raise your hand

In a Bronx campus, principals say a new disparity won’t undermine their collaboration

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
The Richard R. Green campus in the Williamsbridge neighborhood of the Bronx houses multiple schools in the Renewal program.

This is the first in a series of stories for our first Raise Your Hand investigation based on the reader-selected question, “Is there a building that houses many schools that are working particularly well together? How are the schools collaborating?”

In the Williamsbridge neighborhood of the Bronx, a thousand middle schoolers stream into the Richard R. Green campus every day. Then they divide into four similar schools, each trying to raise students’ scores while grappling with the personal challenges they bring into the building.

But when Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the start of New York City’s “Renewal” school turnaround program last fall, which promised to flood some schools with new resources, just three of the building’s four schools were included.

It makes for a potentially awkward situation at Richard R. Green, where the School of Diplomacy, Young Scholars Academy, Globe School for Environmental Research, and Forward School of Creative Writing have been sharing a three-story building since 2007. Across the city, co-located principals have to manage scarce resources like gym and cafeteria space. In some schools, the controversial space-sharing policy leads to hostility, especially when school leaders feel like their students have access to less than their peers.

These four leaders say they’re determined not to let the recent changes undermine their collaboration.

“We want to make sure that we’re having conversations and we’re not leaving a quarter of the building out,” said Sean Licata, who just finished his third year as principal of the School of Diplomacy, one of the schools in the turnaround program. “How do we always make sure we’re including our non-Renewal school that we’re already working with?”

The four schools serve similar students. Nearly all are black or Hispanic and come from low-income families, and about a quarter have special needs. The schools are also all battling similar problems: attendance that hovers below 90 percent, and less than 10 percent met state standards for reading proficiency in 2014.

The three Renewal schools have also seen declining enrollment over the last two years. The Globe School, for example, dropped nearly 140 students between 2011 and 2013, enrolling fewer than 300 last year.

In their efforts to fix that, the schools have found ways to work together over time. They share some staff members, including a foreign language teacher, a speech teacher, and gym teachers. A campus-wide lunch on the the first day of school is designed to show students and teachers that they are working together.

The four principals of the Richard R. Green campus met this year to set their school budgets together.
PHOTO: Juanita Rodriguez
The four principals of the Richard R. Green campus met this year to set their school budgets together.

The four principals sat down together to set their budgets for the upcoming school year and looked for ways to share resources. That conversation took on new weight this year, since the three Renewal schools are receiving extra funding from the city, a new community partnership, mental health support, an additional hour of learning time, and other help. (The city has said it expects all schools in buildings with Renewal schools to share some of those benefits, like new access to health clinics, even if they aren’t receiving extra money in their budgets.)

As she helps the schools plan to use those new resources, the director of the Renewal program for District 11 said she is also making a conscious effort to keep Magdalen Neyra, the principal of the Forward School, which is not in the turnaround program, in the loop.

“I’m hoping it’s going to trickle down to her,” the director, Juanita Rodriguez, said. “We wish we had extra money to give her — we’re sitting at the budget meeting and she’s the only one struggling with her budget. She’s a trooper.”

The schools have helped fill in gaps for one another in the past. Last year, one received funding to have a nonprofit provide after-school programming, and Licata’s students were invited to participate, even though his school couldn’t cover the cost.

This coming year, his school will be giving up a classroom to serve as headquarters for Phipps Community Development Corporation, an organization partnering with all three Renewal schools.

Neyra, the first-year principal of the Forward School, said their efforts have been helpful at making sure she doesn’t feel like “the lonely principal” in the building.

“There are so many requirements for our job and it’s very easy to just focus on your school,” she said. “You have to almost force yourself to make that a priority.”

Not all of their efforts to unify the school have stuck. Last year, the principals standardized their bell schedules to make it easier for the staff members they share to switch between schools. The extra hour of learning time that the three Renewal schools will add next year meant they had to change that.

They are, however, planning to continue their method of ensuring teachers from different schools spend time in one another’s classrooms.

The principals identified teachers with a range of strengths — an English teacher who had organized student book clubs was one, and a teacher especially skilled at provoking thoughtful student discussions was another — and encouraged others from other schools and grade levels to visit.

“We’re competitive, but it’s not a competition,” Licata said.

“This is a building that has had years of negative reputation, and there’s only one way that reputation can get changed,” he added. “We’re all going to have to do it together.”

This is the first in a series of stories that will highlight co-locations that are working (and some that aren’t). Ask your own question about New York City schools here, and it could turn into our next Raise Your Hand investigation.

By the numbers

Do any schools’ populations mirror the city average? Just two.

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty / © 2013

It’s not quite Powerball odds, but it’s pretty rare for a school’s demographics to line up perfectly with the city average.

Still, when a reader asked us which schools closely reflect the racial and economic diversity of New York City, amid a spate of headlines addressing the city’s severe school segregation, we were up for the challenge. We analyzed nearly 1,800 district and charter schools to identify the ones that come closest to sharing the racial breakdown of the city’s overall student population.

