Testimony regarding the diversity plan for New York City public schools

Testimony of UFT Vice President for High Schools Janella Hinds before the New York City Council on Education

Good afternoon. My name is Janella Hinds, and I am the United Federation of Teachers’ vice president for academic high schools. On behalf of the union’s 200,000 members, I would like to thank Chairman Danny Dromm and the Committee on Education for holding today’s hearing.

We deeply appreciate your oversight of New York City’s recent diversity plan — Equity and Excellence for All — and its impact. Chairman Dromm, we always value your committee’s call for greater accountability from the Department of Education.

From the outset let’s all agree: New York City’s public schools did not evolve overnight into a complex system with alarming degrees of segregation and student bodies in individual schools lacking the representation of those attending our public schools — the remedies, therefore, won’t immediately materialize. The education bureaucracy is large, the gaps in representation are wide-ranging and the policies offered by our members and advocacy groups are controversial to some.

An approach to achieve representation of our public school students

When I last testified before the Education Committee on these issues in December 2014, the UFT agreed with Council Member Lander’s bill requiring the DOE to report annually on the efforts it is making to increase diversity within schools and its progress toward that goal. Likewise, we supported Council Member Torres’ resolution calling on the DOE to officially recognize the importance and benefits of school diversity. In our view, these were steps in the right direction.

I shared our UFT Specialized High Schools Task Force findings with our recommendations, which focused squarely on an aggressive set of admissions policy changes to address the severe underrepresentation of Black and Latino students in specialized high schools.

The scope of our report, however, reflected our broader conversations on the impact of the lack of equity and opportunity in the largely segregated New York City public schools. Unless we’re framing our discussion and goal-setting around seeking an authentic representation of the racial, ethnic and socio-economic demographics of our city’s 1.1 million students in our over 1,700 schools, we’re just playing at the edges.

The city’s diversity plan falls short

Three years ago, the University of California, Los Angeles, report revealed for the nation that New York State had the most segregated public schools in the country. Five years ago, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund filed its federal civil rights complaint against the city’s abysmal admission rates of Black and Latino students and the overall admissions process for selecting candidates for our city’s specialized high schools. Despite these earlier warnings, the DOE’s current efforts on diversity still lack a sense of urgency and fall short of making any significant impact on representation.

The district’s plan includes strategies and goals which are a good start on addressing the issue of diversity — including,but not limited to, forming a school diversity advisory group to tackle citywide policies and practices,increasing the number of students in a racially representative school by 50,000 over the next five years and expanding the Specialized High School Admissions Test offered during the school day from 7 to 15 middle schools.The department also plans to review the policies at selective middle schools that exacerbate the low percentages of racial diversity at the high school level.

However, given the entrenched segregation citywide and the poor representation of diverse groups in the schools and programs with the highest rigor, the impact of many of these strategies and goals will only scratch the surface. For example, when there are approximately 400 middle schools and the DOE’s plans offer special access for testing at 15 schools, the impact is negligible. While we appreciate the district’s efforts to begin addressing this issue — especially the recent approval of a district-wide admissions plan aimed at creating greater integration within the elementary schools in District 1 — we would encourage the DOE to fully embrace these issues with bolder initiatives offering a greater system-wide impact.

The UFT stands behind its 2014 recommendations

As I mentioned earlier, our union’s task force released a report in 2014 called Redefining High Performance for Entrance Into Specialized High Schools — Making the Case for Change. Making change, real change requires both bold initiatives and the political will to fund and mandate change. In the realm of gifted programs in elementary and middle schools that largely provide the applicant pool for specialized high schools and other screened schools, we need to broaden the definition of what constitutes the highest-performing scholars.

Specifically, our recommendations included:

  • Creating a “power score” pathway (using a combination of grades, state exam scores, attendance and some version of a revised Specialized High School Admissions Test aligned to the curriculum) for entrance into a specialized high school;
  • Creating a pathway that would target the top-performing 8th-graders at each and every New York City middle school, with the goal of offering a proportional number of seats to these students depending on the size of the school. This “top performer” ranking would be determined by the grade point average. We proposed limiting this pathway during the first year only to one child per middle school— roughly 500 8th-graders initially, according to 2014 DOE figures. We’d recommend expanding this pathway in subsequent years;
  • Leveling the playing field by providing free electronic preparation materials and other preparation methods for the entrance exam, as well as registering all students for the specialized high school admissions process, along with an easy opt-out;
  • Changing the Discovery program for applicants who narrowly miss the “admit score” to make it mandatory for all schools, resulting in an intensive summer program for scholars; and aligning each Discovery Program with the skills needed for incoming 9th-graders specific to each school;

Additionally, we like the DOE recommendation to expand the applicant pool by better publicizing the specialized high schools admissions procedures. However, without redefining and broadening which scholars merit entrance into these sought after schools, the face of the student body will continue to look the same — three years later, five years later or beyond.

