State of the City

No education news in State of the City speech, as de Blasio celebrates pre-K

Mayor Bill de Blasio gives the 2015 State of the City address.

Mayor Bill de Blasio took another pre-kindergarten victory lap in his State of the City speech on Tuesday, which focused on an ambitious plan to expand affordable housing.

In the speech, the mayor pointed to the city’s enrollment of more than 50,000 students in full-day pre-K, up from about 20,000 last year, as proof that the city could tackle complicated initiatives quickly.

He also referenced enrollment in new middle-school after-school programs, the innovation program included in the new teachers-union contract, the city’s turnaround plan for 94 struggling schools, and his push for community schools that offer health and other wraparound services.

“Of all the efforts we made in 2014 to address income inequality, the most prominent and in some ways the most satisfying was our successful bid to secure universal full-day pre-K,” de Blasio said.

But unlike State of the City speeches in years past, the address included no new education initiatives. The city is set to expand pre-K by another 20,000 seats next school year.

Here is de Blasio’s full speech, as prepared for delivery:

Thank you, Sheryl Morse, for that warm introduction.

Thank you to Mitchel Wallerstein for hosting us.

Thank you to Officer Leggio, and to Frederick Trapp of the DSNY.

And thank you Reverend Gabriel Salguero.

Thank you to my fellow elected officials in attendance: City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, Public Advocate Letitia James, City Comptroller Scott Stringer. Thank you to the Borough Presidents, District Attorneys, Members of Congress, the City Council, and the State Legislature who have joined us. And thank you to Mayor David Dinkins for being here.

Thank you to my fellow New Yorkers!

And of course thank you to the First Lady.

I want to begin by telling you a distinctly New York story.

More than a hundred years ago, a young woman named Anna Briganti arrived in our city after emigrating from Grassano, a small town in southern Italy rich in natural beauty, but scarce in opportunities for its people.

Anna traded picturesque hillsides, and small town familiarity… for an apartment at 205 East 17th Street in Manhattan, just a short walk from here…a place lacking the tranquil comforts of her childhood…a neighborhood where few spoke her native language.

But Anna’s new home offered her something that her old one did not: profound possibilities to create a better life… for herself…and for her children.

So, in the year 1910 — a decade before our country granted women the right to vote – Anna opened an embroidery company:  The Misses Briganti… its very name a proud symbol of single women – the “Misses” referring to her sister, and her mother, and herself – three women who started the business, together.

Anna Briganti was my grandmother.  I am here because of her.

My grandmother’s story – like most New York success stories – was not a fairy tale.  She did not stumble upon success through luck or charm; she forged it with hard work and raw grit.

And she lived in a place that rewarded those things in unique and powerful ways.

For generations, New York has been a city that unleashed human potential.

A place offering opportunity for everyone, no matter how your life’s story began; opportunity for innovators and visionaries to write new chapters in our history; and for parents and grandparents to write brighter ones for the next generation.

And here’s the hard truth: all of that is at risk today.

It’s at risk because so many who live in New York struggle to afford to be here.

And, since only half of New Yorkers speak only English at home, let me say that a different way:

Por generaciones, Nueva York ha sido una ciudad que le da rienda suelta al potencial humano.

Pero aquí está la dura verdad: todo eso está hoy en riesgo.

Está en riesgo porque a muchas personas que viven aquí les cuesta demasiado poder quedarse aquí. Nosotros queremos cambiar eso.

You can see it all over New York — in the eyes of the single mother in Coney Island, working two jobs and barely scraping together enough for a modest apartment to share with her kids.

You can see it in the worn hands of the fast food worker in Washington Heights, consumed with worry as the calendar approaches the first of the month…the day the rent is due.

You can see it in the furrowed brow of the senior in Rosebank on Staten Island, as she sweeps her porch to chase away thoughts of whether she’s saved enough to stay in her small house in the only neighborhood she’s ever called home.

If we do not act — and act boldly — New York risks taking on the qualities of a gated community… A place defined by exclusivity, rather than opportunity. And we cannot let that happen.

Over the past two years, I’ve spoken about the need to take dead aim at the Tale of Two Cities, and about our vision for creating One New York, rising together…a city where everyone has a shot at the middle class.

And while we have so much more work to do, 2014 was a year of great progress in our effort to address inequality and lift up our families.

Some examples:

We achieved full-day Pre-K for more than 50,000 of our kids.

