uneven playing field

‘I’m proud that I’m fighting for other kids’: New York City students sue for equal access to sports

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
Lisa Parks and Matthew Diaz are part of a class action lawsuit claiming the city denies black and Hispanic students equal access to school sports teams.

At her Atlanta high school, Lisa Parks was a standout on the track team. But after moving to New York City, the junior doesn’t compete anymore.

It’s not that she doesn’t want to. It’s that her high school, Urban Assembly Bronx Academy of Letters, doesn’t offer the sport.

Nor does it offer boys volleyball, the game that Matthew Diaz grew up playing during summers spent with family in Puerto Rico. While his cousins have gone on to play professionally, Diaz only gets to spike the ball when he goes to visit them.

Parks is black. Diaz is Latino. And they say too many students like them don’t get the chance to play sports in New York City schools. Both are part of a class action lawsuit accusing the education department and the Public School Athletic League of discrimination by denying black and Hispanic students an equal opportunity to play on school teams, in violation of local human rights law.

“Our mission is to have sports equity in schools,” Diaz said.

Stats collected for the suit show that the average black or Hispanic student attends a school with about 10 fewer teams than students of other racial or ethnic groups. Schools serving the most students of color are five times more likely to have their application for a team denied, often with no response or clear explanation given as to why, the suit claims. And spending on sports for black and Hispanic students is about 14 percent below what other students get.

The lack of extracurriculars such as band or athletic teams at some schools is traced in many cases back to a movement to break up large campuses into smaller schools. While that tactic led to improvements in graduation rates, it also left many schools with too few students or too little money to offer athletics. But data crunched for the suit found that the disparity in sports holds even after controlling for school size.

In its response to the suit, lawyers for the city deny the allegations.

“We are dedicated to providing the maximum number of opportunities for all students to play on sports teams and take part in a transformative experience that strengthens school communities,” education department spokeswoman Miranda Barbot said in an emailed statement.

Both Parks and Diaz are activists with an organization called IntegrateNYC, which pushes for desegregation and equal resources in city schools. They form part of the Fair Play Coalition, which grew out of their efforts to bring sports equity in schools, and are being represented by New York Lawyers for the Public Interest. Both talked to Chalkbeat about the suit and their activism. Here’s what they had to say about the importance of athletics and getting students involved in decision making.  

How did you realize this was a problem that goes beyond your school?

Diaz: We gather students monthly to these [IntegrateNYC] meetings and we’ve seen a pattern of students saying they have less resources than other students. And we’ve seen studies and facts that schools with a majority of white students have better resources, more sports teams than students in majority black and Latino schools. And we found a lot of those students coming to our meetings, and they created that as our priority to make a policy for it. Specifically, my school asked for many sports teams, and we were denied.

Why did you decide to file a lawsuit?

Diaz: When I started this work, our athletic director was already fighting for this. He basically made our school have a lot more sports teams than it had before, but we were still fighting for more. And then he connected me (because of my activism) to the group of lawyers that we have today. We created this coalition called Fair Play Coalition, and from there we just went on to the lawsuit. We expanded this idea from me being in activism, from him doing his own work of activism in sports, to creating this coalition, and having more students and allies for this work of sports equity.

We’ve attended rallies. We’ve done emails to PSAL [the Public School Athletic League, which approves and supports school teams]. We’ve contacted everyone. And we still didn’t get a word back at all. So we saw we needed to take action.

There are many different ways that segregation and inequities play out in the school system. Why did you focus on sports?

Parks: For me, sports are really a big part of my life. I’m from Atlanta, so I’m used to playing every single sport. I had a dream. My dream is to go to the Olympics. And my mom is my biggest fan, so for her, knowing that I’m not playing sports is a big heartbreak because that’s something that I look forward to doing every single day — after school, before school. So coming to New York and not having a sport to play — the sport I want to play — was a big shocker, and it’s something that I’m proud that I’m fighting for other kids to have.

What do you think you’re missing out on by not having the opportunity to play the sports you want?

Diaz: I’m missing out on a career. I’m missing out on college. I’m missing out on scholarships. As a person from a low-income community, it is pretty hard to get out of that cycle of being in a low-income community again. I feel like sports is a way out for a lot of students. Not having the opportunity to play volleyball, which is the sport I really want to play, kind of sucks.

