behind the headlines

Why computer science? The story behind the city’s flashiest new education initiative

Mayor Bill de Blasio delivers an education speech, “Equity and Excellence,” at Bronx Latin School, which included a new computer science initiative.
Mayor Bill de Blasio delivers an education speech, “Equity and Excellence,” at Bronx Latin School, which included a new computer science initiative.

When Mayor Bill de Blasio announced every child in New York City schools will learn computer science within 10 years, Fred Wilson sat smiling in the audience.

The prominent venture capitalist, who founded the New York City Foundation for Computer Science Education, known as CSNYC, was there to watch the mayor formally endorse Wilson’s own ambitious goal: to provide computer science education to all.

The path to de Blasio’s announcement spans two mayoral administrations, a number of big donors, and a gaggle of tech industry insiders who worked on smaller computer science pilot projects throughout the city. But it was largely Wilson, met by a receptive mayor, who created and eventually funded the underpinnings for de Blasio’s splashy announcement.

It “was really a reveal of something that’s a long time in the making,” said Michael Preston, CSNYC’s executive director. “It wasn’t the mayor’s office deciding it was priority without a ready group that was there to support it.”

Whether New York City is to begin rapidly expanding access to computer science education, and to reach all students by 2025, is up for debate. Even its staunchest supporters recognize the challenges ahead, including raising about 70 percent of the private money needed and finding, then training, thousands of new teachers.

But the plan progressed from a concept to reality at a notably rapid pace, thanks to a rare combination of factors: a focused and wealthy champion, a growing national focus on career readiness, and the sustained interest of the city’s political leadership at a time when the mayor needs to demonstrate clear progress.

Still, some question whether computer science is at the core of what New York City students need, or whether the announcement served as a flashy way to skirt harder education problems, like the persistently struggling schools in the city’s poorest areas.

“Is this necessary or is this another example of public policy driven by private philanthropy?” asked David Bloomfield, a professor of education leadership at The CUNY Graduate Center and Brooklyn College. “I don’t think this was one of the more pressing issues.”

The announcement brought a wave of positive press at a time when de Blasio is beginning a new fight for control of the city’s schools. Last year, de Blasio was granted only one year of mayoral control, which means he will have to re-convince state lawmakers this spring that he should run the district.

Critics also note the pilot programs have left many questions about computer science education unanswered.

“Everything is about, let’s drop in a curriculum, let’s get a bazillion teachers trained,” said Mike Zamansky, a longtime computer science teacher at Stuyvesant High School, whose curriculum sparked Wilson’s early interest in computer science education. “Do you want your history teacher to be a mathematician who went through a summer program in history?”

Under Bloomberg, the beginnings of an idea

To understand the moment that de Blasio took the stage at Bronx Latin proclaiming computer science for all, one must look to the Bloomberg administration and keep an eye on Wilson.

"Those efforts were kind of the starting point to figure out which programs work and which programs don’t work."Maurya Couvares, the co-founder of ScriptEd

Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg was a “tech guy” who invited industry giants to events at Gracie Mansion and understood the importance of teaching students technological literacy, said Zamansky, who founded Stuyvesant’s computer science program over 20 years ago. Bloomberg also courted big donors and grew the Fund for Public Schools, which raises money for New York City’s schools.

The movement towards tech fit in with his administration’s ideas for modernizing career and technical education and its push for small schools. As the city moved to close Washington Irving High School for poor performance, it made plans for the Academy for Software Engineering, which opened in the Irving building in 2012.

That high school, where every student takes computer science each year, emerged from conversations with city officials that Wilson had begun more than two years earlier. The Bronx Academy for Software Engineering opened in 2013.

Another pilot program selected 20 schools in 2013 to begin teaching computer science and software engineering, funded partially with a $1.6 million gift from AT&T. The city’s goal then was to provide 3,500 students a computer science education by 2016.

The number that de Blasio now targets is 1.1 million by 2025, an increase in scale that is surprising even to those at the heart of the computer science education initiative.

“Nobody expected it to happen as quickly as it did,” Preston said.

The test pilot era

What happened to cause such a jump?

Outside of City Hall, attention to so-called STEM education — science, technology, engineering, and math — was steadily growing nationwide. Cities like Chicago and San Francisco announced widely lauded programs to offer computer science in city schools.

