Tuesday evening, January 26, saw Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza take part in a town hall with School District 16, which covers the eastern part of Bedford-Stuyvesant. The Chancellor is required to hold town halls with each district in New York every two years.
D16 has some of the most struggling schools in the city, with less than half of its students reading at grade level. Many of its parents opt to send their children to charter schools, especially Success Academy, which with its three elementary and three middle schools, has more campuses in Bed-Stuy than any other neighborhood in the city. Students in the district tend to be low-income kids of color, however, there has been an influx of middle-class white families moving into the area in recent years. In 2019, its Community Education Council (CEC) 16 passed a resolution, calling for the elimination of Gifted and Talented programs.
The Town Hall lasted a bit over an hour on Zoom with a total of thirteen speakers selected by the Department of Education (DOE) addressing the Chancellor, out of 25 who had signed up to speak. The Town Hall was attended by a little more than 240 people, and the chat room that can offer a glimpse of popular sentiment was disabled for attendees. Most of the questions were regarding middle school screenings and concerns over how students will regain the education they have lost during the past 10 months from the pandemic.
At the start of the event, Chancellor Carranza addressed those in attendance, calling the Gifted & Talented programs “flawed,” and noted the removal of academic screenings for this year’s admissions, explaining how COVID19 has “laid bare inequities in our system for all to see.”
“It’s really untenable to use screens as we admit students,” Carranza said, before going on to explain that the high school admissions process would be simpler and more equitable after next year as well. He then promoted LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts’ audition registrations, and Parent University, an online program meant to empower parents.
Carranza then gave Community Education Council (CEC) 16 President NeQuan McLean time to mention the resolution the CEC passed in 2019, which called for the immediate end to the Gifted & Talented program.
CEC16 favors more inclusive programs “that would not prevent our students in unprivileged communities from receiving a true quality education,” says a nine-page letter issued to the Chancellor on Friday. The letter, obtained by Bklyner, discusses issues such as the CEC’s resolution to eliminate the G&T programs, and it’s FOIL lawsuit against the DOE.
District 16 has had a mixed experience with the G&T programs. There was once such a program in PS 308, which was attended by the wife of Councilman Robert Cornegy. P.S. 3 which is in D13, had theirs phased out in 2013, allegedly due to lack of qualified candidates, an assertion the school disputed at the time. For a while, D16 fought to have G&T programs, with the Councilman making that the focus of his tenure after his 2013 election.
During the Bloomberg administration, school districts were able to form their own admissions for G&T programs, which included exams and evaluations. But starting in 2008, with the goal of having more equity, standardized testing became the sole use for admissions. However, this led to children in lower-income areas, including D16, being offered fewer seats in G&T programs. Some students in these neighborhoods had to be bussed to other districts to attend their G&T programs.
The district has just one G&T program, which was set up in 2016 at PS 26 Jesse Owens. Unlike other such programs, this school starts theirs in the third grade, rather than kindergarten.
“We looked at the data,” says CEC16 President NeQuan McLean. “And we decided it would serve more children of color if we went with a third-grade model. We didn’t test four-year-olds.”
But by September 2019, McLean and the rest of the CEC had passed the resolution, declaring G&T programs as “not working for our community”.
“We don’t support G&T programs in the form it is now,” McLean tells Bklyner, adding the CEC would like to see enriching programs for all.
One of the 13 speakers who brought up the DOE’s recent decision to eliminate the G&T programs was Assemblywoman Stefani Zinerman (District 56).
“If you’re going to eliminate something that people value,” the Assemblywoman said on the call, “then you have to discuss and explain to them what it is that you’re replacing it with, and why that option is going to be better.”
“While I appreciate the DOE and the Chancellor’s efforts to service students of all levels and talents and their assertion that G&T programs do not service enough students, especially those in the black and brown community, I have yet to hear what their actual plan is to replace G&T in the 56th (Assembly) District,” Zinerman said in a statement to Bklyner. “My community has been historically underserved and underfunded and now without clear indication about how our students will be nurtured, I feel this trend will continue. The Chancellor must come up and deliver to the parents and students a clear plan before dissolving the small number of G&T programs that remain.”
Middle Schools Admissions
The topic of middle schools was a hot issue thanks to the recent changes to eliminate screens in applications.
Akissi Britton, who was one of the parents allowed to speak, pointed out how students in D16 have fewer middle school options than those in nearby D13 or Manhattan’s D2. She added having just twelve options of schools that are not the highest performing, along with having a lottery system that does not seem to cut it, perpetuates segregation.
The Chancellor praised her for giving the “classic examples” of the systems that keep some areas “historically underserved,” and said that removing screens citywide may seem counter-intuitive, but screened schools did not always fill every seat.
“We’re going to assure that every one of those available seats are filled,” Carranza says. “Which is going to give more students the opportunity to go to those schools. We think we’re moving a very positive direction to not only provide better options for all corners of our school system, but also give greater access to our students and our families.”
Jared Van Alstyne, another parent, said he found the process to be disappointing since it was not as flexible as he had hoped.
“I believe students should apply to any middle school of their choosing,” Van Alstyne said. “Families should not be forced to select from a curated selection of middle schools by the DOE; the DOE shouldn’t select our middle schools, we should. I’m asking to unlock our ability to apply to the school of our choice.”
Carranza said he will get back with more information, though parents do have the ability to choose as freely as they wish, and that some schools have a diversity plan process when it comes to selecting students, so they can diversify as much as possible.
Another speaker regarding the elimination of screens was Lorna Fairweather, an advisory board member at the Medgar Evers Community Preparatory School, a citywide school outside of D16 in Crown Heights’ District 17, which offers Advanced Placement courses. She told the Chancellor that taking away the admission process was not in the interest of MECPS.
“I don’t need to give you the grades because you know our numbers and our stats,” she says. “Medgar Evers Prep School has been successfully operating as an urban high school for the past 16 years. The school accomplishes this [with having] predominantly economically disadvantaged students of color in all five boroughs. Based on these facts, we’re kindly requesting an exemption…the school has never, never operated as a traditional city middle school. We’re requesting a meeting to address the issue.”
Carranza replied by promising to get the meeting set up.
Making Up Lost Time: COVID GAP
The Chancellor’s longest answer appeared to a question from David Matthews who asked when students return to school full-time, how will the COVID gap from their schooling be rectified. Chancellor Carranza then spoke for over five minutes about what the new normal will look like in the post-COVID19 world, without offering much substance.
“We’ve already started talking about the framework to address the COVID opportunity gap,” he says. “To expect students to come back to whatever school is going to look like next fall, and not be very focused not only on the academics, but also the social and emotional wellbeing of students, then we’re going to find students falling further and further behind, because they just haven’t been able to process or be supported in the trauma.”
The Chancellor explained how there would be screeners, both for academics and social-emotional needs. He pointed out how the use of technology has increased, and the DOE can implement it to personalize even more what students need, which will allow students to take more responsibility for their learning.
“The pandemic has really, really pushed the city, as a whole, to grapple with things we thought were intractable,” Carranza says. “We thought it was intractable to ever talk about screens for getting into public middle school. Well, we’ve done it.”
When asked what he thought about the Town Hall, McLean says he is a little concerned that the Chancellor did not touch on CEC16’s concerns.
“Overall, it was decent,” he says. “But he really didn’t take a deep dive into some things.”