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.

new schools

Denver approves more schools that will wait ‘on the shelf’ to open, despite pushback

PHOTO: Photo By Andy Cross/The Denver Post via Getty Images
Grant Beacon Middle School student Jeriah Garcia works out an algebra problem on his school-supplied tablet in 2012.

In a split vote, the Denver school board last week approved three more middle schools — but none will open right away.

Though they are modeled after successful existing schools, and though district officials feel an urgency to improve school quality districtwide, the three will wait with more than 20 others until a school building becomes available.

That could happen if the district closes a struggling school or builds a brand new one. But slowing enrollment growth means it will likely not build many schools in the coming years.

The number of approved schools on hold until they find a campus has grown over the years, even as the school board adopted a policy in 2015 that calls for replacing chronically low-performing schools with new ones deemed more likely to succeed.

This approach earned Denver a national reputation in education reform circles, but the growing backlog of schools with no clear path to opening has led to frustration among charter school operators and questions from some supporters about how committed Denver is to this model.

The makeup of Denver’s school board has changed, and not all of the new members believe closing struggling schools is good for students. In voting on the three new middle schools, three of the seven board members expressed concerns about the concept of keeping approved schools “on the shelf” because it presupposes existing schools will be shuttered.

Carrie Olson, a former Denver teacher, campaigned last year for a seat on the board on a platform of opposing school closures. Her candidacy was backed by the Denver teachers union, which also supported board member Jennifer Bacon, another former teacher.

Olson and Bacon voiced the strongest reservations about approving the three schools, temporarily called Beacon Network Middle Schools 3, 4, and 5. The schools would be run by the same administrators who oversee Kepner Beacon and Grant Beacon middle schools.

Kepner Beacon and Grant Beacon are “innovation schools,” which means they have more financial and programmatic freedom than traditional district-run schools but not as much independence as charter schools. The two schools focus on personalized learning, partly by giving students access to technology that allows them to learn at their own pace. Each is rated “green,” the second-highest rating on Denver Public Schools’ color-coded scale.

Olson and Bacon said they don’t doubt additional Beacon schools would serve students well. Rather, Bacon said, she’s concerned about having too many of the same type of school and about the length of time schools should be allowed to wait before opening. Being approved by the school board doesn’t guarantee that a school will open.

In the end, the three Beacon schools were approved to open in the fall of 2019 or thereafter. Olson voted no on all three. Bacon voted no on two of them and yes on the third.

Board president Anne Rowe, vice president Barbara O’Brien, and members Lisa Flores and Happy Haynes voted yes on all three. Angela Cobián, who was elected last fall along with Olson and Bacon, voted yes on two schools and abstained from voting on the third.

Cobián said her votes were meant to reflect that she supports the Beacon schools but shares her fellow board members’ concerns. She said she’s committed to making sure the district supports existing schools so they don’t get to the point of closure or replacement.

There are at least 24 schools already waiting for a campus in Denver. Nineteen of them were proposed by four homegrown, high-performing charter school networks. The district’s largest charter school network, DSST, has eight middle and high schools waiting to open.

District officials said they plan to spend time over the summer thinking through these concerns.

Jennifer Holladay, who leads the department that oversees charter and innovation schools, said staff will develop recommendations for how long schools should be allowed to sit on the shelf and whether the district should continue to accept “batch applications” for more than one school at a time, which has been common practice among the homegrown networks.

Payment dispute

Disputes with Tennessee testmakers aren’t new. Here’s an update on the state’s lawsuit with Measurement Inc.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

The testing company fired by Tennessee’s education department two years ago may have to wait until 2019 to settle the case, according to documents recently obtained by Chalkbeat.

As the future of the state’s current testing company, Questar, remains uncertain after a series of testing snafus this year, Tennessee continues to build a case against the first company it hired to usher in online testing three years ago.

The $25.3 million lawsuit, filed by Measurement Inc. of North Carolina, says the state owes about a quarter of the company’s five-year, $108 million contract, which Tennessee officials canceled after technical problems roiled the test’s 2016 rollout. So far, the state has paid the company $545,000.

The 2016 test was meant to showcase TNReady, the state’s new, rigorous, online testing program. But the online exam crashed, and the state abandoned it, asking Measurement Inc. to pivot to paper tests. After numerous delays in delivering the paper tests, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen fired the company.

Measurement Inc. filed a lawsuit last June, and the state Department of Education responded in January with a counterclaim saying the company did not fulfill its duties. Now, the state and the company have through spring 2019 to build their cases and call witnesses. (You can view Measurement Inc.’s claims, and the state’s counterclaim below).

The company argues that the state’s decision to cancel online testing and switch to paper was a series of “unrealistic, arbitrary, and changing demands,” and therefore, the state shares blame for the canceled test.

But the state department countered in its January response that Measurement Inc. breached its contract and didn’t communicate truthfully about the status of the online exam.

After Measurement Inc., Tennessee entered into a two-year contract with Minnesota-based Questar to revive the TNReady online exam. In 2017, the state opted to only use paper exams, and testing went smoothly for the most part, outside of delays in returning test results.

But things didn’t go well this spring, when Tennessee tried to return to online testing under Questar. The reasons for the complications are numerous — but different from issues that ruined the online test’s 2016 debut.

Although Tennessee completed its online testing this spring,  it was beset with technological glitches, a reported cyber attack on the testing system, and poor internet connectivity. Many districts are not planning to use the scores in student grading, and teachers can opt out of using the scores in their evaluations.

The state is negotiating with Questar about its $30 million-a-year contract and also is asking Questar’s parent company, Educational Testing Services, to take on the design work of TNReady. McQueen did not offer specifics about either, but any changes must be approved by the legislature’s fiscal review committee.

Questar’s two-year contract ends Nov. 30, and the state either will stick with the company or find its third testing vendor in four years.

You can view Measurement Inc.’s claims, and the state’s counterclaim, in full below:

Measurement Inc.’s June 2017 claim:

The Department of Education’s January response:

Measurement Inc.’s February response: