Rezoning battle

New diversity plans, same disputes in Upper West Side school rezoning

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Parents attend a previous District 3 meeting.

A bitter rezoning battle on the Upper West Side doesn’t seem any closer to resolution after city education department planners released a new proposal on Wednesday.

Community Education Council members questioned why schools in Harlem haven’t been considered, while parents who would be zoned out of high-performing P.S. 199 continued to push back.

The dispute has highlighted inequities in District 3, where some schools serve mostly poor students and others have very few. City officials have said they are trying to address overcrowding and increase diversity through the rezoning, which has dragged on for more than a year now.

Council President Joe Fiordaliso lamented the nasty turn the debate has taken, saying parents have taken to criticizing each other, and even parents being “stalked.”

“That is shameful,” he said. “We are neighbors.”

The latest plan would keep high-achieving but jam-packed P.S. 452 in its current site, rather than moving it 16 blocks away to a building that faces a public housing complex. In a new move, the school’s zone would become smaller so it could accommodate students from outside, who would be admitted under a yet-to-be-determined policy that includes student diversity as a consideration.

Though some parents mounted a vocal campaign against moving P.S. 452, school staff and others support moving the school, which would free up much-needed space in their shared building.

“Early on, a lot of opposition to this was about the distance…The benefits of having our own building far outweigh that short-term issue,” said Hilda Blair, a parent at P.S. 452. “We will all have new friends with a new community. We have ties with our current families and we’ll keep those. I don’t think any of that is at risk by moving the school.”

Highlighting the delicate task facing planners, the new proposal keeps zone lines around P.S. 75 largely intact. The PTA there had raised concerns that redrawing their boundaries to include more higher-income families would threaten Title I funding, which is disbursed to schools with high student-poverty levels.

But the sticking point remains around P.S. 199, a sought-after school with some of the longest kindergarten waiting lists in the city.

Residents of Lincoln Towers and other nearby buildings have fought to remain in P.S. 199 and elected officials from the city and state have joined their cause. Sarah Turchin, DOE’s director of planning for Manhattan, said keeping Lincoln Towers and the other buildings in the P.S. 199 zone could “compromise our ability to promote diversity.”

“We did look at all of the feedback we received within the context of our larger goals: to alleviate overcrowding and promote diversity, which are goals we share with the CEC,” Turchin said.

The dissenting parents would be rezoned to P.S. 191, a school that serves more minority and low-income students and has much lower test scores.

“It’s very frustrating when you’re trying to do the best for your child…and it’s ripped from your grasp,” said Megan Arazi, a parent who would be zoned out of P.S. 199. “The alternative is not an appropriate replacement.”

The principal and parents at P.S. 191 have insisted their school is on the upswing and have repeatedly encouraged parents to come visit.

“There are a lot of misconceptions,” said P.S. 191 Principal Lauren Keville. “I think it’s really important to actually come and see, talk to our parents… about the great work that’s happening.”

Residents have questioned whether cutting their buildings from the P.S. 199 school zone would actually help with either overcrowding or integration, because new high-rise buildings would be zoned to P.S. 199 under the city’s plans. One man waved a public records request addressed to the education department for their data supporting their enrollment projections — a request he said has gone unanswered.

“Why did you not listen?” he asked city planners. “This process — these lines — make no sense.”

Audience members burst into applause when Councilmember Noah Gotbaum echoed the same concerns.

“There’s no transparency here,” he said.

DOE officials said they can’t release some data because of student privacy concerns, but that they will work to make other information available.

Meanwhile, some council members are pushing for more ambitious plans that would impact more of District 3. Councilmember Kimberly Watkins, chair of the zoning committee, pointed to under-enrolled schools in Harlem.

“We owe it to them to offer a solution,” she said.

District Superintendent Ilene Altschul said the city has started reaching out to schools in the northern end of the district. Turchin suggested the city could undertake a new rezoning process to address schools in that area.

The latest proposal is the third to be put on the table. A final zoning plan is expected in October, with a CEC vote in November.

Building bonds

‘Trust is being built’ as foundation invests in programs to support Detroit parents and students

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
Teacher Michele Pizzo and students Wajiha Begum, Iftiker Choudhury and Demetrious Yancy are closer since she's visited their homes


Anna Hightower didn’t know what to think when her daughter, Jasmine, wanted permission to invite her teachers to visit their home in October. But she pushed past her reluctance and nervousness, baked brownie cookies and opened her doors to two teachers from the Davison Elementary-Middle School.

She discovered a new world of information on being a better parent as a participant in the Detroit main district’s new initiative to empower parents, the Parent Teacher Home Visit Program.

It’s part of a sweeping initiative led by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, which announced a three-year, $3 million grant Wednesday with the Detroit Public Schools Foundation. The initiative also includes a parent academy which will serve 7,000 parents, and a summer camp for up to 900 pre-kindergartners starting in the fall.

It’s the first grant Kellogg has awarded as part of its $25 million commitment to a major initiative called Hope Starts Here that Kellogg, along with the Kresge Foundation, announced last fall. The two foundations plan to spend $50 million to improve the lives of the city’s youngest children. (Kresge and Kellogg also support Chalkbeat).

Hightower said she believes the home visits are helping set the direction for her daughter’s life.

