hello from the other side

Advocates seize chance to push for Upper West Side desegregation, but face stiff resistance

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Members of the District 3 Equity in Education Task Force and the Parent Leadership Project. From left: Lori Falchi, Flor Donoso, Claudia Ortega and her daughter Sophia, Ujju Aggarwal, and Mariela Angulo.

Hand after hand shot up last week inside a sweltering auditorium on the Upper West Side.

They belonged to dozens of parents who had come to grill an education department official about the city’s contentious plans to rezone two sought-after schools, P.S. 199 and P.S. 452. Many parents fiercely oppose the plans, which would draw more low-income students into the disproportionately white and affluent schools.

The parents at the meeting, who were almost all white, asked technical questions about how the city came up with its enrollment projections and whether an oversight panel could still reject the city’s proposed “scenarios.” But when the microphone was passed to a woman sitting off to the side, she tried to steer the conversation to a larger issue.

“I wonder if you would speak to what either of the scenarios would do to address the situation of segregation in the entire district?” asked Ujju Aggarwal, an organizer with the District 3 Equity in Education Task Force.

Advocates like Aggarwal have spent over a decade pointing out the sharp race and class imbalances among the schools in Manhattan’s District 3, which spans from West 59th Street to 122nd. They have repeatedly called for a district-wide desegregation plan during that time, without much luck.

But with city officials paying new attention to school segregation and the proposed zone changes highlighting the district’s deep divides, advocates have seized on the moment to renew their desegregation drive. At the same time, they are trying to amplify the voices of low-income black and Hispanic parents, who are a majority in the district but have been overshadowed by parents opposed to the rezonings.

“We only hear one side all the time,” said Marilyn Barnwell, a member of the equity task force. “But there are more of us who are concerned.”

P.S. 199 and P.S. 452 epitomize the district’s imbalances: While about half the district’s students come from low-income families, less than 10 percent of students do at those two schools. And only 20 percent or less of their students are black or Hispanic, even though those groups account for more than half of the district’s students.

A community education council meeting in District 3 last week. Advocates say those meetings have been dominated by parents opposed to rezonings of P.S. 452 and P.S. 199.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
A community education council meeting in District 3 last week. Advocates say those meetings have been dominated by parents opposed to rezonings of P.S. 452 and P.S. 199.

Dozens of P.S. 452 parents have flocked to meetings to publicly denounce the plan for that school, which would involve moving it into a building a mile south that sits across from a public-housing development. Behind the scenes, some parents distributed anonymous surveys and talking points against the plan.

Last fall, many parents rallied against the city’s plan to shift some families from the P.S. 199’s zone into that of P.S. 191, a lower-performing school nearby that serves many students who live in public housing. In both cases, parents said they welcomed greater school diversity even as they opposed plans that could achieve it.

But advocates say the rezoning battles have given the false impression that most district parents prefer the status quo over integration. They say many families are dismayed by the district’s disparities, and believe that desegregation would help equalize resources and ease the burden on schools that serve an outsize share of high-needs students.

They also feel that diversity is a crucial part of children’s education.

“I want her to learn how to communicate with other people and have respect for people,” said Mariela Angulo, a Venezuelan immigrant whose daughter will soon begin pre-kindergarten. “I don’t want her with [just] one kind of people and one kind of group.”

Angulo is a member of the Parent Leadership Project, a District 3-based advocacy group that grew out of the now-defunct Center for Immigrant Families and whose members co-founded the District 3 Equity in Education Task Force. As far back as the early 2000s, those advocates have lobbied for “controlled choice,” a desegregation plan that would erase the district’s zones and assign students to schools based on their preferences and their demographics. The goal is to break up the clustering of affluent students at some schools, and high-needs students at others.

Task force members and their allies on the district’s community education council have repeatedly floated controlled choice as an alternative to the city’s proposed rezonings. The council, which must approve any zone changes, hosted two public forums this year to discuss controlled choice, but it has not endorsed the idea.

In contrast to the rezoning opponents, only a scattering of parents have attended the council’s meetings to call for controlled choice. Advocates say some parents feel excluded by the meetings, which are mostly conducted in English and sometimes held during the workday. Flor Donoso, a task force member who has three children in District 3 schools, said a council member asked her at one meeting why more parents from her group hadn’t shown up.

“I was a little offended, because you’re talking about 9 o’clock in the morning,” she said. “Parents are working.”

Joe Fiordaliso, a P.S. 199 parent and the district’s education-council president, said the council had “bent over backwards” to make its meetings accessible to all parents by holding them at different times and locations, and had provided Spanish-language translation at the controlled-choice forums. He also formed a committee to look at diversity and inequity in the district and propose solutions, he noted.

While advocates say a silent army of parents supports district-wide desegregation, Fiordaliso and others are not convinced. Saying that a move to controlled choice would pose a number of logistical challenges without any guarantee of improving school quality across the district, he argued that few parents actually support it.

“The fact that those alternative ideas aren’t resonating isn’t my fault,” he said. “Maybe it’s because those ideas don’t make any sense or they’re so radical and unproven that they’re not accepted by the community.”

Partly because of such skepticism, some local advocates have started to look beyond the council for new ways to promote district-wide integration.

Emmaia Gelman, a District 3 parent and equity task force member, said she was upset that a “tiny subset of parents” who opposed the rezonings seemed to dominate many of the council meetings, drowning out the larger conversation about segregation across the district. So this spring she joined with a few other parents to help form a new organizing group, Public School Parents for Equity and Desegregation.

The group’s goal is to spark conversations among parents, particularly ones who have been under-represented at council meetings. They plan to bring up issues like disparities in parent fundraising and classroom materials that don’t reflect students from diverse backgrounds. But their main focus will be on integration.

“There’s a missing piece of this narrative,” said co-founder Toni Smith-Thompson, “which is parents speaking about the benefits of integration for all kids.”

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.