integration conversation

Grilled by reporters, de Blasio says he wants to ‘level with the people’ about school integration

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Mayor Bill de Blasio

Two days after New York City released its much-anticipated school diversity plan, Mayor Bill de Blasio was forced to defend its rollout, scope and goals.

The mayor held a press conference Thursday to announce an expansion of Advanced Placement courses, but reporters seized the moment to ask about his plan for integrating schools. (Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña was present for the first part of the conference but left without taking questions.)

The diversity plan, unveiled Tuesday, includes specific diversity targets, changes to middle and high school admissions, and an advisory group to continue the work. De Blasio called the plan a “good first step,” but critics have argued it is unlikely to make a dent in one of the most segregated school systems in the country.

Though he started the press conference by arguing his education agenda moves with “lightning speed,” de Blasio took a decidedly more measured approach when the conversation turned to school integration — suggesting his “priority” is to improve schools as they exist now.

“If I were to say we can’t give kids an excellent education in the current dynamics – come on, guys – do you know how many decades it will take to fix all this?” de Blasio said. “So would you really just tread water for those decades? I don’t think that’s fair. I think we have to fix the schools right now.”

His comments were reminiscent of ones he made last month, when he told reporters he couldn’t “wipe away 400 years of American history” in achieving integrated schools.

He also did not seem concerned about the difference between the words “integration” and “diversity,” despite some critics’ concern that the city’s choice to use only “diversity” in its plan downplayed the crisis. “I don’t get lost in terminology,” the mayor said. “I think the notion of saying we have to diversify our schools is the best way to say it.”

Here are some of the notable moments from the press conference:

On why de Blasio did not hold a press conference to release the plan

I think in this case we have an embarrassment of riches this week. We have a lot we’re announcing, a lot that’s going on, but I can safely say that’s going to be a major focus and it’s an important first step.

On what he considers to be a “right now” problem

We are concerned deeply with the kids right now in our schools who are living in a situation that is not yet fair, and we have to do a lot more right now to address it. The larger issues related to housing patterns and economic realities, which, again, were created over not just decades, but over centuries.

But my concern and how I always make clear the hierarchy of need here, is we have a right-now problem, and it’s not abstract – it’s practical and it’s real. We’ve got kids right now that we have to reach better, and the kids coming up right now. That’s why we’ve done things like pre-K and we’re moving to 3-K.

We have to improve the quality levels of our public schools and we have to do it in a way that promotes equity – that’s the mission, now – that’s the central mission. And so, I will look forward to a continued dialog, but I need people to understand that’s how I see the priority, because I’m concerned about reaching kids in the here-and-now.

On whether he will address screened schools in the future (The city’s high schools are academically segregated, which leads to racial and socioeconomic segregation)

Yes, absolutely. Some of that you see the beginnings of in the plan that was put out this week. There will be more to come. I personally want us to use every tool we have. I want to make sure there’s maximum access for kids of all backgrounds – that has not been the case previously. And I think kids really benefit from learning together – kids of different backgrounds. So, yeah, I think there is more we can do about the screened schools. I think the situation with the specialized schools is particularly troubling, and, again, I look forward to the day when that gets resolved. I think that’s something we have to do for the good of New York City. But yeah, we can do a lot more with the screened schools.

On whether students can get the education they deserve without attending fully integrated or diverse schools

Absolutely. And it’s not – look, would I like a perfectly diverse school for every child? Yes, I would. I really would. I think that would be the optimal situation. To achieve that will take many, many years and be up against immense physical and geographical barriers.

And that’s where I want honesty in the discussion. I think you guys are right to press me and my team. But I think you guys also need to look at the hard, hard reality of what we’re dealing with physically and historically.

On whether racially separate schools can be equal

You’re asking it in a way that I think is leading the witness. I don’t want that.

I would love perfectly diverse and integrated schools. If I could achieve that with the stroke of a pen, I would do that right now. And in my lifetime, I’ve benefitted from being in diverse schools. I wanted my children in diverse schools. I really get it. But again, we can have a conversation where we don’t come to grips with hard realities or we can level with the people of this city. And I’m trying to level with the people of this city.

If I were to say we can’t give kids an excellent education in the current dynamics – come on, guys – do you know how many decades it will take to fix all this? So would you really just tread water for those decades? I don’t think that’s fair. I think we have to fix the schools right now.

