the education agenda

Looking beyond pre-K, de Blasio unveils wide-ranging education agenda with big goals

Every year, about 120 Colorado children are hospitalized because of falls from playground equipment. All photos from Tom Peeples.

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s agenda-setting speech Wednesday could have been titled: What comes after pre-K? In a word, his answer was college.

After the mayor’s widely heralded expansion of full-day pre-kindergarten, which accompanied the launch of a turnaround program for struggling schools and a reorganization of the education department, many critics and parents were waiting for a clear vision for improving the rest of the school system.

In his speech at a high-performing Bronx high school, de Blasio sought to offer one, saying that his disparate school initiatives would operate in tandem to propel students toward college.

After pre-K, new programs will ensure students can read fluently by third grade and take algebra by ninth grade. In high school, every student will have access to advanced courses and help with college applications. And at all levels, students will learn the basics of computer science, which should make them more competitive as college applicants and job seekers.

The end goal of the these efforts — which are expected to cost $186 million annually when fully in place — is that a decade from now 80 percent of students will graduate high school each year and two-thirds will leave prepared for college-level work, the mayor said. Today, 68 percent of students graduate within four years, and less than half are considered ready for college classes.

[Read more about the specific initiatives, and their timelines, here.]

The speech seemed to strike the right chords. Observers said it balanced ambitious targets with student-focused initiatives that filled in policy gaps and are likely to appeal to parents and outside partners, such as technology companies and philanthropists.

“We can finally see a working vision for school reform taking shape under Mayor de Blasio’s leadership,” said Zakiyah Ansari, a public-school parent and advocacy director for the Alliance for Quality Education, in one of dozens of statements from advocates, businesspeople, and politicians that City Hall sent to reporters.

Still, the policy speech came with a heap of caveats and questions.

Most of the new programs won’t launch until next fall — after state lawmakers will have had to decide whether or not to extend his control over the city school system — and he will be out of office by the time his 2026 graduation deadline arrives.

Will the city be able to pull off the new programs, which will require extensive teacher hiring and training along with philanthropic funding? And even if the efforts go as planned, will they guarantee that students read proficiently and graduate high school in record numbers?

“Those are lovely goals,” said New York University research professor Leslie Santee Siskin, “but it would take a lot of work and reconfiguring of practice to make them reachable.”

The essence of de Blasio’s new agenda, he said, was summed up in the giant banner that hung over him in the Bronx Latin auditorium Wednesday: “Equity and excellence.” The idea is to improve the quality of all city schools, while making sure every student has access to the same learning opportunities.

That means that all second-grade students will eventually be able to get help from an on-site reading specialist, all eighth-grade students will be able to take algebra at their schools, and all high-school students will be able to take a range of Advanced Placement courses, according to the mayor’s plan. In addition, all 1.1 million city school students will get a chance to study coding, robotics, and other aspects of computer science.

Kim Nauer, education research director at the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs, said the mayor made a convincing argument that every school should offer stronger reading, math, and computer programs.

Those “struck me as something that the middle class and upper-middle class have always assumed for their children,” she said. “And so here he’s saying, all kids should have access to this quality of curriculum.”

Still, each program faces formidable challenges.

The city is proposing that within six years the reading specialists, combined with teacher training, will be able to more than double the number of incoming third graders who are proficient readers — from 30 percent today up to 66 percent. At the same time, more than 15,000 more eighth-graders who lack access to algebra classes and nearly 40,000 high-school students without AP options will need to receive them.

Meanwhile, the system-wide computer science classes will require some 5,000 trained teachers, officials estimate. And it will cost $81 million over a decade, with half that amount coming from private sources. So far, only about 30 percent of the private money has been committed, officials said.

Even if the city pulls off the extraordinary amount of hiring, training, and curriculum development that those programs will demand, it’s far from certain that they will lead to a 12-point increase in the graduation rate within a decade.

Aaron Pallas, a sociology and education professor at Teachers College, recalled a national education panel in the 1990s setting the goal of a 90 percent U.S. graduation rate by 2000. By 2013, the rate had hit 81 percent. While Pallas commended de Blasio for setting an ambitious target, he said detailed plans are needed.

“It’s easy to set those kinds of aspirations,” he said. “It’s harder to figure out the specific strategies.”

bargaining

Chicago’s Acero teachers vote 98% to authorize first-ever charter school strike

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Members of the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff protest before an Acero network board meeting in October.

Teachers at 15 Acero schools overwhelmingly voted Tuesday evening to authorize a strike, setting the stage for the first walkout in the nation by teachers at a charter network.

With a 96 percent turnout of the estimated 500 union-represented Acero Teachers, 98 percent of members voted to grant a strike authorization. The teachers union can now announce a strike date if contract negotiations reach an impasse, according to the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff (ChiACTS).

Acero, formerly named UNO, is the largest unionized charter-school operator in Chicago Public Schools. Its contract with teachers expired Aug. 2 and was extended until Oct. 3. But talks have been stalled, union officials said.

If teachers do walk out, it could be the country’s first charter school strike, union leaders said.

At issue in the contract negotiations are higher pay, increased diversity among teaching staff in majority Latino schools, smaller class sizes, better special education services and teacher evaluations.

Chicago International Charter Schools teachers will also take a strike authorization vote Friday.

