getting to know you

Next in the Upper West Side and Harlem integration push: encouraging parents to explore their options

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
Claudia Aguirre, principal of P.S. 149 Sojourner Truth in Harlem, highlighted her school at a recent forum for District 3 parents to learn about their middle school options.

Standing before a classroom of parents crammed into child-sized chairs, Principal Claudia Aguirre launched into her pitch for P.S. 149 Sojourner Truth, a kindergarten through eighth grade school in Harlem. She had just five minutes to try to convince her audience to consider applying to her school, which serves mostly students from low-income families and has some of the lowest math test scores in the city.

In a gentle tone, Aguirre promised the parents gathered for the middle school kickoff event that she would know every child by name and highlighted laptops for each student, arts programming, and coding classes.

“I’m guessing we may not be on your list right now,” she said. “You might be pleasantly surprised by what we offer.”

When her time was up, no one had raised their hand with questions. All that one mother had written in her notebook was “no Regents,” a reference to the fact that P.S. 149 does not offer its middle school students a chance to take courses that can count towards high school graduation credits. Aguirre headed to the next classroom of waiting families to give her speech again.

Aguirre’s sales pitch— and its lukewarm reception—may be indicative of the tough road ahead for education leaders eager to integrate middle schools in District 3, which spans the Upper West Side and Harlem.

Families there apply to middle schools and hope their children are accepted, a time consuming and competitive process that has led to stark segregation.

This fall marks the first application cycle since District 3 approved a controversial plan to spur diversity by giving some students priority in admissions. But along with that headline-grabbing admission change, parent and school leaders are trying a different strategy: arming families with more information about a broader range of schools.

The kick off event to the application season — the annual principals forum where Aguirre spoke — has been tweaked to give parents face time with each school leader, and the district has changed the way schools market themselves to encourage parents to look beyond test scores.  

Efforts such as those may be crucial to moving the needle: School demographics will shift only if parents are willing to take a chance on a broader range of schools than they already do. In a typical year, stacks of applications pour in for just a few of the district’s most sought after schools, which set their own strict entrance criteria.

“That’s the tipping point that we’re at now, is actually trying out and actually attending schools where you don’t know anybody else,” said Kristen Berger, a member of the local Community Education Council who helped spearhead the admissions changes. “The first step in being comfortable is knowing what’s going on in the school.”

Encouraging parents to have an open mind may prove to be a challenge, with school reputations reinforced through word-of mouth on the playground, and studies that suggest parents consider race, alongside test scores, when it comes to picking a school for their children.  

Every fall, the application process in District 3 gets started with a principals forum. In previous years, school leaders would line up on stage and face questions from the audience, a process that often led to the district’s most sought-after schools hogging the spotlight.

This year was much different. A record crowd of about 350 parents crammed into the muggy auditorium of P.S. 180 Hugo Newman for the forum. The district superintendent, Ilene Altschul, rattled off “fun facts” about local middle schools.

“You will see now how much you don’t know about our middle schools, and what they offer,” the superintendent said as the night kicked off.

Parents were parceled out into groups of about 25 and settled into classrooms to meet with every school leader. They were handed pale yellow booklets with mini profiles of each middle school. Unlike the city’s handbooks, which highlight test scores and how many hopeful students applied to each school, the profiles allowed schools to list the curriculum they use, opportunities to take advanced courses, and extracurriculars such as  dance and cooking.

Osei Owusu-Afriyie, the principal of Frederick  Douglass Academy II, walked into a class full of parents with fliers advertising his school. He touted courses in computer science, robotics, and engineering, as well as seven advanced placement classes, before pivoting into a frank commentary on the city’s selective admissions process.

“What many schools will do is they will just screen out the students they have to teach,” he said. “But at our school — no matter where you come in at — we move you forward.”

City data shows teachers at Frederick Douglass drive students to make learning gains beyond even the district’s more sought-after schools. That progress is masked, however, in the number of students who come to the school already performing well below grade level and continue to earn low scores on tests. The school’s test scores hover right around the city average, but fall well below the district’s most selective schools, which serve mostly middle-class students. At Frederick Douglass, more than 80 percent of students come from low-income families.