We nearly doubled enrollment in after-school programs for middle school kids in all five boroughs.

By executive order, we expanded living wage coverage to 18,000 workers.

With the help of the City Council – and the strong leadership of my partner in government, Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito – we secured paid sick leave for 500,000 more New Yorkers.

We ended the overuse of stop-and-frisk, reducing stops by over 75%.  And since we instituted our new marijuana policy, arrests are down almost 65%.

At the same time, thanks to our courageous men and women in uniform, we’ve not only kept New York City safe – we’ve made it even safer.

Our NYPD officers helped bring the city’s crime rate to an all-time low – with the smallest number of murders, robberies, and burglaries on record.

The FDNY responded to a record 1.6 million emergency calls…always at the ready when New Yorkers needed help.

The Correction Department made sweeping reforms, including an end to punitive segregation for adolescents in city jails.

Also in 2014, we fought to keep our streets safe and clean for pedestrians, cyclists, and drivers alike.

We established Vision Zero — bringing pedestrian deaths down to a level not seen since 1910.

We handled one of the snowiest winters our city has ever seen, with 11 winter storms in 2014.

And after our sanitation workers did an extraordinary job clearing our streets…our Department of Transportation workers filled nearly a half-million potholes.

In 2014, we took on climate change and the damage inflicted by the extreme weather linked to it.

We built on the strong environmental record of the Bloomberg Administration by committing to “80 by 50” – a dramatic, game-changing 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gases in our city by the year 2050.  And we will be retrofitting not just some, but every public building with significant energy usage by 2025.

We helped repair the devastation wrought by Superstorm Sandy – beating even our ambitious goals – with construction starting on more than 1,000 homes; and badly needed reimbursements provided to more than 2,000 homeowners.

And today, I want to make perfectly clear that every reimbursement check will be in the hands of those who need them by the end of this year.  From Staten Island to Canarsie to the Rockaways, families hit by the storm have been through so much.  This Administration will finish the job of helping them rebuild.

In 2014, we balanced our budget in a way that was honest, responsible, and in keeping with our progressive values.

We came to contract agreements with over 71% of the city’s workforce, up from zero the year before – signing deals that are fair to both our city workers and to our taxpayers.

We awarded $690 million in contracts to minority and women-owned businesses, a 57% increase from the year before.

And we connected more New Yorkers to jobs, health care, and our social safety net.

We created the Tech Talent Pipeline to link New Yorkers from every borough and background to a booming tech industry that now employs nearly 300,000 people, and is growing every day in our city.

 

We invested capital in new economic hubs to create 3,000 new jobs in the Brooklyn Navy Yard and 1,000 new jobs at the Brooklyn Army Terminal that will be there for years to come.

We announced our plan to redesign our workforce development system to arm up to 30,000 New Yorkers a year with the skills for 21st century jobs.

 

We ended the fear of communities being left without critical care services when their hospitals closed without warning – and began the process of opening half a dozen new community health clinics.

We ended a ticket blitz on our small businesses, and are on track to save them $5 million in petty fines — money they can put towards growing and hiring.

With the help of the City Council, we created IDNYC– for both citizens and undocumented New Yorkers.  Let’s be clear: Relegating any New Yorker to life in the shadows is not who we are as a city.  And I’m happy to report that — less than a month after this program’s inception — more than 180,000 New Yorkers have already made an appointment to get their ID.

And we began a major new effort – now led by our inspiring First Lady — to address the gaps in mental health coverage in New York City.  This issue is personal to Chirlane and me, and to so many families who’ve watched loved ones fall through the cracks of an inadequate system.  I can’t think of a smarter, stronger, more compassionate person to lead our effort to change that than our First Lady.   Let’s thank her!

We opened new doors of opportunity for our young people.

We’ve begun to create 128 community schools – schools that serve the whole child…offering everything from vision tests and mental health screenings…to family counseling and tutoring.

We created 62 prose schools – a fresh, new model where teachers and principals work together to set aside DOE and union rules that hinder innovation…so we can better serve our kids.

And we invested in Renewal Schools…to fix  94 struggling schools…because every child in every neighborhood deserves a quality education.

All of these things will make our neighborhoods stronger – and make life in our city better for so many.

But you can’t tap into the opportunities that New York has to offer if you can’t afford to actually live here.

So I will say this:

While the state of our city is strong, we face a profound challenge.  If we fail to be a city for everyone, we risk losing what makes New York…New York.

