in your own words

Dear Chancellor: Your messages to Richard Carranza, as he becomes New York City’s schools chief

PHOTO: Sam Park

Unsafe schools. Segregation. The achievement gap. Overcrowding. Resources for students with special needs and English language learners.

These were among the many issues that Chalkbeat readers want incoming Chancellor Richard Carranza to make his top priorities as he takes the helm of New York City schools on April 2.

More than 120 parents, teachers, students, school administrators, and others filled out our survey asking what Carranza needs to know as he replaces Carmen Fariña as leader of the nation’s largest school system. Here’s some of what you had to say.

Too often, schools are segregated — and have unequal resources.

“Carranza’s No. 1 priority should be student achievement and diversifying the DOE-NYC’s public schools. Segregation is all too real in NYC, and the schools should replicate the rich culture and diversity of the city.”
— Rashid Johnson, an education non-profit employee

Segregation in the schools is a grave injustice and is damaging to many students and their families.”
— Michael Mahrer, a teacher at Bronx Design and Construction Academy and a parent on the Upper West Side

“We are so diverse and yet are so segregated. This is a major problem. There are schools whose PTA’s pay for an assistant in each classroom and some schools can’t even get parents to come to the school for a meeting. This is a problem that affects kids in big ways.”
— Hannah Haas, third-grade teacher at P.S. 149 Sojourner Truth

“I am one of the few high school students lucky enough to attend a public high school with an abundance of resources available, and with dedicated and engaged teachers and staff. My school’s students are disproportionately white and wealthy. That people of socioeconomic and racial privilege have an upper hand in the public school system and are often the beneficiary of better educations is unjust.”
— Coco Rhum, Beacon High School junior and member of Teens Take Charge, an education advocacy organization dedicated to elevating student voices

“The teachers in schools where students of color attend are not very strong. They can’t relate to the students and don’t have the pedagogical skills to move their students. This is not true for all teachers but there is a disproportionate amount of unqualified teachers in these schools.”
— Daryl Rock, a former New York City principal and chair of the board at CAMPA Charter School

Parents and teachers of students with special needs have questions.

“How will you fix the system for special education students of normal intelligence who have dyslexia, ADHD, and other learning issues for whom there is no appropriate public school option? Will you open public schools that are equivalent to the private schools? Or will you simplify the reimbursement process for parents whose children must be placed in private schools?”
— Dolores Swirin-Yao, parent at the Aaron School

“What will you do to strengthen our special education approach to teaching students. Our co-teaching model is not working. Special education teachers across the city are feeling burned out from being treated unfairly. General education teachers need more training in the ICT model. Additionally, what are his views for the ELL population, especially the newly arrived high students and the SIFE students.”
— Marilyn Ramirez, special education teacher, High School for Media and Communications

School and community leaders want to feel heard.

Many languages and cultures exist in NYC and the new chancellor needs to know how to engage these families so the children can succeed.”
— Teresa Arboleda, president of the Citywide Council on English Language Learners.

“The city is diverse — not just the 150+ languages spoken at home, but in cultural differences that drive how parents perceive their role in educating their children. He needs to reach out all of the different cultural groups to be successful.”
— Michelle Noris, parent at the 30th Avenue School, P.S./I.S. 300, and Bard High School Early College Queens

The system is vast and hard to get your arms around. It’s critical therefore that school principals be instructional leaders with the same vision as the chancellor.”
— Deena Hellman, director of the Star Learning Center at Goddard Riverside Community Center

Individual schools and communities have individual needs.

“Schools in my neighborhood are overcrowded and as a result teachers are not able to provide individualized attention to students, and programs have been cut. New dual language programs were opened in the neighborhood and that has been welcomed by many parents and should be extended.”
— Victoria Quiroz Becerra, Sunset Park parent

Principals are incentivized to overcrowd schools and make class sizes large. This should change.”
— Jonathan Greenberg, parent at P.S. 212 in Queens

“We need more instructions and clearer guidance on how to use restorative justice practices. Also, gang intervention.”
— Dinah Gieske, a parent and assistant principal at Rockaway Park High School

“I think we need more recognition for the girls who want to come to our school. We want to have the opportunity to go on more trips. I think you should prioritize emotional well-being because a lot of these girls are going through something and it would help if they see how much you care.”
— Tyanna Patten, eighth-grader at the Young Women’s Leadership School of Brooklyn and Teens Take Charge member

“He needs to actually visit the schools and not only go there for the pomp and circumstance of a chancellor’s visit day, but go to see what an actual day looks like — talk to everyone from principal to support staff.”
— Natasha Alexandris, Department of Education Field Support Center employee

here's the plan

After long wait, de Blasio backs plan to overhaul admissions at New York City’s elite high schools

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Stuyvesant High School will begin participating in the Discovery program this year.

After sustained pressure from advocates, Mayor Bill de Blasio is backing a two-step plan to reform admissions at eight of the city’s elite high schools and endorsing a specific replacement for the single-test admissions system.

The city’s specialized high schools — considered some of the crown jewels of New York City’s education system — accept students based on a single test score. Over the last decade, they have come under fire for offering admissions to few students of color: While two-thirds of city students are black or Hispanic, only about 10 percent of admissions offers to those schools go to black or Hispanic students.

De Blasio’s solution, laid out in an op-ed in Chalkbeat, would set aside 20 percent of the seats at the eight schools for students from low-income families starting next school year. Students who just missed the test score cut-off would be able to earn one of those set-aside seats through the longstanding “Discovery” program. Just 4 percent of seats were offered through that program in 2017.

The mayor also said he plans to push state lawmakers to change a law that requires admission at three of the schools to be decided by a single test score. That’s something de Blasio campaigned for during his run for mayor in 2014 but hasn’t made a priority since.

Most significantly, de Blasio says for the first time that he backs a system of replacing the admissions test with a system that picks students based on their middle school class rank and state test scores. The middle-school rank component is especially notable, as an NYU Steinhardt report found that the only way to really change the makeup of the elite high schools would be to guarantee admission to the top 10 percent of students at every middle school.

If all of these changes were implemented, de Blasio says that 45 percent of the student bodies at the eight high schools would be black or Latino.

Together, the proposals reflect the most specific plan yet to change a system that, year after year, becomes a symbol of New York City’s racially divided schools. But the changes de Blasio is proposing won’t come easily — and might not come at all.

The part of the plan that the city is promising to do on its own, expand the Discovery program, will only modestly improve diversity by the city’s own admission. And the plan’s more ambitious elements would require buy-in from state lawmakers who have repeatedly resisted de Blasio’s agenda and attempts to change admissions rules.

Meanwhile, the mayor’s plan does not include a move that many legal experts consider to be low-hanging fruit: changing the admissions rules at five of the eight schools without state approval.

While the city’s official position has long been that admissions at all eight schools are set by law, only three schools — Stuyvesant High School, Bronx High School of Science, and Brooklyn Technical High School — are specifically mentioned, leaving room for the city to reclassify the others. (De Blasio recently said he would ask lawyers about that change, but has not signaled he plans to act.)

The Discovery program has also proved problematic for de Blasio, in part because it is open to all low-income students — something that is not equivalent to black or Hispanic in New York City. The de Blasio administration has already tripled the program’s size since taking office, but its share of black and Latino students has also shrunk.

A lot of questions about the plan remain unanswered. It’s not clear whether the 20 percent of set-aside seats will be spread across the eight schools evenly, for one, or whether some schools like Stuyvesant will have fewer seats earmarked for Discovery. De Blasio doesn’t explain exactly how an admissions system reliant on middle-school grades and standardized test scores would work.

It’s also unclear how the mayor plans to push against opposition from alumni groups and parents who may worry that changing the admissions rules will lower academic standards, though his rhetoric was sharp in the op-ed.

“Anyone who tells you this is somehow going to lower the standard at these schools is buying into a false and damaging narrative,” de Blasio wrote. “It’s a narrative that traps students in a grossly unfair environment, asks them to live with the consequences, and actually blames them for it.”

So far, de Blasio’s incremental steps to boost diversity at specialized high schools have made little change to the overall student body — and therefore garnered little pushback.

It’s unclear whether the lackluster results caused him to switch strategies. More recently, de Blasio has also been under pressure to address school segregation in the city as a whole.

He may also have been pushed by his new schools chancellor, who has been outspoken on the subject since taking the helm of the school system about two months ago. Chancellor Richard Carranza has been talking about the issue since his very first media interview, and has repeatedly hinted that he is interested in changing their admissions process.

“From my perspective it’s not OK to have a public school in a city as diverse… and that you have only 10 African-American students in a high school,” Carranza said in April. “So I’m looking at that, absolutely.”

sorting the students

Mayor Bill de Blasio: Our specialized schools have a diversity problem. Let’s fix it.

