Diversity Delayed

NYC is offering the SHSAT during school hours to boost diversity, but it’s mostly benefitting white and Asian students

Newark students who hope to attend one of the district's six magnet schools will have to take a new exam in January.

Students at dozens of middle schools across the city will take the Specialized High School Admissions Test on Thursday as part of an initiative to expand access for underrepresented students at the city’s specialized high schools. But data released by the education department shows that the program is not having its intended effect.

The initiative, started two years ago and expanded this admissions cycle, allows students to take the SHSAT during the school day, instead of on a weekend. The idea is that by offering the exam during school hours, and giving schools extra test preparation materials, black and Hispanic students and other underrepresented groups are more likely to take the test and have a shot at attending a specialized school.

Yet an analysis of the city data, which Chalkbeat requested, shows the program is overwhelmingly benefitting white and Asian students — groups that already dominate admissions to those schools.

At the 15 schools that administered the SHSAT during the school day last year, Asian students accounted for 68 percent of acceptances to attend specialized high schools. Overall, Asian students represented just over half of offers to specialized schools last year, which means that Asian students were even more likely to benefit from their schools offering the test during the day. (Just 16 percent of the city’s students are Asian.)

By contrast, Hispanic students accounted for just under 11 percent of offers at schools that administered the exam during the day last year, slightly better than the 6 percent who received offers during the overall testing process. Another 13 percent of offers went to white students. So few black students received offers through the program, the education department redacted the data citing privacy laws. Black and Hispanic students are nearly 67 percent of the city’s overall student body.

“What I call supply-side initiatives — more prep, better access to the test — the history of all these initiatives is they tend to get taken advantage of by the people who already do well on the tests,” said Lazar Treschan, youth policy director at the Community Service Society who has studied specialized high school admissions.

Despite those results, city officials are expanding the program significantly this year. Fifty middle schools across the city are offering the exam during the day on Thursday, up from 15 last year.

Will Mantell, an education department spokesman, defended the decision to expand the program. He noted that it has successfully boosted the number of students who take the SHSAT at participating schools by roughly 40 percent and pointed to figures that show the program has boosted the share of black, Hispanic, and low-income students who take the exam.

Hispanic students, for instance, made up 38 percent of the students who took the SHSAT during the school day last year; overall, just 23 percent of students who take the exam are Hispanic.

Mantell said the program “may show more impact as schools participate in the program for two or more years.”

In June, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a more aggressive push to integrate specialized high schools by eliminating the SHSAT as the sole entrance exam at eight specialized high schools, which include Stuyvesant, Brooklyn Tech, and Bronx Science. In its place, the city plans to offer a spot at a specialized school to the top 7 percent of students at every middle school — a move that officials say will significantly boost the share of black and Hispanic students at the schools.

“While it’s a start to see an increase in testers and offers at SHSAT School Day schools, the fact is: a single test shouldn’t determine a student’s future,” Mantell said in a statement.

Overall, just 10.4 percent of offers to eight specialized high school went to black and Hispanic students, even though they represent two-thirds of the city’s students, a number that hasn’t budged significantly in years.

Offering the SHSAT during the school day isn’t the only diversity initiative aimed at specialized high schools to fall flat. A separate program that offers admission to students who just missed the testing cutoff has also tended to benefit white and Asian students over black and Hispanic ones. (The city plans to expand that program, too, but with tweaks designed to enroll more underrepresented students.)

Some educators at schools that offer the SHSAT during the school day say there are benefits beyond increasing the number of students who get offers to specialized schools. At J.H.S. 118 in the Bronx, which is offering the exam during the school day Thursday, roughly 81 percent of students are black or Hispanic. Through the program, the school has also been able to offer SHSAT test prep to any student who wants it; before, it was limited to the school’s strongest students.

“We’re generally enthusiastic about what the program offers to our kids and what it tells our kids about who they are,” said Giulia Cox, the school’s principal, arguing it signals to a wider group of students that they have a shot at the most competitive high schools.

But even though the school boosted the number of students taking the exam by 38 percent (or 74 students) after offering the SHSAT during the day, only two more students received offers to a specialized school. Cox acknowledged the number of offers haven’t jumped much, but said the practice can still help students academically and give them a leg up in their test-taking skills.

