getting to know you

Next in the Upper West Side and Harlem integration push: encouraging parents to explore their options

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
Claudia Aguirre, principal of P.S. 149 Sojourner Truth in Harlem, highlighted her school at a recent forum for District 3 parents to learn about their middle school options.

Standing before a classroom of parents crammed into child-sized chairs, Principal Claudia Aguirre launched into her pitch for P.S. 149 Sojourner Truth, a kindergarten through eighth grade school in Harlem. She had just five minutes to try to convince her audience to consider applying to her school, which serves mostly students from low-income families and has some of the lowest math test scores in the city.

In a gentle tone, Aguirre promised the parents gathered for the middle school kickoff event that she would know every child by name and highlighted laptops for each student, arts programming, and coding classes.

“I’m guessing we may not be on your list right now,” she said. “You might be pleasantly surprised by what we offer.”

When her time was up, no one had raised their hand with questions. All that one mother had written in her notebook was “no Regents,” a reference to the fact that P.S. 149 does not offer its middle school students a chance to take courses that can count towards high school graduation credits. Aguirre headed to the next classroom of waiting families to give her speech again.

Aguirre’s sales pitch— and its lukewarm reception—may be indicative of the tough road ahead for education leaders eager to integrate middle schools in District 3, which spans the Upper West Side and Harlem.

Families there apply to middle schools and hope their children are accepted, a time consuming and competitive process that has led to stark segregation.

This fall marks the first application cycle since District 3 approved a controversial plan to spur diversity by giving some students priority in admissions. But along with that headline-grabbing admission change, parent and school leaders are trying a different strategy: arming families with more information about a broader range of schools.

The kick off event to the application season — the annual principals forum where Aguirre spoke — has been tweaked to give parents face time with each school leader, and the district has changed the way schools market themselves to encourage parents to look beyond test scores.  

Efforts such as those may be crucial to moving the needle: School demographics will shift only if parents are willing to take a chance on a broader range of schools than they already do. In a typical year, stacks of applications pour in for just a few of the district’s most sought after schools, which set their own strict entrance criteria.

“That’s the tipping point that we’re at now, is actually trying out and actually attending schools where you don’t know anybody else,” said Kristen Berger, a member of the local Community Education Council who helped spearhead the admissions changes. “The first step in being comfortable is knowing what’s going on in the school.”

Encouraging parents to have an open mind may prove to be a challenge, with school reputations reinforced through word-of mouth on the playground, and studies that suggest parents consider race, alongside test scores, when it comes to picking a school for their children.  

Every fall, the application process in District 3 gets started with a principals forum. In previous years, school leaders would line up on stage and face questions from the audience, a process that often led to the district’s most sought-after schools hogging the spotlight.

This year was much different. A record crowd of about 350 parents crammed into the muggy auditorium of P.S. 180 Hugo Newman for the forum. The district superintendent, Ilene Altschul, rattled off “fun facts” about local middle schools.

“You will see now how much you don’t know about our middle schools, and what they offer,” the superintendent said as the night kicked off.

Parents were parceled out into groups of about 25 and settled into classrooms to meet with every school leader. They were handed pale yellow booklets with mini profiles of each middle school. Unlike the city’s handbooks, which highlight test scores and how many hopeful students applied to each school, the profiles allowed schools to list the curriculum they use, opportunities to take advanced courses, and extracurriculars such as  dance and cooking.

Osei Owusu-Afriyie, the principal of Frederick  Douglass Academy II, walked into a class full of parents with fliers advertising his school. He touted courses in computer science, robotics, and engineering, as well as seven advanced placement classes, before pivoting into a frank commentary on the city’s selective admissions process.

“What many schools will do is they will just screen out the students they have to teach,” he said. “But at our school — no matter where you come in at — we move you forward.”

City data shows teachers at Frederick Douglass drive students to make learning gains beyond even the district’s more sought-after schools. That progress is masked, however, in the number of students who come to the school already performing well below grade level and continue to earn low scores on tests. The school’s test scores hover right around the city average, but fall well below the district’s most selective schools, which serve mostly middle-class students. At Frederick Douglass, more than 80 percent of students come from low-income families.

