annals of choice

In Brooklyn's District 13, a task force aims to engineer socioeconomic integration

Seven years ago, when John O’Reilly arrived at Brooklyn’s Academy of Arts & Letters, nearly three quarters of the middle school’s students came from low-income families — mirroring the demographics of District 13, where the school is located.

Now, O’Reilly estimates those students make up less than 40 percent of the school’s population, and their numbers are declining annually as Arts & Letters’ growing popularity and new elementary school have made it a desirable destination for middle-class families in the gentrifying district.

O’Reilly, promoted to principal at the popular Fort Greene school in 2012, wants to make sure that the school doesn’t completely “flip,” or stop serving poor children.

“I need to find a way to hold on to that,” he said. “We are better all together than when we are apart, and we need more schools to look like that.”

The challenge of gentrification, and a potential solution

O’Reilly’s sentiment is something on the mind of many educators working in pockets of the city school system that are rapidly gentrifying.

While some neighborhood schools have attracted more affluent families, other nearby schools continue to serve mostly poor students. Advocates of integrated schools say that mixing these students more evenly is a crucial strategy to combat inequity. They cite research that shows low-income students learn more when they attend class with more affluent students — and, contrary to some parents’ fears, affluent students do not see their performance decline.

“This goes to the heart of what de Blasio is talking about,” said Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation who has studied the issue for nearly two decades. “The ‘two cities’ he talks about is directly correlated to segregation in the school system.”

O’Reilly believes he’s found his own way to address the issue at Arts & Letters, which admits students through an admissions lottery. He wants to reserve a portion of seats — up to 40 percent — for low-income students.

The idea has support from his parents and a district-wide task force on diversity, plus “verbal confirmation” from the Department of Education to begin in the 2015-2016 school year, O’Reilly wrote in a weekly dispatch posted online in December, though a spokesman for the department said no decision had yet been made.

Setting lottery “set-asides”  that favor certain types of students is common in the charter school world, but it’s unusual for schools run by the city. In fact, a similar practice was eliminated in a lower Manhattan district under the Bloomberg administration, which standardized enrollment policies to favor a pure choice model for families.

Engineering socioeconomic diversity is a delicate and often controversial pursuit. Most elementary schools admit students based on where they live, making diverse student bodies unlikely. In many parts of the city that have few middle-class residents, achieving a class balance within schools is unrealistic.

And setting aside seats for low-income applicants inevitably means keeping out more affluent families who are pining for a seat in O’Reilly’s school, which last year received more than six applications for every available slot. It’s a tension that O’Reilly knows he will face as the plan gets closer to becoming a reality.

In early, theoretical conversations with parents about diversity, “I only got positive feedback,” O’Reilly said.  “It’s only been since I said I believe this is going to happen that people have expressed concern.”

A unique opportunity, and recent history, in District 13

Still, advocates see the not-fully-gentrified District 13 as being particularly ripe for establishing socioeconomically integrated schools.

A few blocks away from Arts & Letters are two sprawling low-income housing projects and the shelter that until recently housed Dasani, the girl whose life the New York Times chronicled late last year. Her zoned elementary school, P.S. 67, 96 percent of student receive a lunch subsidy and more than 10 percent are homeless, according to InsideSchools.

At the same time, the median family income in Fort Greene jumped by $10,000 from 2009 to 2012, according to recent census estimates. In nearby Clinton Hill and Bedford-Stuyvesant, it increased at roughly the same rate.

The gentrification has had an impact on District 13 schools, with mixed results.

A decade ago, P.S. 8 in Brooklyn Heights was under-enrolled, and most students were poor and came from outside its attendance zone. David Goldsmith, whose daughter attended the school at the time, recalled that he used to beg other middle-class parents to take a chance on the school.

“They were fearful of class and race issues,” said Goldsmith, whose daughter attended middle school at Arts & Letters during its early years.

