By the numbers

Where specialized high school students come from (and where they don’t)

PHOTO: Flickr
Brooklyn Technical is one of the city's prestigious specialized high schools.

Early every school day, private charter buses rumble through the Upper West Side to ferry students from the city’s wealthiest school district into one of the poorest.

The students head to Bronx High School of Science and the High School of American Studies at Lehman College, just two of the city’s coveted specialized high schools that draw virtually no students from their surrounding neighborhoods.

Across New York City, just a handful of school districts and middle schools send an outsized share of students to specialized high schools, celebrated for their track record of preparing graduates for Ivy League colleges and high-powered careers.

The numbers are striking: Students from only 10 middle schools make up a quarter of all specialized high school admissions offers — a total of 1,274 offers, according to data provided to Chalkbeat. That’s almost four times more than all of the admissions offers to students living in the city’s 10 poorest districts combined.

That reality could be upended with a controversial proposal put forward by Mayor Bill de Blasio to overhaul admissions to specialized high schools. Rather than admit students based on the results of a single test, the city is pushing a plan to admit the top 7 percent of students from every middle school, based on a combination of their state test scores and report card grades

The proposal would require a change in state law, and lawmakers have already shelved the plan for this year. But if city officials can persuade lawmakers to approve the change, it would cut off a reliable pipeline into the city’s most elite high schools — a tiny subset of selective middle schools — and draw more top performers from every corner of the five boroughs.

ZIP code is limiting destiny right now in New York City,” de Blasio said at a recent press conference.

Critics, though, say the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test helps preserve the high standards at the schools, considered by many to be the crown jewels of the system. They suggest other ways for diversifying the schools, such as making test preparation more widespread.

Chalkbeat compared education department data of specialized high school offers in schools and districts across the city. Here are some highlights from the numbers.

Some districts send many students to specialized high schools, while others send almost none.

Affluent District 2 — which stretches across Lower Manhattan, most of Chinatown and the Upper East Side —  accounts for almost 13 percent of all specialized high school admission offers. That number is even more eye-popping when you consider that it enrolls only about 4 percent of all the city’s public school eighth graders. 

Click on the map to learn which districts send the most students to specialized high schools.

The 10 districts that are home to the most black and Hispanic students made up about 4 percent of admissions offers.

Just because a student was offered admission, that doesn’t mean that he or she will ultimately choose to go to a specialized high school. In fact, research has shown that black and Hispanic students, and girls, are less likely to accept their offers, compared with Asian students.

The district figures include admissions offers that were made to students in private schools and those who were homeschooled. Private school students earned about 13 percent of offers.

A tiny number of schools send a disproportionate number of students to specialized high schools

The disparities are so large that just two middle schools — The Christa McAuliffe School and Mark Twain I.S. 239 — get more students into specialized high schools than the city’s 10 poorest districts combined. (One caveat about these numbers: The district offers are based on where students live, not where they attended school. So it’s possible that students living in the poorest districts are enrolled at Mark Twain, which is open to all students regardless of where they live in the city.)

“If you think it’s unlikely that only a couple of dozen schools have a monopoly on talent, then we have a problem,” said Richard Buery, a former deputy mayor for the city who has endorsed de Blasio’s proposal to change specialized high school admissions.

All together, the top 10 middle schools enroll only about 18 percent black and Hispanic students. They are among the most sought-after in the city, but they are also extremely selective. 

Many top-sending middle schools select their students based on test scores, their own exams, interviews, attendance, and other factors.

The numbers get at an ongoing debate over whether schools should be allowed to “screen” students in this way: While some say high-performers are better served in classrooms where most students are like them, others say that separating students by ability exacerbates segregation because black and Hispanic students are more likely to struggle in school.

Among the middle schools sending the most students to specialized high schools is Booker T. Washington in District 3, which is at the center of another contentious integration battle. The superintendent there has proposed setting aside a quarter of seats at every district middle school for students who are low-performing.

The plan has sparked an uproar from parents who worry their high-achieving kids will be shut out of the most sought-after middle schools. The city’s numbers sheds light on the backlash: More than 53 percent of Booker T. Washington eighth graders are offered a spot at specialized high schools.

Kristen Berger, a parent on the local Community Education Council who has pushed to integrate the district’s middle schools, said the current system fuels competition for the few schools that feed students into top-tier high schools.

