diversity in decline

Even fewer black and Hispanic students win seats at city’s elite high schools this year

Students take an exam at Bronx Science.

Despite sustained pressure on the city to increase diversity to the city’s most elite public high schools, the already-small number of black and Hispanic students winning seats fell this year, highlighting Mayor Bill de Blasio’s struggle to fulfill his promise to make those schools’ populations more reflective of the city.

Just 4 percent of offers to the eight specialized high schools where admission is based solely on exam scores went to black students, while just over 6 percent went to Hispanic students, according to data released Friday by the education department. Together, those groups represent about 70 percent of the city’s public-school population.

One of the schools, Staten Island Technical High School, did not have a single black student receive an offer this year, down from 10 offers last year. And just 23 black and Hispanic students won seats at the most prestigious of those schools, Stuyvesant High School, compared to 31 students last year.

On the campaign trail, de Blasio promised to overhaul the way students are admitted to those schools by replacing the single test with multiple criteria, such as grades and work samples. However, a bill in the state legislature that would have instituted such a change seems to have stalled, and de Blasio has not focused his lobbying efforts in Albany on reviving it.

When the offer numbers were released last year, Chancellor Carmen Fariña proposed several possible ways to boost diversity at the specialized schools, such as expanding a test-preparation program and considering changes to the admissions system. However, even as the share of offers to black and Hispanic students declined this year, Fariña did not put forward any specific plans to reverse the slide — instead suggesting that the expansion of pre-kindergarten would help remedy the problem over time.

“We continue to review a variety of strategies to foster diversity at these schools,” she said in a statement Friday. “Still, we know that the best way to promote diversity at these schools is to ensure that every students gets a high-quality education starting in pre-K.”

The education department also released a different figure, which highlighted one area of diversity where it is making progress: the number of students with disabilities at selective high schools.

This year, 2,534 students with disabilities received offers to screened schools, which are separate from the specialized schools and base admissions on multiple factors, including state test scores, class grades, and attendance. That number is up from 919 students in 2012, when the previous administration ordered those schools to begin enrolling more students with special needs.

Still, the glaring lack of racial diversity at the specialized schools represents a formidable challenge for de Blasio, whose son attended the largest of those schools, Brooklyn Technical High School. During his mayoral campaign, de Blasio insisted that the schools “have to reflect the city better.”

Out of 27,000 eighth-graders who took the two-and-a-half-hour admissions exam this fall, just over 5,100 students scored high enough to receive offers. Nearly 54 percent of those students were Asian, a group that accounts for just under 16 percent of the citywide student population. About 27 percent of offers went to white students, who represent roughly 15 percent of all students.

“It’s important that our City’s specialized high schools reflect the diversity around them, and we are committed to achieving that without impacting rigorous standards,” Fariña added in her statement, hinting at the concern among some alumni that replacing the test-only admissions system would result in lower standards. They insist that a single entrance exam is the most fair and objective system.

The department also announced Friday that 93 percent of the 76,487 eighth-graders who submitted applications in December have now been matched with a high school, which is about the same percentage as last year. About three-quarters of those students received one of their top three choices (they are allowed to select up to 12 schools).

That leaves roughly 7 percent of students without matches. Those students will participate in a second admissions round, which is also open to students who are unhappy with their offers.

The city will host fairs on March 12 and 13 where students can meet representatives of schools that still have available seats. Then they must submit their second applications by March 18, and wait for a match in May.

Correction: This story has been corrected to show that just over 6 percent of offers to the eight exam-admissions specialized high schools this year went to Hispanic students, not 7 percent.

pick a school

Denver Public Schools making changes to choice process meant to benefit low-income parents

PHOTO: Karl Gehring/Denver Post
A Lincoln Elementary student practices her writing skills in this 2008 file photo.

Denver Public Schools is making changes to its nationally recognized school choice system, in part to make it easier for low-income parents to navigate and to assuage fears of undocumented families wary of providing personal information given the national political climate.

