Big questions

Brooklyn parent council dives into debate on how to integrate middle schools

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
The District 15 Community Education Council on Tuesday debated a plan to integrate middle schools.

In December, City Councilman Brad Lander announced a proposal to reserve a percentage of seats in all District 15 middle schools specifically for low-income students.

Now comes the hard part: hashing out the details of what could ultimately become one of the city’s first district-wide school integration plans.

Lander has asked the district’s Community Education Council, made up of local parents, to cast a vote in support of his idea. But District 15 CEC members made it clear at a meeting on Tuesday that many concerns will have to be addressed before any plan moves forward.

Among the questions raised: What percentage of seats should be reserved for low-income students? Should there also be a ceiling on the percentage of poor students schools can serve? Could transportation be provided to make it easier on families to travel beyond their neighborhood schools?

Ultimately, those details could be the easiest to agree on. Larger questions — such as how to measure whether the initiative is a success and what diversity plans mean for the schools’ screening policies — could prove even more controversial.

“You can make the change and I’m just wondering, then what?” asked CEC member Marci Aronovitz, who nonetheless called the proposal “reasonable.”

District 15 middle schools are well poised for integration, with a student body that is roughly half black or Hispanic, 16 percent Asian and almost 30 percent white. The district’s choice policy, which allows students to apply to any middle school they choose, also increases the opportunity for students to leave their own neighborhoods.

Yet schools in the area are deeply stratified by race and class, with white students mainly attending the district’s three most selective schools — M.S. 51, M.S. 447 and New Voices School of Academic and Creative Arts — and poor students concentrated in others.

The city Department of Education has already allowed 19 schools in Brooklyn and Manhattan to implement “set-asides” for low-income students under its Diversity in Admissions program, which was opened to all city schools last spring.

Even with a suggested 40 percent set-aside, the impact in District 15 is likely to be modest. According to projections shared by Councilman Lander’s office, about 230 more poor students would be enrolled in the district’s three wealthiest schools — M.S. 51, M.S. 447 and M.S. 839. Two of those schools — M.S. 447 and M.S. 839 — have already joined the city’s Diversity in Admissions program and will implement set-asides in the next school year.

Council members agreed that outreach will be crucial if the plan is to work. Without a diverse set of student applicants, the set-asides might not matter.

“How can we really make sure that we can get the word out to the parents?” asked CEC president Naila Rosario.

Superintendent Anita Skop, who recently launched a committee to discuss diversity issues district-wide, said it will also be important to focus on what happens inside schools. To ensure not just numerical diversity but also a culture of inclusion, Skop said she is taking a hard look at issues such as curriculum used in the classroom.

“How do we teach history? Whose story gets told?” she asked. “The way we teach history has to be more inclusive, more diverse. That’s something I, as a superintendent, can encourage.”

What's your education story?

How this teacher went from so nervous her “voice was cracking” to a policy advocate

PHOTO: Provided
Jean Russell

Jean Russell is on sabbatical from her work as a literacy coach at Haverhill Elementary School in Fort Wayne after being named the 2016 Indiana Teacher of the Year. Her work as 2016 Indiana Teacher of the Year ignited her interest in education policy, and she is in the first cohort of TeachPlus statewide policy fellows. Nineteen other teachers from urban, suburban and rural areas are also members of the class. Below is Russell’s story condensed and lightly edited for clarity. For more stories from parents, students and educators, see our “What’s Your Education Story?” occasional series.

When I started this January as the 2016 Indiana Teacher of the Year, my overarching goal for my year of service is to focus on recruitment and retention of great teachers. One of the things that came up was the opportunity to serve on the ISTEP alternative assessment panel. (The committee was charged with choosing a replacement for the state’s exam.)

I definitely felt like that was something that is affecting recruitment and retention of great teachers in Indiana, and yet I was reticent about whether or not I was equipped to really be a part of that and to be a helpful voice at the table because policy is not something in my 26 years of teaching that I’ve had anything to do with before this.

