new school

A new school in Bronzeville says a lot about what parents want

PHOTO: Cassie Walker Burke
Kindergarten at Bronzeville Classical

The first day of school, Nicole Spicer woke up at 4 a.m., put on a kelly-green blouse that matched her school colors, and was greeting new families at the door by 7:30 a.m.

By 9:30 a.m., the founding principal of the new Bronzeville Classical Elementary had run the school leadership gauntlet: encouraging her small cadre of teachers, welcoming jittery students and parents, and throwing an opening-day party complete with a balloon trellis and visits from such VIPs as Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Chicago schools CEO Janice Jackson.

Her venti Starbucks coffee had long grown cold. So she headed to the teachers’ lounge to zap it in the microwave before embarking on another tour of the building, a former elementary school that closed under former schools chief Arne Duncan, reopened as a charter, then closed again.

In the school-choice era in Chicago, school buildings can have many incarnations, and 8 West Root Street’s latest says a lot about what parents in and around Bronzeville want. The only new selective enrollment school opening this year, it comes amid amped-up debate about the degree to which test-in schools pick off accelerated learners and middle-class families at the expense of neighborhood programs.

The debate recently has been stoked by reports that paint a never-before-seen picture of supply and demand in individual schools as well as the startling number of open seats in neighborhood schools.

PHOTO: Cassie Walker Burke
Assistant principal Raven Talley and principal Nicole Spicer

A case study in what a school can look like with robust support, Bronzeville Classical’s deep bench consists of black religious and business leaders from the community around it. A multimillion gut rehab puts its facilities-wise on par with private schools — there are smart boards in classrooms, a new playground and turf area, even a donated pottery kiln. And the principal has ties with the historically black neighborhood, which still really matters in Chicago.

“Bronzeville has always been a part of who I am,” said Spicer, who grew up near 41st and Indiana streets and attended Catholic schools in the area, despite family who were alums of Phillips High School. “I couldn’t pass up this opportunity.”

The opportunity she’s describing is building a school from the ground up, from hiring the staff to prioritizing Spanish-language immersion and music theory to recruiting the students. Since the school was announced last December, Bronzeville Classical has enrolled 80 children in grades K through second, with plans to add a grade each year. It still has 100 students to go to reach its initial goal.

To recruit more families, Spicer is setting up her front office to help families navigate the selective-enrollment process, which includes completing a centralized online application and registering children for a testing appointment at a facility near IIT. There will also be orientations for prospective families, tours, a social media push, and workshops for families, said Assistant Principal Raven Talley. “When you walk into a school, you want to feel and see the community and the culture,” Talley said.

Not everyone who lives in the surrounding neighborhoods can attend the school, no matter the supports. That bothers public education organizers like Jitu Brown, the national director for the Journey for Justice Alliance. He has long encouraged CPS to stop segregating students by test scores and shower its neighborhood schools with the same resources and attention it gives new schools. “The rest of our babies are left to languish in neighborhood schools that are starved.”

In essence, other schools could use smart boards and Spanish immersion. A balloon trellis wouldn’t hurt.

The parent perspective

Brittany Smith, the parent of a first-grader at Bronzeville Classical, sympathizes with that argument. But, at 27, she’s part of a generation that came up in the choice era, traveling to a magnet school as an elementary student that was near the Indiana border and then attending Whitney Young, the city’s first public magnet high school.

In other words, “I’m used to the idea,” she said.

Smith lives in Bronzeville, just down the street from Ida B. Wells Preparatory, which reported an average kindergarten class size of 38 last year (the district average was 16.9, according to the 2017 Illinois School Report Card.) Put off by the class sizes, she tested her daughter and gained admission into a selective-enrollment school that was a 20-minute drive from her house. When she heard about Bronzeville Classical, which would be less than 5 minutes away, she applied. “I can tell there is a lot of support from the teachers and the principal, and it’s in the neighborhood.”

For many families, the decision to transfer to a new school with no record is not made lightly. There’s no word of mouth and no test score data to compare, though classical schools — which teach a grade level above, focus on language, and usually have strong art and music programs — are consistently among the district’s highest performing.

A gut rehab meant fresh new paint and lockers, but the marble staircase remains

A few days in, both Smith and another parent, Alicia Blais, who lives in McKinley Park, feel encouraged. Smith, who is black, appreciates the diversity of the school (numbers aren’t fully in, but an early measure shows the school at 50 percent black, 20 percent Asian, and 10 percent white, with a third of the students qualifying as low-income), the sparkling facility, and the fact that her daughter comes home happy.

Blais, who is white, says Spicer and her assistant principal are working with her to provide the right experience for her daughter, who is highly sensitive. Already, the first grader has really connected with the Spanish teacher. Calling it a “last stop” before moving to the suburbs, Blais said, “We are one of many parents who need this school to work.”

