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.”

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Sayonara, SESIS: New York City to scrap its beleaguered special education data system

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat

New York City is scrapping a special education data system that has frustrated educators since it launched nearly a decade ago.

The troubles of SESIS, as the city’s Special Education Student Information System is called, are well known. Since its launch in 2011, the system — which required over $130 million to build — cost the city tens of millions of dollars in settlements, at times malfunctioned more than 800,000 times a day, and made it difficult to track whether students with disabilities are getting the services they need.

Education department officials said they have been able to “stabilize” the system in recent years. But they also have concluded that an entirely different system is needed. On Friday, they announced that they would phase SESIS out and replace it with something new — at a cost and on a timeline that is not yet clear.

The announcement comes on the eve of a City Council hearing set for Monday where council members say they will press for more transparency about special education.

“It was originally designed as a document management system,” Lauren Siciliano, the education department’s Deputy Chief Operating Officer, said about SESIS. “Think more of a filing cabinet right now as opposed to being able to follow a student through the process.”

Special education teachers often spent hours navigating a maze of drop-down menus — inputting data such as whether they met with a student and for how long — only to experience error messages that erased their answers.

Megan Moskop, a former special education teacher at M.S. 324 in Washington Heights, said she once encountered 41 error messages in two hours. What’s more, she said, the system didn’t reflect the experiences she had with her students.

“At the end of the day, I would be expected to go in, mark that they are present, mark whether they made progress toward a goal,” Moskop said. “It’s very standardized.”

It is not yet clear how quickly the education department will phase SESIS out. Officials said the city would begin a multistage process of identifying a vendor to create a new system by the end of March, then would ask for more detailed plans by the end of 2019. An official purchasing process would happen after that, Siciliano said, meaning that construction of  a new system will not begin for well over a year. Families and educators would be consulted throughout, officials said.

Linda Chen, the department’s chief academic officer, said a new system would lead to tangible improvements for students with disabilities.

“I do think that if we have clear and reliable visibility into the data it would absolutely allow us to better serve our students,” Chen said.

Flaws with SESIS have made it difficult to know how well the city is serving students with disabilities. Because the system was not set up to communicate with other city databases, city officials have had to manually tabulate data across systems. And the annual reports that show whether students are receiving required services may not be accurate because of the system’s flaws, officials have warned.

The system’s glitches also made the user experience so cumbersome that teachers had to spend time on nights and weekends entering data. An arbitrator eventually ordered the city to pay over $38 million in teacher overtime.

Additionally, the system has sparked legal action. Former Public Advocate Letitia James filed a lawsuit claiming that SESIS was to blame for some children not receiving services as well as lost Medicaid payments. Between 2012 and 2015, according to the IBO, the city collected $373 million less in Medicaid reimbursements than officials projected.

Some advocates said that given SESIS’s troubled history, it makes sense to find alternatives.

“There has to be a strong data system in place,” said Maggie Moroff, a disability policy expert at Advocates for Children, a nonprofit advocacy organization. “We are eager to see a better system to be put in place, but are really worried about that transition period.”

Advocates have also pushed the city to make the data SESIS tracks directly available to parents.

“We will absolutely be looking at that,” Siciliano said.

next steps

Charter schools racing to find new buildings as district ends their leases

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Escuela Avancemos will move to a new building.

At least two Detroit charter schools are racing against the clock to find new buildings for more than 500 students next fall after the city district decided not to renew their leases.

It’s the latest move in an ongoing effort by the Detroit Public Schools Community District to get out of the charter business, and it means another bout of uncertainty for schools that enroll hundreds of children in Detroit.

Leaders of GEE-Edmonson Academy and GEE-White Academy face the daunting challenge of finding new buildings before the start of the next school year. Another school, Escuela Avancemos, already found a new building. More schools, including Rutherford Winans Academy, have leases that expire this year, but their representatives did not return requests for comment on whether their lease was renewed.

Most students at the two schools run by Global Educational Excellence (GEE) walk every day, Superintendent Michael Conran said. If a new building can’t be found in those neighborhoods, the school’s would face new transportation challenges, casting doubt on their ability to maintain their enrollment.

“We were clearly not anticipating that the leases would not be renewed,” Conran said. “That news came pretty late, I believe it was after the New Year. That’s quite a notification to the boards in such a short period of time.”

The challenges for these schools don’t end there. The district could also decline to renew their charters for the GEE schools when they expire in June, potentially forcing them to find new backers as well as new buildings.

More than one charter school has already jumped ship. Escuela Avancemos, a small school in southwest Detroit, will begin the coming year in a new building and with a new authorizer, Central Michigan University. Officials had begun searching for a new building even before they were notified last month that their lease would not be renewed.

“For the protection of our school, we’ve had to take matters into our own hands to guarantee our future,” said Sean Townsin, principal at Escuela Avancemos.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti made clear soon after he took the helm of the district in 2017 that he believed the district’s resources should be channeled toward its own students, not toward charter schools.

He reiterated that position last year when the district severed its ties with a three-school network of charter schools, forcing it to scramble to find new buildings and a new charter. Parents were forced to choose between an extraordinarily long commute to the new site and making an unwanted switch to another school. Enrollment was cut in half.

Supporters of the move pointed out at the time that those schools had been district schools until they were spun off by state-appointed emergency managers. In a city with lots of school options and few quality schools, they argued, some consolidation is necessary.

Most charters in Detroit are overseen by Michigan’s public universities, but 10 schools are supervised by the Detroit district.

A handful of those schools also rent their school buildings from the district, putting them in a particularly vulnerable position should the district decide that it would rather not support charter schools — its chief competitors for students and state funding.

In a statement about those schools, Chrystal Wilson, a spokeswoman for the district, said the the charter schools could eventually be replaced with district schools.

“Now that we have the leadership to rebuild the district, we need to review and maximize our property assets. This means possibly re-using currently leased schools for new DPSCD schools, replacing older buildings with high repair costs, or adding a school in an area where facility usage and class sizes are high where another traditional public school does not exist. We understand and accept if district charters are leaving for other authorizers.”

No matter the district’s plans, Conran said the Global Educational Excellence schools would continue trying to serve students.

But he asked for transparency from the district and time to plan.

“I’m just simply waiting to hear from DPS any decisions they anticipate making in as timely a manner as we need to make sure we can continue to support these students and their families,” he said.