The first couple of times that I went to those meetings, I like I just was out of my league, and I didn’t really feel like there was much I could contribute. And I think it was the third meeting, there came a point where a couple of people were saying things where I just felt like having the inside-the-classroom, in-the-trenches voice would really help the conversation.

I was so nervous. I remember, I was shaking, and my voice was cracking. The meetings were in the House of Representatives, so I had to push the button and lean into the microphone, and I’m like, “Hi, I’m Jean Russell.”

But I said what I knew, “I’ve been giving this test for 25 years and these are my experiences, and this is what I think.” I think the biggest surprise in that moment — I won’t ever forget that moment — was that they listened. And I knew that because they were asking good follow-up questions and making references back to what I had said. It sort of became a part of that conversation for that meeting. I never became very outspoken, but I think at that point, I realized that there is most assuredly a time when teacher voice at the table is important to decision making.

I feel like the four walls of my classroom just blew down, and suddenly I realized how many stakeholders there are in my little classroom, in my little hallway, in my little school.

(In the past, policy) just did not make my radar. I think I just felt like, nobody was really interested in what I thought. The work of the classroom is so intense and there’s such a sense of urgency every day to move everybody forward that this broader idea of education, I think I just thought it was something that happened to you and you just work within those perimeters. For the first time in 26 years, I’m realizing that that’s not necessarily the case.

First Person

It’s time to retire the myth that any counselor can do the job alone — even at a tiny school

A few of the author's students who graduated last year.

I waited five years to get my dream job as a counselor in a New York City public school. After all of that waiting, I was full of ideas about how I would be able to use my experience to help students navigate what can be an overwhelming few years.

I wanted to make our school counseling more individualized and full of innovative support mechanisms. I wanted our guidance department to be a place that anyone could leave with a grand plan.

A few months into that first year, in fall 2015, it was clear that my vision would be, to put it bluntly, impossible to achieve.

When I received my position at a Harlem high school in District 5, I was assigned to not only take on the responsibilities of a school counselor, but also to act as the college advisor, assign (and then frequently re-shuffle) class schedules for every student, and several other tasks. My school had just under 200 students — enrollment low enough that it was assumed this could all be managed.

This proved to be a very inaccurate assumption. I was working with a group of students with low attendance rates, and many were English language learners or students with disabilities. Many students were overage and under-credited, others were in foster care or homeless, some had returned from incarceration, and a couple were teen parents or pregnant.

The American School Counselor Association recommends a maximum school counselor-to-student ratio of one to 250. I know from experience that extremely high student need makes that ratio meaningless. Almost all of these students needed help in order to be ready to learn. Their needs tripled the feel of our enrollment.

This frequent mismatch between need and numbers puts school counselors like me in the position to do a great disservice to so many students. As the only counselor available, a seemingly small mishap with a task as crucial as graduation certification or credit monitoring could have spelled disaster for a student. I know some seniors missed certain financial aid opportunities and application deadlines, and some ninth, 10th, and 11th graders could have used more academic intervention to help them transition to the next grade level successfully.

My success at keeping our promotion and college admissions rates on the upswing was largely due to my outreach and partnership with community-based organizations that helped support several of our students. Had it not been for their assistance, I wouldn’t have achieved anything near what I did.

I’m still a counselor at my small school, and some aspects of the job have gotten easier with time. I love my job, which I think of as the most rewarding yet intense position in the building. But I still believe that there is almost no case in which only one counselor should be available for students.

Principals and school leaders directly involved with the budget must make sure to effectively analyze the needs of their student population, and advocate for an appropriately sized counseling staff. Small schools face real funding constraints. But ones serving students like mine need more than they’ve gotten.

Students’ social and emotional development and their academic success go hand in hand. Let’s not make the mistake of conflating enrollment numbers with need.

Danisha Baughan is a high school counselor and college advisor. She received her masters in school counseling in May 2010 and has held elementary, middle, and high school counseling positions since then.