Changing course

Memphis’ only program for adults to get high school diploma gets lifeline from district leaders

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Kennishia Pratts, 19, is on track to graduate from The Excel Center in December. She plans to attend Spelman College, a prestigious historically black women’s college.

Update on Oct. 30, 2018: The Shelby County Schools board approved this contract. 

The only thing that was keeping 19-year-old Kennishia Pratts from a job she really needed was a high school diploma, one potential employer told her.

So Pratts decided she would go back to school. She tried to enroll at a nearby high school, but was ineligible because of her age. That’s when she turned to The Excel Center, a charter school for adults and the only place in Memphis adults can get their high school diploma — not just an equivalent commonly known as a GED.

“When they told me I could get my official high school diploma here, I was ecstatic,” Pratts said. “I’d rather have my high school diploma where I know that I’m for sure going to get into college, I’m for sure going to get this job.”

With two children to support, “I have to make a living out here,” explained Pratts, who is on track to graduate later this year.

But now Excel is slated to close at the end of this academic year because it hasn’t graduated enough students on time and has posted low scores on state standardized tests, called TNReady. By state law, any charter school on the Tennessee Department of Education’s “priority list,” composed of the state’s lowest-performing schools, must close.

That’s why Shelby County Schools is stepping in to help keep Excel’s doors open to serve what Superintendent Dorsey Hopson called a “unique population.” It would no longer be a charter school, but a “contract school,” according to district policy. The state is also supporting the switch because “as an adult high school, the Excel Center does not fit the K-12 charter model,” a state spokeswoman said.

The school board is expected to vote Tuesday on a proposed contract between the district and Goodwill Industries that would set up a different set of expectations for adult learners.

The need for schools like The Excel Center is immense. Adult education programs are scarce in Memphis, which has one of the highest poverty rates in the nation. About 2,000 students drop out of high school every year, according to the city’s main school district. In addition, Memphis has the highest percentage in the nation of young people ages 16 to 24 not in school or working. Without a high school education, it’s that much harder to find a job. Those without a high school diploma are also more likely to end up in jail.

Adult learners come with different challenges than traditional students, school leaders say. They are more likely to need child care while they are in class, have inflexible, low wage jobs, and and need more help with academics because of long gaps in education.

State policy for schools like Excel is lacking, said Candis Dawson, the school’s director. Goodwill operates at least 20 similar schools in five states where there are different standards for measuring success at adult schools. For example, most adult learners missed graduating with their classmates. Since schools qualify for Tennessee’s priority list if the percentage of students graduating on time is below 67 percent, it’s unlikely the center would ever escape the dreaded list. (In 2018, the center’s on-time graduation rate — that is, within four years and a summer of entering 9th grade — was 8.8 percent.)

“It’s not a blame on the district or the state, but we were put in a holding pattern until key players came together to say this model wouldn’t work for us,” Dawson said. Otherwise, “we would automatically continue to fail.”

To address that, the proposed $239,000 contract for no more than 500 students would establish new metrics to gauge success. Students would still take TNReady end-of-course exams like their younger counterparts.

Specifically, the requirements to keep Excel open include:

  • 18 percent of students in an academic year gain their high school diploma
  • 20 percent of graduates within six months are hired for a job that pays more than minimum wage, receive a job certification, such as nursing assistant, or are accepted to attend a community college or four-year university.
  • 59 percent of students complete each eight-week term.

If the school fails for two straight years to meet those amended requirements, should they clear the board, Shelby County Schools could close the school.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
The Excel Center opened in 2015 as a charter school for adults to get their high school diploma.

Currently, the center employs 11 teachers for its 450 students and offers classes from 8:45 a.m. to 6:15 p.m., weekly bus passes, and free child care for children ages six weeks to 12 years. Younger children can also enroll in pre-kindergarten classes at Excel.

“They’re learning the power of education as they see their parents go to class,” said Chuck Molinski, the center’s vice president of education.

The school year is divided into five, eight-week sessions to accelerate students’ completion of credits. If needed, students attend remedial courses before enrolling in credit-bearing classes so they will be able to keep up with the faster pace. Students can enroll for a term, take a break for a term, and then return later, if needed. None of that would change under the new contract arrangement.

The average age of Excel students is 27, with the school serving students as young as 18 and as old as 84. The center also offers life-coaching to help students navigate services, such as housing and job placement. Every student is required to take a class on crafting resumes and cover letters, culminating in a presentation of a portfolio of their work. Job fairs, field trips to area businesses, and workshops on filling out college admissions paperwork is commonplace. Most students are enrolled for three or four terms before earning enough credits for a diploma. If a student has no high school credits coming in, it takes about 18 months attending classes full time to graduate. So far, the three-year-old school has graduated nearly 400 students.

A diploma, rather than a GED, is worth the extra effort, Molinski said.

“On the employer end it shows more of a dedication and devotion… Our students are having to take ACT, TNReady, and the civics exam,” he said. “It shows more dedication than just going on a computer and passing a test.”

Pratts, the Excel student, is now aiming beyond the job she was turned down before going back to school. She’s been admitted to Spelman College in Atlanta, a prestigious historically black women’s college. It’s something she never before thought possible.

“If they close [The Excel Center], a lot of people are going to be devastated because this school has helped a lot of people achieve things they never thought they would,” she said.