going 'blind'

Some of Brooklyn’s most sought-after middle schools will no longer see how applicants rank them

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty / © 2013

When middle schools in a brownstone Brooklyn district with a hyper-competitive admissions process consider prospective students next year, they will no longer be able to factor in how families ranked them on their applications, officials said Wednesday.

Parents and experts have long lobbied for that change because they say the current system forces families to fill out their applications strategically, while often penalizing those who list their true preferences. Because the top middle schools in District 15 — which includes Park Slope, Carroll Gardens, and Sunset Park — each receive hundreds of applications, they generally only consider students who rank them first or second.

“For years, families have felt as though their options were limited to two top schools on their applications,” District 15 Superintendent Anita Skop said in a letter to parents Wednesday announcing the change. They “have felt as though they need to be strategic, rather than honest in their ranking of choices.”

The middle school admissions process varies across the city, but most districts currently use “blind ranking” systems that do not show schools where they were listed on a student’s application. The citywide high school admissions process also works that way.

Beginning next school year, District 15 will join the three-quarters of districts that do not show middle schools how applicants ranked them. (Seven of the city’s 32 school districts will continue to share the rankings with middle schools.)

“I am pleased to announce that we are making positive steps toward a more inclusive, equitable and family-friendly middle school admissions process for all of the District 15 community,” Skop wrote in the letter to families.

The district’s current process can be torturous for parents.

The odds of making it into one of the district’s most sought-after middle schools are dauntingly low: M.S. 447, The Math and Science Exploratory School, for instance, had slots for fewer than 10 percent of its 1,448 applicants last year. Yet parents must rank those schools first or second to be considered.

That means many families apply to those top schools and are rejected, only to find that schools they listed lower on their applications have filled up with students who ranked them first.

“If you don’t get into your first choice, in some cases you’re just screwed,” said Pamela Wheaton, managing editor of the website Insideschools. “People have been protesting this for years.”

The district’s more affluent parents often turn to their social networks, email groups, or paid consultants to help them rank their choices in a way that maximizes their odds of getting into top schools. Meanwhile, lower-income parents with less time to make sense of the process may list schools in a way that reduces their odds.

“A process in which schools see who ranks who further entrenches already entrenched inequities,” said said Neil Dorosin, executive director of the Institute for Innovation in Public School Choice, who helped design New York City’s high school admissions system. “That’s just fundamentally unfair and wrong.”

M.S. 839, a new middle school in the district, uses a random admissions lottery. For that reason, some parents automatically rank the school third so that they can save their top slots for schools that consider ranking, said principal Michael Perlberg. He said some parents have received their first ranked choice but appealed that decision because they actually preferred M.S. 839.

The policy change to blind rankings “is going to allow parents to sit down with their kids and do a ranking that’s really authentic,” Perlberg said. “We’re really excited about that.”

The change could complicate the screening process for district schools that attract large numbers of applicants.

For instance, New Voices School of Academic and Creative Arts, which received 1425 applications last year, requires applicants to sit for an interview and an audition. However, it only invites students who ranked the school first or second to go through that process. Now, it may be forced to invite in many more applicants.

A district spokesman said the policy change was made in partnership with the local principals. He added that individual districts decide whether or not to allow middle schools to see how families ranked them, and that District 15 could serve as a model for districts considering moving to a blind-ranking system.

Superintendent Skop also informed parents that middle schools cannot consider letters of recommendation during the admissions process. That rule has already been in place, but district leaders say that parents continue to submit letters to schools.

Correction [May 12, 2016]: An earlier version of this story misstated when District 15 middle schools will stop receiving information about how applicants ranked them. That change will happen when schools review applications in early 2017, not fall 2017.

charter talks

Hopson weighs charters as school turnaround tool for Shelby County Schools

PHOTO: TN.gov
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson leads Shelby County Schools in Memphis, home to Tennessee's highest concentration of low-performing schools.

Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has opened a crack in the door to charter school partnerships that might help his district avoid losing more schools to Tennessee’s turnaround district.

Hopson emailed his principals this week to clarify his recent comments to the editorial board of The Commercial Appeal about possibly recruiting charter organizations for turnaround work. The report’s original headline read: “Hopson says he’s willing to hand schools over to charters, if they have a plan for improvement.”

The superintendent quickly turned to Twitter to label the headline “misleading and inaccurate” and, as he sought to regain control of dialogue on the thorny matter, dispatched an email to his school principals.

“It is my top priority to ensure all of our schools have the necessary resources to provide students with the high-quality education they deserve,” he wrote on Tuesday. “If the Tennessee Department of Education offers us the opportunity to select a charter operator that is willing to collaborate closely with District leaders to improve a school instead of losing it to the (Achievement School District), then I believe it is our responsibility to explore the option.”

Hopson’s comments hint at a potentially significant shift for a district that has battled openly with the charter sector over students being absorbed by the state’s 6-year-old turnaround initiative known as the ASD.

They also point to the tough spot that the superintendent is in.

On the one hand, the growth of the city’s charter turnaround sector has been a thorn in the side of local school leaders since 2012 when the state-run district began taking control of low-performing schools and assigning them to charter operators. Now with 29 Memphis schools, the ASD has siphoned off thousands of students and millions of dollars in an already under-enrolled and under-funded school environment — and made mostly anemic academic gains. (The local district also oversees about 50 charter schools that it’s authorized.)

On the other hand, Shelby County Schools has its hands full trying to improve a substantial number of struggling schools. It’s made some important headway through its Innovation Zone, which adds resources, extends the school day, and pays more to top principals and teachers who are willing to do some of the toughest education work in America. But the iZone is an expensive model, and few of its schools have exited the state’s priority school list.