The UFT-DOE PROSE model shows early promise

The UFT’s PROSE program (Progressive Redesign Opportunity Schools for Excellence) was conceived based on the tenet that the solutions to our public schools’ challenges can be found within the buildings when the flexibility is given to the educators who know our children best. PROSE schools, in fact,were among the first to suggest to the DOE to use the flexibility of PROSE to address integration issues. Initially, the DOE rejected the premise. To its credit (and bowing to the relentless media scrutiny shining the light on the city’s status as having the one of the most segregated districts nationally), the DOE in November 2015 announced a pilot program open to PROSE schools and other schools willing to tackle integration issues through adjusting their student admissions processes to increase and maintain the diversity of their student bodies.

The current 2017-18 school year finds approximately 30 PROSE schools included in the city’s school integration efforts, including schools involved in the new district-wide integration efforts in District 1 such as the Neighborhood School and the Earth School.  Over the past two years, these pilot schools and other PROSE schools have received grants funded through the UFT and the National Education Association to support their PROSE integration work.  For example, educators at MS 447 have undergone professional learning sessions concerning diversifying and integrating their student enrollment and have offered summer bridge classes for incoming students entering the schools as part of their new admissions flexibilities, and staff at Brooklyn Latin High School have designed and implemented recruitment and Specialized High School Admissions Test preparation programs aimed at enrolling more students from their local middle schools. In addition, ongoing discussions are underway at an additional 10 other schools considering employing the PROSE model to have an impact on persistent segregation.

We champion utilizing the PROSE model as one approach because it elevates teacher voice and shifts school culture in positive directions. Simply changing the student ratios doesn’t necessarily move the needle on true inclusion where diverse students and families feel welcomed and supported. These approaches show promise, but given the sheer number of schools in the system, this too, barely cracks the surface.  

Authentic inclusion is serious work — let’s get it done

The UFT stands ready to join with the DOE as a serious partner in a serious effort. We seek solutions to ensure our schools represent the 1.1 million students equitably and with access to the full range of specialized and enrichment programs regardless of zip code, race, language or any previously conceived obstacle to entry.

The DOE’s Office of Equity and Access formed a working group in 2014 conceived in part to address the specialized high school disparities and strengthen its policy and program approach to diversity more broadly. The union was invited to sit at the table, but the effort wasn’t prioritized by the department. Our input into crafting the group’s agenda enabling real collaboration wasn’t sought or necessarily welcomed; plus the meetings were routinely rescheduled making it difficult to remain on track.

I’ve received recent notice that a reconstituted working group is set to meet on Dec. 11; our hope is that there’s renewed resolve and these new efforts prove more fruitful. 

Communities want to be taken seriously, to be brought to the table and to be part of a serious, committed discussion about how to bring diversity to all our schools — not just a few schools — and not small scale programs that effect few students. Our union is a proponent of empowering parent and teacher voice in order to ensure the best educational outcomes for our students. This is even more critical as the system seeks to break down barriers, open access and make our schools more representative of our students.

The DOE worked with parents in its efforts to diversify District 3 and bring greater choice and access. The process was long and contentious, but transparent and inclusive of stakeholders, and it is moving forward in positive ways.  This is the type of hard work required in the school districts and in the neighborhoods with the highest-need students. That requires outreach, education and authentic inclusion; parents will see that diversity improves and enriches education.

Let’s not let the floor be our ceiling

I’d like to leave you with a challenge to inject greater urgency into the efforts of our DOE partners. Small efforts yield small results. Let’s not let the floor be our ceiling.

Our members seek real change marked by bold efforts. From our standpoint, the efforts so far have lacked the political will and impeded bold changes. We seek your support for substantive change that goes beyond window dressing.

Tip toeing around these disparities won’t deliver the equity and access our students deserve, that our members want to provide and that our students’ parents and communities expect.

Thank you.

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