birds and bees

Despite progress, many New York City schools still fail to provide sex ed

PHOTO: David Moriya for the NYCLU
Marlon Rajan, a New York City high school student who administered surveys with the NYCLU about sex education, speaks at an event.

Slightly more middle-school students took health classes last year, which are required by city rules to include sex education, according to data released Friday by the New York City education department. Still, about 40 percent of eighth graders went without the state-mandated classes.

Meanwhile, less than 11 percent of health instructors received sex-ed training within the past two years, according to the data, which the department must release under a 2016 law passed by local lawmakers concerned that too many students were not taking health classes.

State law requires that students receive at least one semester of health education in both middle and high school, and the New York City education department calls for sex ed to be included in grades 6-12 health classes. But the data show the city is falling short of those mandates.

About 77 percent of middle schools provided health instruction in 2016-2017 — up three percentage points from the previous year, according to the data. The share of eighth-grade students who were signed up for at least one semester of health was 60 percent, also up three percentage points.

In a September report, city Comptroller Scott Stringer said he was “alarmed” by the number of eighth-graders missing out on health education. He pointed to data showing that teen pregnancy rates in parts of the city far exceed state averages, and that sexually transmitted infections have ticked up among New York City teens in recent years.

On Friday, Stringer welcomed the small increase in health education offered at middle schools last year, but said the department of education needs to do better.

“The DOE should not be patting itself on the back,” he said in an emailed statement. “Instead, the city should be doubling down on efforts to provide the comprehensive, medically accurate information that all students need to lead healthy lifestyles.”

Youth groups working with the New York Civil Liberties Union recently surveyed high school students and found that only a quarter said they had been taught sex ed in school. Those courses rarely touched on issues affecting lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth, according to the survey results.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration is cutting short federal grants for teen-pregnancy reduction programs. Some groups receiving that money work in New York City schools — making access to sex education in class even more important, advocates and elected officials say.

The city recently created a sex-ed task force, as required by a new City Council law. The roughly 30-member advisory group — which includes students, parents, educators, and education department representatives — was required to submit its recommendations by Friday but missed the deadline. Education department spokesman Doug Cohen said the “full” recommendations are not expected until next year.

The department has also highlighted health education in the “compliance checklists” it sends schools, and is piloting a new health curriculum in some elementary schools, officials said.

“We have more work to do to,” Deputy Chancellor Elizabeth Rose said in an emailed statement. “We are committed to working closely with schools to ensure that all students receive the high-quality health instruction they need.”

you got data

Can Colorado do a better job of sharing school report cards with parents? Data advocates say yes.

PHOTO: Denver Post file

Just as the Colorado State Board of Education is expected to approve the latest round of school quality ratings, a national organization is calling on all states to do a better job of providing this kind of information to parents and taxpayers.

The Data Quality Campaign last week released a report highlighting states that are providing more and clearer data on its schools. Colorado, once known as a leader in collecting and sharing school data, was not among the all-star list.

The Washington-based nonprofit, which advocates for school data transparency across the nation, is suggesting states use plain language, disaggregate more data and communicate specific education priorities to parents and the public.

The campaign and other supporters of making school data more public believe the information can empower school leaders, teachers and parents to make better decisions for students.

“Colorado has long been a leader in making sure there is robust data,” said Brennan Parton, the Data Quality Campaign’s director of policy and advocacy. “But if you want the normal mom, community member, or policy maker to understand the data, maybe the goal shouldn’t be comprehensive and complex but meaningful and useful.”

State education department officials acknowledged they could do a better job of making data more accessible to parents, but said in a statement this week that they do not consider its annual “school performance framework” to be a report card for schools.

“We look at the SPF as more of a technical report for schools and districts to understand where the school plan types and district accreditation ratings come from,” Alyssa Pearson, the education department’s associate commissioner for school accountability and performance, said in an email.

The ratings, which are largely based off of student performance on state English and math tests, are used in part to help the state education department target financial resources to schools that aren’t making the grade. All schools are also required to submit improvement plans based on the department’s rating.

The department posts the ratings online, as do schools. But the reports are not sent directly to parents.

Instead, the department suggests that its school dashboard tool is a better resource to understand the status of a nearby public school, although Pearson acknowledged that it is not the most parent-friendly website.

“This tool is very useful for improvement planning purposes and deeper understanding of individual schools and districts — both in terms of demographics, as well as academic performance,” Pearson said. “We are also working on refreshing and possibly redesigning other tools that we have had on the website for reporting, including creating a more user-friendly parent-reporting template.”

Trezevant fallout

Memphis orders a deeper probe into high school grade changes

The firm hired to assess the pervasiveness of grade changes in Memphis high schools has begun a deeper probe into those schools with the highest number of cases.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said the firm plans to “search for documentation and figure out what happened” at those schools, noting that not all grade changes — changing a failing grade to passing — are malfeasant.

Still, Hopson promised to root out any wrongdoing found.

“Equally important is figuring out whether people are still around changing grades improperly, and creating different internal controls to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” he told Chalkbeat on Thursday.

Dixon Hughes Goodman, an accounting firm from North Carolina, was hired over the summer as grade tampering was confirmed at Trezevant High School. The firm’s report found the average number of times high schools changed a failing final grade to passing was 53. Ten high schools were highlighted in the report as having 199 or more grade changes between July 2012 and October 2016.

Source: Dixon Hughes Goodman

The report was one of several released Tuesday by the Shelby County Schools board following an investigation instigated by allegations in a resignation letter from former Trezevant Principal Ronnie Mackin.

The firm’s analysis concluded that “additional investigation around grade changes is warranted,” prompting Shelby County Schools to extend the firm’s contract to dig deeper.

The investigations have already cost the school system about $500,000, said Rodney Moore, the district’s general counsel. It is unclear how much the contract extension for Dixon Hughes Goodman will cost, but board chairwoman Shante Avant said it is less than $100,000, the threshold for board approval.

Hopson said there’s not a timeline for when the school audits will be complete. He said the district is already thinking through how to better follow-up on grade changes.

“For a long time, we really put a lot of faith and trust in schools and school-based personnel,” he said. “I don’t regret that because the majority do what they’re supposed to do every day… (but) we probably need to do a better job to follow up to verify when grade changes happen.”

Avant said the board will determine what policies should be enacted to prevent further grade tampering based on the outcome of the investigation.

“The board is conscious that although we know there’s been some irregularities, we do want to focus on moving forward and where resources can be better used and how we’re implementing policies and strategies so that this won’t happen again,” she said.

Chalkbeat reporter Caroline Bauman contributed to this report.