let's review

On the last day of school in New York City, a look back at the 15 biggest education stories this year

PHOTO: Christina Veiga

The 2017-18 school year wraps up today in New York City. But before you head off on vacation, hit the beach, or board the bus to camp, we’ve compiled some of the biggest education stories to recap the year that was.

1. After more than half a century in the New York City education department, schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña decided this winter to retire for good, setting off a national search for a replacement.

2. It seemed like that replacement would be Alberto Carvalho, the longtime superintendent of Miami-Dade County schools. But Carvalho stunned New York City this spring by turning down the job — after city officials said he initially accepted it — in an emotional meeting that was broadcast live on television.

3. De Blasio tried again to name a new chancellor. This time, it stuck: In April, Richard Carranza took the helm of the country’s largest school system. It quickly became clear that Carranza — while philosophically aligned with his predecessor in many ways — would chart his own course as schools chief.

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza poses for a selfie with the Statue of Liberty on the Staten Island Ferry.

4. One of the most notable areas of difference has been Carranza’s willingness to push for school integration. Only weeks into his tenure, Carranza made waves when he retweeted a news story that said: “WATCH: Wealthy white Manhattan parents angrily rant against plan to bring more black kids to their schools.”

5. The story contained viral news footage of a parent protesting an integration proposal for middle schools on the Upper West Side and Harlem. That plan was approved this month, and will affect District 3 schools starting next year.

6. But the biggest integration news of the year stemmed from a controversial proposal to overhaul admissions at the city’s elite specialized high schools in a bid to enroll more black and Hispanic students. The proposal has sparked protests from the Asian community, who say their children will be unfairly shut out of the schools.

7. A Bronx student was killed in a school by another student — the first time that’s happened in nearly 25 years. The tragedy has spurred big debates about school safety and discipline.

8. New York City began offering free lunch to all students, regardless of their family income, capping years of lobbying from advocates who said the old policy shamed students who couldn’t afford their meals.

9. More than 100,000 New York City students walked out of class as part of a national movement against gun violence that was spurred by the tragic school shooting in Parkland, Fla.

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PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Rafael Perez, a student in New York City, walked out during a March protest against gun violence.

10. More Renewal schools were closed, and the controversial school turn-around program was extended beyond its initial three-year deadline. The program’s future remains uncertain and progress has been uneven at best, despite costing more than half a billion dollars.

11. Once a formidable charter school advocacy group, Families for Excellent Schools publicly imploded just days after its leader was accused of inappropriate behavior.

12. Teachers unions notched a big win — and a substantial loss. New York City agreed to offer paid family leave to its 76,000 teachers after an online petition calling for the benefit went viral. But at the state level, teachers unions went home in defeat when the legislature failed to amend a controversial evaluation law that ties state test scores to teachers’ ratings.

13. It wasn’t all gridlock at the state: Education policymakers carved out changes to graduation requirements, breaking open a debate about what it should take to earn a diploma.

14. The state’s Board of Regents also approved new learning standards — dropping the name Common Core — and a new plan to evaluate and intervene in schools.

15.  “Sex in the City” star and longtime education advocate Cynthia Nixon launched a bid for New York governor on a platform that’s heavy on education reform.

Future of Schools

The race is on to convince voters to give more money to Indianapolis Public Schools

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Lexus Balanzar, a campaign worker for Stand for Children, is making the case for voters to increase funding for Indianapolis Public Schools.

With less than two months until Election Day, the effort to pass two referendums to increase funding for Indianapolis Public Schools is gaining momentum. Almost every day, campaign workers are fanning out across Indianapolis to seek support from voters. And Superintendent Lewis Ferebee is stopping by community meetings across the district to make his case that the district needs taxpayers’ help.

This multi-pronged approach illustrates how high the stakes are for the district, which aims to raise $272 million to prevent an even more dire financial situation.

The district first announced plans to ask voters for nearly $1 billion from taxpayers 10 months ago. Since then, the request was cut down, then the vote was delayed to rally more support. The district ultimately came to a final reduced request, which appears to be more palatable to community leaders and has won the support of the Indy Chamber. There is no organized opposition to the referendums, and a previous critic, the MIBOR Realtor Association, now supports them.

But the district ultimately needs the support of voters in addition to power brokers. The key to a successful referendum campaign is reaching out to both hyper-engaged voters and those who are less tuned in to local issues, said Andrew Downs, an associate professor of political science at Purdue University Fort Wayne.

When Ferebee presented last Tuesday to the Rotary Club of Indianapolis, for example, he was reaching members of the community who will likely tell friends and neighbors about the referendums, said Downs.

“They’re voters who will reach out to other people,” he said. “They are voters who typically have a network that will be activated in this case in support of the referendums.”

During the campaign for the planned May referendums, district leaders were juggling other initiatives that drew attention from the tax measures. But Ferebee is now front and center in the effort to win over voters. In a crowded banquet hall last week, Ferebee made the case for increasing funding to a group of Rotarians who appeared largely sympathetic. His low-key jokes drew friendly laughter. But the core of his argument was that the district needs more money to pay for safety improvements at schools and increase teacher pay.