And nothing more clearly expresses the inequality gap…the opportunity gap…than the soaring cost of housing.

The math is pretty straightforward.

In 2014, 56 percent of rental households in New York were spending more than 30 percent of their income on housing – up 10 points in a little more than a decade.

Now spending more than 30 percent of your income on housing means you’re officially “rent-burdened.”  That’s an apt description, since the cost of living is becoming a heavier and heavier burden — not just on wallets, but on hopes and aspirations, as well.

So how did we end up here?

Part of the problem is that the city has for decades let developers write their own rules when it came to building housing.  Sometimes projects included affordable housing…but far too often, they did not.

As the city expanded, our growth was guided primarily by the developers’ bottom lines.

That meant a bias towards luxury housing – units that fetched top dollar, but were entirely out of reach for most New Yorkers…multi-million dollar homes that drove up rents in the neighborhoods they occupied – all without a corresponding menu of affordable new options.

This Administration is taking a fundamentally different approach – one that not only recognizes the need for more affordable housing…but demands it.

How will we do this?

First, we’re writing new rules… ones that mandate affordable housing as a condition of development in areas re-zoned for residential use.

Second, we’ll do everything in our power to keep those who already have affordable housing in their homes.

And third — since we only have so much land — we’ll create more affordable housing by literally building up… adding density to appropriate parts of our city.

Let me explain what that means.

We are not embarking on a mission to build towering skyscrapers where they don’t belong.  We have a duty to protect and preserve the culture and character of our neighborhoods, and we will do so.

And as we invest in more affordable housing, we will also work with communities to preserve the fabric of neighborhoods and invest in things that great neighborhoods need — from parks and schools…to shops and restaurants.

Now, there are some places in our city that have not yet been developed or zoned for housing, but could be.  And by taking steps like adding residential buildings to former manufacturing sites — or adding some six to eight story buildings in appropriate places — we could make a fundamental difference in neighborhoods’ affordability.  That means families staying and thriving in the neighborhoods they love, instead of being priced out.

Will this be difficult?  Of course.  But let me remind you of a difficult challenge we overcame just last year.

Of all the efforts we made in 2014 to address income inequality, the most prominent was our successful bid to secure universal, full-day Pre-K – something bold and meaningful…and something that so many pundits said we couldn’t achieve.

The naysayers said we would never find the funding… or the space… to give all our kids a chance.

Well, thanks to the tremendous energy of parents, activists, community leaders, elected officials and good everyday people throughout the city, we proved the cynics wrong.

And when it comes to affordable housing, we will prove them wrong again.

In fact, we’re already doing so…already making real progress towards a more affordable New York.

Here’s how:

First, our Rent Guidelines Board passed the smallest rent increase ever last year – helping protect tenants from being squeezed by their landlords.

Second, we are following through on a plan to build and preserve affordable housing on an unprecedented scale.   We’ve committed to the construction of 80,000 new units of affordable housing by 2024.

Let me put that in perspective: it means building new affordable units at twice the average annual rate of the past 25 years.

When you add that to the 120,000 units that our plan preserves, it means affordable housing for a half million New Yorkers…more than the entire population of the city of Miami.  Take that, Miami!

This is what our housing plan does.  It’s real.  Those here…can pick up a copy.  And anyone can read it online at NYC.gov.

And we’re already putting this plan into action.  Our goal for 2014 was to create and preserve 16,000 units.  We beat that goal — achieving 17,300 affordable units last year alone.

Third, because it’s been projected that New York City will be home to nine million people by 2040, we’re pursuing every kind of housing.

Increasing the overall supply of housing is critical to serving New Yorkers at all income levels — and to assuring we can accommodate the workforce who will continue to grow our economy.

So we plan for the construction of 160,000 market rate units as well.

All told, our plan will create hundreds of thousands of construction jobs – and over 20,000 permanent jobs.

Fourth, we’re cutting red tape to speed up our progress.

To expedite the right kind of development, we must expedite the development process.

What we need, and what we will have, is fundamental reform at the Department of Buildings.  This agency must better serve its customers – including thousands of small businesses that drive our economy.  We’ll speed up inspections and cut bureaucracy, so that more jobs can be created and more housing can be built.

Fifth — for the first time in New York City history, we are creating a Mandatory Inclusionary Zoning requirement that will apply to all major residential re-zonings.

This is a big one.  Listen to this.

In every major rezoning development, we will require developers to include affordable housing.  Not as an option.  As a precondition.

