Borough President Stringer enters the school closing fray

Tonight marks the beginning of school-closing-season: a 20-day race through mandatory public hearings at all of the schools before a grand showdown at the Panel for Educational policy meeting on January 26.

At the first meeting of the season, taking place tonight at the Academy of Environmental Science, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer is calling on Department of Education officials to prove that they tried various ways of helping the school succeed before declaring it failed. In his prepared remarks, he says:

Furthermore, Mayor Bloomberg, Chancellor Klein, and others at the DOE must own their role in a schools’ performance, whether it is good or bad. The Department’s Educational Impact Statements show that that 20 schools are failing to make the grade, but I do not see evidence of the measures that DOE has taken to get these schools on their feet. I do not see evidence of benchmarks that the DOE has set for itself to help move schools forward, benchmarks the Department should have to meet before it can make the decision to close a school.

The rest of his testimony follows:

Testimony of Manhattan Borough President

Scott M. Stringer

Regarding the Educational Impact Statement of the Proposed

Phase-Out and Eventual Closure of Academy of Environmental Science High School (04M635) and Co-location of Renaissance Charter High School for Innovation

January 5, 2010

We are here tonight to discuss the Department of Education’s proposal to phase out the Academy of Environmental Science, which the Department has said is failing its students.

Tonight is one of the first hearings under the new governance structure I and others called for, and which the legislature granted when it reauthorized mayoral control.  This hearing is a good thing.  Tonight, we stand with backing from the State to discuss changes that DOE has proposed to our schools.  It is, however, troubling that multiple hearings have been scheduled for the same time, making it impossible for PEP representatives like my appointee, Patrick Sullivan, to attend every hearing.  So the bad news is that this hearing will be meaningless if DOE refuses to consider altering its plans based on community input.

The Academy of Environmental Science is a part of the local community, and its history no more or less integral than a place of worship, a main street, or a hospital.  The school has a longstanding commitment to helping its students meet the challenges that will emerge as we move ever forward into a green economy. A team from the school won the Citywide Envirothon competition this past year. When students in this school learned of DOE’s plans to shut the doors, they marched up to 125th street, to speak with their local elected officials.

The Academy of Environmental Science has educated thousands of East Harlem residents for the past three decades, and currently serves 450 students in grades 8 through 12. 11 percent of these students are English language learners.  An additional twenty percent of the school’s students receive special education services, 43 percent of whom are considered self contained or high needs students.  The school has had poor success rates according to DOE’s measures, though not the worst in the borough.

I believe that you have to respect the sweat equity of building a school over decades.  Closing schools should be the last resort — not a primary, reactive response to failure.  School closures come at a high cost, not the least of which is the destabilization of communities and weakening of parent engagement. A report released by the New School shows further fallout from closing schools in recent years, including:

  • The displacement and discharge of English language learners, special education students, and other “at-risk” students who are left with inadequate support to find a school with the appropriate specialized services when their schools close;
  • The demise and eventual collapse of other large city high schools, which have the capacity to offer crucial specialized services and vocational training for our kids at greatest risk of dropping out.

I do not come here tonight with the expectation that the city’s skyline will never change, or the belief that every school should always remain open.  I simply want criteria, rationale, and transparency before the City adopts changes. For example, the Educational Impact Statements that DOE released for these schools show detailed measures of the schools’ progress, which contribute to the Department’s decision to shut them down.  Yet the accuracy of these measures has been questioned, raising concerns about how and why the decision to phase out each school has been made.

Furthermore, Mayor Bloomberg, Chancellor Klein, and others at the DOE must own their role in a schools’ performance, whether it is good or bad.  The Department’s Educational Impact Statements show that that 20 schools are failing to make the grade, but I do not see evidence of the measures that DOE has taken to get these schools on their feet.  I do not see evidence of benchmarks that the DOE has set for itself to help move schools forward, benchmarks the Department should have to meet before it can make the decision to close a school.

The DOE owes the Academy of Environmental Science and the 19 other schools on the chopping block a transparent and comprehensive explanation as to how it determined that it has no choice but to shut down each of these schools.

If DOE moves forward with this plan, at a minimum, it should provide a clear indication as to what concrete plans have been put in place to address the costs that will come from closing these schools, including:

1.   Releasing Educational Impact Statements that include information about the steps DOE took to save schools before making the decision to close them;

2.   An explanation of the supports and systems the Department has put in place for ELLs, Special Education and high needs students, so when it closes these 20 schools, they are not left hung out to dry, as they have been to date;

3.   A clear plan for implementing support in receiving schools that will experience increased levels of enrollment, so they do not find themselves in the same position as the school that closed, and we do not find ourselves together in an auditorium this time, next year, having the same discussion.

We do not want our kids to be victims of the status quo.

We also do not want them to be victims of reactive DOE policies that look great on paper, but which in the long run do more damage than good.  I know that the Chancellor likes to think of himself as a CEO.  But shutting down a neighborhood school and asking families to rebuild relationships that may go back decades is not the same as shutting down a McDonald’s franchise and asking customers to go around the corner to a Burger King.

True accountability includes a willingness by DOE to be transparent about the actions it has taken to help schools with the challenges they face, and to acknowledge its responsibility when it fails to meet benchmarks to help schools progress.  In the long run, this is what is in the best interest of our kids, and it is the best way to support those charged with helping them become engaged learners, and strong participants in our democracy.

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.”