class size goes to court

After years of complaints, union sues city over class size dollars

UFT President Michael Mulgrew announces the union's lawsuit charging that the DOE misused funds allocated to reduce class size.
UFT President Michael Mulgrew announces the union's lawsuit. Behind Mulgrew are, from left to right, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, NAACP NY President Hazel Dukes, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer and Yolanda Morales, a plaintiff in the suit.

The city teachers union, along with a coalition of parents and advocacy groups, sued the Department of Education this morning, charging it with not spending allocated state money on reducing class sizes.

Since 2007, the state has allocated nearly $761 million for class size reduction, yet class sizes in schools across the city have risen over the past two years.

The lawsuit accuses the DOE of causing the class size increase by willfully misusing those funds.

“As far as we are concerned, this is deliberate,” UFT President Michael Mulgrew said in a press conference at union headquarters this morning.

“New York City how has the highest class sizes in New York State,” Mulgrew said. “$760 million, for what?”

The lawsuit, filed this morning in the State Supreme Court in the Bronx, was brought by a coalition of parents, activist groups, the UFT, the New York chapter of the NAACP and the Hispanic Federation.

“The charges are without merit,” DOE Press Secretary David Cantor said.

Class size is one of six areas the state money is supposed to target as part of a legal agreement known as the Contracts for Excellence. The state has allocated the targeted funding since 2007 as part of a settlement of a lawsuit brought by the Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE), which charged that the state was underfunding city schools.

(The UFT was not a plaintiff in the original CFE suit, although the union did file a brief in support of the plaintiffs and then-union president Randi Weingarten testified in the case.)

City officials and their critics have been arguing over how to explain rising class sizes in the city for several years. DOE officials have repeatedly said state class size reduction funds have been included in principals’ budgets, but the city’s wider budget cuts have caused principals to reduce teaching staff anyway.

Nevertheless, city officials argue the state funds have prevented class sizes from growing even more.

At the press conference today, Mulgrew disputed that argument, saying a pattern of class size increases began before the fiscal crisis that led to widespread budget reductions.

The city first reported an increase in class sizes last school year, when class sizes in all grades grew by fractions of a point, with the largest increases happening in early grades. This school year, the jump in class size across all grades was substantially bigger.

DOE officials sent out a table today highlighting that average class sizes in all grades except kindergarten have decreased since the 2001-02 school year, the year before Mayor Michael Bloomberg assumed control over the school system.

But critics say those numbers mask larger class size increases in many high needs schools. Even before the city’s average class sizes began to rise, a state report showed that more than half of city schools reported increases in either their class size or student-teacher ratios.

Mulgrew also criticized the DOE’s defense that principals have discretion to spend funds on Contracts for Excellence programs other than class size reduction, saying it is Chancellor Joel Klein’s responsibility to ensure the money is spent on this issue.

“You cannot pass the buck,” he said.

Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, who joined the lawsuit’s plaintiffs at the press conference today, said the DOE’s approach to allocating state funds to schools without monitoring how they are used was unacceptable.

“It sounds like a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy,” he said.

A DOE official said that schools with high class sizes are actively instructed to use the state funds on class size reduction, and once a principal commits in their budget to using the funds to hire new teachers, the DOE’s budget system won’t allow them to divert the funds elsewhere.

Plaintiffs said the suit is a last resort after years of lobbying the DOE to properly dedicate the money. Leonie Haimson, executive director of Class Size Matters, one of the plaintiffs, has called on the state to withhold Contracts for Excellence funds until the city commits specifically to reducing class sizes.

Data provided by the Department of Education
Average class sizes from 2001 to 2010. Table provided by the Department of Education.

UPDATE: This post originally incorrectly stated that Mayor Michael Bloomberg assumed control over the city schools during the 2001-02 school year. The original mayoral control law was passed in June 2002 and so took effect the 2002-03 school year; the post has been updated to correct the error.

pre-k for all

New York City will add dual language options in pre-K to attract parents and encourage diversity

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Schools Chancellor Carmen FariƱa, back right, visits a Mandarin pre-K dual language program at P.S. 20 Anna Silver on the Lower East Side.

