acceptance day

‘Did you get in?’ High school offer letters bring smiles, a few tears to Bronx classrooms

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Eighth-grade students at M.S. 244 in the Bronx receive their high school admission letters.

Anticipation held eighth-graders at the edges of their seats at The New School for Leadership and Journalism in the Bronx on Friday afternoon.

The roughly 300 students, along with more than 76,000 of their peers across New York City, were seconds away from opening up their high school acceptance letters, informing them where they would spend the next four years. (See Chalkbeat’s guide to high school admissions debates.)

“I can’t do this,” shouted a boy at the back of the room, shaking as he clenched the white envelope in his hands.

After the school’s principal and guidance counselor finished passing out all of the letters, they signaled to the class to open them simultaneously. A clamor of shouts, cheers and sobs erupted across the room. Some students sprang up in excitement, while others sank into their desks in dismay.

Chalkbeat spoke with students at the school, also known as M.S. 244, about their high school offers as they were still reeling from the news.

Mariam Djaballah (left), an eighth-grader at M.S. 244, reacts to being admitted into the Beacon School.
PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Mariam Djaballah (left), an eighth-grader at M.S. 244, reacts to being admitted into the Beacon School.

Mariam Djaballah
First choice: The Beacon School
Accepted into: The Beacon School

Miriam Djaballah started crying immediately after opening her letter Friday afternoon. With hands covering her face, she appeared extremely disappointed. But Djaballah was simply overcome with emotion after winning a spot at one of the city’s most selective high schools.

“I am shocked. I am so happy,” Djaballah said. “This is a dream come true… Getting into Beacon really proves to me that hard work pays off, and I am so happy that my future is planned out right now.”

“Getting into a successful high school means that I’m that much closer to accomplishing my dreams,” she added. “It all starts now.”

Kevin Hilario (right) was comforted by friends and teachers after not getting into Talent Unlimited.
PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Kevin Hilario was upset after not getting into Talent Unlimited.

Kevin Hilario
First choice: Talent Unlimited
Accepted into: Celia Cruz High School

After opening his letter, Kevin Hilario stood at the back of the room with his arms crossed and his eyes fixed on the ground.

“I am feeling upset and disappointed right now,” Hilario said. “I was hoping to get into Talent Unlimited.”

In his audition for the performing arts school back in December, Hilario drew from his studies in music theory and hoped that Talent Unlimited would be the place where he would hone his skills.

“Not getting accepted makes me feel like there’s something I could’ve done better,” he said, adding that he plans to re-audition for Talent Unlimited in the fall.

Kadijah Belcher (right), hugs her friend after finding out she was admitted into LaGuardia High School.
PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Kadijah Belcher (right), hugs her friend after finding out she was admitted into LaGuardia High School.

Kadijah Belcher
First choice: Frank Sinatra School of the Arts
Accepted into: LaGuardia High School (specialized) and Repertory Company High School for Theatre Arts

“For the whole week I couldn’t sleep,” Kadijah Belcher said, adding that she even considered not coming to school on Friday. “The whole day, I was like — this is the day that I find out if I’m a failure or if I pass.”

Belcher said she was shocked by her acceptance to highly competitive LaGuardia High School because she had felt that her singing audition had not gone well, so she had ruled it out as a possibility.

“It was so surprising,” she said. “One of my closest friends also got into LaGuardia… I’ve got a few of my buddies.”

Erika Corniel found out she was not admitted into any public high schools during the first round of applications.
PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Erika Corniel found out she was not admitted into any public high schools during the first round of applications.

Erika Corniel 
First choice: Fashion Industries High School
Accepted into: No schools (second round applicant)

Along with 25 other eighth-graders at M.S. 244, Erika Corniel was pulled out of her first period class on Friday and told by the school’s guidance counselor and principal that she wasn’t accepted into any of the school she listed on her application.

“My mom is going to be so disappointed. She already has so much on her plate,” Corniel said as she planned out how she would break the news at home.

When Corniel went through the application process, she said she ranked her choices based on her interests in fashion, dance and forensic law. Corniel said she hopes to keep her grades up for the rest of the school year to get into a good school during the second round.

“This marking period, I’m trying to get more than an 80 in all of my classes so I can get into the schools that I wanted to,” she said.

Bernie Urena is comforted by students and one of his teachers at M.S. 244.
PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Bernie Urena is comforted by students and one of his teachers at M.S. 244.

Bernie Urena
First choice: Frank Sinatra High School
Accepted into: Pelham Lab High School

“I got into my third pick, and I have mixed feelings,” Urena said. “When I first opened up my letter I was upset because I wanted to get into Frank Sinatra.”

Urena said he was drawn to the band program at Frank Sinatra High School, where he hoped he could grow as a bass guitarist. But after talking to his teachers, Urena began to imagine some new possibilities at Pelham Lab High School.

“I’m feeling happy about getting into Pelham Lab now. My counselors and teachers are telling me it’s a good school,” he said, adding he was surprised to be accepted there because he didn’t think his grades were good enough.

Naylean Miranda was accepted into Fashion Industries High School.
PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Naylean Miranda was accepted into Fashion Industries High School.

Naylean Miranda
First Choice School: Fashion Industries High School
Accepted into: Fashion Industries High School

“I’m feeling emotional right now because I got into the school of my dreams,” Naylean Miranda said. “I worked really hard to get here.”

As part of her application, Miranda submitted a fashion portfolio that included images of mannequins dressed in her designs and was also interviewed by the school.

“Fashion is very personal for me, and I’m glad I have the chance to continue with it,” she said.

Di’Anna Bonomolo and Ahmed Hassan react to getting into their top choice specialized high schools.
PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Di’Anna Bonomolo and Ahmed Hassan react to getting into their top choice specialized high schools.

Ahmed Hassan
First choice: Bronx High School of Science (specialized) and Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering
Accepted into: Bronx High School of Science (specialized) and Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering

When Ahmed Hassan’s older brother wasn’t admitted into Bronx Science, he said it pushed him even harder to aim for one of New York City’s most elite public high schools.

“He actually is the one who helped me the most,” Hassan said. He wasted most of his summer helping me prepare for the exam” — the Specialized High School Admissions Test.

“I’m feeling very happy right now, very excited,” he said. “I really want to show this to my brother,” he added, holding his acceptance letter.

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.”