Gotham Gazette http://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/1383 Wed, 18 Oct 2017 00:10:35 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) School Diversity Benefits All Children - and Parents http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6237:school-diversity-benefits-all-children-and-parents http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6237:school-diversity-benefits-all-children-and-parents bdb school

Mayor de Blasio on a school visit (photo: Rob Bennett, Mayor's Office)


My four-year-old daughter has a good friend at preschool who happens to have the same name. I'll call them both "Maya." My daughter is Asian, and her friend is Latino. Recently, a classmate said, "There are two Mayas in our class. One is white and the other is brown." My Asian daughter is the "white" Maya. The classmate's mom probed why he categorized the two Mayas this way, but didn't get much of an answer. Innocently, the boy didn't realize why his categorization was inaccurate or unusual.

In preschool, children are just beginning to make sense of things, applying lessons and parallels - sometimes accurately and sometimes not - from the world around them.

My daughter attends University Settlement Park Slope North/Helen Owen Carey Child Development Center ("Helen Owen Carey"), which manages to maintain a rare balance of racial and income diversity. I really appreciate this aspect of our preschool. Exposure to classmates from a wide range of racial and economic backgrounds is important. Young children need precisely this type of exposure, even if the process by which they come to understand it can be messy. Incidents like the above are awkward, but it's good that my daughter and her classmates are at a school where children can start to take stock of our diverse community. I am glad that Maya's classroom more closely mirrors the population of Brooklyn as a whole, and not just that of our Park Slope neighborhood.

Maya and her classmates have unique learning opportunities as a result of their school's student body, both formally and informally. In a lesson themed "All About Me," Maya and her classmates examined their physical appearance including differences in skin tone which they later put on a color spectrum, indirectly allowing the children to consider race.

Parents and families can also play an important role in this learning. Each spring, my husband and I go into our children's preschool classrooms to teach mini-lessons about two holidays related to our ethnic heritage, Chinese New Year and Burmese New Year. Even casual exposure can expand young children's sense of the world. My three children have sampled Haitian food at preschool potlucks, learned about latkes and matzo, and shared homemade mochi at their own birthday parties.

We need more public school classrooms that look like my daughter's preschool class.

The New York City Department of Education's recent decision to allow principals at seven public schools to set aside a percentage of seats for particular categories of students (such as low-income students, English Language Learners, or those involved with the child welfare system) in the interest of school integration is a promising and needed measure.

Once a more diverse study body walks through the classroom doors, however, a new and more intensive challenge begins – that of educating students of widely varying backgrounds and building a community from these children and their parents. And while it may be simpler to work with kids with roughly the same background and starting point, we know the value of a more diverse learning environment for everyone involved.

Parents in a racially and economically diverse school do face unique challenges when negotiating relationships and building community at those schools. For the most part, parents – including myself - at our preschool socialize more with others like themselves – racially, economically, or otherwise. This unfortunate segregation occurs politely and all too naturally, despite good intentions, and persists although many Park Slope parents chose the school precisely because of its diversity.

However, I have observed how we all grow more comfortable with one another over time and shared experiences. We nod "hello" when we run into each at drop-off or pickup, racing to avoid the dreaded late drop-off or pickup that occasions a visit to the administrative office. Parents share tips about the kindergarten application process, often in groups wider than our social circles. And so on.

Community building is tough, especially within diverse communities, even when this very diversity is what drew you into that community in the first place. I am thankful for the chance to participate in Helen Owen Carey's community. Maya's older brother now attends PS 321, a popular and sought after public elementary school in Park Slope. I've been satisfied with the caliber of instruction he's received there and appreciate the school's deeply engaged parent community. Unfortunately, it lacks the diversity I so love about our preschool. My children have been exposed to a level of diversity before entering kindergarten that they may not experience again in New York City public schools – maybe in their educational careers. That alone is priceless.

I benefit from the fact that my son's elementary school is a one mere block from my apartment, and the fact that playdates with my son's classmates are easy to arrange because everyone lives within five minutes. I have enjoyed getting to know many of his friend's parents, with whom I have a lot in common. That said, there is value in exposure to – and perhaps even building a more tenuous relationship with – parents with whom one does not have a lot in common and most likely will never become close friends with. Learning about other parents' experiences and the challenges they may face has expanded both my sense of the privilege I enjoy, as well as my broader understanding of educational equity.

