Hot Topic

Manhattan parents decry proposal designed to diversify city’s most sought-after high schools

PHOTO: Reema Amin/Chalkbeat
Attendees of a District 2 Community Education Council meeting listen as people speak out against a city plan to scrap the admissions test for specialized high schools.

Manhattan parents expressed outrage Monday night over Mayor Bill de Blasio’s controversial plan to overhaul admissions at some of the most sought-after high schools in New York City.

At least 300 people attended District 2’s Community Education Council meeting, where Deputy Chancellor Josh Wallack formally presented the city’s plan to get rid of the test that middle school students can take to gain admission to eight of the city’s specialized high schools.

In June, De Blasio announced his plan to phase out the test and instead guarantee a spot to the top 7 percent of students at every city middle school, using multiple measures including their GPAs and performance on state tests. Because the city’s middle schools are starkly segregated by race, the proposal would significantly increase the proportion of black and Hispanic students who are admitted. For the proposal to go through, it would require a change in state law.

Black or Hispanic students make up 10 percent of the enrollment at the city’s specialized high schools but represent almost 70 percent of students citywide. Critics have said basing admission on a single test advantages students who can afford test prep or are keenly aware of how important the exam is.

But many parents pushed back, including Asian families who have lobbied to keep the test (though one group supports getting rid of the exam). Asian students represent about 62 percent of students at the specialized high schools and just 16 percent citywide.

In District 2, the plan has sparked hot debate. The Manhattan district, which stretches from the Upper East Side and through Soho to Tribeca, enrolls just 8 percent of the city’s eighth graders but accounts for almost 13 percent of admissions to specialized high schools.

After Wallack’s presentation, at least 30 parents spoke out against the plan, cheered each other on and booed Wallack. When a parent asked the crowd to raise their hands if they supported the proposal, not a single hand was visible (though one parent did speak in support of the plan). Several parents argued the plan would offer admission to students who are not qualified for the schools’ rigorous curriculum.

According to education department projections, the plan would not significantly affect the average GPA and state test scores of admitted students. And even among selective public high schools nationwide, the reliance of the city’s specialized high schools on a single, high-stakes exam for admission is highly unusual and has contributed, critics say, to New York City’s being one of the most segregated school systems in the country.

Others, who acknowledged how segregated the system is, urged more investment in black and Hispanic students to improve their academic opportunities and characterized the plan as a well-intended proposal that will flop. Some said the plan will create a “snake pit” among middle schoolers, who will resort to vicious competition.

“Put yourself in the place of the black and Hispanic kids who are there because of counting methods,” said Jon Haidt, a professor of social psychology at New York University, who has a seventh-grader at The New York City Lab School for Collaborative Studies.

Alan Siegel, also an NYU professor of computer science, said, “You people are proposing a grand experiment on our children.”

The continued backlash against the plan shows just how challenging the fight will be for de Blasio, who has only recently pushed for admission changes at specialized schools despite promising to do so when he first ran for mayor. Key officials, including local politicians and union leaders have not lined up in support, and it’s unclear whether state lawmakers will get behind the plan.

Wallack repeated the city’s intention for the proposal in between clusters of speakers, at one point saying, “We all share the same goals, and no one, of course, is trying to create a plan that will set students up to fail.” One parent yelled out, “Liar,” a couple of times in response. Another parent repeatedly shouted that the test is a fair solution. The meeting, which started at 6:30 p.m., lasted until 10 p.m — because the meeting space was reserved until then.

Even the Community Education Council was split on the issue. Vice President Maud Maron proposed a resolution that, in part, asks the city education department to pull its support of the proposal and allow more community engagement before anything goes forward. The language is sharply critical of the plan, a view some members of the council didn’t appear to share.

Although Maron found some support, others thought the language problematic. Council member Eric Goldberg said he heard “insane obsessions with selection and assessment” during the meeting, and that he didn’t want to vote for something that “denies the essential truth that we have a segregated school system.”

With a 5-5 tie vote, the resolution did not pass.

Alex Zimmerman contributed to this report.

cracking the code

Newark schools partner with Girls Who Code to expand access to coding clubs

PHOTO: Kei-Sygh Thomas/Chalkbeat
Students at announcement of Girls Who Code partnership with Newark Public Schools at Rafael Hernandez School

Starting in the spring, more Newark middle schoolers will be learning how to code, owing to a new partnership between Newark Public Schools and Girls Who Code. Schools Superintendent Roger León announced the initiative at Rafael Hernandez Elementary School on Thursday. The partnership will establish Girls Who Code clubs in 24 of the district’s middle schools, providing an introduction to coding skills to more than 3,000 girls.

“If we are serious about equity and opportunity, especially when it comes to communities of color, we have to teach them how to code,” said Reshma Saujani, the CEO of Girls Who Code. “I think it’s an opportunity to reach the hardest-to-reach communities.”

The initiative complements a push to increase computer science education statewide. In January, New Jersey passed a law requiring every public high school, starting this fall, to offer a computer science class. And in October, Governor Murphy committed $2 million to increasing the number of public high schools making advanced computer science classes available to students. Priority consideration will be given to schools that receive Title I funds.

Girls Who Code already offers clubs in six Newark schools, according to its website: Newark Tech High School, East Side High School, Barringer High Schools, TEAM Academy, Hawkins Street School, and First Avenue. The new partnership will increase that number and target middle schools exclusively.

