6 Changes Coming to the City's Public Schools This Year

By Amy Zimmer on September 4, 2014 7:29am 

 Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña and Mayor Bill de Blasio announce that scores were up slightly on standardized state tests, on Thursday, Aug. 14 in Bedford Stuyvesant.
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña and Mayor Bill de Blasio announce that scores were up slightly on standardized state tests, on Thursday, Aug. 14 in Bedford Stuyvesant.
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Twitter/Mayor's Office

MANHATTAN — The city's expanded pre-K program may be the biggest change to the city's school system this year, but it's by far not the only one.

From admissions policies to parent engagement, here's what to expect for Mayor Bill de Blasio's and Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña's first full school year.

1. Saying farewell to letter grades

School progress reports — complete with an A-to-F letter grade determined largely by students' state test scores — was one of the pillars of the Bloomberg administration's data-driven education agenda. Fariña dumped the letter grades from this year's high school directory and is looking for new ways "to meaningfully convey school quality information in a clear, transparent manner without oversimplifying or arbitrarily labeling schools," she said in a talk at Teachers College in April.

"I don’t believe a single test score encapsulates a student, and I don’t believe a single — often arbitrary — letter grade encapsulates an entire school," she said, citing the more than 75 schools that received a C, D or F on progress reports yet actually scored above the citywide average in proficiency on state English and math tests.

Fariña promised to take a holistic, common-sense approach to assessing teaching and learning in schools, noting that accountability is critical, but that it has to incorporate what’s happening in classrooms since that's where "real education" takes place.

2. Revising middle school admissions

Many parents have been calling for an overhaul of the middle school admissions process where a mix of systems — lotteries, zones and selective screens — can be stressful for families, especially those in districts where students have to apply for middle school.

The chancellor has already stopped using high-stakes tests as the sole basis for determining whether a child gets held back, and has hinted that changes are ahead for middle school admissions this year. 

3. Taking a closer look at admissions for specialized high schools

Because of a 1971 state law, a standardized test is the only way students can get into three of the city's oldest specialized high schools: Stuyvesant, Brooklyn Tech and Bronx Science. Five other specialized high schools, including Brooklyn Latin and Staten Island Tech, use the same test though it's not mandated by the state.

De Blasio and Fariña have said they plan to look at the requirements for these elite schools to boost diversity. Citywide, 28 percent of students are black, 40 percent are Hispanic and 15 percent are Asian. In the specialized schools, only 5 percent admitted this year are black, 7 percent are Hispanic and 53 percent are Asian, according to reports.

"A lot of people have said, ‘Can we do a better job of making sure that test prep is available to a wider range of kids, including a lot of black and Latino kids who have not had as much opportunity to get into specialized schools?’" de Blasio said at a press conference in March.

"There may be some real ways that we can do that. I think ultimately we need to reform the admission system. That’s something we have to do with Albany."

It's unlikely things will change this year, and the test is scheduled for Oct. 25 and 26, according to Inside Schools.

4. Improving parent engagement

Fariña pledged to make parent involvement a priority and organized a host of citywide parent- and family-oriented conferences, workshops and town halls after assuming her role.

This year schools will hold two additional parent-teacher conferences. The first, in September, will be a "family night" where schools will discuss curriculum or have a meet-and-greet with staff or some other non-traditional format.

The new United Federation of Teachers contract allows schools to set aside 40 minutes each Tuesday for parents to engage with their child’s teachers — via email, phone, or one-to-one meetings in school.

Fariña will also open the doors at the DOE's headquarters for parent conferences and will continue professional development throughout the school year so teachers and principals know how to support parents and families, school officials said.

5. Making sure schools have experienced leaders

Principals must now have at least seven years working in schools as a teacher, dean, guidance counselor, school social worker, assistant principal or education administrator. It's a departure from the Bloomberg administration's "Leadership Academy" that groomed educators with only one or two years of classroom experience.

6. Visiting schools

Fariña's focus is on improving learning in the classroom, she said, so she plans to spend more time inside schools.  She plans to visit schools with new principals, pre-K programs, schools on the persistently dangerous list, schools that embody the UFT contract (like the 62 that are designing their own alternative programs) and more, DOE officials said.

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