As for my three children, as much as I appreciate the fact that we are zoned for PS 321 and what that means for their educational foundation, I hope they will not only reap benefits from their time in preschool but have more opportunities for rich, demanding, and diverse educational experiences in public school and beyond.

A good preschool friend of my son lived far away in another part of Brooklyn and is from a working class background. I didn't get to know his parents beyond the usual salutations and pleasantries, and we have not kept in touch. But I hope my son will remember his old friend should he meet other kids who remind him of the friend and that this will help my son keep an open mind and heart to others from different racial and income backgrounds. This hope might be impossibly idealistic, but it is ultimately what we need to achieve from school integration.

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Khin Mai Aung has three children aged two, four, and six who attend preschool and public school in New York City. Previously, she was Director of the Educational Equity Program at the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, and she currently conducts civil rights enforcement for the state of New York. The views contained in this article are solely her own.

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

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School Diversity Benefits All Children - and Parents Wed, 23 Mar 2016 01:53:50 +0000
Mayor & Council Announce $78.5B Fiscal 2016 Budget Deal http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5784:mayor-a-council-announce-785b-fiscal-2016-budget-deal http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5784:mayor-a-council-announce-785b-fiscal-2016-budget-deal MMV BdB budget deal

Mayor & Speaker announce budget (photo: William Alatriste)


A little after 10 p.m. Monday night and more than a week before deadline, Mayor Bill de Blasio and City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito announced that they had reached a deal on a balanced fiscal year 2016 city budget. The $78.5 billion budget is for the fiscal year beginning July 1 and includes additional spending from the mayor's Executive Budget, released in May, for several Council priorities - including the hiring of 1,297 new NYPD officers. Along with the expanded NYPD headcount, the budget includes funding for six-day library service around the city, parks workers, senior citizen services, a city bail fund, and other key items that were negotiated over the past months. The budget also reflects new agency savings and increased tax revenue, thus showing only a $200 million increase from the mayor's executive budget.

De Blasio gave credit to his budget team, led by Office of Management and Budget Director Dean Feulihan, and Mark-Viverito to hers, led by Finance Committee Chair Julissa Ferreras-Copeland, who was the third speaker Monday evening after de Blasio and Mark-Viverito. The mayor and speaker gave what each sees as the highlights from their perspective, as did Ferreras-Copeland, then the press assembled in the rotunda at City Hall peppered the mayor with questions about why he had relented to the Council push - two years in the making - to add significantly to the NYPD force. Explaining that the two sides had agreed to key cost savings like a cap on NYPD overtime, de Blasio also indicated that he and council leadership believe the added personpower will allow NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton to implement true neighborhood policing. There will also be new officers devoted "to counter-terror work."

In a release to the media, de Blasio's office touts the budget as moving forward "key initiatives to tackle income inequality and lift up families across the five boroughs, while protecting and strengthening the City's long-term fiscal health."

When he spoke, de Blasio named three standout aspects to him: increased funding toward the city's most struggling, or "renewal", schools specifically for extended learning time and health services; additional funding for libraries that will return them to six-day service; and the plan for an expanded NYPD headcount. In the statement released by his office, he said, "We're strengthening the NYPD's ranks, devoting new officers to counter-terror work and neighborhood policing, while securing vital fiscal reforms in overtime and civilianization. We are also making critical investments in our renewal schools, libraries, and so much more."

For her part, Mark-Viverito highlighted the investment in seniors, which, according to the mayor's office, includes "$4.3 million to eliminate waitlists for the Department for the Aging's homecare program, and $2 million to expand elder abuse prevention," as well as "$750,000 – growing in the out years – to fund support services through the Seniors in Affordable Rental Apartments (SARA) Program; 30 percent of those units are set aside for homeless seniors." Referring to strong ongoing lobbying efforts by seniors and their Council member allies (chiefly led by Council Members Margaret Chin and Paul Vallone), Mark-Viverito acknowledged the "active," "vocal," and fast-growing population of aging New Yorkers.