Education Department officials on Wednesday announced the addition of 33 dual language pre-K programs in the 2018-19 school year, more than doubling the bilingual opportunities available for New York City’s youngest learners.

The expansion continues an aggressive push under the current administration, which has added 150 new bilingual programs to date. Popular with parents — there were 2,900 applications for about 600 pre-K dual language seats last year — the programs can also be effective in boosting the performance of students who are learning English as a new language.

Another possible benefit: creating more diverse pre-K classrooms, which research has shown are starkly segregated in New York City.

Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña said the new programs reflect the city’s commitment to serving all students, even as a national debate rages over immigration reform.

“It’s important to understand that immigrants or people who speak a second language are an asset,” Fariña said. She called bilingual education “a gift that I think all schools should have.”

Included in the expansion are the city’s first dual language pre-K programs in Bengali and Russian, which will open in Jamaica, Queens, and the Upper West Side, Manhattan, respectively. The other additions will build on programs in Spanish, Mandarin and Italian. Every borough is represented in the expansion, with 11 new programs in Manhattan, nine in Brooklyn, six in Queens, five in the Bronx, and two on Staten Island.

In the dual-language model, students split their time between instruction in English and another language. At P.S. 20 Anna Silver, where the recent expansion was announced, pre-K students start the morning in English and transition to Mandarin after nap time. Experts say the model works best when the class includes an equal mix of students who are proficient in each language so they can learn from each other as well as the teacher, though it can often be difficult to strike that balance.

Officials and some advocates view dual-language programs as a tool for integration by drawing middle-class families eager to have their children speak two languages into neighborhood schools that they otherwise may not have considered. Research has shown that New York City’s pre-K classrooms tend to be more segregated than kindergarten. In one in six pre-K classrooms, more than 90 percent of students are from a single racial or ethnic background. That’s compared with one in eight kindergarten classrooms, according to a 2016 report by The Century Foundation.

Sharon Stapel, a mother from Brooklyn, said she knew early on that she wanted her daughter to learn another language and strike relationships across cultures. So she travels to the Lower East Side with her four-year-old, Finch, to attend the Mandarin dual-language pre-K program at P.S. 20 Anna Silver. On Wednesday, the city announced it will add a Spanish dual language program at the school.

“We really see it as how you build community with your neighbors and your friends,” Stapel said. “It was also an opportunity for Finch to become involved and engage in the cultures and in the differences that she could see in the classrooms — and really celebrate that difference.”

Citywide, about 13 percent of students are learning English as a new language. That number does not include pre-K since the state does not have a way to identify students’ language status before kindergarten. However, based on census data, it is estimated that 30 percent of three- and four-year-olds in New York are English learners.

Dual-language programs can benefit students who are still learning English — more so than English-only instruction. Nationally and in New York City, students who are learning English are less likely to pass standardized tests and graduate from high school. In one study, students who enrolled in dual-language courses in kindergarten gained the equivalent of one year of reading instruction by eighth grade, compared with their peers who received English-only instruction.

The city has been under pressure to improve outcomes for English learners. Under the previous administration, New York City was placed on a state “corrective action plan” that required the education department to open 125 new bilingual programs by 2013. Though the city fell short of that goal, the current administration has agreed to place every English learner in a bilingual program by the 2018-19 school year.

Among the greatest barriers to achieving that is finding qualified teachers, Fariña said. In some cases, it can be hard to find teachers who are fluent in the target language. In others, teachers who are native in a foreign language may only be certified in their home country, and it can be hard to transfer that certification to New York.

In order to open an Urdu program recently, Fariña said, the teacher, who holds a degree from another country, went through Teaching Fellows, an alternative certification program that usually caters to career-changers or recent college grads.

“I think the biggest challenge we have right now is ensuring our teacher preparation courses are keeping up with our need and demand for teachers who can teach another language,” she said.

college plans

As Washington decides their fate, ‘Dreamers’ preparing for college are stuck in limbo

PHOTO: Joe Amon/The Denver Post
Randi Smith, a psychology teacher at Metro State University, marched to support Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals during a citywide walkout in downtown Denver, CO.

