Mayor’s Education Vision Finds Fans

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De Blasio had been faulted for not having an overarching schools strategy. Wednesday's speech may have put that concern to rest, although critics will now focus on the content of his proposal.

Demetrius Freeman/Mayoral Photography Office.

De Blasio had been faulted for not having an overarching schools strategy. Wednesday's speech may have put that concern to rest, although critics will now focus on the content of his proposal.

An ambitious, multimillion-dollar, multi-year plan by Mayor Bill de Blasio to provide a mentor for the city’s lowest-performing students, more resources for struggling schoolsand instruction on computer coding to every New York City student by 2026 was unveiled on Wednesday morning at the 6th through 12th grade Bronx Latin, but with few details about how the city was going to pay for all the initiatives.

With a year left on mayoral control of the New York City schools and a governor in Albany clearly impatient with progress to date, the mayor rolled out a $186-million plan to increase high-school graduation rates to 80 percent in the next 10 years and expand AP and college prep classes to every high school student, and embarking on a massive.

“There is a tale of two cities and we simply don’t accept it,” the mayor told the assembled teachers, parents, business leaders and union representatives in the Bronx Latin auditorium. It was the responsibility of the city to equip the children “with the skills they need for anything” and while that would “look different” for each child, “the responsibility to give them choices and priming them to be life long learners, that responsibility is ours,” said de Blasio.

It was a morning of celebrating what was great about the New York City School system, a vast network of nearly 1,700 schools and over 1 million school children who ply buses, sidewalks, subways, taxis and cars to attend some of the best—and some of the worst—schools in the city.

With the backdrop of smiling students and happy parents flashing on the screen behind him, the mayor defended the record at the Department of Education for the modest improvement on state reading and math exams and highlighted the 65,000 pre-school age children entering pre-K this year—triple the number from three years ago— and free after-school programs for all middle schoolers.

None of these things would have been possible, de Blasio emphasized, without mayoral control of the schools, eliciting the names of all the mayors from Abe Beame to Rudy Giuliani to Mike Bloomberg*, who supported mayoral control of schools.

Then came the checklist of collaborative efforts that would be underway this year: dedicated reading specialists in every elementary school in the next four years, reaching an estimated 76,000 students and costing $75 million when phased in by 2019; 25 partnerships between district and charter schools to share best practices on English and math instruction at a cost of approximately $1 million; a dedicated counselor for every struggling sixth to 12th grader in the city’s two lowest performing districts – district 7 and district 23 – to start in the fall of 2016; and expanding college access by offering middle-schoolers trips to college campuses and high-schoolers help with applications and promoting strategies to help families pay for college.

But the biggest piece was the mayor’s Computer Science For All initiative, in which every student will receive computer science education in elementary, middle and high school over the next year years. The 10-year, $81 million program will be supported by one to one matching funding from the AOL Foundation and Robin Hood Foundation. The initiative is already operating in 18 middle schools and high schools around the city, reaching 2,700 students.

Taking aim at stories about students who graduate form New York Schools only to struggle in college, the mayor said it was time for schools to drill down, so colleges aren’t teaching children what they are supposed to be learning in high school. As part of that effort, the city this year had successfully moved 660 low performing teachers out of the system, according to the mayor.

But for those who wish to see a change at the helm of the DOE, particularly groups like the New York City Parents Union, who have repeatedly said that Chancellor Carmen Farina has “failed” new York City school students, de Blasio dismissed the notion of Farina’s stepping down. “I think Carmen is just getting started, ladies and gentlemen.”

Also in the audience that morning to lend support to de Blasio’s initiatives, which focus on getting students ready for college were the deans of Columbia, New York University and Fashion Institute of Technology.

While the mayor has been criticized for lacking a coherent vision for the schools, and the programs unveiled today came with high price tags but little in the way of explanation of how they would be supported, de Blasio stuck steadily to the script that New York City’s second graders students would all be reading on grade level in the next four years—and the city’s overall graduation rate would reach 80 percent by 2026.

Returning again and again to his theme of a tale of two cities” the mayor stressed equity and excellence as the watchwords of the administration, sidestepping questions about segregated classrooms to cite a massive door-to-door campaign to increase parental involvement at the city’s 94 renewal schools. He extolled the efforts to the 130 new Community Schools to reach parents as well as students with wrap around services including mental health treatment and ESL classes for adults and lauded a plan to assign a mentor for every student from 6th to 12th grade in the city’s two lowest performing school districts.

In fact, if there was a theme it was a certainly one that came from the DOE leadership, i.e. Farina, itself – improving teacher skills inside the classroom and focusing on literacy in the early grades was going to be a primary focus going forward.

Last year at Bronx Latin, 300 students attended Saturday school to study for the SATs and the regents, de Blasio noted, a dedication that has been proved out not only in the school’s 92 percent graduation rate, but also in the students’ college graduation rate, where 89 percent finish college in four years.

Creating a solid framework for children to learn, and ensuring parents are involved, was the difference between success and failure, said the mayor. “We must show each of our kids we believe in them, believe in their ability to excel and give all of them the opportunity to show us we were right.”

Said Kim Sweet, executive director of Advocates for Children, which often sues the city on behalf of parents of children with special needs, the mayor’s emphasis on literacy as a way to equality struck the right note. “For a mayor who wants to address equality, teaching children to read is a great place to start,” said Sweet. Every year her office fields phone calls from parents of students who are falling further behind. While students of means tend to get the support they need, “students from low-income families often flounder and fall further and further behind and never really learn the basic skills they need to function.” AFC was pleased to see the investment in reading specialists, “we’re hoping it can spread into middle school and high school as well,” said Sweet.

Regent Kathleen Cashin, a former superintendent of district 23, one of the two school districts where students in grades 6 to 12 will each be assigned a guidance counselor told City Limits: “I totally support any projects that give guidance counselors” to students not just for academic support “but a caring adult to brainstorm and talk with” because you cannot overemphasize the “social-emotional underpinnings” of learning.

*CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that Mayor de Blasio did not invoke Mayor Bloomberg’s efforts to attain mayoral control of the school system. In fact, de Blasio did mention his predecessor. We regret the error.