getting to know you

Next in the Upper West Side and Harlem integration push: encouraging parents to explore their options

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
Claudia Aguirre, principal of P.S. 149 Sojourner Truth in Harlem, highlighted her school at a recent forum for District 3 parents to learn about their middle school options.

Standing before a classroom of parents crammed into child-sized chairs, Principal Claudia Aguirre launched into her pitch for P.S. 149 Sojourner Truth, a kindergarten through eighth grade school in Harlem. She had just five minutes to try to convince her audience to consider applying to her school, which serves mostly students from low-income families and has some of the lowest math test scores in the city.

In a gentle tone, Aguirre promised the parents gathered for the middle school kickoff event that she would know every child by name and highlighted laptops for each student, arts programming, and coding classes.

“I’m guessing we may not be on your list right now,” she said. “You might be pleasantly surprised by what we offer.”

When her time was up, no one had raised their hand with questions. All that one mother had written in her notebook was “no Regents,” a reference to the fact that P.S. 149 does not offer its middle school students a chance to take courses that can count towards high school graduation credits. Aguirre headed to the next classroom of waiting families to give her speech again.

Aguirre’s sales pitch— and its lukewarm reception—may be indicative of the tough road ahead for education leaders eager to integrate middle schools in District 3, which spans the Upper West Side and Harlem.

Families there apply to middle schools and hope their children are accepted, a time consuming and competitive process that has led to stark segregation.

This fall marks the first application cycle since District 3 approved a controversial plan to spur diversity by giving some students priority in admissions. But along with that headline-grabbing admission change, parent and school leaders are trying a different strategy: arming families with more information about a broader range of schools.

The kick off event to the application season — the annual principals forum where Aguirre spoke — has been tweaked to give parents face time with each school leader, and the district has changed the way schools market themselves to encourage parents to look beyond test scores.  

Efforts such as those may be crucial to moving the needle: School demographics will shift only if parents are willing to take a chance on a broader range of schools than they already do. In a typical year, stacks of applications pour in for just a few of the district’s most sought after schools, which set their own strict entrance criteria.

“That’s the tipping point that we’re at now, is actually trying out and actually attending schools where you don’t know anybody else,” said Kristen Berger, a member of the local Community Education Council who helped spearhead the admissions changes. “The first step in being comfortable is knowing what’s going on in the school.”

Encouraging parents to have an open mind may prove to be a challenge, with school reputations reinforced through word-of mouth on the playground, and studies that suggest parents consider race, alongside test scores, when it comes to picking a school for their children.  

Every fall, the application process in District 3 gets started with a principals forum. In previous years, school leaders would line up on stage and face questions from the audience, a process that often led to the district’s most sought-after schools hogging the spotlight.

This year was much different. A record crowd of about 350 parents crammed into the muggy auditorium of P.S. 180 Hugo Newman for the forum. The district superintendent, Ilene Altschul, rattled off “fun facts” about local middle schools.

“You will see now how much you don’t know about our middle schools, and what they offer,” the superintendent said as the night kicked off.

Parents were parceled out into groups of about 25 and settled into classrooms to meet with every school leader. They were handed pale yellow booklets with mini profiles of each middle school. Unlike the city’s handbooks, which highlight test scores and how many hopeful students applied to each school, the profiles allowed schools to list the curriculum they use, opportunities to take advanced courses, and extracurriculars such as  dance and cooking.

Osei Owusu-Afriyie, the principal of Frederick  Douglass Academy II, walked into a class full of parents with fliers advertising his school. He touted courses in computer science, robotics, and engineering, as well as seven advanced placement classes, before pivoting into a frank commentary on the city’s selective admissions process.

“What many schools will do is they will just screen out the students they have to teach,” he said. “But at our school — no matter where you come in at — we move you forward.”

City data shows teachers at Frederick Douglass drive students to make learning gains beyond even the district’s more sought-after schools. That progress is masked, however, in the number of students who come to the school already performing well below grade level and continue to earn low scores on tests. The school’s test scores hover right around the city average, but fall well below the district’s most selective schools, which serve mostly middle-class students. At Frederick Douglass, more than 80 percent of students come from low-income families.

Among the questions Afriyie faced was from a white woman who wanted to know: “How diverse is your school?” He encouraged her to look beyond the racial breakdowns, which show that only two percent of students are white.

Another parent followed up by asking whether Afriyie expected the makeup of the school to change much in the coming year with the district’s diversity plan in place.

“It all depends on whether people are willing to take chances,” he said. “Sitting within this community are really strong school options that if they take a chance to see, you’ll see it meets your needs and more.”

