a new plan

Your guide to de Blasio’s announcement, with new goals for grad rate, coding for all

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Mayor Bill de Blasio announced new education initiatives for New York City schools at Bronx Latin in September.

Mayor Bill de Blasio laid out an ambitious new set of education goals and initiatives on Wednesday.

In a speech at Bronx Latin, de Blasio said the city would aim for 80 percent of high-school students to graduate within four years and would add reading specialists to elementary schools to ensure all second-graders could read at grade level. Over the next decade, the city will also introduce computer science instruction to all schools and offer all eighth-grade students the chance to take algebra.

After the de Blasio administration spent most of its first year and a half focused on rapidly expanding pre-kindergarten and introducing plans to improve a set of especially low-performing schools, the mayor’s speech offered new indications about how the city plans to improve instruction in all schools. De Blasio said the changes are aimed at creating a more equitable school system and city, invoking his mayoral campaign’s focus on inequality.

“There is a tale of two cities in our schools,” de Blasio said. “Excellence will not be apportioned out for the lucky few.”

We’ll be adding details over the course of the day. Here’s what the mayor announced:

Graduation rate goal: The city’s four-year August graduation rate was 68 percent for the class of 2014. De Blasio set a new goal: 80 percent by 2026, 10 years after this year’s high school seniors graduate.

College readiness: Two-thirds of those graduates will be “college ready” by the city’s standards by 2026, de Blasio said. That number refers to graduates who scored 80 or higher on a Regents math exam and 75 or higher on the English Regents exam or earned an equivalent score on the SAT, ACT, or CUNY Achievement Test, which included 47 percent of the city’s 2014 graduates.

In the South Bronx’s District 7 and Brooklyn’s District 23, adult advocates called “single shepherds” will be paired with students to help them navigate middle and high school and to prepare for college, starting next fall at a cost of $15 million per year.

Another initiative will provide tours of New York City colleges to middle-school students. De Blasio mentioned Columbia, New York University, the City University of New York, and the Fashion Institute of Technology specifically.

Advanced Placement classes: The mayor said the city will expand access to Advanced Placement courses. Some new AP classes and prep classes will be rolled out by next fall, the mayor said. Seventy-five percent of students will be offered at least five AP classes by the fall of 2018 and all high schools will have that many by 2021.

Officials did not say which AP courses would be made more widely available. A recent report from the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School found that nearly four in 10 city high schools do not offer advanced math and science classes. The reasons include the proliferation of small high schools, which have less scheduling flexibility, and that many high school students are unprepared for the material — two challenges the de Blasio administration is likely to face as it expands access to AP courses.

Algebra instruction: The city will expand middle-school algebra classes to ensure students take the class by ninth grade. More than 40 percent of middle schools currently don’t offer algebra in eighth grade, according to the city.

Some new algebra classes will be added next fall, and all students will have access to algebra in eighth grade by 2021.

Computer science: All students will receive some computer science education in elementary, middle and high school in the next 10 years. The number of students receiving computer science training will be “expanded significantly” starting in the fall of 2016, and the program will have expanded to all grades in 2025. The program is expected to cost $81 million and will be the nation’s largest effort to increase computer science in classrooms, de Blasio said.

It expands on a series of smaller efforts to boost computer science in schools that the city has made over the last few years, including the launch of a teacher training plan, opening software engineering-focused high schools, and adding Advanced Placement computer science courses to high schools.

Reading instruction: Elementary schools will have access to expert reading specialists, who will focus on helping all students read on grade level by second grade. That’s a goal Chancellor Fariña has been talking about since the start of last school year.

De Blasio said his goal is for two-thirds of students to be able to read with fluency by the end of second grade within six years, and for the city to achieve 100 percent literacy in second grade by 2026. That will require significant improvements: Less than one-third of New York City’s third-graders earned a proficient score on last year’s state tests.

Approximately 700 reading specialists will be placed in elementary schools by 2018 and schools that need the “most support” will begin hiring specialists this spring.

District-charter school cooperation: De Blasio said the city would create and fund at least 25 partnerships between district and charter schools to share ideas for teaching math and reaching English language learners. The initiative will be based on Chancellor Carmen Fariña’s “Learning Partners” program and cost $5 million a year by 2017.

Correction: An earlier version of this story referred to a different college readiness measure.

game plan

After years of school voucher rejections, backers consider another approach in Tennessee

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
The State Capitol in Nashville is home to the Tennessee General Assembly.

The campaign to introduce school vouchers to Tennessee has come up short for so many years that supporters are looking closely at another voucher-like approach to give families more control over public funding for their children’s education.

Education savings accounts have gained traction in some other states and are viewed as an attractive alternative for Tennessee in the debate about parental choice.

