Diversity Delayed

Nearly a year after NYC principals float diversity plans, city has yet to sign off

Last October, the head of New York City’s school system met with a group of principals who were deeply concerned that their elementary schools might eventually contribute to the scourge of school segregation.

Many had watched as wealthier, mostly white families moved into fashionable precincts of Manhattan and Brooklyn and nabbed seats in the same handful of public schools, many of them celebrated for their strong academics and progressive bent. The principals feared that if that pattern persisted, their schools’ diversity would fade into homogeneity.

A few principals presented a solution: If the city let them reserve a portion of their seats for high-needs students, such as those from low-income families or who live in public housing, the schools could preserve — or in some cases, create — diverse student bodies. Chancellor Carmen Fariña and other top officials heard them out, then asked the principals to submit detailed proposals.

Nearly a year later, several of those principals said they have yet to receive an official response to their plans, much less permission to carry them out.

“We had the discussion, but then the system stayed the same,” said Principal Anna Allanbrook of the Brooklyn New School, which has seen its share of white students rise and black and Hispanic students decline over the past decade, like many of the 12 schools at the Oct. 1 meeting.

City officials say they are continuing to evaluate different ways to promote school diversity. But their slow pace and focus so far on making less-popular schools more attractive through marketing and specialized programs have dismayed advocates, who say that a meaningful integration plan requires changing admissions policies.

The city’s schools are among the country’s most segregated, and the share of black and Hispanic students attending schools with very few white students has risen over the past two decades — well before Mayor Bill de Blasio took office. The problem, like school segregation nationally, is linked to deep-rooted residential segregation. Its potential fixes raise thorny legal questions and the politically charged prospect of disrupting systems that enable white, middle-class students to cluster at top schools.

Despite those challenges, even some of de Blasio’s usual allies say they are growing impatient, and often evoke the mayor’s “tale of two cities” rhetoric when urging the city to attack school segregation. If the administration will not back a dozen schools with concrete plans to ensure diverse enrollments, the critics reason, then integration must not be a top priority.

“Don’t pretend you value diversity and then keep those 12 schools waiting indefinitely,” said City Councilman Ritchie Torres, who pushed through a resolution earlier this year calling on the education department to declare diversity a priority when setting policy.

“Most of the efforts to promote diversity have been at the grassroots level,” he added. The city, “far from supporting them, has been a stumbling block.”

Amid gentrification, schools hope to preserve diversity

The dozen schools are located in swiftly gentrifying neighborhoods, including Arts & Letters Academy in Fort Greene, P.S. 84 in Williamsburg, The Neighborhood School in Manhattan’s East Village, and Castle Bridge School in Washington Heights. Several of the schools are “unzoned,” allowing them to enroll students through a lottery system from outside their immediate surroundings.

With attractive programs, families from a mix of backgrounds who live nearby, and some enrollment flexibility, advocates say the schools are ideal settings to establish diverse student populations — which decades of research has shown to benefit all students academically and socially, with low-income students of color reaping the biggest rewards. In fact, the schools already are more diverse than many city elementary schools, which tend to be more segregated than middle and high schools because most admit students based on where they live.

The worry among advocates and people at those schools is that wealthier, mostly white students will continue to flock to those schools and crowd out others unless new checks are placed on the schools’ admissions.

“The problem is, you get this momentary instance of integration before the school starts flipping the other way,” said David Tipson, executive director of the school diversity advocacy group, New York Appleseed.

 
Data: NY State Education Department and NYC Department of Education, Credit: Sarah Glen/Chalkbeat

The schools’ solution — reserving a portion of seats for specific student groups — is modeled on the admissions system at P.S. 133 in Park Slope, which the previous administration allowed to set aside more than a third of its seats for low-income students and those still learning English.

Such set-asides only work under specific conditions. The schools must sit near concentrations of families of different economic classes, or be able to provide transportation to students who live farther away. Crucially, they must have strong reputations or sought-after programs that can draw middle-class families who are shopping around for schools, as well as the ability to recruit families with less wherewithal to snag in-demand seats.