By the end of the night, parents had heard from leaders at each of the schools that will pilot admissions changes this year. Many parents approached at the event were leery to speak publicly after news footage of a heated debate over the district’s integration plan went viral this summer.

As they poured into the hallways, one mother said she was “surprised” that her interest had been piqued in more schools than she had expected.

“I did learn that you have to go and see them, and know the culture” of each school, another mom added.

Jason Abramson said afterward that he felt a sense of relief.

“It was like I could breathe deeply,” he said. “There are plenty of people who are going to be looking after your kids.”

Abramson has been stressing over school options for his twin sons, and the new integration plan only adds more questions to the process. Is he willing to allow his sons to commute on the subway? Will they be comfortable if they’re an extreme minority? Will they even get accepted to their top choices?

He called the desegregation efforts “long overdue,” even if it has added angst to the process of finding the right middle school.

“Something had to be done,” he said. “But as a parent, you want your child to get the best.”

School choice

Denver judge blocks school transportation provision added to Colorado law

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Sam Boswell, 7, all bundled up in his winter clothes, splashes his way to the school bus on May 12, 2010.

A Denver judge struck down a provision of a bill related to the education of youth in foster care that would have removed barriers to transportation for all students.

The transportation provision was an amendment added by Republican lawmakers late in the 2018 session. Soon after the bill was signed by Gov. John Hickenlooper, several Colorado school districts and the associations that represent them filed a lawsuit to block it.

In a ruling issued Friday, Denver District Court Judge David Goldberg found that the amendment violated rules in the Colorado constitution that require every bill to have a clear title that explains what the bill is about and to deal only with one subject.

The bill’s title was “Improving Educational Stability for Foster Youth,” and it seeks to improve graduation rates for foster youth by requiring child welfare officials and school districts to work out transportation to the student’s home district when that’s in the child’s best interest. It also creates flexibility around graduation requirements when students do change schools. Foster youth have the lowest four-year graduation rates in the state, much lower even than homeless youth and students whose parents are migrant workers.

The tacked-on language was added in the Republican-controlled State Affairs committee five days before the end of the session. It said that a school board “may furnish transportation” to students who are enrolled in the district but who live in another district. The provision applies to all students, not just those who are in the foster system. It also struck language from an existing law that requires the consent of the school district from which students are being bused.

The amendment language came straight from a separate bill about expanding school choice that had been killed by Democrats in the House the day before.

Many school districts opposed the transportation provision because they feared it would open the door for better-off districts to poach students and undermine the meaning of school district boundaries. Advocates for school choice argued the provision was good policy that would allow more students, especially those from low-income families, take advantage of opportunities. They also argued, apparently unconvincingly, that it was required for implementation of the foster youth portions of the bill.

The Donnell-Kay Foundation intervened in the case in defense of the law. (The Donnell-Kay Foundation is a funder of Chalkbeat. You can read our ethics policy here.)

In his ruling, Goldberg said this specific issue has never been litigated in Colorado before, and he relied in part on rulings from other states with similar requirements. Bills with broad titles, he wrote, can be construed broadly and encompass a range of issues as long as they have some connection to the title. But bills with narrow titles must be construed narrowly — and this amendment didn’t make the cut.

“The subject of House Bill 18-1306 is out-of-home placed students and efforts to ensure educational stability,” Goldberg wrote, while the amendment’s subject “is all students, with no qualifiers, conditions, restrictions, or reference to out-of-home placed students. … House Bill 18-1306 seriously modifies transportation for all students and is hidden under a title relating exclusively to out-of-home placed students.”

Goldberg ruled that the amendment is “disconnected” from the rest of the bill, and neither lawmakers nor the public had enough notice about its inclusion before passage.

That leaves the rest of the foster youth bill intact and advocates for expanded school choice facing an uphill battle in a legislature in which Democrats, who are more likely to give priority to school district concerns, now control both chambers.

This isn’t an abstract issue. In 2015, more than 150 students who lived in the Pueblo 60 district but attended school in higher-performing Pueblo 70 lost access to transportation when the city-based district ordered its neighbor to stop running bus routes through its territory.

Online Shopping

Jeffco launches universal enrollment site to make school choice easy

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat
Students in a social studies class at Bear Creek High School in Jeffco Public Schools read about Genghis Khan.

Starting Monday, parents in Colorado’s second-largest district will be able to shop online for schools and, once enrollment opens in January, apply to as many as they like.

The launch of Enroll Jeffco, following the path paved by Denver Public Schools, means some 86,000 students and their parents won’t have to go to individual schools during the work day and fill out paper forms if they want to apply somewhere other than their neighborhood school.

