Keeping score

Report outlines what New York City schools are doing to increase diversity — and advocates respond

PHOTO: Mary Ellen McIntire
City Council members Carlos Menchaca (left) and Brad Lander hosted a parents forum in 2014 to discuss diversity in schools.

The New York City Department of Education expanded an initiative to help schools promote diversity in admissions, opened gifted programs in areas where there weren’t any, and helped more students prepare for tests to get into elite high schools.

Those are just a few of the efforts the department outlines in its second annual diversity report, released Tuesday.

For the first time, the report includes a demographic breakdown of the city’s pre-K students. And the admissions methods used at each school have been broken out into a separate, easier-to-read list.

The report was released along with a promise that the DOE is working on “a larger plan this school year” to improve diversity — something the mayor has also said publicly, though no details have been shared.

City Councilman Brad Lander, who championed the 2015 School Diversity Act, the local law that mandates the report, called that pledge “a big deal.”

“That’s the change we were hoping this law would help move forward, and we’re encouraged to see we’re moving in the right direction,” he said.

New York City’s schools are among the most segregated in the country — an issue that has attracted growing attention and advocacy.

On the same day the diversity report was released, Public Advocate Letitia James called for the city Department of Education to appoint a chief diversity officer to “implement and oversee efforts to reduce segregation in New York City’s public schools.”

Here are some of the city’s initiatives, as listed in the report:

— The DOE enabled all schools to apply for its “Diversity in Admissions” program, which allows schools to set aside some seats specifically for students who are poor, learning English or who have other risk factors, such as being involved in the child welfare system. After an initial pilot, the program has been expanded to a total of 19 schools.

— The department started new gifted and talented programs in Districts 7 and 12 in the Bronx, and Districts 16 and 23 in Central Brooklyn. None of those had offered a gifted program in at least five years. The new programs start in third grade, and allow teachers to consider multiple measures rather than rely on a test for admission.

— The Specialized High School Admissions Test, which is required to get into the city’s elite high schools, will be offered during class time at seven schools, as part of a pilot project. The city hopes this change, along with expanded test prep, will increase the number of black and Hispanic students who take — and pass — the exam.

While the new initiatives represent improvement, they are still relatively modest, said Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a think tank focused on inequity.

“I give these efforts a B-minus,” he said. “We’re making a good start, but now we need to really push further to make an important difference in students’ lives.”

The Diversity in Admissions plans affect only a tiny set of New York City’s roughly 1,800 schools, and gifted programs are often criticized for their segregating effects. Meanwhile, at least one of the city’s efforts to increase diversity at its specialized high schools actually does more to help white and Asian students.

Still, there has been “really significant progress,” said David Tipson, executive director of New York Appleseed, which has pushed for school diversity initiatives.

Tipson was particularly encouraged by the report’s mention of district-wide diversity initiatives.

Districts 1 and 13 are using state grants to explore socioeconomic integration models such as “controlled choice,” though some community members say the initiative has been tied up in bureaucratic red tape at the DOE. Still, last year’s report didn’t even acknowledge the district-wide plans, and instead focused on single-school efforts that are also a part of the grant.

That shift is “very significant,” Tipson said. “I have a lot of confidence that really means something.”

The city has also taken steps to encourage integration in pre-K classrooms, which a recent report found to be more segregated than kindergarten.

The city now allows low-income students, whose pre-K is funded by the Administration for Children’s Services, to be served in the same classrooms as other city pre-K students. It also increased outreach to make sure homeless families enroll their children and know about gifted programs.

“Students learn better in diverse classrooms – including their peers and educators,” schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña said in a statement. “We’re committed to using a range of localized and systemic strategies to get at this important issue.”

tie breaker

Sheridan school board discussion heats up as date is set for final vote on new superintendent

Sheridan board member Juanita Camacho was sworn in on April 10, 2018. (Photo courtesy of Sheridan School District)

With a new board member who can cast a tie-breaking vote, the school board of the tiny Sheridan district is set to pick its first new superintendent in 10 years.

Finding a replacement for Michael Clough has been a contentious process, with community members pushing for an outside candidate who might be more responsive to their concerns and bring faster change and with veteran board members favoring a candidate who already works in the district.

At a meeting two weeks ago, Clough shouted at the community and the president of the teachers union. The president, who is also a district teacher, had been standing with community members who rose to express support for the outside candidate, a Denver Public Schools administrator named Antonio Esquibel. Clough and the board president called the display “totally disrespectful.”

On Tuesday, the meeting started in a small room where a staff member stood at the door and turned away members of the public, including a reporter who went in anyway. But there was still shouting, this time between board members frustrated with the process and each other.

