mum's the word

New York City mayor keeps a low profile in announcing his high-profile diversity plan

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Mayor Bill de Blasio

Last summer, Mayor Bill de Blasio stepped into one of the most racially divided school districts in New York City and promised a “bigger vision” for promoting school diversity.

On Tuesday morning, that vision was unveiled — with no public appearances from city officials.

Neither schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña nor de Blasio held public events or press conferences to explain the plan, nor did they publicly take questions from reporters. In recent months, de Blasio has made appearances to promote initiatives large and small: to announce more air conditioning in city schools, an expansion of universal pre-K, and a summer reading drive. On Monday, both leaders appeared at a press conference about physical education.

The mayor and chancellor have faced criticism for not being aggressive enough in integrating the city’s schools and have often described the plan released Tuesday as their attempt to tackle the problem. The decision not to take questions about their plan or explain it in person, some observers said, may showcase their reluctance to embrace the cause.

“When the leadership of a school system and a city does not make a public statement or press availability, it signals something about their desire to truly make this a stake in the ground,” said Josh Starr, a former schools superintendent in Connecticut and Maryland, who is currently the CEO of PDK International.

Their press strategy for making the announcement also contributed to the perception that they were not interested in a vigorous public debate.

Before the plan was unveiled, city officials approached several publications — including Chalkbeat — to offer exclusive glimpses at certain portions of it. But they insisted that reporters not contact outside sources for comment on the plan. (The city’s education department often asks for embargoes when it offers advance notice of policy announcements, but almost never asks reporters not to solicit outside perspectives.)

Education department spokesman Will Mantell said the way the city announced the plan is not unusual. He noted that reporters would be allowed to individually interview senior education officials Tuesday — including the chancellor.

“I would push back on the idea that we are taking fewer questions or doing less interaction with the press than we would normally do,” Mantell said in an interview.

Asked why there was no press conference to announce a plan that had been in the works for many months, a mayoral spokeswoman wrote in an email that “the mayor has spoken about this plan countless times and will happily continue to now that the plan is out.”

Key integration advocates have previously complained that there has not been sufficient public discussion of the plan before it was released, but Mantell said there would be a public process going forward. The city has created an advisory group that will evaluate the city’s current diversity goals and come up with formal recommendations by June 2018.

“The crux of the plan,” Mantell said, “is that we’re putting together a public school advisory group that is going put together public recommendations.”

Starr, the former schools chief, said the political sensitivity of school segregation may help explain the decision to not come forward with a full plan all at once.

School integration “deals with issues of white people recognizing the privilege that they have and it confronts the very design of the system that currently exists,” Starr said. “I understand the desire to put it out in bits and pieces.”

grant money

Denver charter Compass Academy wins $2.5 million to “reimagine high school”

PHOTO: Courtesy Compass Academy

A Denver charter middle school devoted to bilingualism and founded with help from City Year, an AmeriCorps program that deploys young adults to mentor and tutor at-risk students, has won a $2.5 million grant to help design and launch an innovative high school model.

The money is from the XQ Institute’s Super School Project, an initiative backed by Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Apple’s Steve Jobs. XQ aims to “reimagine high school” by funding novel ideas. Last year, it gave $10 million each to 10 schools across the country.

Compass Academy in southwest Denver applied for one of those big grants. It didn’t win, but XQ gave the school a second look as part of an effort to bring more diversity in geography and school type to its “super schools,” said Monica Martinez, senior school support strategist for the California-based XQ. Compass will receive $2.5 million over the next five years.

“Their idea stood out to us,” Martinez said.

That idea is to pair personalized, community-based learning — dance classes at local studios, science classes at local hospitals — with the type of social and emotional support City Year corps members provide, such as checking in with kids who were absent the day before.

“There’s joy and love in this building,” said executive director Marcia Fulton. Compass students, she said, “feel that somebody understands, and they feel worth.”

Compass also aims to have every student graduate with a seal of biliteracy, a new credential that proves to colleges and employers they can communicate in at least two languages. That goal, Fulton said, was born of a desire expressed by families in the community.

The school opened in 2015 with just sixth grade. When classes begin again next week, Compass will be a full middle school with more than 300 students in sixth, seventh and eighth grades. Last year, 98 percent of students were students of color, 96 percent were eligible for subsidized lunch and 64 percent were English language learners.