Future of Schools

IPS board votes to ask taxpayers for $936 million to pay for teacher raises, building improvements and special education

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

The Indianapolis Public Schools voted Thursday to ask voters for $936 million dollars this May.

District leaders said that in the face of declining state and federal funding, raising local property taxes is the only tool IPS has to pay for teacher raises, building maintenance, busing, and quality programs for students with disabilities.

All five of the IPS School Board members present voted in favor of adding both referendums to the ballot. School board members Kelly Bentley and Venita Moore were absent.

Board member Diane Arnold said the district has worked to be more transparent in its spending and reduces its expense, but it needs more money to continue operating.

“We’re asking for the basic things for our children,” said Arnold. “The children of IPS deserve the same type of high-quality teachers (and) safe buildings that children that live in every other district deserve.”

Two referendums to increase property taxes will be placed on the May primary ballot. One would raise up to $92 million per year for eight years to pay for operating expenses. That money would be used to pay for special education services, transportation and regular maintenance, according to the district.

But the lion’s share of the money raised each year would go to regular teacher raises. The district says that it expects to spend about $66 million — or 72 percent of the funding — on pay for teachers. It wouldn’t bring huge raises for teachers, but IPS estimates it would allow the district to continue giving teachers raises of about 2 percent each year.

The other referendum asks voters to support $200 million in improvements to school buildings, primarily safety updates such as new lighting and door security.

The proposal drew mixed feedback from community members who showed up to speak at public meetings Tuesday and Thursday.

It’s the largest tax increase the district has ever pursued. Whether the politically risky gambit pays off will have huge implications for the state’s largest district. If the referendum prevails, IPS leaders say that besides pay raises for teachers, it will help pay the high price tag for special education.

If it fails, Superintendent Lewis Ferebee warns teacher pay could freeze, the district could cut some of its busing and the quality of special education services could decline.

“We didn’t arrive at this number based on what we thought would be politically appropriate and soothing, but what we actually need to continue to thrive as an organization,” said Ferebee.

Most IPS teachers have received regular raises since 2015, but for several years prior to that, teacher salaries were frozen. That wreaked havoc on the district’s ability to attract and retain teachers, said Ferebee.

If both referendums pass, they will increase taxes by as much as $0.73 per $100 of assessed value on a home. A property owner with a home at the district’s median value — $123,500 — would see property taxes increase by about $29.15 more per month.

At the meeting Thursday, many people spoke in of favor raising taxes. But there were also several people, primarily regular critics of the administration, who don’t trust the administration would use the money wisely.

One of those with concerns was Alex Butler, the guardian of an Arsenal Technical High School student. He said that money is important in helping schools, but Arsenal has other serious issues such as inconsistent leadership.

Butler said he is a homeowner, and he expects his tax bill to go up by $566 per year.

“I have the money to give,” he said. But he is concerned that it will be inefficiently used or will be used to improve buildings that are later sold. “I’m not sure that I will vote for it as long as there’s not more transparency.”

Several IPS educators, community members and business leader spoke in support of the proposal.

John Thompson, a local business owner and member of several boards, said that when companies are looking at where to locate, one of the most important factors is whether a region has skilled workers.

“I am a major property owner in Center Township, in the IPS district. This will cost me and my company thousands of dollars. I think it is worth it,” he said. “There is no better investment than investing in young people.”

an intervention

Struggling Aurora elementary school gets creative to improve — but bigger changes may be coming

First graders at Paris Elementary in Aurora use toys and light pointers to help focus while reading individually. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

When a fifth-grade boy was having trouble waking up in the morning and getting to school on time, officials at his Aurora school, just a block away, came up with an idea.

They gave the student a buddy — another fifth grader who lives two doors down. The boy agreed to knock on his classmate’s door every morning so the two could walk to school together.

“We had to get creative,” said Shannon Blackard, the interim principal of Paris Elementary. “He became more motivated to get to school on time.”

That buddy system is part of a broader push that has led to better attendance at the school — one emphasis to boost student achievement under a district improvement plan already in place. But bigger changes may soon be coming to Paris Elementary.

