missed chances

English learners are underrepresented in New York City’s career and technical ed programs, report finds

PHOTO: Jessica Glazer

Career and technical education has been shown to help students make it to graduation. But New York City’s English language learners — who consistently lag behind their peers when it comes to on-time graduation — are both under-enrolled in the city’s CTE programs and less likely to complete them, according to a new report.

Released Monday by the nonprofit Advocates for Children of New York, the report shows that while English learners made up 10.8 percent of the city’s high school students in the 2015–16 school year, they comprised only 5.3 percent of students in CTE programs. Though the number of CTE schools in New York City has increased dramatically over the past decade, the report raises the question of whether all groups of students are benefiting equally from these programs.

“The low number of ELLs in the city’s CTE schools and programs is a problem that needs attention,” said AFC’s executive director Kim Sweet in a press release. “High-quality CTE programs provide an invaluable bridge to future learning and employment paths.”

The four-year graduation rate for English learners in 2016 was roughly 27 percent — significantly lower than the citywide average of 73 percent. According to the report, English learners could benefit from joining CTE programs, as the graduation rate for ELLs who completed most or all of a CTE program last year was a significantly higher 57 percent.

Additionally, the report says, CTE programs can help English learners graduate through a pathway that allows students to take a technical exam in lieu of one of the required social studies Regents exams. This “4+1” option could be particularly helpful for English learners, according to the report, because their pass rates on Regents exams are often lower than those of non-English learners.

Those English learners who do end up in CTE programs face disadvantages, the report says, with many not making it to completion. Though the 2016 graduating class had 23,000 students who completed at least two-thirds of a CTE course sequence, only 2 percent were English learners.

“While ELLs who successfully complete a CTE program graduate at rates substantially higher than the citywide ELL graduation rate, ELLs at CTE high schools as a group appear to actually graduate at lower rates than ELLs at other schools,” the report explains.

English learners were also less likely to attend a“CTE-designated” school than a school that offered CTE programs. In the 2015–16 school year, English learners made up about 8.7 percent of students at schools that offer CTE programs, but only 5.6 percent at CTE-designated schools.

The report cited multiple ways the city could increase access to CTE programs for English learners and improve the students’ experience, such as offering extra training for CTE instructors on serving English learners, and providing bilingual CTE classes and translation services for those students. The report also called for the city to form an advisory group made up of educators, parents, students and professionals with English learners and CTE expertise to further explore the problem.

Officials in the city’s education department said they were reviewing the recommendations in the report.

There are often challenges scheduling English learners for CTE, the officials noted, since the students also need time set aside for language-related supports. But, the officials said, nearly all students who list a CTE school as the first choice on their high school applications ultimately enroll in a CTE high school. And the city’s plan to boost support for English learners in the high school admissions process could ease their access to CTE, they said. (The state has also vowed to make it easier for schools to start career and technical education programs.)

“We are committed to increasing opportunities for English language learners and career and technical education students, and building on improvements like providing all admissions information in 10 languages,” education department spokesman Will Mantell said. “While ELLs enroll in CTE high schools at about the same rate as they apply, we know there’s more work to do in attracting and serving ELL students in CTE programs.”

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Sayonara, SESIS: New York City to scrap its beleaguered special education data system

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat

New York City is scrapping a special education data system that has frustrated educators since it launched nearly a decade ago.

The troubles of SESIS, as the city’s Special Education Student Information System is called, are well known. Since its launch in 2011, the system — which required over $130 million to build — cost the city tens of millions of dollars in settlements, at times malfunctioned more than 800,000 times a day, and made it difficult to track whether students with disabilities are getting the services they need.

Education department officials said they have been able to “stabilize” the system in recent years. But they also have concluded that an entirely different system is needed. On Friday, they announced that they would phase SESIS out and replace it with something new — at a cost and on a timeline that is not yet clear.

The announcement comes on the eve of a City Council hearing set for Monday where council members say they will press for more transparency about special education.

“It was originally designed as a document management system,” Lauren Siciliano, the education department’s Deputy Chief Operating Officer, said about SESIS. “Think more of a filing cabinet right now as opposed to being able to follow a student through the process.”

Special education teachers often spent hours navigating a maze of drop-down menus — inputting data such as whether they met with a student and for how long — only to experience error messages that erased their answers.

Megan Moskop, a former special education teacher at M.S. 324 in Washington Heights, said she once encountered 41 error messages in two hours. What’s more, she said, the system didn’t reflect the experiences she had with her students.

“At the end of the day, I would be expected to go in, mark that they are present, mark whether they made progress toward a goal,” Moskop said. “It’s very standardized.”

