MERGE AHEAD

Merging two small East Harlem schools makes sense on paper. So why has it sparked a backlash?

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Global Tech Prep community members spoke out about plans to merge the school at a recent public hearing.

When students returned this fall to Global Technology Preparatory, a small middle school in East Harlem, everything seemed off. The principal and most of the teachers had been replaced, and their classrooms were now crowded with unfamiliar students in green uniform shirts, instead of blue like theirs.

The new students were from P.S. 7, a K-8 school in the same building, and people at Global Tech say the joint classes were part of a long-planned consolidation of the two schools that began unofficially last fall — months before the city’s Panel for Educational Policy officially approved the merger on Wednesday.

The threat of the consolidation was partly to blame for the exodus of Global Tech’s teaching staff and principal. After students began taking classes together this fall, clashes were common, along with calls to the police. Now, a school once known for its tight-knit community, intimate class sizes, and focus on technology has been transformed — and not for the better, according to students, parents, and staff.

“It felt more like a community,” said eighth-grader Scarlet Rivas. “Now we don’t have any of that.”

The merger of Global Tech and P.S. 7 follows 21 previous consolidations that Carmen Fariña, New York City’s retiring schools chief, has ordered during her tenure. They reflect her skepticism of the small-schools movement, which led to the creation of hundreds of new schools during the tenure of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg under the premise that they offer more personalized attention and better results than the typical large campus. (Several studies have shown that students had better outcomes at the city’s small high schools than students who attended larger schools.)

Instead, Fariña has argued that very small schools cannot sustain enough teachers and programming to provide students a rich experience, since funding is allocated partly based on enrollment. Consolidation allows schools to pool their resources, slash administrative costs, and put money back into classrooms.

Global Tech was a prime candidate for consolidation. Already small, its enrollment shrank to 120 students this year — too few for the school to afford such basics as a licensed technology teacher, a foreign language instructor, or a parent coordinator, according to education department officials.

Michael Aciman, a department spokesman, disputed the claim that the merger informally began this fall, saying the joint classes represent the kind of collaboration between schools on shared campuses that the city encourages. After the merger officially occurs, it will benefit students at both schools, he added.

It will “address challenges with low enrollment, and create a stronger school option for families with more robust resources and academic programming,” he said in a statement.

But even if the merger makes logistical sense, it has still sparked a backlash.

Since Global Tech opened eight years ago, its staff has prided itself in offering students a portal to the world outside East Harlem, working with organizations that connected students with corporations, allowed them to perform on a Broadway stage, and created opportunities to learn coding skills at Google’s New York offices.

Now, as Global Tech’s faculty and students prepare to be absorbed by P.S. 7, they fear the partnerships, mission, and culture that defined their school will vanish. To them, that feels less like a consolidation than a closure.

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Kayla Hamilton, a former Global Tech teacher, criticized the merger.

“Even if you still close down Global Tech, please process what these young people are saying,” Kayla Hamilton, a former Global Tech teacher, told a panel of city officials at a recent hearing, speaking through tears. “These are people’s lives.”

Word of the city’s plan to combine Global Tech and P.S. 7 first trickled out about three years ago, around the time Fariña instructed local superintendents to flag small schools that could be candidates for consolidation. Superintendent Alexandra Estrella, who oversees East Harlem’s District 4 and has clashed bitterly with another school in the past, told former Global Tech Principal David Baiz about the merger plan in 2015, he said.

After failing to convince Estrella to drop the merger, Baiz said, he lobbied other education department officials to keep the school open — a move that landed him in hot water.

“All of a sudden I was labeled as problematic,” he said, adding that he began being summoned to disciplinary meetings. “I got the picture, so I left.” (He is now earning a doctorate in education leadership at Harvard.)

After he resigned at the end of last school year, 14 of the school’s 16 teachers followed suit. The exodus shook the school, stripping it of much of its institutional memory and sense of community, parents and students said.

The proposed merger was not the sole reason teachers fled; several said that Estrella had denied their tenure applications, raising fears that their careers could be jeopardized if they stayed. However, some connected the tenure decisions to the merger, suspecting that the superintendent wanted to bring fresh faces into the newly combined schools.

“She wanted us out,” said Arnold Kim, a former Global Tech teacher who said his tenure application was blocked. “She can’t do a full makeover if all of the teachers are still there.”

An education department spokesman said Estrella made tenure decisions “after thoroughly reviewing the recommendations and carefully observing classroom instruction.”

