drying up

Students showcase tech innovations as federal funding ends

Congressman Charles Rangel visits students at the Innovation Celebration in Harlem.

A pool of federal funds that has enabled schools and teachers to get help adopting new technologies is drying up at the end of the summer.

By the end of August, the Department of Education will no longer receive a federal grant called Title II-D, which helped schools pay for technology training centers in each borough, online curriculum, iPads, laptops, and other tools.

The U.S. Department of Education decided to eliminate Title II-D funds last year after the Obama administration reorganized its education budget to cut programs considered to be inefficient. The administration slashed the $100 million budget for education technology.

That means the city may have to find another way to pay for its technology centers and school gizmos without more funding, which amounted to $22.5 million over three years.

“I think people are working on seeing if there could be some sort of sustained support, but there’s nothing that’s been formally announced,” said Lisa Nielsen, who runs the Manhattan section of the department’s Educational Technology office.

The Education Technology office distributes the grants across five boroughs and helps train teachers at the borough’s technology center and in classrooms. The office also help schools use funding to buy items that encourage technological innovations in the classroom, such as iPads.

Nielsen and nearly 25 department employees are also expected to lose their positions because of the cuts. They will enter the Absent Teacher Reserve pool after August 30, when the funding ends.

“The relevance of us is that we are really able to personalize support to each school. I don’t believe that the schools will be able to take on using technology well without this sort of support,” added Nielsen. “When you’re the technology liaison or the media library specialist in your school, there’s usually just one of you so you feel alone. This was an opportunity to bring everyone together, to share ideas.”

The Department of Education also uses the grant money to host monthly meetings so that technology representatives could come together to share the online programs they use in their schools and receive advice on how to improve their technological practices.

“I didn’t really know much about what was going on. It was a real connection with other schools,” said Roy Silverstein, who is the technology specialist at P.S. 6.

“I learned a lot about what the other schools were doing. The iPad was new to me, I wanted to see what more I could do with it,” added Gordon Fish, who represents P.S. 48. “I’ve always learned at least four or five new things when I came here.”

Fish became involved with the Title II-D grant when he attended the meeting and was able to get new equipment for his school.

Fish and Silverstein joined dozens of students as schools presented their work at the Harlem Renaissance Training Center on Wednesday. Students were excited to share what they’ve learned this year.

The students said their projects — which ranged from using FlipCams to record poetry readings and building book clubs around iPads — helped them gain skills and learn from their classmates.

“I was kind of low in science but since I used Khan Academy, I became interested in it because of the videos,” said Daniel Pacheco, speaking about the non-profit organization that creates educational videos. “I really understood the concept of the atom even though I’m only supposed to learn that in a few years.”

The fifth-grader learned how to write and speak English better after using iPad apps and the Kindle. He immigrated to the country from Ecuador when he was eight and barely spoke English.

His teacher, Virginia Liz, said she doesn’t need to be convinced that kids can benefit from incorporating technology in the classroom.

“I’m in a perfect spot to experiment with the new wave of learning,” said Liz, who teaches at P.S. 8. “We decided that we wanted to use technology to go further when I’m not there.”

Her students share iPads, mini laptops, and Kindles to read, learn from using educational apps, and search definitions of words they don’t understand. Liz said she uses the online programs to track students’ progress and push students forward even when their pace is faster or slower than that of the rest of their class.

“We read a lot and we write a lot,” added Liz. “That’s what I think is innovative about this, the fact that we’re taking learning into our own hands.”

For the last three years, the Manhattan Office of Educational Technology has partnered with a non-profit organization to help train teachers how to use technological gadgets and incorporate online curriculum in their lessons.

The organization, Teaching Matters, provides the online curriculum and sends “technology coaches” to the schools to work closely with teachers.

“Teaching can be very isolationist,” said John Clemente, who works for Teaching Matters. “Unless you provide a rigorous structure for them to share ideas with each other and provide time for them to talk about those things, the best teachers will do it on their own and the teachers that need support might not get the support.”

Clemente said schools could still work with his organization if they find room in their budgets next year, but he predicted some drop-off.

“When we don’t have an onsite presence, we get a slightly lower percentage of participation,” added Clemente.

Educators said the cuts are coming at exactly the wrong time.

“I just don’t understand why, when we’re supposed to be getting more technically efficient, they’re cutting these programs,” said Fish, the tech specialist at P.S. 48. “They’re spending all this money on technology but they just don’t have enough training for it.”

headcount

New York City school workforce grows, driven by 40 percent rise in teaching assistants

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
A teaching assistant worked with a pre-K student in East Harlem in 2014.

