With changes in leadership and funding, the splashy 'iZone' reaches a crossroads

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Nearly 370 schools are part of the city's personalized learning programs, known collectively as the iZone.

Schools that are part of the city’s Innovation Zone have experimented with 60-student classrooms, online courses, and computer algorithms that assign work to students. The four-year-old set of programs, known collectively as the iZone, have enlisted hundreds of city schools, app developers from across the country, and the technology titans Amazon and Google.

But the splashy Bloomberg-era initiative is at a crossroads.

The head of the iZone left the education department soon after the new schools chancellor arrived this year, and its three other top officials departed last month. Meanwhile, federal grants that have helped fuel the costly programs are drying up.

Still, the iZone projects already underway in schools — online and self-paced learning, as well as design competitions — are continuing, as department officials are quick to point out. “We’re happy to say that the iZone is not going anywhere,” said Krista Werbeck, the iZone’s new executive director, who noted that more schools than ever will offer online learning through the iZone this year.

But some educators and iZone proponents point out that on the occasions when Chancellor Carmen Fariña talks about innovation, she refers to a new school-experimentation program she created with the teachers union — not to the iZone. With that new program, the departures, the end of some funding, and the de Blasio administration’s focus on initiatives like pre-kindergarten, some have questioned whether the iZone will lose some of its stature.

“I’m waiting to see where the iZone’s going,” said Scott Conti, principal of New Design High School, an iZone school. With the new administration, he added, “I don’t know if innovation is going to be a priority.”

After pursuing system-wide changes for years, former schools chief Joel Klein formed the iZone in 2010 as a way for individual schools to experiment with new approaches, especially ones that involve technology and tailoring instruction to meet students’ needs. Since then, the iZone has grown from 81 member schools to nearly 370 schools today.

Some of the best-known iZone initiatives center around technology, such as School of One, which uses algorithms to create personal “playlists” of math activities for students based on their abilities. But iZone schools have also experimented with longer days, student-designed classes, and courses that allow students to progress at their own pace. Still, at least 80 percent of iZone schools use its online learning tools.

The programs haven’t been universally praised. The city has estimated before that the iZone would cost $50 million in public and private funds over several years — a price critics say is unjustified. Officials have pointed to surveys that show some iZone students developed research skills and became more motivated, while researchers have found mixed results at schools participating in School of One. (Disclosure: Chalkbeat rents office space from New Classrooms, the nonprofit that grew out of School of One.)

Earlier this year, iZone CEO Andrea Coleman, a former ed-tech consultant and nonprofit executive, stepped down to join Bloomberg Philanthropies, the former mayor’s charitable foundation. Last month, three more top iZone directors left the education department: Steven Hodas, Megan Roberts, and Seth Schoenfeld. Since January, the iZone has shed 10 staffers — or more than a quarter of its employees — though officials said many will be replaced.

A teacher at New Design High School in 2011 works with students on laptop computers provided by the iZone.
PHOTO: Rachel Cromidas
A teacher at New Design High School in 2011 works with students on laptop computers provided by the iZone.

The churn comes after Fariña dissolved the office that had housed the iZone and moved it to another division. Some officials had lobbied to put the iZone under the oversight of the department’s new “chief strategy officer,” where they hoped the office’s experiments might influence system-wide changes, or even under the technology chief at City Hall, according to two former department officials. Instead, the iZone was shifted to the school-support division under Senior Deputy Chancellor Dorita Gibson.

At the same time, the federal Race to the Top grant money that helped finance iZone’s launch and expansion ran out in June. Two other federal “Investing in Innovation” grants worth millions of dollars that iZone won will expire next year.

Meanwhile, Fariña and United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew embedded their own innovation program, called PROSE, in the new teachers contract. Participating schools are freed from certain contract rules to make approved changes, such as extending their school days — something schools in the past have done through iZone’s school-redesign project.

“It seems that innovation in the current administration is expressed more through PROSE — and we’re definitely paying attention to that,” said William Frackelton, principal of Soundview Academy for Culture and Scholarship in the Bronx, an iZone school that is planning to join PROSE. In fact, about 40 percent of the schools that were admitted into PROSE are iZone schools, officials said.

These shifts at the department, along with Fariña’s public silence about the iZone, have convinced some people that the initiative’s role under the new administration will be diminished.

Hodas, one of the iZone directors who recently left, had been connecting schools with ed-tech companies, in one instance through a competition to design math apps for classrooms that drew 200 submissions. He had hoped to expand those efforts into system-wide changes to the way the education department partners with tech companies, what he considered “phase two” of his work, according to a recent article on the website EdSurge. But Hodas didn’t think that would be possible under the new administration, the article said.

“I didn’t have a lot of confidence that we were going to have the political support to get those changes for Phase 2,” Hodas, who is now a practitioner-in-residence at the University of Washington Bothell’s Center for Reinventing Public Education, told the website.

