Facebook Twitter
District 1 includes the Lower East Side. (Photo credit: New York City Department of Education)

District 1 includes the Lower East Side. (Photo credit: New York City Department of Education)

Bureaucratic delays hobble Lower East Side school integration efforts, council members say

When the state awarded District 1 a grant last year to pursue school integration plans, advocates on the Lower East Side were quick to draw up a proposal and solicit feedback.

But some Community Education Council members say they are worried that work won’t pay off by next school year, as originally hoped. At a public meeting Wednesday, they said bureaucratic delays at the city Department of Education could put them a year behind schedule.

“I feel like I’m being held hostage,” said Naomi Peña, a CEC member who is also involved with the grant process. “It’s unfair.”

Department spokesman Will Mantell did not answer specific questions about the complaints, but said there have been “ongoing conversations” regarding the district’s diversity plans.

“We value the hard work of the District 1 community on this important issue, and are committed to continue to strengthen our dialogue and partnership in the coming months,” Mantell wrote in an email.

Using federal funds, the state in December 2014 earmarked $25 million for Socioeconomic Integration Pilot Program grants, a new initiative to lift struggling schools while also tackling segregation. In New York City, six districts won grants of up to $1.25 million.

District 1, which has a long history of working on school equity issues, used the funding to develop an integration plan called “controlled choice.” Under the proposal, elementary school assignments would be based on a combination of parental choice and student diversity goals.

The district collected surveys, hired an expert consultant — Michael Alves — and presented a proposal for controlled choice to the community in March. Things seemed to be moving along when Alves told Chalkbeat in July that he had met with the city’s student enrollment chief to talk about District 1.

Instead, council members said Wednesday night, the plan has been in a holding pattern.

Aside from an initial payment, Alves said he has yet to have his contract approved and hasn’t received any more funding. The same issue has also put District 13 behind schedule, he said; that district also received a state grant and has also been working with Alves. The Department of Education did not address questions about Alves’ contract.

“We’ve been working anyway the best we can,” Alves said, adding that he expects his contract to be approved soon. “I’m sure everything will work out.”

Lisa Donlan, a former CEC member who is involved in the grant process, said during a presentation at Wednesday’s meeting that there had also been delays in getting access to student data. Such information is crucial for testing whether the district’s proposal will actually work.

There are some signs of progress. Alves now has most of the data he needs to begin modeling how the controlled choice plan could play out. Results from the modeling are expected within a week or so, which would allow the district to move forward.

Now, Donlan said pressure is on to show there’s strong support for implementing the plan immediately, for the next school enrollment cycle. The Department of Education has not committed to that timetable.

“If the conversation is, ‘We want this and we want this now,’ I have faith that the people will prevail,” she said.