Parents were eventually won over by new administrators who joined the school in 2003. The school flipped shortly afterward. Now, the school is bursting at the seams, and only 18 percent of students qualify for free or reduced price lunch.

But at P.S. 11 in Clinton Hill, parents have struggled to make the same case to their new neighbors, especially after Community Roots Charter School opened in 2006 and again in 2011, when Arts & Letters started an elementary school. The expansion caused friction at P.S. 11 and P.S. 20, which shares a building as Arts & Letters, because it was seen as siphoning off middle-class families.

The district-wide task force on diversity wants to manage the demographic changes in District 13 so that the effect on schools isn’t determined by competition. Led by parents, including Goldsmith; a handful of principals, including O’Reilly; and Superintendent Barbara Freeman, the task force has been studying districts where integration policies have been implemented, such as Wake County, N.C., and Cambridge, Mass., and are developing a plan to establish more diverse schools in District 13.

The group wants to build on the momentum established by a handful of recent enrollment initiatives in the district. In one case, Freeman and the superintendent of District 15, which includes much of middle-class Brownstone Brooklyn, together applied last year for funds from the U.S. Department of Education that would let four schools with high concentrations of poor and nonwhite students open new programs in an effort to woo more affluent and white students from both districts.

At the same time, P.S. 133, another District 13 school, was reopening with an innovative admissions model. This year, P.S. 133 began enrolling students from both District 13 and District 13, while also setting quotas for low-income students and students who are learning English.

Goldsmith said it’s still too early to know what policies the task force will end up proposing. But he said he’d like to eventually develop a districtwide version of the weighted lottery model at P.S. 133.

Known nationally as “controlled choice,” the model’s aim is to offer an integrated education to all students in the district. No student is mandated to attend a school based on where they live. Instead, students are sorted based on a combination family preference, proximity, and prioritized demographic or achievement factors. Admission is often determined by set-aside lotteries at oversubscribed schools and then tweaked so that each school reflected the overall district’s student population.

Goldsmith acknowledged that in order for such a system to work, it needs broad support.

“These plans have to come from the community,” he said. “They have to come from the ground up.”

An uncertain future for controlled choice

How quickly the task force could build public support and turn controlled choice into reality remains unclear. Even at Arts & Letters, O’Reilly said he knows that there are plenty of unanswered questions.

One question is technical: How will students be identified as middle-class or poor before they are admitted, since that information is generally collected once students are already enrolled?

Others are political: Will the new administration at the Department of Education keep the informal promise that O’Reilly said he received last year to move forward with his plans for a weighted lottery?

De Blasio has said little about what he’d do to change enrollment policies under the Bloomberg administration. For him, the primary engines to address the socioeconomic and racial achievement gap are through expanding early education and lengthening the middle school day. Chancellor Carmen Fariña signaled support for creating more schools like P.S. 133 during a recent meeting with District 15 parents, but said, “These things take a long time.”

And then there’s the crucial question of public support: Will middle-class families, whose chances of admission to one of District 13’s most desirable schools would fall under the proposal, lobby against the plan? And will they choose to attend often lower-performing schools with many poor students, or will they curb the experiment by leaving the district?

Roberta Davenport, principal of P.S. 307 and another task force member, is optimistic that local residents will come to appreciate all of the options in the district.

P.S. 307 is one of three schools in the district, along with P.S. 15 in Red Hook, to have won the federal grant to create magnet programs aimed at attracting diverse families. The school, which is wedged among the Farragut Public Houses in Vinegar Hill and serves subsidized lunch 90 percent of students, received $1.8 million to develop its science and technology offerings.

Davenport said she hopes the new program — along with a program for autistic students — would attract more families from outside P.S. 307’s zone. In the future, she said, she anticipates her school’s high proportion of low-income students to drop.

“Each school will hopefully have something unique to offer,” said Davenport, who grew up in the same Farragut houses where many of her students live today. “It’s part of the vision for District 13. We are a district of choice.”

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.