Among the questions Afriyie faced was from a white woman who wanted to know: “How diverse is your school?” He encouraged her to look beyond the racial breakdowns, which show that only two percent of students are white.

Another parent followed up by asking whether Afriyie expected the makeup of the school to change much in the coming year with the district’s diversity plan in place.

“It all depends on whether people are willing to take chances,” he said. “Sitting within this community are really strong school options that if they take a chance to see, you’ll see it meets your needs and more.”

By the end of the night, parents had heard from leaders at each of the schools that will pilot admissions changes this year. Many parents approached at the event were leery to speak publicly after news footage of a heated debate over the district’s integration plan went viral this summer.

As they poured into the hallways, one mother said she was “surprised” that her interest had been piqued in more schools than she had expected.

“I did learn that you have to go and see them, and know the culture” of each school, another mom added.

Jason Abramson said afterward that he felt a sense of relief.

“It was like I could breathe deeply,” he said. “There are plenty of people who are going to be looking after your kids.”

Abramson has been stressing over school options for his twin sons, and the new integration plan only adds more questions to the process. Is he willing to allow his sons to commute on the subway? Will they be comfortable if they’re an extreme minority? Will they even get accepted to their top choices?

He called the desegregation efforts “long overdue,” even if it has added angst to the process of finding the right middle school.

“Something had to be done,” he said. “But as a parent, you want your child to get the best.”

Preschool math

Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker plows $100 million more into early ed — but no universal preschool this year

In the past decade, as other states have ramped up their spending on early education, budget-strapped Illinois has fallen further behind.

In his first budget proposal as governor on Wednesday, J.B. Pritzker, a philanthropist who has contributed millions to early childhood causes at home and nationally, laid out a plan to reverse that Illinois trend with a historic $100 million bump for preschool and other early learning programs.

“I have been advocating for large investments in early childhood education for decades, long before I became governor,” he said, laying out a $594 million early education spending plan that is part of an overall $77 billion package. “Investing in early childhood is the single most important education policy decision government can make.”

Later in the address, Pritzker detailed a smaller increase, but one that some advocates said was a welcome shift in policy: He described first steps toward repairing a child care assistance program that was drained of families and providers during the administration of his predecessor, Gov. Bruce Rauner. The new governor plans to spend $30 million more to rebuild the program. He also will increase income eligibility so an estimated 10,000 more families can participate.

“These priorities turn us in a different direction,” said Maria Whelan, CEO of Illinois Action for Children, which administers the child care assistance program in Cook County. Compared with the state’s previous approach, “I feel like I just woke up from a bad dream.”

Pritzker’s otherwise “austere” budget address, as he described it in his speech, came 12 days after his office revealed that the state’s budget deficit was 14 percent higher than expected — some $3.2 billion.

The state’s early childhood budget funds a preschool-for-all program that serves more than 72,000 3- and 4-year-olds statewide in a mix of partial- and full-day programs. Chicago has been using its share of state dollars to help underwrite its four-year universal pre-K rollout, which has gotten off to a bumpy start in its first year.  

The state early childhood grant also supports prenatal programs and infant and toddler care for low-income families.

Pritzker pledged on the campaign trail to pave a pathway toward universal pre-K for the state’s 3- and 4-year-olds, and this budget falls short of the estimated $2.4 billion it would cost, at least according to a moonshot proposal made in January by the lame duck state board of education. The state’s school Superintendent Tony Smith stepped down at the end of January, and Pritzker has yet to name a successor.

But policymakers and advocates on Wednesday said the considerable $100 million increase is a step in the right direction for a state that has been spending less per student than many of its neighbors. According to the National Institute for Early Education Research, Illinois spent $4,226 per young learner in 2016-2017 compared with a national average that topped $5,000. Seven states spent $7,000 or more.   

“This is a big amount in one year, but also it is what we think is needed to move programs forward, and we’re excited to see it,” said Ireta Gasner, vice president of policy at the Ounce of Prevention, an early-education advocacy group

One item Gasner said she hoped to hear, but didn’t, was increased spending on home visiting programs for families with new babies. Spending on such programs next year will remain flat under Pritzker’s proposal. Home visiting has been suggested as one antidote to the state’s troublingly high maternal mortality rates. An October report from the state’s public health department found that 72 percent of pregnancy-related deaths in Illinois were preventable.