Still, Hodas said he expects existing iZone projects to continue, as did Schoenfeld, another director who left. Schoenfeld told Chalkbeat that he is confident his work will be carried on and is eager to see where the new leadership steers the iZone.

“What level of success and impact it will have on the system will be determined in time,” Schoenfeld, who said he left the department to pursue a new job opportunity, added in an email.

A student at I.S. 228 in Brooklyn does online work through Teach to One, a program that grew out of the iZone.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
A student at I.S. 228 in Brooklyn does online work through Teach to One, a program that grew out of the iZone.

Department officials said their focus this year will be on spreading iZone tools and practices to more schools, and noted that schools are participating in two new “challenges” this year, where educators get tools and support to tackle specific school issues. (Those challenges were launched by two of the directors who have since left.)

They also said that iZone staff members have advised the officials carrying out PROSE, such as by helping select the first batch of participants. Both programs have a role to play in schools, said Cynthia Warner, the innovation office’s chief of staff.

“The work is complementary,” she said. “It’s not meant to be a substitution.”

Several principals said they have not yet seen any changes to the iZone beyond the loss of the directors, some of whose positions may now be combined, they said. For now, they are taking advantage of both iZone and Fariña’s new experimentation program, though they are ready to adapt, said Brooke Jackson, principal of the NYC Lab School for Collaborative Studies, an early iZone high school.

“If PROSE is going to be where Carmen’s focused,” she said, “then I think that’s where schools will likely focus.”

here's the plan

After long wait, de Blasio backs plan to overhaul admissions at New York City’s elite high schools

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Stuyvesant High School will begin participating in the Discovery program this year.

After sustained pressure from advocates, Mayor Bill de Blasio is backing a two-step plan to reform admissions at eight of the city’s elite high schools and endorsing a specific replacement for the single-test admissions system.

The city’s specialized high schools — considered some of the crown jewels of New York City’s education system — accept students based on a single test score. Over the last decade, they have come under fire for offering admissions to few students of color: While two-thirds of city students are black or Hispanic, only about 10 percent of admissions offers to those schools go to black or Hispanic students.

De Blasio’s solution, laid out in an op-ed in Chalkbeat, would set aside 20 percent of the seats at the eight schools for students from low-income families starting next school year. Students who just missed the test score cut-off would be able to earn one of those set-aside seats through the longstanding “Discovery” program. Just 4 percent of seats were offered through that program in 2017.

The mayor also said he plans to push state lawmakers to change a law that requires admission at three of the schools to be decided by a single test score. That’s something de Blasio campaigned for during his run for mayor in 2014 but hasn’t made a priority since.

Most significantly, de Blasio says for the first time that he backs a system of replacing the admissions test with a system that picks students based on their middle school class rank and state test scores. The middle-school rank component is especially notable, as an NYU Steinhardt report found that the only way to really change the makeup of the elite high schools would be to guarantee admission to the top 10 percent of students at every middle school.

If all of these changes were implemented, de Blasio says that 45 percent of the student bodies at the eight high schools would be black or Latino.

Together, the proposals reflect the most specific plan yet to change a system that, year after year, becomes a symbol of New York City’s racially divided schools. But the changes de Blasio is proposing won’t come easily — and might not come at all.

The part of the plan that the city is promising to do on its own, expand the Discovery program, will only modestly improve diversity by the city’s own admission. And the plan’s more ambitious elements would require buy-in from state lawmakers who have repeatedly resisted de Blasio’s agenda and attempts to change admissions rules.

Meanwhile, the mayor’s plan does not include a move that many legal experts consider to be low-hanging fruit: changing the admissions rules at five of the eight schools without state approval.

While the city’s official position has long been that admissions at all eight schools are set by law, only three schools — Stuyvesant High School, Bronx High School of Science, and Brooklyn Technical High School — are specifically mentioned, leaving room for the city to reclassify the others. (De Blasio recently said he would ask lawyers about that change, but has not signaled he plans to act.)

The Discovery program has also proved problematic for de Blasio, in part because it is open to all low-income students — something that is not equivalent to black or Hispanic in New York City. The de Blasio administration has already tripled the program’s size since taking office, but its share of black and Latino students has also shrunk.

A lot of questions about the plan remain unanswered. It’s not clear whether the 20 percent of set-aside seats will be spread across the eight schools evenly, for one, or whether some schools like Stuyvesant will have fewer seats earmarked for Discovery. De Blasio doesn’t explain exactly how an admissions system reliant on middle-school grades and standardized test scores would work.

It’s also unclear how the mayor plans to push against opposition from alumni groups and parents who may worry that changing the admissions rules will lower academic standards, though his rhetoric was sharp in the op-ed.

“Anyone who tells you this is somehow going to lower the standard at these schools is buying into a false and damaging narrative,” de Blasio wrote. “It’s a narrative that traps students in a grossly unfair environment, asks them to live with the consequences, and actually blames them for it.”

So far, de Blasio’s incremental steps to boost diversity at specialized high schools have made little change to the overall student body — and therefore garnered little pushback.

