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.

grant money

Denver charter Compass Academy wins $2.5 million to “reimagine high school”

PHOTO: Courtesy Compass Academy

A Denver charter middle school devoted to bilingualism and founded with help from City Year, an AmeriCorps program that deploys young adults to mentor and tutor at-risk students, has won a $2.5 million grant to help design and launch an innovative high school model.

The money is from the XQ Institute’s Super School Project, an initiative backed by Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Apple’s Steve Jobs. XQ aims to “reimagine high school” by funding novel ideas. Last year, it gave $10 million each to 10 schools across the country.

Compass Academy in southwest Denver applied for one of those big grants. It didn’t win, but XQ gave the school a second look as part of an effort to bring more diversity in geography and school type to its “super schools,” said Monica Martinez, senior school support strategist for the California-based XQ. Compass will receive $2.5 million over the next five years.

“Their idea stood out to us,” Martinez said.

That idea is to pair personalized, community-based learning — dance classes at local studios, science classes at local hospitals — with the type of social and emotional support City Year corps members provide, such as checking in with kids who were absent the day before.

“There’s joy and love in this building,” said executive director Marcia Fulton. Compass students, she said, “feel that somebody understands, and they feel worth.”

Compass also aims to have every student graduate with a seal of biliteracy, a new credential that proves to colleges and employers they can communicate in at least two languages. That goal, Fulton said, was born of a desire expressed by families in the community.

The school opened in 2015 with just sixth grade. When classes begin again next week, Compass will be a full middle school with more than 300 students in sixth, seventh and eighth grades. Last year, 98 percent of students were students of color, 96 percent were eligible for subsidized lunch and 64 percent were English language learners.

Academically, Compass has struggled. Its first year, 14 percent of sixth-graders met or exceeded expectations on state math tests and just 8 percent met that bar in English. The school’s academic growth scores, which measure how much students learned in a year compared to their academic peers, also lagged behind school district averages.

XQ didn’t take the school’s test scores into account, Martinez said. The XQ grants, she said, “are based on a vision and an idea, and Compass was the same way.”

Fulton said the school “did not land where we wanted to land” on the state tests. But she said Compass has made shifts in its scheduling, staffing and approach that she hopes will drive higher academic achievement going forward. The school is currently rated “red,” the lowest category in Denver Public Schools’ color-coded school rating system.

“When you’re lifting up so many powerful components of design, it takes time,” Fulton said. “The funding is about an acknowledgement of the path we’re on. … We are being supported to say, ‘Keep doing what we know is important for all learners in the community.’”

Compass’s charter is for sixth through 12th grade. But Compass does not yet have a building for its high school. The Denver school board voted in 2015 to place Compass’s middle school in underutilized space on the Lincoln High School campus, a controversial decision that drew intense pushback from some Lincoln students, parents and teachers.

Compass has not asked DPS for space for its high school. In fact, Fulton said, the Compass board of directors has not yet decided when the high school will open. She said the board is “committed to identifying and investing in a private facility.”

Earlier this week, 13-year-old student Davonte Ford was at Compass, helping teachers set up their classrooms before the start of school. The rising eighth-grader came to Compass last year from a school where he said he “used to get in a lot of physical altercations.”

“I used to get frustrated sometimes,” he said. “If I got frustrated, I had no one to talk to.”

But at Compass, Ford said, it’s different.

“At this school,” he said, “I have someone to help me.”

mental health matters

Mental health services in Manhattan schools are ‘falling short,’ says report from borough president

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty / © 2013

Mental health services in Manhattan schools provide only a “patchwork” of care that is “falling short” of what students and educators need, according to a report released Wednesday by Borough President Gale Brewer.

Almost 237,000 New York City children under the age of 18 have a diagnosable mental health condition, according to Citizen’s Committee for Children of New York. In schools, mental health services are provided to students in a range of ways, including via school social workers, on-site clinics and mental health consultants.

But too often, the report notes, these services are inadequate.

“Our school mental health system, if you can call it that, is a quilt of mismatched pieces slapped together to do more with less,” Brewer said in an emailed statement.

More than 100 of the borough’s 307 public schools, the report notes, have no mental health services other than consultants provided through ThriveNYC, an initiative started by New York City’s first lady, Chirlane McCray. The consultants are licensed social workers who are supposed help schools assess their mental health needs and connect them with community organizations that can meet those needs.

Yet many counselors and assistant principals interviewed for the report didn’t even know their schools had been assigned a mental health consultant through the program. Others said the training and resources the consultants provided for staff were “a waste of time.”

The city has paid for 100 consultants over the last two years, but these mental health professionals may be stretched too thin, the report notes. Each is assigned to up to 10 campuses and can serve as many as 8,000 students.

“Staff in multiple schools expressed that the mental health consultant’s impact was minimal and that the resources they provided could have easily been found online,” the report notes.

Social workers also face heavy loads. In Manhattan, there is one social worker for every 800 students, the report calculates. Citywide, the ratio is one for every 900 students. But social workers are mostly funded through money set aside for students with special needs and often can’t adequately serve the general school population. In some needy neighborhoods, the education department provides additional counselors through its Single Shepherd initiative.

School-based health clinics, meanwhile, are facing budget cuts due to changes in how they are funded.

In an emailed statement, the education department disputed some of the study’s findings. Spokesman Michael Aciman wrote that evaluations of school sites show that not every campus needs a dedicated mental health clinic, and the current system allows targeted supports where and when they’re necessary.

“Under this administration, we have made unprecedented investments in mental health resources and, for the first time, made mental health supports and services available to every city school,” Aciman wrote. “We know kids can’t learn if they are facing an unaddressed mental health challenge.”

The borough president’s report calls on the city to change the way social workers are funded, waive certain permit fees for school-based health clinics and study the effectiveness of ThriveNYC in schools. At the state level, the report recommends changes in the way clinics are funded and how they bill for services.