Want to see this approach in action?  Look at Astoria Cove in Queens. As a result of this Administration’s framework  — and the City Council’s tough negotiations — 465 units of affordable housing will be created at this site alone.

That’s 465 families who no longer have to choose between living in the city they call home, or finding another city they can afford.  It means that hundreds of kids will live and learn and grow in our city.

Astoria Cove is a site in which previous City re-zoning policy wouldn’t have required any units of affordable housing.  Zero.  That was, in fact, the original plan.

So if you want to see the difference that our approach is already making – it’s the difference between 465…and zero…on one site alone.

And there are many more re-zonings like this coming soon to neighborhoods across the five boroughs – from East New York to Long Island City; from Flushing West to East Harlem; from downtown Staten Island to the Jerome Avenue Corridor in the Bronx.

Each of these efforts will make our neighborhoods stronger and more affordable.

And here’s one that will be a game-changer when it comes to keeping our city affordable for thousands of New York families: Sunnyside Yards.

Right now, there are 200 acres of land in the heart of Queens, land that exists in the form of a rail yard – and only a rail yard.  But the fact is, those tracks could easily exist underground – allowing us to build housing – much of it affordable — above them.

At Sunnyside Yards, we envision a plan that incorporates what diverse and dynamic neighborhoods need — access to transportation, parks, schools, retail stores, and job opportunities.

Now 200 acres is a lot of land.  We know some parts of this site can easily handle larger buildings… and others can’t. So we’ll work closely with elected officials and community leaders to determine what makes sense.

Our approach is not entirely novel.  Developments that prioritize affordability and livability HAVE been built before — from Starrett City to Co-Op City to Stuy Town, to the Big 6 towers in Woodside, Queens.

And these developments created affordability on a grand scale.

Stuy Town, when it opened in 1947 provided our city with 11,250 affordable apartments… a community where trees and parks, and shops dotted a landscape from which residents could actually see the sky.

We’re bringing that same kind of scale — and a real sense of urgency — to Sunnyside Yards…and setting the same exact goal of 11,250 affordable units, as part of a neighborhood that anyone would be proud to call home.

And in contrast to the recent history of Stuy Town, we’re going to make sure that affordable housing at Sunnyside Yards stays that way.

To paraphrase one of my former employers, it takes a village to build a neighborhood.  So we look forward to partnering with Amtrak and the MTA in this extraordinary effort at Sunnyside Yards.

Another transformative opportunity lies in the Lower Concourse neighborhood on the waterfront in the South Bronx, a section of our city that was for so long synonymous with urban decay.

But the South Bronx is coming back strong, and waterfront development will be a big step forward.

When we look at this project, we don’t think about what used to define the Bronx; we think about all that will define the Bronx in the future.

With a $200 million capital investment, we can stimulate the development of 4,000 new units of housing – much of it affordable — and provide the parks, schools, and commercial development that support a growing, thriving population.

We look forward to partnering with Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and our colleagues in government to make an investment that will bring hope and opportunity to a place with enormous potential.

And speaking of potential, let’s talk about the Rockaways.

Battered by years of economic distress even before Sandy’s gale force winds struck, there’s no place in our city that has persevered through more.

Our plan will jumpstart the process of acquiring underutilized properties in the Rockaways – areas blighted or vacant for decades – as we look to create new, affordable housing for thousands there.

We must also remember that transportation is central to the mission of providing affordable housing and services — connecting neighborhoods in the five boroughs to New York’s largest job centers.

For years, the conventional wisdom has been that certain neighborhoods are doomed to isolation because of their geography.

Today, if you live in one of those neighborhoods – the Rockaways or Red Hook or Soundview, among others — a job in Manhattan can easily mean an hour or more of commuting, even when the skyline is visible from your home.  You can actually see opportunity, but practically speaking, it’s very far away.

We are going to change that.

Today, we announce that we’re launching a new citywide ferry service to be open for business in 2017.   New ferry rides will be priced the same as a MetroCard fare, so ferries will be as affordable to everyday New Yorkers as our subways and buses. …. so residents of the Rockaways and Red Hook and Soundview will now be closer to the opportunities they need.

And beyond connecting residents to jobs in Manhattan, our new citywide ferry system will spur the development of new commercial corridors throughout the outer boroughs.

