Brooklyn school for gifted students granted first waiver to opt out of NYC’s literacy curriculum mandate

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Following a lengthy struggle by a Brooklyn institution to be excluded from New York City’s comprehensive reading curriculum requirement, officials have now approved their request quietly.

The Brooklyn School of Inquiry, also known as BSI, a gifted and talented K-8 program, has become the first school granted permission to bypass Chancellor David Banks’ initiative mandating all elementary schools to utilize one of three city-approved reading curriculums.

This decision to grant a waiver is timely as nearly half of the city’s 32 local school districts have adopted new curriculums this academic year, with all districts expected to follow suit by September. This development could lead other school communities to seek exemptions as well.

With the absence of clear criteria for exemptions from city officials, concerns have been raised by observers regarding equity in the process, suggesting it may benefit parents with the capacity and knowledge to mobilize.

Banks has placed considerable emphasis on the notion that the city can enhance literacy rates by enforcing the use of a limited number of vetted programs in schools. Many literacy experts, advocacy groups, including the city’s teachers union, endorse this initiative.

At BSI, students and families have been vocal in their opposition to the new curriculum provided by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, culminating in a meeting with top officials after public testimonies. They criticized the new instructional approach, claiming it drained the joy and rigor from their lessons.

Advocacy efforts at BSI have borne fruit, resulting in the school being granted a waiver based on its strong academic performance. The school is now in the process of selecting an alternative program. BSI’s reading proficiency level among students in grades 3-8 is 90%, significantly higher than the city’s average.

“Preserving and upholding the unique progressive vision of this school, which we believed was at risk, was the essence of this effort,” said Alina Lewis, a parent association member at BSI who led the campaign for the exemption. “While it’s great that my kid can now read a book, every single kid in the city should have access to rich literature.”

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s curriculum, Into Reading, is the most favored choice, mandatory in 22 of the city’s 32 local districts, yet it has encountered the most criticism.

Parent leaders at schools beyond BSI are concerned that the new mandate may sideline project-based philosophies or other uniquely crafted lessons by teachers that characterize their schools.

Lack of Transparent Exemption Process Raises Equity Concerns

Concerns have been escalating for several months regarding the potential provision of waivers, with the Education Department’s vacillation on the process causing further unease.

Initially, officials stated that only schools with reading proficiency rates exceeding 85% would be eligible for exemptions, a criterion reiterated recently by Banks. Despite advocacy from BSI students and parents, the school’s superintendent did not appear flexible on this issue.

“An exception or waiver process is currently not in place,” mentioned District 20 Superintendent David Pretto at a contentious education council meeting in February.

Last month, Education Department spokesperson Nicole Brownstein hinted that certain schools were being considered for exemptions but ultimately chose to conform to mandated reading programs. Specific criteria for determining waiver eligibility have not been disclosed.

The principal of BSI did not provide any comment.

Amid the lack of clarity surrounding waiver criteria, experts are apprehensive that exemptions may disproportionately favor schools with greater resources and more vocal parent involvement. The percentage of low-income students at BSI is less than 40%, compared to the citywide rate of 72%, with over half of the school’s students being white, a demographic comprising approximately 15% of the city’s public school population.

New York University literacy expert Susan Neuman contended that offering waivers to schools with outstanding performance, like BSI, is justifiable given the city’s diverse educational landscape. Neuman emphasized the importance of providing stringent guidelines for waiver allocation to maintain policy credibility.

“The DOE needs to establish clear guidelines to avoid favoritism based on who can make the most noise,” Neuman remarked. “This decision seemed to have occurred behind closed doors, which is not how policy should be formulated.”

This isn’t the first instance where Education Department officials have encountered questions about uniform pressure on schools to adopt new curriculum materials.

Earlier this year, the superintendent of Brooklyn’s District 15 hinted that some schools would face less stringent enforcement of the curriculums compared to a neighboring district serving a higher proportion of low-income students. Senior education officials promptly clarified that student demographics would not influence the implementation of new classroom materials.

“There are no disparities in the implementation based on student demographics,” affirmed Deputy Chancellor Weisberg last month. “Such insinuations are quite concerning.”

What Lies Ahead for BSI?

The specific reading curriculums BSI will adopt in the upcoming school year remain uncertain, with Education Department officials withholding details on the selection process.

The school will retain its focus on a phonics program that teaches letter-sound relationships, a requirement applicable citywide. These phonics lessons are typically distinct from the core reading curriculum.

The city’s reading curriculum mandate currently applies only to elementary schools, with superintendents responsible for selecting one of the three approved curriculums for all schools. However, BSI’s superintendent, Pretto, has extended this mandate to include Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in middle schools. Lewis indicated that, to her knowledge, BSI will not be obligated to use the curriculum across all grade levels. However, Pretto did not respond to requests for comment.

With city officials contemplating curriculum revisions across various subjects and grade levels, Lewis expressed hope that the city will engage the community more effectively.

“The conversation needs to be community-driven, nuanced, and from the grassroots up,” she stressed. “A rigid, top-down imposition will not lead to successful outcomes.”

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