In New York, the vision to provide computer science to all, many said, can be traced to the founding of CSNYC in 2013. CSNYC, funded by Wilson’s private family foundation, has had a hand in funding and promoting many prominent computer science programs that have popped up across the city since. The foundation’s stated goal was to eventually bring computer science education to students citywide.

“Those efforts were kind of the starting point to figure out which programs work and which programs don’t work,” said Maurya Couvares, the co-founder and executive director of ScriptEd, which is funded by CSNYC and places teenagers at internships at businesses such as JPMorgan Chase and American Express.

As the pilot programs worked out the kinks of computer science education, City Hall became increasingly interested in expanding computer science into more schools.

During the mayor’s first year, de Blasio was primarily focused on other initiatives like universal pre-K, though officials from the mayor’s office said he kept an eye on the software engineering pilot program. In 2015, top officials’ focus shifted to older students, and specifically on how they could expand STEM and professional opportunities, Preston said.

By this spring, CSNYC and the mayor’s office were working out how they might scale the computer science initiative in earnest, and by the summer of 2015, public money was committed for the following fiscal year, Preston said. Wilson helped to secure the private funding, which included contributions from the Robin Hood Foundation and AOL.

Not out of the woods yet

There is a big difference between expressing interest in computer science and taking action to spread it across the city’s largest school system in a meaningful way.

Tracy Rudzitis, a teacher at The Computer School on the Upper West Side, helped develop curriculum for the software engineering pilot, knows the city’s limitations firsthand. In her school, with more than 400 students, the Internet connection is so poor they are lucky if 30 students can use the WiFi at once. Their school is fortunate because the parent association funded a computer lab. Others have fewer resources.

"Do you want your history teacher to be a mathematician who went through a summer program in history?"Mike Zamansky, computer science teacher

“It’s one thing to say we’re going to do all this,” Rudzitis said. “It’s another to actually do it.”

The city’s immediate goals include expanding the software engineering pilot program, starting a separate pilot in an elementary school — since young learners haven’t been a focus of most of the city’s initial forays into computer science — and starting more extensive professional development for teachers. In the coming months, the city will release more details in a strategic plan.

Meanwhile, many are questioning the scope and viability of the plan’s early outline, especially the need to attract and train 5,000 teachers. Currently, no state teaching certification exists for computer science, which Brenda Strassfeld, the chair of mathematics education at Touro College Graduate School of Education, said could make the initiative — which she strongly supports — “fall flat on its face.”

There is also the question of how the city plans to raise additional funds. Right now, though the city has an extensive list of donors, only about 30 percent of the private funds have been raised. AT&T does not have plans to donate any more funds to the project, but they may consider doing so in the future, said Marissa Shorenstein, the company’s president for New York State.

In order to scale the program, the city will need to find more funders. But it also needs people like Sara Lissa Paulson, a librarian at P.S. 347 on the Lower East Side, who was inspired after reading a book about the importance of coding.

Paulson taught herself how to code, then started an after-school program to teach her students. She soon found that it forced students to be precise and to learn through problem solving.

“There’s a kind of magic about it,” she said.

Controversy

Boundary lines of proposed South Loop high school drive wedge between communities

PHOTO: Cassie Walker Burke
About 30 speakers weighed in on a boundary proposal for a new South Loop high school at a public meeting at IIT.

The parent, wearing an “I Love NTA” T-shirt, said it loudly and directly toward the end of the public comment section Thursday night. “It sickens me to be here today and see so many people fighting for scraps,” said Kawana Hebron, in a public meeting on the boundaries for a proposed South Loop high school on the current site of National Teachers Academy. “Every community on this map is fighting for scraps.”

The 1,200-student high school, slated to open for the 2019-2020 school year near the corner of Cermak Road and State Street, has become a wedge issue dividing communities and races on the Near South Side.

Supporters of NTA, which is a 82 percent black elementary school, say pressure from wealthy white and Chinese families is leading the district to shutter its exceptional 1-plus rated program. A lawsuit filed in Circuit Court of Cook County in June by parents and supporters contends the decision violates the Illinois Civil Rights Code. 

But residents of Chinatown and the condo-and-crane laden South Loop have lobbied for an open-enrollment high school for years and that the district is running out of places to put one.

“I worry for my younger brother,” said a 15-year-old who lives between Chinatown and Bridgeport and travels north to go to the highly selective Jones College Prep. She said that too many students compete for too few seats in the nail-biting process to get into a selective enrollment high school. Plus, she worries about the safety, and environment, of the schools near her home. “We want something close, but good.”

