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.

The right stuff

Who will be Tennessee’s next education chief? Gov.-elect Bill Lee is getting lots of advice

PHOTO: TN.gov
As outgoing Gov. Bill Haslam looks on, Gov.-elect Bill Lee speaks at the state Capitol the day after being elected the 50th governor of Tennessee. His 75-day transition will end with his inauguration on Jan. 19.

The changing of the guard that’s coming to the Tennessee governor’s office will now definitely come also to the department overseeing state education policy.

Candice McQueen took herself out of the running to continue as education commissioner with last week’s announcement that she’ll transition in January to a new job as CEO of the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching.

While it was unlikely she would have stayed on permanently given the challenges with testing during her four-year tenure, McQueen’s planned departure cleans the slate for Gov.-elect Bill Lee to start fresh in finding the right fit to lead his vision for Tennessee schools.

The Republican businessman faces lots of choices in making one of the most important picks of his 23-member cabinet: Homegrown talent or a national search? Classroom teaching experience or workforce expertise? A quick hire or an extended search?

And he’s been getting a lot of advice.

From advocacy and philanthropic groups to the higher education and business communities, Tennessee has a large number of partners and stakeholders who care deeply about continuing the state’s momentum to improve student achievement.

“We believe that decisions made around talent and who is going to be working on education — either in the governor’s office or state Department of Education — are some of the most important decisions that the next governor will make,” said David Mansouri, president of the State Collaborative on Reforming Education, or SCORE, a nonprofit group that works closely with the education department.

“We’re looking for someone who’s going to hold the line on the school accountability framework that the state has worked so hard to build,” said Gini Pupo-Walker, a leader with Conexión Américas, which advocates for Latino families in Nashville. “We want to keep up the urgency around improving performance of different student groups and making sure that we are bringing up all kids.”

Transition period

Since winning the election on Nov. 6, Lee has huddled with a small team of advisers in a windowless office at the state Capitol to plan the transition to a new administration, including sorting through about 600 resumes submitted for various jobs in all departments.

Transition spokeswoman Laine Arnold said the plan is to have the full cabinet in place by Lee’s Jan. 19 inauguration. But, she added, “we will be open to extending this process if needed.”

Lee’s pick for schools chief is considered key — and not just because the governor-elect made education a priority on the campaign trail, including a frequent call for stronger career and technical education.

The new commissioner eventually will manage a department of more than 600 employees overseeing a public school system for about a million students, 78,000 certified educators, and $6 billion in school funding.

And because Congress voted to cede much control over K-12 policy to state officials under a 2015 federal law, the commissioner plays an even larger role than in decades past.

Homegrown vs. national

Because of the high stakes, groups like SCORE are urging Lee to cast a wide net in his search for a successor to McQueen.

“We should aspire to have best-in-class and best-in-the-nation talent, just like we’ve had the last 10 years,” said Mansouri. “That may mean the person is from Tennessee, or from somewhere else.”

PHOTO: TN.gov
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen was one of Gov. Bill Haslam’s most visible cabinet members.

Other groups emphasize the value of being familiar with Tennessee schools.

“As an organization comprised of school district leaders, we believe it would be an advantage for a state commissioner of education to have experience both in the classroom and as a public school system leader in Tennessee,” said Dale Lynch, executive director of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents.

Adds Beth Brown, president of the Tennessee Education Association: “The next commissioner should have a practical understanding of what goes on in our public schools. Having that kind of leader in place will go a long way to restoring teachers’ confidence in our Department of Education.”

Last handoff

When Republican Bill Haslam took the baton from Democrat Phil Bredesen in 2011 in the last gubernatorial handoff, he conducted a national search before plucking Kevin Huffman from the ranks of the education reform movement as his point person on schools.

A lawyer who was an executive with Teach For America in Washington, D.C., Huffman was tasked with managing Tennessee’s just-approved overhaul of K-12 schools as part of its $500 million federal Race to the Top award. The Obama-era competition had incentivized states to adopt shared academic standards, improve its lowest-performing schools, measure students’ growth over time, and design policies to reward and retain top teachers.

State education commissioner Kevin Huffman.
PHOTO: TN.gov
Kevin Huffman was Tennessee’s education commissioner from 2011 to 2014.

A polarizing leader, Huffman left after three years of clashing with teacher groups, district leaders, and state lawmakers over policies ranging from teacher licensing and evaluations to charter schools and Common Core.

Haslam then turned to McQueen, a native of Clarksville, Tenn., former teacher, and respected dean of education at Nashville’s Lipscomb University.

“She was a kinder, gentler Kevin Huffman,” said Dan Lawson, long-time school superintendent in Tullahoma. “They shared the same political agenda and underpinning, but Candice was able to deliver it in a smoother, less abrasive fashion.”

McQueen held the rudder steady on the state’s new roadmap, plus bolstered supports for teachers and launched a major reading initiative. But ongoing fumbles delivering a state test took their toll.

Interim or not

The complexities of education policy, including Tennessee’s pioneering changes over the last decade, are why SCORE leaders hope that Lee doesn’t rush to make a hire.

