Diversity Debate

De Blasio official touts school choice as a solution to segregation, echoing Bloomberg

The city is more focused on giving students good schools to choose from than trying to desegregate the school system, a top education department official suggested Monday.

“It is our job to make sure that all of our schools are clearly running well,” Senior Deputy Chancellor Dorita Gibson said before a panel discussion on school segregation, and to “make sure that you can go to any school that you want.”

Combined with recent remarks by the schools chief and Mayor Bill de Blasio, the latest comments indicate that the de Blasio administration views school diversity as a worthy goal but one less urgent and attainable than boosting the quality of schools that are segregated.

Coming from Gibson, a former deputy under the previous chancellor, the comments also highlighted a remarkable feature of de Blasio’s stance on school diversity: its similarity to that of his predecessor, former Mayor Michael Bloomberg. While de Blasio has been sharply critical of many of Bloomberg’s signature education policies, he has continued his predecessor’s emphasis on school quality — and in some cases, school choice — over diversity.

Critics who consider the idea of a high-performing but highly segregated school system unrealistic have grown increasingly wary of the overlap between de Blasio and Bloomberg on the issue of integration.

City Councilman Ritchie Torres, a Democrat like de Blasio, said during Monday’s panel that school quality and diversity are “inextricably bound together.” He added that there are many steps the city could take to reduce school segregation, which he had expected a left-leaning mayor to pursue in a way his more conservative predecessor had not.

“What could be more progressive than confronting racial segregation?” he said. Noting that de Blasio has invested heavily in creating more affordable housing, he added, “I wish the city could put as much energy into preserving diverse classrooms as we are into preserving diverse housing units.”

City Councilman Ritchie Torres said Monday that school quality and diversity are “inextricably bound together.”
City Councilman Ritchie Torres said Monday that school quality and diversity are “inextricably bound together.”

De Blasio has faced mounting pressure to address school diversity, which was the subject of a City Council bill earlier this year and a flashpoint in recent debates over school rezonings. In response, he and top education officials have insisted that school segregation is largely a product of deeply entrenched housing patterns that cannot be overcome simply through new school zones or enrollment policies.

Instead, individual schools can foster diversity by offering programs that attract a mix of families, exposing their students to peers from different backgrounds through “sister school” partnerships, and by teaching students about other cultures, the officials have said. If the city were to take a more active role in ensuring that schools enroll a greater mix of students, that could prompt a backlash from some parents, officials have suggested.

“We’ll never do anything without community input,” Chancellor Carmen Fariña said at an unrelated press conference Monday when asked about the administration’s plans around desegregation. Otherwise, “if you mandate something, that then will cause a revolution and people might strike,” she said, citing a children’s book about sheep who go on strike.

Considering the extent of segregation in New York City — where the share of black and Hispanic students attending schools with very few white students has risen over the past two decades — officials have argued that their efforts should go into enhancing the instruction and services in schools rather than shifting their enrollments.

The Bloomberg administration took a similar stance. Bloomberg’s long-serving schools chief, Joel Klein, said that a “focus on high-quality education for every kid in every school I think is the way,” not “a focus on racial balance.” His successor, Dennis Walcott, said he was “focused on having high-quality schools in all neighborhoods,” which he called “the ultimate civil rights policy.”

Gibson, who was deputy chancellor for access and equity under Walcott, said Monday that the city should strive for diverse schools. But when that is not possible, the city should ensure “that children have an opportunity to excel in the schools where they are.”

She also echoed a defining doctrine of the Bloomberg administration: that school choice offers all students an equal opportunity to attend good schools. In particular, she suggested that an enrollment system that allows students to apply to high schools and some middle schools outside of their own neighborhoods can help them dodge schools in high-poverty areas that might be overburdened with needy students.

“You can live in the Bronx and go to school in Manhattan,” she said. “You don’t have to go to the school across the street.”

That argument does not address elementary schools, which tend to be the most segregated because admissions are based on students’ addresses, nor the city’s elite “specialized” high schools, which base admissions on test scores and enroll very few black and Hispanic students.

Researchers have also challenged the idea that school choice benefits all students equally. Wealthier families tend to have access to information and networks that help them find the best schools, while poorer families often opt for local schools that are low-performing but more familiar, said Halley Potter, a fellow at the Century Foundation who studies school segregation.

“To think that choice on its own is really going to produce outcomes that help our most vulnerable students have better options is really risky,” she said.