The 363-student school has logged five straight years of low performance, triggering the next step in Aurora Public Schools’ system for intervening in low-performing schools. District officials this fall put out a “request for information” from interested parties — which could include charter schools and consultants — seeking ideas for more aggressive steps for improvement.

After this week’s deadline to respond passes, the district will review the responses and ask the school board to vote on recommendations as soon as next month. It will be one of the first significant decisions for the seven-member board since four teachers-union backed candidates won election last month. Those new members have questioned some of the district’s reform efforts.

Superintendent Rico Munn created the district’s framework for intervening in low-performing schools after taking over the role in 2013.

Paris Elementary is not the first school to reach five years of low performance, but it stands apart because it is already under a district-approved innovation plan. That plan gave the school more flexibility in budgeting and setting the school calendar, and in making hiring decisions.

Speaking at a September school board meeting about schools facing turnaround, Munn characterized the recommendation for Paris Elementary as “the most high-profile.”

The district essentially is trying to step in before the state forces its hand.

On its fifth year of priority improvement, one of the lowest ratings the state gives, Paris is one year away from being on the list of schools requiring state action if it doesn’t improve. This year, the state did assign more points to the school in the ratings compared to last year, but not enough for the school to jump up into a higher category of ratings.

The school is a block away from the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus and is surrounded by apartments and multi-family housing. Every one of the students who attends the school qualifies for free or reduced-price lunch. Eight of every 10 are learning English as a second language. The students come from 16 different countries.

The school’s principal left the role at the beginning of the school year, leaving a district official to step in for a while before an assistant principal was named interim principal for the year.

School officials at Paris, including Blackard, the interim principal, are optimistic that current work at the school is already helping.

For instance, school-level data shows that the number of students reading at grade level this December has more than doubled school-wide compared to the same time last year. The improvements are at every grade level except kindergarten. And for the students that aren’t on grade level, school teams are now meeting regularly to come up with plans for how to help each one catch up.

Improvements are showing in math classrooms, too. Using a new math curriculum, third grade students in one classroom were excitedly engaged last week in an activity to see if they could guess how much a bag of crackers weighed and if they could use the scale to test it.

Early indications for attendance are also positive. The number of students who are chronically absent has dropped by 50 percent. This year so far, 11 percent of students are labeled chronically absent, down from 22.1 percent last year.

Blackard said she isn’t aware of the district’s plans to recommend possible changes to Paris, but said that she expects the school is on track to make improvements anyway.

“I’m very confident,” Blackard said. “We are very focused.”

When Munn discussed the timeline for district recommendations with the school board in September, he described a balancing act between giving schools time to make improvements while stepping in early enough to roll out changes in time when necessary.

“The question is how do we respond, so that we both don’t over-act but don’t react too late,” Munn said.

The district’s framework for dealing with low-performing schools prompts the district to intervene in schools that earn the lowest quality ratings by the state, increasing the level of intervention by the number of years on the clock. Here’s how it works:

When Paris had reached three years of low performance, part of the district’s plan called for the school to adopt the innovation plan and join a so-called innovation zone in northwest Aurora. Along with providing the flexibility of innovation status, the zone is meant to give its five schools the chance to work together and learn from each other.

If the school doesn’t improve enough by next year, the state’s options could include suggesting school closure or asking a charter school or outside group to take over.

Aurora officials have said they want to be proactive about improving schools before they are directed to make changes by the state.

Last year only Aurora Central High School was on the state’s watchlist facing state sanctions. In that case, using the same framework for responding to low-performing schools, district officials were already rolling out an innovation plan giving the school flexibility for changes before the state stepped in.

State officials and state board members recognized the district’s initiative and gave the district a chance to continue rolling out the plan to see if it would result in improvements.

In another case when the district was following the same playbook, the district in 2015 recommended converting low-performing Fletcher Community School into a charter school. The district tapped the Denver network Rocky Mountain Prep, which had responded to a request for information.

After the decision, Fletcher showed some improvements in test scores. This year, Fletcher’s quality ratings showed enough improvement to get off the state’s radar, even before the charter has fully taken over the school. Some teachers and union officials point to that as evidence that the district might have acted too soon instead of considering other options and allowing those efforts to show improvement.

“It’s not that you can’t ultimately get to that conclusion, the question is how do you examine it publicly,” said Bruce Wilcox, union president. “We’re not part of the conversation right now.”