2017-18 Begins

From a preschool to a struggling school, Mayor de Blasio helps city kick off a new school year

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Mayor Bill de Blasio walks to P.S. 277 in the Bronx with three-year-old Joel Lopez and his mother, Astrea Ramirez, on the first day of school.

As school began Thursday for over a million students in New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio and schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña criss-crossed the city, with plans to visit classrooms in every borough.

The yearly tradition marks an opportunity for the mayor, who is facing re-election this fall, to make the case that his education agenda is paying off and to tout several newly unveiled initiatives: free preschool for three-year-olds, more computer-science classes, and an expanded free-lunch program that now includes all students.

Throughout the day, we’ll post dispatches from the mayor and chancellor’s citywide school tour.

Kicking off the school year with the city’s youngest students

7:57 a.m.: De Blasio began the day walking to school with 3-year-old Joel Lopez, a member of the school system’s youngest and newest cohort. Under the city’s new 3-K for All program, two districts in the Brooklyn and Bronx will begin serving nearly 800 3-year-olds this school fall — a downward expansion of free pre-kindergarten for all 4-year-olds, the mayor’s signature education accomplishment. (The education department will also provide support for an additional 577 3-year-olds enrolled in early-learning centers in those districts.)

Along with Fariña, the mayor and Joel strolled into a basement classroom at the Bronx’s P.S. 277, where students got to work right away. They sat at small rectangular tables pulling apart pieces of pink and blue Play-Doh, as their teachers hovered above them.

Astrea Ramirez, Joel’s mother, said she heard about the 3-K program through a family member and signed up immediately. “I would have had to pay out-of-pocket for daycare,” she said, adding that she hopes the new program will jump-start her son’s education. “At this age, they’re sponges.”

With fewer than 1,400 students, the new 3-K program is far smaller than the mayor’s ambitious program for 4-year-olds, which is open to every child and currently serves over 70,000 students. Still, de Blasio said the new program is part of his administration’s push to ensure students have access to high-quality education during their crucial early-developmental years.

“A whole generation of our children are going to get that great education from the beginning,” de Blasio said. “What we’re seeing here today is the beginning of something very big.”

College talk at a struggling high school

11:13 a.m.: Later this morning, the mayor headed to Queens to talk college with teenagers and check in on a high school in his closely watched “Renewal” program for struggling schools.

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Mayor de Blasio sits in on a class at August Martin High School in Queens on the first day of the 2017-18 school year.

Stepping into a blue-tiled classroom in the South Jamaica neighborhood, he observed students in polo shirts and khakis playing a game of “College-and-Career Jeopardy.” The students, who attend separate schools in the same building, eagerly answered questions like: “What are the three things you need to fill out your FAFSA?” and whether students with middling academic records should apply to colleges that look for higher-than-average SAT scores and grades. (The answer: Yes!)

The visit was meant to highlight a collaboration between a low-performing district school, August Martin High School, and a charter school on the same campus, New Visions Charter High School for Advanced Math and Science IV. About 120 partnerships exist across the city, officials said.

This year, August Martin seniors are helping mentor New Visions’ juniors on how to navigate the college application process. One August Martin student, Stephon Jones, said his biggest piece of advice is to start thinking early on about what you want out of college. “That’s going to help me find the career I want,” he said, adding that he’s considering becoming an actor or wrestler.

Mayor de Blasio dispensed some college advice of his own, encouraging students not to be intimidated by the college application process. While the visit focused on college planning, it did not call attention to the fact that August Martin has been among the lowest-performing schools in the city — and one the mayor is trying to turn around through his $582 million Renewal program.

In 2016, the school’s four-year graduation rate was 39 percent — a far cry from the citywide rate of 73 percent that year and lower than the 59 percent rate among Renewal high schools. Graduation rates from 2017 have not yet been released, but Principal Rory Parnell said August Martin’s improved significantly this year, climbing to about 64 percent.

Parnell said she has been working hard to turn the school around after it was labeled “out of time” by the state and has suffered a declining enrollment. She’s boosted its music program (plastic storage containers no longer double as drums), instituted a uniform policy, and has pushed her teachers — just two of whom have been at the school longer than three years — to raise their expectations of students. Between 2015 and 2016, the school’s graduation rate leapt 14 percentage points, while its students’ college-readiness rate grew six points.

“Over the past two years, our school has seen a 100 percent transformation,” Parnell said.

Still, just weeks ago, de Blasio suggested that more schools in the Renewal program could face closure if they don’t make steady progress. Parnell says she feels pressure to improve, but believes the school is on the right track.

“I try to separate myself from the political pressure,” she said. “As far as my school closing, that’s in God’s hands.”

Day 1(010110011)

1:59 p.m.: It was the final period of their first day back at Curtis High School on Staten Island and Sarah McCoy’s new computer-science students were already learning the rudiments of programming.

