Starting early

Efforts spur college readiness dialogue in Washington Heights

City Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez speaks to a crowd of Washington Heights parents about college readiness Wednesday evening.

A Washington Heights politician who has been trying to get local parents talking about college readiness might have bitten off more than he can chew.

City Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez has adopted a novel response to the daunting statistic that only about 13 percent of the city’s African American and Latino students are graduating from high school prepared for college: He has put together a working group of principals to get families talking about the path to college starting in kindergarten.

But at a forum Wednesday evening at I.S. 143, the first public event to come out of the working group’s suggestions, parents among the audience of 60 families, educators, and elected officials spoke mostly about more immediate concerns.

Most of the parents who spoke during the question and answer session prefaced their questions about college readiness with complaints about high class sizes and administrative problems at their schools, which drew the meeting off topic.

“There are 35 kids in our classroom and only one teacher,” one mother said. “What are the things we can do about that?”

Still, many of the parents at the meeting, which was held in Spanish, told me they wanted to begin learning about the college admissions process early, even though their children attend elementary schools in Districts 5 and 6.

Last month Rodriguez held a preliminary meeting with eight principals and a handful of parent coordinators and Parent Teacher Association representatives from local schools to outline the collaboration and discuss how workshops could benefit these parents. At this week’s parent meeting, he emphasized the urgency of the problem, highlighted by the city’s new college readiness measurements and Common Core Standards, that few students graduate prepared for the rigor of college level courses, if they have the resources to apply to college at all.

College readiness was the subject of a City Council hearing last month that focused on the persistent disjuncture between what city high schools require for graduation and what the City University of New York expects from new students.

Dionicio Rodriguez, a parent who is applying to kindergarten for his daughter this year, said he came to the meeting when he heard about it from a friend because he believes parents should start informing themselves about the path to college as early as possible. But he is also worried that the school choice options in District 6, his district, would be subpar, so he has applied to a dozen charter schools with kindergarten admissions.

“I want my daughter to get the best in her future, and a good school is the way to be successful in college,” he told me. “The school she is supposed to go to, if you go online the percentages on tests are low, so I don’t want her to go to that school. I want the best for her.”

Jacqueline Jones, whose son attends Urban Assembly School for Media Studies, speaks at a town hall meeting on college readiness.

Cecilia Angelero, a parent coordinator at I.S. 143, said she attended the meeting to stress the importance of parents’ role in preparing students for high school graduation and college.

“The schools give some information, but we really have to do our own research,” she told the group. “This [college readiness push] should have been done years ago — the communities need to be informed.”

Angelero said her son’s high school, Urban Assembly School for Media Studies, could be doing more to prepare him for college. He has already received some materials related to the college process in 10th grade, but she said she would still like to see the support increase further.

Jacqueline Jones cautioned the elected officials to remember that they are speaking to only the most involved parents who can make it to evening meetings.

“This plan needs to help and include parents who want to participate, but don’t know how,” said Jones, who sends two children to Amistad Dual Language school in Inwood. She recalled how her mother could not help her study for the SATs when she was in high school because she had never heard of them: “I truly believe this has to be early — it took my mom way too long to learn this.”

Two principals who attended the meeting told me afterward they have increased their emphasis on the pathway to college this year and hope to share best practices with other school leaders in meetings Rodriguez may hold in the future.

“These parents who come to these meetings are part of our active PTA, and they want to feel reassured that they’re getting support from the leadership in the community. It has to be a collaborative effort,” said Wanda Soto, the principal of P.S. 5. “We’ve always had standards, but now we’re looking at how we have to start from an early age if we want our children to succeed.”

“We have a very hardworking PA, we have parent coordinators, we have workshops. But I came here to get more information, to hear how to get parents more involved,” said Cindy Arndt, principal of the Mott Hall School, a middle school. She also touted a new, mandatory college readiness class that is tied in with new curriculum standards, known as the Common Core.

“There’s no cookie cutter. The college readiness classes that we have can’t be done the exact same way in another school, but they can get the concepts,” she said.

Busing Ban

As school districts push for integration, decades-old federal rule could thwart them

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post
Several districts across the country want to use federal money to pay for school buses as part of their desegregation plans. A federal spending restriction could get in the way.

In Florida, officials plan to use federal money to shuttle students across vast Miami-Dade County to new science-themed magnet programs in a bid to desegregate several schools.