“Maybe they don’t get an offer to a specialized high school,” she said, “but [they] are more prepared.”

School choice

Denver judge blocks school transportation provision added to Colorado law

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Sam Boswell, 7, all bundled up in his winter clothes, splashes his way to the school bus on May 12, 2010.

A Denver judge struck down a provision of a bill related to the education of youth in foster care that would have removed barriers to transportation for all students.

The transportation provision was an amendment added by Republican lawmakers late in the 2018 session. Soon after the bill was signed by Gov. John Hickenlooper, several Colorado school districts and the associations that represent them filed a lawsuit to block it.

In a ruling issued Friday, Denver District Court Judge David Goldberg found that the amendment violated rules in the Colorado constitution that require every bill to have a clear title that explains what the bill is about and to deal only with one subject.

The bill’s title was “Improving Educational Stability for Foster Youth,” and it seeks to improve graduation rates for foster youth by requiring child welfare officials and school districts to work out transportation to the student’s home district when that’s in the child’s best interest. It also creates flexibility around graduation requirements when students do change schools. Foster youth have the lowest four-year graduation rates in the state, much lower even than homeless youth and students whose parents are migrant workers.

The tacked-on language was added in the Republican-controlled State Affairs committee five days before the end of the session. It said that a school board “may furnish transportation” to students who are enrolled in the district but who live in another district. The provision applies to all students, not just those who are in the foster system. It also struck language from an existing law that requires the consent of the school district from which students are being bused.

The amendment language came straight from a separate bill about expanding school choice that had been killed by Democrats in the House the day before.

Many school districts opposed the transportation provision because they feared it would open the door for better-off districts to poach students and undermine the meaning of school district boundaries. Advocates for school choice argued the provision was good policy that would allow more students, especially those from low-income families, take advantage of opportunities. They also argued, apparently unconvincingly, that it was required for implementation of the foster youth portions of the bill.

The Donnell-Kay Foundation intervened in the case in defense of the law. (The Donnell-Kay Foundation is a funder of Chalkbeat. You can read our ethics policy here.)

In his ruling, Goldberg said this specific issue has never been litigated in Colorado before, and he relied in part on rulings from other states with similar requirements. Bills with broad titles, he wrote, can be construed broadly and encompass a range of issues as long as they have some connection to the title. But bills with narrow titles must be construed narrowly — and this amendment didn’t make the cut.

“The subject of House Bill 18-1306 is out-of-home placed students and efforts to ensure educational stability,” Goldberg wrote, while the amendment’s subject “is all students, with no qualifiers, conditions, restrictions, or reference to out-of-home placed students. … House Bill 18-1306 seriously modifies transportation for all students and is hidden under a title relating exclusively to out-of-home placed students.”

Goldberg ruled that the amendment is “disconnected” from the rest of the bill, and neither lawmakers nor the public had enough notice about its inclusion before passage.

That leaves the rest of the foster youth bill intact and advocates for expanded school choice facing an uphill battle in a legislature in which Democrats, who are more likely to give priority to school district concerns, now control both chambers.

This isn’t an abstract issue. In 2015, more than 150 students who lived in the Pueblo 60 district but attended school in higher-performing Pueblo 70 lost access to transportation when the city-based district ordered its neighbor to stop running bus routes through its territory.

Online Shopping

Jeffco launches universal enrollment site to make school choice easy

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat
Students in a social studies class at Bear Creek High School in Jeffco Public Schools read about Genghis Khan.

Starting Monday, parents in Colorado’s second-largest district will be able to shop online for schools and, once enrollment opens in January, apply to as many as they like.

The launch of Enroll Jeffco, following the path paved by Denver Public Schools, means some 86,000 students and their parents won’t have to go to individual schools during the work day and fill out paper forms if they want to apply somewhere other than their neighborhood school.

The online system cost about $600,000 to develop and operate for this school year. The district expects it to cost about half of that annually going forward.

Universal enrollment systems allow parents to compare and apply to traditional district-run schools, district schools with specialized programming or models, known in Jeffco as options schools, and charter schools with a single application on the same website. Universal enrollment systems are a key component of what some call the “portfolio model,” in which districts oversee a range of school types and parents vote with their feet. They’ve been controversial in places, especially when coupled with aggressive school accountability policies that lead to school closures.

