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Tracking the de Blasio administration's education promises

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Mayor Bill de Blasio announces policy changes meant to make it easier for parents of children with special needs to secure city funds for private school tuition.

Six months ago, Bill de Blasio took control of the largest school district in the country. At the end of his first semester, here’s a recap of what he said he was going to do with it—and what he and Chancellor Fariña have done so far.

[Jump to: new initiatives — accountabilityleadershipcharter schoolscommunity involvementteachers and principals]

New or expanded initiatives

Funding an expanded pre-kindergarten program

  • On the campaign trail: De Blasio’s plan was
    Pre-K students at P.S. 63-S.T.A.R. Academy during a literacy lesson.

    to dramatically expand pre-kindergarten access by increasing taxes for New Yorkers who earned more than $500,000 a year.

  • It happened, though not the way de Blasio wanted. So far, de Blasio has created 45,000 of the 53,000 promised pre-k seats for the 2014-15 school year. He plans to add approximately 20,000 more seats the following year to create enough spots for every four-year-old in the city. The state will provide $300 million for this year’s pre-K expansion.

Creating more community schools

  • On the campaign trail: De Blasio committed to creating 100 new community schools that could offer medical and social services, art and fitness programs, tutoring and more to students and their families.
  • Some progress. The city announced plans to turn 40 schools into community hubs in June. The plan will cost $52 million in state funding and will play out over the next few years. De Blasio said the schools’ success would be measured by improvements in student health, attendance, and parent engagement as opposed to solely test scores.

Creating new after-school programs

  • On the campaign trail: De Blasio’s platform called for after-school programs to be made available to every middle school student in the city.
  • It’s in progress, though it’s not being funded the way de Blasio wanted and falls short of the goal he set since taking office. His budget allocated $145 million, as opposed to the $190 million he’d hoped to secure by raising the income tax for the city’s wealthiest residents, allowing for 34,000 new after-school slots. The city would still need to create 16,000 more seats to reach de Blasio’s goal of 95,000 after-school slots by September. The city also secured $7.6 million from the state to extend the school day for 5,000 kids, though those programs aren’t restricted to after-school hours.

Improving special education services

  • On the campaign trail: De Blasio noted the low graduation rates for special education students, and said he would strengthen teacher training, “balance” their enrollment across schools, and improve the computer system for keeping track of their information, known as SESIS, and improve bus service.
  • The administration has acknowledged the transportation issues, and announced that it will will curb its legal challenges against parents who want the city to pay for their children with disabilities to attend private schools. No other specific news yet.

Improving English language learner services

  • On the campaign trail: De Blasio noted “effective programs that can serve as a model for a citywide” and said supports should include more learning time, parent engagement and better  teacher training.
  • Fariña has talked about needed improvements for the city’s ELL population, but she has not announced specific changes. The state is expected to change regulations for ELL students for the first time in 30 years to offer them more classroom support, and Fariña has pledged to expand billingual program offerings.

Reducing class sizes

  • On the campaign trail: As mayor I would want to be held accountable for reducing class size. If in four years we don’t decrease class size, we’re making a huge mistake.” His platform calls for a class-size-reduction plan for early grades, but doesn’t make specific commitments.
  • Not much yet. In Fariña’s “100 days” speech, she said, “To ease the burden on educators, we will work to reduce class size.” Officials have said that additional money from the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit and said they will allocate $490 million from the Smart Schools Bond Act (assuming it is passed in November) to reduce class sizes. But advocates point out that their capital plan doesn’t keep pace with expected population growth.

Expanding career and technical education

  • On the campaign trail: De Blasio promised to expand the city’s network of Career and Technical Education high schools and look for businesses willing to partner with those schools. Specifically, he called for a public safety-themed school to prepare students for police careers.
  • Some progress. The city won funding in April for two more 9-14 high schools. Three Career and Technical Education high schools are opening in fall 2014, along with three schools that follow a grades 9-14 model and focus on college and career preparation.

Changing specialized high school admissions

  • On the campaign trail: The notion that children’s futures are determined by a single test and the outcome of that is a series of schools that don’t represent the full population of this city — I don’t know why that alone didn’t say to the people of this city that the overreliance of standardized testing was absolutely bankrupt.”
  • No changes yet, including at the five schools for which the city can change the admissions policies without permission from the state legislature. But de Blasio has continued to criticize the admissions requirements, and Fariña has thrown her support behind a bill in the state legislature that would require schools to consider multiple measures, including state test scores and attendance. They have formed a task force of principals to consider new policies.

Changing school safety and discipline policies

  • On the campaign trail: I wouldn’t necessarily change the jurisdiction of the school safety agents away from the NYPD, but I would change the way decisions are made in the school.” 
  • No changes yet, though an official has thrown support behind a significant expansion of restorative justice programs, for which Fariña has also voiced support. Following the stabbing death of a middle school student, Fariña encouraged principals to establish proactive policies for dealing with bullying, but the city has not indicated plans to strengthen requirements around reporting bullying incidents.

Providing dedicated arts funding for schools

  • On the campaign trail: De Blasio said the city should provide it “through the after school program we’ll create by taxing the wealthy.” His platform set a four-year goal for making sure all students were receiving state-mandated arts instruction.
  • Some progress. The city set aside $23 million to fund additional arts in schools, though it’s unclear what that will be spent on. Chancellor Fariña has said she will emphasize the arts in a revamped quality review process for schools. After-school programs are getting a big boost, too.

Accountability

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Reducing the emphasis on standardized testing

  • On the campaign trail: I would put the standardized testing machine in reverse. It is poisoning our system.” His platform included commitments to eliminate single-test admissions for gifted and talented programs and specialized high schools and increase the use of portfolio assessments in schools.
  • Some follow-through and one full reversal. Partially in response to state law changes, the city has broadened the criteria for grade promotion, which has been dependent on state exam scores, and created new rules under which state scores can’t be the main factor used in admissions decisions to selective middle and high schools. But Fariña has vowed to continue the current gifted and talented testing system. State tests aren’t going anywhere, though the department has said it will review the “field tests” used to try out new test questions.

Giving schools A-F letter grades

  • On the campaign trail: De Blasio said the letter grades should be done away with, but said overall progress reports should remain available to the public.
  • There are signs of movement. Department of Education officials have been meeting with experts to discuss ways to revamp the school Progress Reports, which have until now featured overall school letter grades. In the newly released high school directory, the letter grades are gone and new measures have appeared, such as the percentage of students who are on track after ninth grade or who are satisfied with the school. “I still don’t know what your school report card is,” Fariña told educators at an event celebrating a program celebrating her signature Learning Partners program. “I never checked because I don’t care.”

Reducing school closures

  • On the campaign trail: To too many people over at the Tweed building, closing a school is a panacea. They think it will solve all our problems.”
  • The “moratorium” is in effect—but for how long? No new closures were initiated this year, but that’s no surprise since the Bloomberg administration decided not to begin any last-minute closures it wouldn’t be around to carry out. More recently, de Blasio said that once the city has a new plan in place for propping up troubled schools, if a school still doesn’t improve “in a reasonable timeframe,” then the city will consider closure.

Improving struggling schools

  • On the campaign trail: De Blasio called for an early-warning system to spot troubled schools, a special Department of Education office to devise intervention strategies, and a “Strategic Staffing Initiative” where a seasoned principal and a team of experienced educators would be deployed to schools that need new leadership.
  • Some ideas for improving all schools, but no word about the most troubled schools. Fariña has implemented a plan to get educators to visit schools that have successful strategies to share, and the new teachers contract builds in new time for training and planning. But beyond a program to bring new support services to schools with attendance problems, the city has yet to say how it will intervene in the lowest-performing schools, where more training and resources may not be enough to turn things around.

Changing the support structure for schools

  • On the campaign trail: Districts matter. … We need to find a way to get parents to be able to talk to someone at the district level; teachers, parents relating to leadership at the district level again.”
  • No news yet, but subtle signs. Fariña has hinted that she too is unsatisfied with the system of school-support networks, has appointed a top deputy to review the system, but made clear that change won’t come before next year. Still, the city has agreed to create committees within each of the 32 geographic districts to review ways to reduce unnecessary paperwork for teachers.
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Leadership

Choosing a chancellor

  • On the campaign trail: Definitely an educator.”
  • That happened. Fariña is a former teacher, principal, district superintendent, regional superintendent, and deputy chancellor.

Appointing Panel for Educational Policy members

  • On the campaign trail: De Blasio said the mayor should appoint the majority of members, but that they should serve fixed terms so that they have “freedom to actually speak their mind.”
  • De Blasio did appoint the majority of members, though it’s unclear whether they have been appointed to fixed terms.

Recruiting and support principals

  • On the campaign trail: De Blasio called on improvements to principal recruitment and training. He said leaders need “to have a demonstrated track record” before getting promoted and, to better support rookie principals, suggested scaling up programs run by New Visions and Baruch College.
  • One of Fariña’s first moves as chancellor was instituting a requirement that seven years of experience was needed to become a principal. She also hosted a conference for principals with three or fewer years of experience. The de Blasio administration has not made any other announcements about principal training.

Charter schools

Giving charter schools free space in public buildings

  • Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz railed against the city's decision to cancel three previously approved co-locations involving Success schools during a press conference Thursday outside of Success Academy Harlem 4.

    On the campaign trail: There is no way in hell that Eva Moskowitz should get free rent, OK? There are charters that are much, much better endowed in terms of resources than the public sector ever hoped to be. It is insult to injury to give them free rent.”

  • That didn’t work out. Before de Blasio even had a chance to follow through on his pledge to charge rent to charter schools, the state legislature banned it and, in fact, required de Blasio to pay for the space of any new charter. And when de Blasio tried to kick out three of Moskowitz’s schools from public school space, he was sued and quickly found space for her in a private building. He even agreed to pay their rent and will have to fork over $5.4 million next year.

Expanding the city’s charter sector

  • On the campaign trail: We don’t need new charters.”
  • The mayor is about to get a lot of new charters, whether he wants them or not (though he never had control over their creation to begin with). He’s moderated his stance on charter schools in a general sense, though he and Fariña have given no indications that they will go out of their way to support the sector’s rapid expansion.

Community involvement

Getting parents more involved in schools

  • P.S. 48 rally

    On the campaign trail: De Blasio played up his role as a public school parent, said he would live-stream important meetings to provide more options for participation, and that he would increase parent involvement in co-location decisions.

  • One major change: the new teachers contract builds in time for teachers to reach out to parents. From her second week on the job, Fariña has emphasized parent involvement as one of her key concerns and she was the keynote speaker at two department-hosted conferences for parents. The city has yet to unveil a new process for making school space decisions, one area in which parents advocates have said the community needs a stronger voice.

Improving school space allocation

  • On the campaign trail: De Blasio called for “increasing parental engagement and communication in the co-location process.” In particular, he called on paying more attention to students with disabilities and improving how the city responds to community feedback.
  • Some movement. City Hall created two working groups: a Blue Book working group to study and revise the city’s space-planning methods and another that will look at the city’s space-crunch issues and determine how schools can better cohabitate. Their recommendations haven’t been made public yet, and neither has a new process for determining where charter schools can be co-located. De Blasio has, however, stood firm on prioritizing students with disabilities in co-location disputes.

Empowering Community Education Councils

  • On the campaign trail: De Blasio said he would give them a greater voice in school-space decisions and wanted their meetings streamed online.
  • Empowerment apparently starts with accountability. Fariña wants to know how often current members of the elected bodies show up to meetings, and she has the authority to replace those who are chronically truant. But members haven’t actually been given any new power.

Teachers and principals

Evaluating teachers and principals

  • IMG_6071edit

    On the campaign trail: “The new system is a tremendous improvement over the past,” de Blasio said. “I remain concerned about the extent to which scores on state tests will factor into teacher evaluations and believe we need to watch closely how the pilot use of student surveys to rate teachers plays out in our schools.”

  • Some changes, within his power. During contract negotiations with the UFT, the city agreed to set up a new appeal process for teachers whose evaluation ratings are based, at least in part, on test scores from subjects and students they don’t teach. He also delayed the rollout of the student survey component of the evaluation plans by at least one year. The state has reached its own agreement to reduce the effects of state test scores for this year and next year.

Retaining more teachers

  • On the campaign trail: “The city needs to encourage New Yorkers to consider teaching as a profession by expanding ‘grow your own’ programs in high schools, teacher residency programs, and partnerships with CUNY and SUNY colleges.” His platform called for the creation of career paths like “Lead Teachers” and “Master Teachers” to encourage retention.
  • Halfway there. De Blasio followed through by creating three teacher leadership positions, with higher pay and more responsibility, which were negotiated into the city’s new contract with the United Federation of Teachers. The administration is also funding a $6.7 million Teaching Fellows-inspired partnership with CUNY that would train and certify 400 pre-K teachers by September 2015. But the program is aimed more at building teacher capacity at the pre-K level than at increasing retention.

Supporting ‘last in, first out’ teacher protections

  • As public advocate: “Look, my two kids are in public school and part of my objection here also is that there are good and bad teachers that are newcomers and there are good and bad teachers that are veterans … it’s a mixed bag. Those who don’t teach well over a period of time need to leave.”
  • No specific word. When discussing a lawsuit that could challenge job protection laws for teachers in New York, de Blasio has not specifically talked about seniority laws that protect veteran teachers during layoffs. He has defended tenure and said the state’s teacher evaluation system makes the lawsuit unnecessary.

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

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 cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

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