In a statement, Mark-Viverito also highlighted new Council spending, saying, "From establishing a Citywide bail fund, to creating new jobs for young adults, to strengthening the City's commitment to veterans and hiring 1,297 more NYPD officers to keep us safe, our budget makes New York City a better place to call home." The Council is dedicating $1.4 million to create a new bail fund, part of "$280 million in Council initiatives that will support New Yorkers throughout the City."

The goal of the bail fund is "to keep those accused of non-violent, low-level offenses out of jail. The Council's Bail Fund will provide bail of up to $2,000 and will save the City millions of dollars in incarceration costs and will help make the City's criminal justice system more just," according to a Council press release.

The budget includes additional funding toward parks that had been lobbied for by Council members and advocates, including almost $700,000 to extend beach season one week past Labor Day.

The deal received a mostly positive response from Council Parks Committee Chair Mark Levine, who said in a statement, "I am thrilled that the City Council has restored funding for gardeners and maintenance workers--saving 150 vitally needed jobs, and protecting a critical resource for parks in low- and moderate-income neighborhoods. I am also excited that we will be extending the beach season, allowing countless New Yorkers to enjoy these resources for a week past Labor Day," said Council Member Mark Levine. "I am disappointed the budget does not provide additional funds for community gardens, playground staff, mid-sized parks, and other important needs our park system faces. I look forward to continuing to work with the Mayor and my colleagues in the Council to bring greater resources to a park system that has been underfunded for far too long."

While de Blasio noted the increased funding heading toward the renewal schools that are the focus of much Department of Education effort and outside scrutiny, there are other key school-related additions to the budget, including $6.6 million for the DOE to "hire 50 additional physical education teachers and conduct a comprehensive needs assessment to address barriers and move schools toward full physical education compliance." There was a City Council hearing last week focused on the city's continued violation of state physical education requirements. This move in the budget may slow Council attempts to enact legislation requiring more reporting by the DOE on physical education programming, staffing, and space.

There's also "$17.9 million to phase-in breakfast in the classroom at 530 elementary schools, serving 339,000 students" by fiscal year 2018. While money for this Council priority, otherwise known as "breakfast after the bell," is included, there is no expansion of universal free lunch, which the Council had been pushing for. Last year, the program was instituted in middle schools, where all students are now provided lunch at no charge, but the mayor said that the results of the program were underwhelming and that instead of expanding it to elementary and/or high schools, the city would first look to do more outreach around the middle school offering and see if there is a noted improvement in year two.

The budget includes "$1.14 million to fund 80 additional school crossing guards," which will help contribute to the mayor's Vision Zero traffic and pedestrian safety work around schools, and more money for teachers to spend on their classrooms. On Twitter, the United Federation of Teachers thanked Mark-Viverito specifically, noting that "The city budget contains a 62% increase in Teacher's Choice funds. Teachers should get $125 next school year, up from $77."

One point of contention, especially heightened of late, has been funding and function at the Mayor's Office of Veteran Affairs. There has been a push to pass a Council bill that would create a new Department of Veterans Affairs, moving the work outside of the mayor's office (though still under the mayor's control) and allowing for increased funding and Council oversight. That bill is likely stalled in the Council, though it has over thirty sponsors, while the new budget includes "$1.5 million in new staff and resources to meet the Mayor's goal of ending veteran homelessness, and $335,000 to fund a team of Veterans Service Officers that will be deployed in communities throughout the five boroughs," according to the mayor's office.

Meanwhile, the NYPD investment for nearly 1,300 new officers is much of what everyone is talking about. The mayor had pushed back against Council pleas (and even a few from Bratton) for hiring 1,000 new officers during both the fiscal 2015 and 2016 budget processes. This budget, however, includes "$170 million to add new uniformed officers to the NYPD, coupled with vital reforms in overtime and civilianization that will generate over $70 million in savings when fully phased-in. The new officers will be dedicated to counter-terror efforts and neighborhood policing – central to Commissioner Bratton's reengineering of the Department to bring police and community closer together while keeping crime low," according to the mayor's office.