The juniors and seniors in the newly created Advanced Placement class worked in pairs to write lines of code that would direct a small yellow cartoon character to dance around the screen, or to move in response to clicks. Even with the mayor and schools chancellor observing her lesson, McCoy attentively shuttled across the room to help students troubleshoot technical glitches, or nudged others to move on to the next task.

One of her main goals is to help her students pass the AP test, which can give them a leg up in the college application process or help them earn college credits. But she also wants them to derive more intangible benefits from her class, like intellectual curiosity, as evinced by the issues of WIRED magazine strewn across the tops of filing cabinets.

“I hope they’ll be better equipped to understand the world around them,” she said.

Oluwaseun Johnson, a senior who said he’s always had an interest in technology, seemed to be enjoying the programming challenge.

“I like seeing how things work,” he said, adding that he plans to study computer science in college next year. “It’s a good skill to have.”

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Chancellor Carmen Fariña watched Curtis High School student Oluwaseun Johnson during a computer science class.

The new class — called Computer Science Principles — is part of an overlapping set of initiatives that Mayor de Blasio hopes will result in every high school offering at least five AP classes by 2021, and every student studying computer science by 2025.

McCoy, who has taught math in the past, said she signed up for every new computer-science workshop she could. This April, she attended a weeklong training with educators from U.C. Berkeley who are helping some New York City educators adapt a college-level programming course for high school students.

“As a math teacher, I often got questions about how the course is relevant to their lives,” she said. “It’s just so obvious how [computer science] is relevant to real life.”

Correction: Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this story cited an incorrect graduation rate for New Visions Charter High School for Advanced Math and Science IV. In fact, that school has not yet graduated any students.

Clarification: The story has been updated to better describe the purpose of the mayor’s visit to August Martin High School and to include the 2016 graduation rate among Renewal high schools.

pre-k for all

New York City will add dual language options in pre-K to attract parents and encourage diversity

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, back right, visits a Mandarin pre-K dual language program at P.S. 20 Anna Silver on the Lower East Side.

Education Department officials on Wednesday announced the addition of 33 dual language pre-K programs in the 2018-19 school year, more than doubling the bilingual opportunities available for New York City’s youngest learners.

The expansion continues an aggressive push under the current administration, which has added 150 new bilingual programs to date. Popular with parents — there were 2,900 applications for about 600 pre-K dual language seats last year — the programs can also be effective in boosting the performance of students who are learning English as a new language.

Another possible benefit: creating more diverse pre-K classrooms, which research has shown are starkly segregated in New York City.

Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña said the new programs reflect the city’s commitment to serving all students, even as a national debate rages over immigration reform.

“It’s important to understand that immigrants or people who speak a second language are an asset,” Fariña said. She called bilingual education “a gift that I think all schools should have.”

Included in the expansion are the city’s first dual language pre-K programs in Bengali and Russian, which will open in Jamaica, Queens, and the Upper West Side, Manhattan, respectively. The other additions will build on programs in Spanish, Mandarin and Italian. Every borough is represented in the expansion, with 11 new programs in Manhattan, nine in Brooklyn, six in Queens, five in the Bronx, and two on Staten Island.

In the dual-language model, students split their time between instruction in English and another language. At P.S. 20 Anna Silver, where the recent expansion was announced, pre-K students start the morning in English and transition to Mandarin after nap time. Experts say the model works best when the class includes an equal mix of students who are proficient in each language so they can learn from each other as well as the teacher, though it can often be difficult to strike that balance.

Officials and some advocates view dual-language programs as a tool for integration by drawing middle-class families eager to have their children speak two languages into neighborhood schools that they otherwise may not have considered. Research has shown that New York City’s pre-K classrooms tend to be more segregated than kindergarten. In one in six pre-K classrooms, more than 90 percent of students are from a single racial or ethnic background. That’s compared with one in eight kindergarten classrooms, according to a 2016 report by The Century Foundation.

Sharon Stapel, a mother from Brooklyn, said she knew early on that she wanted her daughter to learn another language and strike relationships across cultures. So she travels to the Lower East Side with her four-year-old, Finch, to attend the Mandarin dual-language pre-K program at P.S. 20 Anna Silver. On Wednesday, the city announced it will add a Spanish dual language program at the school.

“We really see it as how you build community with your neighbors and your friends,” Stapel said. “It was also an opportunity for Finch to become involved and engage in the cultures and in the differences that she could see in the classrooms — and really celebrate that difference.”

Citywide, about 13 percent of students are learning English as a new language. That number does not include pre-K since the state does not have a way to identify students’ language status before kindergarten. However, based on census data, it is estimated that 30 percent of three- and four-year-olds in New York are English learners.

Dual-language programs can benefit students who are still learning English — more so than English-only instruction. Nationally and in New York City, students who are learning English are less likely to pass standardized tests and graduate from high school. In one study, students who enrolled in dual-language courses in kindergarten gained the equivalent of one year of reading instruction by eighth grade, compared with their peers who received English-only instruction.