PHOTO: Courtesy of Chicago Public Schools
The “general attendance” boundary for the proposed South Loop high school is outlined in blue. The neighborhoods outlined in red would receive “preference,” but they would not be guaranteed seats.

One by one, residents of Chinatown or nearby spoke in favor of the high school at the meeting in Hermann Hall at the Illinois Institute of Technology. They described their long drives, their fearfulness of dropping off children in schools with few, if any, Chinese students, and their concerns about truancy and poor academics at some neighboring open-enrollment high schools.

But their comments were sandwiched by dissenting views. A member of South Loop Elementary’s Local School Council argued that Chicago Public Schools has not established a clear process when it comes to shuttering an elementary and spending $10 million to replace it with a high school. “CPS scheduled this meeting at the same time as a capital budget meeting,” she complained.

She was followed by another South Loop parent who expressed concerns about potential overcrowding, the limited $10 million budget for the conversion, and the genesis of the project. “It’s a terrible way to start a new high school – on the ashes of a good elementary school,” the parent said.

The most persistent critique Thursday night was not about the decision to close NTA, but, rather, of the boundary line that would determine who gets guaranteed access and who doesn’t. The GAP, a diverse middle-class neighborhood bordered by 31st on the north, 35th on the South, King Drive to the east and LaSalle Street to the west, sits just outside the proposed boundary. A parade of GAP residents said they’ve been waiting for decades for a good option for their children but have been locked out in this iteration of the map. Children who live in the GAP would have “preference” status but would not be guaranteed access to seats.

“By not including our children into the guaranteed access high school boundaries – they are being excluded from high-quality options,” said Claudia Silva-Hernandez, the mother of two children, ages 5 and 7. “Our children deserve the peace of mind of a guaranteed-access option just like the children of South Loop, Chinatown, and Bridgeport.”

Leonard E. McGee, the president of the GAP Community Organization, said that tens of millions in tax-increment financing dollars – that is, money that the city collects on top of property tax revenues that is intended for economic development in places that need it most – originated from the neighborhood in the 1980s and went to help fund the construction of NTA. But not many of the area’s students got seats there.

Asked how he felt about the high school pitting community groups against each other, he paused. “If we’re all fighting for scraps, it must be a good scrap we’re fighting for.”

The meeting was run by Herald “Chip” Johnson, chief officer of CPS’ Office of Family and Community Engagement. He said that detailed notes from the meeting will be handed over to the office of CEO Janice Jackson. She will make a final recommendation to the Board of Education, which will put the plan up for a vote.

budget season

New budget gives CPS CEO Janice Jackson opportunity to play offense

PHOTO: Elaine Chen
Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson announced the district's $1 billion capital plan at Lázaro Cardenas Elementary School in Little Village.

Running Chicago’s schools might be the toughest tour of duty in town for a public sector CEO. There have been eight chiefs in a decade – to be fair, two were interims – who have wrangled with mounting debt, aging buildings, and high percentages of students who live in poverty.

Then there’ve been recurring scandals, corruption, and ethics violations. Since she was officially named to the top job in January, CEO Janice Jackson has had to clean up a series of her predecessors’ lapses, from a special education crisis that revealed families were counseled out of services to a sexual abuse investigation that spotlighted a decade of system failures at every level to protect students.

But with budget season underway, the former principal finally gets the chance to go on the offensive. The first operations budget of her tenure is a $5.98 billion plan that contains some good news for a change: 5 percent more money, courtesy of the state revamp of the school funding formula and a bump from local tax revenues. CPS plans to funnel $60 million more to schools than it did last school year, for a total of $3.1 billion. Put another way, it plans to spend $4,397 per student as a base rate — a 2 percent increase from the year prior.

CPS’ total budget comes out to $7.58 billion once you factor in long-term debt and an ambitious $1 billion capital plan that is the focus of a trio of public hearings Thursday night. When it comes to debt, the district owes $8.2 billion as of June 30, or nearly $3,000 per every Chicago resident.

“The district, without a doubt, is on firmer footing than it was 18 months ago, but they’re not out of woods yet,” said Bobby Otter, budget director for the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability. “When you look at the overall picture (the $7.58 budget), they’re still running a deficit. This is now the seventh year in a row they are running a deficit, and the amount of debt the district has, combined with the lack of reserves, leaves them with little flexibility.”

