By the numbers

Early reports indicate New York opt-out rates are decreasing statewide, a possible sign of eased tension

PHOTO: Ann Schimke

Early opt-out estimates started rolling in Wednesday, the day after students sat for their first round of New York state standardized tests this year.

The number of families refusing to take the controversial tests seems to have decreased slightly in Rochester, the Hudson Valley, Buffalo and Albany. In Long Island, typically an opt-out hotbed, the rates thus far seem similar to last year. It’s still too soon to tell in New York City, but the number of families refusing to take tests has been traditionally been much lower in the city than in the rest of the state.

These are only preliminary numbers, based mostly on reports from school districts. Both High Achievement New York and New York State Allies for Public Education are tracking these reports closely and providing early tallies. The state will release an official tally this summer and would not provide any information at this time. But if it is true that opt-out rates are declining, it could be a sign that tension is slowly seeping out of what has been a charged statewide education debate.

“I think slowly and steadily, the situation is calming,” said Stephen Sigmund, executive director of High Achievement New York, a coalition of groups that promotes testing. “The changes that the state made are good changes and have helped calm the water.”

On the other side, Lisa Rudley, a founding member of New York State Allies for Public Education, said the numbers still look strong, the decreases are “very minor” and there is still a lot of information to be collected.

“The reality is, whether the numbers go up or down, there’s still a major problem with the testing in our state,” Rudley said.

Over the past few years, the number of families opting their children out of tests statewide has been on an upward trajectory, as teachers and parents protested what they saw as an inappropriate emphasis on testing. (There are currently three testing sessions each for English and math administered to students in public school grades 3-8.)

Backlash to the tests heightened in response to the state’s decision to adopt the Common Core learning standards and to tie those test results to teacher evaluations. The opt-out rate climbed to one in five students in 2015.

Partly in response to the movement, the state began to revise learning standards and removed grades 3-8 math and English tests from teacher evaluations tied to consequences. The Board of Regents selected a new leader, Betty Rosa, endorsed by opt-out supporters. Last year, the tests themselves were shortened slightly and students were given unlimited time to complete them. But, officials were unable to quell the tension. Roughly the same number of students sat out of the tests last year as the year before.

It’s difficult to estimate whether the opt-out rate has increased or decreased in New York City yet, said Kemala Karmen, a New York City representative for NYSAPE. She said that, anecdotally, in schools she has been in contact with, opt-out rates have either remained constant or decreased. Yet she has also heard of opt-outs in schools that had not reported them in the past. Karmen is also critical of the state’s changes to testing, which she thinks do not do nearly enough to assuage parents’ concerns.

New York City has traditionally had much lower opt-out rates than the rest of the state. While statewide 21 percent of families opted out last year, less than three percent did in the city. In part that’s because the movement hasn’t taken hold with as strongly with black and Hispanic families, who make up the majority of the city’s student body. Still, the movement’s political ramifications are being felt statewide.

School safety

Charter schools advocates’ next push: Funding for school security

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams speaks at a press conference related to charter school security funding.

New York City politicians and charter school advocates gathered at Brooklyn Borough Hall on Tuesday to demand school security funding for certain charter schools.

Advocates are asking the City Council to revise a city law that funds security at non-public schools with more than 300 students. This minimum enrollment cap and the exclusion of charter schools, they charge, means many charter schools housed in private spaces have to pull funding for school security guards from their budgets that could otherwise be used in the classroom.

“Our tax dollars should protect all our children,” said Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, who spoke alongside members of the City Council and charter school advocates.

The push represents a new line of advocacy for the charter sector and touches on a national conversation about school safety. After devastating school shootings this year in Texas and Florida, New York’s lawmakers have been debating the best way to keep children safe in schools.

Now, the charter sector is adding its voice to the mix arguing that school security funding is a critical tool schools use to keep children safe. However, in the absence of security funds, charter schools remain committed to dipping into instructional budgets to hire school safety officers, said James Merriman, the CEO of the New York City Charter School Center.

“I don’t want anyone to think that right now charter schools aren’t safe,” Merriman said.

Charter school advocates have long argued that the publicly funded, privately managed schools, which educate more than 42,000 students citywide in private spaces, do not receive public funding equivalent to that of their district school counterparts. They have suggested a range of solutions to this problem, including altering the state’s funding formula and receiving more money to pay for private space.

If the City Council is not receptive to changes, charter school supporters said they may look to the state for help.

“We think this can pass at the City Council level,” Adams said. “If not…we’ll go to the state.”

cultural connections

This Bronx school threw a party for its African families. Now it’s grown into something much more

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Children's Aid College Prep Charter School hosts regular events for its African families, one way the Bronx school tries to make sure immigrants are welcomed and served well.

Aboudoulaye Adizetou’s phone dinged with text message after text message from her daughter. Was Adizetou bringing the right hijab to school — the one that would match the rust-orange dress she planned to change into after the bell rang?  

