calling for backup

Educators on front line of desegregation debate say city must take the lead

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Michelle Baptiste (center), a second-grade teacher at P.S. 92 in Brooklyn, is running for a spot on the union's executive board.

Confronting one of the nation’s most segregated school systems, New York City’s schools chief recently said she is searching for ways to alleviate the problem “organically,” without mandating changes.

But that approach won’t suffice, several educators and parents said during a discussion Tuesday at the Brooklyn Historical Society. With enrollment policies and parent choices together fueling a system where more than half of schools qualify as severely segregated, they suggested that small-scale remedies that rely on local buy-in will fall short.

“The segregation wasn’t organic, and the integration is not going to be organic either,” said Jill Bloomberg, the principal of Park Slope Collegiate, a grade 6-12 school in a gentrifying part of Brooklyn where many schools remain racially isolated.

Michelle Baptiste, a teacher at P.S. 92 in Prospect-Lefferts Gardens, Brooklyn, put it more bluntly.

“I don’t think that we can look to the Department of Education,” she told the crowd. “They haven’t taken any leadership.”

The relatively rare public criticism of the education department by employees reflects the frustration felt by some educators — and some parents and advocates — who had hoped that Mayor Bill de Blasio’s emphasis on social justice would spur aggressive action on school segregation. Instead, Fariña has only recently started to call school diversity a top priority, and her most significant initiative on that front has been signing off on diversity plans at seven schools.

The comments also highlighted a tension in the de Blasio administration’s approach to integration: Officials are seeking solutions that entire communities will embrace, yet middle-class parents have long demonstrated that they will staunchly oppose changes that limit their access to sought-after schools.

In practice, that has meant that the city recently backed enrollment changes designed to promote diversity at the seven schools that developed their own plans, but postponed a zoning change on the Upper West Side that was fiercely resisted by some parents. To advocates, the backlash there and in response to a similar rezoning proposal in Brooklyn made clear that more widespread integration will only happen if the city forcefully pushes for it.

“The DOE needs to be the one to take responsibility for this,” said Miriam Nunberg, a Park Slope Collegiate parent who co-founded a group that is trying to reform the District 15 middle school admissions process. “Asking different communities to be responsible for integrating schools on a case-by-case basis is not going to work.”

Journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones moderated the panel.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones moderated the panel.

The panel, part of a series of talks titled, “Why New York? Our Segregated Schools Epidemic,” was moderated by Nikole Hannah-Jones, a writer for the New York Times Magazine who has reported extensively on school segregation. Her child attends P.S. 307, which was at the center of the Brooklyn rezoning debate last fall. (Her husband, Faraji Hannah-Jones, is co-president of P.S. 307’s parent-teacher association and was on the panel.)

She started the talk by offering some sobering statistics: While about 70 percent of students citywide are black or Hispanic, those groups make up over 90 percent of the population at more than half of city schools, according to a 2012 Times analysis. Meanwhile, half of the city’s white students are concentrated in just 7 percent of schools, DNAinfo found.

The panelists laid the blame partly on the city and partly on individual parents.

Some middle-class parents choose to cluster at popular schools that enroll more white students and fewer poor students than the city average. But parents make those decisions within a system of zone lines, school-choice policies, and selective schools that ends up sorting students from different backgrounds into different schools.

“You have a lot of parents who want to do the right thing, who want to enroll their kids in integrated schools,” Nikole Hannah-Jones said, “but the choices of schools are very minimal.”

Advocates note that even if de Blasio is off to a slow start, his predecessor, Michael Bloomberg, seldom addressed school segregation or took steps to tackle it head-on. Meanwhile, Fariña has asked a top deputy to explore possible enrollment-policy changes that could promote diversity.

“Diversity is very important to me,” she said recently. “It’s how I’ve lived my life as a teacher, a principal, and even as a parent.”

But as policymakers debate the best path toward integration, a few panelists described the daily reality of schools that are separated largely by race and class.

Baptiste, the teacher at P.S. 92, where more than 90 percent of students come from low-income families, said staffers can become overwhelmed by the number of students who arrive scarred by the effects of poverty. She said she refused to send her own son to the school he was zoned for because it had a similarly high concentration of low-income students.

“That’s what I was trying to get away from,” she said. “That kept me up with night terrors and sweats.”

Nathaniel Okoroji, a student at Brooklyn Technical High School, called that school “deeply segregated.” While it has more racial diversity than some of the city’s other eight elite “specialized” high schools, just 16 percent of students last year were black or Hispanic.

Okoroji said that he and other black students often face racism and “anti-blackness” from other students.

“It’s very toxic,” he said. “It’s very hard to learn to the best of your ability when you’re always worried what that kid next to you is going to say.”

Newark Enrolls

Want to attend one of Newark’s coveted magnet schools? Get ready to take a test.

Newark students who hope to attend one of the district's six magnet schools will have to take a new exam in January.

