MANHATTAN — As nearly 1.1 million New York City students head back to school this week, the Department of Education has a slew of new initiatives planned — from bolstering literacy with the help of 100 reading coaches to increasing diversity within schools to changing how discipline is administered.
Here’s a primer on what’s on the horizon this year:
1. Increasing diversity within schools
This year, seven elementary schools fought the city to be allowed to implement diversity-based enrollment policies in time for the fall — setting aside a certain percentage of incoming seats for low-income students, for instance.
Now, the city has pledged to expand the process.
The DOE launched a “Diversity in Enrollment” initiative at the end of last school year, opening the door for schools that want to ensure diverse student bodies to apply. DOE officials, however, declined to disclose how many schools have responded so far.
Still, Mayor Bill de Blasio touted the move as a sign of things to come for the city's schools — which are among the most segregated in the nation.
“There’s some really great new models that look at economic diversity and other factors that allow us to do the work of diversifying schools in a way that is legally appropriate and very effective and that gets a lot of buy-in from communities,” he said. “So, you’re going to be seeing a lot more of that.”
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña also said this week on WNYC’s "Brian Lehrer Show" that her department is doing “a lot of work” on school integration.
“We’re looking at rezoning different parts of the city. We will see more of that,” she said. “But everything has to be done with the community.”
Officials are also trying to expand diversity at its specialized high schools, such as Stuyvesant and Bronx Science.
David Bloomfield, education professor from Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center said it will take more than a single fix to solve the problem with the city's lack of diversity in schools.
“A constellation of strategies is needed to change a systemic problem — including cooperative arrangements of school districts, which themselves are drawn on racial lines,” he said.
2. Universal literacy initiative
Over the next decade, all students will be expected to be reading on grade level by the end of second grade thanks to help from reading coaches — which will be put in place at approximately 100 elementary schools this year.
The initiative is part of the DOE's “Equity and Excellence” plan, which is expected to be phased in over the coming decade.
The first new reading coaches will go into the high needs areas of the South Bronx’s District 9, District 10 (which includes Fordham and Kingsbridge), Central Brooklyn’s District 17 and Bushwick’s District 32.
Many education watchdogs are excited that the DOE is focusing on literacy instruction, but believe parents must be included in the process for the program to be successful.
“Students whose families are involved learn to read sooner than their peers whose families are less so,” said Maggie Moroff, from Advocates for Children.
“We've been talking to anyone at the DOE who will listen to us on this point, and we want to see how they communicate with, engage, and really partner with families as they roll out their literacy initiative.”
Many are also concerned that the literacy initiative is being rolled out alongside many other plans — including AP for All and Computer Science for All — requiring a massive hiring and training process
“It’s a huge managerial task, which would break the back of most administrators,” said Bloomfield, who wondered if Chancellor Fariña was “bearing the administrative burden of the mayor’s political agenda.”
3. Changes to the discipline code
The city is investing $47 million a year to support school climate initiatives including training in “restorative justice” practices, de-escalation techniques and collaborative problem solving as a way to reduce suspensions.
The de Blasio administration also said it would set clear protocols for the removal of scanners in schools, while also making certain NYPD school-based data publicly available for the first time, like handcuffing incidents.
The teachers and principal unions have both criticized the rollout, saying they felt their schools lacked the training and personnel —along with funding — to make meaningful changes. Principals have said they feel “hamstrung” to take appropriate action against students when they feel a suspension might be warranted.
But some advocates are saying the reforms don’t go far enough to address the significant racial disparities in students who are suspended, arrested, handcuffed and issued summonses.
“Short of a decisive policy initiative that ends arrests and summons for all non-criminal violations, black children will continue to be criminalized and unjustly pushed into the criminal justice system,” said Kesi Foster of the Urban Youth Collaborative.
4. Continued focus on attendance for city’s homeless students
The city is putting $30 million into initiatives that support students who are homeless or in temporary housing including hiring attendance teachers to work directly with about 25 of the largest shelters. It’s also providing additional social work services to 32 schools that serve large populations of students in shelters and will be building new school-based health centers at up to 13 campuses with high concentrations of students in shelters.
“Two days of missed school creates a whole week of lost knowledge,” Fariña said on the "Brian Lehrer Show" Tuesday, noting that chronic absenteeism still remains a problem at the city’s struggling “Renewal” schools — many of which have high proportions of homeless students — but the has dropped to about 39 percent last year from 47 percent two years ago.
5. Time is running out for struggling schools
Fariña has hailed the improvements at many of the roughly 85 Renewal schools, which have been given an infusion of cash to help them boost performance.
Their buildings are now one-stop centers for students and families with medical and mental health services as well as extended days and other supports to prop up high needs kids. They even offer parents things like cooking workshops or Zumba classes, Fariña noted.
But many schools are coming to the end of their 3-year timeline in the program.
If the state deems they didn’t improve enough, the state will take them out of the city-run public school system, making them either an independent or a charter school, according to those familiar with the process.
But the process of "success" that would allow a school to come off the struggling school list would have an unintended consequence — stripping it of a lot of the funding and the supports that helped them improve.
Fariña has also said to expect more mergers and consolidations of failing schools, adding that schools with too few pupils don’t have a critical mass of parents.
6. More money for gym and art
The city is investing roughly $23 million this year in arts education, DOE officials said. Roughly 133 middle and high schools will get funding for a shared arts teacher, who will split time between two schools. Also, more pre-K teachers will have the chance to enroll in professional development focused on arts instruction.
For gym, the DOE is investing $100 million over the next four years to hire more than 500 certified physical education teachers in elementary schools and ensure that all elementary schools are in compliance with the city’s standards — where kids must participate in PE for at least 120 minutes per week — by 2019.
7. New custodian agreement
This change is likely one that’s under-the-radar for most parents but may have significant implications for the upkeep of their schools.
De Blasio announced major reforms in the spring that would "address long-standing disparities and mismanagement” in the current custodial system. Under the current rules, each custodial engineer has his or her own budget, staff and purchasing power for supplies — but under the new rules, they would go through a centralized system managed by the DOE and would be staffed by a single nonprofit affiliated with the department.
The city believes it will transform a system where each school is run as an individual enterprise with little oversight to one where the DOE will have more power to direct resources where they're needed most.
Some principals, however, worry that it’s just another example of how they’re losing control over their own buildings and will have to go through more red tape to get things done.