A tale of two schools

For two sharply divided Manhattan schools, an uncertain path to integration

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Parents and teachers attended a meeting Saturday at P.S. 191 about a proposed rezoning.

The two schools sit nine blocks apart on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, but it’s as if they occupy different universes.

P.S. 199 on West 70th Street is a National Blue Ribbon Award-winner with state test scores twice as high as the city average, whose muscular parent-teacher association raised over $800,000 in the 2014 fiscal year, tax filings show. The majority of its students are white, and just 8 percent qualify as poor.

A short walk south to West 61st Street, P.S. 191 serves mainly students from the public housing across the street. It yields test scores far below the city average, and its parent group raised about $24,000 last year. Most of its students are black or Hispanic, and nearly 90 percent are poor.

The separate-and-unequal worlds of the neighboring schools emerged over many decades. But now, an opening for integration may have appeared.

In order to stem overcrowding at 199, where soaring demand created the city’s longest kindergarten waitlist this year, the city education department has proposed new zone lines that would reroute some would-be 199 students to 191, which has many open seats. In that way, a solution to overcrowding could spur integration.

Some parents want the city to go even further and erase the boundary between the schools. They say a single zone for both schools would end the practice of separate schools for rich and poor, and bring a greater mix of students into each.

“We have an unbelievable opportunity here,” said Noah Gotbaum, a local education council member who has championed that idea, at a recent rezoning meeting.

However, the vast divide between the two schools could undercut either plan. 199 might remain more popular even in a unified zone, and wealthier parents say they might shun 191 even if they were zoned for it.

That was the message at the meeting earlier this month, where parents who said they had settled in the high-priced precinct near Lincoln Center largely because of 199 insisted that 191 — with its low test scores and reports of violence — is an unacceptable alternative.

“If I don’t get into P.S. 199,” said Robert LaSalle, the father of a one-year-old girl, “I’m going to send my kid to private school, or I’m going to move to another district.”

A solution to overcrowding faces a backlash

P.S. 199 (left) is a top-ranked school surrounded by pricey residential buildings. P.S. 191 (right), which serves many students from the Amsterdam Houses (far right), has struggled low test scores and a "persistently dangerous" designation by the state.
P.S. 199 (left) is a top-ranked school surrounded by pricey residential buildings. P.S. 191, which serves many students from the Amsterdam Houses (far right), has struggled low test scores and a “persistently dangerous” designation by the state.

In a neighborhood where apartments can sell for upwards of $1 million and many parents could afford private school, 199’s academic success has kept local parents clamoring for spots.

To meet the demand, the school has squeezed in at least 150 students more than its building was designed for, leading to full classrooms, jam-packed playgrounds, and traffic gridlock during dismissal. Still, more than 90 families in the school’s zone landed on the kindergarten waitlist this year, prompting some to flee to private schools and others to plead with city officials to find them space at 199.

The city’s solution is to shrink 199’s catchment area and expand those around 191 and P.S. 452, a relatively new school to the north. Education department officials, who will make a final proposal next month, say their plan could increase the share of white students in 191’s zone by nearly a quarter.

But for parents drawn to the pricey neighborhood in part by 199’s prestige, overcrowding is not a sufficient reason to deny them seats — especially when the substitute is 191.

“People would rather have overcrowding at 199 than send their kid to 191,” said Vivian Chen, the parent of a 199 kindergartener whose building would be rezoned for 452. “You don’t move to this kind of neighborhood for that.”

In their own words

Click to hear what local parents and students have to say about the neighborhood’s schools. The blue area is the proposed zone for P.S. 199; the purple area is P.S. 191’s proposed zone.

The situation mirrors one in a gentrifying pocket of Brooklyn, where the city has proposed shifting incoming students from packed P.S. 8 to nearby P.S. 307. But the divide is sharper between the two Manhattan schools and perhaps harder to bridge: Their test-score gap is significantly wider, and the state recently branded P.S. 191 a “persistently dangerous school” based on data from the past two academic years.

Parents and faculty say the designation is misleading. Still, it dealt a crushing blow to the school’s reputation and gave students the legal right to transfer out. Already, the city has had to offer 18 incoming kindergarteners seats at other schools, and 28 current students have applied for transfers, according to an education department spokesman.

Faced with that label and the school’s test scores, some parents who could soon be zoned for 191 have not been swayed by arguments that the school is actually on the upswing. When City Councilwoman Helen Rosenthal spoke during the Oct. 7 hearing about the school’s enthusiastic new principal and extra funding it has received, many parents were skeptical.

“Are the test scores wrong though or are they right?” one man called out. He added, “It’s not just money, it’s parents.”