We will also expand Bus Rapid Transit – or BRT – serving 400,000 New Yorkers along key thoroughfares like Utica Avenue in Brooklyn, and Woodhaven Boulevard in Queens… completing a network of 20 routes over the next four years.   BRT will cut transit time on existing routes by 15-25%.  That means New Yorkers spending less time in transit and more time living their lives.

That’s the kind of housing that we’ll build.

Let’s talk about some of the people we’re fighting to help.

First, our veterans.  We commit to ending chronic veterans homelessness by the end of this year.  Those who fight to protect our freedom abroad should never be left without a home.

Second, our seniors.  We’re providing 10,000 units of affordable housing for – New Yorkers who have worked hard all of their lives, and deserve to retire in dignity.  Women and men who live on fixed incomes have little recourse when housing costs go up.  They need our help, and they will get it.

Third, artists.  We know that New York is the city it is today in part because of the contributions from generations of artistic visionaries who at one point struggled to make ends meet.

So we’ll provide 1500 units of affordable live/work housing for the artists and musicians who make New York culture so vibrant….  as well as 500 dedicated affordable workspaces for the cultural community.

These folks bring joy to everyday New Yorkers; and inspire young people to pursue their natural talents in professions that often don’t promise a big paycheck.  They also help make our city a mecca for tourists, and are one of the reasons why a record number of people  — 56.4 million — visited New York last year.

But whether or not you’re a veteran, a senior, or an artist, you’ve likely felt the pinch of skyrocketing housing costs in our city.

That’s due in part to a phenomenon that everybody sees, everybody feels – but nobody wants to really talk about: gentrification.

Ask 8.4 million New Yorkers what they think about gentrification, and you’ll get 8.4 million opinions.

Clearly, there’s good and there’s bad.

First, the good.

After two decades of steadily declining crime, people are excited to come to New York…about investing in our city.

With that influx of people and resources comes jobs and amenities…more activity…safer streets.

The problem comes when we reach the tipping point…when New Yorkers get priced out of their own neighborhoods.

In the past, we’ve been told: sorry – there’s nothing you can do about that.   You can either have a safe and clean neighborhood – or you can have one you can afford.  Not both.

Well, as my grandmother might say, that’s “una cavolata!”

We can act, and we must.

You see, New York City’s last twenty years has had its share of bad actors.

First, there are the slumlords – the folks who refuse to make repairs…letting housing decay…making apartments uninhabitable.

Then, there are predatory landlords – the people who take advantage of a red-hot real estate market – employing ugly tactics to push out moderate-income tenants to make room for wealthier ones.

These predatory landlords harass tenants by, say, intermittently turning off the heat or hot water, or by refusing to address simple matters of safety or sanitation.

That doesn’t just violate the law; it violates our values as New Yorkers.

And we have tools to address these things.

When I was Public Advocate, we published the Worst Landlords Watchlist – targeting those who refused to make simple repairs to the units they controlled.

It helped spur change, with hundreds of buildings coming off the list after making needed improvements…and thousands of tenants getting the repairs they needed.  I applaud Public Advocate Tish James for energetically continuing this effort.

And there’s more we can do.

Albany has responsibility for enforcing our rent laws, but too often that doesn’t happen. We need Albany to step up and enforce the laws aggressively. Now.

Every day in this city, people are losing their homes unfairly. Albany cannot wait — we need help right now.

And we need stronger rent regulations that reflect today’s New York.

To preserve our city as a place for everyone, we need to do more than ever to protect the one million rent-regulated apartments in New York. For so many, it’s the only way they make ends meet…and the only path to the middle class.

If Albany truly believes in opportunity for all, they will strengthen our rent laws in 2015.

If they cannot do that, then we call on the State to provide the funding to help tenants…help themselves – by providing free legal services to victims of landlord neglect or harassment.

And even while we’re calling on Albany to step up, the City will do its part.

So today, I’m announcing that in any of the areas in which the city rezones, if we find evidence that tenants are being harassed, we will supply those tenants with legal representation, at no cost, to take their case to Housing Court…to seek justice before a judge.

Protecting our tenants – through whatever means necessary – isn’t just the moral thing to do.  It’s a critical step in making New York City a more affordable place for everyone.  And we should thank the City Council for their historic support of legal services for tenants.

All of the steps on housing that I’ve spoken about today – from responsibly building UP; to placing new demands on developers; to providing affordable housing to New Yorkers who need it most; to targeting predatory landlords  – it’s all part of our new rules for helping people find a home they can afford.