That afternoon, Children’s Aid College Prep Charter School transformed its cafeteria for Celebrate Africa, an event for the school’s sizeable community of immigrant families. With African music blaring, teachers and staff served a warm meal of fried fish patties, and Senegalese chicken with thick slices of tomatoes and cucumbers. Flags from Nigeria, Ghana, and Cameroon served as tablecloths.

“Somewhere else, Africans are the last person they think about,” said Adizetou, who is from Togo. “But I think here, we are first.”

Celebrate Africa started as a way for the school to connect with families whose needs had largely gone under the radar. Children’s Aid College Prep, in the Morrisania neighborhood of the Bronx, tracks students’ attendance, behavior, grades, and even whether students are out of uniform. On every measure, students from African families were doing well, so the school had little reason to engage with them — until the staff set out to change that.

They started by throwing a party.

Now, Celebrate Africa takes place every few months, and it seems to have grown beyond a typical evening cultural celebration. Parents at a recent event agreed: starting with sharing meals and customs, the school has transformed the way it serves its African families — an especially notable move at a time when the bitter national debate over immigration often spills into classrooms.  

“We hear from our kids. They are bombarded by different messages. And we want to be clear: We support our immigrant families,” said Laura Crowley, the school’s academic dean.

Children’s Aid College Prep’s work with African families had an unhappy beginning: the Ebola crisis that began in 2014 and went on to claim more than 11,000 lives across West Africa. As hysteria over the deadly virus mounted, so did reports of bullying of African students in New York schools, including at Children’s Aid College Prep.

For Lyrica Fils-Aimé, a social worker who coordinates many of the school’s social services, it was a reminder that there was more work to do.

Fils-Aimé estimates that fewer than 20 percent of the school’s students are African — most are Caribbean and Hispanic — but that still means almost 100 students or their families come from the continent. She recalled one boy who, despite having an obviously African name, insisted that he was Jamaican. That was before Children’s Aid College Prep started working to connect with African families.

“I said, you know what, let’s just engage them,” Fils-Aimé said.

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
At a recent Celebrate Africa event, students listened to a teacher read the Nigerian folktale “Why the Sky is Far Away.”

At the first Celebrate Africa about two years ago, school staff were unsure what meals to order or from where. They turned to parents, who were happy to explain where to buy traditional fabrics to decorate the tables and how to eat African foods.

The script was flipped: Parents played the role of teacher, helping classroom educators navigate new experiences.   

“It was really powerful, I think, for the families to see the teacher be in an uncomfortable space. The parents were coming to the school and being in an uncomfortable space all the time,” Fils-Aimé said. “Then the parent is the expert. Those moments are how we got people to realize, ‘These people are here. They know stuff.’”

Getting there wasn’t always easy. Adizetou’s daughter was excelling at Children’s Aid College Prep, so she decided to enroll her younger son as well. But her experience soured as she began receiving constant calls home about her son’s behavior.

One morning, a call came after he had been in class for only an hour. Adizetou had had enough. She went to the school and cried.

“That day, I said, ‘No, this is happening because of my son’s color and where we came from,’” Adizetou said.

Fils-Aimé had already noticed that teachers seemed to have a harder time connecting with African parents — something she called “disturbing.” Many African children came to school on time, excelled in class, and were well behaved. When things went wrong, however, parents and teachers didn’t know how to work together to solve them.

“They would just kind of not engage each other,” she said. “It just fell off, and the issue wouldn’t get resolved.”

The school added additional training for teachers. In one session, they thought about barriers that might make it difficult to communicate with parents who speak other languages. For example: Imagine a teacher describing a classroom activity to parents as “a piece of cake.”

“An immigrant person who, English is a second language, does not necessarily know that idiom,” said Monique Fletcher, who works on parent engagement for Children’s Aid, a . “How do you simplify that language without dumbing it down?”

There were some breakthroughs. The school no longer hosts a “Literacy Night,” which African parents rarely showed up to. Instead, they invite parents to “Reading Night,” and families come to read with their children. Literacy “means stuff to educators, not necessarily parents,” Fletcher said.

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Students listen to a Nigerian folktale before sharing a Senegalese meal at a recent Celebrate Africa event.

Along the way, Celebrate Africa became more than a party. Food and music are constants, but now they accompany sessions on how to identify and treat mental illness and, after the school had to make a few calls to child welfare services, tips for disciplining children at home.

Now, “It’s easier to have those conversations,” Fletcher said. “We had good relationships with the families, so they understand where we’re coming from.”

Families say they started turning to staff when trouble at home affected the classroom. When Abdulaye Bathio’s wife left home with his children in tow, staff from Children’s Aid College Prep called to ask why his daughter hadn’t been in class. Worried, he went to the school to explain.

Not only did staff there help him gain custody of his children, but they accompanied him to the public assistance office to find better housing and provided fresh school uniforms.

“They take care of everyone here,” said Bathio, who is from Mauritania. “We love it.”