“I think it’s part of a wider New York angst,” she said. “We’re looking downstream like, ‘What elementary school goes to what middle school, goes to which high school, goes to which college?'”

She also said that it calls into question the city’s high school choice process, which is supposed to allow students to aim for any school, regardless of where they may live.

“We certainly wouldn’t want middle schools to be a limiting factor,” she said. “We would want all students to have the full range of options, whether it’s for middle school or for high school.”

voices of the vote

Meet Denver teachers who voted yes to a strike, no to a strike — and just aren’t sure

PHOTO: PHOTO: Andy Cross/The Denver Post
Skinner Middle School math teacher Peter English walks out of the Riverside Baptist Church with his son, Landon, left, and daughter Brooke strapped to his chest after voting on whether to go on strike ()

Throughout the day, the parking lot of Riverside Baptist Church filled up as Denver teachers made their way into a meeting organized by their union, the Denver Classroom Teachers Association.  

Months of negotiations that failed to produce a deal between top leaders of Denver Public Schools and the union had given way to individual teachers facing a choice: To strike or not?

Along with reporting the news of the day — which you can read about here — Chalkbeat spent time visiting with teachers to get a sense of what was shaping their decision-making.

Most teachers we spoke with, both in depth and in passing, said they voted “yes” to strike. Union officials have said two-thirds of those who vote Saturday and in a second session Tuesday must sign off on a strike for it to proceed, and the prevailing wisdom among teachers we interviewed was that support is strong.

The decision, though, is far from black and white for many teachers, regardless of where they ultimately land.

Here are the stories of three teachers, all at different places:

Krista Skuce, Slavens K-8 school: Yes to strike

At the urging of teachers and parents, Slavens K-8 students turned out early on a few recent mornings to show support for their teachers. They wore red in solidarity and posed for pictures.

They also brought questions. “Why are you doing this?” was one.

Krista Skuce, a physical education teacher and 14-year Denver Public Schools employee, would tell students that she lives 40 minutes from the school because she can’t afford to live in Denver.

Krista Skuce

But there is more to her story. Her spouse, she said, is no longer able to work, beset by medical issues, unable to draw disability benefits, and in need of costly care including massage therapy, chiropractic appointments, neuromuscular therapies, and more.  

At the same time, Skuce said her pay “doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.” So she hustles, earning extra pay by driving across town to coach softball and basketball.

Skuce, like many teachers who stopped to talk about their votes on Saturday, believes the district can do more to boost teachers’ base pay — before bonuses and incentives.  

She said her salary has only increased $4,000 or $5,000 in the past 14 years, even though she has been teaching 27 years, has a master’s degree, and is National Board Certified.

Skuce said she knows that by voting to strike, she could very well end up taking money out of her own bank account. Striking teachers don’t get paychecks.

“I am hoping the district and the DCTA do the right thing and recognize the fact that there are some people here who are on the edge,” she said. “We are on the edge emotionally, financially. We know these are good people. And I think teachers are people who wake up every morning with forgiveness.

“You have to take a stand and say what you are for at some point in time in your life — and this is it,” she said. “I’m willing to do it, scary or not.”  

Jason Clymer, John F. Kennedy High School: No to strike

An English teacher at John F. Kennedy High School, Jason Clymer stands with his fellow union members in the belief teachers aren’t paid enough. He finds fault with what is asked of teachers through LEAP, the district’s growth and performance system for teachers.

“Teachers at my school feel extremely micromanaged and can’t catch a breath,” he said.  

But in the end, after being one of the first teachers in the door Saturday and attending an information session, Clymer said he voted against the strike.

“Going on strike is very hard,” said Clymer, whose wife works in human resources for the district’s central office. “And I think the agreement DPS came to was close enough.”

Clymer questioned picking a fight now because of the limited scope of the negotiations. That would be the current agreement governing ProComp, the pay system that provides teachers one-time bonuses for things like teaching in a high-poverty school, getting strong evaluations, having students who earn high test scores, or teaching in a high-performing school.

He said he’d like to save some political leverage to focus on other issues covered by the district’s main contract with the union.

“It’s really unfortunate these things can’t all be negotiated together,” he said. “If the district came out and said, ‘We want to give you more money, not as much as you like, but we want to devote more to things like mental health services,’ I really think that would be a winning argument.”

In opposing a strike, Clymer said that he did not want to divide his fellow teachers

“Although I voted no, I believe in the union,” he said. “And if the union voted to strike, I will absolutely support the union.”

