Fact check

Mayor de Blasio just said New York City’s schools are safer than ever. Is he right?

PHOTO: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office
Mayor Bill de Blasio, flanked by police Commissioner James O'Neill and Chancellor Carmen Fariña held a press conference on school safety at M.S. 88 in Brooklyn on Tuesday.

Sandwiched between two banners that proclaimed last year the “safest school year on record,” Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Tuesday that the city’s schools are less violent than ever before.

The press conference represented a victory lap for de Blasio, who has pushed to reduce student suspensions and interactions with police in favor of more “restorative” practices that emphasize de-escalation and group discussions to resolve problems instead.

“As a result of these efforts,” de Blasio said at a press conference at Brooklyn’s M.S. 88, “the school year that just ended was the safest on record in the history of New York City.”

But even before the press conference started, Families for Excellent Schools — a pro-charter group that is one of de Blasio’s biggest critics — issued its own press release claiming the city’s schools are more violent than ever.

So what explains the radically different perspectives on how safe the city’s schools really are — and who’s right?

The mayor’s claim that schools are safer than ever is largely based on a single statistic.

When de Blasio says the city’s schools are safer than ever, he’s mostly referring to seven major crimes categorized by the NYPD: murder, rape, robbery, felony assault, burglary, grand larceny, and grand larceny auto. Last school year, there were 503 major crimes in schools, according to the NYPD, an 18 percent decline over three years.

It’s the lowest since 1998, when the city began tracking major crimes in schools, officials said. That might be an important piece of evidence, but doesn’t necessarily mean that schools are safer than they’ve ever been.

The mayor also noted that suspensions have dropped dramatically on his watch, and school-related arrests and summonses issued by the NYPD fell last year — by 8 and 11 percent respectively.

But it’s impossible to know based on publicly available data whether students are actually facing fewer arrests or summonses for school-related incidents than ever before. Until 2016, the NYPD did not release data on how its regular patrol officers (as opposed to its agents stationed in schools) interacted with students on school grounds. That changed last year, when they were compelled by a new city law to begin releasing those statistics, which show that black and Hispanic students are more likely to be arrested or restrained.

How can Families for Excellent schools claim the city’s schools are actually more dangerous?

In an email blast immediately before de Blasio’s press conference, the pro-charter group published a series of eye-popping statistics: Over the four school years that preceded 2015-16, assaults with serious physical injuries shot up roughly 82 percent, forcible sex offenses went up 18 percent, and overall violent incidents increased 30 percent.

Those statistics are based on data collected by the State Education Department through a system called VADIR (Violent and Disruptive Incident Reporting). But that system has come under fire for exaggerating the dangerousness of incidents in schools by using terminology associated with serious crimes.

The VADIR system has also been criticized by the state itself: Former education commissioner John King said in 2013 that the system “rarely reflects the realities of school health and safety” — and state education officials are currently working to update the system.

Asked about the state data, city officials pointed to a situation last year in which a first-grader was hit with a milk carton — later classified as a violent incident in VADIR.

“If my kids were in the first grade and they threw an empty milk carton or they were on the receiving end, there’s no way in the world I would consider that a violent incident,” de Blasio said. “The state, we’ve said many times, has a very different standard.”

At the press conference, somewhat ironically given their critique, city officials were eager to showcase how few city schools met the state’s classification of “persistently dangerous” — only two city schools down from 27 the previous school year.

The VADIR data also doesn’t look good for charter schools, which saw a 54 percent increase in violent incidents over a two-year period, Politico New York reported.

Overall, the evidence for “safest school year on record” is thin

Asked if there is additional data to back the mayor’s claim, neither the NYPD nor Department of Education could point to other statistics that show the city’s schools are safer now than ever before.

Setting aside the state’s VADIR data, some of the city’s own statistics offer a less rosy picture. Research based on the city’s annual surveys shows teachers and students think school climate has deteriorated under de Blasio.

And last school year, there were 1,429 incidents “involving weapons and dangerous instrument” — a 33 percent increase over the previous year, according to NYPD data.  

De Blasio pointed out that the weapons statistics could show that more weapons are being found, as opposed to more being brought into schools in the first place.

smaller cohort

Smaller cohort of charter schools to open in Memphis in 2018

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Daphnè Robinson, director of charter schools for Shelby County Schools, offers recommendations to the school board.

With charter schools comprising a fourth of Shelby County Schools, district leaders say they’re setting a higher bar for opening new ones in Memphis.

The school board approved only three out of 14 applications on Tuesday night, just months after the district overhauled its charter school office to strengthen oversight of the growing sector.

Opening in 2018 will be Believe Memphis Academy, Freedom Preparatory Academy, and Perea Elementary. The approvals mean the district will oversee 55 charter schools, easily the largest number of any district in Tennessee.

But it’s significantly less than last year, when the board green-lighted seven applicants. Since then, Shelby County Schools has doubled the size of its charter oversight office and stepped up scrutiny of applications.

“We want to strengthen the process every school year because, when it comes down to it, the lives of our kids are at stake and millions of dollars in taxpayer money,” said Brad Leon, chief of strategy and performance management.

This year, the district hired a new leader and new staff for its charter office. It’s also using several application reviewers from the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, the group that last year recommended a slew of changes for opening, managing and closing charter schools.