In Jeffco Public Schools, which is more affluent than many Denver metro area districts, officials see the move to a single, online enrollment system as a valuable service for parents.

“Regardless of how people feel about it, we operate in a competitive school choice environment, both inside the district and outside the district,” Superintendent Jason Glass said. “That compels us to make thinking about that transaction, making people aware of the options and enrolling in our schools, as frictionless and easy as possible.”

Colorado law requires schools in any district to admit any student for whom they have room and for whom the district can provide adequate services, after giving priority to students who live in the district. But many districts still require paper applications at individual schools, and schools in the same district might not have the same deadlines. A recent report by the conservative education advocacy group Ready Colorado found that parents who use school choice are more likely to be white, middle- or upper-class, and English-speaking than the state’s student population. The authors argue that districts should streamline the enrollment process and consider providing transportation to make choice more accessible.

Jeffco isn’t rolling out new transportation options yet, but it might use data from the enrollment process, including a parent survey that is built into the website, to see if that’s desired or feasible. And officials believe strongly that the new online enrollment system will open up more opportunities for low-income parents and those who don’t speak English.

The website will provide information in the district’s six most commonly spoken languages and should be optimized for use on mobile phones. All parents will be required to use the system to express their preferences, including the majority of parents who want to stay in their neighborhood school, and the district is planning significant outreach and in-person technical assistance.

We believe that if all parents are participating, it improves equity,” Glass said. “One of the things we struggle with is that upwardly mobile and affluent parents tend to be the ones who take advantage of school choice. We want all of our schools to be available to all of our families. We think being able to search through and make the enrollment process as easy as possible is an equity issue.”

But critics of universal enrollment systems worry that the ease of application will encourage parents to give up on neighborhood schools rather than invest in them.

Rhiannon Wenning, a teacher at Jefferson Junior-Senior High School, said the link between charter schools and open enrollment systems makes her distrustful, even as many of her students are using the choice process to stay at the school after rising home prices pushed them into other parts of the metro area.

“I understand parents want what is best for their child, but part of that as a citizen and a community member is to make your neighborhood school the school that you want it to be,” she said, calling the universal enrollment system an attack on public schools.

Joel Newton of the Edgewater Collective, which provides community support for lower-income schools in the eastern part of the district, said Enroll Jeffco will give the district much better data on which to base decisions, but he worries that Title I schools, which serve large numbers of students from low-income families, won’t be able to compete.

“With an online system like this, it really needs to be a level playing field,” he said. “And in my area, I’d much rather have resources going to curriculum and instructional aides to catch kids up than going into marketing support. But other areas can do that and they have these big, well-funded PTAs.”

Until now, parents have had to seek out information on each school’s website. The online portal starts by asking parents to enter their address and the grade in which they’re enrolling a student. It then displays the parents’ neighborhood school, with an option to explore alternatives. Each school page has extensive information, including a short narrative, descriptions of special programs like math, arts, or expeditionary learning, the school mascot, and the racial and economic breakdown of the student population. The intent, district spokesperson Diana Wilson said, is to let schools “tell their own story.”

Parents can select as many schools as they want when enrollment opens Jan. 22, and they’ll learn in mid- to late February where they got in. However, they have to commit within five days to one school, ending a practice by which parents in the know kept their options open through the summer months. District officials say this will help them plan and budget better.

Kristen Harkness, assistant director for special education in Jeffco, served on the steering committee that developed the system, and she’s also a parent in the district. Even as a district employee who thought she knew the process inside and out, she managed to miss a deadline for her son to be considered at another middle school.

She said that choosing between schools isn’t a matter of which schools are better but which are a better fit for a particular student. In her case, her son could have stayed at a K-8 or transferred to a combined middle and high school, with each option presenting a different kind of middle school experience. He’s happy at the K-8 where he stayed, she said, but parents and students should have the chance to make those decisions.

The new universal enrollment system is poised to give more families that chance. In the course of the rollout, though, there may be a few glitches.

“We’re doing all we can to look into the future and foresee any technical problems and design solutions to that proactively,” Glass said. “That said, this is our first time, and we ask for people’s patience.”