Among the questions Afriyie faced was from a white woman who wanted to know: “How diverse is your school?” He encouraged her to look beyond the racial breakdowns, which show that only two percent of students are white.

Another parent followed up by asking whether Afriyie expected the makeup of the school to change much in the coming year with the district’s diversity plan in place.

“It all depends on whether people are willing to take chances,” he said. “Sitting within this community are really strong school options that if they take a chance to see, you’ll see it meets your needs and more.”

By the end of the night, parents had heard from leaders at each of the schools that will pilot admissions changes this year. Many parents approached at the event were leery to speak publicly after news footage of a heated debate over the district’s integration plan went viral this summer.

As they poured into the hallways, one mother said she was “surprised” that her interest had been piqued in more schools than she had expected.

“I did learn that you have to go and see them, and know the culture” of each school, another mom added.

Jason Abramson said afterward that he felt a sense of relief.

“It was like I could breathe deeply,” he said. “There are plenty of people who are going to be looking after your kids.”

Abramson has been stressing over school options for his twin sons, and the new integration plan only adds more questions to the process. Is he willing to allow his sons to commute on the subway? Will they be comfortable if they’re an extreme minority? Will they even get accepted to their top choices?

He called the desegregation efforts “long overdue,” even if it has added angst to the process of finding the right middle school.

“Something had to be done,” he said. “But as a parent, you want your child to get the best.”

parent power

From Amazon to air conditioners, parent leaders quizzed de Blasio and Carranza at forum

PHOTO: Reema Amin/Chalkbeat
Mayor Bill de Blasio and schools Chancellor Richard Carranza host a forum for parents in Queens, the first of five stops across the city.

Deborah Alexander, a parent whose school district covers Long Island City, asked Mayor Bill de Blasio Wednesday night why the local Community Education Council wasn’t asked to be on a committee providing input on Amazon’s controversial move to the Queens neighborhood.

De Blasio agreed. “You’re right,” the mayor said,  “the CEC should be on the committee, so we’re going to put the CEC on that committee.”

Not every question received such a cut-and-dry answer at the mayor and Chancellor Richard Carranza’s first “parent empowerment” listening tour event in Queens that drew about 200 local parents who were elected or appointed to certain boards and received invites. The pair faced a host of tough questions from parent leaders about problems including school overcrowding, the lack of air conditioners, lead in water, and busing.

By the end of the meeting, de Blasio told the audience that they should always get quick responses to their questions from the department and “that you can feel the impact of your involvement…that’s up to us to help that happen.”

He also called the listening tour “overdue,” and said that Carranza has told him the city needs to do more to reach out. Parents have often criticized city officials for not being plugged into the community.

Some questions needed more time to be answered. Bethany Thomas, co-president of the PTA at Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School, asked why the education department had not yet signed off on aspects of the school’s plan to have more than one principal. De Blasio asked Carranza to come up with an answer by next month.

Another parent said students at P.S. 62 were drinking from school water fountains that tested positive for lead last year, even though, according to the parent, the issue had not been addressed. De Blasio asked city officials to visit the school Thursday.

Other comments were even more complicated, often causing de Blasio and Carranza to rush parents along and condense comments to one specific issue. One Asian parent, who serves on a middle school’s PTA, gave an impassioned speech about feeling like “the enemy” after de Blasio announced a proposal in June to scrap the specialized high schools admissions test in order to diversify the schools. Currently 62 percent of specialized high school students are Asian.

“This was not about saying anyone is the bad guy,” de Blasio said, who has defended the plan as a way to bring more black and Hispanic students to those high schools.

Several parents asked why their schools still don’t have air conditioners. After de Blasio and Carranza said there is a plan to put air conditioners in every school by 2021, a mother with children at John Adams High School tearfully explained that her children will be out of school by then.

Carranza said he understood her problem, and the department would follow up, but that electrical wiring at each building makes it tough to solve the problem sooner than planned.

Alexander — the parent who asked about Amazon — questioned Carranza and de Blasio about how parent feedback would be used. She talked about the resolutions her Community Education Council passes that never get responses or feedback from the education department.

“We come, all of us, unpaid, away from our families, away from our jobs, away from bed times and dinners,” Alexander said. “We want to know what we’re doing is impactful, not a checked box.”

