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.

Busing Ban

As school districts push for integration, decades-old federal rule could thwart them

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post
Several districts across the country want to use federal money to pay for school buses as part of their desegregation plans. A federal spending restriction could get in the way.

In Florida, officials plan to use federal money to shuttle students across vast Miami-Dade County to new science-themed magnet programs in a bid to desegregate several schools.

In South Carolina, a tiny district west of Myrtle Beach intends to spend federal funds on free busing for families who enroll at two predominantly black schools, hoping that will draw in white and Hispanic students.

And in New York, state officials want to deploy federal school-improvement money to help integrate struggling schools, believing that may be the secret to their rebirth.

But each of these fledgling integration efforts — and similar ones across the country — could be imperiled by obscure budget provisions written during the anti-busing backlash of the 1970s, which prohibit using federal funding for student transportation aimed at racial desegregation. The rules have been embedded in every education spending bill since at least 1974, as Rep. Bobby Scott of Virginia pointed out in September when he tried unsuccessfully to remove the provisions from the latest appropriations bill.

The rules are “a relic of an ugly history when states and school districts across the nation resisted meaningful integration,” said Scott, the top Democrat on the House education committee, during a floor speech where he called the persistence of the rules “morally reprehensible.”

After Scott’s amendment to eliminate the provisions was blocked, advocates are now working behind the scenes to convince members of the Senate from both parties to strike the rules from the latest spending bill during negotiations. More than 40 integration advocates and experts have signed onto a letter to lawmakers calling for the anti-busing language to be removed, and members of that coalition plan to meet with lawmakers in the coming days.

Advocates are especially worried about funding for magnet programs, like those in Miami and the South Carolina district, which rely on special science or art offerings or rigorous academic courses to draw students of different races into the same school — a choice-based approach that has become the primary way districts now pursue desegregation.

This is the first year districts that receive federal magnet-school grants are allowed to spend some of that money on transportation, after Congress changed the rules as part of its education-law overhaul in 2015. Among the 32 districts that received a total of nearly $92 million in magnet grants this year, at least six plan to use some of that money for transportation, according to their applications.

Now, just as those funds are about to flow to busing — which many families insist upon before they will enroll their children in magnet schools across town — the decades-old spending restriction could cut them off, advocates warn.

That could create a major problem for districts like Miami-Dade County.

It hopes to attract students from across the district to three heavily black and Hispanic schools by launching magnet programs that focus on zoology, cybersecurity, and mobile-app development, according to its application. To pull that off, it requested $245,000 for buses next year since, as the application notes, the “most limiting factor” for many families is “the cost associated with transporting their child to the magnet school.”

The district in Lake City, South Carolina wants to pull new families from different neighborhoods into an elementary school and a middle school that suffer from sagging enrollment and intense poverty. Previous recruitment efforts that didn’t provide transportation amounted to “failed attempts,” the district said in its application.

However, if the anti-busing provisions are not removed from the next federal spending bill, they would cancel out the new rule allowing those districts to spend some of their magnet money on transportation (though districts could still use local funds to fill in the gap). As such, magnet-school representatives are pushing hard for lawmakers to remove the provisions during budget negotiations.

“We’re hoping this doesn’t see the light of day,” said John Laughner, legislative and communications manager at Magnet Schools of America, an association of magnets from across the country. He plans to discuss the issue with lawmakers next week.

Beyond magnet schools, other desegregation efforts could be undercut by the anti-busing provision, which was included in a spending bill for fiscal year 2018 that the House approved and one the Senate has yet to vote on.

At least one state — New York — listed socioeconomic and racial integration among the ways it could intervene in low-performing schools under the new federal education law. In addition, New York officials announced a grant program this week where up to 30 districts will receive federal money to develop integration plans.

Advocates fear the anti-busing rule could disrupt any of those plans that require transportation and aim to reduce racial segregation. (New York education officials said they did not want to speculate on the impact of a spending bill that hasn’t been approved.)

A Democratic Congressional aide who has studied the issue said the provision could even block federal funding for planning or public outreach around desegregation programs that involve busing, not just busing itself.

Either way, advocates say the provision could dissuade districts from using the new education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, to pursue integration — even though research suggests that student achievement on tests and other measures improve when they attend less segregated schools.

“We shouldn’t have this,” said Philip Tegeler, a member of the National Coalition on School Diversity, which is leading the charge to remove the restriction. He added that the provision stemmed from mandatory desegregation busing of an earlier era: “It’s clearly an anachronism that doesn’t really fit any more with what states and districts are doing voluntarily.”

A U.S. education department spokeswoman said Secretary Betsy DeVos would be bound to enforce any funding prohibitions that Congress approves, though she noted that state and local funds are not subject to the same restrictions.

Negotiators from the House and Senate must still agree on a single spending bill, which would go before the full Congress for a vote. Until then, lawmakers have voted to temporarily extend 2017 spending levels through December. It’s possible Congress will pass another extension then, meaning a final deal — and a decision on the anti-busing language — may not arrive until early next year.

In the meantime, advocates are pressing lawmakers like Sen. Lamar Alexander, the Republican chairman of the Senate education committee who helped craft ESSA, with the argument that the anti-busing provision limits the flexibility and local control the law was meant to provide districts.