In addition, some education reform advocates are lobbying to shift Memphis to a “portfolio model,” in which districts actively turn over schools to charter operators and manage them more like stocks in a portfolio. In other words, successful ones are expanded and failing ones are closed. Indianapolis has a robust portfolio model and, last fall, the philanthropic group known as the Memphis Education Fund took several Memphis school board members there for a tour. (The Memphis Education Fund receives support from several local philanthropies, including The Pyramid Peak Foundation and the Hyde Foundation. Chalkbeat also receives support from Hyde; read about our funding here.)

In his email to principals, Hopson said the school board ultimately would decide whether to authorize charter schools for the district’s turnaround work, and that he expects to discuss the matter with members in the coming weeks.

“All that said, I want to be very clear that my preference would always be to keep schools under the governance of (Shelby County Schools),” the superintendent added.

Hopson has been in discussions with the state Department of Education about several school improvement avenues available in Tennessee’s education plan under a new federal law. Among them is an option for Shelby County Schools to voluntarily convert priority schools to a charter, according to department spokeswoman Sara Gast.

One school board member told Chalkbeat he needs more information from the district and state before he would support any move forward. Chris Caldwell added that he thinks the board isn’t up to speed on options under the state’s new education plan.

“At this point, there’s so little information that I’ve been given,” Caldwell said. “I don’t want to conjecture what (a charter conversion) would actually will be like, but I have reservations with any kind of collaboration with the state.”

What would it take for such a shift to be successful?

One Memphis charter advocate says the ground rules are already in place because of a charter compact developed in recent years to address turf issues such as facilities, funding, and accountability.

“In order for a charter to manage a district school that’s underperforming and for it to be successful, that charter needs to have supports from the district to be successful,” said Luther Mercer, the Memphis advocacy director for the Tennessee Charter School Center.

The next school board work session is scheduled for Jan. 23.

pre-k for all

New York City will add dual language options in pre-K to attract parents and encourage diversity

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, back right, visits a Mandarin pre-K dual language program at P.S. 20 Anna Silver on the Lower East Side.

Education Department officials on Wednesday announced the addition of 33 dual language pre-K programs in the 2018-19 school year, more than doubling the bilingual opportunities available for New York City’s youngest learners.

The expansion continues an aggressive push under the current administration, which has added 150 new bilingual programs to date. Popular with parents — there were 2,900 applications for about 600 pre-K dual language seats last year — the programs can also be effective in boosting the performance of students who are learning English as a new language.

Another possible benefit: creating more diverse pre-K classrooms, which research has shown are starkly segregated in New York City.

Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña said the new programs reflect the city’s commitment to serving all students, even as a national debate rages over immigration reform.

“It’s important to understand that immigrants or people who speak a second language are an asset,” Fariña said. She called bilingual education “a gift that I think all schools should have.”

Included in the expansion are the city’s first dual language pre-K programs in Bengali and Russian, which will open in Jamaica, Queens, and the Upper West Side, Manhattan, respectively. The other additions will build on programs in Spanish, Mandarin and Italian. Every borough is represented in the expansion, with 11 new programs in Manhattan, nine in Brooklyn, six in Queens, five in the Bronx, and two on Staten Island.

In the dual-language model, students split their time between instruction in English and another language. At P.S. 20 Anna Silver, where the recent expansion was announced, pre-K students start the morning in English and transition to Mandarin after nap time. Experts say the model works best when the class includes an equal mix of students who are proficient in each language so they can learn from each other as well as the teacher, though it can often be difficult to strike that balance.

Officials and some advocates view dual-language programs as a tool for integration by drawing middle-class families eager to have their children speak two languages into neighborhood schools that they otherwise may not have considered. Research has shown that New York City’s pre-K classrooms tend to be more segregated than kindergarten. In one in six pre-K classrooms, more than 90 percent of students are from a single racial or ethnic background. That’s compared with one in eight kindergarten classrooms, according to a 2016 report by The Century Foundation.

Sharon Stapel, a mother from Brooklyn, said she knew early on that she wanted her daughter to learn another language and strike relationships across cultures. So she travels to the Lower East Side with her four-year-old, Finch, to attend the Mandarin dual-language pre-K program at P.S. 20 Anna Silver. On Wednesday, the city announced it will add a Spanish dual language program at the school.

“We really see it as how you build community with your neighbors and your friends,” Stapel said. “It was also an opportunity for Finch to become involved and engage in the cultures and in the differences that she could see in the classrooms — and really celebrate that difference.”

Citywide, about 13 percent of students are learning English as a new language. That number does not include pre-K since the state does not have a way to identify students’ language status before kindergarten. However, based on census data, it is estimated that 30 percent of three- and four-year-olds in New York are English learners.

Dual-language programs can benefit students who are still learning English — more so than English-only instruction. Nationally and in New York City, students who are learning English are less likely to pass standardized tests and graduate from high school. In one study, students who enrolled in dual-language courses in kindergarten gained the equivalent of one year of reading instruction by eighth grade, compared with their peers who received English-only instruction.

The city has been under pressure to improve outcomes for English learners. Under the previous administration, New York City was placed on a state “corrective action plan” that required the education department to open 125 new bilingual programs by 2013. Though the city fell short of that goal, the current administration has agreed to place every English learner in a bilingual program by the 2018-19 school year.

Among the greatest barriers to achieving that is finding qualified teachers, Fariña said. In some cases, it can be hard to find teachers who are fluent in the target language. In others, teachers who are native in a foreign language may only be certified in their home country, and it can be hard to transfer that certification to New York.

In order to open an Urdu program recently, Fariña said, the teacher, who holds a degree from another country, went through Teaching Fellows, an alternative certification program that usually caters to career-changers or recent college grads.

“I think the biggest challenge we have right now is ensuring our teacher preparation courses are keeping up with our need and demand for teachers who can teach another language,” she said.