Newark students will soon face a new hurdle when trying to snag seats at the city’s most popular high schools.

Next month, any student who wants into one of the city’s six magnet schools will have to take a new exam that gauges their academic prowess as well as their interest in each school’s theme.

“If you would like to go to any of those schools,” Superintendent Roger León told parents at a conference Wednesday, “you better get ready for the test to get in.”

The exam, which will be given to students on Jan. 11-12, has not yet been announced on the district’s enrollment site. In fact, the test itself is still being developed and logistical details, such as where students will take it, are still being determined, officials said.

In addition to the new test, each school will also begin interviewing applicants, León said — something only two magnet schools did last year, according to an admissions guide. It’s unclear whether the interviews will take place this admission cycle. If so, schools may have to schedule dozens or even hundreds of interviews in the coming weeks.

Meanwhile, enrollment for next school year began on Dec. 3 and continues through February — giving students and schools little time to prepare for the new requirements.

“I know as much as you know right now,” one principal said. “Obviously the superintendent is revamping some items, but he hasn’t really shared the details with everyone.”

The district-run magnet schools, which have themes such as science and American history, include some of the city’s most sought-after high schools. Last year, nearly 1,800 eighth-graders listed a magnet school first on their high-school applications even though the schools had space for only 971 students.

The magnets, which vastly outperform the district’s six traditional high schools, already screen applicants. They look at grades, state test scores, attendance records, and — in the case of Arts High School — an audition or visual-art portfolio, when deciding which students to let in.

But even with those screens, some admitted students are not prepared for the rigor of work at the magnets or lack a strong interest in their programs, León said.

“The idea is to make sure that students who choose to go to these schools are going to meet whatever are the demands of that school,” he told Chalkbeat. “It’s not that your parents have the right to choose for you to go.”

Even as he moves to make magnet schools more selective, León — who became superintendent in July — also hopes to make traditional schools more appealing to top students.

On Wednesday, he also announced plans to create gifted-and-talented programs at each of the traditional high schools. To qualify, students will also take the new magnet-school exam.

León did not go into detail about what the programs will entail. But he may be drawing from his previous experience as principal of University High School, a magnet school that advertises a gifted-and-talented program on its website. Students must test into the program, which includes a “rigorous curriculum” in English, math, and another language, according to the site.

“Students are going into magnets because they think that’s where they can get their high-performing education,” he said. “Now they’ll be given a reason to not do that.”

The traditional schools will also develop specialized “academies” to train students for various careers, including engineering, teaching, and health services. Each school will partner with a higher-education institution and a professional organization to develop those programs.

Many Newark schools have tried to offer vocational programs, but often struggle to find qualified teachers and meet the stringent requirements to receive federal funding. It’s unclear how the district will help them overcome those challenges, especially if the timeline is also aggressive.

Traditional schools, for their part, seem eager for any support they can get. Angela Mincy, principal of Barringer High School, said the school created an honors program last year in an effort to retain high-achieving students.

“If I don’t create an isolated experience for them, I will lose them,” she said in an interview last month, adding that the goal is to keep attracting more and more top students. “The hope is that one day, one honors track will become two will become three.”

With their selective admissions and college-oriented courses, the city’s magnet schools have long been seen as a refuge for high-achieving students who cannot afford private school. County-run vocational schools, which also screen applicants, are another popular option along with some charter high schools — though they often have few seats left over for students who did not attend their lower-grade schools.

The district’s traditional, or “comprehensive,” high schools are viewed by many families as schools of last resort. On nearly every academic measure — attendance rates, test scores, college enrollment and completion — the traditional schools lag far behind the magnets.

In a sense, this disparity is built into the system. Magnet schools are designed to enroll academically and artistically accomplished students. Traditional schools take the rest, including almost all students who are still learning English and the majority of those with disabilities.

Other cities have begun to rethink this practice of tracking students into separate schools according to ability — at least as measured by a single test. In New York City, where a debate has raged over admissions to the district’s coveted “specialized” high schools, the mayor has proposed scrapping the schools’ entrance exam. Instead, he said, they should reserve spots for the top students from every middle school.

Some Newark parents have floated a similar plan for the city’s most exclusive magnet school, Science Park High School. Instead, Superintendent León is pursuing the opposite approach — adding new entrance exams for all magnet schools. In other cities, exam schools tend to be highly segregated by race and class, favoring families with the wherewithal to help students prepare for the exams or pay for test prep.

León said he expects the new magnet exams will measure students’ reading and math proficiency, as well as their interest in each school’s particular focus, such as science or technology.

“The whole concept that anyone and everyone can get into the magnet high schools — that’s not why they were designed,” said León, who graduated from Science High School. “You actually have to qualify to get into those schools.”

Karen Gaylord, Science Park High School’s community engagement specialist, said some teachers and  parents may grumble about the new test because they haven’t had a chance to prepare students for it. But she noted that families had become “resigned” to entrance exams when magnet schools used them in the past.

