getting active

In offshoot of Black Lives Matter movement, students push for changes in New York City schools

PHOTO: Sara Mosle/Chalkbeat
Students, parents, and activists at a Black Lives Matter at School rally in New York City on February 7, 2019

More diverse school staff members, updated curriculum, more counselors, and changes to how school discipline issues are handled.

Those are the four issues that students across the city are calling attention to during  Black Lives Matter at School, an annual week-long series of workshops, rallies, and community conversations about racial justice in education in cities across the country.

The four demands touch on issues Mayor Bill de Blasio and schools Chancellor Richard Carranza have also worked to address: to hire more black teachers, to mandate black history and ethnic studies in K-12 curricula, to fund “more school counselors not cops,” and to “end zero tolerance,” a reference to harsh discipline practices that research shows can disproportionately affect black students, with negative consequences.

“We’re here to talk, specifically, about how in our school, we have a very small amount of teachers that are black,” said Mario Vasquez, a senior at Maxine Greene High School for Imaginative Inquiry at the Martin Luther King, Jr. campus in Manhattan, as he stood on the steps of the city’s education department on Thursday with roughly 200 other students, teachers, and activists, chanting and carrying signs.

Other gatherings this week have included events where attendees could make protest signs or score school curricula on whether they are “culturally destructive” or “culturally responsive” to black and Hispanic students, a response to an analysis in October that showed that several commonly-used English-language-arts curricula in the city had few authors, characters, or subjects of color.

A substantial body of research shows that students of color gain from being in classes with teachers who look like them, leading to better test scores and fewer suspensions and expulsions, among other benefits. Yet while absolute numbers of teachers of color have increased in recent decades, they still make up just 7 percent of the nation’s teaching force.

Vasquez, who immigrated to the U.S. from the Dominican Republic, has experienced the absence firsthand. At his school, “only two of our 25 teachers are black,” he said, “when a majority of our students are black or Latino.”

Maya Lane, a senior at Essex Street Academy on the Lower East Side, was also at the rally. “There isn’t much injustice” at her school, she said, but as the president of its Black Students Union, she still feels “the system can be better.” In particular, she wants schools to include far more black history in her classes. “I’m more about learning about my roots,” she said.

In Lane’s view, too much of what’s taught about black history is about “oppression, how we had to fight our way to be equal, when we should be talking more about the kings and queens in Egypt, the people who got their first Ph.Ds or master’s degrees, or the first people who went to college—things we did, the adventures we made.”

Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza has indicated he is looking into possibly revamping school curricula, in addition to making it more “culturally responsive,” but has not provided many details on what a broader overhaul might entail. Some of Thursday’s rally organizers have pushed for passage of a bill in the state legislature that would create a K-12 black history curriculum.

Two other students from Essex Street School, Khadija Dramé, and Khalyha Caleb, who are freshmen and friends, spoke about what drew them to the steps of the city’s education department, where they listened to speakers, students banged on upturned plastic buckets like drums, and passersby in cars honked their horns in solidarity.

Dramé, who is part of the youth-led activist group IntegrateNYC, has already visited Albany since the beginning of the year to lobby for a bill that would revise suspension rules and implement “restorative” discipline practices statewide but that has not previously gotten traction in the Assembly.

After years of declines, suspensions in New York City schools increased last year for the first time since Mayor de Blasio took office in 2014. An analysis showed that not only were black students more likely to be suspended, they were also more likely to receive harsher punishments than white students for the same categories of misbehavior, such as bullying or altercations.

“The reality is that black and brown students are targeted when it comes to suspensions,” Dramé said. “You can get suspended for up to 180 days, and that’s like a whole year, which can definitely take a toll on your education.”

Her view has some policymakers’ support. In October, a group of city councilors wrote a letter to the mayor and Carranza demanding, among other reforms, a cap on the length of suspensions. The mayor, who has already amended the city’s discipline code to reduce the number and length of such punishments, has said he’s asked the chancellor to take another “hard look” to see if more changes are necessary.  

Dramé sees replacing suspensions with “restorative” practices, a typically more collaborative approach to student discipline, as “tied together.” Mayor Bill de Blasio has also embraced the idea. But many educators and parents have contended that it has made city schools less safe. But the first rigorous, comprehensive study of the practice has countered this view, though it also showed that black students saw a significant drop in test scores in schools where restorative justice was implemented.

In addition, Dramé would like to see more black educators in schools, having only encountered three in her school career thus far, one of whom was a principal.

For Caleb, Thursday was her first time attending such a rally — and she liked it. “I feel like it’s empowering,” she said. “It’s catching people’s attention and helping them get involved and know what’s going on.” Her galvanizing issue is “having more counselors than cops,” she said. “A counselor is someone you can get personal with; a cop, you’re really not able to do that.”

The city has increased the number of school counselors, although the ratio of such support personnel to high-needs students still lags the level recommended by many experts.

