the big picture

Will John King’s last effort to desegregate New York’s schools work?

As John King prepares to take over the U.S. education department, 20 schools across New York are poised to put his final experiment as the state’s education chief to the test: a program that aims to revamp struggling schools by integrating them.

At one of the schools, P.S. 15 in Manhattan’s East Village, low test scores have made it a target for possible state takeover. Last year, nearly half the students were also homeless. Nine in 10 qualified as low-income.

“When you have a mix of students and everyone’s learning from each other, the school can do better,” said P.S. 15 Principal Irene Sanchez. “When you have kids with trauma and everyone’s in that same state, it’s hard.”

For the first time, King’s $25 million grant program would allow the city to try to improve P.S. 15 and seven other bottom-ranked schools by convincing more affluent families to send their children there. Experts say they know of no other state program using school-improvement money from the federal government to encourage integration.

For that reason, and because President Obama chose King last week to head up the federal education department, experts say the program could be replicated across the country if it is successful.

“My hope is that this approach will become a national model,” said Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and a longtime proponent of socioeconomic school integration. “It’s very exciting.”

But it’s far from certain that the initiative will spur much integration in the nine local districts that won grants in New York, which a 2014 analysis found to have the nation’s most segregated schools.

Districts had just weeks to apply for the relatively small grants, which were not competitive and came with restrictions. Partly as a result, several districts quickly added integration components to school-improvement initiatives they had planned even before the grant program was announced, according to people who have seen the applications, which city and state officials have not released.

In New York City, most of the proposals are for part-time magnet programs, where students from different schools and perhaps backgrounds would work together for part of the day or after school. Two applications co-written by parent leaders — including P.S. 15’s — mention possible district-wide enrollment policy changes, but city officials have signaled to parents that they only want to make changes at the targeted schools.

Susan Eaton, a Brandeis University professor and author who has written extensively about school integration, said it was “courageous” for King and the state education department to try to tackle the state’s deep-rooted school segregation. With greater political support and funding, the program could eventually spur more far-reaching efforts, she added.

However, she said that she and others whom the state asked to review the initial proposals questioned whether they would make a “meaningful dent” in segregation in those districts.

“I think it fell short,” Eaton said, “not just of my hopes, but of people in the administration as well.”

Chancellor Carmen Fariña with students at P.S. 15 in 2014.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Chancellor Carmen Fariña with students at P.S. 15 in 2014.

A single fix for two pressing problems

King’s program has drawn national interest because it offers a single solution to two education riddles that have long bedeviled policymakers: chronically low-performing schools and school segregation.

The approach departs from the most common tactics for improving schools, such as extending the school day or hiring new teachers, which don’t focus on student enrollment. It also tacitly recognizes that concentrated student poverty can hamstring schools, which some policy experts have long cited as a reason to reduce the share of poor students at low-performing schools.

“Almost all of these struggling schools are high-poverty schools,” said Kahlenberg, the integration researcher, who was one of the experts to review the grant applications. “So a much more transformative approach is to attack segregation directly.”

Low-performing schools where at least 70 percent of students are considered poor were eligible for the three-year grants, which offer up to $1.25 million per school. The schools will develop magnet programs with the potential to attract higher-income students, including dual-language, arts, or schoolwide gifted programs.

King had pushed New York City officials to reduce school segregation several times before the grant program was announced last December. It proved to be his final act as state commissioner before moving to the U.S. education department, which he will take charge of this year after current Education Secretary Arne Duncan steps down.

King plans to keep his eye on the program from his new post. At a recent school diversity conference, he said the federal agency will “look for opportunities to expand” New York’s program.

“We need as a country to utilize multiple strategies to raise student performance” at struggling schools, he told Chalkbeat. “One strategy that has a long history and substantial evidence is school integration.”

New York City’s plans for six segregated schools

Nestled next to a stretch of low-rise public housing a few blocks north of Central Park, Frederick Douglass Academy II has watched newcomers stream into the neighborhood over the past decade. Between 2000 and 2010, the area’s white population more than quadrupled.

Yet few of those newcomers have ventured into FDA II, which remains almost entirely black and Hispanic. Last year, just 1 percent of its high school students were white, while none of its middle schoolers were.

"When you have kids with trauma and everyone’s in that same state, it’s hard."P.S. 15 Principal Irene Sanchez

“It’s like they disappear,” said Fatou Sarr, a FDA II sophomore, one day after school. “All I see is one race.”

