On a mild Thursday morning this month when more than a million students were returning to classrooms across New York City, Chalkbeat New York reporter Alex Zimmerman was hunched in the back of a press van, laptop bouncing on his knees, dashing out a report about the mayor and chancellor’s first-day-of-school tour.

Meanwhile reporter Monica Disare was visiting a Bronx “community school” where the principal had managed to bring in a health clinic and child-care center and was now cutting the ribbon on a new million-dollar playground. And reporter Christina Veiga was talking to teachers and counselors about a policy shift involving young undocumented immigrants that threatened to upend the lives of some of their students just as they were returning to school.

In all, it was a typical day at Chalkbeat New York.

Our mission is to explain the policies and tell the stories of the people who make up the nation’s largest school system — with a focus on efforts to ensure every student gets a great education, not just the privileged few. To do that requires countless phone calls, mountains of data, and regular school visits — occasionally by way of a city-chauffeured van.

Now that a new school year is upon us, we’re asking you to join us in that mission. Below you’ll hear from Chalkbeat New York reporters about the stories they’re focusing on this year. As you read, know that we can’t tell them without you. So please — reach out! Introduce yourself, submit a story tip, give us feedback, or propose a First Person essay by emailing us at ny.tips@chalkbeat.org.

All this work demands time and talent — neither of which are free. If every New York reader gave $10 right now, we could raise $700,000 to support our mission this year. That’d be enough for all these stories and more. We hope those who can will consider making a $10 tax-deductible donation here.

— Patrick Wall, Chalkbeat New York interim bureau chief

 

Christina Veiga: The city is paying more attention to instruction, the youngest students, and school integration — and so am I

Last school year, I visited a fifth-grade classroom in the Bronx. Students were huddled in small groups, vigorously but respectfully debating the answer to a word problem. The teacher floated from group to group asking probing questions — but never giving away the answers. The idea was to let students make their own discoveries, turning math from rote memorization into exploration.

This year, I’ll be looking closely at what’s happening inside more schools like that, especially when it comes to teaching, school diversity and early learning — areas where New York City is devoting special energy. I started covering education at the Miami Herald in 2014; since I’ve been with Chalkbeat New York, I’ve found that the issues schools confront here aren’t all that different from those faced by schools 1,200 miles away. Yet New York City’s efforts to address them are often on the policy vanguard, influencing districts across the country.

This school year, inspired by that scene in the Bronx, I’ll dig deeper into how the city trains the its 76,000 teachers. Are we setting them up for success? Under schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, the education department has placed a big bet on improving classroom instruction. Now that the de Blasio administration’s policies have had time to take root, it will be important to track whether — and how — teaching and learning have changed.

I’ll also be reporting on the city’s new “3-K” preschool program for 3-year-olds, its youngest pre-K class yet. Will New York City’s efforts to intervene earlier in children’s education help narrow the achievement gap between rich and poor students that emerges before they even start school?

At the same time, I’ll be following the city’s unfolding efforts to tackle school segregation. The de Blasio administration released a plan this summer that lays out its diversity goals, but advocates remain frustrated with the pace of change and the goals the city set for itself. In a system built on choice, can the city steer families toward integration?

Just like those Bronx students whom I watched debate concepts in algebra, I’m excited to uncover the answers to these questions and others — but I can’t do it without your help. If pre-K, teacher training and school integration are topics that matter to you, join me in my reporting by emailing tips, story ideas or questions to cveiga@chalkbeat.org. You can also find me on Twitter at @cveiga.

Monica Disare: I’ll be chronicling a new era in state policy and barriers on the path to college

As Chalkbeat’s state policy reporter, I’ve had a front row seat as New York’s approach to school improvement has veered in a very different direction.

Each month, I head upstate to cover the Board of Regents meeting (as a Buffalo native, it’s a trip I enjoy). At my first Regents meeting nearly two years ago, former Chancellor Merryl Tisch announced her resignation, marking the end of an era characterized by fast-paced changes and a desire to raise education standards — and setting in motion a retreat from what many perceived as a narrow focus on testing and an unreasonably high bar for needy schools and students.

Later on, I watched as officials sent shockwaves across the state by striking test scores from teacher evaluations, electing a new leader endorsed by the testing-boycott movement, and making it easier for students with disabilities to earn diplomas.

But besides unwinding policies of the past, top state officials must now set their own agenda and make the case that they’ve charted a better course. Will their decision to emphasize resources over harsh interventions pay off, or will low-performing schools backslide?

This year, I’ll also be paying special attention to whether New York City high schools are preparing all students for college or work.

Last year, I wrote a series about the barriers that keep many low-income black and Hispanic students out of the city’s top-performing high schools.

At a middle school on the Upper East Side, students told me about the countless hours of test prep, interviews, and school tours they devoted to getting into those top schools. Just a short subway ride away in the Bronx, students described a last-minute application scramble, in which they based potentially life-altering decision about where to apply on a list of recommended schools their guidance counselor had posted on the wall.

The vast differences pose urgent questions: How are students’ futures shaped by the high schools where they land? How can high schools catch up students who arrive many grade levels behind? And should students be encouraged to attend college even if they aren’t fully prepared?

These questions are especially timely since the state Regents are rethinking what it should take to earn a high school diploma and New York now boasts the nation’s largest free-tuition scholarship. Meanwhile, New York City’s “Equity and Excellence” agenda is meant to patch up holes in the pipeline between high school and college.

As part of my coverage, I’ll be moderating a Chalkbeat event next month on ways to improve the city’s high-school admissions system. Have questions about the admissions process you want answered at the panel? Email me at mdisare@chalkbeat.org or find me on Twitter at @monicadisare. I hope to see you in person Oct. 12!

Alex Zimmerman: With an eye toward equity, I’ll be writing about school turnaround and special education

The mood was tense in the auditorium of the High School of Fashion Industries this past March. Dozens of educators, parents, and elected officials stepped up to a microphone to blast a plan to close several struggling schools the city had promised to turn around with new social services and academic support.

Their arguments raised key questions about one of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s most ambitious reforms — the Renewal program — designed to pour hundreds of millions of dollars into struggling schools instead of shuttering them. How long should low-performing schools be given to improve? With few successful national models to emulate, what does progress look like? And, crucially, is the program improving student learning?

As the three-year Renewal initiative closes in on its third birthday — just as de Blasio is up for reelection this November — and with more school closures on the horizon, those questions have taken on new urgency.

This year, I’ll also cover how the mayor’s education agenda is evolving, potential leadership changes at the education department (will Chancellor Carmen Fariña stay on if de Blasio gets another term?), and how his policies are filtering into the city’s 1,800 schools.

I’ll also dive into coverage of one of the most vulnerable yet least-covered student populations: those with disabilities. As the sibling of a disabled student, I know firsthand how complicated—and crucial—special education is. Last fall, for example, I met a mother who couldn’t find a preschool seat for her son with disabilities. He wound up spending six months at home — an example of how the city sometimes struggles to meet demand for special-education services.

I’m excited to cover these storylines, but many of the stories will depend on people I’ve yet to meet. So if you’re interested in talking about special education, school turnarounds — or are an education insider with a confidential tip — your first cup of coffee is on me. You can reach me via email at azimmerman@chalkbeat.org or on Twitter at @agzimmerman.