Today we’ve focused on the number one expense in the lives of most New Yorkers.  Reducing the expense of housing is absolutely critical to addressing the Tale of Two Cities.  But we’ll also fight on the other end of the equation.

Because nothing does more to address income equality than actually raising people’s incomes.

There’s one critical step that could do so much good.  Raising the minimum wage.

Now Albany’s shown some promising signs on this subject – but for it to be more than just talk — and to have a real impact on the lives of those living in New York City – we need more.

The current minimum wage proposal simply doesn’t do enough to help New York City.  That’s why WE will fight to raise New York City’s minimum wage to more than $13 per hour in 2016… while indexing the minimum wage, which would bring us to a projected $15 per hour by 2019.

Why is indexing so important?  Because it means that hardworking New Yorkers won’t have to wait on new action from Albany just to keep pace with inflation.

It’s difficult to overstate the positive impact this would have on working New Yorkers.  Even for those that earn more than minimum right now, this action would create an upward pull on wages… an upward pull on opportunity…. and an upward pull on our economy.

Indeed, Henry Ford – the noted leftwing “socialist” that he was – wanted the workers on his assembly line to be able to afford to purchase the cars they worked to build.  So he gave them a living wage.

I assure you, he didn’t do it to be charitable; he did it because he knew it was good for business.  I’d say it worked out pretty well for old Henry.

Creating more affordable housing; raising wages and benefits; strengthening our neighborhoods by better connecting them to jobs and opportunity – that is how we’ll take on the Tale of Two Cities.

It won’t be easy.  And we know there will be critics who say it just can’t be done… that our destiny is to be a city for The Privileged Few…not a city for all.

But New York is no stranger to facing big challenges — and the many doubting Thomases — and knows how to overcome them.  In fact, we revel in proving them wrong.

Thirty years ago, in his 1985 State of the City Address, Mayor Ed Koch announced what was an unprecedented plan for affordable housing.

He understood the transformative power of city government to revitalize whole communities.  His administration stated the clearly: “we’re creating more than just apartments – we’re re-creating neighborhoods.”

There were those who said it couldn’t be done.  Historian Jonathan Soffer wrote of Koch’s plan:  “It was an extremely risky move. Some experts said at first that Koch’s goal was ‘inspirational rather than realistic.”

Well, let me just say, I can relate.  I’ve heard very similar criticisms.

But we know now that Koch’s plan was realistic… in fact, it worked.   And it had a transcendent impact on our city.

A city that was struggling and shrinking when Koch took office…turned around.

And so today, we face the challenge of a city in which more and more people want to live.  It’s a nice problem to have in one way, but it’s a major challenge nonetheless.

We will not lose sight of why our city is a beacon for so many.  It’s not the cleanest place, nor the most tranquil.  We don’t have the best weather or many alluring natural landmarks.  But we have something special, something unique: an idea at our core – a promise– that ours is a city…for everyone.

We are charged in our time with the sacred duty of keeping that promise… and we will not sit idle in the face of crisis.

John F. Kennedy put it well.  He said: “There are risks and costs to a program of action. But they are far less than the long-range risks and costs of comfortable inaction.”

Like the people this great city, our Administration is about action.

And we’ll continue to lead a City government that reflects all that is great about the New Yorkers we are so honored to serve.

Your energy invigorates us.

Your compassion inspires us.

Your resolve compels us to move forward.

And, so – my fellow New Yorkers — let’s get to work.  Now.

Thank you very much.  God bless you all.

Top 10

From forest preschools to a secret apology, here are Chalkbeat Colorado’s must-read stories of 2018

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat
Megan Patterson works with children to make a dam in a creek during a recent "forest school" class.

We spend a lot of time at Chalkbeat chasing the news to keep our readers informed about controversial policy changes, fast-moving debates, and late-breaking decisions.

But we also relish the opportunity to dig deep into issues affecting students and families, shine light on innovative ideas, and hear from dedicated educators making a difference. With that in mind, we’ve gathered 10 of our best stories from 2018.

These stories don’t necessarily chronicle the biggest education issues of 2018, from teacher walkouts to unprecedented state interventions. But they are stories we think are important and insightful, and that we enjoyed reporting and writing. We hope you enjoy reading them.

No walls: Forest preschools let kids run free, but can they change to reach diverse families?

One day this past summer, about a dozen children frolicked by a Jefferson County creek — making pretend tea in small metal buckets, and building dams with sticks and mud.