Margaret Atkinson, a spokeswoman for the senator, would not say whether he is open to removing the provision, but said he would continue working to ensure ESSA “is implemented as Congress intended.”

The anti-busing language — found in two sections of the current appropriation bills — prohibits using federal funds for transportation “to overcome racial imbalance” or “to carry out a plan of racial desegregation,” or forcing students to attend any school other than the one closest to home. (A separate education law contains a similar restriction, but ESSA exempted magnet schools from it.) The provisions emerged in the early 1970s, just after the Supreme Court ruled that busing students to schools outside their own racially isolated neighborhoods was an appropriate tool for school desegregation.

At the time, many white parents raged against what they called “forced busing.” In response, the U.S. House of Representatives passed at least one law annually from 1966 to 1977 meant to curb school integration, according to historian Jason Sokol, and in 1974 the full Congress voted in favor of an anti-busing amendment to an education bill. The restrictions in the current spending bills appear to have originated around the same time.

The attacks on busing reflect how crucial free transportation is to school desegregation, said Erica Frankenberg, a professor at Pennsylvania State University who studies segregation. Busing was included in guidelines outlining how districts should comply with desegregation requirements in the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and later upheld by the Supreme Court, she pointed out.

More recently, studies have shown that non-white parents are more likely to opt into magnet schools when they provide transportation, and that magnets that don’t offer busing are more likely to enroll students of a single race, Frankenberg said. Yet, many politicians remain reluctant to endorse busing for desegregation — which may reflect a deeper ambivalence, she added.

Resistance to busing, she said, “is a very politically acceptable way to be opposed to integration.”

Yes and No

In a first, New York officials reject 2 proposed charter schools, but sign off on 5 for New York City

PHOTO: Geoff Decker
Charter-school advocates staged a rally outside the state capitol building 2015.

New York’s top education policymakers voted Monday to approve five new charter schools in New York City – but, for the first time, rejected two proposed charters.

The moves by the state Board of Regents sent a mixed message on charter schools. While the Regents have approved more this year than at any point since 2013, the rejections suggest they won’t rubber stamp applications – even those, like the two shot down Monday, that have earned the state education department’s blessing.

Four of the approved schools will be based in the Bronx, and one in Staten Island. (Technically, Monday’s vote is preliminary and the board must finalize its decision at Tuesday’s full-board meeting.)

A new charter high school on Staten Island plans to enroll a significant number of students with disabilities — an area of great need in a borough where a quarter of students have some disability. Students will have the opportunity to graduate with as many as 60 college credits through a partnership with St. John’s University.

The Bronx charters include a new elementary school that will serve high-functioning students on the autism spectrum, an all-boys middle school inspired by an Obama-era program aimed at uplifting young men of color, and a high school for students who have fallen behind academically.

The final Bronx school is KIPP Freedom, slated to open in 2018, which will mark the first time the national network has opened a new school in New York City in six years.

“The community has tremendous support for the charter,” said Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa about KIPP, who suggested the school could even help reduce segregation if sited in the right location.

The two schools the board rejected would have been located in districts in Mount Vernon, in Westchester County, and Homer, in upstate New York.

Board members raised concerns about the applications, including that their curriculums were not very innovative. They also worried that the schools would drain resources from their surrounding districts, potentially forcing them to cut extracurricular programs from traditional schools.

Regent Judith Johnson, who represents the Mount Vernon district, expressed concern that the school only planned to serve students grades 6-8, while the district is moving towards a model that keeps children in the same school from kindergarten through eighth grade. She suggested waiting to see how the district’s efforts pan out.

“I would suggest this is premature,” Johnson said. “I’m not going to support this at this time.”

The vote comes as top state officials have been skeptical of charter schools and policies regulating them.

At past meetings, Regents have wondered aloud whether the schools are serving their fair share of high-needs students. And Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa and State Commissioner MaryEllen Elia have been on a warpath against a new policy that will allow some charter schools to certify their own teachers.

However, those concerns have not stopped the Regents from approving new charter schools. During a low point for approvals in 2015, when the state approved only four charters, few applications made it past the education department’s vetting process and to the board for final approval.

Since then, there has been a steady uptick in approvals. The board signed off on seven new schools last year, and is set to approve at least eight this year. (The board, which typically accepts applications in two or three rounds each year, approved three schools earlier this year.)

State education department officials on Monday also presented new ways to evaluate charter schools and decide whether they should remain open, based on proposals that the Board of Regents floated last month.

The additions to the state’s “Charter School Performance Framework” could include measures of student chronic absenteeism, the schools’ suspension rates, and the results of student and staff surveys. In previous meetings, Regents have also suggested surveying families who decide to leave charter schools.

Charter schools are already required to meet certain enrollment and retention targets, or to make “good faith efforts” to reach them. The state also considers the quality of a school’s curriculum and its outreach to families.

At Monday’s meeting, some Regents proposed adding yet another measure: whether charter schools are sharing innovative practices with the district schools.

“If the original intent [of charter schools] was to create opportunity for innovation,” said Regent Johnson, “we have to decide now, after those twenty plus years, did that happen?”