“Overall, we still have a long way to go to serve our youngest families and youngest children,” she said.  

In addition to the $100 million, Pritzker’s office reportedly also will add $7 million to early intervention services for young learners with disabilities and set aside $107 million to help buffer the impact of his new minimum wage increase on daycare center owners and other child care providers who operate on thin margins.

On Tuesday, Pritzker signed into a law a minimum wage increase to $15 an hour.

Illinois faces a critical staffing shortage of preschool providers, and several operators have warned that they face mounting pressures from staff turnover, increased regulations, and stagnant reimbursement rates.

Future of Schools

Chicago mayoral hopeful Gery Chico has regrets — and big plans for schools if elected

PHOTO: Adeshina Emmanuel
Mayoral candidate Gery Chico, former school board president.

Former school board president Gery Chico has said that if elected mayor, he would oversee the largest ever expansion of technical and vocational education at Chicago Public Schools.

That’s a very different approach than the one he presided over during his tenure amid a rush to expand rigorous academic programs like the International Baccalaureate and selective enrollment schools that left a lot of families on the outside looking in, especially in black and Latino communities.

Related: Who’s best for Chicago schools? A Chalkbeat voter guide to the 2019 mayor’s race

“We’re losing people from the city over this issue today,” said Chico, board president from 1995 to 2001. “If an African-American parent doesn’t feel that their child who didn’t get into [selective enrollment high school] Whitney Young is going to be served well by the alternatives — they’re out of here. They leave. They may go to the south suburbs or if the change they seek is more dramatic, they may go to Dallas or Atlanta.”

Chico, who also pledges to open eight new selective enrollment high schools if elected, said he wishes he had anticipated how popular selective enrollment and IB programs were going to be, so that the district could keep up with demand. Just as when Chico ran the school board two decades ago, top academic schools and programs still are disproportionately clustered in wealthier and white neighborhoods, and fewer black and Latino students have access to those schools and programs.

Related: 5 tough questions a new report puts front-and-center for Chicago’s next mayor

Despite some regret and criticism of his tenure at the district from detractors like the Chicago Teacher’s Union, Chico counts balanced budgets, test score gains and scores of opened schools among his accomplishments running the district alongside then-schools chief Paul Vallas, another mayoral contender. After leaving the Chicago Board of Education, Chico went on to serve as board president for the City Colleges of Chicago, and later at the Illinois State Board of Education, experience he says provides him a rare vantage point to steer Chicago schools toward improvements.  

If he emerges from the crowded field of candidates in one of the most competitive mayoral elections in recent memory, he said he’d use his power as mayor to open several new trade schools every year for each year of his first term with the goal of spurring Chicago’s “largest ever” expansion of vocational and technical education. His plan is to repurpose closed schools or build new ones to house the specialized career-focused schools.

Related: In one Chicago neighborhood, three high schools offer dramatically different opportunities

Chico wouldn’t say how much it would cost.

He did say he would pay for the plan with budget savings, public-private partnerships with businesses in the trade industry, and surplus economic development dollars from the city’s tax increment finance program. Like other candidates, he’s said he would press downstate lawmakers in the state capitol to fully fund Chicago schools.

“I’m not going to do 20 in one year,” he said. We’re going to phase it in and ramp it up, whether we’re repurposing buildings, or building new buildings, largely with the money of the trade unions. It doesn’t have to break the bank.”

Related: Chicago’s mayoral candidates differ on how they’d improve outcomes for students of color

But Chico’s vocational plan doesn’t mean he’s abandoning the proliferation of rigorous curricula. He said he would expand IB programs from 50 schools to 150.

“This is not one size fits all. Some people want just neighborhood high schools, some people want IB in that high school, some communities like the South and West Sides are clamoring for a selective-enrollment school,” he said. “You have to follow the communities, listen, and then we’ll figure out the best direction based on that dialogue.”

Chicago’s municipal election is Feb. 26.

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