Police reform advocates expressed immediate displeasure with the compromise and budget watchdogs shared concern about the choice's fiscal ramifications. The Police Reform Organizing Project, or PROP, released a statement saying, in part, "Mayor Bill de Blasio and City Council leaders have made a truly terrible decision to add 1300 or so new officers to the NYPD's headcount. Rather than solve problems it will aggravate existing difficulties, deepening the racial, social, and economic inequities that plague our city and adding to the antagonism and distrust that communities of color already feel toward the police and the criminal justice system." De Blasio and others, of course, argue differently, saying that more officers will allow the NYPD to develop stronger community relationships and do more preventative policing.

Meanwhile, the Citizens Budget Commission said in a statement, "The FY 16 adopted budget announced by the Mayor and the Council this evening adds approximately $200 million in spending for additional police, social service providers and other programs. Although there is additional revenue available to fund these costs in the coming fiscal year, the agreed upon additions are an added risk to the City's fiscal health in future years, when budget gaps are already projected and when an inevitable economic downturn will erode the revenue required to pay for recurring expenses."

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
@tweetBenMax

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Mayor & Council Announce $78.5B Fiscal 2016 Budget Deal Tue, 23 Jun 2015 10:54:38 +0000
What Meals Should City Schools Provide, and When? http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5781:what-meals-should-city-schools-provide-and-when http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5781:what-meals-should-city-schools-provide-and-when lunch for learning electeds

CMs Dromm, Kallos, & King, Public Advocate James, & advocates (photo: @Lunch4Learning)


“All I know is that when I would tell him that I’m hungry, he would say that he doesn’t have money to buy me something to eat,” says 17-year-old Althea of growing up with her father. She describes getting food at her house as a “gamble,” adding, “Sometimes the school lunch was the only meal I would eat for the entire day.”

For many young people in New York City, like Althea, the only meals they eat are the free breakfasts and lunches provided to them at their schools. “We’re the richest city in the history of the world,” says Joel Berg, executive director of New York City Coalition Against Hunger. “We have 53 billionaires and half a million children who cannot afford enough food.”

While New York City schools provide free breakfast to all students and free lunch to middle school students and others who qualify financially, there is controversy over exactly when breakfast should be available and whether free lunch should be made universal. As negotiations lead to a final fiscal year 2016 city budget by the end of June, school meal policies and the funding of those meals are again key parts of the discussion.

Advocates and elected officials are asking for the City to do more – they want school lunches to be free for all students, no matter family income, and for students to be able to eat their breakfasts in the classroom, in what is known as “breakfast after the bell.”

The need for free school meals is particularly urgent in New York City. About 20 percent of the children in the city go to food pantries and soup kitchens, according to Rachel Sabella, director of government relations of Food Bank for New York City. As Mayor Bill de Blasio often says, 46 percent of New Yorkers are living below or near the poverty line.

At the moment, students can register for a free lunch if their family income is below 130 percent of the poverty level or if they fall into other categories such as receiving food stamps, or being homeless or in foster care. About 75 percent of New York City’s public school students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. The US Department of Agriculture reimburses schools for each breakfast and lunch they serve that meet certain nutritional criteria.

Advocates say that universal free school meals would help the large number of students in the city whose family incomes are slightly higher than the qualifying threshold but still live paycheck to paycheck. “The eligibility threshold is uniform nationally but the cost of living is not,” explains Janet Poppendieck, Policy Director of New York City Food Policy Center and author of Free for All: Fixing School Food in America.

Universal free school meals would also benefit families that do qualify for the free or reduced price program but do not fill out the required paperwork, either because they find it to be too complicated or because of a language barrier. In some cases, undocumented immigrants do not fill out the paperwork, fearing it might be used against them by immigration services.

In New York City, about a third of the students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches don’t eat those meals. Many students do not take them due to stigma, not wanting to be seen as poor. As students get older, the number of students opting for free meals decreases, according to Liz Accles of Lunch for Learning, a coalition-led campaign that includes community organizations, youth advocacy groups, and student groups and has allied with elected officials like Public Advocate Letitia James.

