 2011, Chancellor Dennis Walcott created a standalone Division of Equity and Access within the Department of Education to focus on what he said were “our most vulnerable students.” Last week, we spoke to Dorita Gibson, the division’s deputy chancellor, about the division, which includes District 79, the alternative schools district; adult education; partnerships such as the Young Men’s Initiative; and other initiatives designed to boost outcomes for high-need students.

Here are some of the most interesting takeaways from our conversation.

Why the Department of Education needs a separate Division of Equity and Access

Walcott’s decision to create the division sent the message that improving the school system does not mean the hard work is done, Gibson said.

“We’ve done such great work in the last 11, 12 years of this administration. We have great schools. We have great programs,” Gibson said. “But how do we as a school system make sure that all of our kids, regardless of their color and socioeconomic background, succeed in these programs?”

Now, Gibson spends her time talking to principals and teachers to get feedback on what’s not working at their schools; collaborates with other deputy chancellors in the department; and meets with potential funders for division programs in an effort to answer that question.

“It’s important to know the changes we have around school choice. Parents need to know how to navigate this,” she said. “Children need to know they have the opportunity to participate in these kinds of programs. And it doesn’t matter what the zip code is or where they’re coming from … How are we going to be the voice of the voiceless?”

How her past as a principal informs the work that the division is doing

Before moving to the department’s central administration more than a decade ago, Gibson was the principal of I.S. 25 in Queens. That’s where she realized that a large swath of high-need students were not always getting the attention they needed.

“When I was a principal, one of my main concerns was what do I do with children that are Level 2: children that have been promoted, that have done well in school,” she said. “But I know these children are struggling, [and] they’ll continue to struggle. … Those gaps are going to get larger and larger and larger.”

Summer Quest, one of the Division of Equity and Access’s central initiatives, aims to address exactly that group. When the program launched in 2012, the city invited students who had just barely passed state reading and math tests to take part. Gibson said the same principle guided the division’s efforts to expand enrollment in Advanced Placement classes and offer Specialized High Schools Admissions Test preparation to more students.

How the city is addressing diversity at specialized high schools

A persistent concern in New York City is that its more elite high schools, the eight specialized high schools, have very few black and Latino students. Last year, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund filed a civil rights complaint over the schools’ admissions process. Students’ scores on a single test determines their admission, a process that is dictated in part by state law. The Bloomberg administration has said it would work to prepare more students to take the entrance exam but would not push for the law to be changed.

Last summer, the department launched the DREAM Institute to help prepare low-income middle-schoolers for the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test. Unlike previous preparation programs that the department offered, DREAM takes place in middle schools, not the high schools that participants hope to attend, which Gibson said made the program more accessible to parents.

“It’s for kids that can’t afford to go outside and get extra help,” she said. “It’s not unlike taking the SATs. If you can afford to get SAT help, everyone goes to Kaplan or gets a tutor to get them help.”

But, she said, “It’s not really test prep. It’s interesting because you can’t prep for the test. It really is a learning curve.”

When the program first launched, about 800 students made it through the end of the six-month program and after taking the test, about half were offered a seat at a selective high school. Since then, DREAM extended its program to 22 months; the first cohort of students who began the program in the sixth grade will be finishing eighth grade and sitting for the SHSAT this year.

“This will be the first time we’ll be able to look at the data and see how children did in the 22 months they were there,” Gibson said.

Why concerns about specialized high schools miss the big picture

Ambitious students can find success in schools all across the city, not just at the specialized schools, Gibson said.

“You have a choice to go to any school you want in New York City. You need to be aware that you have a choice, and you need to be prepared so you can say yes to a school and no to another school. Our goal is to make sure all our high schools are prepared and are great for kids,” she said. “As we open up new small schools, we have some of the best schools in the country. So our specialized high schools are great, but our selective schools are great, and our local schools are great. We have a lot of great schools. … You need to find the just right school.”

It’s not all about the children 

One of the most significant changes in the division, Gibson said, was to split District 79 with one superintendent for adult programs and another for schools and programs that serve students under 21, so each could focus on meeting the needs of their populations.

Now that they’ve split the programs, they’re trying to smooth the transition that some students can make between the two.

“One of the big things we started to work on this year and we hope to take that into next year is even though D 79 and the adult program are separated, very often the children don’t finish the program by the time they reach 21,” Gibson said. “What we’re doing is we’re making sure that we continue to work with those children so they can easily transition into the adult program to continue that work.”

The next big challenge for District 79 students

In January, the state will stop administering the GED, the test that allows students who have not completed high school to demonstrate that they have equivalent skills. Instead, students will be able to take a new test that is tied to the Common Core learning standards. Gibson said she would be working to make sure students are prepared for this new exam but that the new standards present a steep challenge.