And with the inauguration soon of a new governor who promised to give parents more education options for their kids, this approach would fit the bill — and even offer a longer menu of services than traditional vouchers would.

“I would like to help lead the charge,” said Rep. Bill Dunn, a Knoxville Republican and fierce voucher proponent, who this week was elected speaker pro tempore of Tennessee’s House of Representatives.

“Education freedom, if it’s done correctly, gives students opportunities to do better, and public schools rise to the occasion through competition. Everybody wins,” Dunn added.

Not so fast, say public school officials who view any kind of voucher program as a major step toward privatizing education.

“Outside interests pushing ‘school choice’ options have learned that when ideas like vouchers become toxic to the public, they can be repackaged as education savings accounts, which might be more palatable to lawmakers,” said Amy Frogge, a Nashville school board member who opposes vouchers.

Both approaches raise the same concerns, said Frogge, citing a drain of funding from public schools, increased student segregation, and a lack of accountability for students whose families choose that route.

Education savings accounts, or ESAs, allow parents to withdraw their children from public schools and receive a deposit of public funds into government-authorized accounts. The money could be used to cover everything from private school tuition and tutoring to homeschool materials and online learning programs.

A voucher is taxpayer money that’s restricted to paying for private school tuition and fees for eligible students.

For years, Tennessee lawmakers have tried to start a voucher program and came close in 2016 with legislation sponsored by Dunn. But an unlikely alliance of Democrats and rural Republicans have foiled every attempt.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
State Rep. Bill Dunn (center) looks straight ahead after tabling his voucher bill in 2016.

Dunn, who has since risen to the House’s No. 2 leadership position, thinks education savings accounts would be more appealing to rural legislators who see little local benefit in opening the door to vouchers in Tennessee.

“A voucher is dependent upon having a private school being available. But there’s more flexibility with an ESA and you could shop for a lot more educational services for your child no matter where you live,” he said, adding that a better educated workforce could lure more jobs to rural Tennessee.

A 2018 poll by the pro-voucher American Federation for Children found that voters are more open to voucher-like programs like education savings accounts  and “tax credit scholarships” than vouchers, even though all three would siphon off funding from public schools. That’s one reason that backers are avoiding the V-word and re-branding how they talk about “school choice.”

Leaders of the American Federation for Children say they wouldn’t be surprised to see legislation filed this year in Tennessee, whether for vouchers or education savings accounts.

“We’re supportive of both,” said state director Shaka Mitchell. “But because an ESA allows students’ education to be far more customized, I think it’s useful in some ways that a voucher isn’t.”


Do school vouchers work? Here’s what the research says


“School choice” advocates will have two powerful new allies in the governor’s office when Bill Lee is inaugurated on Jan. 19. The governor-elect has hired Tony Niknejad, former state director of the American Federation for Children, to be his policy director, while Brent Easley of TennesseeCAN, another pro-voucher group, is his legislative director.

But it’s uncertain whether Lee — a Williamson County businessman who won his first bid for office — will put his political muscle behind the divisive issue in his early months of governing, especially when he must develop his first proposed budget and a broader vision for his four-year administration.

PHOTO: Ned Jilton II/Kingsport Times-News
Bill Lee was elected Tennessee’s 50th governor in November and will take the oath of office on Jan. 19.

“There may be a lot of talk about vouchers or education savings accounts, but I don’t think it’s the right climate yet,” said Rep. Mark White of Memphis, who this week was named chairman of the House Education Committee.

One reason, he said, is accountability for recipients of education savings accounts and the services they choose.

“We’ve worked so hard making sure the public schools are accountable with testing that if we just give a parent money to go to a private school of their choice or to choose other services and we don’t have any accountability, then I would be against it,” White said. “If we’re talking about taxpayer dollars and we’re holding one group accountable, then we’ve got to hold everybody accountable.”

Tennessee already has one program that’s similar to education savings accounts. The state launched launched Individualized Education Accounts for students with certain disabilities in 2017, allowing families to receive up to $6,000 annually to pay for private educational services. This year, 137 students from 38 districts are participating, with 70 percent attending a private school and the rest homeschooled, according to the state’s most recent data.

“When we debated that limited-choice program, people got up and said it would be the end of the world and would destroy public education — but it hasn’t,” said Dunn.

Others point out that, although the state planned for more participants in the program, no one expected families to rush out of public schools. Anyone opting to use the accounts must waive their federal right to receive a “free and appropriate” public education. For students with disabilities, that usually costs far beyond the $6,000 a year allocated to participants.

One bill filed in the legislature’s first week seeks to expand the program to make more students eligible. Rep. Jay Reedy, a Republican from Erin, wants students who are already in private or home schools to be able to participate. Currently, families can apply only if their student is enrolled in public schools.