They were students at Worldmind Nature Immersion School, where children spend all their time outside. So-called forest preschools like Worldmind are beloved by many families but face significant regulatory and logistical barriers in expanding their footprint nationwide. Here in Colorado, a pilot program could lead a new kind of child care license designed for them.

And being licensed could help the schools confront another problem: a lack of diversity among their students. Read more.

Colorado was never ranked 46th for teacher pay. Does this change the debate?

It was an oft-cited statistic: that Colorado, despite its booming economy, ranked 46th in the nation for teacher pay. The eye-popping number found its way onto social media posts and signs at massive teacher rallies last spring. News outlets latched on to it, too.

But it was wrong. Colorado was actually ranked 30th in the nation.

Our story breaks down how the mistake happened (hint: a new data system, an unrevised report) — and how groups with different agendas seized on the snafu to score points. Read more.

This is the letter of apology that Adams 14 leaders never sent

The Adams 14 district in Commerce City is arguably the most troubled and low-performing in Colorado. Just last month, state officials directed Adams 14 to hire an external manager to oversee the district’s operations for at least the next four years.

Back in September, Adams 14 officials considered taking a rare step: saying sorry to the community. But an apology letter was never signed nor sent out.

Chalkbeat obtained a copy of the letter, which makes mention of “various and conflicting priorities, coupled with constant turnover and organizational disarray.” Read more.

Rising test scores and dwindling trust: Denver’s Tom Boasberg leaves a complicated legacy

Colorado’s largest school district experienced a big change this year when longtime leader Tom Boasberg announced he would step down after nearly 10 years in Denver Public Schools.

Because of his school improvement strategies — some of which were controversial and heightened tensions with the community — the district that the new superintendent, Susana Cordova, will inherit in January is vastly different than it was a decade ago.

One tangible difference: Schools that once served as anchors of the community but struggled academically have been closed or replaced. That disappearance was on display on one of Boasberg’s last days, when he held his cell phone close to his mouth and enunciated each word so his GPS would understand his direction: “Montbello High School.” Read more.

Parents in one Aurora high school are visiting classrooms and giving teachers feedback

Like many schools in Colorado, Aurora’s Rangeview High School has a test score gap between white and black students. But the assistant principal there came up with a unique way to try to address it: by inviting black parents to visit classrooms and observe how students are — or are not — engaging with the teacher’s lesson, and then provide suggestions for improvement.

“We give true and honest feedback,” said one parent involved, “if they looked or appeared comfortable, how they interacted with the environment, the temperature of the room.”

Although the assistant principal considers the African American Parent Committee an experiment, she said it’s generating uncomfortable but necessary conversations. Read more.

How education reform became a wedge issue among Colorado Democrats this election year

For years, more moderate Democrats, often working in unison with like-minded Republicans, championed education reform efforts ranging from school choice to holding educators accountable for student performance.

But partly because of backlash against President Donald Trump and his education secretary, those strategies no longer fly with many Democrats — especially left-leaning Democrats who see them as undercutting public education and devaluing the work of teachers.

That sentiment was palpable in Colorado’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, and could shape the next legislative session, which starts in January. “Education is the issue that really stands to divide the left in a very substantial way,” one observer said. Read more.

How a Colorado school district turned things around at 10,000 feet above sea level

School improvement efforts look a little different high in the Rocky Mountains. While many of the strategies used by the 1,000-student Lake County school district are familiar to urban settings, they’ve been retrofitted to meet the needs of a district that’s 100 miles west of Denver.

For example, instead of firing teachers and principals who weren’t accelerating student learning fast enough, the district adopted a new curriculum and gave its teachers lots of training.

“The belief that the people are the problem is wrong,” the superintendent said. “Our teachers are professionals, and we believe in them. We’re proving that there is a framework or a pathway for rural schools to improve that’s about building capacity within your own community.” Read more.

7 things to know about how Colorado schools punish their youngest students

After state lawmakers rejected a bill to limit the use of suspensions in the earliest grades, Chalkbeat wanted to know more about the early childhood discipline landscape in Colorado. Data from the Colorado Department of Education revealed several trends.

Among them: Young black boys are suspended at disproportionate rates. Some rural school districts have the highest early childhood suspension rates in the state.

And despite nationwide debate about the impact of harsh discipline on young children and local efforts to bring the numbers down, suspensions in the early grades are actually going up. Read more.

