Mayor Bill de Blasio (291308)
Credit: NYC Mayor's Office/YouTube

Former New York City Mayor Ed Koch used to ask, “How am I doing?” For current mayor Bill de Blasio, that same approach could be used for the topic of education.

Elected officials and political pundits have had something to say about the mayor’s handling of schooling during the global pandemic. However, the mayor’s office believes it is doing well. When asked to grade themselves on their actions, a city spokesperson wasted no time answering.

“Grade A,” the spokesperson said. “Why? We have more students in classrooms than any other city in America, and all of our schools are open for in-person learning, the majority offering in-person learning five days a week.”

In mid-April as part of New York City’s new guidelines, de Blasio announced that a school wouldn’t close unless four or more people tested positive for COVID and the cases had to be traced to different classrooms and the parties exposed to the virus in-school.

This week, 51,000 students returned to school for the first time since quarantine began. With some citing that as a major victory, 61% of students (582,000) have chosen to stick with in-person learning. Back in November, the mayor closed schools for the second time after the city reached the 3% weekly positive testing threshold.

Things got so bad for the mayor that the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators voted no confidence with the mayor and his plans and called for him to cede mayoral control of schools. New York City Council Member Mark Treyger recently stated that he called for the removal of mayoral control from schools as well.

New York City Comptroller and mayoral candidate Scott Stringer said that he would grade de Blasio’s actions over the past year as unsatisfactory.

“This past school year has been challenging and frustrating for parents, students and teachers,” said Stringer. “Unclear communication, inadequate resources for lower-income students, and inconsistent guidelines caused chaos and confusion that disrupted learning.

“Vulnerable lower-income students struggled the most because the city failed to provide them with the resources they needed to participate in online classes,” Stringer continued.

In early March, the AmNews reported that the New York State Department of Education, during the 2019-2020 school year, showed an estimated 143,500 students who were either homeless or partially homeless (split between shelters) in the state. The combination of remote learning and COVID-19 might have increased that number.

De Blasio and former Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza attempted to use the pandemic and education disparities to change school admissions via an anti-screening lottery. The DOE would add support and secure grants to develop community-led plans diversifying its schools in the process. The city would attempt to spread it all over the five boroughs. In District 15, which includes Park Slope, Red Hook, Cobble Hill, Sunset Park and Fort Greene, 2019-’20 enrollment into schools such as M.S. 51 (a school for gifted and talented students) saw a 13% increase in Latinx students. The New Voices performing arts schools saw a close to a 20% increase in Latinx students.

But the comptroller wants the mayor to get the basics right first.

Stringer said that he sent a letter to the mayor and the DOE last June, outlining specific recommendations for the city to improve remote learning and reopen schools. This included the city offering direct support to low-income families who can’t access reliable internet.

“The reality is far too many students are still left behind,” said the comptroller.

Some of that gap could be made up with the Summer Rising program.

Summer Rising, stated DOE officials, is a free summer plan any child in grades K-12 can sign up for at the Department of Youth and Community Development’s (DYCD) website. The city will use its Community Schools strategy to integrate the DOE’s “academic supports” and DYCD’s school-based enrichment programming to create a “comprehensive summer program.” The goal of the program is to achieve success via methods that are “student-centered, experiential, academically rigorous and culturally responsive and sustaining.”

So what do some people think about the idea? Ray McGuire graded it “satisfactory” but needs improvement.

Lupe Todd-Medina, chief spokesperson for New York City mayoral candidate Ray McGuire, said, “Ray released an education catch-up plan for NYC students on March 15th and was happy to see Mayor de Blasio respond with a proposal for summer school which incorporates a student-centered comprehensive approach to address educational and social-emotional learning deficits.”

She also relayed his message that the city needs to do extended day/afterschool and weekend programming/instruction going into the next school year.

“This is aligned with Ray’s plan but does not go far enough to catch up the hundreds of thousands of students that have fallen behind and to ensure students are back in school for in-person learning next year,” stated Todd-Medina. “Some of the differences though is that 1. School should be full time and full day for all students; 2. Ray’s plan would have students be enrolled by default; 3. Ray would add the launch of the Catch-Up Volunteer Corps made up of retired teachers serving as tutors for an all-hands on deck response to the learning loss experienced by students, similar to how medical workers came out of retirement to respond to the needs of overrun hospitals at the height of hospitalizations last spring.”

For stakeholders in the program, there’s cautious optimism.

“The success of the summer program will depend on how well schools can mesh their own academic programs with the CBOs [Community Based Organizations], which will be providing a large portion of the non-academic programming,” said President of the United Federation of Teachers Michael Mulgrew. “The DOE needs to provide schools with a menu of vetted CBOs, preferably selecting those that have a track record of integrating their work into the school day.”

The specialized high school exam remains a source of controversy with the mayor. Several years ago, de Blasio recommended that the top 7% from each public middle school gain automatic admission into schools such as Bronx Science, Stuyvesant and Brooklyn Tech, while students from outside the public school system would be admitted through a lottery. The Asian community pushed back stating that they were being ignored as low-income New Yorkers and that they do well on the Specialized High School Admissions Test. They believe that the exam is their children’s ticket out of poverty via academics.

In the early 1980s, more than half of Brooklyn Tech was Black (51% in 1982). In 2016, that number had dropped to 6%.

So what will New York City mayoral candidate Andrew Yang do to address the education issues in the city? While not exactly addressing the question, Yang relayed what he would do with the city’s education system.

“If elected, my highest priority will be working with parents, teachers, principals and the unions to get schools fully and safely open,” said Yang. “Getting our children back to the classroom is the single smartest investment we can make in ensuring every kid has a bright future and that every New Yorker can partake in an equitable, accelerated economic recovery.”

So what do city officials and stakeholders think of de Blasio’s work? One former Brooklyn teacher graded his virtual report card.

“The marking period is not over, so at the moment it is an ‘incomplete,’” said Mulgrew.