To convince more affluent families — including some of the white newcomers — to enroll their children there, FDA II will develop new labs where students from higher-income partner schools will come to work on science, engineering, technology, and math projects. Students at the collaborating schools will also venture out on joint research trips and the target school students will take STEM summer classes at a college campus, according to city education officials.

Two Bronx middle schools, the Bronx Writing Academy and I.S. 117, have similar plans.

Meanwhile, students from three Brooklyn high schools — Boys and Girls, George Westinghouse, and the High School for Global Citizenship — will join students from partner schools to take half-day, career-focused classes at a new learning center at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, officials said. Students will also be able to take some classes at their partner schools.

The goal for both sets of schools is twofold, officials said: to get students from different socioeconomic backgrounds working together, and to convince a more diverse group of students to enroll at the target schools.

FDA II Principal Osei Owusu-Afriyie said he hoped that parents of the partner-school students would come to see FDA II as a worthy school for their children after they spend time in FDA II’s new research lab. That could help shrink the school’s share of low-income students, he said, who now make up nearly 80 percent of the enrollment.

“We want to make sure that families in our neighborhood — regardless of their income — look at this as a viable option,” he said.

Parents and community members at the September Community Education Council meeting for District 13.
Parents and community members at the September Community Education Council meeting for District 13.

For two other schools, parents have broader ambitions

At M.S. 113 Ronald Edmonds Learning Center, a state-identified struggling school in the heart of swiftly gentrifying Fort Greene, Brooklyn, 85 percent of students qualified as low-income last year.

Less than two blocks away, the Academy of Arts and Letters’ share of poor students is half that, according to state data.

Parents and the local superintendent applied for one of the integration grants in order to pull more of the wealthier students to M.S. 113 by offering an English-Spanish dual-language program. But the parents in District 13 who helped win the grant say one new program isn’t enough to prevent imbalances like the one between M.S. 113 and Arts and Letters.

The applications there and in Manhattan’s District 1, where P.S. 15 is located, also proposed centers where parents could go for information about school admissions and a series of public meetings to brainstorm ideas for broader enrollment changes. Their ultimate goal is to help develop district-wide enrollment systems that would keep poor and affluent students from clustering at separate schools.

One type of enrollment system parents in both districts have floated before is known as “controlled choice.” Under that system, families rank their preferred schools but the city manages the assignment process so that each school’s demographics roughly reflect the district’s.

Michael Alves, who helped design one of the first controlled choice systems when he worked in Massachusetts’ desegregation office, said it’s necessary to pair magnet programs with a district-wide enrollment system in order to avoid what another expert referred to as “whack-a-mole” — when more diversity at one school results in more segregation for its neighbors.

“You just can’t focus on one school,” said Alves, who assisted District 1 with its grant application. “There’s an ecology to integration.”

Just receiving the grant money doesn’t guarantee that the parent leaders can make sweeping changes.

Any enrollment overhauls would require the approval of the de Blasio administration, which has been reluctant to embrace admissions changes as a way to achieve diversity. In District 13, officials are still responding to a backlash triggered by their rezoning plan for two elementary schools near the Brooklyn Bridge, which has underscored the race and class tensions embedded in school admissions rules.

"My hope is that this approach will become a national model."Richard Kahlenberg, senior fellow at the Century Foundation

In this case, city officials have hinted that they are hesitant to make changes that go beyond the target schools.

The District 1 superintendent has said repeatedly that the state grant is intended just for P.S. 15, according to Lisa Donlan, the district’s former education council president. And with District 13’s application, officials “watered down” language about broader admissions changes, according to that district’s education council president, David Goldsmith.

“In general, there was hesitancy to use language that would acknowledge any kind of district-wide conversation,” he said. “To us, that was incredible — it’s against the spirit of the grant.”

City education department spokespeople provided some details about the plans for the eight target schools, which have already received $2 million in planning money from the state and could receive $8 million more to enact the new programs. They would not say whether the city will consider district-wide changes.

“We’ve worked closely with schools and districts to apply and plan for these eight grants to increase diversity and improve student achievement, and we’ll continue to support their implementation and monitor their progress with this work,” spokeswoman Devora Kaye said in a statement.

A student outside Frederick Douglass Academy II, one of eight New York City schools that won state integration grants.
A student outside Frederick Douglass Academy II, one of eight New York City schools that won state integration grants.

Obstacles ahead on the path to integration

Researchers and advocates will be watching closely to see whether the new programs do in fact produce more diversity at the 20 schools across the state.