It is not yet clear how quickly the education department will phase SESIS out. Officials said the city would begin a multistage process of identifying a vendor to create a new system by the end of March, then would ask for more detailed plans by the end of 2019. An official purchasing process would happen after that, Siciliano said, meaning that construction of  a new system will not begin for well over a year. Families and educators would be consulted throughout, officials said.

Linda Chen, the department’s chief academic officer, said a new system would lead to tangible improvements for students with disabilities.

“I do think that if we have clear and reliable visibility into the data it would absolutely allow us to better serve our students,” Chen said.

Flaws with SESIS have made it difficult to know how well the city is serving students with disabilities. Because the system was not set up to communicate with other city databases, city officials have had to manually tabulate data across systems. And the annual reports that show whether students are receiving required services may not be accurate because of the system’s flaws, officials have warned.

The system’s glitches also made the user experience so cumbersome that teachers had to spend time on nights and weekends entering data. An arbitrator eventually ordered the city to pay over $38 million in teacher overtime.

Additionally, the system has sparked legal action. Former Public Advocate Letitia James filed a lawsuit claiming that SESIS was to blame for some children not receiving services as well as lost Medicaid payments. Between 2012 and 2015, according to the IBO, the city collected $373 million less in Medicaid reimbursements than officials projected.

Some advocates said that given SESIS’s troubled history, it makes sense to find alternatives.

“There has to be a strong data system in place,” said Maggie Moroff, a disability policy expert at Advocates for Children, a nonprofit advocacy organization. “We are eager to see a better system to be put in place, but are really worried about that transition period.”

Advocates have also pushed the city to make the data SESIS tracks directly available to parents.

“We will absolutely be looking at that,” Siciliano said.

next steps

Charter schools racing to find new buildings as district ends their leases

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Escuela Avancemos will move to a new building.

At least two Detroit charter schools are racing against the clock to find new buildings for more than 500 students next fall after the city district decided not to renew their leases.

It’s the latest move in an ongoing effort by the Detroit Public Schools Community District to get out of the charter business, and it means another bout of uncertainty for schools that enroll hundreds of children in Detroit.

Leaders of GEE-Edmonson Academy and GEE-White Academy face the daunting challenge of finding new buildings before the start of the next school year. Another school, Escuela Avancemos, already found a new building. More schools, including Rutherford Winans Academy, have leases that expire this year, but their representatives did not return requests for comment on whether their lease was renewed.

Most students at the two schools run by Global Educational Excellence (GEE) walk every day, Superintendent Michael Conran said. If a new building can’t be found in those neighborhoods, the school’s would face new transportation challenges, casting doubt on their ability to maintain their enrollment.

“We were clearly not anticipating that the leases would not be renewed,” Conran said. “That news came pretty late, I believe it was after the New Year. That’s quite a notification to the boards in such a short period of time.”

The challenges for these schools don’t end there. The district could also decline to renew their charters for the GEE schools when they expire in June, potentially forcing them to find new backers as well as new buildings.

More than one charter school has already jumped ship. Escuela Avancemos, a small school in southwest Detroit, will begin the coming year in a new building and with a new authorizer, Central Michigan University. Officials had begun searching for a new building even before they were notified last month that their lease would not be renewed.

“For the protection of our school, we’ve had to take matters into our own hands to guarantee our future,” said Sean Townsin, principal at Escuela Avancemos.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti made clear soon after he took the helm of the district in 2017 that he believed the district’s resources should be channeled toward its own students, not toward charter schools.

He reiterated that position last year when the district severed its ties with a three-school network of charter schools, forcing it to scramble to find new buildings and a new charter. Parents were forced to choose between an extraordinarily long commute to the new site and making an unwanted switch to another school. Enrollment was cut in half.

Supporters of the move pointed out at the time that those schools had been district schools until they were spun off by state-appointed emergency managers. In a city with lots of school options and few quality schools, they argued, some consolidation is necessary.

Most charters in Detroit are overseen by Michigan’s public universities, but 10 schools are supervised by the Detroit district.

A handful of those schools also rent their school buildings from the district, putting them in a particularly vulnerable position should the district decide that it would rather not support charter schools — its chief competitors for students and state funding.

In a statement about those schools, Chrystal Wilson, a spokeswoman for the district, said the the charter schools could eventually be replaced with district schools.

“Now that we have the leadership to rebuild the district, we need to review and maximize our property assets. This means possibly re-using currently leased schools for new DPSCD schools, replacing older buildings with high repair costs, or adding a school in an area where facility usage and class sizes are high where another traditional public school does not exist. We understand and accept if district charters are leaving for other authorizers.”

No matter the district’s plans, Conran said the Global Educational Excellence schools would continue trying to serve students.

But he asked for transparency from the district and time to plan.

“I’m just simply waiting to hear from DPS any decisions they anticipate making in as timely a manner as we need to make sure we can continue to support these students and their families,” he said.