breaking the mold

Goodbye parent-teacher conferences, hello poetry workshops: How New York City is redefining parent engagement

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
West Prep Academy teacher Annery Quezada (left) plays a math-themed game with parent Yenny Carrasco (right) at a recent APTT meeting.

On a recent Tuesday evening, two sixth-grade teachers at Manhattan’s West Prep Academy offered up a poem by Langston Hughes and described how to begin unpacking its meaning.

The teachers glanced around the purple-tiled classroom to make sure everyone had their pens and pencils out to mark up copies of “Dreams” with notes.

It was exactly the kind of lesson the teachers might have offered on an average school day. But this time, instead of a room full of middle-schoolers, they had a different audience: their students’ parents.

“We do these in class all the time,” Annery Quezada, a sixth-grade special education teacher told roughly a dozen parents, referring to the process of analyzing a poem. “You want them to explain how they know what the main idea is.”

What was happening in that classroom is an experiment in supplanting the traditional parent-teacher conference with a model that is just beginning to take hold in New York City. Known as Academic Parent Teacher Teams, an idea developed by a company called WestEd, the approach focuses on teaching groups of parents to engage their children academically, and encourages them to talk about how their students are performing as a group — not just individually.

In traditional parent-teacher conferences, “I could see a parent for about a minute and a half, and it really focused on the negative and became a finger-pointing kind of thing,” explains Daniel Wolf, a former teacher who works under the city’s Middle School Quality Initiative, which has helped implement APTT. The model “is not about what a child got wrong on a unit test, but what can we do as a community to move students forward.”

Roughly 500 schools in 22 states have used a version of the model, according to WestEd. Eighteen New York City schools are currently piloting it.

The investment in parent-teacher conferences jibes with school Chancellor Carmen Fariña’s push to set aside more time for after-school engagement, with a focus on parent-teacher meetings.

“Often what we hear from families is, ‘I want to help my child at home but I really don’t know how to do that,’” said Megan Hester, an organizer at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform who works closely with schools and is familiar with the APTT model. “It incorporates a lot of the stuff that’s talked about with parent engagement, but actually puts intention and structure around it.”

At West Prep Academy — a middle school that serves an outsized share of low-income students compared with its Upper West Side district — the experiment with APTT began this school year.

Parents were invited to three separate 75-minute sessions evenly spaced throughout the school year, typically led by one or more of their student’s teachers. They are given a chance to get to know each other, learn specific methods for talking with their children about schoolwork, and review their children’s progress on math and reading tests together.

Between sessions, parents are expected to bring the strategies developed at the APTT meetings home: Something as simple as asking probing questions about what a child is reading, or playing a game that requires using math concepts like factors and products.

West Prep Principal Carland Washington said his hopes for APTT don’t center entirely around student achievement. He’s also banking on more parents connecting with the school.

“In a school with low-performing students, and students who come in from low-income situations, we don’t get a lot of parent participation,” Washington said, pointing out that many students have parents who work multiple jobs or have been incarcerated.

At one of his school’s most recent APTT meetings, the desire to build community was on full display. Over sandwiches and chips served up on paper plates, parents settled into the desks typically occupied by their children and were prompted to swap stories about how their kids spend their downtime and their academic strengths and weaknesses.

Hannah Yeats, a teacher at West Prep who co-facilitated the APTT session, shuttled around the room, occasionally encouraging some of the more timid parents to speak up or exchange phone numbers.

In the past, “parents had each other’s numbers — and that’s kind of faded,” Yeats said. “We need to create community. There aren’t structures in place to encourage that support system to be built.”

These forums don’t entirely replace more traditional one-on-one parent-teacher meetings, which still occur at West Prep and other schools participating in the program. At APTT events, parents do get a chance to review their own child’s progress, only it’s in the company of a dozen or so peers. On a bar graph projected at the front of the room, parents at West Prep were shown math and reading scores for the entire class, with each child identifiable only to his or her own parents with ID numbers distributed at the beginning of the evening.

The graphs showed how much progress the class had made since the previous APTT meeting, and how much growth was expected by the end of the school year. Showing student scores together is designed to emphasize the collective role parents can play in boosting an entire class’s skills.

Parent Lawrence Kenniebrew said he appreciated the chance to check in on his daughter’s progress, which showed strength in reading but room for improvement in math.

“After seeing what her scores are, I know I absolutely have to look at how to improve [math] because that’s going to become much more critical down the line.”

