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Back to school in New York: 6 education issues to watch

How schools are seeking to overcome pandemic-related mental health challenges and the general impact of long-standing inequalities.

Larger classes. Fewer opportunities for music and art. Not enough counselors to deal with the emotional toll of students. Too much time learning about computers, even in class.

Those are some of the concerns of educators and parents as New York City students return Thursday, marking the first full year with Mayor Eric Adams and Chancellor David Banks leading the nation’s largest school district.

Many educators and families head into the year frustrated by the back and forth on budget cuts, with the majority of school budgets slashed this year, forcing schools to cut staff and other programs even as the city still has more than $1 billion in relief funds to spend this year.

Many are also looking forward to going on a school trip. They hope a renewed emphasis on literacy will help more children learn to read. And they look forward to the new year with less disruption than the previous three COVID-dominated years.

But some educators are already starting the year feeling burnt out after trying to teach during the pandemic.

“This year should be more like a ‘normal’ school year. Still, I don’t think the teachers are ready, emotionally,” said kindergarten teacher Jeffrey Catano of PS 280 in Queens. “I love my job and I come to work every day with a smile, but I feel underappreciated by my city and the [education department] in general.”

Here’s what we’ll be looking at this year:

Who will show up?

Enrollment in New York City’s K-12 public schools (non-charters) has fallen 9.5% since the start of the pandemic, and officials expect 30,000 students under the age of kindergarten to grade 12 this fall compared to last year.

The schools with the biggest losses are those that serve the most and least wealthy in the city, according to a previous Chalkbeat analysis. Schools with the largest proportion of affluent families saw the largest drop in enrollment, followed by schools serving the largest number of low-income families. Meanwhile, the city is also experiencing an influx of thousands of asylum seekers, who may need intensive support.

In addition to monitoring broad enrollment trends, we’ll look at day-to-day footfall. Last year, chronic absenteeism was high, likely for many reasons, including COVID-related quarantines (whether for children who tested positive or because of classmates in the first half school year), work-related obligations or mental health reasons .

What’s going on with the budget?

With funding tied to enrollment and declining rosters, Adams cut the amount of money sent to most schools this year, sparking a political storm.

Many educators worry about having fewer teachers, bigger classes, and less enrichment. Due to budget cuts, Shakira Provasoli moved from teaching science to leading a second-grade class at the Manhattan School for Children.

“I don’t mind, and I love second grade, but it affects the academic growth of students at my school in terms of science,” she said.

The budget, however, is not a done deal, with a lawsuit challenging the budget approval process due to go to the appeals court on September 29. (The city pushed back against a lower court’s decision to redo the Education Department’s budget.)

If schools end up receiving money after the start of the school year, the question remains: how will they be able to use it? Headteachers who spoke to Chalkbeat said they would like more money, especially to hire staff, but doing so after the start of the year can be tricky.

Additionally, the administration is fighting Albany’s legislation that would phase in class size caps through 2027, fearing it would cost too much to implement. Although Governor Kathy Hochul has not yet signed it, she has signaled her support.

How will schools meet academic needs?

Budget cuts have forced many New York City schools to drop educators, but academic needs remain high, especially for lower-achieving students. The math and reading scores of 9-year-olds on the National Education Progress Assessment, the test of which is known as the “nation report card”, have plummeted. It remains to be seen how the city will go about it. (Scores from New York students are expected in October.)

Hiring more staff, having high-dose tutoring and strong after-school programs are among the strategies the federal government hopes districts will spend stimulus money on.

However, the city is already reducing its academic recovery program for students with disabilities, many of whom have struggled significantly with remote learning. Last year, schools across the city were tasked with providing additional after-school or Saturday support to all students with Individualized Education Programs, or IEPs. However, the program was slow to get off the ground, encountering obstacles in recruiting educators as well as enrolling families. The majority of eligible students did not participate. This year, the city is placing a greater responsibility on families to advocate for additional support for their children with disabilities.

Manhattan mom Lisa Brassell moved her first-grader, who is on the autism spectrum, from her traditional public school to a charter this year due to lack of support for students with disabilities.

“My son really hated school last year because the teachers didn’t provide adequate support,” she said. “I hope her new school can help her love school again.”

How will schools address mental health?

“Students are emotionally fragile,” said Provasoli, of the Manhattan School for Children.

Last year, the city introduced a social skills screening tool as a way to address mental health needs. The questionnaire, which should be reused, is intended to assess students’ decision-making skills, self-awareness and personal responsibility-taking, for example. Many educators said they don’t feel equipped to assess students on these skills, but some schools that have used them for years — and received a lot of support for using the data — have been able to use the assessments to move their schools ‘ Culture.

The city has about 5,000 social workers and guidance counselors for its nearly 900,000 students, with at least one social worker or clinician from a school mental health clinic in each school. But many educators say their schools need more mental health resources.

“We have excellent counselors who have been with our school for many years. Yet there are only two for every 700 students and much of their time is (rightly) taken up by IEP assignments,” said Brooklyn Collaborative Studies sixth-grade teacher Tom Griffith, a college and a high school.

The school is fortunate to have three “invaluable” interns and an administration focused on building empathy, he said. It’s still not enough.

“We need more money for more support in this area,” he said. “The pandemic continues to weigh heavily on our entire community. Students are anxious, staff are dealing with personal trauma, and COVID is still lurking in the background.

How will COVID impact schools this year?

Schools are dropping most of the city’s COVID mitigations this year. Say goodbye to daily health exams and on-site PCR tests. Continue to expect rapid take-out tests. Masking and quarantines were already abandoned last year. One thing that remains, however, are COVID vaccine requirements for staff and visitors, as well as students participating in sports or extracurricular activities.

The city continues to report COVID cases in communities. On Tuesday, for example, 148 cases were reported among students and staff. (Students from many charters have already returned.)

Beth Kopelowitz, who works with students in various classrooms as an English as a New Language teacher at PS 215 in Brooklyn, said she still doesn’t feel safe because of the coronavirus.

“I will probably still wear a mask in classrooms,” she said.

What about literacy and other pedagogical changes in the classroom?

Adams is pushing to overhaul literacy teaching in New York City schools, calling for more phonics in the early grades and implementing screening tools for students through 10th grade to help to catch students with printing problems. Whether educators have enough support and training to successfully implement the changes remains to be seen, especially since some educators have said their schools cut reading specialists due to budget cuts.

The Adams administration also created its first virtual schools this year, opening them only to ninth graders. Adams and Banks put their weight behind some other initiatives, including the expansion of vocational and technical training programs and the addition of “gifted and talented” seats, signaling less interest in the fight against integration in the one of the most segregated districts in the country.

Meanwhile, Adams and Banks devoted much of their time and political capital to reorganizing the Education Department bureaucracy, forcing district superintendents to reapply for their jobs in a process that has elicited negative reactions. In the latest game of musical chairs, the city is moving about 1,000 employees from central and borough offices to district offices.

Amy Zimmer is Chalkbeat New York’s bureau chief. Contact Amy at azimmer@chalkbeat.org.

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