New York City’s public-school workforce grew 8 percent over the past decade, according to a new report, driven largely by the rising number of teaching assistants who work with preschool students and students with disabilities — two populations whose numbers have risen even as overall student enrollment declined.

The education department employed about 131,200 people this June — an increase of 10,200 workers since July 2007, according to an analysis by the city’s Independent Budget Office released Tuesday. The expansion comes even as student enrollment in district-run schools fell by 1.5 percent, or some 15,300 students, during that same period, the report notes.

While the number of teachers remained basically flat during that time, the department added nearly 8,600 additional teaching assistants, or “paraprofessionals,” as they’re known within the school system — an increase of over 40 percent.

“This is a story about the use of paraprofessionals — that’s the main thing,” said Yolanda Smith, a senior IBO analyst who prepared the report.

The majority of the paraprofessionals who were added during that period work with students with disabilities. Teachers union officials attributed the increase to a citywide effort since 2012 to place more students with disabilities in classrooms alongside their general-education peers, often with the support of a paraprofessional. (An education department spokesman said students are assigned paraprofessionals based on their unique needs.)

Nearly 2,000 of the paraprofessionals hired over the past decade work in pre-kindergarten classrooms, which are required to have both an assistant and a teacher. The number of assistants spiked after 2014, when Mayor Bill de Blasio rapidly expanded the city’s pre-K program.

Full-time paraprofessionals with a high school degree earn a starting salary of around $22,000. While the number of paraprofessionals focused on special-education and preschool students grew during this period, those assigned to general-education classrooms declined by roughly 1,100.

At the same time, the ranks of other school workers expanded 22 percent during this 10-year period. Those more than 2,200 additional employees include nurses, occupational and physical therapists, and “parent coordinators,” who answer families’ questions and help organize school events.

The number of teachers, principals, and assistant principals barely budged over that period, adding just over 500 additional workers. Union officials noted that there was a teacher hiring freeze from 2009 to 2014, but said that in recent years any new hires were essentially balanced out by teachers who retired or chose to leave the system.

Education department spokesman Will Mantell said in a statement: “We’re focused on recruiting and retaining talented staff that meet the needs of New York City students and families.”

Busing Ban

As school districts push for integration, decades-old federal rule could thwart them

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post
Several districts across the country want to use federal money to pay for school buses as part of their desegregation plans. A federal spending restriction could get in the way.

In Florida, officials plan to use federal money to shuttle students across vast Miami-Dade County to new science-themed magnet programs in a bid to desegregate several schools.

In South Carolina, a tiny district west of Myrtle Beach intends to spend federal funds on free busing for families who enroll at two predominantly black schools, hoping that will draw in white and Hispanic students.

And in New York, state officials want to deploy federal school-improvement money to help integrate struggling schools, believing that may be the secret to their rebirth.

But each of these fledgling integration efforts — and similar ones across the country — could be imperiled by obscure budget provisions written during the anti-busing backlash of the 1970s, which prohibit using federal funding for student transportation aimed at racial desegregation. The rules have been embedded in every education spending bill since at least 1974, as Rep. Bobby Scott of Virginia pointed out in September when he tried unsuccessfully to remove the provisions from the latest appropriations bill.

The rules are “a relic of an ugly history when states and school districts across the nation resisted meaningful integration,” said Scott, the top Democrat on the House education committee, during a floor speech where he called the persistence of the rules “morally reprehensible.”

After Scott’s amendment to eliminate the provisions was blocked, advocates are now working behind the scenes to convince members of the Senate from both parties to strike the rules from the latest spending bill during negotiations. More than 40 integration advocates and experts have signed onto a letter to lawmakers calling for the anti-busing language to be removed, and members of that coalition plan to meet with lawmakers in the coming days.

Advocates are especially worried about funding for magnet programs, like those in Miami and the South Carolina district, which rely on special science or art offerings or rigorous academic courses to draw students of different races into the same school — a choice-based approach that has become the primary way districts now pursue desegregation.

This is the first year districts that receive federal magnet-school grants are allowed to spend some of that money on transportation, after Congress changed the rules as part of its education-law overhaul in 2015. Among the 32 districts that received a total of nearly $92 million in magnet grants this year, at least six plan to use some of that money for transportation, according to their applications.

Now, just as those funds are about to flow to busing — which many families insist upon before they will enroll their children in magnet schools across town — the decades-old spending restriction could cut them off, advocates warn.

That could create a major problem for districts like Miami-Dade County.