While many high schoolers spend spring of their senior year coasting through classes and waiting to hear back from colleges, undocumented students who hope to attend college spend their time calling lawyers, consulting school counselors, and scouring the internet in search of ways to pay for school without the help of federal financial aid or student loans — assuming they even get in.

That process, anxiety-provoking even in a normal year, has become incalculably more chaotic this admissions season — even traumatic — as these young undocumented immigrants watch President Trump and lawmakers wrangle over Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the program that has until now allowed them to remain in the country without having to fear deportation.

As the policy battle nears a climax, these students aren’t just breathlessly waiting to learn whether they’ll be accepted into college — they’re waiting to see whether they have a future in this country.

“It’s different for me. It’s definitely more stressful and there are times when you want to give up,” said an undocumented student at KIPP NYC College Prep High School, who is graduating this year and applying to colleges. She requested anonymity because of her legal status. “But then I remind myself that regardless of what’s going on, I’m still going to do what I’ve set myself to do.”

High school counselors are also feeling the strain. They already faced the difficult task of helping undocumented students compete for private scholarships, and finding schools that will support those students once they’re on campus. Now those counselors also must monitor each twist and turn of the immigration debate in Washington, while, somehow, trying to keep their undocumented students focused on college.

One of those counselors is John Kearney, who works at Guadalupe Centers Alta Vista High School, a charter school in Kansas City, Missouri. Dozens of his soon-to-graduate students are beneficiaries of DACA, a program created under former President Obama that allows undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country as children to avoid deportation and work here legally. Lately, they have been asking him why they should even consider college when their fate in the U.S. is so uncertain.

“The big question is, ‘Why? Why go to college, and then I can’t even work, then why?’” said Kearney, who also helped start a nonprofit that provides scholarships to undocumented students. “It’s a really tough question.”

As of Friday, President Trump and lawmakers were still locked in heated negotiations over DACA, which Trump said this fall that he would eliminate unless Congress enshrined it in law. Without an agreement, it is set to expire March 5, just as graduating seniors firm up their college plans. If that happens, young immigrants, often called Dreamers, could lose the few crucial protections they have. For many, their DACA status has already lapsed.

Even with DACA’s protections, Dreamers face massive hurdles to enroll in college: They don’t qualify for federal aid or loans, and, in some states, are barred from receiving financial aid or even attending public universities. Out of the estimated 65,000 undocumented students who graduate from high school every year, only 5-10 percent enroll in college.

Following Trump’s announcement in September, counselors have also had to race against the clock counting down to DACA’s expiration: That meant juggling college application deadlines with the October cutoff for students to apply for renewed DACA status.

The KIPP charter school network received a donation this year to help students pay for the renewal fee, which has been a godsend for many students — including the young woman who is graduating from KIPP NYC College Prep High School.

As soon as she learned the school would pay the fee for her, she immediately called her father, who is also undocumented and repairs beauty-salon equipment for a living.

“My dad was definitely trying to round up the money before the deadline, so it was a blessing that the school was able to find a donor,” she said. “I told him not to worry about it and it was a relief — like a weight off his shoulders.”

If the girl was trying to relieve her father’s stress, her college counselor, Rob Santos, was trying to do the same for her. Even as she balanced college-application essays, transcripts, and the rest, she was also coming to realize how quickly her life would change if DACA is not extended.

“There was definitely extra emotional support that I’ve had to provide this year,” Santos said. “I definitely had my DACA student in my office, and tears were happening.”

Santos keeps a running list of the colleges that accept students who don’t have permanent legal status and the few scholarships available to them. Many of those scholarships require undocumented students to have DACA status. If the program ends, it’s unclear whether students will still be eligible.

Still, Santos said his dreamer student rarely talks about the political furor surrounding her future in the U.S. as she awaits her college-acceptance letter. Instead, she’s more likely to discuss her hope of one day studying business and fashion.

“Our DACA students are resilient. They’re optimistic,” Santos said. “But they’re also realistic for what could actually happen.”