We found just two schools that came within five percentage points of the city school system’s overall student demographics for Hispanic, black, Asian, and white students during the 2014-15 school year: P.S. 97 in the Bronx and International High School at Prospect Heights in Brooklyn.

For many reasons — including school zones, high school choice, geography and residential patterns — the New York City school system is not set up to evenly distribute students.

In the case of these two schools, one is in an unusually diverse neighborhood, while the other is set up to enroll recent immigrants from all over the world and illustrates the limitations of looking at a school’s racial breakdown to assess school diversity.

First, there’s P.S. 97 in the Pelham Gardens neighborhood of the Bronx.

This District 11 elementary school is zoned, meaning it accepts students who live in the surrounding neighborhood. Its state test proficiency rates (27 percent of students passed English, and 39 percent passed math) surpassed those of the district, but were very close to the city averages.

And the nearly 750-student school also looks pretty similar to the city when it comes to its share of low-income students and students with disabilities.

Then, there’s International High School at Prospect Heights in Brooklyn.

While the school has similar racial demographics to the city school system, Principal Nedda DeCastro said all of the enrolled high school students have been in the United States for four years or less and city data shows that 90 percent of students last year were still learning English.

“It’s a diverse school, but I don’t think it’s representative of the city,” DeCastro said.

Beyond racial diversity, where are the city schools that reflect the city’s economic and academic diversity?

Not including demographic data, five schools come with three percentage points of the city statistics for poverty, English learners, and students with disabilities.

  • PROGRESS High School for Professional Careers in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, which has a 68 percent four-year graduation rate.
  • Business, Computer Applications & Entrepreneurship High School in Cambria Heights, Queens, which is currently in its last year of being phased out.
  • P.S. 58 The School of Heroes in Maspeth, Queens, where about half the students passed the state English and math exams last year.
  • I.S. 228 David A. Boody in Gravesend, Brooklyn, which offers dual-language programs in Russian, Chinese, Spanish, and Hebrew.
  • Brooklyn Studio Secondary School, which enrolls students in grades six through 12 in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn.

letter to the editor

Letter to the editor: City needs systemwide solutions for school diversity

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Mishi Faruqee talks to her daughter, Naima, who is in kindergarten at P.S. 38 The Pacific School in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn.

This letter comes from Mishi Faruqee, who Chalkbeat profiled last week after her question was selected to become the focus of our next Raise Your Hand series.

To the Editor:

Chalkbeat New York has played a major role in furthering the public conversation about how to address school segregation in New York City’s public schools. That is why when your Raise Your Hand series asked readers to submit questions about school segregation and diversity, I asked Chalkbeat to investigate: which public schools reflect the diversity of New York City?

I asked this question not because, as a public school parent, I was simply looking for more diverse schools to choose from. Rather, I asked Chalkbeat to investigate diverse public schools in New York City because I want to know if the diversity in these schools is a result of policies and practices that can be replicated systemwide – so that New York City can move forward rather than backward in integrating its public schools.

Like many New Yorkers, I am very concerned the city’s schools are the most segregated in the country. A recent report from the New Schools’ Center for NYC Affairs found that school segregation in New York City is not just a function of residential segregation. There are many diverse neighborhoods in New York City that still have segregated schools.

It is important to recognize that school segregation, like residential segregation, is not an accident. Segregation is a result of deliberate policy choices, and, hence if we want to reverse segregation, New York will have to adopt specific policy reforms to make this happen. The city took a first step by adopting a new law requiring schools to report on diversity and what steps they are taking to improve school diversity. Also, the city recently announced that seven schools — six of which are unzoned schools — will adopt diversity plans to set aside seats for low-income students.

But much more needs to be done. First, we need to reframe the debate to move away from a false dichotomy between diverse schools and “high-performing” schools. In fact, diversity adds to a school’s quality. Research indicates that all students – white, African-American, Latino, affluent, middle-class, low-income – benefit from attending diverse schools.

That is why I am hoping the Chalkbeat investigation will illuminate possible policy and practice choices by looking into diverse schools in New York. Many middle class and affluent parents seem to favor progressive schools that emphasize critical thinking and project-based learning. Can the city implement this educational philosophy in more schools to attract a more diverse mix? Should New York City eliminate residential school zones as they have done in Manhattan’s District 1? What policies can New York City introduce to prevent displacement and ensure inclusive school cultures? School choice within school districts has sometimes exacerbated class and racial differences among schools, but what role can “controlled choice” policies play in integrating schools?

As a public school parent, I have been lucky to find diverse, high-quality schools for my two children. But ultimately, if we want to dismantle school segregation, we have to broaden the discussion away from individual choices or even individual schools to the larger system changes that the city must undertake to ensure educational equity for all students.


Mishi Faruqee