Monday’s panel at the Brooklyn Law School was hosted by the group NYC Collaborates, a partnership between the city education department and the New York City Charter Center, which receives funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. (Disclosure: Chalkbeat also receives financial support from the Gates Foundation.)

stump speech

New York City schools Chancellor Richard Carranza on segregation, national politics, and being Mexican-American

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Chancellor Richard Carranza gave a speech to parents, educators, and community advocates about the need to integrate schools. They were gathered in Harlem for a town hall organized by Mayor Bill de Blasio's School Diversity Advisory Group.

In his two months on the job, Chancellor Richard Carranza has left little room to doubt how he thinks and feels about school diversity — or the lack of it.

He tweeted a blunt criticism of middle-class parents who protested an integration plan for Upper West Side middle schools. He questioned a fundamental way that many New York City schools admit students: by screening for academic achievement, which critics say exacerbates segregation. And he has unflinchingly described the school system as “segregated” and pushed for “integration,” two words that his predecessor never uttered publicly.

And then there is this fiery speech that he’s been delivering at meetings across the city.

After tracing the history of school segregation, Carranza dives into national politics — praising the presidency of Barack Obama while lamenting the racial divisiveness that mars the current political climate. He talks about being Mexican-American, and what he hears when dissenters tell him — “Go back to Houston,” where Carranza briefly served as the head of schools.

He gave a version of this speech at a recent town hall in Brooklyn’s District 15. The speech reprinted here was delivered at a different town hall: A meeting in Harlem of the mayor’s School Diversity Advisory Group, which is tasked with forming recommendations to spur school integration.

This speech has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Let me give you the broader context of why this is important, beyond just the New York City Department of Education or our schools. I want you to think of three numbers: 64, 10, and 17.

Why is that important? Sixty-four years ago the question of diversifying schools, integrating schools, was definitively settled by the United States Supreme Court in Brown vs. Board of Education. They said that separate is never equal, and especially as it pertains to educational outcomes, it is not equal. The question I have for all of us tonight is: 64 years later what do we — the collective we — have to show for that? I will tell you that in communities across America, the answer is, not much. In some cases we’ve become more segregated. In some cases the intractableness of integrating schools and opportunities, and the gentrification that has happened with that, and the Balkanization that has happened around the racial divide, has become even more intractable. The fact that we’re gathered here today shows me that this community is willing to have tough conversations. 

Then what does 10 have to do with 64? I don’t know if you remember where you were 10 years ago, but I will never forget where I was 10 years ago on a November night. Ten years ago, this country elected the first black man president of the United States. We thought that would never happen, in at least our lifetime, with our history and what’s happened. That we would elect a black man president of the United States was in many cases, as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King said to us, we have reached the mountaintop, and we have now seen over that mountain top. We were jubilant. I was jubilant.

And we lulled ourselves into a false sense of complacency because we had entered a post-racial society. We elected a black president. Regardless of your politics, he did a good job for two terms. He didn’t embarrass us. He didn’t rip babies from mothers’ arms. He didn’t make fun of disabled people. When his words needed to lift us up, he lifted us up. When his words needed to motivate us, he motivated us. We elected a black man and we thought we had seen the mountaintop. We’re there.

So 64 and 10 gets you 17. Because that false sense of complacency has given us the last 17 months of a very different perspective on what it is to be an American, and a very different perspective on who has access. What has that 17 months taught us? That if we are not vigilant, that if we do not continue to live, and speak, and act upon the very foundation of what America is, then we will continue to drive that divide wider. The only way to move that conversation, is to have that conversation.

When I have my urban chancellor suit on people say, ‘Oh, Mr. Chancellor, let me tell you this, or let me tell you that.’ Well, when I don’t have the urban chancellor suit on, I’m in jeans and tennis shoes, or I have my Yankees baseball cap and a T-shirt, I guarantee you that I get followed in certain department stores. It’s happened everywhere I ever lived. When people don’t agree with what I have to say, and they say to me, ‘Go back to Houston,’ don’t make any mistake about the coded language. It’s really, ‘Go back to where you came from.’ I’m keeping it real: Were I a white man saying the same things, would they say go back to Europe? Someone who, my generation, generations of my family, never ever crossed the border? The border crossed us.

It’s important that we are in a room and we get past the micro-aggressive conversations that we have. It’s important to call it when we see it. It’s important that we put the real issue on the table, and the issue on the table is this: In one of the most diverse cities — not in America, in the world — in the largest school district in America —a school district that is a public school system — do we really provide opportunities for everyone?