On missing the boat and getting back on

Gibson recalled her first “initiation” into District 79 when she became deputy chancellor: visiting East River Academy, the alternative school on Rikers Island.

“The visit there sort of put everything in perspective for me about what schools are about,” she said. “Because when you see 16 year olds and 15 year olds locked behind bars, you have to say, where do we as a school system miss the boat?”

Since then, Gibson said, the department has overhauled the instructional program at Rikers to have a stronger academic focus. She said, “We’re working to make sure they’re productive in the work they’re doing… and they’re not going to be latched on to their mistakes forever and ever and ever.”

Election Forum

Tennesseans are about to get their first good look at candidates for governor on education

Former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen speaks as his successor, Gov. Bill Haslam, listens during a 2017 forum hosted by the State Collaborative on Reforming Education. Tennesseans will elect their next governor in November.

For almost 16 years, two Tennessee governors from two different political parties have worked off mostly the same playbook when it comes to K-12 education.

This year, voters will choose a new governor who will determine if that playbook stays intact — or takes a different direction from the administrations of Bill Haslam, a Republican leaving office next January, and Phil Bredesen, the Democrat who preceded him.

Voters will get to hear from all but one of the major candidates Tuesday evening during the first gubernatorial forum televised statewide. Organizers say the spotlight on education is fitting since, based on one poll, it’s considered one of the top three issues facing Tennessee’s next governor. Both K-12 and higher education are on the table.

Candidates participating are:

  • Mae Beavers, a Republican from Mt. Juliet and former Tennessee state senator;
  • Randy Boyd, a Republican from Knoxville and former commissioner of Economic and Community Development and a Republican from Knoxville;
  • Karl Dean, a Democrat and former mayor of Nashville;
  • Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, a Democrat from Ripley and minority leader in the Tennessee House of Representatives;
  • Rep. Beth Harwell, a Republican from Nashville and speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives;
  • Bill Lee, a Republican businessman from Williamson County

The seventh major candidate, U.S. Rep. Diane Black, a Republican from Gallatin, is in the midst of a congressional session in Washington, D.C.

The next governor will help decide whether Tennessee will stay the course under its massive overhaul of K-12 education initiated under Bredesen’s watch. The work was jump-started by the state’s $500 million federal Race to the Top award, for which Tennessee agreed to adopt the Common Core academic standards for math and English; incorporate students’ scores from standardized tests in annual teacher evaluations; and establish a state-run turnaround district to intervene in low-performing schools at an unprecedented level.

Tennessee has since enjoyed steady student growth and watched its national rankings rise, but the transition hasn’t been pain-free. Pushback on its heavy-handed turnaround district led leaders to widen school improvement strategies. They also ordered new academic standards due to political backlash over the Common Core (though the revised standards are still basically grounded in Common Core).

A major issue now is whether the next governor and legislature will retain Tennessee’s across-the-board system of accountability for students, teachers, schools and districts. Snafus and outright failures with TNReady, the new standardized test that serves as the lynchpin, have prompted some calls to make the assessment just a diagnostic tool or scrap it altogether. Haslam and his leadership team have stood firm.

“We as Tennesseans made the right call — the tough call — on the policies we’ve pursued,” Education Commissioner Candice McQueen told Chalkbeat recently. “Nearly every other state has compromised in some way on some of these core foundational components of policy work, and we have not.”

The State Collaborative on Reforming Education, an advocacy group that works closely with Tennessee’s Department of Education, is a co-host of Tuesday’s forum. Known as SCORE, the group has sought to shape the election-year conversation with priorities that include teacher quality, improving literacy, and developing school leaders — all outgrowths of learnings during Tennessee’s Race to the Top era.

SCORE President David Mansouri said the goal is to maintain the momentum of historic gains in student achievement from the last decade. “The next administration’s education policy decisions will be crucial in determining whether Tennessee students continue to progress faster than students in other states and whether they graduate ready for postsecondary success,” he said Monday.

The one-hour forum will delve into a range of issues. College and career readiness, education equity, and school funding will be among the topics broached before each candidate is allowed a one-minute closing statement, according to David Plazas, a Tennessean editor who will help moderate the discussion.

“It will be really exciting,” Plazas promised. “We’re hoping the candidates are prepared to talk substantively on the issues and to avoid slogans.”

The event begins at 7 p.m. CT at Nashville’s Belmont University. Along with SCORE, it’s being co-hosted by USA TODAY NETWORK and Nashville’s NewsChannel 5. You can livestream the event here and learn more about attending or watching here.

Tennessee’s primary election is set for Aug. 2, with the general election on Nov. 6.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede