Sorting the Students

Black alumni of specialized high schools: SHSAT needs scrutiny, not just defenders

A group of black alumni of the city’s specialized high schools say the alumni coalition calling to retain the current admissions system doesn’t fully speak for them.

In a letter sent to Chalkbeat, members of the Stuyvesant High School Black Alumni Diversity Initiative say they want the Specialized High School Admissions Test to face new scrutiny, not just be defended. Mayor Bill de Blasio and civil rights groups have pointed to the test, which determines admission to eight of the city’s top high schools, as contributing to the scarcity of black and Hispanic students at those schools.

Just 11 percent of the offers to those eight schools went to black and Hispanic students in 2014, thought they made up about 70 percent of the city’s eighth graders.

De Blasio has backed a state bill that would require the specialized high schools to use more than the single test score to make admissions decisions. The City Council education committee is poised to vote on a symbolic measure of support of that bill this month, sparking the Coalition of Specialized High School Alumni Associations to release a five-page letter to Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito telling her to vote “no” on the resolution.

In their letter, the black alumni group doesn’t say the single-test method should be abandoned, and joins the Coalition in asking for stepped-up recruitment efforts directed at minority students. But the group reiterates concerns about the test’s content, including that it doesn’t reflect middle-school curriculums.

“In light of these issues, we wonder why the Coalition of Specialized High School Alumni Associations is defending the current SHSAT, instead of urging the City’s Department of Education to insure that it is fair?” the letter asks. “Like the Coalition, we believe that using a test can guarantee an admissions system free of favoritism and bias, but we are not certain that the current SHSAT offers that.”

Here’s the Diversity Initiative’s letter:

The members of Stuyvesant High School Black Alumni Diversity Initiative and other alumni and friends who support our goal of increasing the number of Black and Latino students enrolled at the city’s specialized high schools are pleased that we and the Coalition of Specialized High School Alumni Associations are in agreement that increased resources need to be devoted to outreach and improving educational quality citywide, and that the Discovery Program needs to be reinstated at Stuyvesant and Bronx Science High Schools. We would go further and demand better schools, and improved efforts to identify and provide an enriched and accelerated education to talented students in every neighborhood, and not simply increased access to test prep. We would also urge the Department of Education to specifically target the Discovery and DREAM-SHSI programs to students from communities currently underrepresented at city’s specialized high schools. Like the Coalition, we believe that using a test can guarantee an admissions system free of favoritism and bias, but we are not certain that the current SHSAT offers that.

As far as we know, the current SHSAT has never been validated. It is deeply concerning that biases inherent in its scoring methods — most notably, an acknowledged preference for the “uneven genius” — may themselves provide an advantage to certain groups of students. Additionally, the inclusion of certain question types, scrambled paragraphs and logic questions, which are unfamiliar to most school children provide an advantage to students who have the benefit of private prep. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it is inconsistent with notions of basic fairness that the SHSAT assesses knowledge of concepts beyond the scope of the standard middle school curriculum. This disconnect between what most students have been taught, and what they are being tested on helps explain why some public middle schools send hundreds of students to specialized high schools each year while most public middle schools send none. We believe the SHSAT should be challenging, and measure students’ critical thinking skills, and their ability to apply concepts, but it should be aligned with what children have been taught. All public middle schools should have the same capacity to prepare students for success on the SHSAT and admission to the city’s top public high schools, not just a handful. In light of these issues, we wonder why the Coalition of Specialized High School Alumni Associations is defending the current SHSAT, instead of urging the City’s Department of Education to insure that it is fair?

Regardless of whether admission to the city’s oldest specialized high schools continues to be based on a single test or permits consideration of other relevant factors, we need to be sure that whatever test utilized is fair. Please join us and other concerned alumni in asking the Coalition of Specialized High School Alumni Associations to establish that the SHSAT is fair. We ask that you refrain from signing their petition of support for the SHSAT until we are assured that any test used as part of the admissions process is fair to all test takers.

poverty

There are more students from low-income families in many Denver area districts

PHOTO: Joe Amon/The Denver Post
Homeless children in Aurora walk with bags of donated food after school.

Among traditionally high-poverty school districts in metro Denver, most are seeing more students from low-income families and a few are experiencing a decline, according to new data.

Many of those same school districts have substantial numbers of homeless students, too. That picture also has shifted, with most of those high-poverty Denver area districts posting declines in homeless students. Officials caution, however, that what might seem like a promising trend might be a result of other factors that sell short the extent of the problem.

Enrollment data for the current school year was released by the state on Tuesday. The data, compared to previous year’s data, shows that most metro area school districts that serve high numbers of students that qualify for free or reduced price lunch — including Adams 14, Westminster, and Englewood — have seen a jump since 2014 in the percentage of those students.

At the top of that list is the Sheridan School District, southwest of Denver, where in 2014, 84.7 percent of students qualified for government-subsidized lunches. In 2017, 90 percent of Sheridan students qualify. And overall, the small district has shrunk — it’s now down to about 1,400 students — as families squeezed by a rise in housing prices moved out, officials said.

“What we’re hearing through our families is that some landlords are escalating rents monthly by a hundred dollars, which is a challenge,” said Michael Clough, the district superintendent.

One district, Denver Public Schools, reported a significant drop in the number of students qualifying for free or reduced price lunches. The school districts in Aurora and Mapleton have experienced flat or slight decreases from 2014 to 2017.

Metro area school districts with highest numbers of students who qualify for free or reduced price lunch:

DISTRICT 2014 2017
Sheridan School District 84.77% 90%
Adams 14 72.20% 86%
Westminster 76.36% 80%
Aurora 69.42% 69%
Denver 69.77% 67%
Englewood 62.56% 66%
Mapleton 60.13% 60%
Adams 12 37.81% 40%
Brighton 27J 38.45% 37%
Jeffco 31% 31%

Statewide the number of students who qualify for free or reduced price lunch decreased compared to last year, although the number of homeless students has increased.

Many districts in the metro area have seen a drop in the number of students reported as homeless, including in Aurora, Adams 14 and Westminster.

Officials in Adams 14, where the percent of homeless students dropped to 4.08 percent from 7.4 percent in 2014, said they worry that families are less willing to identify as being homeless, especially with concerns about immigration crackdowns.

“It’s been more of a search to try to find those families,” said Ruben Chacon, Adams 14’s director of climate and culture. “Our liaison goes to the couple of affordable housing complexes and knocks on doors to try to find kids we haven’t located.”

Chacon said that he tracked district students who were identified as homeless last year, and found that many have transferred out of the district. The Adams 14 boundaries don’t include much new housing, and as families exhaust their temporary situations, they leave, he said.

“There really isn’t a large affordable housing option available for new entries,” Chacon said. “We have a lot of long term residents and a lot of people who moved here as the housing market became more expensive in Denver, but if you look at the inside of our boundaries now we pretty much have zero housing growth.”

The Sheridan schools, on the other hand, are seeing a continued rise in the number of homeless students. Almost one in four Sheridan students are experiencing homelessness, an increase from 2014.

“We find it to be unbelievably stressful on families and on children, and our teachers as well,” Clough said. Because of the small size of the district, he said, officials are able to connect with homeless families and point them to various resources, including health services and a food bank, meaning many families might choose to stay nearby for the help instead of fleeing.

One district that hasn’t traditionally served high numbers of students from low-income households, Jeffco Public Schools, is now one of just three metro-area districts seeing a rise in homeless students. At the start of the current school year, 2.35 percent of Jeffco students identified as homeless.

Rebecca Dunn, coordinator of Community and Family Connections in the Jeffco district, said she believes a big part of the increased numbers is that the district is doing a better job tracking and identifying students who are experiencing homelessness.

“Our online registration system now has a very clear area where families can mark if they are experiencing homelessness and then what type,” Dunn said. “So we’re able to get that information much quicker. We also have just improved our outreach to schools so they know what to look for and are able to do that in a really sensitive manner.”

Percent of students who are reported as homeless in metro area school districts:

DISTRICT 2014 2017
Sheridan School District 21.55% 23.04%
Westminster 7.62% 6.56%
Englewood 5.13% 4.75%
Adams 14 7.42% 4.08%
Adams 12 2.98% 3.71%
Aurora 5.87% 2.72%
Jeffco 2.12% 2.35%
Mapleton 2.03% 1.67%
Denver 1.40% 1.11%
Brighton 27J 1.57% 1.03%

Below is a map highlighting the percent of a school district’s student population that qualifies for free or reduced price lunch in 2017. The darker-colored districts have a higher share of this group of students. Click on any district to see their percent.

Note: Data is not available for districts in red.

blast from the past

Harkening back to earlier era, struggling New York City school fights closure but faces long odds

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Kevin Morgan, the Parent Association president at P.S./M.S. 42, is leading a fight to keep the Rockaway school open.

A decade ago, teachers picketed P.S./M.S. 42 R. Vernam in Rockaway, Queens and declared the campus unsafe. Parents said the building was in horrible shape — some areas reeked of urine — and they petitioned the education department to close the school and start over.

But when Mayor Bill de Blasio took office, he had a different idea: Rather than shut its doors, he would revamp it. After three years in de Blasio’s “Renewal” improvement program, which injects troubled schools with academic supports and social services, P.S./M.S. 42 appeared to be making progress: Its test scores and quality reviews have steadily improved. Enrollment, while lower this year, has mostly been stable.

So when the education department announced plans last month to shutter P.S./M.S. 42 and 13 other low-performing schools, many in the school community were shocked.

“We think that this is a mistake,” said Donovan Richards, the local city councilman who said that when he met with schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña shortly before the announcement, far from declaring the school a lost cause, she praised its recent strides and discussed ways to celebrate them.

“You have this glimmer of hope and turnaround in the building,” he added, “and yet we’re reversing the progress.”

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Parents used to complain about poor conditions at P.S./M.S. 42, which has since built a new addition.

Now, parents, teachers and local political leaders are vowing to fight its closure. The coalition has launched an aggressive social media campaign, printed highlighter-yellow T-shirts declaring the school “strong and united,” and planned rallies at the school and in Albany, where the school’s supporters traveled Tuesday to make their case to state lawmakers.

On a recent morning, Kevin Morgan, the school’s parent association president, went to his local congress member’s office to appeal for help, and brought in a motivational speaker to inspire students as they drafted essays in defense of their school.

“It’s not fair,” he said. “They need to rethink what they’re about to do. How is this going to affect these children?”

The fight puts the mayor in the uncomfortable position of defending the closure of a low-performing school despite signs of improvement and vocal opposition from some parents — a scenario he railed against when running to replace then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg. At the time, de Blasio blasted Bloomberg for disregarding the will of parents in his zeal to shutter and replace troubled schools without first giving them a chance to rebound.

Now, after investing $582 million in a program meant to offer bottom-ranked schools the second chance he said they had been denied, de Blasio finds himself coming to the same conclusion as his predecessor: Some underachieving schools simply can’t be resuscitated — at least not quickly enough — so better to pull the plug and start fresh.

“After a serious effort, we do not think, with their current structures, they can make it,” de Blasio said on NY1 the day the closures were announced. Still, he defended the turnaround effort, saying that, without it, “we would have continued to see closures without an honest effort to fix the problem.”

In the case of P.S./M.S. 42, the education department is proposing to replace it with two new schools — an elementary school and a middle school — in the same building.

It’s likely they will serve many of the same students as the school they’re supplanting, though some parents worry the new schools may deploy admissions criteria that will screen out some of P.S./M.S. 42’s current students. An education department spokesman said the new schools would not turn away any P.S./M.S. 42 students. The new schools may also employ many of the same teachers, under a contract rule that says at least half the positions in replacement schools must be offered to teachers at closed schools who apply and hold the right qualifications.