It hopes to attract students from across the district to three heavily black and Hispanic schools by launching magnet programs that focus on zoology, cybersecurity, and mobile-app development, according to its application. To pull that off, it requested $245,000 for buses next year since, as the application notes, the “most limiting factor” for many families is “the cost associated with transporting their child to the magnet school.”

The district in Lake City, South Carolina wants to pull new families from different neighborhoods into an elementary school and a middle school that suffer from sagging enrollment and intense poverty. Previous recruitment efforts that didn’t provide transportation amounted to “failed attempts,” the district said in its application.

However, if the anti-busing provisions are not removed from the next federal spending bill, they would cancel out the new rule allowing those districts to spend some of their magnet money on transportation (though districts could still use local funds to fill in the gap). As such, magnet-school representatives are pushing hard for lawmakers to remove the provisions during budget negotiations.

“We’re hoping this doesn’t see the light of day,” said John Laughner, legislative and communications manager at Magnet Schools of America, an association of magnets from across the country. He plans to discuss the issue with lawmakers next week.

Beyond magnet schools, other desegregation efforts could be undercut by the anti-busing provision, which was included in a spending bill for fiscal year 2018 that the House approved and one the Senate has yet to vote on.

At least one state — New York — listed socioeconomic and racial integration among the ways it could intervene in low-performing schools under the new federal education law. In addition, New York officials announced a grant program this week where up to 30 districts will receive federal money to develop integration plans.

Advocates fear the anti-busing rule could disrupt any of those plans that require transportation and aim to reduce racial segregation. (New York education officials said they did not want to speculate on the impact of a spending bill that hasn’t been approved.)

A Democratic Congressional aide who has studied the issue said the provision could even block federal funding for planning or public outreach around desegregation programs that involve busing, not just busing itself.

Either way, advocates say the provision could dissuade districts from using the new education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, to pursue integration — even though research suggests that student achievement on tests and other measures improve when they attend less segregated schools.

“We shouldn’t have this,” said Philip Tegeler, a member of the National Coalition on School Diversity, which is leading the charge to remove the restriction. He added that the provision stemmed from mandatory desegregation busing of an earlier era: “It’s clearly an anachronism that doesn’t really fit any more with what states and districts are doing voluntarily.”

A U.S. education department spokeswoman said Secretary Betsy DeVos would be bound to enforce any funding prohibitions that Congress approves, though she noted that state and local funds are not subject to the same restrictions.

Negotiators from the House and Senate must still agree on a single spending bill, which would go before the full Congress for a vote. Until then, lawmakers have voted to temporarily extend 2017 spending levels through December. It’s possible Congress will pass another extension then, meaning a final deal — and a decision on the anti-busing language — may not arrive until early next year.

In the meantime, advocates are pressing lawmakers like Sen. Lamar Alexander, the Republican chairman of the Senate education committee who helped craft ESSA, with the argument that the anti-busing provision limits the flexibility and local control the law was meant to provide districts.

Margaret Atkinson, a spokeswoman for the senator, would not say whether he is open to removing the provision, but said he would continue working to ensure ESSA “is implemented as Congress intended.”

The anti-busing language — found in two sections of the current appropriation bills — prohibits using federal funds for transportation “to overcome racial imbalance” or “to carry out a plan of racial desegregation,” or forcing students to attend any school other than the one closest to home. (A separate education law contains a similar restriction, but ESSA exempted magnet schools from it.) The provisions emerged in the early 1970s, just after the Supreme Court ruled that busing students to schools outside their own racially isolated neighborhoods was an appropriate tool for school desegregation.

At the time, many white parents raged against what they called “forced busing.” In response, the U.S. House of Representatives passed at least one law annually from 1966 to 1977 meant to curb school integration, according to historian Jason Sokol, and in 1974 the full Congress voted in favor of an anti-busing amendment to an education bill. The restrictions in the current spending bills appear to have originated around the same time.

The attacks on busing reflect how crucial free transportation is to school desegregation, said Erica Frankenberg, a professor at Pennsylvania State University who studies segregation. Busing was included in guidelines outlining how districts should comply with desegregation requirements in the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and later upheld by the Supreme Court, she pointed out.

More recently, studies have shown that non-white parents are more likely to opt into magnet schools when they provide transportation, and that magnets that don’t offer busing are more likely to enroll students of a single race, Frankenberg said. Yet, many politicians remain reluctant to endorse busing for desegregation — which may reflect a deeper ambivalence, she added.

Resistance to busing, she said, “is a very politically acceptable way to be opposed to integration.”