People at several schools said parents back the set-aside plans. But if policies that effectively capped the share of middle-class students at any school were approved, it’s likely that some affluent families hoping to secure seats in those schools might push back.

“I imagine there would be some parents who would say, ‘Hey wait a minute, this isn’t fair,’” said Michele Greenberg, a parent and co-chair of the diversity committee at the Children’s School in Brooklyn, which is one of the schools seeking to reserve some seats for high-needs students.

Gravitating toward “magnet schools,” the city shies away from policy changes

Fariña and the other top officials at the 2014 meeting had their own ideas about how to cultivate diversity at the schools.

They suggested establishing attractive language or special education programs, after-school classes, or evening courses for adults as a way to pull in more families, according to an official summary of the meeting. The idea of enhancing schools in order to appeal to a mixture of families and generate diversity — advice that Fariña has often repeated — is a new spin on former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s emphasis on school choice and competition.

But most of the schools at the meeting had no trouble attracting families, with some receiving many applications for every open seat. Their focus was on managing the enrollment process to make sure their schools stayed diverse. That’s when the officials grew more hesitant, several principals said.

First, they said the schools would need to show how any admissions tweaks would “promote student learning,” and how they might affect other schools, according to the meeting summary. The officials also expressed concern that admissions policies that singled out certain student groups risked running afoul of federal law, the principals said.

“It felt like a cold bucket of water being thrown on us,” said John O’Reilly, principal of Brooklyn’s Arts & Letters Academy, which wants permission to reserve 40 percent of available seats for low-income students.

“The lawyer,” said Naomi Smith, principal of Central Park East II in East Harlem, “explained why each thing wasn’t possible.”

A footnote on race sparks a fierce debate

Last week, the debate over how far the city can legally go to achieve school diversity centered on a few words tucked into a footnote to some agency regulations.

The city has long insisted that school admissions policies cannot legally factor in students’ race. Schools, such as Brooklyn New School, and entire districts, such as Manhattan’s District 1, were forced to drop admissions policies over time that considered race alongside other characteristics.

Katie Lapham, a teacher in East New York, spoke about the importance of school diversity for her students and her daughter (pictured) at the Aug. 26 Panel for Educational Policy meeting.
Katie Lapham, a teacher in East New York, spoke about the importance of school diversity for her students and her daughter (pictured) at the Aug. 26 Panel for Educational Policy meeting.

Although the newer admissions proposals revolve around characteristics such as family income and language, city officials have called those factors a “slippery slope” that could lead to illegal policies, according to multiple advocates. Jim Devor, the former president of Brooklyn’s District 15 education council, said officials initially opposed P.S. 133’s set-asides for non-native English speakers because language status amounted to a racial category.

The issue flared up at a public meeting last week when the city’s Panel for Educational Policy approved updates to the city’s admissions regulations. Advocates who attended the meeting wanted the panel to remove the footnote, which says race may be considered in school enrollment decisions only by court order.

The line appears to stem from the city’s reading of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that struck down two school districts’ admissions policies that factored in race. Michael Best, the city education department’s former general counsel, wrote in a 2008 email to an advocate that the “Court’s decision made clear that consideration of the race of individual students in school admissions is unconstitutional.”

But advocates say the ruling allows race to be used as one of multiple factors in admissions decisions. In a 2011 memo that discussed the ruling, the federal education and justice departments said districts should first try “race-neutral approaches” to achieve school diversity, which could include considering students’ socioeconomic backgrounds. If those fail, then districts can consider students’ race along with other characteristics, the memo says.

Norm Fruchter, an education researcher who serves on the policy panel, said during the meeting that he sensed the line in the city’s rules is “legally inaccurate and potentially damaging.” He proposed a review of the line, which the other panel members approved.

