Diversity Delayed

NYC is expanding a program to boost diversity at its elite high schools. But it isn’t making a dent.

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

For the third year in a row, a smaller share of black and Hispanic students are benefiting from a program designed to boost diversity at the city’s elite and hyper-segregated high schools.

The city’s recent expansion of the program has disproportionately benefited Asian students, who are already overrepresented at the eight specialized high schools, according to new data.

The initiative, known as the Discovery program, aims to promote diversity at the schools by offering admission to students from low-income families who score just below the entrance exam cutoff if they successfully complete summer coursework.

But as Discovery has more than tripled in size since Mayor Bill de Blasio took office, it has consistently had little effect on improving racial diversity at the schools, where just 10.4 percent of this year’s admissions offers went to black or Hispanic students — a number that has gone virtually unchanged for years. (Nearly 70 percent of the city’s students are black or Hispanic.)

In 2017, the most recent year for which data is available, white and Asian students comprised 78 percent of the students who were offered admission through Discovery, a slight increase from the previous year. By contrast, black and Hispanic students made up between 18-20 percent of the program’s offers, a percentage that has been shrinking since 2015.

Advocates who are pushing the city to diversify the schools say the latest data proves more aggressive efforts are needed.

“It’s clear at this point that it’s not an effective approach,” said Lazar Treschan, youth policy director at the Community Service Society and who has studied specialized high school admissions.

City officials argue that the program is valuable because it gives low-income students a leg up, and more black and Hispanic students gain admission through the program (roughly 20 percent) than they do during the normal admissions process (10.4 percent).

The city has grown the program in recent years: 202 students were offered admission through Discovery in 2017, more than three times as many students as 2014. (Despite the program’s expansion, it represented just 4 percent of admissions offers in 2017.)

The city even included the program’s expansion in its diversity plan, where it announced for the first time that Stuyvesant High School would participate this year, the last holdout of the eight specialized schools that determine admission based on a single test.

“Together with our larger set of initiatives to increase racial and socioeconomic diversity at the [specialized high schools], we are seeing an impact through the Discovery program,” wrote Will Mantell, an education department spokesperson.

The city has also expanded programs that offer free preparation for the entrance exam and is increasing the number of schools that offer the test during the school day. And the education department is looking for ways to make a bigger dent. Mantell said the city is conducting a review of those efforts, including Discovery, “to determine if and how it can make a larger impact.”

The mayor has taken heat in recent weeks after new data revealed that the city has failed to increase diversity at specialized schools, even after campaigning on the issue four years ago.

De Blasio has not pushed to overhaul the admissions process to allow for multiple entrance criteria in lieu of a single test. Many experts believe such changes are the only way to integrate the schools and argue the mayor already has the power to do so at five of the eight schools (tweaking admissions at the other three would require a change in state law). He has instead favored programs like Discovery, which have barely moved the needle.

“I think at this point the mayor has enough evidence that this is not an efficient way of doing this,” the Community Service Society’s Treschan added. “I would love the mayor to exercise leadership on changes that might be more complicated politically, but [would] be more effective.”

Future of Schools

Indianapolis Public Schools budget plan could include layoffs and salary freezes

PHOTO: Alan Petersime
Indianapolis Public Schools is cutting spending across the district.

Schools across Indianapolis’s largest district could face hiring freezes and layoffs as the district seeks to balance its budget, according to a document published on the district website.

The finance update, which is expected to be presented Thursday for discussion to the Indianapolis Public Schools Board, outlines a plan for cutting nearly $21 million from the cash-strapped district’s $269 million general fund budget for 2018-19. Some of the potential cuts include educator layoffs based on subject area, salary freezes, and reductions in custodial services and substitute teachers.

It is not clear whether all the potential cuts will be made. The district declined to immediately comment on the proposal but said staff would be available to answer questions Tuesday.

Cuts to school and certified staff budgets could save about $8.9 million. Those could include freezing external hiring, early retirement, and layoffs. Districtwide cuts — which could include freezing pay and reducing substitute teachers, custodial services, and service contracts — could save about $9.2 million. Those savings could also include proceeds from real-estate sales. About $2.75 million could be cut from special education and English language learner services.

The district could also cut transportation for field trips and after-school activities, saving about $1.5 million from the $37.7 million transportation budget.

The plan is the first detailed look at how Indianapolis students, educators, and schools could be affected by a growing financial crisis. And more cuts may come if referendums to increase property taxes in order to boost school budgets fail later this year. Those measures were originally on the May ballot, but when they received little public support, the school board suspended the campaign. District leaders are now working with the Indy Chamber to craft a proposal that’s expected to be on the November ballot.

The Chamber expects to release the results of an analysis of the district’s finances by July, according to Mark Fisher, the organization’s chief policy officer. But district leaders say they will begin making the case to voters that the property tax hikes are needed before then, through meetings with school staff, parents, and community groups.

Last week, before the details of the potential cuts were revealed, Superintendent Lewis Ferebee told Chalkbeat his administration is dedicated to planning the budget for next year.

“The focus for the administration has been on ensuring that we make the necessary reductions that we need to make right now,” he said. “Those are important messages that families need to hear from us. And we will do a lot of that between now and the end of the school year, just educating families of where we are on the finances.”