Whatever the causes, the mass departure of teachers and the joint classes with P.S. 7 appear to have destabilized Global Tech.

Students with disabilities have received less individual attention this year due to a shortage of special-education teachers, according to school personnel and parents. (Aciman, the education department spokesman, said that Global Tech and P.S. 7 work together to meet the needs of students with disabilities.)

And police have responded to 911 calls involving the campus 31 times since September, while five people have been arrested on campus, according to the police department — a greater number of calls and arrests than during the entire 2016-17 school year.

“When you go there it’s just complete chaos,” said Jasmine Carrasquillo, whose two sons attend Global Tech, recalling a recent visit where she saw students roaming the hallways. “That would never have happened before.”

School choice

Denver judge blocks school transportation provision added to Colorado law

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Sam Boswell, 7, all bundled up in his winter clothes, splashes his way to the school bus on May 12, 2010.

A Denver judge struck down a provision of a bill related to the education of youth in foster care that would have removed barriers to transportation for all students.

The transportation provision was an amendment added by Republican lawmakers late in the 2018 session. Soon after the bill was signed by Gov. John Hickenlooper, several Colorado school districts and the associations that represent them filed a lawsuit to block it.

In a ruling issued Friday, Denver District Court Judge David Goldberg found that the amendment violated rules in the Colorado constitution that require every bill to have a clear title that explains what the bill is about and to deal only with one subject.

The bill’s title was “Improving Educational Stability for Foster Youth,” and it seeks to improve graduation rates for foster youth by requiring child welfare officials and school districts to work out transportation to the student’s home district when that’s in the child’s best interest. It also creates flexibility around graduation requirements when students do change schools. Foster youth have the lowest four-year graduation rates in the state, much lower even than homeless youth and students whose parents are migrant workers.

The tacked-on language was added in the Republican-controlled State Affairs committee five days before the end of the session. It said that a school board “may furnish transportation” to students who are enrolled in the district but who live in another district. The provision applies to all students, not just those who are in the foster system. It also struck language from an existing law that requires the consent of the school district from which students are being bused.

The amendment language came straight from a separate bill about expanding school choice that had been killed by Democrats in the House the day before.

Many school districts opposed the transportation provision because they feared it would open the door for better-off districts to poach students and undermine the meaning of school district boundaries. Advocates for school choice argued the provision was good policy that would allow more students, especially those from low-income families, take advantage of opportunities. They also argued, apparently unconvincingly, that it was required for implementation of the foster youth portions of the bill.

The Donnell-Kay Foundation intervened in the case in defense of the law. (The Donnell-Kay Foundation is a funder of Chalkbeat. You can read our ethics policy here.)

In his ruling, Goldberg said this specific issue has never been litigated in Colorado before, and he relied in part on rulings from other states with similar requirements. Bills with broad titles, he wrote, can be construed broadly and encompass a range of issues as long as they have some connection to the title. But bills with narrow titles must be construed narrowly — and this amendment didn’t make the cut.

“The subject of House Bill 18-1306 is out-of-home placed students and efforts to ensure educational stability,” Goldberg wrote, while the amendment’s subject “is all students, with no qualifiers, conditions, restrictions, or reference to out-of-home placed students. … House Bill 18-1306 seriously modifies transportation for all students and is hidden under a title relating exclusively to out-of-home placed students.”

Goldberg ruled that the amendment is “disconnected” from the rest of the bill, and neither lawmakers nor the public had enough notice about its inclusion before passage.

That leaves the rest of the foster youth bill intact and advocates for expanded school choice facing an uphill battle in a legislature in which Democrats, who are more likely to give priority to school district concerns, now control both chambers.

This isn’t an abstract issue. In 2015, more than 150 students who lived in the Pueblo 60 district but attended school in higher-performing Pueblo 70 lost access to transportation when the city-based district ordered its neighbor to stop running bus routes through its territory.

Online Shopping

Jeffco launches universal enrollment site to make school choice easy

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat
Students in a social studies class at Bear Creek High School in Jeffco Public Schools read about Genghis Khan.

Starting Monday, parents in Colorado’s second-largest district will be able to shop online for schools and, once enrollment opens in January, apply to as many as they like.

The launch of Enroll Jeffco, following the path paved by Denver Public Schools, means some 86,000 students and their parents won’t have to go to individual schools during the work day and fill out paper forms if they want to apply somewhere other than their neighborhood school.

The online system cost about $600,000 to develop and operate for this school year. The district expects it to cost about half of that annually going forward.