The city has been under pressure to improve outcomes for English learners. Under the previous administration, New York City was placed on a state “corrective action plan” that required the education department to open 125 new bilingual programs by 2013. Though the city fell short of that goal, the current administration has agreed to place every English learner in a bilingual program by the 2018-19 school year.

Among the greatest barriers to achieving that is finding qualified teachers, Fariña said. In some cases, it can be hard to find teachers who are fluent in the target language. In others, teachers who are native in a foreign language may only be certified in their home country, and it can be hard to transfer that certification to New York.

In order to open an Urdu program recently, Fariña said, the teacher, who holds a degree from another country, went through Teaching Fellows, an alternative certification program that usually caters to career-changers or recent college grads.

“I think the biggest challenge we have right now is ensuring our teacher preparation courses are keeping up with our need and demand for teachers who can teach another language,” she said.

college plans

As Washington decides their fate, ‘Dreamers’ preparing for college are stuck in limbo

PHOTO: Joe Amon/The Denver Post
Randi Smith, a psychology teacher at Metro State University, marched to support Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals during a citywide walkout in downtown Denver, CO.

While many high schoolers spend spring of their senior year coasting through classes and waiting to hear back from colleges, undocumented students who hope to attend college spend their time calling lawyers, consulting school counselors, and scouring the internet in search of ways to pay for school without the help of federal financial aid or student loans — assuming they even get in.

That process, anxiety-provoking even in a normal year, has become incalculably more chaotic this admissions season — even traumatic — as these young undocumented immigrants watch President Trump and lawmakers wrangle over Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the program that has until now allowed them to remain in the country without having to fear deportation.

As the policy battle nears a climax, these students aren’t just breathlessly waiting to learn whether they’ll be accepted into college — they’re waiting to see whether they have a future in this country.

“It’s different for me. It’s definitely more stressful and there are times when you want to give up,” said an undocumented student at KIPP NYC College Prep High School, who is graduating this year and applying to colleges. She requested anonymity because of her legal status. “But then I remind myself that regardless of what’s going on, I’m still going to do what I’ve set myself to do.”

High school counselors are also feeling the strain. They already faced the difficult task of helping undocumented students compete for private scholarships, and finding schools that will support those students once they’re on campus. Now those counselors also must monitor each twist and turn of the immigration debate in Washington, while, somehow, trying to keep their undocumented students focused on college.

One of those counselors is John Kearney, who works at Guadalupe Centers Alta Vista High School, a charter school in Kansas City, Missouri. Dozens of his soon-to-graduate students are beneficiaries of DACA, a program created under former President Obama that allows undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country as children to avoid deportation and work here legally. Lately, they have been asking him why they should even consider college when their fate in the U.S. is so uncertain.

“The big question is, ‘Why? Why go to college, and then I can’t even work, then why?’” said Kearney, who also helped start a nonprofit that provides scholarships to undocumented students. “It’s a really tough question.”

As of Friday, President Trump and lawmakers were still locked in heated negotiations over DACA, which Trump said this fall that he would eliminate unless Congress enshrined it in law. Without an agreement, it is set to expire March 5, just as graduating seniors firm up their college plans. If that happens, young immigrants, often called Dreamers, could lose the few crucial protections they have. For many, their DACA status has already lapsed.

Even with DACA’s protections, Dreamers face massive hurdles to enroll in college: They don’t qualify for federal aid or loans, and, in some states, are barred from receiving financial aid or even attending public universities. Out of the estimated 65,000 undocumented students who graduate from high school every year, only 5-10 percent enroll in college.

Following Trump’s announcement in September, counselors have also had to race against the clock counting down to DACA’s expiration: That meant juggling college application deadlines with the October cutoff for students to apply for renewed DACA status.

The KIPP charter school network received a donation this year to help students pay for the renewal fee, which has been a godsend for many students — including the young woman who is graduating from KIPP NYC College Prep High School.

As soon as she learned the school would pay the fee for her, she immediately called her father, who is also undocumented and repairs beauty-salon equipment for a living.

“My dad was definitely trying to round up the money before the deadline, so it was a blessing that the school was able to find a donor,” she said. “I told him not to worry about it and it was a relief — like a weight off his shoulders.”

If the girl was trying to relieve her father’s stress, her college counselor, Rob Santos, was trying to do the same for her. Even as she balanced college-application essays, transcripts, and the rest, she was also coming to realize how quickly her life would change if DACA is not extended.

“There was definitely extra emotional support that I’ve had to provide this year,” Santos said. “I definitely had my DACA student in my office, and tears were happening.”

Santos keeps a running list of the colleges that accept students who don’t have permanent legal status and the few scholarships available to them. Many of those scholarships require undocumented students to have DACA status. If the program ends, it’s unclear whether students will still be eligible.

Still, Santos said his dreamer student rarely talks about the political furor surrounding her future in the U.S. as she awaits her college-acceptance letter. Instead, she’s more likely to discuss her hope of one day studying business and fashion.

“Our DACA students are resilient. They’re optimistic,” Santos said. “But they’re also realistic for what could actually happen.”