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.”

making plans

Push to curb academic segregation on the Upper West Side generates a backlash — and support

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
District 3 is floating a plan to boost academic diversity in middle schools, including Wadleigh Secondary School.

A plan to make it more likely that higher- and lower-performing students on the Upper West Side go to middle school together is stoking divisions among some families there.

Officials in District 3 are pushing a plan to offer at least a quarter of seats at the district’s 16 middle schools to students whose state test scores suggest they are not proficient in reading and math. Ten percent of admissions offers would go to students scoring at the lowest level, and another 15 percent would go to students scoring just below the proficiency bar.

The change would have dramatic effects at some of the district’s schools, according to a city analysis, while other schools would see their student population change less.

Most likely to be shaken up by the proposal, if it goes into effect: The expectation in the district that high test scores — achieved most often by the district’s middle-class students — should guarantee families their top choice of middle schools.

“A lot of people are afraid of change,” said Maria Santa, whose daughter attends a district elementary school that few middle-class families choose. “I don’t think people are going to stand for this.”

Indeed, the proposal has drawn sharp criticism at some of the public meetings that the education department is holding to inform parents and drum up support. An NY1 report about one meeting, held at P.S. 199 during the school day Tuesday, featured parents who pushed back strongly against the proposal, saying their kids would be shut out of the most sought-after schools.

“You’re telling them, ‘You’re going to go to a school that’s not going to educate you in the same way you’ve been educated: Life sucks!’” one woman shouted.

But many of the district’s elected parent leaders are on board, as are other local parents. So, too, are principals in the district, who say the move could protect their schools after the city barred them from seeing how students ranked them on their applications.

That change, announced in June, was the city’s effort to eliminate strategic tricks that weren’t in middle school directories but were known by savvy parents and consultants that some families hire to guide them through the admissions process.

But in District 3, one of three Manhattan districts currently using “revealed rankings” in middle school admissions, principals said they actually used information about how much students wanted to go to their schools to engineer more diverse student populations.

“What first choice allowed us to do is fairly distinguish between [students], because anyone could list us first,” said Marlon Lowe, principal of Mott Hall II in Morningside Heights. “We would interview you, we would get to know your scholar and we would make a serious, thoughtful decision based on many variables.”

Mott Hall II’s admissions process resulted in a relatively diverse student population – but other schools in the district are segregated by race and achievement level.

About 87 percent of admissions offers at J.H.S. 54 Booker T. Washington, for example, went to students who earned top scores on state tests, and about 60 percent of students are white. At P.S. 149 Sojourner Truth, a pre-K through 8th grade school where more than 60 percent of students are black, just 6 percent of offers went to students who earned high test scores.

“We are not offering all students equity and access across all the district,” said District 3 Superintendent Ilene Altschul. “We need to do something.”

At one recent meeting, Altschul hastened to reassure parents who might worry that top-scoring students will have a tougher time getting into the most coveted schools. She admitted that fewer families would get their first pick under the plan — but she said the percentage of students who are admitted to one of their top three choices should remain about the same.

A simulation based on application data from 2017 suggests there could be significant changes, especially in schools that attract top-scoring students. At West End Secondary School, the number of students with the highest test scores would fall 19 percentage points, resulting in 66 percent of all students earning top test scores. But at P.S. 180, which has middle school grades, the simulation found that just one more high-performing student would be offered admissions under the new plan.

That’s a product of how families are ranking the schools, said Kristen Berger, a parent who has been leading the district’s diversity efforts as chair of the parent council’s middle school committee. Higher-scoring students just aren’t ranking schools where a majority of students have lower test scores, she said. It may also be harder to change the makeup of K-8 schools, Berger said, since many students chose to stay through middle school.

“The most crucial component to this is to give serious consideration to a wide range of schools,” Berger said. “It’s a big step, I definitely recognize it… but in the long run this is better for our children.”

Some members of the district’s elected parent council said that reality means the city needs to do more than just reserve seats for lower-scoring students.

“This is not remotely enough,” Daniel Katz, who sits on the council, said about the projected change at P.S. 180. “The number of impacted children at these schools is basically non-existent.”

Another council member, Genisha Metcalf, raised concerns that the proposal could steer more families away from schools that currently serve many low-performing students.

“If we want to see true diversity,” Metcalf said, “the plan needs to both include how do we get students into those highly sought-after schools, and, how do we ensure that the schools people are considering undesirable are not in an even worse spot.”