Earlier this week, standing in front of an audience of executives at a City Club of Chicago luncheon, Jackson acknowledged that it had been an “eventful” seven months and said she was ready to focus on strategies for moving the district forward. “I won’t be waiting for next shoe to drop or wasting time and resources waiting for next problem. I want to design a system to educate and protect children.”

“I’m not in crisis mode,” she added.

Here’s what that looks like in her first year when you just consider the numbers. The biggest line items of any operating budget are salaries, benefits and pensions: Taken all together, they consume 66 percent of CPS’ planned spending for the 2018-2019 school year. Rounding out much of the rest are contracts with vendors ($542.6 million, or 9 percent), such as the controversial janitorial deals with Aramark and SodexoMAGIC; charter expenditures ($749 million, or 13 percent); and spending on transportation, textbooks, equipment, and the like (12 percent).

A closer look at how some of those items are allocated offers a window into Jackson’s vision. The Board of Education is scheduled to vote on the plan July 25.

Investing in choice

Earlier this month, the district announced a nearly $1 billion capital plan, funded by bonds, that would support new schools, technology upgrades, and annexes at some of the district’s most popular campuses. The operating budget, meanwhile, accounts for the people and programs driving those projects. It proposes nearly doubling the staff, from 10 to 17, in the office that manages charters, contract programs, and the creation of new schools. It reestablishes a chief portfolio officer who reports directly to the CEO. And it adds expands access to International Baccalaureate programs and Early College STEM offerings. In a letter at the beginning of the 2019 Budget Book, Jackson said such expansions “move the district closer to our goal of having 50 percent of students earn at least one college or career credential before graduating high school.” 

Advocating for students

The budget seeds at least two new departments: a four-person Office of Equity charged with diversifying the teacher pipeline, among other roles, and a 20-person Title IX office that would investigate student abuse cases, including claims of student-on-student harassment.

Leaning into high schools

Fitting for a budget designed by a former high school principal – Jackson was running a high school before age 30 – the plan leans in to high schools, establishing $2 million to fund four new networks to oversee them. (That brings the total number of networks to 17; networks are mini-administrative departments that track school progress, assist with budgeting, and ensure policy and procedures are followed.) And it earmarks $75 million across three years for new science labs at neighborhood high schools. What’s more, it supports 10 additional career counselors to help campuses wrestle with a graduation mandate – set forth by Mayor Rahm Emanuel – that seniors have a post-secondary plan to graduate starting with the Class of 2020.

Throwing a lifeline to small schools

The budget also sets forth a $10 million “Small Schools Fund” to help schools with low enrollment retain teachers and offer after-school programs. It also earmarks an additional $5 million to help schools facing precipitous changes in enrollment, which can in turn lead to dramatic budget drops.   

Supporting modest staff increases

After a round of layoffs were announced in June, the budget plan adds at least 200 teachers. But the district would not provide a clear accounting of whom to Chalkbeat by publication time. Earlier this week, it announced plans to fund additional school social workers (160) and special education case managers (94).

The district plans to add positions for the upcoming 2018-2019 year.

As Chicago Teachers Union organizer and Cook County Commissioner candidate Brandon Johnson pointed out in an impromptu press conference earlier this week in front of district HQ, the budget is still “woefully short” on school psychologists, nurses, and counselors. And it doesn’t address the calls from parents to restore librarians and instructors in such subjects as art, music, physical education — positions that have experienced dramatic cuts since 2011. “What is proposed today still leaves us short of when (Mayor Emanuel) took office,” Johnson said. “The needs of our students must be met.”

Principal Elias Estrada, who oversees two North Side schools, Alcott Elementary and Alcott High School, said he was still figuring out how the additional staffing would work. He’s getting another social worker – but he oversees two campuses that sit three miles apart, so he figures he’ll have to divide the person’s time between campuses. Estrada asked the board at Monday’s budget hearing to help him understand the criteria it uses to determine which schools get extra staff or additional programs, like IB. “I need a counselor, a clerk, and an assistant principal,” he said; currently those positions also are shared between the elementary and the high school.

After the meeting, he said that schools might have gotten slightly bigger budgets this year, but the increase was consumed by rising salaries and he wasn’t able to add any positions. What’s more, his building needs repairs, but it didn’t get picked for any of the facilities upgrades in the $1 billion capital plan that accompanied the budget.

“What is the process?” he asked. “The need is everywhere.”

At two public hearings on Monday, fewer than a dozen speakers signed up to ask questions of the board, central office administrators, or Jackson.

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