It’s unclear whether the lackluster results caused him to switch strategies. More recently, de Blasio has also been under pressure to address school segregation in the city as a whole.

He may also have been pushed by his new schools chancellor, who has been outspoken on the subject since taking the helm of the school system about two months ago. Chancellor Richard Carranza has been talking about the issue since his very first media interview, and has repeatedly hinted that he is interested in changing their admissions process.

“From my perspective it’s not OK to have a public school in a city as diverse… and that you have only 10 African-American students in a high school,” Carranza said in April. “So I’m looking at that, absolutely.”

sorting the students

Mayor Bill de Blasio: Our specialized schools have a diversity problem. Let’s fix it.

PHOTO: Mayoral Photography Office
Mayor Bill de Blasio hosts a town hall in Brooklyn in October.

I visit schools across this city and it never fails to energize me. The talent out there is outstanding. The students overflow with promise. But many of the smart kids I meet aren’t getting in to our city’s most prestigious high schools. In fact, they’re being locked out.

The problem is clear. Eight of our most renowned high schools – including Stuyvesant High School, Bronx High School of Science and Brooklyn Technical High School – rely on a single, high-stakes exam. The Specialized High School Admissions Test isn’t just flawed – it’s a roadblock to justice, progress and academic excellence.

If we want this to be the fairest big city in America, we need to scrap the SHSAT and start over.

Let’s select students for our top public high schools in a manner that best reflects the talent these students have, and the reality of who lives in New York City. Let’s have top-flight public high schools that are fair and represent the highest academic standards.

Right now, we are living with monumental injustice. The prestigious high schools make 5,000 admissions offers to incoming ninth-graders. Yet, this year just 172 black students and 298 Latino students received offers. This happened in a city where two out of every three eighth-graders in our public schools are Latino or black.

There’s also a geographic problem. There are almost 600 middle schools citywide. Yet, half the students admitted to the specialized high schools last year came from just 21 of those schools. For a perfect illustration of disparity: Just 14 percent of students at Bronx Science come from the Bronx.

Can anyone defend this? Can anyone look the parent of a Latino or black child in the eye and tell them their precious daughter or son has an equal chance to get into one of their city’s best high schools? Can anyone say this is the America we signed up for?

Our best colleges don’t select students this way. Our top-level graduate schools don’t. There are important reasons why. Some people are good at taking tests, but earn poor grades. Other people struggle with testing, but achieve top grades. The best educational minds get it. You can’t write a single test that captures the full reality of a person.

A single, high-stakes exam is also unfair to students whose families cannot afford, or may not even know about, the availability of test preparation tutors and courses. Now, I’d like to stop and say, I admire the many families who scrape and save to pay for test prep. They are trying in every way to support their children.

But let’s ask ourselves: Why should families who can ill afford test prep have to spend their money on it? Why should families who can easily afford test prep have an advantage over those that cannot?

My administration has been working to give a wider range of excellent students a fair shot at the specialized high schools. Now we are going to go further. Starting in September 2019, we’ll expand the Discovery Program to offer 20 percent of specialized high school seats to economically disadvantaged students who just missed the test cut-off.

This will immediately bring a wider variety of high-performing students, from a wider number of middle schools, to the specialized high schools. For example, the percentage of black and Latino students receiving offers will almost double, to around 16 percent from around 9 percent. The number of middle schools represented will go from around 310 to around 400.

This will also address a fundamental illogic baked into the high-stakes test. A great score and you might be in, but beware a point too low and you might be out. Now, a disadvantaged student who is just a point or two shy of the cut-off won’t be blocked from a great educational opportunity.

For a deeper solution, we will fight alongside our partners in the Assembly and Senate to replace the SHSAT with a new admissions process, selecting students based on a combination of the student’s rank in their middle school and their results in the statewide tests that all middle school children take.

With these reforms, we expect our premier public high schools to start looking like New York City. Approximately 45 percent of students would be Latino or black. As an example of growing geographical fairness, we will quadruple the number of Bronx students admitted.

I’ve talked a lot about bringing equity and excellence to our schools. This new admissions process will give every student in every middle school a fair shot. That’s equity. The new process will ask students to demonstrate hard work over time, and show brilliance in a variety of subjects. That’s excellence.

Anyone who tells you this is somehow going to lower the standard at these schools is buying into a false and damaging narrative. It’s a narrative that traps students in a grossly unfair environment, asks them to live with the consequences, and actually blames them for it. This perpetuates a dangerous and disgusting myth.

So let me be clear. The new system we’re fighting for will raise the bar at the specialized high schools in every way. The pool of talent is going to expand widely and rapidly. That’s going to up the level of competition. The students who emerge from the new process will make these schools even stronger.

They will also make our society stronger. Our most prestigious public high schools aren’t just routes to opportunity for deserving students and their families. They are incubators for the leaders and innovators of tomorrow. The kind of high schools we have today, will determine the kind of New York City we will have tomorrow.

Bill de Blasio is the mayor of New York City.