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.

pushing back

State’s most drastic school intervention plans won’t work, say Memphis board members

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Shelby County Schools board member Stephanie Love

School board members in Memphis are pushing back on the state’s plan to intervene in two low-performing schools.

In their first public discussion of an intervention plan outlined this month by the Tennessee Department of Education, members of Shelby County’s board of education said they aren’t convinced the most drastic recommendations will work for Hawkins Mill Elementary and American Way Middle schools.

The state has recommended closing Hawkins Mill because of its low enrollment and poor academic performance. American Way is on the state’s track either for takeover by Tennessee’s Achievement School District or transfer to a charter organization chosen by Shelby County Schools beginning in the fall of 2019.

But school board members said they’d rather move both schools to the Innovation Zone, a turnaround program run by the local district which has had some success since launching in 2012.

And Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said he wants to keep Hawkins Mill open because the Frayser school is in its first year under his “critical focus” plan to invest in struggling schools instead of just closing them.

“I would prefer to stay the course,” he told board members Tuesday evening. “I don’t think the board should be forced to close something by the state.”

Whether local school leaders can make that call is up for debate, though.

The intervention plan is the first rolled out under Tennessee’s new tiered school improvement model created in response to a 2015 federal education law. State officials say it’s designed for more collaboration between state and local leaders in making school improvement decisions, with the state education commissioner ultimately making the call.

But Rodney Moore, the district’s chief lawyer, said the state does not have the authority to close a school if the board votes to keep it open.

Both Hawkins Mill and American Way are on the state’s most intensive track for intervention. The state’s plan includes 19 other Memphis schools, too, with varying levels of state involvement, but only Hawkins Mill and American Way sparked discussion during the board’s work session.

Until this year, Hawkins Mill was one of the few schools in the Frayser community that hadn’t been under a major improvement plan in the last decade — unlike the state-run, charter, and iZone schools that surround it. But last year, Hopson’s “critical focus” plan set aside additional resources for Hawkins Mill and 18 other struggling schools and set a three-year deadline to turn themselves around or face possible closure.

School board members Stephanie Love, whose district includes Hawkins Mill, said that timeline needs to play out. “I am in no support of closing down Hawkins Mill Elementary,” she said. “We have what it takes to fully educate our children.”

PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier
Protests over the state takeover of American Way Middle School in 2014, which is in Rep. Raumesh Akbari’s district in Memphis, motivated her to file legislation designed to limit the power of the state’s Achievement School District.

American Way Middle has been on the radar of local and state officials for some time. In 2014, the state explored moving it to the ASD, but that didn’t happen because the southeast Memphis school had higher-than-average growth on student test scores. American Way has not kept up that high growth, however, and Chief of Schools Sharon Griffin considered it last year for the iZone.

Board member Miska Clay Bibbs, whose district includes American Way, was opposed to both of the state’s intervention options.

“What you’re suggesting is something that’s not working,” Bibbs said of the ASD’s track record of school turnaround based on its charter-driven model.

Bibbs added that any improvement plan for American Way must be comprehensive and offered up a resolution for consideration next week to move the school into the iZone next school year.

“We can no longer be: change a principal, tack on an extra hour. It has to be a holistic approach,” she said, adding that feeder patterns of schools should be part of the process.

Turnaround 2.0

McQueen outlines state intervention plans for 21 Memphis schools

PHOTO: TN.gov
Candice McQueen has been Tennessee's education commissioner since 2015 and oversaw the restructure of its school improvement model in 2017.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has identified 21 Memphis schools in need of state intervention after months of school visits and talks with top leaders in Shelby County Schools.

In its first intervention plan under the state’s new school improvement model, the Department of Education has placed American Way Middle School on track either for state takeover by the Achievement School District or conversion to a charter school by Shelby County Schools.

The state also is recommending closure of Hawkins Mill Elementary School.

And 19 other low-performing schools would stay under local control, with the state actively monitoring their progress or collaborating with the district to design improvement plans. Fourteen are already part of the Innovation Zone, the Memphis district’s highly regarded turnaround program now in its sixth year.

McQueen outlined the “intervention tracks” for all 21 Memphis schools in a Feb. 5 letter to Superintendent Dorsey Hopson that was obtained by Chalkbeat.

Almost all of the schools are expected to make this fall’s “priority list” of Tennessee’s 5 percent of lowest-performing schools. McQueen said the intervention tracks will be reassessed at that time.

McQueen’s letter offers the first look at how the state is pursuing turnaround plans under its new tiered model of school improvement, which is launching this year in response to a new federal education law.

The commissioner also sent letters outlining intervention tracks to superintendents in Nashville, Chattanooga, Knoxville, and Jackson, all of which are home to priority schools.

Under its new model, Tennessee is seeking to collaborate more with local districts to develop improvement plans, instead of just taking over struggling schools and assigning them to charter operators under the oversight of the state-run Achievement School District. However, the ASD, which now oversees 29 Memphis schools, remains an intervention of last resort.

McQueen identified the following eight schools to undergo a “rigorous school improvement planning process,” in collaboration between the state and Shelby County Schools. Any resulting interventions will be led by the local district.

  • A.B. Hill Elementary
  • A. Maceo Walker Middle
  • Douglass High
  • Georgian Hills Middle
  • Grandview Heights Middle
  • Holmes Road Elementary
  • LaRose Elementary
  • Sheffield Elementary
  • Wooddale High

These next six iZone schools must work with the state “to ensure that (their) plan for intervention is appropriate based on identified need and level of evidence.”

  • Sheffield Elementary
  • Raleigh-Egypt High
  • Lucie E. Campbell Elementary
  • Melrose High
  • Sherwood Middle
  • Westwood High

The five schools below will continue their current intervention plan within the iZone and must provide progress reports to the state:

  • Hamilton High
  • Riverview Middle
  • Geeter Middle
  • Magnolia Elementary
  • Trezevant High

The school board is expected to discuss the state’s plan during its work session next Tuesday. And if early reaction from board member Stephanie Love is any indication, the discussion will be robust.

“We have what it takes to improve our schools,” Love told Chalkbeat on Friday. “I think what they need to do is let our educators do the work and not put them in the situation where they don’t know what will happen from year to year.”

Among questions expected to be raised is whether McQueen’s recommendation to close Hawkins Mill can be carried out without school board approval, since her letter says that schools on the most rigorous intervention track “will implement a specific intervention as determined by the Commissioner.”

Another question is why the state’s plan includes three schools — Douglass High, Sherwood Middle, and Lucie E. Campbell Elementary — that improved enough last year to move off of the state’s warning list of the 10 percent of lowest-performing schools.

You can read McQueen’s letter to Hopson below: