speaking of segregation

On Upper West Side, Fariña says school integration can’t be forced on parents

Stepping into a charged debate over school segregation on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Chancellor Carmen Fariña said Wednesday that while diversity benefits all students, integration should not be forced on families.

In one of her most extensive public discussions of the issue, Fariña explained that she had sought out diverse schools for her own children. But as schools chief, she said she believes that creating schools with a wide mix of students is more the job of individual schools and parents than the city, since not all families place the same value on diversity.

“What I believe in and what I can convince other people to believe in are not necessarily the same thing,” she told the capacity crowd at a forum at P.S. 191 on West 61st Street. Developing diverse schools, she added, is a complicated process that “needs to be planned for, it needs to be accepted, and it needs to be carefully thought out.”

Fariña and Mayor Bill de Blasio have increasingly been called upon to address the city’s deeply entrenched school segregation by parents and advocates who point to the mayor’s vow to reign in inequality. In response, both officials have sought to embrace diversity without endorsing changes to enrollment or zoning policies that could potentially drive middle-class families out of the school system.

Despite those efforts, Fariña faces that exact scenario at P.S. 191, a low-performing school that serves mostly poor students of color from an adjacent public-housing complex.

The city has proposed sending the school some wealthier students who would have attended P.S. 199, a high-flying school just blocks away that is severely overcrowded. Some 199 parents have responded to the plan by threatening to flee the district, while others have called for a solution that directly confronts the race and class segregation at both schools.

Fariña displayed little sympathy for parents seeking to keep hold of their 199 seats at all costs, saying that overcrowding will only be solved through “hard decisions,” not “fairy dust.” But she also declined to get behind alternative zoning proposals floated by parents, which they say would alleviate overcrowding while also doing more to integrate both schools.

When asked directly how the administration is working to increase school diversity, she suggested that community resistance — like that on display at 199 — is a major concern. Any effort to “impose it from the outside” would require buy-in from parents, she said.

“Parents make choices,” she told the crowd. “When you have choice, then parents have to decide what’s their biggest priority.”

Fariña recited many points about school diversity that she has made before.

Chancellor Carmen Fariña fielded several questions about school diversity at a town hall meeting Wednesday on the Upper West Side.
Chancellor Carmen Fariña fielded several questions about school diversity at a town hall meeting Wednesday on the Upper West Side.

She argued that it should extend beyond race and class to include students with disabilities and those still learning English. And she insisted that integration can happen school-by-school, using dual-language programs and school tours to attract more middle-class parents without the need for system-wide policy changes.

“It’s something I’m encouraging schools around the city to do,” she said.

In fact, P.S. 191 has tried to woo more middle-class parents through tours and partnership with local cultural centers, but many remain deeply skeptical of the school because of its below-average test scores and a “persistently dangerous” designation it recently received from the state.

Fariña also suggested that an alternative to integrating schools is having them form “sister school” partnerships, such as the one between the Upper West Side’s affluent P.S. 87 and a low-income school in the South Bronx. She has touted that partnership before, saying P.S. 87 shares a percentage of its vast parent-association funds with the Bronx school and that students write and sometimes visit one another, according to DNAinfo New York, which reported that some P.S. 87 parents said the partnership was not as extensive as Fariña indicated.

Ana Guillermo, a P.S. 199 parent who asked Fariña what she was doing to address school segregation in the Upper West Side and across the city, said she was not satisfied “at all” with the response.

“She didn’t answer the question, actually,” Guillermo said, adding that the administration needs a clear plan to tackle segregation. “We live in a multicultural city, but the schools are not integrated.”

Fariña left after the forum, and members of the District 3 Community Education Council stayed for several more hours to discuss the rezoning.

Most of the council’s elected parent leaders said they do not support the proposed rezoning, which would shrink 199’s catchment area and expand those around 191 and P.S. 452, a newer school to the north. But many also raised questions about the feasibility of alternative plans.

One much-discussed plan would create a single “super zone” for both 191 and 199, allowing families to apply to either school. But several council members said that skirts the problem that many parents could still refuse to apply or send their children to 191.

“There is nothing the DOE or CEC can do to force families to go to 191,” said CEC 3 President Joe Fiordaliso. “It makes me so uncomfortable and disappointed to say, but it’s a reality that we cannot ignore.”

A more radical plan would divide students by grade between 191, 199, and P.S. 342, a school that is set to open in 2018. All local students would attend each school for a few grades, which would presumably make the schools equally diverse.

Asked about that plan, Fariña said it raised logistical concerns, such as which teachers would be held accountable for students’ test scores.

By the end of the meeting, the discussion had turned to the possibility of delaying the vote on the city’s final proposal, currently scheduled for next month. District Superintendent Ilene Altschul cautioned that unless some families are removed from 199’s zone, its kindergarten waitlist could reach 125 students next year.

At one point in the discussion, Noah Gotbaum, a council member who has promoted the super zone plan, said “there is an elephant in the room that isn’t being discussed.”

“For us to look at this issue,” he said, “and to pretend that segregation is not the major cause of overcrowding at 199 and under-enrollment at 191 is a fantasy.”

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.