Paula Zendle, Denver Green School: Undecided about strike

Paula Zendle is dreading the moment that is appearing increasingly likely: standing before her students at the Denver Green School and explaining why she won’t be there to teach them.

“I tell them constantly, ‘Don’t miss school, don’t miss school. Don’t be absent, don’t be absent, don’t be absent,’” said Zendle, her eyes welling up with tears as she waited on a friend. “I have been fighting to avoid a strike. I hate this. It’s utterly and totally agonizing to me.”

Paula Zendle

Zendle said she left a career in the corporate world for the classroom and has been teaching eight years. She teaches English language acquisition and Spanish at the Green School, a popular and highly-rated middle school option in a district that celebrates choice.

 Zendle said she has done her research and written to the district’s chief financial officer. What bothers her is a system she believes rewards younger teachers and underpays teachers in terms of the cost of living.  

The average Denver teacher currently earns about $51,000 in base pay and $57,000 with incentives, according to data from the state education department and the district. That’s less than teachers in districts like Boulder Valley, Cherry Creek, and Littleton.

District officials have agreed to put $20 million more into teacher compensation and defended their most recent offer on Saturday as “compelling.”

For Zendle, the prospect of facing her students — and that she works in a supportive school environment — is contributing to her struggle in deciding whether to vote “yes” to strike.

So if the moment does come, what will she tell her students?

“We have the right to protest unfair taxpayer spending,” she said. “This is not only unfair, it’s unconscionable. Their priorities have been wrong for 10 years.”

Then she paused and made clear that her decision had not been made. She considers herself a person of principle, and that will guide her in making a decision.

lesson plan

Denver hopes to keep its schools open in a strike — and the union wants you to send your kids

PHOTO: Kathryn Scott Osler/The Denver Post
Students eat lunch in the cafeteria at Dora Moore K-8 School in Denver.

Superintendent Susana Cordova says she is committed to keeping Denver schools open and continuing to educate students in the event of a strike.

In Los Angeles, where a teacher strike is entering its second week, many students are watching movies and playing games. Cordova said she plans to do more for the 71,000 students in district-run schools if teachers vote to strike and state intervention does not lead to a deal. The 21,000 students who attend charter schools will not be affected.

“We want to assure parents school will stay open,” she said. “We know it is critically important that we focus on the education of our kids. Sixty percent of our kids qualify for free and reduced-price lunch. We know they depend on school not just for their meals but for their access to opportunity.”

Negotiations broke down Friday between the district and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, the union that represents teachers and special service providers such as nurses, school psychologists, and counselors. A strike vote is taking place in two sessions, one Saturday and another Tuesday. The earliest a strike could start is Jan. 28.

This would be the first strike in 25 years in the state’s largest school district. In 1994, the district used more than 1,000 substitutes to keep schools open, though many parents kept their children at home, something union leaders encouraged.

It’s not clear yet how high teacher participation in a strike would be. During the final week of bargaining, some teachers reported near universal support in their buildings, while others said some of their colleagues were uncertain. Some teachers have said they disagree with the union position in the negotiations and won’t participate as a matter of principle.

Teachers who strike do not get paid while they are not at work.

Cordova said the district is “in the process of building out our sub pool” and offering higher pay to those willing to work during a strike. But she declined to say how many substitutes the district could call on, and some teachers say they already have a hard time finding subs for routine absences.

Substitutes who work during a strike will earn $200 a day, double the normal rate, and “super subs” who work more than a certain number of days a year will get $250.

Many central office staff who have past teaching experience will be sent to schools to work with students. Cordova said the district is working on pre-packaged lesson plans for every grade and subject area so that learning can still take place, and officials will prioritize placing qualified staff members with special education and preschool students, those she deemed most vulnerable.

Students who get free or reduced-price lunch will still be able to eat in school cafeterias.

For its part, the union is encouraging parents to send their children to school, but with a different purpose.

“One major goal of a strike is for school buildings to be shut down as a demonstration of the essential labor performed by educators,” the union wrote in an FAQ document. “To this end, we encourage parents to send their students to school if their school building remains open. Student safety is paramount for all district schools, therefore the district will be obliged to close schools if safety becomes an issue due to limited staffing.”

Union officials said they were working to establish alternative daytime care with community partners like churches and Boys and Girls Clubs should schools close.