MANHATTAN — Early September brings not only the start of a new school year, but the primary election and renewed pressure on Mayor Bill de Blasio to show how he is improving the experience of roughly 1.1 million kids across the public school system.
To alleviate some of the system's overcrowding, 10 new schools with 5,000 new seats are opening this year, along with 2,000 new seats at existing schools. And while the mayor is also looking to expand his pre-K initiative to younger children, weightier issues still remain when it comes to segregation, safety and how to help failing schools.
Here’s a primer on what people will be talking about this year:
► What's happening with city’s diversity plan?
The administration released a framework in June to boost diversity in city schools, which are among the most segregated in the nation.
Questions remain, however, about funding for diversity initiatives and who will be appointed to its School Diversity Advisory Group, said David Kirkland, executive director of NYU Steinhardt’s Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools.
“Is the city going to put its money where its mouth is?” Kirkland asked.
The DOE plan pledged that 50,000 more students will be attending “racially representative” schools over the next five years. But a school could have 90 percent black and Hispanic students and still be considered “racially representative,” noted Kirkland.
“The city can pretty much, without doing anything, claim success,” he said.
“The question: Is this a serious plan that can achieve equity that includes interrupting the system’s segregation along with providing access points to the city’s most vulnerable students?”
► Will 3-K for All be as successful as the program for 4-year-olds?
Unlike de Blasio’s much-heralded Pre-K for All program, which ramped up quickly in two years, the city is taking a slower approach with its plan to deliver free “full-day” pre-K for 3-year-olds.
The 3-K for All program is launching in two high-needs districts this year with about 1,600 seats: District 7 in the South Bronx and Brownsville’s District 23.
By next year, the city expects to have enough seats in those two districts and aims to go citywide with the program in 2021 — as long as it gets the $700 million in state and federal funding it needs.
De Blasio believes focusing on younger kids will solve a lot of the problems in city schools when it comes to racial disparities on test scores.
“You’re going to see in the coming years, the effects of pre-K, which I think is going to be disproportionately positive for kids of color, who often did not get full-day early childhood education,” he said recently.
► Will the "renewal" schools program be heralded as a success?
The administration plans to unveil next steps for its failing schools — known as “renewal" schools — that have received three years worth of significant investments to bolster support for students through things like additional hours for extended learning time or mental-health services. (The city also has “community schools” that receive similar support.)
De Blasio has said he expects more of these schools to close or merge, and many believe he will likely take heat for the pricey program because performance at these schools remains low.
“I think it’s a losing battle,” said David Bloomfield, education professor at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. “As long as [the mayor] is bent on a strategy of separate but equal, providing resources rather than diversity, those schools are bound to look bad, and those students are likely to receive a substandard education.”
He added: “The most important factor in student achievement is other students.”
► How are city schools responding to Charlottesville and issues of race?
Schools and teachers are grappling with how to respond to the deadly protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, with educators sharing thoughts on Twitter with hashtags like #charlottesvillesyllabus.
Many are looking for guidance on questions like what it means to be a citizen, said Bill Gaudelli, professor of social studies and education at Columbia University's Teachers College.
His department is planning a special topics course next spring on civic engagement, democratic life and issues of free expression.
“There are no easy ways to have these conversations,” Gaudelli said, adding, “I think some people may feel conflicted about two sides, but they are not two equal sides.”
Parents from the NYC Coalition for Educational Justice have been pushing the city to fund anti-bias trainings for teachers, saying there’s more urgency in light of the increased visibility of white supremacy groups across the nation.
The grassroots group worked with the City Council to fund trainings for roughly 600 teachers to increase awareness of how their own racial and cultural identities impact their teaching, as well as helping them address racism, xenophobia, homophobia and other biases. They are calling on the city to do more.
► Is "Computer Science for All" working?
As Computer Science for All programs gain more prominence and momentum on the federal level, the city aims to provide all public school students with a “meaningful, high quality” computer science education by 2025, with plans to train 5,000 teachers during that time frame.
Cheri Fancsali, director of research at the Research Alliance for New York City Schools at NYU Steinhardt, is studying the progress of the initiative over its 10-year course. So far, she has found some issues that need to be addressed, like whether the infrastructure in school buildings can handle the computers for such classes.
Fancsali noted that some schools are teaching computer science and programming without computers, especially at the elementary-school level.
“You can use tiles and learn the logic and reasoning of coding through physical things and manipulatives," she said.
Beside the need to train teachers, questions remain on how to integrate the topic into classroom practice, she said.
“One of the big barriers is competing demands in education,” Fancsali said. “If teachers are focusing on English and math tests, they don’t want to take valuable instruction time away from that.”
► Do students feel safer even though suspensions are falling and crime in schools is at its lowest?
The administration says schools are safer than ever, pointing to a decrease in suspensions and school-based arrests.
But students don't necessarily feel safer, according to a recent Manhattan Institute analysis of school-based surveys.
The city is promoting restorative justice practices that aim to repair relationships and build a sense of community in schools, but more teacher training is needed, as well as other preventative approaches like meditation and mindfulness, NYU Steinhardt’s Kirkland said.
“When you reduce suspensions, but don’t deal with the underlying issues, you’re going to have issues,” he said. “Restorative justice may not be enough. It may be part of a larger suite of interventions as well as innovations.”
► Will it still be too hot to learn?
The city announced in the spring that it's spending $28.75 million over the next five years to purchase and install air conditioners in all its classrooms.
Roughly 11,500 classrooms — or 26 percent — don't have AC, according to DOE data.
Installations of air conditioners began this summer to provide cool air to more than 2,000 additional classrooms this school year.
► Can the city be a model for transgender guidelines?
Though the federal government rolled back guidelines for transgender students when it comes to school bathroom use, the city is taking the opposite stance.
All schools are required to designate single-stall student restrooms by January to support the privacy needs of students, including those with disabilities, as well as transgender and gender non-conforming students.
► Who will succeed Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña?
Fariña came out of retirement to take the helm of city schools and is not likely to stay beyond de Blasio’s first term as mayor, many experts say.
The DOE, however, did not confirm that the chancellor has plans to leave.
Who would replace her remains unknown, but Bloomfield noted that first deputy chancellor Dorita Gibson is likely on the short list.
“It allows de Blasio to say: ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Anything else would signal a possible sea change,” he said. “Paramount always is the loyalty issue. There’s no question of loyalty from a proven member of the team.”