word of the day

At a city school, Stephen Colbert earnestly reports on new grant

Stephen Colbert appeared at Manhattan Bridges High School this morning to announce a $4 million grant that will help teachers buy supplies.
Stephen Colbert appeared at Manhattan Bridges High School this morning to announce a $4 million grant that will help teachers buy supplies.

The comedian Stephen Colbert took time out from his regular ranting to conduct a polite, earnest interview at a Manhattan high school this morning, in an appearance meant to announce a new “citizen philanthropy” project by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The foundation is giving $4.1 million to a Web site that connects private donors with classroom teachers who need extra supplies, DonorsChoose.org, .

Colbert, who sits on the site’s board, made the announcement in the style of his televised interviews, before an audience of students at Manhattan Bridges High School, but without any of his usual mean comments. (He did draw laughs with an awkward attempt to use Spanish, the native language of many Bridges students, to explain that he was a “perdedor gigante,” or giant loser, when he was in high school.) The panel he interviewed included Vicki Phillips, the head of Gates’ education division; DonorsChoose founder Charles Best; and a Manhattan Bridges English teacher.

The Gates money will be disbursed to teachers who apply for small grants through DonorsChoose’s existing “Double Your Impact” program, which allows foundations and companies to earmark donations for specific kinds of projects. When a DonorsChoose user views projects that fall into that category, they appear as already being 50 percent funded. The Gates Foundation money will go to support as many as 17,000 projects that are identified by DonorsChoose as boosting students’ readiness for college, one of the new goals the foundation adopted after it re-considered its mission last year.

Phillips suggested that SAT prep classes and trips to visit colleges listed by teachers on DonorsChoose would be eligible for Gates “Double Your Impact” funding. Elizabeth Smith, the tenth-grade English teacher on the panel, said DonorsChoose helped her pay for a $200 set of workbooks to help students in a Saturday “College Bound” program learn how to write college application essays. In the future, such a purchase would qualify for Gates funding.

But the topic of college readiness didn’t come up often during the event, even after Phillips asked Colbert to make “college-ready” the word of the day, in a nod to a recurring feature on the comedian’s “Colbert Report” television show. Asked to name the most memorable projects DonorsChoose has helped fund, Best listed a hunting safety classes in Texas and a garden in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park that a teacher maintains to memorialize a student who was killed while walking to school.

When a student asked Colbert what resources would have improved the schools that he attended in South Carolina, the comedian said that art supplies and more books would have made a difference. (The comedian graduated from a private Christian school.) But it’s not yet clear whether requests for those resources could be eligible for the Gates matching funds.

Arts programs “might be a little bit of a stretch,” Best said, adding that if a teacher “clearly explained” how an arts initiative helped prepare students for college, it might be eligible for the matching funds. Then he looked to Phillips on his left and said with a smile, “We’d like it to be eligible.”

Colbert said that his involvement with DonorsChoose began on a tip from Craig Newmark, the founder of Craigslist. When Colbert announced his presidential candidacy in South Carolina in October 2007, he had his fans donate to DonorsChoose instead of to his “campaign,” which was a comedy stunt. He raised $68,000 for the organization.

Getting the diploma

New York eases graduation requirements for students with disabilities

Parent rally outside the state education building for more diploma options. (Courtesy Betty Pilnik)

In a significant change to New York’s graduation requirements, students with disabilities will soon be able to earn an alternative diploma without passing any of the state’s exit exams.

Instead, the state will allow them to replace a minimum score on the Regents exams with a work-readiness credential, which they can earn through work experience and vocational classes or by passing an exam that assesses entry-level work skills.

Supporters, including parents who lobbied for the rule change, say it is a reasonable way to prevent students with disabilities from missing out on a diploma because of low test scores. But critics have argued the policy would lower the state’s graduation standards.

On Monday, when the state Board of Regents approved the change as an “emergency measure,” state officials tried to preempt any suggestion that the change would water down the standards.

“We’re not saying that they have to do less. We’re saying that the standards are the same and the requirements are the same,” said Angelica Infante-Green, a deputy education commissioner, during the Regents’ monthly meeting. “What we’re talking about is, if you have a disability that precludes you from actually passing the exam, or demonstrating what you know with the current exams, this is the mechanism to do it.”

A Regents committee voted in favor of the rule Monday after it was added to their meeting agenda without prior notice or public comment — prompting an outcry from at least one education advocacy group. If the full board signs off Tuesday, the change will go into effect immediately, enabling students to graduate under the new requirements as early as next month.

The state currently grants different types of high-school diploma. A traditional “Regents” diploma requires students to pass four Regents exams. An alternative “local” diploma is available to certain students — including those with disabilities, who are still learning English, or who have struggled academically — who pass two exams or meet other requirements.

Students with disabilities only need a score of 55 (or 52, on appeal) on their math and English exams rather than the usual 65 to earn a local diploma. Under the new policy, they will not need to achieve any minimum score.

Instead, superintendents will review students’ work to check that it reflects appropriate knowledge of the material, students must pass their classes and participate in the exams. They will also have to earn a work-readiness credential called the Career Development and Occupational Studies Commencement Credential, or CDOS.