He also commended the de Blasio administration for hosting discussions on school diversity, such as the October 2014 meeting with the principals. But he noted that the principals have waited nearly a year for the city to respond to their requests.

“I’m not a lawyer, but I think this is too long,” Fruchter said. “What I fear is that this is the tip of the iceberg in terms of how long discussions take with no action,” he added, to applause.

Fariña’s chief of staff, Ursulina Ramirez, said she agreed the diversity discussions were “taking probably longer than anticipated.” She promised to organize a meeting between advocates and officials to discuss the contested line as well as school diversity in general.

Education Department spokesman Harry Hartfield would not answer questions about the 2014 meeting or the status of the principals’ proposals. He also would not say whether the city is considering broader changes to school admissions or other policies in order to promote diversity.

“There are challenges associated with any possible change,” he said in a statement, “and it’s critical that every proposal be deliberate, thorough and designed with the input of educators, families, advocates, elected officials and community members.”

Proponents of diversity refuse to wait

While the city deliberates, integration proponents are moving forward with plans that could prod the administration into action.

In May, the City Council passed a law forcing the education department to report annually on school demographics and its efforts to increase diversity within schools. In a recent op-ed, Councilmen Brad Lander and Ritchie Torres, who have spearheaded the council’s school diversity drive, applauded de Blasio for signing that legislation, but added that with “a real commitment” the city would be able to double the number of students in integrated schools in five years.

Meanwhile, parents, educators, and the local education councils in a few school districts — including Manhattan’s District 1 and Brooklyn’s Districts 13 and 15 — are studying ways to create district-wide admissions systems that preserve parents’ ability to choose schools while preventing individual schools from enrolling a disproportionate amount of students from any one group.

David Goldsmith, president of District 13’s education council, said the district would use a state grant to host public planning sessions about school diversity. He said he was surprised de Blasio has not more aggressively pursued school integration, not only as a matter of civil rights, but also because it is a proven way to lift students’ academic performance.

A mechanic, he evoked the image of a car engine to argue that the administration’s other school-improvement efforts will fall short if it ignores segregation.

“If you don’t fix that big hole in the radiator, it will overheat,” he said, “no matter how much antifreeze you keep pouring in.”

Sorting the Students

How a diverse Indianapolis Montessori school quadrupled its applications in two years

Spots at School 87 filled up quickly this year.

When Sara Martin and her husband looked at elementary schools for their son three years ago, they were hoping for a spot at one of Indianapolis Public Schools’ most sought-after magnet programs. Instead, they landed at School 87, a Montessori school in a poor neighborhood that is among the magnets that typically have open seats after the district lottery.

The Martins, who had included the school among their choices without even going for a tour, were convinced after visiting the westside school and seeing happy students working independently. “I just kind of fell in love with it,” Sara Martin said.

Since the Martins were placed there, however, School 87 has gone from not quite filling its seats to quickly reaching capacity this fall. Nearly 340 students applied to School 87 this year — about four times the number that applied two years ago, according to district data. Enrollment has also grown slightly, reaching about 370 students this year compared to about 340 students in 2016-17.

And unlike some of the most popular magnet schools that primarily serve families who are middle class or white, School 87’s demographics nearly mirror the rest of the district. Most students are poor enough to get discounted meals, and the student population is racially diverse. The school is also in a poor neighborhood north west of downtown, which is significant because families who live within about a half a mile of a magnet school have priority in admission.

There are lots of reasons why School 87, which is also known as George Washington Carver, could be growing more popular. This year, the prekindergarten-8th grade school likely got a boost from Enroll Indy, a new enrollment system that allows families to apply for Indianapolis Public Schools and many charter school options through a single website. The nonprofit did extensive outreach to families, and more students applied to magnet schools across the district.

But applications were already growing, thanks to recruitment efforts and word of mouth. The school has also performed relatively well on standardized tests, and it has a B grade from the state.