The district plans to roll out a new, mobile-friendly school information website, as well as eliminate a requirement that families show “proof papers” to participate in the choice process.

This year will be the seventh that DPS has used a unified enrollment system for all of its schools, including district-run, innovation and charter schools. Families fill out a form listing their top five school choices. The district especially encourages families with kids moving into so-called transition grades — kindergarten, 6th and 9th grades — to fill out a form.

If they don’t, students will be assigned to their boundary school or to a school in their enrollment zone, which is essentially a bigger boundary that includes several schools.

District leaders believe that if families are informed about their choices and can enroll their students in the schools that are the best fit, those students will be more successful.

But not all families are participating. Last school year, district statistics show 87 percent of kindergarteners, 87 percent of sixth-graders and 73 percent of ninth-graders filled out the form. Participation has historically been lower among low-income families than wealthier families.

Remaining barriers include a low awareness of how to research different school options, district officials said. The fact that the choice process takes place in January, seven months before the next school year starts in August, also makes picking a school difficult for families experiencing housing insecurity who may not know where they’ll be living in the fall, officials said.

To make it more accessible, the district is planning to change three things about the upcoming school choice process, which will determine where students enroll in 2018-19. The changes were revealed at a school board work session Monday night by Brian Eschbacher, executive director of enrollment and planning for DPS. They are:

1. Moving the choice process from January to February

In past years, the district has given families a weeks-long window in January to fill out their school choice forms. That means families must research their options — and schools must ramp up their recruiting — in December, a busy time of year filled with holidays and travel.

Plus, asking families to make school choices so far in advance of the next school year can be hard for those who don’t have stable housing or easy access to transportation, Eschbacher said.

To remedy both issues, the district is pushing the choice window back this year. It will open on February 1, and families will have until February 28 to turn in their forms.

Eschbacher said the district also hopes to have the results back sooner. He said his team is aiming in future years to tell families their school assignments in three weeks instead of six. This year, they’re hoping to release results in early April.

2. A new user-friendly, mobile-friendly school search tool

The district plans to debut a new online tool in late October or early November that will allow families to more easily find and evaluate DPS schools. The tool, called School Finder, is made by a California company called SchoolMint and is already being used by several large urban districts, including those in Oakland, Calif., Chicago and Camden, N.J.

The current DPS online tool is not mobile-friendly, which Eschbacher said presents a problem for families whose only internet access is through their smartphones. School Finder “looks slick” on a smartphone, Eschbacher said, and will allow families to look up a school’s rating, test scores, information about the programs it offers and even take a virtual tour.

The district hosted several forums with DPS school secretaries, community groups and non-English-speaking parents to get their thoughts on what information is most important to families choosing a school. Eschbacher said district staff are committed to providing that information to families free of jargon and in several languages.

“We’re trying to translate that into parent-speak, not buzzword-y speak,” he said.

Grants from the Walton Family Foundation and the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation are paying for the project, Eschbacher said. (The Walton Family Foundation also supports Chalkbeat.)

3. Eliminating “proof paperwork” as a requirement to participate in school choice

To participate in the process, the families of the thousands of students who are new to DPS each year have in the past been required to provide proof of their address, such as a utility bill, and proof of their child’s birthdate, such as a birth certificate.

But Eschbacher said district officials are worried that at a time when President Trump has taken a hard line on immigration enforcement, requiring proof paperwork will dissuade undocumented families from participating because they fear it will prompt government action.

According to Eschbacher, internal DPS research suggests between 6,000 and 8,000 of the district’s 92,000 students are undocumented. District leaders have been vocal about protecting those students. The school board passed a resolution in February assuring the district would do everything “in its lawful power” to protect students’ confidential information and ensure “students’ learning environments are not disrupted” by immigration enforcement actions.