By age 15, girls have often lost interest in math, science or technological subjects, according to one report. The program wants girls “to act or think like a computer scientist,” said Chrissy Ziccarelli, the director of education at Girls Who Code.

It also hopes to inspire girls to enter technology-related fields. The U.S. Bureau of Labor projects that there will be approximately 4.6 million computing jobs nationwide by the year 2020 but not enough people with the skills to fill those jobs.

“A majority of our girls want to take another computer science class after they participate in a club,” Ziccarelli said. Alumni of the program are also more likely to major in computer science, she said.

The challenge for districts, however, isn’t just exposing students to computers, says Darrin Sharif, Executive Director of Newark Kids Code, another organization that provides extra-curricular enrichment programs for Newark students, but also showing them how to use them. The Thirteenth Avenue School has two computer labs, for example. Rather, schools struggle to find teachers who are trained in how to teach computer science.  

“It’s not a digital divide, it is a digital use divide,” Sharif said.

According to a report by Code.org, universities in New Jersey only graduated three new teachers prepared to teach computer science in 2016. Because of the shortage in computer-science instructors, Girls Who Code will use volunteer facilitators, who are not required to have a technical background (and often do not). Their training consists of two, 15-minute videos to introduce the structure of the program.

The facilitators are then encouraged to learn alongside their female students by completing tutorials with them. The clubs in the new Newark Public Schools partnership will also have access to one club specialist, who has a technical background, whom facilitators can reach out to online or by phone for support.

Newark Kids Code is approaching the teacher shortage by working to tap more homegrown talent. “There is a lot of tech activity that is happening downtown, but there’s no connection to our schools at all. It may be a while before [NPS] can fill that gap,” Darrin Sharif said.  

To compensate, Newark Kids Code recruits computer science students from New Jersey Institute of Technology. These NJIT student facilitators then use curriculum from Code.org to teach six-hour workshops to elementary school students every Saturday at the Urban League’s headquarters for ten weeks. Students learn to develop websites, animations, and games with HTML and Scratch.

Stephanie Burdel has been teaching coding at Hawkins Street Elementary School for almost two years and attends “training” at Newark Kids Code on Saturdays, where she assists students, some of whom attend Hawkins and can observe the NJIT student facilitators. Burdel uses the time to learn best practices for teaching coding to her own students.

“I get extra engagement with students and see what problems they come across in the Scratch program,” Burdel said. “I learn what to do when students have problems when they’re coding and speak with the facilitators if I have questions.”

Last week, Burdel’s kindergarten and first-grade students participated in an Hour of Code, a national event designed to encourage interest in coding. She was amazed by how engaged students were. Burdel believes that learning to code in school can help students build character and improve in other subjects.

“I especially love seeing the little ones sitting and talking through the problems together,” she said. “You don’t think they have the capability especially with shorter attention spans. But they sat engaged the whole time and they loved it.”

Ana Quezada is one of Burdel’s students. She is 10 years old and sees herself becoming a programmer so she can understand computers to make them better.

“When I’m not able to figure something out on my own after ten minutes, I look around to see who can help me,” Ana said. “I ask them to explain it so I know how everything works.”

Kei-Sygh Thomas is a Newark-based journalist, who grew up and went to schools in the city.

Deadlines

Chicago school applications are due midnight Friday. Here’s your last-minute cheat sheet.

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff
At a fall open house, students at Benito Juarez Community Academy greeted visitors. As more students choose schools outside their neighborhood, schools have to work harder to impress families.

Families have until 11:59 pm Friday to apply to schools outside of their neighborhood through Chicago’s online portal, GoCPS.

On Thursday afternoon, wait times stretched nearly 10 minutes for callers to the Office of Access and Enrollment, which serves as a help-desk for GoCPS.

Families interested in options beyond their assigned neighborhood school must apply to attend magnet schools that draw students based on lottery, selective enrollment programs that require tests, and specialized programs such as dual-language or International Baccalaureate.

The application process is particularly fraught for students entering high school. Eighth-graders can choose from among 250 programs in nearly 150 high schools. Demand varies widely, with some schools receiving thousands of applications beyond what they can accommodate and others receiving too few.

While choosing a high school is serious business for students, their collective choices can become a do-or-die point for schools competing for a shrinking pool of students. The dozens of Chicago high schools labeled as under-enrolled risk falling into an unforgiving downward cycle. Schools losing enrollment also lose district revenue, which is doled out per student, and then they find it even more difficult to offer popular programs to appeal to applicants.  

Here’s some of our other coverage on the universal application system, which is now in its second year:

  • To see how many students applied to each high school last fall and compare it to the number of offers made this spring, click here.
  • To read how the race to impress students is leading high schools to behave more like small colleges, with swag bags, mariachi bands, and flashy brochures, click here.
  • To find our coverage of the first in-depth research report that evaluated the GoCPS system, click here. The system is mostly working as intended, according to an August report released by the University of Chicago Consortium of School Research and the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago. The majority of high school students who used GoCPS ultimately got one of their top three choices. But the study also disclosed problems that the district now faces: There are too many empty seats in high schools.
  • To follow-along in the discussion about high-quality neighborhood options, read this story about a recent meeting at Kelly High School, which we covered here.
  • To learn more about a controversial school inventory report made public in August that shows that fewer than half of Chicago students attend their designated neighborhood school, click here.
  • To look up the latest round of SAT scores by school, click here. To find our database of high school graduation rates, click here.