P.S./M.S. 42 boosters hope the new schools never have a chance to open. But they face long odds: Under de Blasio, very few schools on the chopping block have managed to escape.

Last year, the Panel for Educational Policy — an oversight board where the majority of members are appointed by the mayor — signed off on all of the city’s proposed closures. Even when parents at J.H.S 145 in the Bronx mounted a campaign to keep the middle school open, only five of the 13 panel members voted against its closure.

The city’s plan to shutter P.S./M.S. 42 follows a yearslong, grassroots effort to save it.

Today, one of the leaders of that campaign is an unlikely champion: a parent named Queen Makkada, who called for the school’s closure in 2010 when her two children went there. At one point, her daughter was attacked by a group of boys, and students were known to roam the hallways unsupervised.

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Queen Makkada says P.S./M.S. 42 has struggled in the past, but is now showing improvement.

“We literally had first graders cutting class,” Makkada said. A joint city-state report from 2011 said teachers there “demanded little” from students and parents complained about unchecked bullying among students.
Makkada says things began to turn around when the current principal, Patricia Finn, took over about seven years ago. Finn did not respond to a request for comment.

The principal smoothed over relations with teachers, who have filed far fewer grievances under her than the previous administration, according to their union. And she forged relationships with skeptical parents, Makkada said. Last year, 90 percent of parents who responded to a school survey said the principal works to build community.

“All the stakeholders had to come together and change it,” Makkada said. “These parents went through the process to improve a failing school.”

At the same time that parents were getting more involved, the school facilities were getting an upgrade. In 2011, a gleaming new addition was built onto the building, and there are plans for a new $7 million playground, according to the city councilman.

The Renewal program, which launched in 2014, marked a new wave of investment in P.S./M.S 42. A community-based nonprofit — Family Health International, which goes by FHI 360 — brought much-needed mental health supports for students, including one-on-one counseling. The school day was extended by an hour. And the school has launched several initiatives aimed at improving school culture, including training students to help resolve conflicts among their peers, parents said.

Since 2014, the school has received improved “quality review” ratings from official observers, and its test scores have ticked upwards. In fact, elementary students at P.S./M.S. 42 earned higher scores on the state English and math tests last year than the average among Renewal schools that the city is keeping open. Its middle-school students perform just below that average.

And enrollment, a key factor that chancellor Fariña says the education department considers when recommending closures, grew by dozens of students the first few years of the program. This past year, its population declined to just over 660 students — but that’s still higher than before becoming a Renewal school.

Given the progress, parents don’t understand why their school is targeted for closure.

“This is ripping everything apart,” said Morgan, the parent-association president.

But despite the recent improvements, the majority of the school’s students still are far behind where they should be.

Only 17 percent of elementary students and 14 percent of middle schoolers passed last year’s state English tests — compared with 40-41 percent of students citywide. In math, 14 percent of elementary students and 6 percent of middle schoolers passed the tests, compared with 42 percent and 33 percent citywide.

Meanwhile, a stubbornly high share of students are chronically absent, despite a major push by the city to boost attendance at Renewal schools. More than 45 percent of P.S./M.S. 42 students miss 10 percent or more of the school year, compared to 36 percent among all Renewal schools and about 26 percent among all city schools, according to the education department.

“This decision to propose a school closure was made based on a careful assessment of the school community as a whole,” Aciman, the department spokesman, said in a statement. He added that community engagement is an important part of proposed closures, and said officials will respond to parents’ questions and concerns.

Officials will hold a public hearing at the school on Jan. 10, before the Panel for Educational Policy votes Feb. 28 on whether to approve the city’s closure plans.

Among the P.S./M.S. 42 parents who will ask the panel to spare the school is Willard Price.

He said teachers have given his son, William, extra help in math and handwriting, and principal Finn has invited him to eat lunch in her office when he felt overwhelmed by the cafeteria. Now, William earns high marks on his report cards and would like to remain at P.S./M.S. 42 for middle school, his father said.

“I think that’s messed up, trying to close the school,” William said. “This school is the only school I ever liked.”