What do you want from the education department and for students?

Diaz: Basically what I want is a straight way for youth to have enough power to communicate with the people who are in power. They do not have to go to school, and we do. So why not have our voices in the forefront? I want my little brother to play football. He’s in middle school, and once he goes to high school, he’s not going to be able to play football. I want him to have the chance to play the sport that he wants. And I want him to have the voice. If there’s no football, he could complain, and they would give it to him.

Parks: When I was in Atlanta, I would run track, and my sisters would look up to me. My friends would look up to me. Everyone in the stands would be cheering me on, and they were like, ‘I see you. I see you.’ So [I want] somebody to say that, and for people to really admire me and want to follow in my footsteps. And for middle schoolers, it’s like, ‘You can play sports. You can do it. Anybody can run. Anybody can do anything they could possibly want to do.’ Kids aren’t allowed to play the sports they want to play. It’s just really sad, and I want them to be able to be able to do that.

Why do you think that student voices are so important to include when it comes to naming this problem — and also fixing it?

Diaz: If we weren’t involved, then we would have the problem that we have right now. And if we weren’t involved, it would be this society that does not feel pressured to do anything. I feel like young people should be in the forefront, because we have to go to school and we have to go through not having sports that we want to play, and not having the resources that we need, or not having the guidance counselors that we need in schools.

What if nothing really changes? Will it have been worth it?

Diaz: I think it definitely changes a lot because it gives other students the hope that they have voices and they can do what we did.

Frequently asked

New Denver teacher contract: We answer the most common questions about the tentative pact

PHOTO: Joe Amon/The Denver Post
Students in class at Dora Moore ECE-8 during the second day of the Denver Public Schools teachers strike.

One reason many Denver educators didn’t like the district’s old ProComp pay system was that it was too complicated and unpredictable. Both sides agree that the deal reached early Thursday morning creates a much simpler pay system for teachers.

But educators — and the general public — still have a lot of questions about the tentative ProComp agreement, which still needs to be ratified by union members and the Denver school board. Here we’ve answered some of the most common questions we’ve heard since the end of the strike.

How do I place myself on the salary schedule?

The salary schedule is made up of “steps” and “lanes.” The “steps” represent years of service for which a teacher had a positive evaluation. The “lanes” represent levels of education. The new schedule has 20 steps and seven lanes.

Worked in Denver Public Schools for five years and have a master’s degree? Go to step five and then slide your finger over to the master’s degree lane. That’s your base salary.

Did you have a year when your evaluation wasn’t good? Go back one step. Have an additional 18 credits on top of your master’s degree? Go up one more lane.

Teachers can also go up a lane once they hit the 10-year mark because the district wanted to reward longevity. Other milestones that merit a lane change: earning national board certification or an advanced license, or completing six “professional development unit” training courses.

Still not sure? Denver Public Schools plans to put a salary calculator on its website soon.

What if I have more than 20 years of experience?

If you have 20 or more years of experience, you’re placed at the top of the salary schedule, on step 20. After step 20, you’ll get yearly cost-of-living raises. You’re still eligible to change lanes, but you won’t get any more step raises.

Does the district know everything it needs to know about individual educators to pay them the correct salary?

Denver Public Schools plans to send letters or emails this spring to every teacher and special service provider (nurses, counselors, and others) covered by the contract, laying out where the district believes that employee falls on the schedule based on information they have on file. Educators will have a certain amount of time to correct any wrong information and get on the correct step and lane for the 2019-20 school year.

Under the new salary schedule, it looks like I’ll earn less next year than I do now. Am I taking a pay cut?

No. The agreement includes a “hold harmless” clause that ensures everyone will get a raise next year. Those whose salaries are higher now than they would be under the new schedule will get a cost-of-living raise each year until the salary schedule catches up with them.

How are bonuses and incentives different under the new contract?

The bonuses and incentives are different in three ways: There are fewer of them, the dollar amounts are different, and the dollar amounts won’t change year to year.

This year, there are six bonuses and incentives offered by the district: one for educators who work in Title I schools where 60 percent or more of the student population qualifies for subsidized meals; one for educators who work in hard-to-fill positions; one for educators who work in “hard-to-serve” schools; one for educators who work in one of 30 “highest-priority” schools; one for educators who return year over year to those schools; and one for educators who work in schools deemed top-performing or high-growth, as based on school ratings.