She also said many people would welcome the admissions interviews as a way for students to highlight skills and interests that aren’t reflected on their transcripts. The question, she said, is how schools will carry out these changes on such a tight timeline.

“It feels like there are so many opportunities to get this right,” she said. “I’m just not sure we’re going to get them all in this year. The clock is ticking.”

Newark Enrolls

In Newark, universal enrollment was in danger. So charters started planning a separate system.

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
Newark students arriving at a district school on the first day of class.

For much of this year, the fate of Newark’s joint district-charter enrollment system was uncertain.

So even as charter leaders negotiated changes to the shared system with the district’s new superintendent, they began quietly developing a backup plan in case it fell apart, according to a charter-sector memo obtained by Chalkbeat.

Beginning this spring, the sector began exploring a charter-only enrollment system, the October memo shows. This fall, the sector ramped up its contingency planning: It hired the district’s recently departed enrollment director to draw up plans for a charter-only system.

Ultimately, their efforts proved unnecessary — at least for now. Last month, after prodding from the superintendent, the Newark school board agreed to retain the joint enrollment system for at least another year.

Still, the behind-the-scenes planning shows how seriously some charter leaders took the threat that the five-year-old enrollment system, called Newark Enrolls, could unravel. And it illustrates their fear of returning to what many charter proponents consider the bad old days, when each charter school had to convince families to apply to it separately because no universal application form existed.

Michele Mason, executive director of the Newark Charter School Fund, an advocacy and school-support group, said the sector was simply doing it “due diligence” in case negotiations with the district over Newark Enrolls broke down. She added that the sector developed a plan for how to create a charter-only enrollment system, but did not actually build one.

“We’re trying very hard to keep one system because we believe that’s in the best interest of kids and families,” Mason said. “But things could change here in Newark, and somebody could change their mind on one system, so we were just committed to not being caught flat-footed.”

The citywide enrollment system, originally called “One Newark,” has been divisive since it launched in 2014. It upended the tradition of families registering in person at their neighborhood school or entering admissions lotteries at individual charter schools. Instead, they could list up to eight district or charter schools on a single application before being matched to one school.

Early on, the new computerized system failed to match some students with any school and sent some siblings to schools in opposite ends of the city. Meanwhile, charter critics saw it as a scheme to divert students from the district into charter schools.

In 2016, the city school board passed a resolution to dismantle the system. But the move was mainly symbolic because the district was still under state control. Then, in February, the state ended its 22-year-long takeover and handed control back to the school board. Suddenly, the future of Newark Enrolls was in doubt.

Around that time, a few board members undertook a review of the enrollment system, which included talking to charter leaders. The charter leaders were left with the impression that some board members wanted separate district and charter enrollment systems, according to the charter memo.

At that point, sector began developing “contingency plans” for a charter-only system, the memo says. The idea was that if families could not longer apply to district and charter schools through a single system, they at least would not have to apply to each charter school separately.

Charter leaders’ fears grew in late June when the district’s new board-selected superintendent, Roger León, forced out dozens of administrators and top officials — including two who oversaw enrollment, Kate Fletcher and Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon. The board blocked their firing but both eventually resigned, leaving the enrollment office without a leader.

Around the time of León’s leadership shakeup, the Newark Charter School Fund hired a “research group” to study the computer program the district uses to match students with schools “so it can be replicated if needed,” according to the memo, which did not name the group.

Then tensions appeared to ease. In July, León assured charter leaders that he would protect the joint enrollment system. The two sides began negotiating the terms of an annual agreement that spells out how the system should operate.

Worried about the lack of leadership in the enrollment office and potential staff reductions, charter leaders pushed for a provision in the agreement that says the district must maintain “the quality and quantity of personnel necessary” to operate Newark Enrolls. The district accepted that change then proposed its own — an end to the practice of sending charter schools extra students to offset those who leave over the summer — which became a major sticking point. (The final agreement does not explicitly ban or allow the practice.)

Amid those talks, the charter sector hired Fletcher, the former district enrollment official, to develop a plan for “operationalizing” a charter-only enrollment system, according to the memo. That included contacting possible vendors and staffers to run the system, the memo says. (Fletcher did not respond to an email seeking comment.)

Eventually, district and charter leaders settled on the language of the agreement. At a board meeting on Nov. 12, Superintendent León made a forceful case for keeping the joint enrollment system, saying it eased the application process for parents and gave them more options. The board voted to approve it.

However, the vote was more a temporary truce than a permanent end to the battle over Newark Enrolls.

Board Member Leah Owens, who abstained from the vote, said during the meeting that the system was costly for the district to maintain and amounted to a district endorsement of charter schools. Board Member Reginald Bledsoe said he was only voting for the agreement because the district had not yet created an alternative enrollment system.

“We talked at great length with the community that we wouldn’t be moving forward with this system,” Bledsoe told the superintendent during the meeting. “When will this plan come to a halt?”