First Person

It’s not about quotas: The real story behind how two Brooklyn schools have begun to diversify

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Parents and community members at a Community Education Council meeting for District 13.

The Children’s School sits only a few blocks from the Gowanus Houses public housing community in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, but in recent years served virtually none of the students who lived there. Meanwhile, in nearby Fort Greene, the Academy of Arts & Letters could only watch as the racial and economic diversity of its kindergarten class began to vanish seemingly overnight.

But last year, this started to change — and if we care about making sure New York City’s students attend schools that reflect the city’s diversity, it is important to understand how it happened.

Both of our schools have a commitment to be diverse and inclusive. Both schools’ neighborhoods have also been affected by gentrification. Growing populations of affluent parents have moved into the diverse areas of Districts 13 and 15, but clustered in a relatively small number of schools, leaving very few seats available for anyone else. We’ve seen this firsthand as a principal, teacher, and parent at these two schools.

It wasn’t that low-income families didn’t apply to our schools (which don’t have traditional zones), and it wasn’t that we didn’t do outreach. The issue was that under the system of “blind” lottery admission we were required to use, affluent families dominated the applicant pools that were many times larger than the number of available kindergarten seats. Decades of research have shown that affluent families have enormous advantages in negotiating these kinds of school-choice systems that require parent participation.

In November, the New York City Department of Education allowed our schools to participate in a pilot program for school admissions. This past winter, parents and staffs were able to do outreach with confidence that families had a real chance of admission.

That’s because these plans provide a powerful boost to the chances of admission for applicants who are traditionally disadvantaged in school-choice systems — especially low-income students and English language learners.

At both of our schools, the numbers of students in those categories who were admitted for kindergarten shot up dramatically. And by limiting the disproportionate clustering of more affluent applicants at our schools, these plans have the potential to ameliorate segregation in surrounding schools.

Now, the city is about to allow all schools to apply to make similar changes to their admissions systems. That’s great news. Until the political will for comprehensive, borough-wide desegregation strategies exists, we need to direct our attention to boosting diversity at individual schools and in community school districts where change is possible.

Discussions about plans like ours often include mention of quotas. But that’s not how the plans really work, and as they expand, it’s important that they are understood.

Essentially, these admissions plans reserve a certain percentage of seats for a separate lottery only for those priority applicant groups. Importantly, if they don’t get in through this initial lottery, priority applicants have a second chance in the general lottery open to everyone.

So the nominal number of seats we set aside for the initial lottery is not a cap on the number of priority applicants, but a floor. That percentage also isn’t our goal or our target — an idea that is sometimes confused. In fact, our enrollment goals for those students are much higher than the percentage of seats we set aside, since we want to be representative of our communities.

We won’t reach our diversity goals in the first year. These plans are not designed to immediately achieve the goals, but to create a virtuous cycle that leads to long-term change. At our schools, the existence of the plan reinvigorated our recruitment efforts over the winter, yielding more diverse applicant pools than we had in previous years. Our admissions plans then bolstered these efforts to produce even more diverse kindergarten classes.

Meanwhile, our expectation is that a more diverse student and parent body will further enhance recruitment efforts and foster an increasingly inviting school culture.

This pilot is just a modest first step toward greater school integration, of course, and there is a long way to go. We hope that next year the number of schools pushing for ways to combat our very segregated New York City schools system grows exponentially. Stringing together a series of small victories for desegregation will build momentum to make the big changes that our schools need.

There are lots of incredible public schools here in New York City, and they should be truly open to all families. The seven schools in the department’s pilot program represent some of those great schools; before the pilot they were not truly open to all families.

And now, happily, they are getting closer.

First Person

I spoke with our governor during his TNReady listening tour. Here’s what I hope he heard.

Tara Baker raises her hand to talk during Gov. Bill Haslam's Sept. 4 roundtable discussion about state testing challenges. An assistant principal at Nashville's McGavock High School, Baker was among about 150 educators invited to participate in Haslam's six-stop "listening tour," which began Aug. 31 in Knoxville and ends Sept. 18 in Gibson County.

As the testing coordinator for a large high school in Nashville, I was in the eye of the proverbial storm this spring as tens of thousands of Tennessee students slogged through technical snafus and breakdowns in the state’s return to online testing.

It was ugly.

The daily stops and starts sucked the joy of learning right out of our school community. And the testing platform was not the only thing that broke down. Students were frustrated to the point of tears after their hard work disappeared behind a spinning blue cursor.

Students and their teachers should never feel that level of exasperation and futility.

That’s why I was thrilled to be invited — along with about 150 other educators from across Tennessee — to troubleshoot testing problems with Gov. Bill Haslam this month during his six-stop “listening tour” on TNReady, the assessment that’s now entering its fourth year.

I wanted the governor and his education commissioner, Candice McQueen, to know just how bad testing went at my school, and to hear observations and ideas from ground zero for moving forward.

I talked about our school’s disappointment and tears as we persevered through a rocky start, with already overtested students exasperated by what felt like unending technical difficulties. “They were defeated,” I told the governor. “It crippled us before we really ever got started.”

I shared how only 36 out of 500 students in our English III classes were able to successfully submit their essays for one part of their online exam. Imagine working for over an hour to read and examine an article and construct an in-depth response, only to have your computer freeze or shut down before you could finish. Our sophomores had more success, but we still had almost 150 incomplete submissions in that class after multiple attempts. The stories were similar for students in Integrated Math, Chemistry, and U.S. History. While I can’t know for sure, I believe the intensity of the problems contributed significantly to our school being rated recently at the state’s lowest possible level for academic growth — a devastating blow to me and my colleagues.  

The governor’s 90-minute roundtable discussion, held in a middle school media room in the town of Franklin, was cathartic for many of us present at the fourth listening tour stop. We realized that we were not alone in our frustrations and concerns.

