On the Road: Elia, Regents Hold Public Hearing in Brooklyn as NY Readies ESSA Plan for Feds
Brooklyn, New York
Commissioner MaryEllen Elia and other New York State education officials visited Brooklyn on Tuesday evening to gather feedback on the states plan for implementing the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). The visit took place at the Prospect Heights Educational Campus, which is home to several specialty high schools. Many parents, students, and educators expressed concerns about how ESSAs graduation benchmark could negatively impact their school, which serves students who have dropped out or fallen behind in credits.
This visit is part of Elias month-long tour across the state to gather public input on the plan before its final submission to the US Education Department in three months. Previous stops included Rochester, Plattsburgh, Syracuse, Long Island, Yonkers, and other New York City boroughs. The traveling hearings will conclude in Albany on June 15, with written comments being accepted until June 16.
ESSA, a federal K-12 education law that replaces No Child Left Behind, gives more decision-making power to the states. New York, like the majority of states, will submit its plan to the department in September.
The states plan, based on a 159-page blueprint adopted by the New York State Board of Regents in May, emphasizes both student academic proficiency and equity in evaluating schools. This means considering the resources that schools receive, such as funding, qualified teachers, and access to advanced coursework. The draft plan, released publicly for the first time last month, includes two main indicators for evaluating school quality: "improving college, career, and civic readiness" and the rate of chronic absenteeism.
ESSA also requires states to report four-year graduation rates for low-performing schools. These schools are identified as those that graduate less than one-third of their students or have a graduation rate below 67 percent. However, it should be noted that the implications of ESSA have become uncertain after Congress dropped key accountability regulations in March.
During Tuesday nights hearing, the audience expressed concerns about the potential impact of the graduation rate benchmark on New York Citys transfer schools. These schools cater to students aged 16 to 21 who have fallen behind in traditional high schools. Transfer schools provide support through counseling, tutoring, and job training, offering students a chance to earn a Regents diploma or alternative high school completion, as well as paid internships.
Speakers at the hearing said that a majority of transfer schools have graduation rates below 67 percent, which could negatively affect them under ESSA and lead to state intervention. They also highlighted the potential damage to the reputation of transfer schools, which could make it difficult to attract quality teachers. For many struggling teenagers who have faced poverty, abuse, violence, or incarceration, transfer schools represent a last glimmer of hope.
Several students and alumni emotionally shared their experiences of how the close relationships with teachers and counselors at transfer schools provided much-needed support as they worked towards graduation while dealing with homelessness and mental illness. Some attendees even presented state officials with signs bearing messages like "Mistakes are proof of trying."
Ashlie Rivera, a graduate of South Brooklyn Community High School, shared her inspiring story of being evicted from her apartment but still managing to graduate with excellent grades. She emphasized the importance of her teachers in her journey, and urged state officials to consider the unique circumstances faced by students in transfer schools who may require additional time to graduate.
Parent Jaimie Hawkins proudly shared a letter from the 2015 city Department of Education, which confirmed that her son, who has disabilities, successfully graduated from Brooklyn Frontier High School. Holding up the letter, she emphasized that it serves as evidence that alternative schools are effective, and urged officials not to make any changes to the services and programs offered at these schools.
Pat Crispino, a special representative for the United Federation of Teachers, expressed concern to state officials that if transfer schools are held to the same standards as other schools, they will fail and eventually close. He argued that teachers would not be willing to work at transfer schools if that were the case.
During the 2½-hour session, Education Chief MaryEllen Elia, along with Luis Reyes and Kathleen Cashin from the Board of Regents, mainly listened and did not respond to the speakers. In a brief interview afterwards, Elia disputed the idea that the states ESSA plan would automatically label transfer schools as failing and destined for closure. She clarified that being identified as a school in need of improvement does not necessarily mean closure, but rather highlights the need for change.
Elia further stated that she met with Superintendent Paul Rotondo and City Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña to work together on finding a reasonable approach. She emphasized the importance of hearing the voices of the speakers at the session, especially the students who spoke about their concerns.
ESSA offers flexibility to address some of the concerns raised by advocates. For example, it allows districts to include students who graduate in the summer after their fourth year of high school in the four-year graduation rate. It also permits states to use extended-year graduation rates and some states have included five- and six-year graduation rates. New York will adopt this approach as well.
A group of about a dozen advocates gathered outside the hearing to criticize certain aspects of the plan, particularly a provision that assigns a "1" to students who opt out of annual state tests. This provision was seen as punitive by the protesters. The state spokesperson explained that the state must adhere to federal requirements on reporting test opt-outs, but in its own accountability plan, it will only consider results from students who actually took the test.
Among the protesters were stakeholders who had provided input on the plan during meetings in Albany since August as part of the education departments "ESSA Think Tank." However, the department did not incorporate the broader range of school quality indicators recommended by some stakeholders. These indicators include teacher attrition rate, average level of staff experience, and the availability and extent of full-day kindergarten, arts education, and physical education. The department reasoned that these indicators were too scarce and high-stakes, raising concerns about schools potentially pushing out chronically absent students to meet the standards.
Advocates expressed disappointment in Elia, accusing her of squandering the opportunities provided by ESSA in her accountability proposal to the Board of Regents.
The indicators they listed that can be easily quantified include school suspension data, school safety incidents, per-pupil school funding, and class size. On the other hand, there are certain factors that are more challenging to measure, such as access to high-quality teachers and counselors, student integration, parent involvement, and post-graduation outcomes.
If you would like to provide comments on New Yorks ESSA plan, you can send an email to ESSAComments@nysed.gov or write to the New York State Education Department at the following address: Office of Accountability, Rm 400, 55 Hanson Place, Brooklyn, New York 11217.