“I see now that DPS is not just a school for my daughter, but also a GPS,” she said.  “They see where my daughter wants to be, they know the destination and give her the opportunity to see the different routes she can go. They encouraged me as a parent to foster her growth as well.”

By the time the first home visit was over, the new relationships got 12-year-old Jasmine planning to join the school math club, apply to attend Cass Technical High School and consider her college choices.

La June Montgomery Tabron, W.K. Kellogg Foundation President and CEO, helped design the initiative to help the city’s youngest citizens, but Wednesday was the first day she met program participants.

“It just brought tears to my eyes,” she said. “It’s real, it’s practical. These aren’t easy relationships to build, but they are being built and trust is being built.”

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said rebuilding the district must include making parents stronger advocates for their children’s education.

“Every parent cares about their child’s education,” he said. “The reality, though, is a lot of our parents don’t know how to navigate the system in order to advocate for their child every day. Some of our parents are intimidated by the system. Sometimes, parents are not welcomed by schools, principals and even teachers, and sometimes district staff.”

Parents, he said, also often are carrying heavy loads, working multiple jobs, and struggling to pay bills. While they’re navigating everything, they are challenged to put their children and their  schooling first.

He said he envisions a “critical mass of parents” in every school who will hold the district accountable for its performance: They will demand certified teachers. They will understand how to help their child get a higher SAT test score, complete a financial aid application and help their children become better readers.

“All of this, I probably would say, is part of the greatest reflection of what I want us to be as a district,” he said.

Parents will be able to take classes on topics such as resume writing, scholarships, and college placements tests. The Parent Academy training will be held in schools, libraries, community centers and places of worship across the city.  

Michele Pizzo, a seventh-grade English language arts teacher at Davison, said volunteering to visit homes has become personal for her.

She’s gained weight eating four- and five-course meals of samosas, biryani rice and rich desserts prepared by families in the school with a majority Bengali student population. She’s made new friends while visiting with her students’ parents, and she better understands her students and feels she knows them better.

Since the fall, when the program was in its pilot stage, she has visited 30 parents after school and on weekends — all in homes except one.

“We try to make the parents feel as comfortable as possible. We walk in, give them a hug, kissing on both cheeks, and there’s a huge meal that takes place,” she said.  “They are able to open up to us, and even if they couldn’t speak English, their child translated for us.”

For seventh-grader Iftiker Choudhury the home visits have made him and his family closer to his teacher.

“I get along with the teacher more, and it’s like very friendly now,” he said. “I’m comfortable now and I talk to her more. My parents knowing her, it creates a bond in all of us.”

Every Student Succeeds Act

The Indiana State Board of Education is hitting the brakes on a plan to overhaul A-F school grades

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Students in IPS School 91's multi-age first-, second- and third-grade classroom work on math activities.

The Indiana State Board of Education is pressing pause on a proposed overhaul of how schools are graded that drew criticism from educators and some education advocates.

Board members said they wanted more time to consider how the A-F proposal — initially created to address new federal accountability law — would work alongside new graduation requirements and to incorporate feedback from educators about how the school grades are calculated, especially for high schools.

That means for this year, the 2018-19 school year, and possibly longer, Indiana schools will be measured according to two different yardsticks — a state model introduced in 2016 and a federal system that complies with the new Every Student Succeeds Act.

Read: Indiana has a curious plan to sidestep federal rules — give schools two A-F grades next year

The board met Wednesday to continue hammering out the new process for calculating state grades, a draft of which was approved in January. But just as the meeting started, board member Byron Ernest suggested pausing process, aiming instead for a new A-F grading model for the 2019-20 school year at the earliest.

“I would like for us to take a step back and do some research,” Ernest said. Four of the state board members were absent, including state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick. The seven present board members quickly reached a consensus that they should postpone a decision on the A-F rules, though no official vote happened.

As it stands now, the state and federal grading methods for calculating school ratings have important differences. The federal grade calculation, for example, would include school attendance rates and language proficiency of English-learners, whereas the state calculation would mainly rely on state test scores and test score growth. Because Indiana’s calculation also excludes certain students that the federal plan includes, such as those receiving credit recovery services, the final ratings could differ significantly for the same school. Although state and federal accountability metrics have differed in the past, the differences going forward would be more significant.

The differences ultimately add a lot of confusion to a state accountability system designed to be simpler to understand for teachers, parents, and the community.

Cari Whicker, a board member and principal, said the changes Indiana has made to testing and accountability have been exhausting and frustrating for schools.

“Either A-F accountability or testing has changed every year since 2011,” Whicker said. “That’s a lot for schools. What you consider tweaking is truly moving the target for people in the field.”

The pause is also an about-face from a meeting just a couple months ago, where board members shot down a similar proposal from Gordon Hendry to slow down. On Wednesday, Hendry said he was glad to hear Ernest’s proposal.

“That’s what I advocated for in January — wouldn’t it behoove us to take our time,” Hendry said.

In January, educators and education advocates came forward with concerns over the process for creating the new school grades, which they said was far too fast and not transparent. They also took issue with the substance of the state plan, which would have made test scores more important and limited how much test score improvement could have factored into high school grades.

It’s not yet clear exactly what changes the board wants to make in the state A-F grading model that haven’t already been discussed or considered. The Indiana Department of Education released its federal ESSA plan over the summer, and the board has had multiple opportunities to examine that plan and give feedback.

Further discussion is expected at the state board’s April meeting.