In South Carolina, a tiny district west of Myrtle Beach intends to spend federal funds on free busing for families who enroll at two predominantly black schools, hoping that will draw in white and Hispanic students.

And in New York, state officials want to deploy federal school-improvement money to help integrate struggling schools, believing that may be the secret to their rebirth.

But each of these fledgling integration efforts — and similar ones across the country — could be imperiled by obscure budget provisions written during the anti-busing backlash of the 1970s, which prohibit using federal funding for student transportation aimed at racial desegregation. The rules have been embedded in every education spending bill since at least 1974, as Rep. Bobby Scott of Virginia pointed out in September when he tried unsuccessfully to remove the provisions from the latest appropriations bill.

The rules are “a relic of an ugly history when states and school districts across the nation resisted meaningful integration,” said Scott, the top Democrat on the House education committee, during a floor speech where he called the persistence of the rules “morally reprehensible.”

After Scott’s amendment to eliminate the provisions was blocked, advocates are now working behind the scenes to convince members of the Senate from both parties to strike the rules from the latest spending bill during negotiations. More than 40 integration advocates and experts have signed onto a letter to lawmakers calling for the anti-busing language to be removed, and members of that coalition plan to meet with lawmakers in the coming days.

Advocates are especially worried about funding for magnet programs, like those in Miami and the South Carolina district, which rely on special science or art offerings or rigorous academic courses to draw students of different races into the same school — a choice-based approach that has become the primary way districts now pursue desegregation.

This is the first year districts that receive federal magnet-school grants are allowed to spend some of that money on transportation, after Congress changed the rules as part of its education-law overhaul in 2015. Among the 32 districts that received a total of nearly $92 million in magnet grants this year, at least six plan to use some of that money for transportation, according to their applications.

Now, just as those funds are about to flow to busing — which many families insist upon before they will enroll their children in magnet schools across town — the decades-old spending restriction could cut them off, advocates warn.

That could create a major problem for districts like Miami-Dade County.

It hopes to attract students from across the district to three heavily black and Hispanic schools by launching magnet programs that focus on zoology, cybersecurity, and mobile-app development, according to its application. To pull that off, it requested $245,000 for buses next year since, as the application notes, the “most limiting factor” for many families is “the cost associated with transporting their child to the magnet school.”

The district in Lake City, South Carolina wants to pull new families from different neighborhoods into an elementary school and a middle school that suffer from sagging enrollment and intense poverty. Previous recruitment efforts that didn’t provide transportation amounted to “failed attempts,” the district said in its application.

However, if the anti-busing provisions are not removed from the next federal spending bill, they would cancel out the new rule allowing those districts to spend some of their magnet money on transportation (though districts could still use local funds to fill in the gap). As such, magnet-school representatives are pushing hard for lawmakers to remove the provisions during budget negotiations.

“We’re hoping this doesn’t see the light of day,” said John Laughner, legislative and communications manager at Magnet Schools of America, an association of magnets from across the country. He plans to discuss the issue with lawmakers next week.

Beyond magnet schools, other desegregation efforts could be undercut by the anti-busing provision, which was included in a spending bill for fiscal year 2018 that the House approved and one the Senate has yet to vote on.

At least one state — New York — listed socioeconomic and racial integration among the ways it could intervene in low-performing schools under the new federal education law. In addition, New York officials announced a grant program this week where up to 30 districts will receive federal money to develop integration plans.

Advocates fear the anti-busing rule could disrupt any of those plans that require transportation and aim to reduce racial segregation. (New York education officials said they did not want to speculate on the impact of a spending bill that hasn’t been approved.)

A Democratic Congressional aide who has studied the issue said the provision could even block federal funding for planning or public outreach around desegregation programs that involve busing, not just busing itself.

Either way, advocates say the provision could dissuade districts from using the new education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, to pursue integration — even though research suggests that student achievement on tests and other measures improve when they attend less segregated schools.

“We shouldn’t have this,” said Philip Tegeler, a member of the National Coalition on School Diversity, which is leading the charge to remove the restriction. He added that the provision stemmed from mandatory desegregation busing of an earlier era: “It’s clearly an anachronism that doesn’t really fit any more with what states and districts are doing voluntarily.”

A U.S. education department spokeswoman said Secretary Betsy DeVos would be bound to enforce any funding prohibitions that Congress approves, though she noted that state and local funds are not subject to the same restrictions.

