Walcott on education and the Black and Brown community (36160)

When Dennis Walcott was named last week as the replacement for embattled Schools Chancellor Cathie Black, there was a collective sigh of relief in many quarters. Black had completely alienated herself among most New Yorkers, and she was found especially offensive by communities of color.

Walcott has been a known quantity in the Black community and the city at large. He has deep roots in public service, having been the president of the New York Urban League and Department of Education, being a former teacher he has education credibility. In fact, many wondered why Bloomberg would have made Black his first choice when she clearly lacked any core education competency.

As the controversy swirled about Black and her inability to run the school system, and before Walcott was named chancellor by Mayor Bloomberg, the Amsterdam News editorial staff decided that a wide-ranging interview with Walcott, the then-deputy mayor for education and policy–and Bloomberg administration go-to man–was appropriate to pursue, and we approached him for a sit-down. And with the New York City public school student population being more than 70 percent Black and Latino, one would think that setting up an interview with Walcott would be an easy task.

But it was not.

When requests were made for a sit-down with the deputy mayor, an AmNews reporter and editor, it became a convoluted process, as the dates and times shifted like sand in the desert. A one-hour interview request was cut to 30 minutes, and finally into a 20-minute discussion. The first interview did not meet the goal of the paper–which was an in-depth discussion of the issues facing students of color–so an additional time request was made. After much haranguing, the deputy mayor sat down in the “Queens Room” at City Hall, and discussed in a qualitative way issues facing Black and Latino students.

In recent articles, the AmNews has chronicled the lack of Black and Latino students in the city’s specialized high schools. According to InsideSchools.org, the Bronx High School of Science’s current ethnicity breakdown is 61 percent Asian, 25 percent white, 8 percent Hispanic and 3 percent Black. Stuyvesant High School’s breakdown is 69 percent Asian, 26 percent white, 3 percent Hispanic and 2 percent Black. Brooklyn Technical High School is 59 percent Asian, 21 percent white, 12 percent Black and 8 percent Hispanic.

Each of these high schools accept students based on one test, a process even the most prestigious private colleges do not use in making their determination of its student body. Neither student grades nor teacher recommendations are considered, so the classes at these schools are full of the best test takers. Creativity and other qualities are not considered.

Walcott defended the selection process and explained to the AmNews what the Bloomberg administration has done to try and increase the anemic number of Blacks and Latinos in specialized high schools.

“We have put in a significant effort to try and increase the number of students of color in specialized high schools,” said Walcott. “Around six or seven years ago we started a special institute that focused specifically on students of color, to identify them in an early grade and then have them [placed] in rigorous course training and have them train to take the test. We were sued. [We were told] it was basically discriminatory to have this type of program, so we had to open up the program itself so now it’s a broader type of program.”

The program continues without specifically targeting the lack of Black or Latino students, but when asked by the AmNews about the current racial-ethnic breakdown of the current program, we were told that the Department of Education doesn’t break down the numbers for their specialized training institute racially. Their focus is now on students who qualify for free lunch. According to numbers sent to us by Walcott’s spokeswoman, there were 932 participants in the institute. Of those 932, 864 (or 93 percent of participants) took the test, and of those test takers, 357 (or 41 percent) received an offer to attend a specialized high school.

According to Walcott, the administration has “increased the number of students who take the test and increased the numbers who qualify.”

“We have increased our numbers gradually over the last several years,” he said, but when the AmNews asked for specific numbers to show that increase, we received no numbers from his office by press time despite repeated requests. Walcott also identified the program Prep for Prep, which he said has identified and helped many students of color get into prestigious private schools, but he did not provide us with specific numbers.

The issue of premium schools is a particular sore spot for the Black and Latino community, since these institutions are supported as much by Black and Latino taxpayers as white and Asian taxpayers. Yet, Black and Brown children are woefully underrepresented in these institutions, which are more likely to have the best teachers and tend to be better funded by the Department of Education. There are other specialized programs in the city including the High School for Mathematics, Science and Engineering at the City College; High School of American Studies at Lehman College; Staten Island Technical High School; Queens High School for the Sciences at York College; the Brooklyn Latin School; and the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, which requires a competitive performance.

Specialized schools are not the only issue of concern observers of the New York City system.

There is still a persistent achievement and graduation rate gap between Black and Brown students and their white and Asian counterparts. Walcott acknowledges this problem.

“That goes to the heart of the whole reform that we’ve been putting in place the past couple of years and the phasing out of those schools that have not been educating our students at a certain standard, and being extremely aggressive in the phasing out of those schools,” said Walcott. “That includes schools that were high schools that were phased out, and new schools were put in place with basically the same students going there. The shrinking has started to take place as far as numbers are concerned. We have put more money into elementary schools and are working with the City Council on a middle school plan.”

Walcott describes the middle school plan as a number of practices that can alleviate some of the deficits found among Black and Latino students. He said the administration sees the biggest gap in the middle school years. He acknowledged with further questioning that the gap actually starts in elementary schools.

Walcott wants the city to partner more with communities of color to help reduce the gap. “I think part of what we’re doing from a government perspective, as well as working with the community, is making sure that we have universal pre-K programs available to our students,” said Walcott. He also mentioned the DOE programs ARIS and ARIS Parent Link, where parents can find information regarding their child’s attendance record, assessments, state test results, report card grades, unofficial transcripts, high school graduation requirements and activities they can do at home to improve their child’s academic achievement.

And while Walcott does acknowledge the city government’s role in reducing educational gaps, he put even more responsibility on the community. “I think that’s not just a government responsibility, but a community responsibility.”

The DOE’s most recent numbers (from the year 2009) are in no way inspiring for Blacks and Latinos. The graduation rate from New York City schools for Blacks is 57.8 percent, with a 12 percent dropout rate. Hispanic students had a 55.9 percent graduation rate and a 15 percent dropout rate. Conversely, for whites, the numbers were 76.5 percent and 8.4 percent respectively, and for Asians, the rates were 80.1 percent and 5.9 percent. And even these less than satisfactory numbers are being questioned by State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli.

In a recent audit, DiNapoli identified what he thought were discrepancies in the dropout rates reported for the DOE from 2004 to 2008. According to DiNapoli’s auditors, for the 2004 through 2008 school years, the dropout rate may have been as high as 16.5 percent. The DOE’s numbers for the same period were 13 percent. As a result, the audit claims that the graduation rate may have been 62.9 percent, instead of the reported 65.5 percent, for all students.

Student achievement, graduation gaps and access to the best city schools are just at the forefront of the issues of concern for Blacks and Latinos. These two groups often share communities and schools, and are looking for the same type of opportunities afforded white and Asian students throughout the city.

However, the education system is further complicated by the fact that the Bloomberg administration is also talking about laying off teachers as well.

And as is often the case, it won’t be the Stuyvesants or Bronx Sciences that are most likely to see the worst cuts, but the schools servicing Black and Brown students. The teachers union sees this as an attack on them. Walcott claims that the administration is not attacking teachers, but is trying to do what is best for the children of New York City.

“It’s not an attack on unions, but at the same time, it’s an issue where we want the best teacher in the class teaching our children,” said Walcott, making a statement that for many would seem to be him simply parroting the administration’s party line.

And so we will have to wait and see how well Walcott does as schools chancellor. For some there is no downside–he could do no worse than Black–but to many his nine years as a deputy mayor to Bloomberg were a deep disappointment. And as one observer said, “This helps to rescue his reputation as a do-nothing.”