De Blasio said the city owes her “a process,” and department officials should respond in “real-time” — which could mean a couple of weeks. Carranza and de Blasio pledged to get a report of the meeting back to the parent leaders, noting how city leaders are following up with concerns.

elected school board

In Chicago, not everyone agrees with the grassroots call for an elected school board

PHOTO: Stephen J. Serio
Panelists at a Chalkbeat Chicago forum on the city's next mayor and public schools included, from left, Jesus "Chuy" Garcia, Daniel Anello, Jitu Brown, and Beth Swanson

Despite a growing call for an elected school board, it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution to Chicago’s troubled public school system.

Panelists at a Chalkbeat Chicago forum Wednesday evening split on whether an elected school board would offer more public accountability, especially given concerns that factions such as the teachers union would out-organize, and outspend, other candidates.

Daniel Anello, the CEO of school choice group Kids First, said he worried that an election determined by the size of campaign spending wouldn’t necessarily produce a board responsive to student and family needs.

“You need a school board that is representative of the communities we are talking about, but I worry if you take away accountability from the mayor, the mayor can absolve themselves of schools,” said Anello, noting his worries about big money entering a school board election. “My concern is that it is going to turn into a proxy war of ideology.”  

PHOTO: Stephen J. Serio
The crowd at the Chalkbeat Chicago Education for All event at Malcolm X College

The conversation was part of a larger discussion, hosted by Chalkbeat Chicago and sponsored by a new AT&T economic development initiative called Believe Chicago, about the next mayoral election and the future of city schools. Of the leading mayoral candidates who were invited, Lori Lightfoot and Paul Vallas attended.

The evening produced little agreement, except that school quality still differs dramatically by the address and race of students, and that the next mayor needs to be willing to have difficult, and even confrontational, conversations.

In addition to Anello, the panelists included Elizabeth Swanson, the vice president of strategy and programs at the Joyce Foundation and the former deputy chief of staff for education for outgoing Mayor Rahm Emanuel; community organizer Jitu Brown, who led the 2013 hunger strike that saved Dyett High School; and Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, a county commissioner and newly elected member of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Brown, who is the national director for the community education group Journey for Justice, made an impassioned plea for an elected school board, calling it one of the few pathways for communities of color to regain any influence over an education system he argued wasn’t working for them.

“In order for us to hold a system that has never loved us accountable, we must have democracy, we must have decision-making authority around how these institutions function in our community,” Brown said. “Is this a silver bullet? No. But is it a necessary ingredient? Yes.”

Another burning question raised during the night:. Should homegrown schools chief Janice Jackson keep her job?

Brown praised Jackson as a talented teacher and strong principal in the black community before her ascent to the central office — but expressed deep concern that she’s unable to run the district “with her instincts and what she knows how to do.”

“I think her work is highly politicized,” Brown said. “National Teachers Academy was being closed over a land grab, and her position on that was not the right position. Parents had to go to state appellate court in order to get that victory. Situations like that give me pause.”

But Anello and Swanson answered with high praise for the work Jackson has done and strong endorsements for her continuing to run the show at the nation’s third-largest school district.

Anello touted Jackson as a down-to-earth and accessible schools chief.

“If you want to have a conversation with her just pick up the phone,” he said. “That is rare in a school leader. It would be a shame and an absolute mistake to tell her to step down when you have a unicorn.”

Swanson said Jackson’s on-the-ground experience in school communities helps her relate to and inspire educators and school leaders, and her experience managing the $5 billion Chicago Public Schools make her a strong candidate to keep the job, whoever occupies the mayor’s office next year.

“I think Janice is an incredible leader, really unique,” Swanson said.

Panelists also diverged on whether the new mayor should freeze charter school expansion in the city.

Garcia questioned whether the city’s more than 100 charter schools have lived up to their billing as laboratories to experiment with and improve education. Chicago, he said, has “been infected with charter mania,” and instead needs to pivot toward the importance of ensuring current schools are adequately funded.

Anello tried quelling the debate on charters vs. neighborhood schools, arguing that parents are agnostic about school type and more concerned about quality education and good schools for their children.

“I would start by listening to communities and families,” he said.