PHOTO: Mayoral Photography Office
Mayor Bill de Blasio hosts a town hall in Brooklyn in October.

I visit schools across this city and it never fails to energize me. The talent out there is outstanding. The students overflow with promise. But many of the smart kids I meet aren’t getting in to our city’s most prestigious high schools. In fact, they’re being locked out.

The problem is clear. Eight of our most renowned high schools – including Stuyvesant High School, Bronx High School of Science and Brooklyn Technical High School – rely on a single, high-stakes exam. The Specialized High School Admissions Test isn’t just flawed – it’s a roadblock to justice, progress and academic excellence.

If we want this to be the fairest big city in America, we need to scrap the SHSAT and start over.

Let’s select students for our top public high schools in a manner that best reflects the talent these students have, and the reality of who lives in New York City. Let’s have top-flight public high schools that are fair and represent the highest academic standards.

Right now, we are living with monumental injustice. The prestigious high schools make 5,000 admissions offers to incoming ninth-graders. Yet, this year just 172 black students and 298 Latino students received offers. This happened in a city where two out of every three eighth-graders in our public schools are Latino or black.

There’s also a geographic problem. There are almost 600 middle schools citywide. Yet, half the students admitted to the specialized high schools last year came from just 21 of those schools. For a perfect illustration of disparity: Just 14 percent of students at Bronx Science come from the Bronx.

Can anyone defend this? Can anyone look the parent of a Latino or black child in the eye and tell them their precious daughter or son has an equal chance to get into one of their city’s best high schools? Can anyone say this is the America we signed up for?

Our best colleges don’t select students this way. Our top-level graduate schools don’t. There are important reasons why. Some people are good at taking tests, but earn poor grades. Other people struggle with testing, but achieve top grades. The best educational minds get it. You can’t write a single test that captures the full reality of a person.

A single, high-stakes exam is also unfair to students whose families cannot afford, or may not even know about, the availability of test preparation tutors and courses. Now, I’d like to stop and say, I admire the many families who scrape and save to pay for test prep. They are trying in every way to support their children.

But let’s ask ourselves: Why should families who can ill afford test prep have to spend their money on it? Why should families who can easily afford test prep have an advantage over those that cannot?

My administration has been working to give a wider range of excellent students a fair shot at the specialized high schools. Now we are going to go further. Starting in September 2019, we’ll expand the Discovery Program to offer 20 percent of specialized high school seats to economically disadvantaged students who just missed the test cut-off.

This will immediately bring a wider variety of high-performing students, from a wider number of middle schools, to the specialized high schools. For example, the percentage of black and Latino students receiving offers will almost double, to around 16 percent from around 9 percent. The number of middle schools represented will go from around 310 to around 400.

This will also address a fundamental illogic baked into the high-stakes test. A great score and you might be in, but beware a point too low and you might be out. Now, a disadvantaged student who is just a point or two shy of the cut-off won’t be blocked from a great educational opportunity.

For a deeper solution, we will fight alongside our partners in the Assembly and Senate to replace the SHSAT with a new admissions process, selecting students based on a combination of the student’s rank in their middle school and their results in the statewide tests that all middle school children take.

With these reforms, we expect our premier public high schools to start looking like New York City. Approximately 45 percent of students would be Latino or black. As an example of growing geographical fairness, we will quadruple the number of Bronx students admitted.

I’ve talked a lot about bringing equity and excellence to our schools. This new admissions process will give every student in every middle school a fair shot. That’s equity. The new process will ask students to demonstrate hard work over time, and show brilliance in a variety of subjects. That’s excellence.

Anyone who tells you this is somehow going to lower the standard at these schools is buying into a false and damaging narrative. It’s a narrative that traps students in a grossly unfair environment, asks them to live with the consequences, and actually blames them for it. This perpetuates a dangerous and disgusting myth.

So let me be clear. The new system we’re fighting for will raise the bar at the specialized high schools in every way. The pool of talent is going to expand widely and rapidly. That’s going to up the level of competition. The students who emerge from the new process will make these schools even stronger.

They will also make our society stronger. Our most prestigious public high schools aren’t just routes to opportunity for deserving students and their families. They are incubators for the leaders and innovators of tomorrow. The kind of high schools we have today, will determine the kind of New York City we will have tomorrow.

Bill de Blasio is the mayor of New York City.