question and answer

New York City lawmakers press Richard Carranza on paid parental leave, counselors, and school accessibility

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza (left) at a press conference with Mayor Bill de Blasio

Richard Carranza faced his first round of questions from city lawmakers Tuesday since taking the helm of the nation’s largest school system — fielding concerns about the education department’s spending priorities contained within its mammoth $25.5 billion operating budget.

Carranza — who is on the same ideological page as the city council’s education leaders — faced a mostly warm reception and earned praise for jumping into the conversation about school segregation, something his predecessor avoided talking about directly and which councilman Danny Dromm called “a real breath of fresh air.”

But council members also pressed the new schools chief on some of the mayor’s spending priorities during the nearly four-hour hearing, including whether there is funding to make sure all schools have counselors, how to ensure more schools are accessible to students with physical disabilities, and whether the department will guarantee teachers paid parental leave in the upcoming teachers contract. (Carranza also announced a $24 million program to boost the city’s health education offerings, part of an effort to get in compliance with city and state regulations.)

Here are three topics that Carranza was questioned about:

Funding to ensure all schools have counselors

Mark Treyger, chairman of city council’s education committee, repeatedly asked Carranza about increasing funding for social workers and guidance counselors: 41 schools would be left without either in the current budget.

Given that the mayor’s budget boosts education spending by nearly $200 million, Treyger said, “$5.2 million to ensure every school has at least one full-time social worker or guidance counselor seems like an obvious choice to me. Why wasn’t this added to the budget?”

The schools chief did not rule out the possibility that funding would be added, but he seemed to push back against the idea that all schools must have either a guidance counselor or social worker. Decisions about whether to add staff are context-specific, Carranza said, adding that “there is local control” and school-level administrators can make hiring decisions.

Paid parental leave

After two Brooklyn high school teachers started a petition calling on the city’s teachers union to negotiate a parental leave policy, the issue has gained traction among local lawmakers — and even the union’s top brass. (Educators who want paid time off to care for their children must currently use sick days.)

Asked about creating a new policy, Carranza signaled the city would adopt one through the negotiating process with the union, whose contract expires this fall — though officials could not say how much it would cost or how the policy would work.

“Obviously we’re not going to negotiate in public,” Carranza said. But, he added, “I will be very supportive of anything that helps [teachers].”

School Access

Multiple city council members pressed Carranza on two very different access problems: Whether the city is spending enough money to update school buildings, most of which are not fully accessible to students with physical disabilities — and whether the city’s elite specialized high schools are too closed off from students of color.

On building accessibility, multiple advocacy groups argue the $100 million set aside in the city’s five-year capital plan to make buildings more accessible should be increased by $125 million. “I have no fully accessible schools in my district,” Treyger said. “This is part of the segregation conversation as well.”

Carranza also faced questions about specialized high schools, which have made virtually no progress enrolling a more representative share of black and Hispanic students in recent years. Carranza suggested that he has seen competitive schools elsewhere use multiple measures to make admissions officers at competitive public schools and “it never diluted the talent pool.”

That would mark a sharp departure from the current system, which awards admission on the basis of a single test. (Some experts say the city has the legal authority to change that requirement at five of the eight specialized high schools, though Mayor de Blasio has disagreed.)

“I want to make sure we’re providing opportunities for the widest number of students,” Carranza said. “All schools should be accessible to all students of the City of New York.”

New Arrivals

In a letter to Betsy DeVos, Michigan officials highlight the plight of refugee students — and ask for testing waiver

PHOTO: Warren Consolidated Schools
Students at Warren-Mott High School in the Detroit suburbs. Officials there say that many students are arriving at the school from refugee camps, including 11th graders who had no formal schooling for nine or ten years. Such students would currently be required to take a state English test during their first year in school.

To teachers who work with recently arrived refugee students, the problem is clear: Although their students will eventually learn English, their language skills at first aren’t comparable to those of native speakers.

They’re hoping federal education officials will come to the same conclusion after reading the state’s detail-rich request to delay testing new immigrant children in English.