The credential, created in 2013 for students with disabilities, is meant to certify that students are ready for employment. There are two ways to earn it: One option allows students to complete 216 hours of vocational coursework and participate in job shadowing. The other lets students take an approved work-readiness exam, some of which have been criticized for lacking rigor.

It is unclear how many students would benefit from this new option. (Last year, only 418 students with disabilities took advantage of a “superintendent’s review” option allowing them to earn a local diploma by passing just the math and English Regents exams.) State officials have not estimated how many students may benefit from the new option but said they do not expect it to be a large number.

The policy is designed to help students like Lauren Elie and Brandon Pilnik, whose mothers were among the parents lobbying the state for years to change the graduation rules. After Monday’s vote, they burst into applause.

Brandon and Lauren, who are dating and each have a disability, are both one Regents exam shy of a diploma. Lauren, who missed the qualifying score on her English exam by one point, is working with kindergarteners as a teacher’s aide; Brandon is a musician who plays at a senior rehab center. Both have had to take internships instead of full-time jobs because they lack diplomas, their parents said.

“I was very excited, beyond excited,” said Betty Pilnik, Brandon’s mother, who has been fighting for the policy change for more than two years. “Anyone who knows Brandon knows that he deserves this.”

Ashley Grant, an attorney at Advocates for Children, said some of her organization’s clients have completed their required high-school courses but struggled to pass the exit exams. She said it was encouraging that the state is creating a route to graduation that bypasses the exams — which she does not consider to be the same as easing requirements.

“Simply removing the barrier of Regents exams doesn’t mean standards are being lowered,” she said.

But some proponents of strong state standards took the opposite view. Stephen Sigmund, executive director of the advocacy group High Achievement New York, who criticized the last-minute addition of the measure to the Regents’ agenda, noted that the latest graduation change comes just a year after the state created the “superintendents’ review” graduation option.

“The Regents shouldn’t make significant policy changes with an 11th hour and 59th minute addition to the agenda,” he said in a statement. “Removing another graduation requirement, demonstrating a minimum score on ELA and Math Regents exams, so soon after the last change is the wrong direction.”

The state will expected public comments on the new policy through Feb. 12. After that, the Regents are expected to vote on a permanent rule change in March.

Alex Zimmerman contributed reporting.

change up

Just as Lower East Side integration plan takes off, superintendent who helped craft it steps down

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Carry Chan, left, will become acting superintendent in District 1 when Daniella Phillips, right, leaves this month to join the central education department.

The longtime superintendent of the Manhattan community district where parents pushed for a plan to desegregate the local schools is stepping down just as the plan gets underway.

After a decade at the helm of District 1, which includes the Lower East Side and East Village, Superintendent Daniella Phillips is leaving to join the central education department, Chalkbeat has learned. During the yearslong campaign for an integration plan, Phillips acted as a liaison between parents and the education department, which finally approved a new admissions system for the district’s elementary schools this fall.

She will be replaced by Carry Chan, who has also played a role in the district’s diversity efforts as the interim head of a new Family Resource Center, an information hub to help district parents sort through their school options. Chan takes over as acting superintendent on Dec. 18.

The leadership change comes at a crucial time for the district, which also includes a portion of Chinatown. Parents are currently applying to elementary schools, marking the first admissions cycle under the new enrollment system. Under the system, schools give certain students admissions priority based on their economic status and other factors, with the goal of every elementary school enrolling share of disadvantaged students similar to the district average.

It will be up to the new superintendent to help schools recruit and welcome a greater mix of families, and to help steer parents towards a wider range of schools. Advocates hope the district can become a model for the city.

“There is a torch that needs to be carried in order to really, fully execute,” said Naomi Peña, president of the district’s parent council. “The next superintendent has to be a champion for the mission and the cause.”

During heated public meetings, Phillips tried to keep the peace while serving as a go-between for frustrated integration advocates and reluctant education department officials. The tensions sometimes boiled over, with advocates directing their anger at Phillips — though they were eventually won-over and endorsed the final integration plan.

In her new role, she will oversee school consolidations as part of the education department’s Office of School Design and Charter Partnerships. In District 1, Phillips helped steer three such mergers, which often involve combining small, low-performing schools with ones that are higher achieving.

“It has been such a joy and privilege to be District 1 superintendent for over 10 years, and I’m excited for this next chapter in the district and my career,” Phillips said in an emailed statement.

Chan is a former principal who launched the School for Global Leaders, a middle school that focuses on community service projects and offers Mandarin classes. Last year, she joined the education department’s Manhattan support center, where she helped schools form partnerships in order to learn from one another.

Since October, Chan has served as the interim director of District 1’s Family Resource Center, which is seen as an integral part of making the new diversity plan work. Families must apply for seats in the district’s elementary schools, which do not have attendance zones like other districts. The family center aims to arm families with more information about their options, in the hopes that they will consider schools they may not have previously.

“I think we’re all really passionate about this plan and we really want this to work,” Chan said. “Communication is the key, and being transparent with how we’re progressing with this work.”