Here’s what’s left in the new contract: Teachers in Title 1 schools and those in hard-to-fill positions, such as secondary math, will get $2,000 a year. Teachers who return year over year to 30 highest-priority schools will get $3,000 a year. Teachers in 10 schools deemed “distinguished” will get $750 a year, with the criteria to be determined by the district and the union.

Why aren’t the district and the union tying bonuses to test scores anymore?

Unions have traditionally been skeptical of paying teachers based on student test scores because the scores are so closely correlated with factors like race and household income. In Denver, these bonuses were also less predictable for teachers because the district often changed the criteria it used to rate schools and award “top-performing” bonuses.

The district also came to see these bonuses as canceling out the effects of bonuses for teachers at high-poverty schools. A teacher could get nearly the same kind of monetary reward by moving to a more affluent school or by staying in one where students face more challenges. The new bonus system provides clearer monetary benefits to working in a high-poverty school.

Why did the union agree to keep the incentive for highest-priority schools, when that had been such a sticking point?

In any negotiation, there’s give and take and a lot of moving pieces. 

Here’s what lead negotiator Rob Gould said to district officials during bargaining: “We are open to the incentive because we know it’s important to you. And we’re willing to entertain your ideas if we can get the base salary schedule that our teachers need. Because if we can get the base salaries we need, we can keep our teachers in Denver.”

This was also an issue that divided teachers, with some teachers at schools that received the highest-priority incentive pushing to keep them.

Did teachers get a better deal out of the strike than the district’s last offer before the strike?

Teachers were getting a raise no matter what. The district was offering an average 10 percent raise before the strike (this included a cost-of-living raise that was agreed to back in 2017). Now teachers will get an average 11.7 percent raise, though individual teachers will see a wide range.

The district is putting the same amount of new money — $23.5 million — into teacher compensation as it was offering before the strike. It can give a larger average raise with that same amount of money because the incentives are smaller than under the previous proposal and because of limits on how teachers can use training to get raises. That gives the district more predictability about how many teachers will get raises each year.

Union leaders call the deal a win. They secured more opportunities for teachers to earn raises and move into higher categories on the salary schedule, including through completing training partially during work hours at no additional cost. And teachers can get to $100,000 in 20 years, rather than the 30 years in the last district proposal.

However, individual teachers aren’t necessarily getting more base pay next year than they would have under the district’s last offer. Early-career teachers without advanced degrees would have earned more in base pay under the district’s last offer. The teachers who do better under the deal reached after the strike are veteran educators with more education.

To take two examples: A second-year educator with a bachelor’s degree and no extra credits or training would have earned $47,550 in base pay under the district’s last offer before the strike but will earn $46,869 under the deal reached this week.

But a 20-year educator who has a master’s degree and an advanced license who has been with the district for 10 years will earn $88,907 in base pay under the new agreement, compared with $87,550 under the district’s last proposal before the strike.

The union fought for this kind of salary schedule in part to address a longstanding complaint that teachers have little reason to stay in a district where base pay levels off.

You can see the salary schedule from the district’s last offer here and the schedule from the tentative agreement here.

Is this deal financially sustainable for the district?

Denver Public Schools Chief Financial Officer Mark Ferrandino says that is the “million-dollar question,” perhaps closer to the “half-billion-dollar question,” since that is roughly how much the district spends on educator compensation.

Ferrandino believes the answer is yes, with the standard caveat that all projections are just that.

What will be cut to pay for this?

The district plans to cut $20 million from administrative costs over the next two years. That includes cutting 150 jobs in the central office and ending all executive bonuses. The bulk of it — $13 million — will go to fund the ProComp agreement.

District officials have not yet said which central office jobs will be cut, though Superintendent Susana Cordova has said cuts will be to “discretionary” departments. Departments that will not be cut include special education, English language acquisition, and transportation, she said.

Teachers will get a raise. What about paraprofessionals, bus drivers, custodians, and cafeteria workers?

These other district employees, much lower paid than teachers, are not covered by the contract that was the subject of the strike. Cordova has said these workers also deserve raises and a portion of administrative cuts will go to pay for them.

But how much of a raise will they get? That will all be worked out over the next few months and include discussions with the unions that represent these employees.

Will striking teachers get back pay?

