a bad rap

Parents of minority students criticize culture at top high school

City Councilman Charles Barron criticized Chancellor Cathie Black for failing to condemn a video posted by Stuyvesant High School students that used racial slurs. To Barron's right is Veronica Celestin, the mother of a Stuyvesant student.

Parents and politicians gathered today outside of prestigious Stuyvesant High School to condemn what they describe as a pattern of racial exclusion and insensitivity at the school.

The group was responding to an amateur rap video that shows four young white men — reportedly Stuyvesant students — using racial slurs. The video emerged after a former student at the school posted it to YouTube.

Recently critics have said that the city’s selective public schools don’t admit enough black and Hispanic students, and that the Department of Education hasn’t fully implemented its own anti-bullying program.

At today’s event outside of the ten-story school building in Lower Manhattan, several parents of students of color talked about their children’s experiences. Veronica Celestin, whose daughter Breanna found the video posted to Facebook, said they were disturbed by the “racist video.”

“This has been a very difficult and traumatic time for Breanna and our family,” said Celestin, reading softly from a typed statement.

Another Stuyvesant parent, Ruth Sowell, said that her child sometimes felt unwelcome at the school. Her son, Michael Bucaoto, is a Stuyvesant football player who is bi-racial.

“They didn’t treat him as an equal,” Sowell said. “He felt he had nowhere to go.”

The percentage of black and Hispanic students admitted to the city’s selective-enrollment schools has declined over the last decade. This year the city offered just 12 black students and 13 Hispanic students spots in the 2011 freshman class at Stuyvesant. Meanwhile, Asian students received 569 offers and white students received 179. In the 2008-2009 school year, just two percent of Stuyvesant’s 3,245 students were black and three percent were Hispanic.

Marge Feinberg, a spokeswoman for the DOE, said the department is improving its outreach to parents in communities where student enrollment in specialized schools is low. She also said that the department is looking into the rap video.

“We are investigating this incident and will take disciplinary action against those involved,” Feinberg said. No Stuyvesant administrators would comment on the video or confirm if any students have already been disciplined, but several students said the four boys in the video have been suspended.

City Councilman Charles Barron criticized Chancellor Cathleen Black today for failing to condemn the video. He also said the DOE should act immediately to send a message to students that harassment is unacceptable.

“This is not a case of ‘boys will be boys,’” Barron said. “This is a form of cyber harassment, cyber terrorism, cyber bullying.”

In 2007, the city launched an anti-bullying program for schools called Respect For All. Last month, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn announced an expansion of the program, which involves staff training and protocols for tracking and dealing with bullying and harassment.

But in a survey of 198 teachers released last month, only 28 said they believed the city’s anti-bullying efforts have been effective. The survey was part of a report published by the Sikh Coalition, the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund and the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU).

The report said that despite the city’s detailed anti-bullying plan, many students still don’t know how to report bias-based mistreatment and many schools still fail to investigate reports of harassment.

Feinberg disputed the results of the survey, saying it relies on a “tiny fraction of staff and grossly misrepresents the strides made by our schools.” She also said that every school has a designated staff member to whom students can report bias-related incidents and that 4,000 school employees have participated in a two-day Respect For All workshop.

Donna Lieberman, executive director of the NYCLU, said that the DOE should use the controversy over the video as a “teachable moment” about respect and ways to deal with harassment. But she added that racial imbalance in student enrollment can cause issues at schools.

“I think it’s generally agreed that Stuyvesant High School has a problem. There are very, very few African American students there,” Lieberman said. “And that number has dwindled over the last number of years from merely unacceptable to horrifically unacceptable.”

A Stuyvesant employee who asked not to be named said that the school could do more to promote diversity and discourage harassment.

“People here live in a state of denial,” said the employee, who was not a part of the press event. “Nothing’s done in a proactive way.”

Several students said that racial conflicts are uncommon at the school and the administration takes reports of bullying seriously. They also said that, after the video became public, the administration sent home a letter to families explaining the school’s policy on harassment.

“I don’t like how Stuyvesant is getting a bad name because of it,” said Mohammed Rahman, a sophomore at the school. “It was just kids fooling off.”

Rahman added that the students in the video deserved to be suspended. “They went overboard,” he said. “They really need to understand that racism isn’t accepted at school or in general life.”


To promote virtual schools, Betsy DeVos cites a graduate who’s far from the norm

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos spoke to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools in June.

If Betsy Devos is paying any attention to unfolding critiques of virtual charter schools, she didn’t let it show last week when she spoke to free-market policy advocates in Spokane, Washington.

Just days after Politico published a scathing story about virtual charters’ track record in Pennsylvania, DeVos, the U.S. education secretary, was touting their successes at the Washington Policy Center’s annual dinner.

