opting out of ed-opt

Why some New York City high schools that were designed to be diverse aren’t

Students in a ninth-grade English class at Richard R. Green High School of Teaching in lower Manhattan.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Students in a ninth-grade English class at Richard R. Green High School of Teaching in lower Manhattan.

In New York City’s stratified high school system, some schools abound with academic superstars, while others are crowded with students who struggle with basic math and reading.

One group of schools was designed to be different.

Using an admissions model that experts have called a “triumph of educational engineering,” these high schools are set up to enroll students along a neat academic bell curve, reserving spots for applicants at different academic rungs. Many of the schools also feature a career-focused theme like business management or nursing that is meant to entice a range of students to apply.

The approach, which is called educational option, or “ed opt,” dates back to the 1970s, but it has been held up recently as a tool for integrating schools. Last month, the education department said it was expanding the number of ed-opt schools as one step to make its high schools more diverse.

But there’s a problem: At many schools, it’s not working.

Consider the Richard R. Green High School of Teaching, a small school in Lower Manhattan that uses the ed-opt admissions system.

Last year, fewer than a half-dozen of the school’s 151 freshmen had passed the state English tests in eighth grade, according to newly released education department data. And the lack of academic diversity is matched by the school’s racial breakdown: 90 percent of students are black or Hispanic, while just 2 percent are white.

"74% of fully ed-opt schools enrolled virtually no ninth-graders who read on grade level."

“You’ve got a school that’s supposed to be ed opt with that diversity, but isn’t so much,” said Principal Nigel Pugh. “That’s one of the things we’ve been working on a lot.”

His school is not alone.

Of the high schools that use ed opt as their sole admissions system last school year, 32 of 43 enrolled virtually no freshmen who had passed the previous year’s state English test, city data show. (Another 83 high schools use ed opt in combination with other admissions methods.)

And while the model is touted as a tool that can lead to racial diversity, the average fully ed-opt school has a student population that is 86 black and Hispanic and only 6 percent white.

The problem, experts and principals say, is that most of those schools find it impossible to fill their slots for high-performing students. A key reason is that New York City’s high school choice system now features a multitude of selective schools that compete with ed-opt programs for top students — but which don’t have to enroll students at a mix of skill levels.

In that system, sought-after selective schools usually come out on top. Last year, out of nearly 500 traditional high schools, just 81 selective schools enrolled almost two-thirds of the ninth-graders who read on grade level, leaving many ed-opt schools to vie for the rest.

“The problem with ed-opt schools,” said Clara Hemphill, editor of the website, Insideschools, “is that if they can’t attract a range of kids, then they just have low-performers.”

The rise and fall of ed opt

Today, much of ed opt’s luster has been lost to selective schools. But when it emerged in the 1970s and 80s, some of its early adopters were incredibly popular.

Take Murry Bergtraum High School, one of eight original ed-opt schools. In 1985, more than 23,000 students applied for its 850 seats. (By contrast, fewer than 300 students applied for its 150 ed-opt seats in 2014.)

Unlike the neighborhood high schools that most students attended in those years, ed-opt programs were able to draw students from across the city — like magnet programs, which began around the same time. Both were designed partly as a way to draw middle-class families into schools that grown more segregated after white flight to the suburbs. But ed-opt programs came with a twist: They had to enroll students of varying skill levels.

Eventually, the city settled on its current goal that 16 percent of incoming students should be low-performing, 68 percent average, and 16 percent top-performing, as measured by their seventh-grade scores on the state English exams. Academically diverse schools are often mixed by race and class as well, which decades of research have shown to benefit students in the classroom and beyond.

Ed-opt programs became increasingly common until Mayor Michael Bloomberg took office and closed many schools, and their numbers fell. Today, 146 schools use the model for at least part of their admissions, including 20 new programs set to start next fall.

"Six out of every 10 eighth-graders who passed their English tests enrolled in just 81 selective schools last year."

In the past, high-performing students flocked to the most popular ed-opt schools because they had few alternatives. “If it weren’t for the quotas, given the way smart kids are trying to vote with their feet, the city could have several more superschools on its brag list tomorrow,” New York magazine proclaimed in a 1998 article about ed-opt schools.

But, in later years, there was a rise in the number of selective schools that screen all of their students by test scores, middle-school grades, and attendance — and that are free to take only the top performers. The swelling competition added to the recruitment challenges for ed-opt schools whose location or reputation had already made it hard to attract students.

“In a lot of schools, [ed-opt programs] were in name only,” said Peter Goodman, who taught at James Madison High School in Brooklyn from the 1960s through the 90s.

Recruitment for ed-opt schools is “much more difficult now,” he added, “with all the screened options.”

English teacher Gina Malanga works with a student at Richard R. Green High School of Teaching in lower Manhattan.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
English teacher Gina Malanga works with a student at Richard R. Green High School of Teaching in lower Manhattan.

Ed opt vs. screened

Today, most of the fully ed-opt schools fail to draw almost any high-achieving students.

Those students might be unaware of the schools, uninterested in their themes, or unimpressed by their academics. But most of those top students are also jostling for spots at the city’s few “specialized” schools like Bronx Science or the many popular screened schools, which many families consider the surest pathway into elite colleges.

Now, low-performing students are most likely to apply to ed-opt schools, according to a 2013 report by the Research Alliance for New York City Schools. Last year, 83 percent of the incoming freshmen at the fully ed-opt schools did not read on grade level, according to city data, compared to 60 percent of freshmen at schools with screened or test-based admissions.

According to some experts, the only way to boost diversity at ed-opt schools is to reduce the number of screened schools, or convert them into ed-opt.

But, in fact, the reverse has happened.

Former ed-opt schools such as Baruch College Campus High School and Beacon High School shed their bell-curve admissions requirements, and are now among the city’s most competitive screened schools. And of the 20 new ed-opt programs taking applicants next fall, only three are switching away from fully screened admissions.

Carolyn Sattin-Bajaj, an education policy professor at Seton Hall University who has studied the city’s high school admissions system, said that simply applying the model to less popular schools is unlikely to help.

“Just slapping on the ed-opt label to a school that is not particularly in demand,” she said, “will not miraculously achieve diversity.”

In fact, administrators at a few current and prospective ed-opt schools said they doubt they will ever be able to hit their quota for above-average students. Rather than a path to diversity, some view ed opt more as a tool to carefully screen low-performing students.

At ed-opt schools, the city randomly offers admission to half of applicants, while the schools sort through the other half. Though they must admit a portion of students with low test scores, they can select ones who have good attendance records or who are the expected age, a sign they have not been held back.

“My thought is, if I’m going to get the lower-level kids anyway,” an assistant principal at one ed-opt school said, “I’d rather get the kids that I pick.”

Deputy Chancellor Phil Weinberg visited the High School of Telecommunication Arts and Technology, the diverse ed-opt school in Brooklyn that he led for many years.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Deputy Chancellor Phil Weinberg visited the High School of Telecommunication Arts and Technology in 2014, the diverse ed-opt school in Brooklyn that he led for many years.

Making ed opt work

Of course, under the right conditions, the ed-opt model can lay the groundwork for remarkably diverse schools.

Robert F. Kennedy Community High School, a longtime ed-opt school in Kew Gardens Hills, Queens, is filled with Asian, black, Hispanic and white students, city data shows. It welcomes freshmen who failed their middle-school exams, along with ones who aced them.

Principal Beshir Abdellatif said the school benefits from the diversity of families in the district it pulls from. But he also described an aggressive recruiting practice: He gives PowerPoint presentations to eighth-graders at all the local middle schools, attends their parent association meetings, and even added Mandarin-language courses to appeal to the area’s growing Chinese population.

“It’s tough but it’s worth it,” he said, pointing to the school’s mélange of students. “It’s like a mini-United Nations.”

Deputy Chancellor Phil Weinberg, who was the longtime principal of the High School for Telecommunication Arts and Technology, a diverse ed-opt school in Brooklyn, said the burden is on ed-opt schools to foster that diversity through “smart outreach” to families from different backgrounds. He suggested that the city would not alter the choice system — for example, by reducing the number of screened schools — simply to help ed-opt schools recruit more top students.

Families make choices “about where they might want to be,” he said. “Correcting for that isn’t something that we would do.”

That leaves diversity looking like a distant dream for some schools.

Evan Schwartz, principal of Alfred E. Smith High School in the South Bronx, said the city is allowing his school to launch an ed-opt program this fall because it has been able to drum up demand: Last year, five students applied for every open seat. And yet, he still doubts that the school will be able to attract the top-scoring students it would need to become academically diverse.

“I don’t know if, in the end,” he said about becoming ed opt, “it’s going to help us that much.”

Stephanie Snyder contributed reporting.

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.