Educators in Middle Tennessee participate in the governor’s fourth roundtable discussion at Freedom Middle School in Franklin.

Gov. Haslam and Commissioner McQueen listened intently, and I was grateful for the opportunity to share my school’s experience. But a lot of ideas and emotions were compressed into a relatively short amount of time. At the end of the day, here’s what I hope they heard:

We spend too much time on testing and not enough on educating students. Teachers talked about using class time to take practice tests in the fall, the long three-week testing window in the spring, and the sheer number of tests that students are required to take.

We should still test; we just have to do it better. Teachers want valid data. We want useful and meaningful feedback. But we need to know that the information provided is a true representation of what our students know. And we should be able to accomplish that with shorter, more thoughtful tests that cut down on subparts, testing times, and the number of questions. The current testing regimen isn’t working. It stresses out our students, teachers, and families.

We are not ready for online assessments in Tennessee. Computer-based testing generates faster results, but it introduces many factors that currently are beyond school or district control. Dead batteries, network updates, lack of internet connectivity and bandwidth — these are not things that schools can regulate with certainty, and they directly impact testing. Most importantly, until we have enough computers so that every student has one-to-one access to a device, we should have other options and school-level contingency plans in place. This could mean having paper backups on hand or quickly available.

Teachers and test administrators need to know the plan! As the link with our stakeholders, we need training to make sure the information that we provide students and parents is correct. It’s our job to promote the assessments to the community but, to do that, we should completely understand the process and be appropriately trained, including what to do when things go wrong.  

Tests need to reflect the diversity of our students. Reading selections should be varied to address students’ abilities, experiences, and lifestyles. For example, Jane Eyre is not relatable to any of my urban high school students. Could we pull from some high-interest contemporary novels, such as Jason Reynolds’ “Long Way Down,” about a black teenager whose brother dies in a shooting?

Gov. Bill Haslam listens during his Sept. 4 roundtable discussion. An advisory team is using the feedback to develop principles and recommendations for consideration by his and the next administration.

This school year, the stakes are higher than ever to get testing right. No one has confidence in last year’s scores or results. How could they when we learned on the third day of testing that the scores wouldn’t count? And this wasn’t our first rodeo with TNReady problems, either. For the new school year, we must get it right to rebuild confidence in the assessment. To the state’s credit, the Department of Education already has made some good moves — for instance, bringing aboard ETS, a reputable testing company, and planning stress tests for online assessments in the fall and spring. I welcome the on-the-ground input of 37 educators serving as our state’s new TNReady ambassadors, as well as steps to improve customer service before and during the next round of testing.

But will it be enough? The above list of concerns represents what I heard at this month’s roundtable discussion and from other educators, too.

Thanks for listening, Gov. Haslam. I hope that yours and the next administration consider this a call to action.

A former English teacher, Tara Baker is an assistant principal at McGavock High School, a 2,400-student learning community in Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools.

First Person

We’ve come a long way in addressing student stress and trauma. I could use help, too.

PHOTO: Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images

There’s an old adage, “You can’t pour from an empty cup.” But as a paraprofessional in Chicago, my cup is almost drained.

Each day, I provide academic, emotional, and behavioral support for over 200 students. The amount of mental and emotional energy it takes to calm a single student down, redirect or remove them from the class, and provide appropriate consequences is overwhelming — even with experience — when there are 11 other six-year-olds in a classroom that need my help.

Related: Chicago teachers, take our back-to-school survey

I look forward to coming to work in the morning, but by the time I get home, I barely have the energy to make my own dinner or plan activities for the next day. I tune out almost everything and everyone. While I love what I do, it is hard.

This heavy responsibility affects my mental health and the health of all educators, and it certainly impacts our ability to properly teach and support students. In the wake of Chicago’s teacher assistant layoffs this summer, my colleagues and I have dealt with the added stress of job uncertainty, too.

But we haven’t acknowledged the effects of that stress on educators, and we aren’t equipped with support to manage it.

The good news is that we are having a conversation about the effects of stress and trauma on our students. I’ve watched advocates successfully push for change: Educators for Excellence-Chicago, an educator-led organization I am involved with, brought some of these issues to light last June. Since then, we have held citywide problem-solving forums in partnership with the district’s Office of Social Emotional Learning and successfully advocated for the passage of two school state resolutions to ensure that student trauma is appropriately recognized throughout Illinois.

The recent focus on social-emotional learning — also known as “soft skills” — in our classrooms is also helping schools better prepare students for challenges that no child should face, but many do.

Those challenges are real: In my classroom, one student is a caregiver for his parent, another has lost multiple siblings to gun violence, and many others have parents that work long hours and are rarely around. These experiences have a considerable impact on their learning; often, students don’t have the tools to cope with this stress, and so they express their frustration by acting out in disruptive ways.

And yet, amid all this advocacy for our students’ mental health, we neglect our own. I worry that without a healthy state of mind, educators can’t offer their best teaching and attention to students, perhaps causing additional harm to kids already dealing with heavy burdens outside of school.

I don’t think it has to be this way. If more funding was allocated to our schools for student counseling, it would allow educators more time to focus on teaching. Our schools could provide social and emotional support to our students and staff to help them learn coping mechanisms. We would be able to hold self-care activities for the entire school. Support staff could give students and parents tools to support them outside of school.

To ensure students’ well-being, we need our own help.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said it best: “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.” Student and educator mental wellness are deeply interconnected, and we all must make sure we help educators be the best they can be for their students.

Shakita Smith is a teacher’s assistant at Pablo Casals School of Excellence in Humboldt Park. She is also a member of the Chicago Teachers Union and Educators for Excellence, a national teacher policy and advocacy organization.