While many studies have linked magnet programs with student academic achievement, their record on integration has been mixed. Achieving student diversity typically takes carefully planned programs that tap into parent demand, set ambitious enrollment goals, and are aggressively marketed to parents — all of which may have been complicated by the grants’ brief application period and relatively limited funding.

The design of some of New York City’s eight proposals may pose additional challenges.

The city appears to be proposing part-time and “school-within-a-school” magnet programs, where only some students participate in the special courses, which at least one study found generate less integration than whole-school programs. And even with extensive marketing, it may be difficult to convince parents in wealthier precincts to send their children to schools in racially and economically isolated areas such as the South Bronx.

The plans for the Bronx schools say that partner-school students will over time “voluntarily transfer” to the target schools, though there is no explanation of how or why they would do so, according to a person who is familiar with the grant applications. And they make no mention of district-wide enrollment changes, the person said.

Genevieve Siegel-Hawley, an assistant professor at Virginia Commonwealth University who has studied magnet schools, said they work best in conjunction with enrollment systems that factor in diversity like those being proposed by district 1 and 13 parents.

“The best diversity plans are comprehensive and cover a whole district,” she said.

If New York City’s proposals raise questions about how much integration they will achieve, they are not alone. State education department officials acknowledged that the applications they received have limitations.

Spokeswoman Jeanne Beattie said in a statement that some districts took “programs that they desired to implement and have added a socio-economic integration component” to meet the grant requirements, and that they set “initially modest” integration goals. Federal funds specifically earmarked for promoting school integration could help the state push districts for stronger proposals in the future, she added.

Michael Hilton, an education analyst at the Poverty & Race Research Action Council who reviewed some of the applications, said that in this initial, rushed application process, few districts seemed eager to make structural changes. For instance, he said, “nobody seemed really willing to tinker with admissions.” (Schenectady, which officials said did propose admissions changes, is an exception.)

Along with other integration researchers and proponents, Hilton said he is holding out hope for the program, which they consider groundbreaking. Still, he and others worry what will happen if the grants fund projects that are too modest or poorly designed to take on entrenched school segregation.

“Then it’s going to set integration back,” he said, “because we’ll say we tried integration, and it didn’t work.”

work ahead

Five months in, crucial part of New York City’s school diversity plan begins to take shape

PHOTO: Mayoral Photography Office
Mayor Bill de Blasio hosts a town hall in Brooklyn in October.

Five months after New York City officials announced a much-anticipated plan to address school segregation, an advisory group that is supposed to help put the plan into action is finally starting to take shape.

Behind the scenes, city officials have been recruiting potential members, while the group’s leaders have started some initial planning before the first full meeting on Dec. 11.

Chaired by high-profile civil rights leaders, their charge is to spearhead an independent effort to turn the city’s general plans into specific recommendations for how to spur integration in the country’s largest school district — and one of the most segregated.

Advocates have held out hope that the group will push Mayor Bill de Blasio to move faster and further on integration in his second term than he did in his first. But they also have reason to temper their expectations.

Establishing the group bought de Blasio another year to act on the politically volatile issue, a tactic he has deployed on other controversial matters including rising homelessness, the Riker’s Island jail, and contested public monuments. The integration group’s recommendations may not be released until December 2018, one member said — about six months after the original deadline, and several years after advocates began demanding action on segregation. And even then, city leaders can pick and choose among the recommendations, which are non-binding.

Politics 101 is: When you don’t want to decide, appoint a commission,” said David Bloomfield, a professor of education, law, and public policy at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. 

To lead the work, the de Blasio administration chose respected figures who can speak with authority on race and segregation — but who are not advocates who have demanded aggressive action. They are José Calderón, president of the Hispanic Federation; Hazel Dukes, president of the NAACP for New York State; and Maya Wiley, former chair of the Civilian Complaint Review Board, who previously served as de Blasio’s legal advisor.

Wiley, who is also professor of urban policy and management at the New School, said the group would try to boil down a decades-old problem with roots in housing policy, school-assignment systems, and structural racism to a set of realistic solutions.

“We’re looking for things that are actionable,” she said. “This is a big and complex set of questions.”

More recently, two additional members have been named to the group’s executive committee: Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation who is a longtime proponent of socioeconomic integration; and Amy Hsin, associate professor of sociology at Queens College.