Kenniebrew, who works in counterterrorism for the MTA, said he likes the new format. One tip he picked up at the last meeting was to push his daughter a little bit more when he asked her about what she’s reading.

“I would say, ‘Alissa, what do you mean by that?’” he said, referring to one of the strategies presented earlier in the year. “It helped me to help her.”

For teachers, the APTT model can be hard to pull off. At West Prep, some staffers spent hours discussing which skills they wanted to teach parents, conversations that were ultimately boiled down to 15-minute PowerPoint presentations. It can also be difficult to find enough time to allow parents to socialize, explain the key math and reading concepts, and help parents practice strategies for engaging their kids, all in one session.

“In an hour and fifteen minutes, I don’t know if it’s possible to do everything we’re trying to do,” said Yeats, the teacher who led the math game, and who is generally supportive of the approach.

The city is still figuring out how to successfully implement the program, according to the education department’s Wolf, part of the reason the program has started small. He anticipates six more city schools will take on APTT next fall. “We do know that it’s a heavy lift,” he said.

Washington, the school’s principal, said he’s happy with the way the program is playing out. It can be difficult, he said, to get parents to show up, and the school has leaned heavily on the marching band to draw them in. “When the students are on stage, they will come,” he said.

Since the school launched APTT this year, however, Washington has seen an uptick in parent volunteers to chaperone events, involvement in the school’s parent association, and even some signs of academic growth.

“Just because parents don’t come to school [to talk about academics] doesn’t mean they don’t want to support their children,” he said. “This gives them a way to check in.”

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.”

bills bills bills

New legislation aims to diversify New York City’s elite high schools. Here are 3 reasons to be skeptical.

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
State Senator Jamaal Bailey unveiled legislation to boost diversity at the city's specialized high schools on Thursday.

Legislation introduced Thursday aimed at integrating New York City’s specialized high schools skirted one big issue: the admissions test.

Instead, the bills would create a new citywide test for sixth graders designed to help them prepare for the exam; establish a commission to study the admissions process and issue recommendations; and require that all specialized high schools admit some students who just missed the cutoff score.

“We want to make sure that we’re doing more to allow more students access to the test,” said Jamaal Bailey, a state senator who represents parts of the Bronx and crafted the legislation.

Specialized high schools have remained starkly segregated for years, despite pledges from Mayor Bill de Blasio to promote diversity at them. Last month, the education department announced black and Hispanic students accounted for just 10.4 percent of offers to the eight specialized schools that admit students based on a single exam — a number that has gone essentially unchanged since de Blasio took office more than four years ago. (Citywide, nearly 70 percent of students are black or Hispanic.)

Standing on the steps of City Hall, and flanked by the alumni foundation president at Brooklyn Tech — a specialized school — Bailey unveiled a legislative package he said would help move the needle.

But there are good reasons to be skeptical of the plan. Here are three of them.

1. Experts say changing the admissions process is crucial to integrating specialized schools. This legislation leaves it alone.

Critics of the current admissions system argue that it favors students who have time and resources to prepare for an admissions test that serves as the sole gatekeeper for the ultra-selective schools. And researchers at New York University have shown that changing the admissions requirements to offer admission to the top 10 percent of students at every middle school is one of the few surefire ways to “substantially change” the schools’ demographics.

2. The proposal doubles down on a diversity program that is already in place — and isn’t making a dent.

Bailey’s legislation requires each specialized high school to participate in the Discovery program, which allows a small set of students to gain admission even if they score just below the cutoff. The city has already expanded that program to include every specialized school and it has helped a shrinking share of black and Hispanic students in recent years. And even if it helped more underrepresented students, its impact would likely be small: Just 4 percent of all specialized school admissions offers were issued through the program last year.

3. The bill assumes preparation will help underserved students gain admission, but the city’s test prep programs haven’t made a big difference.

The legislation creates a citywide test for sixth graders that would mimic the current exam for eighth graders, giving students a head start on preparing for the exam while simultaneously increasingly awareness of it. “Many children in my district don’t know about the test,” he said. But the city has already boosted public test prep programs (which some students have said are not high-quality) and expanded outreach to increase the number of students who take the exam. None of those efforts have changed the racial balance at specialized high schools, which are just as segregated as they were before those programs were expanded.

Bailey, who is himself a graduate of Bronx Science, a specialized school, acknowledged that his proposals may not radically change the demographics at the elite schools. But he said he is “not averse” to broader changes and said he imagined the new commission created by his legislation could recommend more systemic changes.

“I believe they will pay off,” he said. “It’s more opportunities and more information for children.”