coming soon

Carranza is ready to approve an integration plan for Brooklyn middle schools. Here’s a guide to the potential changes.

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
An integration plan for District 15 was created after a public engagement process that included parents, educators, and community members.

The new school year could start off with a dramatic new integration plan for Brooklyn middle schools.

In a radio appearance Tuesday morning, schools Chancellor Richard Carranza said he expected to approve admissions changes in District 15 within the next 48 hours.

“I think that you can expect a decision from my office very, very soon,” he said. “I’m really excited about it.”

The plan has been years in the making, and it comes on the heels of a different, more controversial move to desegregate middle schools in Manhattan.

Here’s a guide to help you get up to speed on the latest proposal, which affects schools in brownstone neighborhoods such as Park Slope and Carroll Gardens, and immigrant enclaves such as Sunset Park and Red Hook.

What’s being proposed?

The proposal is sweeping: It calls on the city to completely eliminate selective admission criteria at middle schools in District 15, and to give underserved students priority in the application process. Advocates are also pushing a number of initiatives to make schools more open and inclusive of all students.

Under the current system, families in District 15 apply to middle schools rather than being assigned to a school based on their address. All but one of the district’s middle schools are “screened” — meaning they set admissions criteria based on factors like a student’s fourth grade test scores or report card grades.

Under the proposal, families would still be free to choose which schools to apply to. But screening would be eliminated — even auditions for performing arts programs would go away — and replaced with a lottery. In an effort to enroll a similar share of students who are harder to serve, every middle school would give priority for 52 percent of seats to students who are poor, learning English, or live in temporary housing. That percentage is in line with the district average.

The plan offers a stark alternative to the way many schools in New York City currently enroll students: About a quarter of all middle schools screen applicants — a practice that is often seen as a way to help keep middle class families in the school system. But critics say it exacerbates segregation, since disadvantaged students are more likely to struggle in school, and middle class families are better positioned to navigate a complicated admissions system.

In addition to the admissions changes, the plan for District 15 calls for anti-bias training, hiring more teachers of color, and ensuring equal investments in programming across schools. Advocates say those kinds of moves, among many others that have been recommended, are important for making sure integration goes deeper than just demographic changes.   

How did we get here?

The proposal is the result of months of public input, dozens of public meetings, and years of advocacy.

The city hired WXY Studio, an urban planning and design firm, to solicit ideas and gather feedback from parents, educators, and activists across the district. That work began this past winter, with a series of public workshops, intimate meetings with PTAs and community groups, direct phone calls to local leaders, and email blasts to parents. It culminated with a set of recommendations based on what community members said they wanted.

But the integration push in District 15 goes even farther back, with parents and the local Community Education Council lobbying for years for a process like the one that ultimately played out. Integration advocates have called it one of the more thoughtful and inclusive processes to date, with small group sessions that allowed parents to talk face-to-face about complicated topics, and an emphasis on including parents who don’t speak English as a first language.

Advocates say that’s why they were able to come up with such a sweeping proposal — without the amount of pushback that integration plans in other districts have generated.

Matt Gonzales, who lobbies for school integration with the nonprofit New York Appleseed, said the one-on-one conversations allowed “people to humanize each other.”

“I really applaud the process because it did mitigate some of the backlash and some of the racist, classist, coded things that have been said” elsewhere, he said.

Still, as with any dramatic changes involving schools, race, and class, the plan hasn’t been completely well received. Some have said even more should have been done to make sure a more diverse group of voices were included. Other parents have said they’re reluctant to raise their concerns because they don’t want to be perceived as fighting integration, or worry that the changes could unintentionally encourage neighborhoods to gentrify further.  

What happens next?

The proposal on the table now is just a recommendation that requires Carranza to sign off. He could choose to approve some parts of the plan and not others, or add new elements.

But advocates are expecting the final changes to hew closely to what they’ve proposed.

Carranza has signaled his eagerness to approve what the community has come up with, and has questioned the very screening process that parents now want to eliminate. Plus, the education department was at the table every step of the way while the plan was being created.

“I am really excited about the work that the parents, and teachers and principals and community members have done in District 15,” he said Tuesday on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer show. “Talk about a thoughtful and very powerful way of changing the way we look at opportunities for our students.”

