All together now

Inside the ‘passion project’ Carmen Fariña can’t quit: helping New York City schools share space better

Herbert Lehman High School in the Bronx shares its campus with other schools in the building.

Brady Smith runs a small school, and he likes it that way. With fewer than 300 students enrolled, he can get to know everyone at the James Baldwin School in Chelsea.

But being small has its drawbacks, too. Smith shares a building with five other schools, which means every academic year begins with negotiations over who gets access to which stairwells, the cafeteria, the auditorium — and when. It’s hard to field a theater group with such a small roster. And since budgets are based on enrollment, money is short for much needed renovations in a building that he calls “literally old school.” (It went up in the 1930s.)

“Obviously the scale is both a positive and a challenge,” said Smith, who serves as the school’s principal but splits leadership responsibilities with a teacher. “There are economies of scale that could bring some really wonderful experiences into co-located buildings.”

Carmen Fariña, the outgoing schools chancellor, emphatically agrees and is taking a post-retirement role shepherding the Co-Located Campus Initiative — a two-year-old office that helps school leaders like Smith collaborate better on shared campuses. The education department says Fariña will serve as a volunteer advisor for the “passion project” after she steps down at the end of March — a move that her replacement, Richard Carranza, said he welcomes.

Like much of Fariña’s tenure, the initiative can be seen partly as a reaction to the policies of the previous mayor, Michael Bloomberg, who broke up large high schools across the city. The large schools were replaced with clusters of smaller schools within a single building.

While research has credited Bloomberg’s approach with boosting graduation rates, the small schools movement also created a new set of problems on many campuses. About 380 district schools are co-located throughout the city.

Shared space can lead to logistical hurdles and personality clashes, and the Department of Education has the Office of Campus Governance mediate disagreements about space-sharing and host training sessions on how school leaders can get along. The department even published a 122-page handbook laying out how colocated schools can work together. (A separate office handles relationships between charter schools and traditional schools that share buildings.)

“It can be a nightmare,” said one Bronx principal who shares a building with multiple schools and requested anonymity because he said he did not have permission to speak about his job. “It’s like a nine-dimensional puzzle.”

But Fariña’s initiative aims to move beyond the logistical and administrative headaches of space-sharing and focus on how schools can work together in the classroom. The goal is “collaboration in instructional practices, sharing of resources, and maintaining a safe and collegial campus where students and parents feel welcomed and appreciated,” the city’s handbook says.

Small schools can struggle to meet their students’ needs. With strained resources, some co-located schools can’t provide minimum required instruction time or math, social studies and science course offerings, according to a 2014 report by the Campaign for Educational Equity at Teachers College. Co-located high schools struggled to provide enough foreign language classes that allow students to earn an advanced Regents diploma — even though those classes are required by the state, the report found.

Nicole Manning has taught on co-located campuses for much of her career, including currently at the Business of Sports School, which shares a building in Hell’s Kitchen. She said she’s long noticed that arts programs are lacking at the schools, with few opportunities for drama, band, or vocational courses.

“I think the experience for the kids could be richer,” she said. “I don’t think that’s one person’s shortcoming. I think that’s a systems thing.”

Under Fariña’s leadership, the city has merged or closed some small schools. Now, through the initiative, Fariña wants to encourage schools to pool their budgets and staffs while still maintaining their size.

So far, 24 campuses across all the boroughs are involved, touching 138 schools and programs. In a signal of how important the work is to Fariña, Aimee Horowitz was tapped to lead the initiative — a move that raised eyebrows over the outgoing chancellor’s influence. Until now, Horowitz has led the mayor’s high-profile Renewal turnaround program.

“We work to improve the overall culture and climate across schools on campuses, and make sure resources are shared so teachers and kids can have access to more programs and opportunities,” Fariña wrote in a recent op-ed.

Fariña has zeroed in on campuses where she wants to push that work forward, meeting one-on-one with principals to kick it off. One of those campuses is the Bayard Rustin Educational Complex, where Smith’s school is located.

As part of the initiative, Smith said the education department is helping to pay for a welcome center for parents who visit the imposing building — a priority he said the chancellor has emphasized.

The Rustin Complex schools are already doing a host of other things laid out in the co-location initiative. A campus-wide group of parents meet regularly, recently diving into the contentious issue of whether metal detectors should be installed. Students come together in an afterschool club where young men create rap songs about their lives. Principals split the costs and for building-wide college trips which are chaperoned by staffers from each school.

“I think we all recognize that they’re all our students, even though there are six schools in one building,” Smith said.