The chairs have held at least two private planning meetings, and will continue to meet every six-to-eight weeks, said education department spokesman Will Mantell.

Mantell said the group will ultimately include 30-35 members who will be divided into committees. The city is reaching out to potential members “based on the recommendations of the executive committee and our ongoing discussions with advocates, researchers, educators, parents and community members,” he wrote in an email.

Wiley, the executive board member, said the group wants to bring a diversity of perspectives into the planning process, so will host public meetings in every borough to gather different ideas on school segregation and how to address it.

The group grew out of the city’s “school diversity plan,” which was released this summer after relentless pressure from advocates and recurring headlines about de Blasio’s relative silence on the city’s persistent school segregation. The plan left many advocates underwhelmed.

In particular, they said the city set unambitious racial and socioeconomic integration goals for itself. Pressed on such concerns, Mayor Bill de Blasio told reporters the plan was “a strong first step,” but added: “There will be more to come.”

To some advocates, the advisory group creates an opening to give teeth to the city’s plan.

David Kirkland, executive director of the New York University Metro Center, recently accepted an offer to become a member. He said he hopes — among other changes — to push the city to set more aggressive goals for “racially representative” schools, which the plan currently defines as those where 50 percent to 90 percent of students are black or Hispanic (together those groups make up 70 percent of city students).

“It’s not clear to me that we have the right metrics,” he said. “My hope is that this diversity plan is going to begin to change in significant ways.”

In order for the recommendations to take hold, its members must be truly representative of the community — and free from political pressure to sidestep thorny issues, advocates say.

New York City’s grassroots integration movement has been criticized as being dominated by white middle-class parents and activists, although it includes members of different races and backgrounds. To build broad support for their work, observers say, the advisory group will have to bring in more black and Hispanic families whose children make up the majority of city students — as well as Asian students, who are often left out of the conversation about integration.

“If we don’t have authentic and real representation,” said Matt Gonzales, who lobbies for school integration through the nonprofit New York Appleseed, “then we run the risk of running failed efforts in integration that we’ve already watched unravel” elsewhere.

Busing Ban

As school districts push for integration, decades-old federal rule could thwart them

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post
Several districts across the country want to use federal money to pay for school buses as part of their desegregation plans. A federal spending restriction could get in the way.

In Florida, officials plan to use federal money to shuttle students across vast Miami-Dade County to new science-themed magnet programs in a bid to desegregate several schools.

In South Carolina, a tiny district west of Myrtle Beach intends to spend federal funds on free busing for families who enroll at two predominantly black schools, hoping that will draw in white and Hispanic students.

And in New York, state officials want to deploy federal school-improvement money to help integrate struggling schools, believing that may be the secret to their rebirth.

But each of these fledgling integration efforts — and similar ones across the country — could be imperiled by obscure budget provisions written during the anti-busing backlash of the 1970s, which prohibit using federal funding for student transportation aimed at racial desegregation. The rules have been embedded in every education spending bill since at least 1974, as Rep. Bobby Scott of Virginia pointed out in September when he tried unsuccessfully to remove the provisions from the latest appropriations bill.

The rules are “a relic of an ugly history when states and school districts across the nation resisted meaningful integration,” said Scott, the top Democrat on the House education committee, during a floor speech where he called the persistence of the rules “morally reprehensible.”

After Scott’s amendment to eliminate the provisions was blocked, advocates are now working behind the scenes to convince members of the Senate from both parties to strike the rules from the latest spending bill during negotiations. More than 40 integration advocates and experts have signed onto a letter to lawmakers calling for the anti-busing language to be removed, and members of that coalition plan to meet with lawmakers in the coming days.

Advocates are especially worried about funding for magnet programs, like those in Miami and the South Carolina district, which rely on special science or art offerings or rigorous academic courses to draw students of different races into the same school — a choice-based approach that has become the primary way districts now pursue desegregation.

This is the first year districts that receive federal magnet-school grants are allowed to spend some of that money on transportation, after Congress changed the rules as part of its education-law overhaul in 2015. Among the 32 districts that received a total of nearly $92 million in magnet grants this year, at least six plan to use some of that money for transportation, according to their applications.

Now, just as those funds are about to flow to busing — which many families insist upon before they will enroll their children in magnet schools across town — the decades-old spending restriction could cut them off, advocates warn.

That could create a major problem for districts like Miami-Dade County.