DeVos’s speech was largely identical in its main points to one she gave at Harvard University last month. But she customized the stories of students who struggled in traditional schools with local examples, and in doing so provided an especially clear example of why she believes in virtual schools.

From the speech:

I also think of Sandeep Thomas. Sandeep grew up impoverished in Bangalore, India and experienced terrible trauma in his youth. He was adopted by a loving couple from New Jersey, but continued to suffer from the unspeakable horrors he witnessed in his early years. He was not able to focus in school, and it took him hours to complete even the simplest assignment.

This changed when his family moved to Washington, where Sandeep was able to enroll in a virtual public school. This option gave him the flexibility to learn in the quiet of his own home and pursue his learning at a pace that was right for him. He ended up graduating high school with a 3.7 GPA, along with having earned well over a year of college credit. Today, he’s working in finance and he is a vocal advocate for expanding options that allow students like him a chance to succeed.

But Thomas — who spoke at a conference of a group DeVos used to chair, Advocates for Children, in 2013 as part of ongoing work lobbying for virtual charters — is hardly representative of online school students.

In Pennsylvania, Politico reported last week, 30,000 students are enrolled in virtual charters with an average 48 percent graduation rate. In Indiana, an online charter school that had gotten a stunning six straight F grades from the state — one of just three schools in that positionis closing. And an Education Week investigation into Colorado’s largest virtual charter school found that not even a quarter of the 4,000 students even log on to do work every day.

The fact that in many states with online charters, large numbers of often needy students have enrolled without advancing has not held DeVos back from supporting the model. (A 2015 study found that students who enrolled in virtual charters in Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin did just as well as similar students who stayed in brick-and-mortar schools.) In fact, she appeared to ignore their track records during the confirmation process in January, citing graduation rates provided by a leading charter operator that were far higher — nearly 40 points in one case — than the rates recorded by the schools’ states.

She has long backed the schools, and her former organization has close ties to major virtual school operators, including K12, the one that generated the inflated graduation numbers. In her first week as education secretary, DeVos said, “I expect there will be more virtual schools.”

expansion plans

Here are the next districts where New York City will start offering preschool for 3-year-olds

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, left, and Mayor Bill de Blasio, center, visited a "Mommy and Me" class in District 27 in Queens, where the city is set to expand 3-K For All.

New York City officials on Tuesday announced which school districts are next in line for free pre-K for 3-year-olds, identifying East Harlem and the eastern neighborhoods of Queens for expansion of the program.

Building on its popular universal pre-K program for 4-year-olds, the city this year began serving even younger students with “3-K For All” in two high-needs school districts. Mayor Bill de Blasio has said he wants to make 3-K available to every family who wants it by 2021.

“Our education system all over the country had it backwards for too long,” de Blasio said at a press conference. “We are recognizing we have to reach kids younger and more deeply if we’re going to be able to give them the foundation they need.”

But making preschool available to all of the city’s 3-year-olds will require an infusion of $700 million from the state or federal governments. In the meantime, de Blasio said the city can afford to expand to eight districts, at a cost of $180 million of city money a year.

Funding isn’t the only obstacle the city faces to make 3-K available universally. De Blasio warned that finding the room for an estimated 60,000 students will be a challenge. Space constraints were a major factor in picking the next districts for expansion, he said.

“I have to tell you, this will take a lot of work,” he said, calling it “even harder” than the breakneck rollout of pre-K for all 4-year-olds. “We’re building something brand new.”

De Blasio, a Democrat who is running for re-election in November, has made expansion of early childhood education a cornerstone of his administration. The city kicked off its efforts this September in District 7 in the South Bronx, and District 23 in Brownsville, Brooklyn. More than 2,000 families applied for those seats, and 84 percent of those living in the pilot districts got an offer for enrollment, according to city figures.

According to the timeline released Thursday, the rollout will continue next school year in District 4 in Manhattan, which includes East Harlem; and District 27 in Queens, which includes Broad Channel, Howard Beach, Ozone Park and Rockaways.

By the 2019 – 2020 school year, the city plans to launch 3-K in the Bronx’s District 9, which includes the Grand Concourse, Highbridge and Morrisania neighborhoods; and District 31, which spans all of Staten Island.

The 2020 – 2021 school year would see the addition of District 19 in Brooklyn, which includes East New York; and District 29 in Queens, which includes Cambria Heights, Hollis, Laurelton, Queens Village, Springfield Gardens and St. Albans.

With all those districts up and running, the city expects to serve 15,000 students.

Admission to the city’s pre-K programs is determined by lottery. Families don’t have to live in the district where 3-K is being offered to apply for a seat, though preference will be given to students who do. With every expansion, the city expects it will take two years for each district to have enough seats for every district family who wants one.