Design from the ground up

The siren call of a new school doesn’t just lure parents. Educators hear it, too. An award-winning reading specialist who formerly served as assistant principal at another classical school, Skinner North, Spicer participated in a highly competitive process for the principalship. It culminated with her speaking in a public forum last spring alongside another finalist.

After getting the job and taking what she describes as a “listening tour” of community organizations, she approached hiring her small staff with the same careful scrutiny: sorting through hundreds of applications to find a diverse roster of candidates. She opted for full-time music, PE, and Spanish in addition to her K-2 classroom teachers, special education teacher, and a counselor. In lieu of full-time art, a nonprofit group will come in and teach one day a week. (An alum of Golden Apple, the prestigious Illinois teacher training program, Spicer said three of her hires share those ties)

For Jessica Lyons, the Spanish teacher, who previously taught in a Catholic school, the chance to build curriculum from the ground up was persuasive. So was Spicer’s vision of earning a Seal of Biliteracy. For her, that means teaching classes completely in Spanish and cultivating a positive mindset around learning languages through books like “La Vaca Que Decía Oink,” about a cow that says oink. “I’ve designed Spanish programs at schools before, but this is an opportunity to really start something from the ground up and have ownership over it.”

Music teacher Reginald Spears has been working in Chicago schools for a decade, most recently at the nearby Doolittle Elementary. He brings with him a vision for a musical curriculum that prepares children for elementary band, or orchestra, complete with sight reading and songwriting. At some schools, music is viewed as a vehicle to teach reading or math, he explains — here, it’s a subject worthy of its own study and exploration.

He also brings training in calm classroom techniques, such as breathing and stretching, that he has shared with his fellow teachers. “I’m excited that this going to be part of the school.”

But despite the gleaming hallways and pottery kiln, Bronzeville Classical is still a public school in Chicago and can’t escape the realities of the district’s ongoing budget crunch. So Spears’ ambitions of a piano lab and a suite of shiny instruments might require some creativity. He plans to start the way teachers across the city do — a crowdsourcing page on the website Donors Choose.org.

it's official

Brooklyn middle schools eliminate “screening” as New York City expands integration efforts

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
The city approved a plan to eliminate selective admissions to try to integrate District 15 middle schools.

The education department on Thursday approved sweeping changes to the way students are admitted to middle schools across an entire Brooklyn district, marking one of the most far-reaching integration efforts under Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration.

Along with the admissions overhaul, the city launched $2 million in new grants for other districts that want to develop their own integration plans and announced that an existing citywide task force will continue to advise city leaders on school diversity issues even after the group issues its recommendations this winter.  

Together, the moves dramatically ramp-up the city’s efforts to integrate one of the country’s most segregated school systems — something de Blasio has only reluctantly taken on. While the mayor has been criticized for steadfastly avoiding even saying the word “segregation,” the issue has become impossible to ignore with the arrival of schools Chancellor Richard Carranza, who has captured national attention for his frank calls for action, coupled with relentless activism from some parents, educators, and elected officials.

The middle school admissions changes are the culmination of years of advocacy from critics who blamed a complicated and competitive admissions process for exacerbating segregation in District 15, which encompasses brownstone neighborhoods such as Carroll Gardens and Park Slope and immigrant enclaves including Red Hook and Sunset Park.

Under the new system, District 15 middle schools will no longer “screen” their students based on factors such as report card grades, test scores, or auditions for performing arts programs — eliminating selective admissions criteria altogether. Instead, the district will use a lottery that gives extra weight to students who come from low-income families, are learning English as a new language, or are homeless.

The aim is to enroll a similar share of needy students across each of the district’s 11 middle schools. And since class is often tied to race and ethnicity, the lottery priority could also spur student diversity on a range of different measures.

But the admissions changes are just the first step towards integrating schools in a district where students are starkly segregated by race and class. Families will still be free to apply to the schools of their choice, so overhauling enrollment policies will have little effect unless parents are willing to consider a wide range of options.

Winning over parents presents a formidable challenge since middle class and white families in District 15 clamor to get into just a few vaunted schools, and parents of color may feel unsure about venturing beyond their neighborhood. To grapple with parents’ apprehension, advocates fought to couple the admissions changes with efforts to make schools more inclusive and appealing to families.

“Our work is only starting,” said Carrie McLaren, the mom of a fifth grader in Boerum Hill, who was involved in drafting the district’s integration plan.

The city announced it would dedicate $500,000 towards new resources, training, and other supports for parents and educators to help make the plan work. A new coordinator will be responsible for helping families navigate the admissions process, and an outreach team is tasked with contacting every parent with information about how to apply to middle schools. Additionally, it will be up to a new “diversity, equity, and integration coordinator” to oversee the district’s work, which will include providing teachers with anti-bias training, social-emotional learning, and alternative discipline practices.

