Future of Schools

Only 10 percent of offers at New York City’s specialized high schools went to black and Hispanic students

PHOTO: Monica Disare
A high-school choice fair in Brooklyn in 2016.

Four years after New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio railed against the way students are admitted to some of the city’s top high schools on the campaign trail, black and Hispanic students are still rarely accepted into the elite schools.

Only 3.8 percent of offers to attend eight specialized high schools went to black students and 6.5 percent went to Hispanic students this year, according to data released Wednesday, though those populations comprise about 70 percent of city students. The vast majority of eighth graders who received offers were white or Asian.

Students are admitted to eight of the specialized high schools based only on their scores on the high-stakes Specialized High School Admissions Test. And while those schools represent just one subset of New York City’s top high schools, their long history of serving top students — and the rapid decline of diversity at those schools over the last two decades — has put them at the center of a contentious debate about whether the city is doing enough to help black and Hispanic students succeed.

This year, a total of 5,078 students received offers to the eight schools, about the same number as last year. Only one black student was admitted to Staten Island Technical High School, and 13 were admitted to Stuyvesant High School, two of the schools where the number of black students admitted has recently been in the single digits.

“While there are many promising trends this admissions cycle … it’s clear there is much more work to do,” Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña said in a statement.

Since state law requires the test-based admissions system at some of the schools — and support for changing that law has been meager — the city’s plan to boost diversity focuses on test preparation and encouraging most black and Hispanic students to take the exam.

The six-point plan, announced in June, includes more test preparation programs, an “SHSAT day” at certain schools, and student outreach. Twenty-six percent of black and Latino offers went to students who participated in the DREAM program, which prepares students for the SHSAT and the city plans to expand.

The city noted that more students took the test this year in districts and schools the city targeted for SHSAT outreach. The number of students testing at schools that piloted a SHSAT day increased over 50 percent.

Approximately 28,000 students took the test last fall, with an increase among Latino test takers, according to the city’s data.

The city also plans to change the test itself to make it “fairer and more equitable.” Starting this fall, the test will be lengthened and some unpopular sections, like scrambled paragraphs, will be scrapped.

Though a lack of diversity at the city’s eight specialized high schools has been the focus of public discussion, there is also a gap among all New York City high schools.

A Chalkbeat analysis found that over half the students who took and passed the eighth-grade state math exam wound up in less than 8 percent of city high schools. Meanwhile, nearly 165 of the city’s roughly 440 high schools have five or fewer incoming ninth-graders who took and passed the state math test.

Hello Again

Debora Scheffel chosen by acclamation to fill State Board of Ed vacancy

State Board of Education member Debora Scheffel at a campaign event in 2016. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

A Republican vacancy committee unanimously selected Debora Scheffel to fill the opening left by Pam Mazanec on the State Board of Education.

Mazanec, a staunch defender of parental rights and school choice who represented the 4th Congressional District, resigned at the end of January to focus on her other obligations. Scheffel previously represented the 6th Congressional District on the board but lost that seat in 2016 to Democrat Rebecca McClellan.

McClellan’s narrow victory gave control of the board to Democrats for the first time in 46 years. Scheffel, who serves as dean of education at Colorado Christian University, moved to Douglas County, and ran unsuccessfully for school board there in 2017.

Scheffel’s selection does not change the balance of power on the state board because she replaces another Republican. Scheffel faced no opposition at the vacancy committee meeting, which took place Saturday in Limon.

Scheffel has said she wants to continue Mazanec’s work on behalf of rural schools and in support of parent and student choice, as well as work to protect student data privacy, a cause she previously championed on the board.

The district takes in all of the eastern Plains, as well as the cities of Longmont, Greeley, and Castle Rock.

Future of Schools

Indianapolis struggles to balance how much money schools need with what people will pay

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Lewis Ferebee

Without a massive influx of cash from taxpayers, Indianapolis’ largest school district could be in dire financial straits. But the fate of the referendums asking voters for more money is in limbo.

Even as the Indianapolis Public Schools board revealed plans to reduce how much money it is seeking from voters, the administration portrayed the district’s financial future as precarious. During a board discussion Thursday, officials underscored how critical it would be for the tax increase to pass. It’s unclear, however, whether the district will get the extra cash it needs to avoid making painful cuts.

Critics have suggested the request — $936 million over eight years — is too high and that the district has not offered enough detail on how the money raised would be spent. With only tepid support for the tax plan, district leaders appear poised to reduce the amount they are seeking. That move could win over new allies, but it could also undercut their efforts to gain support.

Next year, the administration is expecting spending could outpace income by more than $45 million. The plan for filling that gap hinges on raising more than $46 million from a referendum that will go before voters in May.

Without that extra money, Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said, the district would have to burn through its savings or make vast cuts that could include freezing teacher pay, cutting school budgets, and reducing transportation.

The district would need to begin making cuts immediately, said board member Kelly Bentley. “It’s just going to get worse the next year, and the next year,” she added.

The district’s future will look brighter if leaders are able to win public support for more funding, although it’s no longer clear how much money they will ask for. The original plan, which was approved by the board in December, includes two referendums to raise property taxes. One would ask voters to give the district as much as $92 million more per year for eight years for operating expenses such as teacher pay. Another measure, which the district is not expected to change, would pay for $200 million in improvements to buildings.

Ferebee said the amount he originally proposed was based on what the district needs rather than what would be politically feasible. In the face of community feedback, however, the district is crafting a plan that would have a lower price tag. Next, the district will need to explain what services will be cut to keep down costs, he said.

“I anticipate people will want to know, ‘what are the tradeoffs?’ ” Ferebee said. “We owe it to the community to provide that explanation, and we will.”

Indiana districts have pursued more than 160 property tax referendums since 2008, when state lawmakers created the current school funding system. About 60 percent of those referendums have been successful, according to data from Indiana University’s Center for Evaluation and Education Policy.

Stephen Hiller, who has been studying referendums with the center for nearly a decade, said that it’s likely that many districts have had to reconcile how much money they would ideally want with how much taxpayers might be willing to pay. But that conversation likely happens before a referendum is announced and approved by the board.

“I think IPS has it a little more difficult here that it’s happening in the open after they’ve approved it in a very public way,” he added.

School board president Michael O’Connor said that the district’s willingness to change the plan is a sign that local government works.

“We live in the community within which we serve, and all of us have heard pretty plainly and clearly, ‘we think that number might be too big,’ ” he said. “We are being responsive to our constituents.”

Reducing the referendum could be enough to win over many supporters. Several groups that have supported the current administration in the past have not yet taken a stand.

Tony Mason of the Indianapolis Urban League said in a statement that the district needs more money to pay high-quality teachers and meet the needs of its diverse students. But he raised concerns about the potential impact of the tax increase on residents with fixed- or low-incomes.

“IPS will still need to continue in its efforts to make the case for the substantial amount it is requesting,” Mason said. “The IUL is an avid supporter of education, particularly for urban schools that struggle with unique challenges.”

Chelsea Koehring, who taught in the district and now has two children at the Butler Lab School, shares the view that the district needs more money. But leaders have not offered enough details about how the money would be spent, she said, and changing the request raises red flags.

“People, you should’ve had this together before you asked,” she said. “Lowering it at this point — I don’t know that that’s going to instill confidence in anyone that they have any clue what they are doing.”

Correction: February 17, 2018: This story has been corrected to reflect that Indiana districts have pursued more than 160 property tax referendums since 2008. Some districts have held multiple referendums.