But even with all the changes, the school board didn’t follow all of the staff’s recommendations. Perea’s application had been recommended for denial but, after much discussion, the board voted 7-2 to let the group open an elementary school inside the recently closed Klondike Elementary building. Board members pointed to Perea’s long record of success in operating a preschool at Klondike.

The other two approvals were in line with staff recommendations. Believe Memphis Academy will be a literacy-focused college preparatory school serving students in grades 4-8 in the city’s medical district. Memphis-based Freedom Prep will open its fifth school, which eventually will serve grades 6-12 in the Whitehaven and Nonconnah communities.

Board member Teresa Jones expressed concern about deviating from staff recommendations on Perea.

“We have a process. And by all accounts, it’s not a perfect process, but it’s been applied to everyone,” she said.

But Billy Orgel, another board member, said the charter office should have taken into account the long-standing preschool’s performance, even though it’s never operated an elementary school.

“There is a track record with the funders. There is a track record with the school,” he said, adding that “no process is perfect.”

Groups vying for approval this year wanted to open schools that range from an all-girls program to a sports academy to several focused on science, technology, engineering and math.

Feeling flexible

How five Aurora schools in an “innovation zone” are making budget decisions to meet their own needs

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Crawford Elementary School Principal Jenny Passchier observed a writing lesson in October 2015.

When Aurora Public Schools went looking for ways to save money earlier this year, one casualty was a district-wide contract for a service that provides a translator on the phone when one is not available in person.

The decision could have hurt Crawford Elementary School, where students speak about 35 languages and the service is used at least weekly— more at the start of the school year.

But Principal Jenny Passchier was not without options. As one of five schools that comprise Aurora Public Schools’ year-old innovation zone, Crawford has greater autonomy from district rules and budgeting decisions.

So when school resumed a couple of weeks ago, families at the five innovation zone schools got phone calls they could understand because leaders of the schools chose to keep paying for the translation and drop other district services to make up the difference.

“It’s very critical that we have some way to get ahold of our families,” Passchier said. “Especially in maybe more informal situations. We don’t always have translators that are readily available in person, so that was a critical piece that we needed to keep.”

That decision provides a window into what autonomy looks like in Aurora’s innovation zone, Superintendent Rico Munn’s biggest reform bet to date to lift achievement in a district with a challenging student population and poor academic track record.

With the innovation zone, Aurora officials are turning to a school model that other districts across the state and country have tried, with mixed results. Innovation status provides schools charter school-like autonomy, but the schools are operated by the district instead of independently.

The five schools in northwest Aurora started rolling out their innovation plans last school year.

Taking advantage of the state’s innovation law, APS officials created the zone to give schools greater flexibility from some state laws, union or district policies so principals could govern things like curriculum, hiring practices, school calendars and budgets in ways that might improve achievement at their schools.

Last year, in the first year of innovation status, district officials worked with principals of the five schools in the zone to figure out what district services they could do without, and what extra services they wanted to pay for with the money they might have instead.

Principals started by looking at what their school needed help with and then district officials worked with them to analyze how well the existing services worked.

In the case of the TeleLanguage service, district officials calculated that the average district school used the translation service for about 909 minutes, or about 15 hours, per school year. But each of the five schools in the innovation zone used the service for about 2,978 minutes per school year — about three times as often as the average district school.

After the analysis, the five schools decided to drop several services, including cutting the district’s human resources department, and in exchange the schools were given about $500,000 extra in the 2017-18 budget.

How the money is being spent

  • Translation services, $14,000
  • Health Sciences Academy at Aurora Central, $30,000
  • College and career services, $30,000
  • Parent support budget for Student Engagement Advocate, $5,000
  • Talent acquisition and marketing budget, $40,000
  • Three full-time positions, $305,189
  • Individual school supports: Crawford, $20,000; Paris, $20,000; Boston K-8, $20,000; Aurora West, $30,000; Aurora Central, $36,000

“I led all five principals through the process of evaluating the needs of their schools,” said Lamont Browne, executive director of autonomous schools, including the innovation zone. “My approach was very much facilitating what ideas they had for who they were.”

As a zone, the five schools created three new positions with the extra $500,000. The schools hired a student engagement advocate to help communicate with families and improve student attendance (a position that would no longer exist at the district level); a director of instruction and leadership development; and a director of talent and acquisition to pick up some of the district HR department’s traditional duties.

The woman hired for that last role already has helped the five schools fill positions that still were open as school started.

Passchier described the budget redesign process as collaborative and said she spent a lot of time reflecting on her school’s needs.

“We were able to identify what are the zone-wide themes that we can support, but also what are unique things we need at the school level,” Browne said.

Each school made ia case for its own funding needs. For instance, Aurora Central High School hired an additional student engagement advocate that would be dedicated just to the 2,000-student high school. One of the staff person’s primary responsibilities: helping improve poor attendance.

Passchier said Crawford staff wanted to continue some reading work they’d done with a grant that was ending. The school is now using about $5,000 to continue work with a consultant the school found helpful in teaching students to read.

Officials say it’s too early to know how well the redesigned budget is working for the schools, but Passchier said she’s already seeing benefits two weeks into the school year.

The director of student engagement, who will work with the five schools to help them engage families and students with a goal of increasing attendance, already has been at Crawford several times, Passchier said.

Browne said that if principals find other district services they want to reconsider or analyze as the school year unfolds, the budget for the five schools may change.