This year, families who want to participate in choice only will have to tell DPS their child’s name, address and birthdate, Eschbacher said. Families eventually will have to produce proof paperwork but not until they register their children for school in the late summer, “when there is a longer window available and more community resources to help,” according to the board presentation.

School board members on Monday praised the changes, and lauded Eschbacher and his staff for proposing improvements to a system that’s earned national praise (and also criticism).

“To rethink the structure of what we’ve done in the past is a breakthrough and it will mean a lot to our families,” said school board member Happy Haynes.

Correction: A previous version of this story mischaracterized when district officials estimate choice results will be available this year.

scrambling for students

Lagging enrollment fuels Tennessee charter schools’ push for student contact data

The latest enrollment numbers from state-run charter schools help to explain why they’re battling for information about prospective students in Nashville and especially Memphis, where under-enrollment is a citywide challenge.

A Chalkbeat analysis shows that 22 schools in Tennessee’s 32-school Achievement School District have lost enrollment from last year, based on ASD data from the 20th day of this school year.

ASD charter operators say they rely on student contact information to send postcards and make calls to families in their neighborhood zones.

“Families come to us regularly throughout the school year and say that they thought our school was closed. They didn’t know we were an option,” said Megan Quaile, executive director of Green Dot Tennessee.

In Memphis, Green Dot requested student contact information in July, but Shelby County Schools refused to comply. The response contributed to a dispute between the state and its two largest traditional districts over whether they are legally required to hand over that information under Tennessee’s new charter school law. In Nashville, LEAD has made a similar request of Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools. School board members in both cities argue that using student information for recruitment goes against the intent of the state law.

California-based Green Dot operates four ASD schools in Memphis, all of which are under-enrolled and saw their enrollment dip this year.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has ordered both districts to comply with requests from Green Dot and LEAD by Sept. 25, or face consequences that could include a loss of funding.

McQueen cited this week’s opinion by the state attorney general that sided with the charter schools and stated that information-sharing doesn’t violate a federal student privacy law. School boards in both Memphis have argued they had the right under the federal law to restrict who gets the information and for what reasons.

The ASD isn’t the only school system struggling with under-enrollment in Memphis, where the population declined by 1.7 percent from 2015 to 2016. Shelby County Schools has closed at least 21 schools since 2012, citing in part too many buildings and too few students in an increasingly competitive education landscape.

The chart below shows enrollment so far this year, compared to November of the previous year.

ASD enrollment

SCHOOL 2016 ENROLLMENT 2017 ENROLLMENT CHANGE
Cornerstone Prep-Lester 756 368 -51.3
Raleigh Egypt Middle 205 100 -51.2
Corning Achievement 224 138 -38.4
Hanley ES K-5 820 509 -37.9
Frayser Achievement 296 207 -30.1
Georgian Hills Achievement 324 258 -20.4
Humes Middle 315 252 -20.0
Wooddale Middle 473 382 -19.2
Westside Achievement 339 279 -17.7
Pathways Frayser 234 197 -15.8
Coleman ES K-5 548 472 -13.9
Grad Academy Memphis 536 468 -12.7
Whitney Achievement 376 336 -10.6
MLK College Prep 625 564 -9.8
Fairley High 565 515 -8.8
Cornerstone Prep-Denver 616 566 -8.1
MSFK 271 254 -6.3
Kirby Middle 407 382 -6.1
Hillcrest High 483 454 -6.0
Brick Church College Prep 338 326 -3.6
KIPP Memphis Achievement Elementary 448 445 -0.7
Libertas School of Memphis 220 219 -0.5
Freedom Prepatory Academy 567 578 1.9
Pathways Whitehaven 183 189 3.3
KIPP Memphis Prep. Elementary/Middle 611 699 14.4
Caldwell Guthrie 447 518 15.9
Spring Hill Elementary 281 354 26.0
Neely’s Bend College Prep 255 441 72.9
Coleman MS 102 N/A
Hanley MS 233 N/A
Lester Prep 205 N/A
Partners Community Prep 50 N/A