School 87, which began as a school-within-a-school, was given its own campus in 2013, one of three in the district that offer Montessori, which calls for students directing their own learning in structured environments. The model has a reputation for attracting affluent, liberal parents, and it has traditionally been confined to private schools.

Indianapolis Public Schools, however, has offered Montessori education for decades. It is an increasingly common option at public schools across the country, and recent research suggests that it benefits children from low-income families.

Kristin Hancock, a teacher who has been with the program since it started, said that while Montessori schools typically attract affluent parents, School 87 continues to serve students from diverse backgrounds.

“We have kids from the neighborhood, kids that are from our old neighborhood … that we’ve still carried on with those families for a really long time,” she said. “We have pretty much just the same kids that anybody else would.”

One reason Sara Martin, whose father is from El Salvador, was drawn to School 87 is because of its diversity. The family lives outside the district, and they chose Indianapolis Public Schools in part because students come from so many backgrounds, Martin said.

That diversity also shapes the admission campaign at School 87. Because it serves a community with many Spanish speakers, they made sure to have Spanish speaking staff members doing outreach, said Principal Mark Nardo.

The school has not made radical changes to its recruitment methods in recent years, but staff members have gotten better at it, Nardo said. The school enrollment committee, which includes teachers and other staff, used a host of approaches to recruiting new families last year. They visited the nearby community center and Head Start programs, hosted an enrollment event to help parents fill out the application, and updated marketing materials. On the side of the building, which sits beside a highway, a banner advertises the program to passing drivers.

The school also attracts students through word-of-mouth, Nardo said, and they encourage families to tell friends and neighbors about the program. “It’s common sense to sit there and talk to your parents that are here and just say, ‘hey, you are an ambassador, please go out and spread the word.’ ”

counting students

As Griffin battles low enrollment in Tennessee’s state district, she looks to a school with a waitlist

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Sharon Griffin, far right, reacts as Westwood students say a chant with their teacher. Griffin, who took over the district in June, said she’s looking to Westwood Elementary to help her find answers to one of the state district’s longtime issues: lack of students.

In a brightly decorated Memphis classroom with student work taped all over the walls, 26 second-graders sit attentive on a blue-colored carpet.

They are tracking every word their lead teacher Kaneshia Vaughn says. “Turn and talk with your partner,” Vaughn tells the kids. Excited voices fill the room. “Coming back in five, you turning towards me in four, hands in slant in three, tracking Ms. Vaughn in two,” Vaughn counts down. The classroom goes completely silent.

Sitting at a desk nearby, the leader of Tennessee’s state-run district, Sharon Griffin, says she is all smiles because of the “wowing and obvious” respect and enthusiasm shown by the students.

But here’s the other noticeable thing about this and other classrooms at Freedom Preparatory Academy-Westwood Elementary: They are full.

The school was taken away from the local Memphis school district in 2014 and given to Freedom Prep to run under the umbrella of the state’s Achievement School District for low-performing schools. When Freedom Prep, a Memphis charter network, took over the elementary school, it had around 350 students. The school now has about 558 children enrolled and a waitlist of almost 80 students.

Griffin, who started as the district’s leader three months ago, said she’s looking to Westwood Elementary to help her find answers to one of the state district’s longtime issues: lack of students. Schools get funding based on enrollment, so chronically low numbers can lead schools to shutter. Four schools within the state district have closed — all cited low enrollment as a main reason why. The district now runs 30 schools, the vast majority of which are in Memphis.

“We want to learn from schools and be in close proximity to the work,” Griffin told a group of Freedom Prep network leaders she met with this month. “Freedom Prep has a waitlist, but many of our schools are under-enrolled. There’s something you’re doing and strategies we can share.”

School leaders say one of the first changes they made at Westwood was distancing the school from the word “turnaround,” which is often used in education reform to talk about improving the academics of a chronically low-performing school.