“We think that having a thoughtful approach that looks for the best in the nation is the right one,” said Mansouri. “If that takes time, that’s OK. It’s about getting the right person.”

There’s precedent here.

Before Haslam hired Huffman several months after taking office, he leaned on acting commissioner Patrick Smith, who had led the state’s Race to the Top oversight team under Bredesen.

Other groups agree that a thorough search is in order.

“My sense is that the Lee administration will look for top talent and let quality drive their hiring decisions. But having some ties to Tennessee will be a huge bonus,” said Shaka Miller, state director of the American Federation for Children, a group that Lee has supported and that backs a “school choice” agenda, including charter schools and voucher-like programs.

Qualities and qualifications

On the campaign trail, Lee pledged to hire the most talented and qualified people for his administration.

Arnold adds: “He’s looking for those who share his vision in making Tennessee a national leader, while also ensuring geographic and individual diversity.”

While she declined to discuss names, Lee has sought advice from two superintendents from West Tennessee — Dorsey Hopson in Shelby County and Marlon King in Fayette County — both of whom were on a 72-person campaign list of Tennesseans who supported or advised him on education.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Dorsey Hopson is superintendent of Shelby County Schools, Tennessee’s largest district.

Hopson’s backing of the millionaire Republican candidate from affluent suburban Williamson County raised eyebrows — and some fury — among his mostly urban Democratic district in Memphis, which has the state’s highest share of impoverished students.

Hopson told Chalkbeat at the time that he was “not angling for a job,” but rather that he and Lee had developed a mutual respect while getting to know each during the last year and a half.

“We routinely discussed faith, family, government, and education issues,” said Hopson, a lawyer who has headed Tennessee’s largest district since 2013. “I appreciated the thoughtful and humble way that he sought my input.”

Asked last week about Hopson, Lee told Memphis TV station Local 24 News that he hadn’t spoken with the superintendent specifically about his administration but added: “He has a role. We talk. We’ve become friends. I have a great deal of respect for his expertise.”

Hopson would have to take a pay cut, however, if Lee offered and he accepted the commissioner’s job. As superintendent, he makes $285,000 a year. The salary for the state’s education chief is $200,000.

Follow the ratings

Illinois education officials laud their school ratings — but critics say they don’t go far enough

Illinois rolled out its new school accountability system in the Illinois Report Card late last month.

State education officials publicly lauded their new school rating system Friday, even as a new, nationwide analysis of school improvement plans criticized Illinois’ approach as too hands-off.  

While the state developed a clear rating system as the federal government requires, Illinois falls short in follow-through, according to the report from the Collaborative for Student Success, a non-profit advocacy group, and HCM Strategies, a policy analysis group.  

“The state is taking too limited a role in leading or supporting school improvement efforts,” said the report, which examined how 17 states are implementing school improvement plans under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which was passed in 2015 and replaced the No Child Left Behind Act.

Both those federal laws task states with identifying and helping improve underperforming schools and with creating criteria to judge which schools are doing well. Illinois rolled out its new school accountability system in the Illinois Report Card late last month.

State officials disagree with the criticism.

“Illinois is being held up as a model for other states to follow,” said Ralph Grimm, chief education officer of Illinois, speaking at the monthly state board of education meeting on Friday. “The entire (state) team has to be commended for providing useful information.”

Illinois’ rating system places every public school in the state into one of four categories based in part on scores on the annual PARCC standardized tests (click here to see how Chicago schools ranked).

Only about a third of Illinois students scored proficient or higher on PARCC tests administered last spring. In reading, 37 percent of students in grades 3 through 8 met that benchmark, while in math 31 percent did. Despite that, the state awarded 80 percent of its schools a “commendable” or “exemplary” rating. 

The state labeled 20 percent of schools “underperforming” or “low performing,” the only designations that could trigger state action. Intervention measures include improvement plans, visits from specialists, and additional funding.

The state released its ratings just days after Chicago released its own batch of school ratings, which take into account a different set of metrics and a different standardized test.

Grimm said the next step will be asking the state’s lowest-performing schools to draft improvement plans and then connecting them with experts to implement their changes.

The state ratings pay particular attention to how schools educate certain groups of students — such as children of color and English language learners. Improvement plans will focus on ways to raise their achievement levels.

Under the latest state rankings, nearly half of Chicago schools failed to meet the state’s threshold for performance, with a disproportionate number of high schools on the low-performance list. Nearly all of under- and low-performing Chicago high schools are on the South Side and sit in or border on the city’s poorest census tracts.

The state could grant underperforming schools $15,000, and  the lowest performers can apply for $100,000 under its IL-Empower program — which helped schools improve by funneling federal funds to them. Advocates have welcomed the change to a carrot to help schools pull themselves up, after years of sticks that overhauled and cut funding for low-performing schools.

Nationally, the Collaborative for Student Success report applauded Colorado for its streamlined application system, and Nevada for asking districts to directly address equity.

The collaborative criticized Illinois for failing to involve parents and community members in its plan. The group also said the state needs to give districts more guidance on putting together school improvement plans.