Carranza said final approval would come within the next few days.

voices of the vote

Meet Denver teachers who voted yes to a strike, no to a strike — and just aren’t sure

PHOTO: PHOTO: Andy Cross/The Denver Post
Skinner Middle School math teacher Peter English walks out of the Riverside Baptist Church with his son, Landon, left, and daughter Brooke strapped to his chest after voting on whether to go on strike ()

Throughout the day, the parking lot of Riverside Baptist Church filled up as Denver teachers made their way into a meeting organized by their union, the Denver Classroom Teachers Association.  

Months of negotiations that failed to produce a deal between top leaders of Denver Public Schools and the union had given way to individual teachers facing a choice: To strike or not?

Along with reporting the news of the day — which you can read about here — Chalkbeat spent time visiting with teachers to get a sense of what was shaping their decision-making.

Most teachers we spoke with, both in depth and in passing, said they voted “yes” to strike. Union officials have said two-thirds of those who vote Saturday and in a second session Tuesday must sign off on a strike for it to proceed, and the prevailing wisdom among teachers we interviewed was that support is strong.

The decision, though, is far from black and white for many teachers, regardless of where they ultimately land.

Here are the stories of three teachers, all at different places:

Krista Skuce, Slavens K-8 school: Yes to strike

At the urging of teachers and parents, Slavens K-8 students turned out early on a few recent mornings to show support for their teachers. They wore red in solidarity and posed for pictures.

They also brought questions. “Why are you doing this?” was one.

Krista Skuce, a physical education teacher and 14-year Denver Public Schools employee, would tell students that she lives 40 minutes from the school because she can’t afford to live in Denver.

Krista Skuce

But there is more to her story. Her spouse, she said, is no longer able to work, beset by medical issues, unable to draw disability benefits, and in need of costly care including massage therapy, chiropractic appointments, neuromuscular therapies, and more.  

At the same time, Skuce said her pay “doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.” So she hustles, earning extra pay by driving across town to coach softball and basketball.

Skuce, like many teachers who stopped to talk about their votes on Saturday, believes the district can do more to boost teachers’ base pay — before bonuses and incentives.  

She said her salary has only increased $4,000 or $5,000 in the past 14 years, even though she has been teaching 27 years, has a master’s degree, and is National Board Certified.

Skuce said she knows that by voting to strike, she could very well end up taking money out of her own bank account. Striking teachers don’t get paychecks.

“I am hoping the district and the DCTA do the right thing and recognize the fact that there are some people here who are on the edge,” she said. “We are on the edge emotionally, financially. We know these are good people. And I think teachers are people who wake up every morning with forgiveness.

“You have to take a stand and say what you are for at some point in time in your life — and this is it,” she said. “I’m willing to do it, scary or not.”  

Jason Clymer, John F. Kennedy High School: No to strike

An English teacher at John F. Kennedy High School, Jason Clymer stands with his fellow union members in the belief teachers aren’t paid enough. He finds fault with what is asked of teachers through LEAP, the district’s growth and performance system for teachers.

“Teachers at my school feel extremely micromanaged and can’t catch a breath,” he said.  

But in the end, after being one of the first teachers in the door Saturday and attending an information session, Clymer said he voted against the strike.

“Going on strike is very hard,” said Clymer, whose wife works in human resources for the district’s central office. “And I think the agreement DPS came to was close enough.”

Clymer questioned focusing energy on what is under negotiation now: ProComp, the pay system that provides teachers one-time bonuses for things like teaching in a high-poverty school, getting strong evaluations, having students who earn high test scores, or teaching in a high-performing school.

He said he’d like to save some political leverage to focus on other issues covered by the district’s main contract with the union.

“It’s really unfortunate these things can’t all be negotiated together,” he said. “If the district came out and said, ‘We want to give you more money, not as much as you like, but we want to devote more to things like mental health services,’ I really think that would be a winning argument.”

In opposing a strike, Clymer said that he did not want to divide his fellow teachers

“Although I voted no, I believe in the union,” he said. “And if the union voted to strike, I will absolutely support the union.”

Paula Zendle, Denver Green School: Undecided about strike

Paula Zendle is dreading the moment that is appearing increasingly likely: standing before her students at the Denver Green School and explaining why she won’t be there to teach them.