It hopes to attract students from across the district to three heavily black and Hispanic schools by launching magnet programs that focus on zoology, cybersecurity, and mobile-app development, according to its application. To pull that off, it requested $245,000 for buses next year since, as the application notes, the “most limiting factor” for many families is “the cost associated with transporting their child to the magnet school.”

The district in Lake City, South Carolina wants to pull new families from different neighborhoods into an elementary school and a middle school that suffer from sagging enrollment and intense poverty. Previous recruitment efforts that didn’t provide transportation amounted to “failed attempts,” the district said in its application.

However, if the anti-busing provisions are not removed from the next federal spending bill, they would cancel out the new rule allowing those districts to spend some of their magnet money on transportation (though districts could still use local funds to fill in the gap). As such, magnet-school representatives are pushing hard for lawmakers to remove the provisions during budget negotiations.

“We’re hoping this doesn’t see the light of day,” said John Laughner, legislative and communications manager at Magnet Schools of America, an association of magnets from across the country. He plans to discuss the issue with lawmakers next week.

Beyond magnet schools, other desegregation efforts could be undercut by the anti-busing provision, which was included in a spending bill for fiscal year 2018 that the House approved and one the Senate has yet to vote on.

At least one state — New York — listed socioeconomic and racial integration among the ways it could intervene in low-performing schools under the new federal education law. In addition, New York officials announced a grant program this week where up to 30 districts will receive federal money to develop integration plans.

Advocates fear the anti-busing rule could disrupt any of those plans that require transportation and aim to reduce racial segregation. (New York education officials said they did not want to speculate on the impact of a spending bill that hasn’t been approved.)

A Democratic Congressional aide who has studied the issue said the provision could even block federal funding for planning or public outreach around desegregation programs that involve busing, not just busing itself.

Either way, advocates say the provision could dissuade districts from using the new education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, to pursue integration — even though research suggests that student achievement on tests and other measures improve when they attend less segregated schools.

“We shouldn’t have this,” said Philip Tegeler, a member of the National Coalition on School Diversity, which is leading the charge to remove the restriction. He added that the provision stemmed from mandatory desegregation busing of an earlier era: “It’s clearly an anachronism that doesn’t really fit any more with what states and districts are doing voluntarily.”

A U.S. education department spokeswoman said Secretary Betsy DeVos would be bound to enforce any funding prohibitions that Congress approves, though she noted that state and local funds are not subject to the same restrictions.

Negotiators from the House and Senate must still agree on a single spending bill, which would go before the full Congress for a vote. Until then, lawmakers have voted to temporarily extend 2017 spending levels through December. It’s possible Congress will pass another extension then, meaning a final deal — and a decision on the anti-busing language — may not arrive until early next year.

In the meantime, advocates are pressing lawmakers like Sen. Lamar Alexander, the Republican chairman of the Senate education committee who helped craft ESSA, with the argument that the anti-busing provision limits the flexibility and local control the law was meant to provide districts.

Margaret Atkinson, a spokeswoman for the senator, would not say whether he is open to removing the provision, but said he would continue working to ensure ESSA “is implemented as Congress intended.”

The anti-busing language — found in two sections of the current appropriation bills — prohibits using federal funds for transportation “to overcome racial imbalance” or “to carry out a plan of racial desegregation,” or forcing students to attend any school other than the one closest to home. (A separate education law contains a similar restriction, but ESSA exempted magnet schools from it.) The provisions emerged in the early 1970s, just after the Supreme Court ruled that busing students to schools outside their own racially isolated neighborhoods was an appropriate tool for school desegregation.

At the time, many white parents raged against what they called “forced busing.” In response, the U.S. House of Representatives passed at least one law annually from 1966 to 1977 meant to curb school integration, according to historian Jason Sokol, and in 1974 the full Congress voted in favor of an anti-busing amendment to an education bill. The restrictions in the current spending bills appear to have originated around the same time.

The attacks on busing reflect how crucial free transportation is to school desegregation, said Erica Frankenberg, a professor at Pennsylvania State University who studies segregation. Busing was included in guidelines outlining how districts should comply with desegregation requirements in the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and later upheld by the Supreme Court, she pointed out.

More recently, studies have shown that non-white parents are more likely to opt into magnet schools when they provide transportation, and that magnets that don’t offer busing are more likely to enroll students of a single race, Frankenberg said. Yet, many politicians remain reluctant to endorse busing for desegregation — which may reflect a deeper ambivalence, she added.

Resistance to busing, she said, “is a very politically acceptable way to be opposed to integration.”