In interviews, other current and prospective 199 parents repeated the notion that some of 191’s challenges stem from limited parent involvement. One father said that while 199 parents compete to be classroom volunteers, at 191, “nobody cares.” They also worried about sending their children to a school where most of their classmates would be behind academically, at least according to test scores.

Kim Watkins, a member of the district’s education council whose daughter attended 191 until she got into a gifted program at a different school this year, said it would be reasonable to ask would-be 199 parents to take a chance on 191 — if it weren’t for the “incredibly disparate level of student performance” at the two schools.

“You don’t gamble with your kids’ lives like that,” she said.

Despite the public talk about data and designations, some 191 parents and faculty are convinced that part of their neighbors’ wariness about the school stems from the population it serves.

“They think because it’s the projects, it’s bad kids,” said Elizabeth Merced, a 191 parent who lives in the Amsterdam Houses across from the school.

A ‘super zone’ to combat segregation

A parent spoke out against the city's rezoning plan, which switches the school that certain residential buildings are paired with from 199 to 191.
A parent spoke out against the city’s rezoning plan, which switches the school that certain residential buildings are paired with from 199 to 191. (Photo credit: Patrick Wall)

While the city’s plan to redraw the zoning lines is mainly an effort to curb overcrowding, the shared zone idea put forward by parent leaders has an additional goal: integration.

Families that live within the combined 191-199 “super zone,” as some have called it, could apply to either school. If a school receives more applicants than it has seats, a lottery would go into effect.

Proponents say the plan would open 199 to some students from the housing projects and could send a larger number of affluent students to 191 than a traditional rezoning would. More importantly, they say, it could begin to chip away at the perception that one school belongs to rich families and another belongs to those who are poor.

“A super zone creates equality,” said Seth Rosenthal, who lives in a building whose zoned school would switch from 199 to 191 under the city’s proposal. “Instead of drawing lines, let’s have two great schools.”

Education department planners mapped out a potential shared zone at the request of the District 3 Community Education Council. But the officials have cautioned that such plans have faltered elsewhere when an in-demand school gets flooded with applicants and the less-popular school receives its lottery losers. Some parents share those doubts.

“It’s not going to make 191 more attractive to prospective parents,” said Vildan Altuglu, who lives in 199’s zone, at a rezoning meeting Saturday. “It will not solve the problem.”

Meanwhile, other parents have floated a third plan: pairing the two schools so that students attend one for the early grades and the other for later grades. The schools had such an arrangement decades ago, but it eventually fell apart.

“That was the beginning of the end of diversity,” said Dr. Elena Nasereddin, who was principal of 191 in the 1990s and early 2000s.

City officials have not presented that pairing as an option at the rezoning meetings. In general, Mayor Bill de Blasio — like his predecessor — has been reluctant to make school diversity an overt goal of zoning or admissions-policy changes.

Education department spokeswoman Devora Kaye said creating a diverse school system is an important goal, and that officials consider the impact on school diversity when creating new zones. She said the city would consider all zoning options for 191 and 199, and would work with families at both schools “to ensure the proposal best serves students in the community.”

The district’s community education council, which consists of elected parent leaders, is expected to vote on the city’s final proposal on Nov. 19. If they approve the plan, it would go into effect next school year.

A test ahead, with serious consequences

P.S. 191 Principal Lauren Keville hopes to convince more parents to give her school a chance.
P.S. 191 Principal Lauren Keville hopes to convince more parents to give her school a chance. (Photo credit: Patrick Wall)

For now, the plan at 191 is to keep pushing to improve the school, while asking more parents to give it a chance.

Principal Lauren Keville, who is starting her second year at the school, said she has moved swiftly to raise the level of academics by hiring new teacher coaches, installing a new writing curriculum, and instituting a tablet-based reading program. In order to address the behavior incidents, she said she has brought in a new social worker and a school-wide curriculum designed to help students manage their emotions, which has led to a major decrease in incidents this year.

She is also marketing the school to parents. Last Wednesday, she greeted a roomful of prospective parents who had come for the first of many weekly tours the school will give this fall, and at the rezoning meetings she has invited anyone from the community to visit.

“I encourage you to come and see us,” Keville said at one meeting, “so that we can dispel some of the ugly rumors that are out there about our school.”

It remains an open question whether her outreach will convince parents who had counted on sending their children to a high-flying school like 199 to consider one with a tarnished reputation should any new zones be approved. The answer to that question, many believe, could seal the fate of 191 and its students.

“Until we ensure that our schools are both ethnically and economically diverse,” P.S. 191 Assistant Principal Sandra Perez said at Saturday’s hearing, “we will continue to be a school that struggles.”

Additional reporting by Monica Disare. Graphic by Stephanie Snyder and Monica Disare.

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.”