Advocates pushed for those measures to try to make schools more fair and inclusive of students from different backgrounds. They called for the training for teachers and support in creating classroom materials that reflect diverse cultural histories and viewpoints, as well as the overhaul of discipline practices — which often treat black and Hispanic students, and those with disabilities, more harshly than their peers.

“If we’re simply moving bodies, and not changing pedagogically or culturally, then we’re ultimately setting up students of color to be in environments where they’re not welcome,” said Matt Gonzales, an integration advocate with the nonprofit New York Appleseed.

Advocates hope that District 15 will be a template for integration efforts elsewhere in the city. The process has been hailed for being far more inclusive — and less contentious — then the path that helped lead to the creation of two other districtwide integration plans. District 3, which encompasses the Upper West Side and part of Harlem, recently approved middle school admissions changes that give so priority to students from low income families and those with low test scores. It came on the heels of a similar plan for elementary schools in District 1, which includes the Lower East Side, East Village, and part of Chinatown.  

For Laura Espinoza, a mother in Sunset Park who helped draft the District 15 integration plan, the real work lies in making sure her community schools are equipped with the same resources as those in more affluent neighborhoods. Admissions changes alone don’t solve that underlying problem.

“The solution comes through focusing on the resources schools have,” she said. “Why are they called public schools if they are given more in some areas, and less in others?”

Advocates have called on the city to focus on the distribution of resources within schools as part of its integration effort, including an analysis of arts programming and even parent fundraising — moves that Espinoza hopes become a reality and not “only words.” The city announced “targeted funding” for technology and other resources will be part of the District 15 plan.

Messaging will also be an important piece of the work ahead. McLaren said families will be responsible for reshaping narratives around what makes schools desirable, and also taking a hard look at their own school’s practices and working across communities to problem-solve when barriers to integration arise.

“As a parent, and a white parent specifically, I see my role as having to talk to other white parents… and think about how our structural inequities have fed stereotypes and bias,” McLaren said. “It all takes a lot of work, and I don’t think there are easy answers, but at least this is changing the conversation.”

to the races

Jia Lee, a special education teacher and union gadfly, wants to be New York’s next lieutenant governor

Earth School teacher Jia Lee is running for New York lt. governor. An advocate against high-stakes testing, she spoke about the issue in 2015 before the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

With 18 years in the classroom, special education teacher Jia Lee has seen a lot of change. Now, she wants to be the one who makes it.

Lee is running for lieutenant governor on the Green Party ticket, facing off against the incumbent Democrat Kathy Hochul and a Republican challenger, Julie Killian, in the November general election.

Even during an election cycle that has propelled underdog candidates closer to office, Lee knows her odds of victory are long. But that hasn’t stopped her before. In 2016, Lee challenged United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew in a bid for the union’s top post. She lost but managed to garner more than 20 percent of the vote as part of the MORE caucus — an opposition party that calls itself the Movement of Rank and File Educators and champions pocketbook issues such as pay, but also social justice causes.  

When she’s not teaching fourth and fifth grades at Earth School in the East Village, campaigning, or agitating within the union, Lee is active in the opt-out movement that protests high-stakes standardized tests — an issue that she once testified about before Congress.

Lee joins a wave of teachers across the country who have taken their classroom frustrations to the campaign trail in states far less blue than New York, such as Oklahoma and Arizona. Closer to home, the 2016 teacher of the year could be heading to Congress. Here’s what Lee thinks is driving their activism and what she’d like to change in education policy in New York.

Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Why are you running for lieutenant governor?

I’m running — and with the Green party specifically — because I feel as though policies in education have been largely driven by corporate reformers, who have direct ties with the Democratic party. I see it as incredibly problematic when you have this private/public kind of partnership, especially in government, where money or for-profits are driving decisions in our state. And the Green party is completely untethered to any of that.

I’m realistic about the power of the Green party because of the way our electoral process works in New York state. I believe I’m part of building a more grassroots, bottom-up movement that’s not just talking about the issues that are problematic but highlighting the root causes of it — and that’s the system and the rules that were designed by people in power. So it makes it very difficult for regular people, working people to engage in the system.

How would education policy change if you’re elected?

Currently the way decisions are made, it’s a pyramid structure. It’s very top-down, and my idea is to kind of invert that pyramid and create structures so there’s greater voice coming up from the bottom. How else are you going to know what policies need to be put in place if we don’t know what the needs are really?

Let’s say there’s an education gap or an opportunity gap happening. The analysis — over why that problem is — is in large part determined by people in power. So their solutions have always been to create consequences and rewards like the teacher evaluation system and the accountability system around high-stakes testing. It’s this really test-and-punish system. But if you go to any school that’s struggling, you’ll find that a lot of the answers and problem-solving can come from the actual community.