When teacher pay is low, Ferebee said, the district struggles to retain and recruit teachers. It’s forced to rely on substitutes, and students suffer. “We know that our educators are so impactful in our lives,” he said. “We’ve got to do better with compensating them accordingly.”

The hard-won endorsement of the chamber has also gotten some voters’ attention. Tom Schneider, who works for Alpha Tau Omega National Fraternity, did not closely follow the referendums in the early months of the campaign. But as a chamber member, Schneider has learned more about it recently, and he has become an advocate.

“I’m really glad the chamber and the school district got together, they talked about it, and they figured out something that would work,” said Schneider, who rents downtown.

However, after months of political jockeying over the price tag, both behind closed doors and in the media, some voters have concerns over how much the request has changed and whether the district has shown that it needs the money.

Jefferson Shreve, a Republican on the Indianapolis City-County Council, said that even the reduced request is a significant amount of money.

Shreve was appointed to fill a vacancy on the council just last week, and he said he will continue to learn more about the referendums. But Indianapolis Public Schools leaders need to show how they arrived at the final request and how they will use the money.

“If you’re a citizen, and you’re just trying to keep up with this from the sidelines, the number is jumping around by hundreds of millions of bucks,” said Shreve in a phone interview last week. “That just doesn’t instill a whole lot of confidence.”

Reaching people who aren’t involved in groups like Rotary, such as low-income voters who work hourly wage jobs or busy parents of young children, takes other campaign tactics, said Downs, the political scientist.

The Indianapolis effort will include radio ads and direct mail, organizers say. The campaign is also relying on door-to-door canvassing, which the group Stand for Children Indiana has already begun. On a Friday afternoon in early September, three canvassers from the group traversed a neighborhood near Crown Hill Cemetery, before their day was cut short by torrential rain.

When a campaign worker knocked on Michael Bateman’s door, his Maltese Shih Tzu burst into high pitched barks. Bateman, for his part, was friendly if skeptical as he stood on the porch in the misty rain.

Lexus Balanzar got straight to the point: Would Bateman be willing to increase his own property taxes to raise money for school security and higher pay for teachers? The tax hike would cost just $3 more per month for homes at the district’s median value, she said.

The taxes on his home were already unaffordable, Bateman, an Indianapolis public school parent and alumnus, said with a dry laugh. “But if it’s for the teachers raises — if we can guarantee that they are for the raises, yeah.”

It’s an argument that could have broad appeal. A recent poll from Ipsos/USA Today found that 59 percent of Americans do not believe teachers are paid fairly, and even more say teachers spend too much of their own money on supplies.

Most of the year, Stand works directly with parents by training them to advocate for their children. But when election season comes around, the group takes on another, controversial role. The local branch of a national organization, Stand has been influential in helping elect school board members who favor partnerships with charter school.

Vote Yes for IPS, a political action committee supporting the referendums, is leaning on Stand for canvassing because the group has roots in the community, said Robert Vane, the lead consultant for the PAC. “Quite frankly, it would be political malpractice not to partner with them when appropriate,” he said.

When it comes to the referendums, Stand’s support could prove pivotal to success. In addition to canvassing, Stand donated $100,000 to Vote Yes for IPS. Stand officials declined to say how much the group is spending on canvassing, but the group said that its spending would be included on the Vote Yes for IPS financial disclosures.

The group has about 20 full-time, paid canvassers across Indianapolis, said Joel Williams, the Stand field director. The canvassers will continue door knocking and performing voter outreach until Election Day.

“We work as much as we humanly can,” Williams added.

awards season

For the first time in two decades, New York’s Teacher of the Year hails from New York City — and West Africa

PHOTO: New York State Education Department
Bronx International High School teacher Alhassan Susso, center, is New York State's 2019 Teacher of the Year.

An immigrant from West Africa who teaches social studies to immigrant students in the Bronx is New York State’s newest Teacher of the Year.

Alhassan Susso, who works at International Community High School in Mott Haven, received the award Tuesday, becoming the first New York City teacher to do so since 1998.

As the state’s Teacher of the Year, Susso will travel the state to work with local educators — and will represent New York in the national competition at a time when federal authorities are aggressively seeking to limit immigration.

A decorated teacher with significant vision impairment since childhood, Susso came to New York from Gambia at 16 and had a rocky experience at his upstate high school, which he chronicled in an autobiography he published in 2016. Assuming that he would struggle academically because he was an immigrant, even though English is the official language of Gambia, his teachers assigned him to a remedial reading class. There, he found a compassionate teacher who was attentive to the diverse needs of her students, who came from all over the world.

Now, Susso is playing that role at his school. International Community High School, part of the Internationals Network for new immigrants, has a special program for students who did not receive a formal education before coming to the United States.

“Alhassan Susso exemplifies the dedication and passion of our 79,000 New York City teachers,” city Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza said in a statement. “Using the obstacles he’s overcome and lessons he’s learned in his own life, Alhassan has changed the trajectory of students’ lives and helped them pursue their dreams.”

New York City teachers make up nearly 40 percent of the state’s teaching force but have won the Teacher of the Year honor only six times since 1965, the last in 1998. This year’s winner had a strong chance of ending the two-decade shutout: Two of the three finalists teach in the Bronx. In addition to Susso, Frederick Douglass Academy III chemistry teacher William Green was up for the award.