Not according to district officials. After this story was published Friday, we asked for further clarification on this. We received this statement Saturday morning:

Superintendent Cordova understands that when teachers make the choice to strike, they are doing so to make a statement and bring attention to the importance of the issue at hand. Foregoing pay during the time that a teacher is not working is a challenging decision that no one makes lightly, and consequently, brings with it an impact that is intended to push for change.

DPS did not feel that it would be fair or appropriate to provide back pay to striking teachers when many others — including more than 40 percent of classroom teachers — chose to remain at work this week. However, DPS is working with the DCTA to offer all teachers the opportunity to attend a Saturday session to replace the professional development day that was cancelled in the days leading up to the strike. Any teacher who attends will be paid a day’s salary.

When will the new agreement go into effect? How long will it last?

Assuming both sides ratify it, the new agreement technically (and retroactively) went into effect Jan. 19, the day after the old one expired. But educators won’t start receiving the new salaries, incentives, and bonuses negotiated under it until Aug. 1. The agreement expires Aug. 31, 2022.

Teens Talk Back

‘Mr. Mayor, we cannot afford to wait.’ Teen group says New York City diversity plan doesn’t move fast enough.

PHOTO: Courtesy/Teens Take Charge
Teens Take Charge members at a "virtual" press conference in New York City on Thursday

A teen group representing students from more than 30 New York City high schools sharply criticized a recent report from Mayor Bill de Blasio’s School Diversity Advisory Group as offering no real solutions for increasing integration in the city’s starkly segregated high schools.

At a virtual press conference on Thursday, broadcast live on Facebook by Teens Take Charge, students expressed support for the report’s broad policy aim of achieving greater integration but also disappointment that the findings offered few specifics for how to reach this goal. The mayor’s Diversity Advisory Group has said a follow-up report will provide more details later this year.

“We have been told to wait, to be patient, that change is coming soon,” said Tiffani Torres, a junior at Pace High School in Manhattan. “Mr. Mayor, we cannot afford to wait any longer.”

Teens Take Charge has long advocated for greater efforts to end segregated enrollment patterns in the city’s high schools. Sokhnadiarra Ndiaye, a junior at Brooklyn College Academy High School, said that students’ expectations of the mayor included his announcing “a comprehensive plan” — even if it took years to realize — “to racially, socioeconomically, and academically integrate high schools before the end of this school year,” she said.

Among Teens Take Charge’s specific recommendations are doing away with academic screens for admission to the city’s high schools, a more transparent process for applying to them, and more resources for low-income schools. Early last year, the group produced an Enrollment Equity Plan for increasing educational opportunities for low-income black and Hispanic students.

And because concrete plans for increasing integration would take time, Ndiaye said the teen organization supports several interim measures as well to address inequities in the school system. These include providing more college and career counseling for junior and seniors at low-income, under-resourced high schools. The teen group would also like to see the city provide vouchers to low-income families to access extra-curricular activities and programs offered by private companies or the ability to participate in such programs at other public schools if theirs don’t offer them. (Some city teens joined a class-action lawsuit against the education department and Public School Athletic League for allegedly denying black and Hispanic students equal opportunity to play on school sports teams, in violation of local human rights law.)

Torres described how Teens Take Charge has had “several meetings and phone conversations with Department of Education officials over the past year,” and schools chancellor Richard Carranza has stated that students have his ear. “We’re listening,” he tweeted in response to a Chalkbeat story with excerpts of the students’ views.

In December, the city’s education department posted a new job listing for a “Student Voice Manager” who would gather students’ thoughts on education policies. But while acknowledging this seat at the table, several students expressed frustration at the slow pace of change.

Bill de Blasio’s office declined to comment about Teens Take Charge’s concerns or their specific recommendations, beyond referencing remarks the mayor already made about the School Diversity Advisory Group report.

Doug Cohen, an education department spokesman, said in a statement, “We’ve taken real steps toward school integration,” pointing to initiatives such as a $2 million diversity grant program for school districts and communities citywide to develop their own local diversity plans, and a program that enables middle-schoolers to visit college campuses. “We know there is more work to do, and we thank Teens Take Charge for its continued advocacy on these issues,” he added.

Students at the group’s event urged swift change. “They know our plan; they have our information,” said Sophie Mode, a sophomore at Brooklyn Millennium. “They need to take action now.”