While about 80 percent of eligible elementary school students eat free lunches, the number drops to about 60 percent in middle school and 30 percent in high school. “A primary reason for that drop is the poverty stigma that is associated with the program,” Accles explains.

Students are often teased or bullied for eating free lunches, advocates say. “A lot of the kids that are ashamed to get on line or afraid or anticipate that there will be problems just sit out and don’t eat anything during the day,” says Accles. Supporters of universal school meals say that this stigma would be eliminated if schools provide free meals to all students regardless of family income. This is the message that students from some of the Lunch for Learning coalition groups and Public Advocate James are delivering in a letter to the mayor on Tuesday afternoon, along with a photobook of over 300 pictures from the #lunch4learning selfie campaign.

Council Member Ben Kallos, who is among those in the City Council most involved in calling for the expansion of free school meals, talks personally about the free lunch stigma. Raised on the Upper East Side by his single mother, he was one of the few children in his neighborhood who qualified for free or reduced-price school lunches, Kallos says. “If you’re bringing the styrofoam tray, you get made fun of,” he said, recalling the tray that gave away that a student had received a free lunch. “I wish I could say differently but I did not make the smart decision. And rather than facing the stigma of having the school lunch, I just didn’t eat.”

According to an estimate by the Independent Budget Office, it would cost $20 million per year to provide free lunch to all of the city’s public school students. The Department of Education’s operating budget for 2015-2016 is $21.8 billion. Last year, under a pilot program, free lunches for all students were provided in New York City’s standalone middle schools. Within months of the program’s start, almost 10 percent more students were eating free lunches in these schools. Mayor de Blasio described the results of the pilot program as “mixed” in his presentation of his fiscal year 2016 Executive Budget, elaborating, “the additional number of children who are taking advantage of it has not been that large so far.”

Calling the increase “phenomenal progress,” Poppendieck disagrees. “I think maybe that they [the de Blasio administration] don’t understand the whole structure of reimbursements well enough or the culture of the school cafeteria enough to really appreciate the gains that have been made,” she told Gotham Gazette.

Many are surprised at the administration’s reluctance to expand free school meals. “This is in stark contrast to the rest of the record on food issues,” says Berg, of the Coalition Against Hunger, which he calls otherwise “stellar.” Advocates for universal school meals feel the expansion of this program to all New York City public schools would be consistent with the mayor’s efforts to reduce inequality, with Accles calling it “fundamental to any education or health equity agenda that the mayor has.”

The Most Important Meal of the Day
While free lunches are currently only available to qualified and registered students, free breakfasts are available to all students in New York City public schools, regardless of income. Yet, New York consistently ranks among the bottom of big cities in terms of low-income students eating school breakfasts, leading some to call for reform of breakfast accessibility.

According to the latest annual report by the Food Research and Action Center, a nonprofit organization working to eliminate hunger and under-nutrition, in the 2013-2014 school year only about 35 percent of the city’s low-income students were eating breakfast in school. The report shows that the number of students eating school breakfasts decreased last school year. “We’re just so far below what the norms are,” says City Council Member Stephen Levin, chair of the Council’s general welfare committee.

Low participation numbers intensified the push for “breakfast after the bell.” In most New York City schools, breakfast is served in the cafeteria before the first class of the day. Supporters of the after-the-bell program say that many students cannot arrive at school in time for breakfast in the cafeteria because school buses may not get to school that early or because parents have to drop off their children in different schools. And, like free lunches, there is also a poverty stigma attached to eating school breakfasts. While all students are entitled to the free breakfasts, the general perception in schools is that those who make the effort to arrive early, just to eat in the cafeteria, are those who cannot afford to eat at home. “Students feel shame. And it shouldn’t be that way,” says Sabella.

With ‘breakfast after the bell,’ students can eat their free breakfast after the start of morning classes instead of before the school day. “It’s the best way to get as much food as possible to children that need it,” says Council Member Levin.

At the moment, New York City public school principals can choose to opt in for ‘breakfast after the bell.’ Over 300 schools in the city have opted in so far, either serving breakfast in the classroom or providing “grab and go” carts for students to pick up food to take into class. “We’ve heard nothing but good things from those principals and teachers,” says Megan Cryan, New York City Campaign Director of Share our Strength. “It levels the playing field,” she adds, referring to research that children who eat breakfast after the bell are able to focus better, have fewer behavioral issues, and make fewer visits to the school nurse.