Schools are already making cuts this year, with reduced staffing and hiring, according to the document.

Earl Phalen, who heads a charter network that runs two schools in the Indianapolis Public Schools innovation network, said the district already told schools they cannot plan field trips for students. “Those are important educational experiences for children,” he added.

While some of the proposed cuts may seem small, Phalen said they would have an impact on students. Campuses might be able to get by with fewer janitors, he said, but they don’t have “lavish resources.” Cutting those positions will mean that children go to schools that are not as well maintained, he said.

 

“You cut away a janitor, well, maybe the building is not going to be quite as clean. The children deserve to have a building spick-and-span,” he said. “You cut away a media specialist, well, then scholars don’t have the experience of going to a library and having that as one of their specials.”

MERGE AHEAD

Wadleigh middle school is safe — for now — after Harlem community rallied to stop its closure

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
A Wadleigh graduate addresses the crowd at a rally outside the school. Students, parents and community leaders spoke against the city's plans to close the Harlem performing arts school.

Supporters scored a partial victory in their fight to keep the middle school alive at Wadleigh Secondary, a politically connected and historically important performing and visual arts school in Harlem.

Marking one of Richard Carranza’s first major moves as chancellor, the education department on Monday pulled its proposal to cut Wadleigh’s middle school grades — just days before the Panel for Educational Policy was scheduled to vote on the school’s fate. But the department also announced that it will begin laying the groundwork to combine Wadleigh with another district middle school in the building.

The school, which was saved from closure once before after a public outcry, will continue to serve students in grades six through 12 for the next school year.

“After listening to extensive feedback from Wadleigh families and community members, the chancellor is withdrawing the proposal to truncate the middle school grades at Wadleigh Secondary School,” the education department confirmed in an email.

The fight for the school, which is part of the city’s high-profile Renewal turnaround program, is likely not over. Saying the middle school’s academic performance is “not acceptable,” the education department announced it will begin a planning process to combine Wadleigh with Frederick Douglass Academy II. For school communities, such mergers can feel just like a closure, with one school often retaining its name, keeping the same leadership, and preserving its unique approach to teaching.

“We still have a lot of work to do,” said Gigs Taylor-Stephenson, president of the Wadleigh PTA. “The whole idea was to maintain our identity as an arts school with an strong academic component. It doesn’t seem like that’s the case, and we’ve argued time and time again that we don’t want to be a separate middle and high school.”

Education department spokesman Michael Aciman stressed that the plan to combine the schools is still in the early phases and said “the community will help shape and decide what the proposal looks like.”

The decision marks Carranza’s first foray in the controversial school closure process since becoming chancellor earlier this month. Kim Watkins, president of the Community Education Council in District 3, which includes Wadleigh, said the chancellor met with parent leaders and elected officials to hear their pleas to save the middle school.

“Something wasn’t right, and it was very reassuring to our council and to the community in Harlem that our chancellor took an interest,” Watkins said. “His fresh eyes, in conjunction with the hard work of community leaders, led us to the update we’re hearing today.”

Monday’s about-face marked at least the second time supporters beat back a proposal to shut down the middle school at Wadleigh, which has long struggled academically but enjoys a remarkable constituency. When it was targeted for closure in 2011, the famed philosopher Cornel West was among those who rallied to keep it open — and so did Mayor Bill de Blasio, who at the time served as the city’s public advocate. A new principal was installed but Wadleigh landed on the city’s list of struggling schools just two years later, and officials drew up an “action plan” to help turn things around.

After de Blasio was elected, Wadleigh became a part of the city’s latest improvement efforts: the Renewal program, which infuses schools with added resources and tacks on extra time to the school day. Still, the school has continued to struggle. In December, the education department recommended shutting down the middle school, citing low enrollment and three years without a single student scoring “proficient” on state math exams.

The latest battle to keep Wadleigh alive drew support from the NAACP, the local Community Education Council, elected officials including a state senator and the city comptroller, along with countless parents, students, alumni and school staff. Many argued the school still hasn’t received the help it needed to boost test scores. City data shows Wadleigh enrolls students who are usually the toughest to serve: Many enter middle school already lagging behind their peers, almost all come from economically needy families, and a disproportionate number have special needs.

“How about you just help us and keep this school together,” one student asked at a rally on Friday outside Wadleigh. “I don’t want this school to close down.”

This time around, the education department says it will appoint an assistant principal to focus on the middle school grades in both Wadleigh and Frederick Douglass. Starting next school year, the middle school grades will begin working together on math instruction and share arts resources, and staffers will train together, according to the education department.

Planning for combining both schools will start this year, with the merger set to take effect for the 2019-20 school year.

The announcement could deepen a clash between city officials and the popular but controversial Success Academy charter network, which also runs a school in the same building. Just last month, Success founder Eva Moskowitz stood outside the school and said the city has ignored Success’s requests for more room there. The network has filed a complaint asking state education officials to intervene.

A spokesman for Success declined to comment Monday, but the network’s leaders have said the charter school enrolls one-third of the students in the building, with only a quarter of the space.