making plans

With New York City expected to unveil school diversity plan soon, advocates want the public to have a say

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
A teacher spoke about the need for greater school diversity at a 2015 meeting of the Panel for Educational Policy.

Eight months ago, Mayor Bill de Blasio visited one of New York City’s most segregated school districts and promised a plan was in the works to address the striking lack of diversity in the city’s classrooms.

That “bigger vision,” as de Blasio called it, is expected to be unveiled by June. But many who have been lobbying to desegregate schools say the process of crafting that vision has been far too private — and that could hurt the Department of Education’s chances for success.

At Wednesday’s Panel for Educational Policy meeting, members of a group called the New York City Alliance for School Integration and Desegregation will ask the city to include “robust public involvement” in any diversity plan put forward. The Alliance, which goes by ASID, is made up of interested parents, students, teachers, researchers and local diversity advocates.

“What we want the DOE to do is create an actual planning process that is inclusive of stakeholders across the city. That has not been the case,” said Matt Gonzales, who leads school integration efforts for the nonprofit New York Appleseed and is a member of ASID. “Any efforts towards integration or desegregation always, historically, have required local buy-in.”

Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña has acknowledged that herself. Referring to school rezonings, which are often contentious and highlight racial divides, Fariña said in February 2016 that agreements are reached “because we talked and listened to everybody.”

“It’s not a mandate you’re putting down people’s throats,” she said.

Education department spokesman Will Mantell said officials have discussed diversity issues with “school staff, advocates, elected officials, researchers and community members.”

“These ongoing discussions inform the development of the diversity plan we’re releasing later this school year,” he wrote in an email.

But advocates say they have been left in the dark about the city’s specific plan, though officials have been eager to reference it when questioned about the city’s commitment to desegregating schools.

For Miriam Nunberg, public input could help officials diagnose the real reasons schools become segregated by race and economic status — and help them develop specific solutions for addressing the problem. She is a parent in Brooklyn’s District 15 who wants to change middle school admissions policies to make schools more diverse.

“There are a lot of presumptions made about why things happen and why there’s so much of an underrepresentation of certain groups [of students] in selective schools,” Nunberg said. “Without asking the questions, you’re not going to know the answers.”

ASID members will also push the education department to approve a policy statement declaring diversity a priority. The City Council asked the DOE to do that in 2014 and the department has yet to act. When Chalkbeat asked Fariña about it in August 2016, she said that such pronouncements are “just words” without a plan.

The advocates say they don’t expect the PEP to take specific action on Wednesday, but want to reach the chancellor and make a public statement.

“We want to go where we can speak with them directly,” Gonzales said.

New Arrivals

In a letter to Betsy Devos, Michigan officials highlight the plight of refugee students — and ask for testing waiver.

PHOTO: Warren Consolidated Schools
Students at Warren-Mott High School in the Detroit suburbs. Officials there say that many students are arriving at the school from refugee camps, including 11th graders who had no formal schooling for nine or ten years. Such students would currently be required to take a state English test during their first year in school.

To teachers who work with recently arrived refugee students, the problem is clear: Although their students will eventually learn English, their language skills at first aren’t comparable to those of native speakers.

They’re hoping federal education officials will come to the same conclusion after reading the state’s detail-rich request to delay testing new immigrant children in English.

Michigan is the second state to ask for a waiver from a federal law that requires children who arrived in the U.S. this year to take standardized English tests a year after arriving — even if they’re just being introduced to the language. The law also requires states to count such students’ scores in decisions about whether to close low-performing schools.

“We wanted to balance between presenting hard data and some anecdotes,” said Chris Janzer, assistant director of accountability at the Michigan Department of Education. “We’re hoping that the case we present, with some of the stories, will win us approval.”

The state’s request includes stories from the Detroit area, which is home to the nation’s largest concentration of Arabic speakers, including many newly arrived refugees fleeing wars in the Middle East. This population is unique in more ways than one: It includes more than 30,000 Chaldean Christians who arrived after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 — the largest such population in the world outside Iraq. And many of its children must deal with the aftereffects of violent displacement even as they attempt to attend school in what is in many cases an entirely new language.

The state’s waiver request offers Hamtramck, a hyper-diverse city enclave in Detroit, as an example:

Hamtramck has many recent arrivals from war-torn regions in Yemen and Syria and has students from remote villages with no formal education background, as well as many others with interrupted learning. New students can have toxic stress and can even be suicidal, and often require wraparound services. Older students are also often burdened with the responsibility of helping their families financially, emotionally, and with childrearing.

Even the luckiest new arrivals would benefit if Michigan receives a waiver from parts of the federal Every Students Succeed Act, says Suzanne Toohey, president of Michigan Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages.

“The intent of the waiver is for the most needy students, but it will help all students,” she said, adding that it typically takes 5-7 years for an English learner to catch up to her native-speaking peers.

With that in mind, Toohey says current federal requirements don’t make sense.

“It would be like an adult who is many years out of school, and who took French for two years of high school, going to France and trying to take a college course,” she said. “It’s just not going to happen.”

Following the same logic, Michigan officials are asking U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to put the brakes on federal requirements for testing recently arrived English learners. If the waiver request is approved:

  • In their first year in Michigan schools, those students wouldn’t be required to take the state English language arts exam.
  • In their second, they would take the test, but schools wouldn’t be held accountable for their scores.
  • In year three, the growth in their scores on the English exam would be factored into school ratings.
  • And in year four their overall score — known as proficiency — would be counted as well as their growth.

That’s still too soon to begin testing English learners, Toohey said, noting “the waiver is a start, but we haven’t gotten all the way there.”

Even so, the proposed change still faces substantial obstacles. New York’s request for a similar waiver was denied by the U.S. Department of Education in January. In its response, the department said it was holding New York to its responsibility to “set high expectations that apply to all students.” Janzer says his staff studied New York’s waiver and concluded that Michigan’s should include more details to humanize the situations of the affected students.

Michigan officials are currently working to incorporate public comments (there were seven, all of them supportive, Janzer said) into its request, which is expected to be submitted in the coming weeks. A decision isn’t expected from federal officials for several more months.

Whoever reads the 10-page document in Washington, D.C. will be confronted with details like these:

  • Lamphere Schools, of Madison Heights, MI, has received a significant influx of students from Iraq and Syria, and at least one elementary school’s student body is roughly 70 percent recently arrived students from these two nations. Lamphere reports that some students initially undergo temporary “silent periods,” a researched stage of second language acquisition, where children are watching and listening, but not yet speaking.
  • Warren Consolidated Schools, of Warren, MI, reports that they have many students from refugee camps, including students who are testing in 11th grade after having no formal schooling for nine or ten years. Warren Consolidated has received 2,800 students from Syria or Iraq since 2007.

Read the full document here. Most local details are on pages 7-9.

live stream

WATCH: Candidates for Detroit school board introduce themselves live

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Detroiters at IBEW 58 wait for candidates for school board candidates to address them.

The nine candidates for Detroit school board are gathering Thursday evening at IBEW 58 in Detroit to make their cases in advance of the November general election in which two seats are up for grabs.

The candidates have already introduced themselves in video statements, but this is one of their first chances to address the public in real time.

We’re covering the event — including a live stream the candidates’ opening statements, which should start around 7 p.m.

Click below or check out our Facebook page to see what they have to say. The candidate speeches begin at around the 12:00 minute mark.