The Freedom Prep charter network was started in 2009 by Roblin Webb, a former Memphis attorney. Westwood is the only state school Freedom Prep runs, although the organization also operates four schools under the local Memphis district. Westwood Elementary lies two miles away from Freedom Prep’s first school, a high school that has had success raising students’ ACT scores and college acceptance rates.

“When we started the ASD school here, we already had a track record with the community,’ Webb told Griffin during the meeting. “Charters coming from out of state had a struggle with name recognition.”

Tiffany Fant, a parent of a 7-year-old at Westwood, told Chalkbeat she heard about the school from friends. Her child went to a school in the traditional Memphis district, Balmoral-Ridgeway Elementary School, but she felt he wasn’t getting the attention he needed. So, she came to Westwood last year.

“Now, he’s in speech therapy here and that’s been really good,” Fant said. “I feel like they spend more time on each kid here.”

Webb said their positive relationship with parents and churches really helped at the school — families that had left for schools outside of the Westwood neighborhood started coming back. But name-recognition was half of the battle. Like most schools, Freedom Prep has to actively recruit students.

But unlike many schools, the responsibility of recruitment doesn’t fall on school leadership. The charter network has a community outreach team that’s in charge of recruitment and enrollment, allowing principals to focus on academics at the start of the year.

“It takes the responsibility off of school leaders’ plates,” Webb said. “Every school has someone on site. It’s expensive.” To which Griffin responded, “It doesn’t cost as much as not having kids.”

Schools in the Achievement School District have also struggled to retain their highest-rated teachers. Freedom Prep’s leadership team told Griffin that keeping great educators has helped them keep students.

Researchers at the Tennessee Education Research Alliance at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College have said that disruption, or losing some bad teachers, is a key part of turnaround work. But they added that a school can’t thrive unless educators stay and improve — and that takes time.

Freedom Prep uses a co-teaching model — each classroom has a lead teacher, with the most experience, and a co-teacher. The two educators split responsibilities in the classroom. Westwood has retained its school principal for the last three years, and about 80 percent of its teaching staff, said Lars Nelson, Freedom Prep’s chief instruction officer.

That’s a very high rate of retention for a turnaround school, according to the Vanderbilt researchers. According to a 2017 brief, schools in the Achievement School District lost half of its teachers in the first three years.

“Our strong leader stayed, and that meant strong teachers stayed,” Nelson told Chalkbeat. “That’s big for us. When you think about it from a talent perspective, we’re keeping the people who have the biggest impact on student achievement.”

Vaughn, the Westwood second-grade teacher, left Westwood two years ago to teach at another Memphis charter school. But she came back last year because she said she missed the “family environment” of Westwood.

Sharon Griffin, right, tours Westwood Elementary with school leaders.

“It’s the kind of school where you know people actually have your back and you have theirs,” Vaughn said. “I also wanted to come back to a school where I felt like we had high expectations for our students, and the support to actually get them to those expectations. I see little and big victories in my students here. That’s rewarding in such a hard job.”

Lars added that Westwood still has a ways to go to achieve the level of academic success they want for their students. That’s not surprising — all schools within the Achievement School District were taken over because they were in the bottom five percent of schools academically.

When Freedom Prep took over Westwood, it was rated as a level one in student growth, the lowest level in the state’s rating system of a 1-5 scale.

Under Freedom Prep, Westwood was a one again in 2017. But in the new batch of scores released this month, Westwood jumped to a level three. For comparison, the state district overall scored as a level one.

In TNReady, the state’s end-of-year assessment, 10.6 percent of Westwood students scored on grade level in English and 11.2 percent in math. That’s slightly better than the district-wide average, but still far below the state’s average for grades 3-8.

While recruitment strategies and keeping good teachers have helped Westwood gain students, Lars said what matters most is a school with strong academics. If the school has a reputation of creating great learners, families will come, he said.

“We’re proud of our growth at Westwood but we’re also dissatisfied,” Lars said. “Our other elementary school, which is under Shelby County Schools, is a level five. And we fully expect Westwood to be a level five this year.”