The democratic promise of our public schools

The democratic promise of our public schools

Nothing is more important to our democracy than strong public schools that offer all kids a genuine opportunity to learn, grow, solve problems, imagine, create, work in teams, get ready for careers, and become citizens of NYC. In just a few short weeks – at 5th grade, 8th grade, and high-school graduations across the district – we’ll have a chance to see and celebrate the magic that happens daily in our public schools.

We’re lucky to have many great schools in District 15. And we’re making some strong steps forward: I’m especially excited about the continued expansion of Pre-K in our community. Next fall, I believe that the majority of four-year-olds in our neighborhoods will be served in free, high-quality, public Pre-K programs. 

Still, we’ve got a long way to go to fulfill the true democratic promise of public education. Across NYC, too many of our schools aren’t providing kids with the education they need. And as you’ve been reading in the news, we are still grappling with many public policy issues (though most of these are set, for better or worse, at the state level) from mayoral control to high-stakes testing to the charter school cap.

I won’t go into all of those here – but I did want to fill you in on some of the work my office has been doing in recent days to strengthen our City’s schools: confronting segregation & improving diversity, re-imagining the middle-school admissions process, the PTA 5k fun-run-for-schools, school crossing guards, and more:

Confronting Segregation & Improving Diversity in NYC’s Schools:

New York City’s remarkable diversity is one of our greatest strengths, but we are failing woefully to bring that diversity into our schools. Sixty years after the Supreme Court ruled that ‘separate but equal is inherently unequal,’ it was deeply distressing to learn last year that NY’s schools are among the most segregated in the country. In more than half of NYC public schools, black and Latino students make up 90% or more of the students. Meanwhile, half of the city's white students are concentrated in just 7% of the schools, and half of the city's Asian students are concentrated in just 6%. 

This week, the City Council passed the School Diversity Accountability Act – a bill I sponsored to confront segregation and increase diversity in schools across NYC. The new law requires the NYC Department of Education to issue an annual report on diversity (or the lack thereof) in NYC schools. The report will include both extensive school-by-school data, down to the grade level, the admissions criteria/process for each school or program, and the specific actions the DOE is taking to strengthen diversity.

There are creative strategies being advanced by parents, educators, and advocates, to take us in the right direction – like the model of controlled choice (with leadership from the District 1 & District 13 CECs, and the Parent Leadership Project), non-zoned elementary schools with admissions criteria that enhance diversity (like PS 133, with support from the District 13 & 15 CECs, and Appleseed New York), and educational-options high schools.

With the School Diversity Accountability Act, NYC will have a meaningful framework to promote inclusion and advance diversity in our public schools and districts -- and to evaluate whether or not we are moving in the right direction. When these efforts succeed, all students’ benefit – we end up with more inclusive schools, a wider range of experience and perspective, and a diverse environment more like the world we live in and the democracy we want.

Thanks to Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, Council Member Ritchie Torres (who co-sponsored the legislation with me), my Council colleagues, and the Department of Education for working with us on the bill.

Reimagining “Middle School Choice” In District 15

The process of applying to a middle school should not be one that’s comparable to buying Rolling Stones tickets, but that’s the story we too often hear. So this week, along with the D15 Community Education Council, and D15 Superintendent Anita Skop, and Council Members Menchaca and Levin, my office organized a public forum on “reimagining the middle school admissions process.”

At the forum, we heard important feedback from parents and educators. It’s clear that the current system creates a lot of stress and disappointment, that it is not transparent, and that it produces schools far less diverse than we aspire to. And also that it’s not a simple problem to solve, given overlapping goals of high-quality schools for all kids, neighborhood schools, and diverse schools.   

Sara McPhee from the NYD Department of Education described the overall goals of middle schools choice (and provided some broader context). Anita Skop, Superintendent of District 15, then kicked off the panel by providing an overview of her work to address the issue, launching a working group of principals, guidance counselors and others.

Miriam Nunberg spoke on behalf of “Parents for Middle School Equity,” and shared a survey of 400 parents about the frustrations of and desired changes for the middle school admissions process. The survey highlighted the deep disparity between district demographics and our largely segregated middle schools.  Their findings spoke to parents’ interest in schools that are:  safe, a good fit for a student, diverse, and a quality neighborhood school.

CEC president (and Sunset Park Parent) Naila Rosario, spoke of the specific concerns faced by predominantly-immigrant parents from the southern end of the district – with close school proximity being a primary consideration for Sunset Park parents. We’re planning a follow-up forum in Sunset Park (co-sponsored with CM Menchaca) to make sure we hear more of these voices. 