“I tell them constantly, ‘Don’t miss school, don’t miss school. Don’t be absent, don’t be absent, don’t be absent,’” said Zendle, her eyes welling up with tears as she waited on a friend. “I have been fighting to avoid a strike. I hate this. It’s utterly and totally agonizing to me.”

Paula Zendle

Zendle said she left a career in the corporate world for the classroom and has been teaching eight years. She teaches English language acquisition and Spanish at the Green School, a popular and highly-rated middle school option in a district that celebrates choice.

 Zendle said she has done her research and written to the district’s chief financial officer. What bothers her is a system she believes rewards younger teachers and underpays teachers in terms of the cost of living.  

The average Denver teacher currently earns about $51,000 in base pay and $57,000 with incentives, according to data from the state education department and the district. That’s less than teachers in districts like Boulder Valley, Cherry Creek, and Littleton.

District officials have agreed to put $20 million more into teacher compensation and defended their most recent offer on Saturday as “compelling.”

For Zendle, the prospect of facing her students — and that she works in a supportive school environment — is contributing to her struggle in deciding whether to vote “yes” to strike.

So if the moment does come, what will she tell her students?

“We have the right to protest unfair taxpayer spending,” she said. “This is not only unfair, it’s unconscionable. Their priorities have been wrong for 10 years.”

Then she paused and made clear that her decision had not been made. She considers herself a person of principle, and that will guide her in making a decision.

lesson plan

Denver hopes to keep its schools open in a strike — and the union wants you to send your kids

PHOTO: Kathryn Scott Osler/The Denver Post
Students eat lunch in the cafeteria at Dora Moore K-8 School in Denver.

Superintendent Susana Cordova says she is committed to keeping Denver schools open and continuing to educate students in the event of a strike.

In Los Angeles, where a teacher strike is entering its second week, many students are watching movies and playing games. Cordova said she plans to do more for the 71,000 students in district-run schools if teachers vote to strike and state intervention does not lead to a deal. The 21,000 students who attend charter schools will not be affected.

“We want to assure parents school will stay open,” she said. “We know it is critically important that we focus on the education of our kids. Sixty percent of our kids qualify for free and reduced-price lunch. We know they depend on school not just for their meals but for their access to opportunity.”

Negotiations broke down Friday between the district and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, the union that represents teachers and special service providers such as nurses, school psychologists, and counselors. A strike vote is taking place in two sessions, one Saturday and another Tuesday. The earliest a strike could start is Jan. 28.

This would be the first strike in 25 years in the state’s largest school district. In 1994, the district used more than 1,000 substitutes to keep schools open, though many parents kept their children at home, something union leaders encouraged.

It’s not clear yet how high teacher participation in a strike would be. During the final week of bargaining, some teachers reported near universal support in their buildings, while others said some of their colleagues were uncertain. Some teachers have said they disagree with the union position in the negotiations and won’t participate as a matter of principle.

Teachers who strike do not get paid while they are not at work.

Cordova said the district is “in the process of building out our sub pool” and offering higher pay to those willing to work during a strike. But she declined to say how many substitutes the district could call on, and some teachers say they already have a hard time finding subs for routine absences.

Substitutes who work during a strike will earn $200 a day, double the normal rate, and “super subs” who work more than a certain number of days a year will get $250.

Many central office staff who have past teaching experience will be sent to schools to work with students. Cordova said the district is working on pre-packaged lesson plans for every grade and subject area so that learning can still take place, and officials will prioritize placing qualified staff members with special education and preschool students, those she deemed most vulnerable.

Students who get free or reduced-price lunch will still be able to eat in school cafeterias.

For its part, the union is encouraging parents to send their children to school, but with a different purpose.

“One major goal of a strike is for school buildings to be shut down as a demonstration of the essential labor performed by educators,” the union wrote in an FAQ document. “To this end, we encourage parents to send their students to school if their school building remains open. Student safety is paramount for all district schools, therefore the district will be obliged to close schools if safety becomes an issue due to limited staffing.”

Union officials said they were working to establish alternative daytime care with community partners like churches and Boys and Girls Clubs should schools close.