Advocates also point to the examples of other big cities that have successfully introduced ‘breakfast after the bell.’ Recently, Los Angeles completed a three-year rollout of the program in all of its public schools. The results include the number of children eating breakfast in schools surging from around 30 percent to over 80 percent. The city covered the costs of the program with $16 million in reimbursements from the USDA.

Some reluctance to implementing ‘breakfast after the bell’ in New York is due to concerns such as keeping classrooms clean and whether federal funding would cover the start-up costs of the program. There is also skepticism around students being able to concentrate on their studies while eating or nearby others who take food.

Supporters say that in New York City, ‘breakfast after the bell’ is likely to pay for itself as the more meals are served, the more is received in federal reimbursements. According to the Food Research and Action Center, New York City would receive more than $53 million in additional federal reimbursements if 70 percent of the students receiving school lunches would also eat breakfast at school. Berg estimates that the city would receive an additional $150 million if every child is served breakfast in school every day.

Although Mayor de Blasio supported ‘breakfast after the bell’ before becoming mayor, he has not remained on board since coming into office. This year’s preliminary and executive budgets did not include ‘breakfast after the bell’ or an expansion of universal free lunch. This omission was noted by the City Council in its budget response and raised in a Council hearing on the education budget. Public Advocate James also expressed her disappointment in a press conference outside the Department of Education and in an op-ed for City & State urging the mayor to expand universal free meals beyond middle schools.

In a statement sent to Gotham Gazette, the Department of Education said, “The DOE is pleased to serve free lunch for all students in standalone middle schools. We are continuing to work through the operational issues involved with the free breakfast in the classroom program and will work closely with City Council, school leaders and advocates as this process continues.”

“We don’t know what the holdup is but we are hopeful,” said Cryan of the possibility of school meals being expanded in the final budget for the fiscal year starting July 1. Kallos similarly expressed hope but also said he was “unsatisfied” with responses he has received from the City Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña.

Kallos says it is time to act: “Folks seem to be pointing fingers. But at the end of the day, it’s up to us to make it happen.”

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by Zehra Rehman, Gotham Gazette
@GothamGazette

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What Meals Should City Schools Provide, and When? Mon, 22 Jun 2015 19:14:53 +0000
The Week Ahead in New York Politics, June 1 http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5746:the-week-ahead-in-new-york-politics-june-1 http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5746:the-week-ahead-in-new-york-politics-june-1 New York City Hall

New York City Hall


What to watch for this week in New York politics:

Welcome to June! A city budget is due by the end of the month. The state legislative session is due to end mid-month. And, it's both Gun Violence Awareness Month in New York City (legislation in 2013 declared it the first city in the United States to have a month dedicated to the cause) and LGBT Pride Month. Look for events and legislation related to each this week and as the month continues.

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The Week Ahead in New York Politics, June 1 Sun, 31 May 2015 22:59:41 +0000
Education Upheaval in Albany is Backdrop to DOE Budget Hearing http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5745:education-upheaval-in-albany-is-backdrop-to-doe-budget-hearing http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5745:education-upheaval-in-albany-is-backdrop-to-doe-budget-hearing farina via levine

Chancellor Carmen Farina testifying Thursday (photo: @MarkLevineNYC)


With an eye on Albany, it was time Thursday morning for New York City schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña to again testify in front of the City Council about her agency's proposed fiscal year 2016 budget and key education issues facing the city. The heightened level of concern with events in the capital comes amid shakeups in state leadership, important legislation on the negotiating table with deadlines looming, and recently passed controversial state teacher evaluation laws.

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Education Upheaval in Albany is Backdrop to DOE Budget Hearing Thu, 28 May 2015 17:07:38 +0000
Council Bills Aimed at Clarity, Improvement Around School Discipline and Support http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5681:council-bills-aimed-at-clarity-improvement-around-school-discipline-and-support http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5681:council-bills-aimed-at-clarity-improvement-around-school-discipline-and-support torres alatriste

CM Ritchie Torres at a recent event (photo: William Alatriste)


At a joint hearing of the City Council's Committees on Public Safety and Education on Tuesday, council members will discuss and hear testimony on three bills addressing school safety.