There are some bright spots: Principal Jill Bloomberg talked about her work at Park Slope Collegiate to develop a screening rubric that supports diverse admissions as that long-excellent school has gained a reputation as a great choice among so many in our district. We heard about work by principals & parents in some of our elementary (e.g. PS 10, PS 29, PS 321) and middle schools (e.g. MS 442, MS 88, International Studies, Park Slope College, and the Brooklyn School for Collaborative Studies) to help families navigate the current system by applying as a “cohort” to one middle school together. Liz Rosenberg from NYC Public talked about “controlled-choice” and the educational-option models as possibilities for broader reform. And we were joined by principals and teachers from PS 107, PS 321, MS 51, New Voices, and many more – showing a real interest in working together. 

The conversation was hard at times – frustrations with the status quo are clear, and these aren’t simple issues to discuss, let alone solve. But I’m hopeful that by confronting them honestly, and together, we can achieve real, meaningful improvements.

Our Best PTA 5k Fun Run for Public Schools Yet!

The annual PTA 5K Fun Run in Prospect Park has become one of my favorite events of spring. It’s wonderful to see parents and students not just from our neighborhood, but from schools all across Brooklyn racing through the park, in support of our schools.

The event really showcases the spirit of collaboration in our public schools. It’s great to see schools with well-honed PTA fund-raising operations reaching out to schools with greater need, and to see such dedication from the entire Brooklyn school community, cheering each other on for the final leg of the race.

I’m proud to announce that this year was our biggest year yet! We raised over $20,000 and had over 1700 runners – a significant increase from last year’s totals. Thanks to all who came out to race, jog, walk, bike, skate, scooter, and stroll with us this year (and especially to race organizer Nick Bedell, his team from TWU Local 100, and to Vicki Sell from my office for their work making the run a great success).

If you enjoyed the PTA 5k, and want other great ideas for how to build strong parent leadership and participation in your school, don’t forget to check out PTALink.org (originally created with support from our office) & subscribe to their newsletter.

More Crossing Guards to Keep our Kids Safer

In our conversations about public schools, the first things parents generally agree is that they want a safe school for their child. That doesn’t mean only while they are in the building, but on their walk to and from school.

That’s why on Tuesday – along with Council Member Vanessa Gibson, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, Transportation Alternatives, Families for Safe Streets, DC37, and Local 372 – I led a rally on the steps of City Hall where we continued to push Mayor de Blasio for more school crossing guards & better working conditions for them.

Our goal is simple: to make sure that every dangerous intersection that needs a school crossing guard, gets a school crossing guard.

But right now, we can't even fill the positions we have, because the job quality is low. Although our crossing guards perform the priceless task of keeping our kids safe, we've been paying them low wages, keeping them stuck in part-time jobs, and laying them off in the summer.

By making job-quality better, we can fill vacant slots. And by expanding the number of slots, we can move toward NYC’s Vision Zero goals to eliminate preventable deaths from traffic crashes, ensure a safe Pre-K expansion, and most importantly, make sure that all of our kids are safe on their walks to and from school.

For more on my proposal to improve crossing guard job quality and increase the headcount, check out the press release from Monday’s rally.

Lunch for Learning

I also joined a rally – headlined by Public Advocacy Tish James, the Council’s Education Committee Chair Danny Dromm, and the “Lunch for Learning” Campaign – to support efforts to provide a free & health school lunch to all New York City public schools. Last year, we were able to do this for 6th – 8th grade middle-schools, and the results look positive so far. Extensive data shows that kids can only learn when they are well-nourished, and that universal free lunch goes a long way in this direction.

Helping to Save Summer Camp!

Finally, we had one more big win this week. Earlier this spring, we learned that the City was planning to transfer $28 million, leading to a cut of 17,000 summer-camp slots in our public schools (including many serving low-income students in our community and around the City).

Together with my City Council colleagues (including Finance Chair Julissa Ferreras and Youth Committee Chair Matthieu Eugene), and our friends at the Campaign for Children, we mobilized quickly. And I’m pleased to report that the de Blasio Administration agreed yesterday to restore this funding. 

Summer camp saved!

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Thanks for continuing to care about the future of our public schools. I look forward to seeing you at school graduations and celebrations throughout the district over the next few weeks.

- Brad

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