In Denver’s gentrifying neighborhoods, some middle-class parents are avoiding the school down the block

Many neighborhoods in Denver are gentrifying, with middle-class families moving into what have historically been working-class communities. That type of demographic shift could easily lead to neighborhood schools that are more integrated by family income and race.

But that doesn’t always happen in Denver. Instead, data show that wealthier families – more often than low-income families – are using Denver Public Schools’ universal school choice process to send their kids to schools elsewhere in the city.

That’s a problem because research shows integrated schools boost test scores for students from low-income families without lowering the scores of those from wealthier ones. Denver officials want to see those benefits, but allowing parents to choose may be thwarting them. Read more.

Why this Colorado principal hand delivers birthday cards to more than 2,000 students and staff

Northglenn High School Principal Sharee Blunt is Colorado’s 2018 School Principal of the year — but perhaps even more impressive is the enormous number of birthday cards she hand delivers each year. If you’re one of those people who can barely remember your spouse’s birthday, you’ll be floored by Blunt’s annual feat.

In our interview with Blunt, part of Chalkbeat’s “How I Lead” Q&A series with distinguished school leaders, she talks about what she realized after a mother’s emotional reaction, and why she gave a teacher a pass during a lesson that went awry. Read more.

union power

Charter teachers won big in nation’s first strike. What now?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Teachers from Acero charter schools in Chicago protest stalled negotiations Oct. 24, 2018, as they readied to vote on authorizing a strike.

Some 500 unionized teachers joined in the nation’s first charter strike last week, and succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day. Their gains could foreshadow next year’s citywide contract negotiations — between the Chicago Teachers Union, with its contract expiring in June, and Chicago Public Schools.

“The issue of class size is going to be huge,” said Chris Geovanis, the union’s director of communications. “It is a critically important issue in every school.”

Unlike their counterparts in charters, though, teachers who work at district-run schools can’t technically go on strike to push through a cap on the number of students per class. That’s because the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act defines what issues non-charter public school teachers can bargain over, and what issues can lead to a strike.

An impasse on issues of compensation or those related to working conditions, such as length of the school day or teacher evaluations, could precipitate a strike. But disagreements over class sizes or school closures, among other issues, cannot be the basis for a strike.

The number of students per class has long been a point of contention among both district and charter school teachers.

Educators at Acero had hopes of pushing the network to limit class sizes to 24-28 students, depending on the grade. However, as Acero teachers capped their fourth day on the picket line, they reached an agreement with the charter operator on a cap of 30 students — down from the current cap of 32 students.

Andy Crooks, a special education apprentice, also known as a teacher’s aide, at Acero’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz school and a member of the teachers bargaining team, said that even having two fewer students in a classroom would make a huge difference.

“You really do get a lot more time with your students,” Crooks said. “And if you are thinking about kindergarten in particular, two less 5-year-olds really can help set the tone of the classroom.”

In district-run schools, classes are capped at 28 students in kindergarten through third grade, and at 31 students in fourth through sixth grade. But a survey by the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers, which supports educators taking on inequality, found that during the 2017-2018 school year, 21 percent of K-8 classrooms had more students than district guidelines allowed. In 18 elementary school classrooms, there were 40 or more students.

The issue came up at last week’s Board of Education meeting, at which Ivette Hernandez, a parent of a first-grader at Virgil Grissom Elementary School in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood, said her son’s classes have had more than 30 students in them. When the children are so young and active — and when they come into classrooms at so many different skill levels — “the teachers can’t handle 30 kids in one class,” she told the board.

Alderman Sue Garza, a former counselor, accompanied Hernandez. She also spoke before the board about classroom overcrowding — worrying aloud that, in some grades at one school in particular, the number of students exceeded the building’s fire codes. (Board chair Frank Clark said a district team would visit the school to ensure compliance fire safety policies.)

While the Chicago Teachers Union aren’t technically allowed to strike over class sizes, the union does have a history of pushing the envelope when it comes to bargaining.

Back in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union last went on strike, they ended up being able to secure the first limit on class sizes in 20 years because the district permitted the union to bargain over class size.

They also led a bargaining campaign that included discussion over racial disparities in Chicago education and school closures, arguing that these trends impacted the working conditions of teachers.

“Even if you can’t force an employer to bargain over an issue, you can push them to bargain over the impact of an issue,” Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, explained.

The Chicago Teachers Union also emerged from its 2012 negotiations with guarantees of additional “wraparound services,” such as access to onsite social workers and school counselors.