That sounds hard to do at scale. What kinds of systemic or structural changes could be implemented to make that a reality?

One, we have mayoral control, and that wasn’t always the case in New York City. The largest five school districts in New York State, if you look at them, a lot of them have either centralized control where the elected school boards have been dissolved, democratic spaces were dissolved. It’s a pattern across the country, where centralized control takes hold, and then you have less voice coming up from people.

And then I do believe that our locally elected officials — senators, assembly members —  they’re also taking big contributions from education reform groups, charters. And that, in large part, incentivizes the decisions that happen at the local level. We have to push forward rules about campaign finance, and I think that’s one of the biggest things that has to change — the culture of our governing system.

What do you hope to accomplish with your candidacy, even if you don’t win?

I’m definitely very clear about the odds. But at the same time, I’m very hopeful about this process and this work. This candidacy is about really highlighting the process for a lot of people who maybe even never knew who our current lt. governor was, and now they know. That position has, in large part, been kind of invisible in our state, and maybe we’ve brought that to light. We’re electing people into positions of power in our state, and we’re starting to question them, developing ideas around what needs to change in order for a greater number of people to feel like they had a say, and not feeling like they have to compromise one way or another.

Another big push for me in this campaign is to highlight our issues. The root cause of poverty or all these societal ills is the income gap. It’s not about, ‘Oh, you must have worked harder.’ Or, ‘You must deserve your incredible wealth because of who you are.’ No. Everyone deserves to have basic quality of life.

We’re in a moment of great teacher activism across the country. What do teachers want? What is driving this?

Over the last decade, we’ve seen policies that strip our school budgets — so that places a greater burden on teachers. We actually spend a lot of our own personal money — people sometimes don’t realize how much — just to provide basic things like paper, pencils. And in some dire situations — I’ve actually been in this place — we’re actually buying clothes for students or toiletry items. I’ve had friends in New York City whose custodians have said that budgets have been slashed so much that they can only buy a certain number of garbage bags or paper towels for the bathroom. So teachers now in some schools put toilet paper on the supply lists and even purchase it themselves. That’s one phase of it.

And then another one is this incredible, ridiculous accountability system put in place while these budget cuts are happening —  asking teachers and students and administrators to jump really, really high — without any resources.

Teachers tend to be nurturers and people who sacrifice a lot. I’ve seen tons of stories in the media about the kinds of things teachers do above and beyond. It just shouldn’t be that way. The burden being placed on teachers is untenable.

What do you see as the value of unions? What do you see as reasonable criticisms of them?

Without unions, working people on the whole, we’ll have no space to collectively organize around working conditions. For us as educators, that has a direct impact on our students’ learning conditions. It’s a ripple effect. It affects our communities. Without our unions, we’re not able to protect and support our communities — let alone our own livelihoods.

I believe that our union needs greater internal democracy, that negotiations with the government — with the city or at the larger level — needs to have greater transparency and input from its constituents. Process matters within our union.

So far UFT membership has remained strong in the wake of the Janus Supreme Court decision, which banned mandatory union dues. How do you think the decision will play out here moving forward?

Being actively engaged in your union is like a gym membership. It’s only as powerful as how engaged members are in the process. So while we might have the roster — a lot of people [who] stayed on as union members — how much do they really feel engaged in decision-making at the policy level?

Collecting dues makes it so that our union leadership can have the finances to continue to operate in the way that they have and not to incentivize them to really listen to members. I’m concerned that unless there is greater engagement, nothing is really going to change, and it’s like death by a thousand cuts in our state. It’s not as visible as in red states, where they’ve had these huge cuts that impacted everyone, and everyone came around to the same conclusion that they had to fight for just their basic rights. Whereas here, it’s very nuanced. So it’s a slow death, I would say, at the rate that we’re going.

How has teaching prepared you for the campaign trail? Have you taken any campaign lessons into the classroom?

I have to say, being part of a school community that’s very collaborative and also being able to foster discussion practices with my students and teaching them how to have debates, be able to present their ideas —  in those very concrete ways, it’s prepared me for this. I feel like a lot of teachers could do this. It’s just the work of teaching takes up a lot of our time and energy and passion.

New York City’s elite specialized high schools enroll very few black and Hispanic students. Critics trace the segregation back to the Specialized High School Admissions Test, which currently serves as the sole admissions criteria. What do you think of  Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to scrap the exam?

I have very strong feelings that the SHSAT is a gatekeeper. The fact that we as a city can say there are elite schools for a few, and that everyone else is stuck with mediocre or less-than schools, is to me completely wrong. We should, as a city, be able to say that all of our schools provide the kind of education that we want our kids to have. If there is such a high demand for a specialized high school that has specific kinds of programming, then we need to find ways to provide more of them — even in each borough or each community if necessary. We’re creating a resource that seems to be very scarce, and in education, why are we doing that?