running in place

New York City expanded its efforts to boost diversity at elite specialized high schools. So why hasn’t the needle budged?

Students take an AP exam at Bronx Science, one of the city's specialized high schools.

Last June, city officials rolled out a series of initiatives that were supposed to address an alarming lack of diversity at the city’s elite specialized high schools, where admission is determined by a single test.

To improve access to those eight schools, education officials expanded a program that gives students just below the cutoff a chance to be admitted. They offered the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT) on a school day at a handful of middle schools in underrepresented communities. They boosted public test prep programs and outreach to increase the number of students who take the exam.

But this week, the city announced that there was virtually no change in the number of black or Hispanic students offered admission to schools like Stuyvesant and Brooklyn Tech — and advocates weren’t surprised. They have repeatedly asked Mayor Bill de Blasio to push for an overhaul of the admissions system.

“It’s a paradox to think that some people aren’t doing well because some families aren’t getting into test prep, so we need more test prep,” said Lazar Treschan, youth policy director at the Community Service Society. “Test prep is the problem.”

Despite the city’s efforts to encourage more students of color to take the SHSAT, fewer black students took the exam this year, and represented a slightly smaller share of test takers. And even though the city boosted Hispanic student participation in the test by 544 students — a 9 percent increase — just 10 additional Hispanic students passed.

Overall, the proportion of admissions offers that went to black and Hispanic students this year went almost unchanged at 10.3 percent, a population that represents roughly 70 percent of the city’s students. Meanwhile, just over 80 percent of offers went to white and Asian students, who comprise roughly 30 percent of the student body.

Education department spokeswoman Toya Holness acknowledged “we have a lot more work to do,” but officials said the numbers also reveal “encouraging” trends.

They point to data that show outreach has prompted more students to take the test in districts across the city, and of the 28,000 students who took the test, over a thousand of them took it through a pilot program that offered it on a school day.

Still, some of the city’s reforms have not tended to benefit underrepresented populations. The Discovery Program, which offers admission to some students just below the cutoff, has in the past helped more white and Asian students than black and Hispanic ones.

A number of elected officials and advocates have pushed for a more systematic plan to integrate specialized high schools by guaranteeing a spot for the city’s highest-performing students without regard to the SHSAT, which experts say could double the share of black and Hispanic students at specialized high schools.

“The ticket is going to have to be to look at alternative measures of academic performance” such as state tests and grades, said Sean Corcoran, an NYU professor who wrote a report on the lack of diversity at specialized high schools.

That path is not without roadblocks. There is some debate about whether the city could make changes at five of the eight specialized schools unilaterally, but changing the admissions policy at all eight schools would require a change in state law. So far, de Blasio — who promised to address the issue in his bid for mayor — has been reluctant to push for it.

“The leadership in integration citywide has not come from the [education department], it has come from districts and school leaders,” Treschan said. “We need the DOE to lead the charge on this one.”

Pushback

National head of DFER after Colorado Democrats’ platform vote: ‘We’re not going anywhere’

PHOTO: Newark Trust
DFER President Shavar Jeffries

The national head of Democrats for Education Reform responded to the dramatic rejection of his organization at the Colorado Democratic Party state assembly with a simple message: We’re not going anywhere.

In an email to supporters that he also posted on Medium Thursday, Shavar Jeffries laid out his credentials as a Democrat and said disagreements over education policy should remain a “family fight.”

“We understand that on some issues, some in our party disagree with us,” Jeffries wrote. “We welcome that disagreement, and we welcome the debates that ensue periodically. We stay true to our principles because we believe our vision best reflects the values of the party and the outcomes we seek for young people.

“But we will fight  –  when fights are necessary  –  anchored in the understanding that this is a family fight and thus we will not engage in the politics of personal destruction against those with whom we disagree.”

Jeffries went on to blame the election of President Donald Trump on an unwillingness among Democrats to set aside their differences.

“Trump is president to a large degree because progressives and liberals engaged in a civil war over the 10 percent of policies where we might disagree, as opposed to uniting around the 90 percent where we agree,” Jeffries wrote. “Hillary Clinton was booed at the DNC convention in 2016 by the same forces that still seek to sow division within our party. Our unity is our best weapon against the ongoing assault to our democracy visited upon the country each day by Trump.”

Jennifer Walmer, the head of the Colorado chapter of Democrats for Education Reform, was booed down by delegates at Saturday’s assembly. Those delegates went on to adopt into the official party platform a call for DFER to stop using “Democrats” in its name.

