For nearly a year, a group of principals has waited for the city’s permission to change their admissions policies so that as more white, middle-class families seek seats in their schools, spots remain open for students from needier backgrounds.
On Tuesday, they learned that they will have to wait even longer.
Speaking on a public radio show, Chancellor Carmen Fariña said officials are still reviewing the proposals that several principals submitted last October. She expressed some reservations about their request to reserve a portion of seats for students from low-income or immigrant families, saying she wouldn’t want those policies to “disenfranchise” any students.
While she insisted that and the mayor are concerned about school diversity and are reviewing enrollment policies citywide, she also suggested that diversity can be promoted without making structural changes, such as by teaching students about world religions.
Either way, she signaled that her interest in school diversity will not translate into immediate policy changes, including at those schools that have been waiting to make admissions tweaks.
“I believe in diversity,” she said on the Brian Lehrer show. “I think it’s going to be very carefully thought through and decided on a case by case.”
Fariña’s response dismayed advocates who have called on her and Mayor Bill de Blasio to more aggressively combat school segregation, which is more severe in New York than most school districts.
“I don’t think there’s any way to hear those comments and think they’re on top of this issue,” said David Tipson, executive director of the school diversity advocacy group, New York Appleseed.
A dozen principals met with Fariña and other top officials last fall to discuss diversity and admissions. Many of the schools — including Arts & Letters Academy in Fort Greene, P.S. 8 in Brooklyn Heights, and Central Park East II in East Harlem — had watched their share of white students rise and black and Hispanic students decline in recent years as the areas around their schools gentrified.
At the meeting, the principals were told that their plans to reserve some seats for certain student groups could violate federal law, according to several attendees. Advocates and even some de Blasio-appointed members of the city’s education policy board have challenged this reading of the law.
Fariña on Tuesday said she worried about any plan that would give preference to one group over another.
“We’re looking at every plan individually,” she said. “We need to make sure that diversity plans don’t disenfranchise other students.”
Several of the principals modeled their proposals on the admissions system at P.S. 133 in Park Slope, a school that accepts students from beyond its immediate neighborhood and sets aside more than a third of its seats for low-income students and those still learning English. The school is housed in a new building and offers popular dual-language programs, which has helped it attract a range of families.
While Fariña did not say Tuesday whether the schools that want to adopt a P.S. 133-style admissions system would be allowed to do so, she did say that would be a possibility for new schools.
“As new schools get built, that’s certainly something we would consider,” she said.
Many advocates who back school-by-school diversity plans say they must be accompanied by district-wide policies that prevent students from a particular racial or socioeconomic group from clustering at individual schools. Without such a “controlled choice” system, popular schools with effective diversity plans might enroll a mix of students even as their neighbors enroll students mostly from one group.
Fariña hinted at the need for both types of solutions, saying that officials are reviewing enrollment policies “as a collective whole, as well as individually.”
“We’re looking at how do we make it equitable,” she said.
A widely cited 2014 report found that New York City school segregation has increased in recent decades, with 85 percent of black students and 75 of Hispanic students attending schools with a small number of white students.
Advocates argue that the city cannot make a real dent in those numbers without overhauling its enrollment policies, which they say exacerbate residential segregation. However, Fariña has previously said that individual schools can address the issue by offering attractive language or special-education programs that draw in a diverse pool of applicants.
On Tuesday, she added that the de Blasio administration has taken other steps to promote diversity, such as by canceling classes on the Lunar New Year and two Muslim holidays so students can celebrate. She said schools could build on that effort by teaching students about the holidays.
Tipson, the diversity advocate, said that proposal is no match for policies that ensure schools enroll students of different backgrounds.
“It’s horrible to think that she would say that lesson plans can substitute for actually having kids encounter different cultures in their own schools,” he said.