Full circle

On her first day as Denver superintendent, Susana Cordova visits the school where she was a student

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar/Chalkbeat
Susana Cordova addresses students at Barnum Elementary School on Jan. 7, her first day as Denver superintendent.

At a morning assembly marking the first day of Susana Cordova’s tenure as Denver schools superintendent, the most telling moment was not the speeches from current and former mayors pledging their support, or even the remarks from Cordova herself.

It was when Cordova whispered in the ear of third-grader Grace Sotelo. Grace was one of four students chosen to present Cordova with gifts, including a bouquet of flowers. Afterward, the third-grader stepped up for a brief turn at the microphone.

“Doctor — ” Grace said, then paused.

“Cordova,” the new superintendent whispered to her.

“Cordova,” Grace said. “We are proud of your success of being our — ”

“Superintendent,” Cordova whispered.

“Our superintendent,” Grace said. “We know you’ll be the best superintendent we’ve ever had.”

The interaction served as a reminder that the district’s new superintendent started her career in the classroom, teaching students like Grace.

The location of the event was also symbolic. It was held at the school that Cordova, a lifelong Denver resident, attended as a child: Barnum Elementary in southwest Denver. A printout of her fourth-grade school photo — straight-cut bangs, dimples, and a striped turtleneck — hung on a wall behind the risers.

PHOTO: Courtesy Denver Public Schools
Cordova in fourth grade

“When I was a student here at Barnum, one of my very favorite things to do was read,” Cordova told the first-, second-, and third-graders sitting criss-cross-applesauce on the gym floor.

“One of my favorite authors was a woman named Judy Blume. And she wrote a lot of good books. Maybe you’ve read some of them. But Judy Blume also said something that I think is really important. She said, ‘Our fingerprints don’t fade from the lives we touch.’

“That’s what education does. It touches lives. And I want to make sure that our fingerprints — all our fingerprints — are forever part of the story, so that our students are successful.”

Cordova, 52, officially assumed the role of superintendent of Denver Public Schools on Monday, making her the top boss of Colorado’s largest school district with about 93,000 students. Cordova was selected by the school board last month after a four-month national search. She succeeds Tom Boasberg, who served as superintendent for nearly 10 years.

Cordova was an internal candidate. A graduate of Denver’s Abraham Lincoln High School, she has worked for the district since 1989 as a teacher, principal, and district administrator. For the past two years, she served as deputy superintendent under Boasberg.

Cordova was the sole finalist for the top job, a decision that sparked accusations from some community members that the search was a sham. In choosing her, the school board noted her depth of experience, her willingness to listen to opposing viewpoints, and how she fit many of the criteria students, parents, and teachers wanted in the next superintendent.

Among them: Cordova is an educator. The previous two superintendents came from the business world. She is also Latina. The previous two superintendents were white men. Only 25 percent of Denver students are white, while 54 percent are Hispanic and 13 percent are black.

Cordova is also bilingual in English and Spanish, and started her career in Denver as a bilingual teacher. Currently, more than a third of Denver students are learning English as a second language. The most common first language spoken by students is Spanish.

Denver students, on the whole, have made academic gains over the past decade. Many people credit the progress to controversial strategies such as replacing struggling schools.

But Cordova faces several big challenges as superintendent, including narrowing persistent test score gaps between students of color and white students, and between students from low-income families and those from wealthier ones.

Last year, 69 percent of Denver students from high- and middle-income families met expectations on state literacy tests, compared with just 27 percent of students from low-income families. About two-thirds of Denver students belong to the latter category.

While Cordova has emphasized the importance of closing those gaps, she said on Monday that her sole focus for the next two weeks will be reaching an agreement on teacher pay with the Denver teachers union. The two sides have been negotiating changes to the district’s pay-for-performance system, called ProComp, for more than a year. The union has threatened to hold a strike vote if the two sides don’t reach an agreement by Jan. 18.

The union and the district are set to return to the negotiating table Tuesday for the start of several all-day bargaining sessions. Cordova said she plans to attend every one, a departure from her predecessor’s approach to contract negotiations.

“I’m very optimistic we can get to a good solution,” Cordova said in an interview following the event at Barnum. “My closest friends are DPS teachers. I deeply understand and know the complexities of what it means to be a teacher in the district.”

Toward the end of the interview, after the students had returned to class and the custodial staff was stacking the chairs, Cordova was approached by two women with district lanyards around their necks. They introduced themselves as teacher’s aides who’d worked for the district for more than 20 years each. One of them held out her cell phone.

“Could we have a picture with you?”

Yes, Cordova said. In the gymnasium of her old elementary school, festooned for the occasion with yellow and blue crepe paper, the new superintendent stood between them and smiled.