The online system cost about $600,000 to develop and operate for this school year. The district expects it to cost about half of that annually going forward.

Universal enrollment systems allow parents to compare and apply to traditional district-run schools, district schools with specialized programming or models, known in Jeffco as options schools, and charter schools with a single application on the same website. Universal enrollment systems are a key component of what some call the “portfolio model,” in which districts oversee a range of school types and parents vote with their feet. They’ve been controversial in places, especially when coupled with aggressive school accountability policies that lead to school closures.

In Jeffco Public Schools, which is more affluent than many Denver metro area districts, officials see the move to a single, online enrollment system as a valuable service for parents.

“Regardless of how people feel about it, we operate in a competitive school choice environment, both inside the district and outside the district,” Superintendent Jason Glass said. “That compels us to make thinking about that transaction, making people aware of the options and enrolling in our schools, as frictionless and easy as possible.”

Colorado law requires schools in any district to admit any student for whom they have room and for whom the district can provide adequate services, after giving priority to students who live in the district. But many districts still require paper applications at individual schools, and schools in the same district might not have the same deadlines. A recent report by the conservative education advocacy group Ready Colorado found that parents who use school choice are more likely to be white, middle- or upper-class, and English-speaking than the state’s student population. The authors argue that districts should streamline the enrollment process and consider providing transportation to make choice more accessible.

Jeffco isn’t rolling out new transportation options yet, but it might use data from the enrollment process, including a parent survey that is built into the website, to see if that’s desired or feasible. And officials believe strongly that the new online enrollment system will open up more opportunities for low-income parents and those who don’t speak English.

The website will provide information in the district’s six most commonly spoken languages and should be optimized for use on mobile phones. All parents will be required to use the system to express their preferences, including the majority of parents who want to stay in their neighborhood school, and the district is planning significant outreach and in-person technical assistance.

We believe that if all parents are participating, it improves equity,” Glass said. “One of the things we struggle with is that upwardly mobile and affluent parents tend to be the ones who take advantage of school choice. We want all of our schools to be available to all of our families. We think being able to search through and make the enrollment process as easy as possible is an equity issue.”

But critics of universal enrollment systems worry that the ease of application will encourage parents to give up on neighborhood schools rather than invest in them.

Rhiannon Wenning, a teacher at Jefferson Junior-Senior High School, said the link between charter schools and open enrollment systems makes her distrustful, even as many of her students are using the choice process to stay at the school after rising home prices pushed them into other parts of the metro area.

“I understand parents want what is best for their child, but part of that as a citizen and a community member is to make your neighborhood school the school that you want it to be,” she said, calling the universal enrollment system an attack on public schools.

Joel Newton of the Edgewater Collective, which provides community support for lower-income schools in the eastern part of the district, said Enroll Jeffco will give the district much better data on which to base decisions, but he worries that Title I schools, which serve large numbers of students from low-income families, won’t be able to compete.

“With an online system like this, it really needs to be a level playing field,” he said. “And in my area, I’d much rather have resources going to curriculum and instructional aides to catch kids up than going into marketing support. But other areas can do that and they have these big, well-funded PTAs.”

Until now, parents have had to seek out information on each school’s website. The online portal starts by asking parents to enter their address and the grade in which they’re enrolling a student. It then displays the parents’ neighborhood school, with an option to explore alternatives. Each school page has extensive information, including a short narrative, descriptions of special programs like math, arts, or expeditionary learning, the school mascot, and the racial and economic breakdown of the student population. The intent, district spokesperson Diana Wilson said, is to let schools “tell their own story.”

Parents can select as many schools as they want when enrollment opens Jan. 22, and they’ll learn in mid- to late February where they got in. However, they have to commit within five days to one school, ending a practice by which parents in the know kept their options open through the summer months. District officials say this will help them plan and budget better.

Kristen Harkness, assistant director for special education in Jeffco, served on the steering committee that developed the system, and she’s also a parent in the district. Even as a district employee who thought she knew the process inside and out, she managed to miss a deadline for her son to be considered at another middle school.

She said that choosing between schools isn’t a matter of which schools are better but which are a better fit for a particular student. In her case, her son could have stayed at a K-8 or transferred to a combined middle and high school, with each option presenting a different kind of middle school experience. He’s happy at the K-8 where he stayed, she said, but parents and students should have the chance to make those decisions.

The new universal enrollment system is poised to give more families that chance. In the course of the rollout, though, there may be a few glitches.

“We’re doing all we can to look into the future and foresee any technical problems and design solutions to that proactively,” Glass said. “That said, this is our first time, and we ask for people’s patience.”