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.”