Former state Treasurer Cary Kennedy, who has the backing of the teachers unions, won 62 percent of the vote at the party assembly. The platform vote happened later in the day, after some of the more than 3,000 delegates had left.

It’s not clear how the platform provision could be enforced. Some members want the party to send a cease-and-desist letter to Democrats for Education Reform, something the Los Angeles Democratic Party tried in 2012, with no apparent effect.

The Colorado vote drew cheers and jeers locally and around the country. In New York City, one blog called it a “ray of sunshine” that could signal cracks in support for reform policies. Meanwhile, conservatives used the vote to cast Democrats as extremists. The editorial board of the Colorado Springs Gazette said it represented “a far-left shift in the Democratic Party.”

Education reform has become an increasingly divisive issue within the Democratic Party. Since the 2016 presidential election, opponents of a suite of reform policies, like charter schools and test-based teacher accountability laws, have increasingly sought to tie Democratic proponents of these policies to the unpopular president and his education secretary.

Jeffries said his organization would not be dissuaded by those tactics.

“If our intra-party opponents would prefer counter-productive family warfare as opposed to unity around shared values, this should be clear too: We stand with the millions of families across our country demanding access to high-quality public schools and the thousands of elected Democrats who fight tirelessly to ensure they get it,” he said. “We are not going anywhere.”

You can read Jeffries’ entire statement here.

get out the vote

Can schools encourage students to be more involved citizens? A new study suggests yes they can.

Democracy Prep charter network superintendent Seth Andrew at a 2012 admissions lottery event.

In a city of roughly 1,800 schools, many have names that have little to do with what students experience.

Not so for Democracy Prep, a network of charter schools that a new study concludes makes students far more likely to vote once they turn 18.

The study, conducted by independent researchers commissioned by Democracy Prep, took advantage of New York City’s charter school admissions rules to examine the impact of applying to, getting accepted to, and enrolling in the network’s schools on later civic participation.

Looking at more than a thousand students who applied between 2007 and 2015 who were old enough to vote in 2016, the researchers found that just being selected in the admissions lottery was correlated with a slight increase in voting rates. Students who were chosen voted 6 percent more often than students who were not.

The impact was much greater on students who were chosen and actually enrolled: They voted 24 percent more often than students who applied but never got a chance to attend.

The findings suggest that Democracy Prep is achieving its explicit goal of promoting civic participation. They also offer one answer to the question of whether charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately managed, undermine democracy.

“Democracy Prep provides a test case of whether charter schools can successfully serve the foundational purpose of public education—preparation for citizenship—even while operating outside the direct control of elected officials,” the researchers write. “With respect to the critical civic participation measures of registration and voting, the answer is yes.”

Seth Andrew, who started the network with a single middle school in Harlem in 2006, said he was pleased by the findings — and unsurprised, because the network has baked civic participation into its culture and academic program. Students must take on a personal “Change the World” project and pass the U.S. citizenship exam to graduate.

“This idea of ‘change the world’ was very central to what we were trying to get our kids prepared and excited to do,” he said.

Creating more engaged citizens takes more than just adding a civics class, said Katie Duffy, the CEO of Democracy Prep. Schools have to make democracy a part of the daily culture, she said.

“The more you talk about the importance of voting, the importance of elections, the importance of advocacy,” she said, “the more it becomes ingrained in our kids.”

The network has also long used Election Day — when district-run schools are often closed so their buildings can be used as polling stations — as a teachable moment.

In 2008, Democracy Prep students spent the day working to get out the vote in their neighborhoods. Four years later, Democracy Prep schools were among the few housed in city space that got special permission to stay open — and the network sent students out to advance the “Vote for Somebody” campaign it had kicked off in a catchy viral video. The next year, students promoted a different message — “I can’t vote but you can” — in an effort to boost the city’s 11 percent primary election voter participation rate.

The network’s influence extends far beyond its students. In 2012, six years into the network’s existence, officials estimated that students had helped 5,000 New Yorkers register to vote. Now, the network runs 22 schools in five states.

Andrew said the study’s findings about the impact of the network — which he left in 2012 to work on other civic engagement initiatives, including at the White House — offer only a start at a time when the United States lags behind other developed countries in voter turnout.

“I was thrilled with the outcome,” said Andrew. “But the as the guy that founded Democracy Prep I feel like there’s a whole lot of room to grow.”