Education department officials have long made it clear that grassroots support is critical to pursuing any diversity efforts. (New Chancellor Richard Carranza has indicated he is more open to pushing for integration than his predecessor, Carmen Fariña, who said changes to schools’ demographics should happen “organically.”)

A previous plan to make District 3 middle schools more economically diverse died after parents and principals rallied against it. In 2016, Altschul proposed setting aside 30 percent of seats at each middle school for low-income students, but wasn’t able to build support for the change.

Now, Altschul has won over principals, but parents are airing concerns. At a recent public meeting, one father stood up to ask whether his son’s teachers will get extra help if more students with low test scores are admitted to his school.

He was echoing a concern that has come up repeatedly at selective schools, where parents worry that any changes to admissions could water down instruction. While research suggests that academic integration generally benefits all students, some research shows that when the gulf among students is too wide, neither high- nor lower-performing students are better off.

“That’s my biggest concern,” said the father, whose son attends the Computer School and who declined to be quoted by name. “With more challenging kids in the class, you’re putting on much more stress” on teachers.

Some middle-class families say they’re prepared to embrace the changes, even if their own children might face a tougher path to their first-choice middle school. Nicole Greevy, who has a child in third grade in District 3, acknowledged it may take time for the plan to have a noticeable impact in schools, but she called it a “terrific start.”

“I think diversity benefits everyone,” she said. “I did not have a classmate who was African American until I got to college and that was a failure on the part of my schools. I want my child to have a better experience than I did.”

If Altschul formally proposes the changes to the education department and it gets city approval, the changes would go into effect in the 2019-20 school year — the same time when the citywide middle school changes will be implemented. She said the change is needed to help boost performance for all students.

“This is the work we really need to do around closing the achievement gap,” she said. “Integrating students across all levels is really what’s essential. It really does strengthen learning for all students.”

Diversity Debate

Racial tensions flare at Newark’s elite Science Park High School amid debate over admissions policies

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Science Park students who are calling for admissions changes (from left): Azé Williams, Wendy Huang, and Bradley Gonmiah.

For months, a racially charged debate has been raging behind the scenes at Science Park High School about how one of Newark’s most elite schools selects its students.

Last week, it erupted into full view.

Science Park is the district’s most popular public high school, a selective magnet school that was the top choice for students applying to high school last year. But the National Blue Ribbon School’s enrollment does not reflect the district’s: A disproportionately small share of its students are black and a disproportionately large share are white, while relatively few hail from certain city wards with many black residents — including the Central Ward, where it’s located.

In response, a group of mostly black parents has been urging the administration to overhaul its admission system, which is based primarily on students’ state test scores. The parents have suggested interviewing applicants, focusing on their report cards, and potentially reserving seats for students from each ward.

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The administration has made some minor changes to its admissions policies, but not enough to satisfy the parent group — which was evident last Thursday when the Science Park administration hosted a public town-hall meeting to discuss those policies.

The group, known as the Blue Ribbon Parents, boycotted the administration’s meeting until the final minutes, when the father of a Science Park student entered the auditorium and asked how the district could “legally and in good conscience” allow the current admissions system. The school’s principal, Kathleen Tierney, left before the man finished speaking.

“That was so disrespectful,” said Juwana Montgomery, whose twin sons are in ninth-grade at Science Park, after the meeting’s abrupt end. “They’re not addressing anything. Everything is a pushback, a pushback, a pushback, a pushback.”

The debate at Science Park mirrors longstanding ones at prestigious universities across the country and at elite public high schools in cities such as Boston, Chicago, and New York. The question is whether highly selective schools can find ways to be both exclusive and diverse, bastions for top achievers that are equally accessible to students from all backgrounds.

In Newark, the debate centers around the city’s magnet schools, which are allowed by the district to screen students based on their test scores, grades, attendance records, and, in some cases, upon the results of interviews or auditions. They are the district’s most popular high schools and its highest performing. But there are also large racial and ethnic disparities among the district’s six magnet schools and between some of them and the district’s eight traditional high schools, according to a school board report released in June.

“We were able to make it plain with the data that our schools are highly segregated,” said board member Leah Owens.

At Science Park, some parents and students say the school’s enrollment imbalances have contributed to racial tensions. Some black students in particular — who make up 34 percent of Science Park’s enrollment compared to 44 percent across the district — say they sometimes feel unwelcome at the school.

Several parents and students said they had witnessed or heard about white and Hispanic students using the N-word, occasionally directed at black students. District officials called the allegations “alarming” and said they were investigating them, while also bringing in an expert from Rutgers University-Newark to assess the “tenor” of the school. On Wednesday, Science Park is planning to gather its students for a forum on cultural sensitivity.

For students like Azé Williams, a 10th-grader, it’s impossible to separate the school’s racial tensions from its admissions policies, which have left black students and those from certain wards underrepresented. Not only that, but some teachers have opposed policy changes designed to bring in more black students, Williams said, on the grounds that doing so would lower the school’s standards.

“We don’t feel comfortable,” Williams said. “Black students, in particular, feel outcast — we feel like we are not protected.”

Science Park High School enrolls a larger share of white students and a smaller share of black and black male students than the overall district. (Source: Newark Public Schools. Graphics: Sam Park/Chalkbeat)

At Science Park, 18 percent of students are white — compared to 8 percent across the district. And just 14 percent are black males, compared to 25 percent across the district. The school’s 45 percent share of Hispanic students is about even with the district, while its 4 percent share of Asian students is larger than the district’s.

Meanwhile, nearly 60 percent of Science Park students come from district-run schools in the city’s north and east wards — which have large Hispanic populations — while only 13 percent went to district schools in the city’s south, central and west wards, where most black residents are concentrated, according to district data. Another 30 percent of students previously attended charter or private schools.

The Blue Ribbon Parent group blames those enrollment disparities on Science Park’s admissions criteria. Until this year, the school based 80 percent of applicants’ ranking on their PARCC test scores, 15 percent on their grades, and 5 percent on their attendance records. The parents say this system is inherently biased against black students, who on average have lower PARCC scores than their white and Hispanic peers in Newark and across the state.

A majority of Science Park students come from district schools in two wards. (Source: Newark Public Schools. Graphics: Sam Park/Chalkbeat)

As an alternative, the parents proposed flipping the criteria so that students’ grades counted for 80 percent of their ranking, 15 percent was based on attendance, and 5 percent based on PARCC. Other recommendations included admitting the top students from each city school — an approach used by some universities to promote diversity — or reserving 20 percent of seats for students from each of the five wards.

Still other parents wanted to bring back student interviews and personal essays, which were part of the school’s screening process several years ago. And they said the school needs to do a better job recruiting underrepresented students.

“I told them quite clearly: We need more African Americans in that school — and we have to do it now, immediately,” said Kevin Maynor, whose son graduated from Science Park and whose daughter is in 10th-grade there. Presently, the school’s population “doesn’t reflect the brilliance that’s here in the city.”

After months of negotiations, Science Park’s administration agreed to tweak the admissions criteria that it used this year to select new students for 2018-19.

Now, PARCC scores count for 70 percent of students’ rankings and transcripts are worth 25 percent, while attendance is still 5 percent. The school also redacted students’ names, genders, and sending schools from their applications before ranking them, which parents had recommended. But the parents said those changes were insufficient.

At the town-hall meeting, Principal Tierney summarized the Blue Ribbon Parents’ demands and the admissions changes she made, but she did not respond to questions from the public. Instead, attendees were divided up and ushered into separate rooms to hold small-group discussions — a format that parents interpreted as a way to stifle public debate.

Tierney did not respond to an interview request. But in her opening remarks at the meeting, she suggested that she is open to further changes to the school’s admissions system.

“We need to talk about ways in which the admissions process can promote the diversity of the student body in a legal and equitable fashion,” she said.

District officials also appear open to additional changes. At a school meeting in January, officials suggested that Science Park could do targeted outreach to students in underrepresented neighborhoods and schools, give preferences to underrepresented groups in its admissions formula, and add more screening criteria, according to slides from their presentation.

During brief remarks at the start of last week’s town-hall meeting, Interim Superintendent Robert Gregory made clear that he thinks Science Park’s current admissions system needs to be reexamined.

“The question raised that brought us here tonight is an important one and the right one,” he told the audience. “Does the use of standardized assessments unfairly limit students’ access into one of our highest-performing high schools because of their birth circumstances or the part of the city that they live in?”

But even Science Park faculty members who support the parents’ push for a more representative enrollment have some concerns about their proposals.

Nicole Sanderson, a Science Park history teacher, said she thinks the parents are right that the current admissions system excludes some students. She and her colleagues “would love to see more black boys at the school,” she said.

However, she worries that taking a certain share of students from every ward or basing admissions primarily on report cards could “backfire,” leaving some admitted students under-prepared for the rigor of Science Park classes. She suggested creating a Science Park-specific entrance exam and offering tutoring to students at feeder schools to help prepare them.

“There’s just no easy fix,” she said. “This has to be a multiyear and a multistep process.”

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