One bill, sponsored by Council Member Ritchie Torres, would require the city Department of Education (DOE) to report the ratio of school safety officers to guidance counselors in each school.

The bill, Torres said, has the support of the Council's Coalition of Young Men of Color, which includes Torres and his colleagues Council Members Antonio Reynoso, Donovan Richards, Rafael Espinal and Carlos Menchaca.

The legislation is an attempt to gauge the "imbalance of resources" in the education system, Torres told Gotham Gazette. "In order to solve the problem, we need to diagnose the problem," he said, indicating concern over there being too many police agents and not enough counselors in the city's schools.

The information gleaned from the DOE will help determine how resources are allocated toward punitive or restorative practices. Torres said he wants to address the "school-to-prison pipeline" created by disciplinary policies where suspensions lead to dropouts; with both leading young people to the criminal justice system. "Our public education system is defeating it's own purpose instead of putting [youth] on a path to a career," he said.

"The people to blame are not the teachers and administrators, but the politicians and bureaucrats who create these policies," Torres said.

Torres does commend Mayor Bill de Blasio for making a genuine effort toward reform. In February, the administration revised the school discipline code and established more careful punishments for certain student behavior, including the new requirement of approval from the Department of Education for student suspensions. "But it's important to match changes in policy with the investment of resources," said Torres. "A key part of the equation is access to restorative resources. It's about reforming the criminal justice system. If ever there was a time for reform, it's now."

A second bill to be discussed on Tuesday, introduced by Council Member David Greenfield, requires the police department to assign school safety agents to public and nonpublic schools that request them. And the third bill, sponsored by Council Member Vanessa Gibson, requires the schools chancellor to submit an annual report to the Council, also made available on the DOE website, on the discipline of students and the referral to emergency medical services for incidents related to disruptive behavior.

For advocates of reform, the package of bills is a move in the right direction. A number of groups including Make the Road New York and the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) are expected to testify at the hearing to show their support for both Torres' and Gibson's bills.

"[Council Member Torres' bill] gets at the heart of where schools are allocating resources," said Karen Farkas, senior staff attorney at Brooklyn Defender Services. Farkas deals with issues related to education and counsels students between 16- and 19-years-old.

"It's a knee-jerk reaction in communities and among lawmakers that safety is equated with the presence of safety agents," she said. "But my clients and students of color don't equate that with safety. It detracts from a positive community and school culture. It makes it harder for schools to be schools."

Many of her clients, Farkas said, come from communities that are already over-policed. "Schools should be a place where kids are given the benefit of the doubt, not considered bad or criminal."

Farkas believes Torres' bill could reveal the effects that fewer police agents and more positive counseling would have. She also praised the administration's recent steps for laying the groundwork and initiating discussions on restorative justice practices, whereby instead of being suspended from school, students work to make damaged relationships whole again. But, Farkas insisted that "Unless there's a whole school reform model, and it's done well, little piecemeal measures won't change the whole problem."

Shoshi Chowdhury, coordinator of the Dignity in Schools Campaign, said the bills would help provide more data and transparency, shedding light on school discipline. "The Student Safety Act of 2010 was the first time in New York City history that we started getting data on suspensions. But there was some data missing," she said. The amendments proposed in Gibson's bill are aimed to address these. At the hearing, members of Chowdhury's organization will testify along with students, parents, and educators.

Nick Sheehan, staff attorney at Advocates for Children, shares Chowdhury's view. Torres' bill, he said, would increase transparency "about how the City chooses to allocate its resources."

He went further, saying the bill should also add ratios of social workers and school psychologists to school safety agents, and the ratio of those staff members to students. He also agreed that Gibson's bill would address the limitations in the Student Safety Act. "They're technical tweaks, but they're important," he said.

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by Samar Khurshid, Gotham Gazette
@samarkhurshid

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Council Bills Aimed at Clarity, Improvement Around School Discipline and Support Mon, 13 Apr 2015 17:31:04 +0000