Universal enrollment systems allow parents to compare and apply to traditional district-run schools, district schools with specialized programming or models, known in Jeffco as options schools, and charter schools with a single application on the same website. Universal enrollment systems are a key component of what some call the “portfolio model,” in which districts oversee a range of school types and parents vote with their feet. They’ve been controversial in places, especially when coupled with aggressive school accountability policies that lead to school closures.

In Jeffco Public Schools, which is more affluent than many Denver metro area districts, officials see the move to a single, online enrollment system as a valuable service for parents.

“Regardless of how people feel about it, we operate in a competitive school choice environment, both inside the district and outside the district,” Superintendent Jason Glass said. “That compels us to make thinking about that transaction, making people aware of the options and enrolling in our schools, as frictionless and easy as possible.”

Colorado law requires schools in any district to admit any student for whom they have room and for whom the district can provide adequate services, after giving priority to students who live in the district. But many districts still require paper applications at individual schools, and schools in the same district might not have the same deadlines. A recent report by the conservative education advocacy group Ready Colorado found that parents who use school choice are more likely to be white, middle- or upper-class, and English-speaking than the state’s student population. The authors argue that districts should streamline the enrollment process and consider providing transportation to make choice more accessible.

Jeffco isn’t rolling out new transportation options yet, but it might use data from the enrollment process, including a parent survey that is built into the website, to see if that’s desired or feasible. And officials believe strongly that the new online enrollment system will open up more opportunities for low-income parents and those who don’t speak English.

The website will provide information in the district’s six most commonly spoken languages and should be optimized for use on mobile phones. All parents will be required to use the system to express their preferences, including the majority of parents who want to stay in their neighborhood school, and the district is planning significant outreach and in-person technical assistance.

We believe that if all parents are participating, it improves equity,” Glass said. “One of the things we struggle with is that upwardly mobile and affluent parents tend to be the ones who take advantage of school choice. We want all of our schools to be available to all of our families. We think being able to search through and make the enrollment process as easy as possible is an equity issue.”

But critics of universal enrollment systems worry that the ease of application will encourage parents to give up on neighborhood schools rather than invest in them.

Rhiannon Wenning, a teacher at Jefferson Junior-Senior High School, said the link between charter schools and open enrollment systems makes her distrustful, even as many of her students are using the choice process to stay at the school after rising home prices pushed them into other parts of the metro area.

“I understand parents want what is best for their child, but part of that as a citizen and a community member is to make your neighborhood school the school that you want it to be,” she said, calling the universal enrollment system an attack on public schools.

Joel Newton of the Edgewater Collective, which provides community support for lower-income schools in the eastern part of the district, said Enroll Jeffco will give the district much better data on which to base decisions, but he worries that Title I schools, which serve large numbers of students from low-income families, won’t be able to compete.

“With an online system like this, it really needs to be a level playing field,” he said. “And in my area, I’d much rather have resources going to curriculum and instructional aides to catch kids up than going into marketing support. But other areas can do that and they have these big, well-funded PTAs.”

Until now, parents have had to seek out information on each school’s website. The online portal starts by asking parents to enter their address and the grade in which they’re enrolling a student. It then displays the parents’ neighborhood school, with an option to explore alternatives. Each school page has extensive information, including a short narrative, descriptions of special programs like math, arts, or expeditionary learning, the school mascot, and the racial and economic breakdown of the student population. The intent, district spokesperson Diana Wilson said, is to let schools “tell their own story.”

Parents can select as many schools as they want when enrollment opens Jan. 22, and they’ll learn in mid- to late February where they got in. However, they have to commit within five days to one school, ending a practice by which parents in the know kept their options open through the summer months. District officials say this will help them plan and budget better.

Kristen Harkness, assistant director for special education in Jeffco, served on the steering committee that developed the system, and she’s also a parent in the district. Even as a district employee who thought she knew the process inside and out, she managed to miss a deadline for her son to be considered at another middle school.

She said that choosing between schools isn’t a matter of which schools are better but which are a better fit for a particular student. In her case, her son could have stayed at a K-8 or transferred to a combined middle and high school, with each option presenting a different kind of middle school experience. He’s happy at the K-8 where he stayed, she said, but parents and students should have the chance to make those decisions.

The new universal enrollment system is poised to give more families that chance. In the course of the rollout, though, there may be a few glitches.

“We’re doing all we can to look into the future and foresee any technical problems and design solutions to that proactively,” Glass said. “That said, this is our first time, and we ask for people’s patience.”