Michigan is the second state to ask for a waiver from a federal law that requires children who arrived in the U.S. this year to take standardized English tests a year after arriving — even if they’re just being introduced to the language. The law also requires states to count such students’ scores in decisions about whether to close low-performing schools.

“We wanted to balance between presenting hard data and some anecdotes,” said Chris Janzer, assistant director of accountability at the Michigan Department of Education. “We’re hoping that the case we present, with some of the stories, will win us approval.”

The state’s request includes stories from the Detroit area, which is home to the nation’s largest concentration of Arabic speakers, including many newly arrived refugees fleeing wars in the Middle East. This population is unique in more ways than one: It includes more than 30,000 Chaldean Christians who arrived after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 — the largest such population in the world outside Iraq. And many of its children must deal with the aftereffects of violent displacement even as they attempt to attend school in what is in many cases an entirely new language.

The state’s waiver request offers Hamtramck, a hyper-diverse city enclave in Detroit, as an example:

Hamtramck has many recent arrivals from war-torn regions in Yemen and Syria and has students from remote villages with no formal education background, as well as many others with interrupted learning. New students can have toxic stress and can even be suicidal, and often require wraparound services. Older students are also often burdened with the responsibility of helping their families financially, emotionally, and with childrearing.

Even the luckiest new arrivals would benefit if Michigan receives a waiver from parts of the federal Every Students Succeed Act, says Suzanne Toohey, president of Michigan Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages.

“The intent of the waiver is for the most needy students, but it will help all students,” she said, adding that it typically takes 5-7 years for an English learner to catch up to her native-speaking peers.

With that in mind, Toohey says current federal requirements don’t make sense.

“It would be like an adult who is many years out of school, and who took French for two years of high school, going to France and trying to take a college course,” she said. “It’s just not going to happen.”

Following the same logic, Michigan officials are asking U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to put the brakes on federal requirements for testing recently arrived English learners. If the waiver request is approved:

  • In their first year in Michigan schools, those students wouldn’t be required to take the state English language arts exam.
  • In their second, they would take the test, but schools wouldn’t be held accountable for their scores.
  • In year three, the growth in their scores on the English exam would be factored into school ratings.
  • And in year four their overall score — known as proficiency — would be counted as well as their growth.

That’s still too soon to begin testing English learners, Toohey said, noting “the waiver is a start, but we haven’t gotten all the way there.”

Even so, the proposed change still faces substantial obstacles. New York’s request for a similar waiver was denied by the U.S. Department of Education in January. In its response, the department said it was holding New York to its responsibility to “set high expectations that apply to all students.” Janzer says his staff studied New York’s waiver and concluded that Michigan’s should include more details to humanize the situations of the affected students.

Michigan officials are currently working to incorporate public comments (there were seven, all of them supportive, Janzer said) into its request, which is expected to be submitted in the coming weeks. A decision isn’t expected from federal officials for several more months.

Whoever reads the 10-page document in Washington, D.C. will be confronted with details like these:

  • Lamphere Schools, of Madison Heights, MI, has received a significant influx of students from Iraq and Syria, and at least one elementary school’s student body is roughly 70 percent recently arrived students from these two nations. Lamphere reports that some students initially undergo temporary “silent periods,” a researched stage of second language acquisition, where children are watching and listening, but not yet speaking.
  • Warren Consolidated Schools, of Warren, MI, reports that they have many students from refugee camps, including students who are testing in 11th grade after having no formal schooling for nine or ten years. Warren Consolidated has received 2,800 students from Syria or Iraq since 2007.

Read the full document here. Most local details are on pages 7-9.

live stream

WATCH: Candidates for Detroit school board introduce themselves live

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Detroiters at IBEW 58 wait for candidates for school board candidates to address them.

The nine candidates for Detroit school board are gathering Thursday evening at IBEW 58 in Detroit to make their cases in advance of the November general election in which two seats are up for grabs.

The candidates have already introduced themselves in video statements, but this is one of their first chances to address the public in real time.

We’re covering the event — including a live stream the candidates’ opening statements, which should start around 7 p.m.

Click below or check out our Facebook page to see what they have to say. The candidate speeches begin at around the 12:00 minute mark.