One issue in dispute: the role of the newly seated board member.

The Sheridan board is divided between two veteran board members, Bernadette Saleh and Sally Daigle, who want to see the district continue on the path Clough set, and two new members, Daniel Stange and Karla Najera, who are allied with the parents and advocates who want to see a new direction.

The fifth seat had been vacant for more than 10 years before Juanita Camacho put in her application earlier this year. Initially board members wanted to wait to seat her until after they chose a new superintendent, but when it seemed like they were headed for deadlock, she was sworn in.

Tuesday, Saleh, the board’s president, argued that Camacho was not seated to help select a new superintendent, while Stange argued that it did appear that way.

Camacho said she did not think about the superintendent search when she initially applied, and she almost considered backing out of the role when she knew she would be a tie-breaker.

“I’m going to make that deciding vote,” Camacho said. “It’s not going to be an easy thing for me.”

Camacho will have one more week to review the qualifications of the three finalists for the position before the board vote at 5 p.m. on May 1.

Part of the division in the community and on the board centers on the perception of the district’s progress. Many community members and teachers say they want drastic changes to improve the district, while others have said they want to continue the district’s current momentum.

Sheridan, a district serving about 1,400 students just southwest of Denver, has improved enough on state ratings to get off the state’s watchlist for chronic low-performance and avoid state sanctions. But by many measures, including graduation rates, the district is still considered low performing.

“You don’t know what we’ve been through,” Daigle told Stange, who she accused of bad-mouthing the district. “We came out of the turnaround long before we were ever expected to.”

Several teachers and parents have spoken to the board during public comment at multiple meetings, asking them to “listen to the community.” Most of them support Esquibel, the only one of three finalists who is from outside the district.

Saleh and Daigle also argued that if other board members wanted a candidate who was from outside the district, they should have voiced that opinion before they collectively narrowed the candidates to the three finalists announced in March.

While many community members and board member Stange prefer Esquibel, they have said that the other two candidates aren’t bad choices to lead the district, and none of the board members disputed that they agreed on the three as finalists.

Future of Schools

What time does school start? Some IPS parents concerned about coming schedule changes

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post

Dozens of parents filled the Indianapolis Public Schools board room Tuesday afternoon for a last-minute meeting about changing school start times, a sign of how disruptive many believe the changes could be.

Next year, the district is rolling out a new all-choice high school model, where students choose schools by focus area rather than neighborhood. In order to bus students from around the district to those schools without swelling costs, the administration is shifting start and end times for elementary, middle, and high school campuses.

Ultimately, the district says the new schedule will make it more likely that buses will arrive on time.

“With the all choice high school model, there has to be some modification,” Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said ahead of the meeting.

The administration’s recommendation, which was developed after feedback from parents, aims to limit the number of schools with significant changes in start and end times. For about 80 percent of schools, bell times will not change by more than 10 minutes, according to the administration. Under the latest proposal, most middle and high schools will run from 7:20 a.m. to 2:10 p.m. Most elementary schools will run from 9:20 a.m. to 3:55 p.m. The board will vote Thursday on new school start and end times.

The process for developing the plan inspired significant criticism from parents at the transportation meeting.

Dustin Jones, who has two children at the Butler Lab School, said he was particularly concerned that the district was still deciding on the new schedule in April after many parents already made school choices for next year.

“The appearance is the all choice model was ideologically kind of the direction to go, and then that the transportation to support that decision is lagging behind,” Jones said. “That shows a lack of ability and foresight.”

For months, the district has been holding meetings and asking parents for input on the schedule for next year. The administration, however, has struggled to develop a plan that would balance myriad challenges, such as containing costs, limiting disruptions for families, and handling a shortage of bus drivers that is posing significant challenges.

“There’s been an ongoing discussion of the transportation dilemma and challenge,” said board member Mary Ann Sullivan at the board meeting after the discussion. “I think this reflects a very good resolution to most of the concerns. It does not address every concern of every family or every commissioner.”

Initially, leaders were also considering flipping school start times so high schoolers could start at a later time because research shows adolescents benefit from sleeping later. But in the face of practical concerns, such as high school student work schedules, the board abandoned that goal.

That was a disappointment for Molly McPheron, a pediatrician and parent in the district.

“The evidence is really clear that when high schools start later, children have improved health outcomes as well as improved graduation rates, better grades,” McPheron said. “We are going through a lot to make sure high schoolers have choice, have all these options. And then there’s kind of this simple thing that we could do that could potentially substantially improve their lives.”