Academically, Compass has struggled. Its first year, 14 percent of sixth-graders met or exceeded expectations on state math tests and just 8 percent met that bar in English. The school’s academic growth scores, which measure how much students learned in a year compared to their academic peers, also lagged behind school district averages.

XQ didn’t take the school’s test scores into account, Martinez said. The XQ grants, she said, “are based on a vision and an idea, and Compass was the same way.”

Fulton said the school “did not land where we wanted to land” on the state tests. But she said Compass has made shifts in its scheduling, staffing and approach that she hopes will drive higher academic achievement going forward. The school is currently rated “red,” the lowest category in Denver Public Schools’ color-coded school rating system.

“When you’re lifting up so many powerful components of design, it takes time,” Fulton said. “The funding is about an acknowledgement of the path we’re on. … We are being supported to say, ‘Keep doing what we know is important for all learners in the community.’”

Compass’s charter is for sixth through 12th grade. But Compass does not yet have a building for its high school. The Denver school board voted in 2015 to place Compass’s middle school in underutilized space on the Lincoln High School campus, a controversial decision that drew intense pushback from some Lincoln students, parents and teachers.

Compass has not asked DPS for space for its high school. In fact, Fulton said, the Compass board of directors has not yet decided when the high school will open. She said the board is “committed to identifying and investing in a private facility.”

Earlier this week, 13-year-old student Davonte Ford was at Compass, helping teachers set up their classrooms before the start of school. The rising eighth-grader came to Compass last year from a school where he said he “used to get in a lot of physical altercations.”

“I used to get frustrated sometimes,” he said. “If I got frustrated, I had no one to talk to.”

But at Compass, Ford said, it’s different.

“At this school,” he said, “I have someone to help me.”

mental health matters

Mental health services in Manhattan schools are ‘falling short,’ says report from borough president

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty / © 2013

Mental health services in Manhattan schools provide only a “patchwork” of care that is “falling short” of what students and educators need, according to a report released Wednesday by Borough President Gale Brewer.

Almost 237,000 New York City children under the age of 18 have a diagnosable mental health condition, according to Citizen’s Committee for Children of New York. In schools, mental health services are provided to students in a range of ways, including via school social workers, on-site clinics and mental health consultants.

But too often, the report notes, these services are inadequate.

“Our school mental health system, if you can call it that, is a quilt of mismatched pieces slapped together to do more with less,” Brewer said in an emailed statement.

More than 100 of the borough’s 307 public schools, the report notes, have no mental health services other than consultants provided through ThriveNYC, an initiative started by New York City’s first lady, Chirlane McCray. The consultants are licensed social workers who are supposed help schools assess their mental health needs and connect them with community organizations that can meet those needs.

Yet many counselors and assistant principals interviewed for the report didn’t even know their schools had been assigned a mental health consultant through the program. Others said the training and resources the consultants provided for staff were “a waste of time.”

The city has paid for 100 consultants over the last two years, but these mental health professionals may be stretched too thin, the report notes. Each is assigned to up to 10 campuses and can serve as many as 8,000 students.

“Staff in multiple schools expressed that the mental health consultant’s impact was minimal and that the resources they provided could have easily been found online,” the report notes.

Social workers also face heavy loads. In Manhattan, there is one social worker for every 800 students, the report calculates. Citywide, the ratio is one for every 900 students. But social workers are mostly funded through money set aside for students with special needs and often can’t adequately serve the general school population. In some needy neighborhoods, the education department provides additional counselors through its Single Shepherd initiative.

School-based health clinics, meanwhile, are facing budget cuts due to changes in how they are funded.

In an emailed statement, the education department disputed some of the study’s findings. Spokesman Michael Aciman wrote that evaluations of school sites show that not every campus needs a dedicated mental health clinic, and the current system allows targeted supports where and when they’re necessary.

“Under this administration, we have made unprecedented investments in mental health resources and, for the first time, made mental health supports and services available to every city school,” Aciman wrote. “We know kids can’t learn if they are facing an unaddressed mental health challenge.”

The borough president’s report calls on the city to change the way social workers are funded, waive certain permit fees for school-based health clinics and study the effectiveness of ThriveNYC in schools. At the state level, the report recommends changes in the way clinics are funded and how they bill for services.