Negotiators from the House and Senate must still agree on a single spending bill, which would go before the full Congress for a vote. Until then, lawmakers have voted to temporarily extend 2017 spending levels through December. It’s possible Congress will pass another extension then, meaning a final deal — and a decision on the anti-busing language — may not arrive until early next year.

In the meantime, advocates are pressing lawmakers like Sen. Lamar Alexander, the Republican chairman of the Senate education committee who helped craft ESSA, with the argument that the anti-busing provision limits the flexibility and local control the law was meant to provide districts.

Margaret Atkinson, a spokeswoman for the senator, would not say whether he is open to removing the provision, but said he would continue working to ensure ESSA “is implemented as Congress intended.”

The anti-busing language — found in two sections of the current appropriation bills — prohibits using federal funds for transportation “to overcome racial imbalance” or “to carry out a plan of racial desegregation,” or forcing students to attend any school other than the one closest to home. (A separate education law contains a similar restriction, but ESSA exempted magnet schools from it.) The provisions emerged in the early 1970s, just after the Supreme Court ruled that busing students to schools outside their own racially isolated neighborhoods was an appropriate tool for school desegregation.

At the time, many white parents raged against what they called “forced busing.” In response, the U.S. House of Representatives passed at least one law annually from 1966 to 1977 meant to curb school integration, according to historian Jason Sokol, and in 1974 the full Congress voted in favor of an anti-busing amendment to an education bill. The restrictions in the current spending bills appear to have originated around the same time.

The attacks on busing reflect how crucial free transportation is to school desegregation, said Erica Frankenberg, a professor at Pennsylvania State University who studies segregation. Busing was included in guidelines outlining how districts should comply with desegregation requirements in the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and later upheld by the Supreme Court, she pointed out.

More recently, studies have shown that non-white parents are more likely to opt into magnet schools when they provide transportation, and that magnets that don’t offer busing are more likely to enroll students of a single race, Frankenberg said. Yet, many politicians remain reluctant to endorse busing for desegregation — which may reflect a deeper ambivalence, she added.

Resistance to busing, she said, “is a very politically acceptable way to be opposed to integration.”

path to college

Nearly 60 percent of New York City students are heading to college, new data shows

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder

Nearly 60 percent of New York City students continued their education after high school last year, maintaining an upward trend, according to statistics released Wednesday by the city’s education department.

Among city students who entered high school in 2012, 57 percent went on to enroll in college, vocational programs, or “public-service programs” such as the military, officials said – a two percentage-point uptick from the previous year. City officials also noted that more students are prepared for college than in prior years, though more than half of New York City students are still not considered “college ready.”

“More of our public school graduates are going to college than ever before,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a statement. “That is great news for our graduates and their families, and for the future of our city.”

The statistics are welcome news de Blasio, who has made college access a priority by providing funds and coaching to 274 high schools to help students plan for college, which can include college trips or SAT preparation. The city also eliminated the application fee for low-income students applying to the City College of New York and started offering the SAT for free during the school day.

New York City’s statistics also compare favorably to the national average. Among city students who graduated high school in 2016 (a smaller number than all those who entered high school four years earlier), 77 percent enrolled in a postsecondary path. Nationally, about 70 percent of students who recently graduated from high school enroll in college, as of 2015. It is slightly lower than the percentage of students statewide who finished high school and pursue postsecondary plans.

Still, while the city appears to be helping more students enroll in college, students still encounter problems once they arrive. Slightly above half of first-time, full-time students pursuing a bachelor’s degree in New York City’s public college system graduate in six years.

That is likely, in part, because not all students are prepared for college-level work.

Only 46 percent of New York City students met CUNY’s benchmark’s for college-readiness last year (students who don’t hit that mark must take remedial classes). The figure is higher than in previous years because CUNY eased its readiness standards, dropping a requirement that students take advanced math in high school. But even without those changes, the city estimates that college-readiness would have increased by four percentage points this year.

The gap between college enrollment and readiness is not unique to New York City

 Over the past forty years, the country has seen a spike in college enrollment — but that has not always translated into diplomas, particularly for students of color. Among students who entered college in 2007, only 59 percent graduated college in six years, with black and Hispanic students lagging far behind their white and Asian peers, according to a 2013 report by the National Center for Education Statistics.