Other issues are tougher to work out, especially when schools with diverging philosophies share the same building. Fariña has called for schools to open up their advanced courses campus-wide so more students have access to college-level work. But what if schools use different grading methods or testing practices to track student progress? Which principal should oversee that teacher’s work? And who, ultimately, should be held responsible for that student’s outcomes?

The same kinds of questions arise when it comes to implementing a campuswide approach to school discipline, or deciding what kind of training to offer all the teachers in the building — both laid out as initiative priorities — while also maintaining the characteristics that make each school unique.

“It’s exactly because of that, that we’ve chosen not to do more sharing,” the Bronx principal said.

Shino Tanikawa, a parent in Manhattan’s District 2 who served on a city working group dealing with school space, said she is generally opposed to co-locating schools. It creates extra work for administrators when they could be serving students, she said. But she also recognizes that it would be difficult to undo the legacy of small schools. Parents and students become attached to their schools. Some principals and teachers, even while acknowledging the difficulties, say they can build deeper relationships when there are fewer students to keep track of.

With that in mind, Tanikawa said the education department might as well help co-located schools grapple with the situation they’ve been dealt.

“They are not going away,” she wrote in an email. “Given that, I think it is good to focus on how to make it work.”

College Access

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I am very hopeful,” she said.

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

“I would hope somebody does,” he said.

Preschool math

Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker plows $100 million more into early ed — but no universal preschool this year

In the past decade, as other states have ramped up their spending on early education, budget-strapped Illinois has fallen further behind.

In his first budget proposal as governor on Wednesday, J.B. Pritzker, a philanthropist who has contributed millions to early childhood causes at home and nationally, laid out a plan to reverse that Illinois trend with a historic $100 million bump for preschool and other early learning programs.

“I have been advocating for large investments in early childhood education for decades, long before I became governor,” he said, laying out a $594 million early education spending plan that is part of an overall $77 billion package. “Investing in early childhood is the single most important education policy decision government can make.”

Later in the address, Pritzker detailed a smaller increase, but one that some advocates said was a welcome shift in policy: He described first steps toward repairing a child care assistance program that was drained of families and providers during the administration of his predecessor, Gov. Bruce Rauner. The new governor plans to spend $30 million more to rebuild the program. He also will increase income eligibility so an estimated 10,000 more families can participate.

“These priorities turn us in a different direction,” said Maria Whelan, CEO of Illinois Action for Children, which administers the child care assistance program in Cook County. Compared with the state’s previous approach, “I feel like I just woke up from a bad dream.”

Pritzker’s otherwise “austere” budget address, as he described it in his speech, came 12 days after his office revealed that the state’s budget deficit was 14 percent higher than expected — some $3.2 billion.

The state’s early childhood budget funds a preschool-for-all program that serves more than 72,000 3- and 4-year-olds statewide in a mix of partial- and full-day programs. Chicago has been using its share of state dollars to help underwrite its four-year universal pre-K rollout, which has gotten off to a bumpy start in its first year.  

The state early childhood grant also supports prenatal programs and infant and toddler care for low-income families.

Pritzker pledged on the campaign trail to pave a pathway toward universal pre-K for the state’s 3- and 4-year-olds, and this budget falls short of the estimated $2.4 billion it would cost, at least according to a moonshot proposal made in January by the lame duck state board of education. The state’s school Superintendent Tony Smith stepped down at the end of January, and Pritzker has yet to name a successor.

But policymakers and advocates on Wednesday said the considerable $100 million increase is a step in the right direction for a state that has been spending less per student than many of its neighbors. According to the National Institute for Early Education Research, Illinois spent $4,226 per young learner in 2016-2017 compared with a national average that topped $5,000. Seven states spent $7,000 or more.   

“This is a big amount in one year, but also it is what we think is needed to move programs forward, and we’re excited to see it,” said Ireta Gasner, vice president of policy at the Ounce of Prevention, an early-education advocacy group

One item Gasner said she hoped to hear, but didn’t, was increased spending on home visiting programs for families with new babies. Spending on such programs next year will remain flat under Pritzker’s proposal. Home visiting has been suggested as one antidote to the state’s troublingly high maternal mortality rates. An October report from the state’s public health department found that 72 percent of pregnancy-related deaths in Illinois were preventable.

“Overall, we still have a long way to go to serve our youngest families and youngest children,” she said.  

In addition to the $100 million, Pritzker’s office reportedly also will add $7 million to early intervention services for young learners with disabilities and set aside $107 million to help buffer the impact of his new minimum wage increase on daycare center owners and other child care providers who operate on thin margins.

On Tuesday, Pritzker signed into a law a minimum wage increase to $15 an hour.

Illinois faces a critical staffing shortage of preschool providers, and several operators have warned that they face mounting pressures from staff turnover, increased regulations, and stagnant reimbursement rates.