Although Caleb said the security personnel at Essex Street were mostly friendly, “we had a random search with metal detectors,” she said in the fall. “It kind of made me feel like a criminal,” especially when “you get told to step to the side, and everybody else gets told to go forward,” she added. It turned out she had a spoon, which “got confiscated,” she said.

Another contingent of students at the rally were from M.S. 50 in Brooklyn and were all wearing a T-shirt with a graphic that organizers picked in the fall as the official design for the Black Lives Matter Week of Action in New York City. The creator was eighth grader Emma Pichardo, who knew her classmates would be in the T-shirts but could scarcely believe so many other people at the rally were wearing her design. “I was surprised,” she said, but also “excited.”

Events ahead  include a Friday evening forum on “Making Black Lives Matter in City Schools” and a Teen Conference and Open Mic Night on Saturday.

Vasquez, the senior from Maxine Greene, said he hoped that what people will take away from the week’s Black Lives Matter events is “that things can be more equal, just generally more equal, across everything in schools.”


College Access

How an effort to prepare Michigan high schoolers for college slipped through the cracks

The proposal to make it easier for students to earn college credit while still in high school seemed like the rare education policy idea with no natural enemies in the Michigan legislature.

When a bill was proposed in the Republican-controlled Senate, it passed in a unanimous vote.

Then it vanished — apparently pushed aside by more pressing concerns.

“Boy, we must have just missed it,” said Tim Kelly, a former representative who, as chairman of the house committee on education, had the power to bring the bill to a vote last year. “I can’t imagine why I wouldn’t have been in favor.”

Advocates of so-called dual enrollment are hoping their next attempt won’t meet the same fate. They want to lift a cap on state-funded college courses that students can take while still in high school. Dual enrollment is widely considered to be one of the most powerful ways to increase the number of people who earn college degrees.

In an inaugural address to the legislature, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer promised to sharply increase the number of Michiganders with degrees to 60 percent by 2030. That number currently hovers around 43 percent, putting Michigan in the bottom third of states.

Michigan is one of five states that limit dual enrollment; its limit is the strictest of any state. Advocates say that limiting students to 10 college courses in four years is unusual and unnecessary.

The cap is not the only obstacle preventing students from earning valuable experiences — not to mention college credits — before they turn 18.

It may not even be the most significant. When advocates worry that the growth of dual enrollment in Michigan is slowing, they lay much of the blame on financial incentives that give schools little reason to help students dual enroll.

“I think we should look at [lifting the cap], but we should also look at the funding mechanism,” said Brenda Carter, a state representative who serves on the house education committee. “How many schools in Michigan are limited in what they can offer their students because of funding?”

Schools are required to pay roughly $7,800 in annual tuition for students who choose to take college courses, and some have suggested that the state should help offset those costs.

But any new funding for dual enrollment would require a political battle. Lifting the cap, less so.

That’s why supporters of lifting the cap were so bemused when, last year, a bill that had garnered strong bipartisan support in the Senate never went to a vote in the House.

“That was really surprising,” said Brandy Johnson, executive director of the Michigan College Access Network, a nonprofit that aims to increase the number of students who earn college degrees. In a 2015 report, the organization called for the legislature to “eliminate restrictive rules” surrounding dual enrollment.

Johnson guessed that the 2018 dual enrollment bill slipped through the cracks in part because of its relatively low profile. It was eclipsed in the news cycle by an ongoing debate about school funding and by a political furor over social studies learning standards.

Several legislators told Chalkbeat they didn’t know that dual enrollment is capped.

Among them are Carter and Dayna Polehanki, a Democrat who was elected to the senate in November and is now a vice-chair of the Senate’s education committee, said she became familiar with dual enrollment while working as a high school teacher in Macomb County.

She thought it was good for her students, but said she wanted to learn more about the cap before making up her mind. She pointed out that if students decided to take courses at a community college that were already offered at their local school, schools could find themselves paying for teachers and for students’ community college tuition.

“I can see both sides of that issue,” she said.

The Republican chairs and vice-chairs of both the Senate and House education committees did not respond to requests for comment on Wednesday.

Advocates of dual enrollment say it’s worth sorting out the challenges that could come with allowing high schoolers to take unlimited college credits.

With the cap lifted, high school students could earn a diploma from a traditional high school and simultaneously complete a technical certification or an associates degree from a community college. Those students would save money on college credits, and they would finish high school better-prepared for college than peers who’d never set foot in a college classroom.

Lifting the cap “expands access for students, especially low-income students,” Johnson said.

She warned that not all high schoolers are ready to take a heavy college course load. If the cap is lifted, she said, the state should also make sure that students meet a “readiness threshold” — perhaps a minimum standardized test score — before being allowed to dive into college coursework.

But she added that after the bill passed the Senate last year, she believed it had a chance in 2019.

“I am very hopeful,” she said.

Kelly, who reached his term limit in the house last year, said he hopes his former colleagues take a second look at the issue.

“I would hope somebody does,” he said.

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.