When we talk about issues of how we screen students, we talk about who gets to go to what schools, and what’s the mechanism by which we decide that, so people can go to certain schools and not go to certain other schools. If we think about who’s being privileged — and I’m not talking about race, I’m not talking about money, I’m talking about opportunity — who’s being privileged with opportunity and who’s not? We, who own the schools, we who are the taxpayers, we who are New Yorkers, have to have this conversation.

survey says

More bullying reported at New York City schools, study shows

PHOTO: Anthony Lanzilote

More New York City students say there is bullying in their schools, a report released Monday showed. The findings also revealed that many schools reporting the greatest number of violent incidents on campus have no social workers on staff.

The report was commissioned by New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer.

Stringer also released an audit of how school safety matters are recorded, and concluded that the education department should provide more oversight and streamline incident reporting rules.

“The audit found clear breakdowns in communication in the reporting and tracking of incidents and actions taken,” according to a press release from Stringer’s office.

The education department disputed some of the comptroller’s findings, and in a written statement, spokeswoman Miranda Barbot wrote: “We have detailed protocols in place to ensure allegations of bullying are immediately reported, investigated and addressed, and are investing in both anti-bullying initiatives and mental health supports.”

But the pair of reports raises scrutiny of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s school discipline reforms, which favor  “restorative” practices that emphasize mediation over punishment, and make it harder to suspend students.

Advocates of the de Blasio reforms say the shift is necessary because black and Hispanic students are more likely to be arrested or disciplined at school. Research has shown such disciplinary action can lead to higher dropout rates. Critics of the reforms, meanwhile, say the changes have created more chaotic schools.

The findings are also likely to add to a chorus of parents and elected officials who say more emotional supports are needed for the city’s most vulnerable students. Students who experience a mental health crisis during the school day may be handcuffed and shuttled to hospitals. The city’s latest budget, which was approved last week, includes an additional $2 million to hire social workers and guidance counselors in schools that currently don’t have any.

Here are some highlights from the reports.

More students report there is bullying in their schools — but the data comes with a catch.

Last year, the education department’s annual survey showed that 82 percent of students said their peers “harass, bully, or intimidate others in school.” That’s up year over year, and up significantly from 65 percent of students in 2012, which was the lowest rate recorded since at least 2010. (De Blasio’s discipline reforms started to take effect around 2015.)

A note about these numbers: Prior to 2017, the survey asked whether students harass, bully or intimidate other students none, some, most, or all of the time. The most recent survey responses were slightly different: none of the time, rarely, some of the time, or most of the time — a change that may have artificially inflated the bullying numbers.

That’s enough to render the survey data unreliable said Max Eden, a researcher who has studied school climate for the conservative-leaning Manhattan Institute — a critic of the mayor’s discipline reforms. Still, taken with other findings, it’s reasonable to think that bullying is on the rise at city schools, he said.

Among the other evidence: A first-of-its-kind report, released this month under a new city law, that showed substantiated bullying incidents are on track to increase this year.

Schools that log the most violent incidents often lack mental health supports.

Guidance counselors and social workers are key when it comes to creating safe schools because they can help address the root cause of violent or troublesome behavior, advocates who want more mental health supports say.

But many of the city’s neediest schools go without that help.

Of the schools reporting the most violent incidents on campus, 36 percent lack a full-time social worker, the comptroller found. On campuses where there are social workers, caseloads are a staggering 700 to one. That far exceeds the recommended ratio from the National Association of Social Workers of 250 general education students per social worker — and it’s higher than the citywide average of 612 students per social worker, according to the comptroller.

The comptroller’ compares that to the ratio of New York Police Department school safety agents who are placed in schools: There is one safety agent per 228 students, according to the report.

“Our city is failing to meet the social and emotional needs of our students,” Councilman Mark Treyger, of Brooklyn, who has pushed the city to report more up-to-date bullying data and to hire more school counselors, said in an emailed statement.

Schools may be underreporting violent incidents, something the education department disputes.

In a separate audit, the comptroller compared logs kept by school safety agents to incident reports filed by school leaders. In 21 percent of cases, incidents that were noted by safety agents were not reflected in the school reports.

The school data, in turn, are used to report incidents to the state for its Violent and Disruptive Incident Report, or VADIR. The discrepancy could raise questions about the already-controversial reporting system. (VADIR has been criticized for classifying schoolyard incidents as serious offenses, and the state has tweaked its definitions in response to those kinds of concerns.)

This finding also comes with some caveats. The comptroller looked at only 10 schools — a tiny sample of the city’s portfolio of about 1,800. And the education department took issue with the methodology.

In its response to the audit, education department officials said that the police data doesn’t align with the state’s reporting categories, and that the information may not be comparable because of student privacy concerns and recordkeeping issues on campuses where multiple schools share a building.