behind the scenes

Why some principals say screening students can actually help schools hang onto diversity

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

The news caused a stir when it emerged last month: An overhauled middle school opening soon in the chic Dumbo neighborhood would start handpicking its students rather than admitting anyone who applies.

The decision upset some parents who feared that their children could be shut out, and alarmed advocates of school integration who say that selective admissions often disadvantage low-income students of color. And while district leaders insisted that the Brooklyn school would enroll a diverse mix of students, no one could tell parents exactly how that would work.

“They’re just pulling this out of a hat and telling us that everything is going to be fine,” said Clifford Dodd, the parent of a kindergartener at P.S. 307, which feeds students into the Satellite West Middle School, the struggling middle school that was redesigned.

But the notion that a school could sort through applicants with an eye toward diversity is not unprecedented. In fact, the redesigned school, known as The Dock Street School for STEAM Studies, is hoping to follow the lead of a handful of progressive-minded principals in New York City who have taken a screening system designed to make schools academically selective and bent it toward their aim of diversity.

The principals run popular middle schools in gentrifying neighborhoods where an influx of new middle-class families could potentially crowd out low-income families of color. To prevent that, the principals have used the discretion afforded them by the screening process to try to enroll students from different backgrounds — by seeking out students from elementary schools with many black and Hispanic students, for example, or by giving a boost to applicants whose families are staying in homeless shelters.

“We know that for the most part screening means segregation,” said Mark Federman, the principal of the East Side Community School, a public grades 6-12 school in the East Village. “So let’s reverse the purpose of screening — let’s use it for the purpose of serving all kids.”

Screening for diversity

District 13 Superintendent Barbara Freeman at presentation on the Dock Street School.
District 13 Superintendent Barbara Freeman at presentation on the Dock Street School.

Dock Street is still figuring out how it will pick its applicants, even though the admissions process is underway. But a few middle schools that have tried to maintain a mix of students in the face of swift gentrification offer a possible playbook.

At Brooklyn’s Park Slope Collegiate, the school’s incoming sixth-grade class has gone from having no white students to being more than half white in just the past four years, according to school officials.

To try to slow that shift, the school screens for students from local elementary schools where the white population is close to the district average, rather than disproportionately white. (It still gives top preference to students who rank the school first or second on their applications, regardless of their elementary school.)

The Academy of Arts and Letters in Fort Greene, whose free-lunch-eligible population has shrunk by 20 percentage points since 2010, screens incoming sixth-graders by grades, surveys of their former teachers, student interviews, and a writing task.

In choosing among applicants, Principal John O’Reilly said he tries to pick a few students from each elementary school in the district to maintain some socioeconomic diversity. He said he also makes sure to pick some applicants who have disabilities.

East Side Community School considers applicants’ grades, attendance, and an essay about why they believe they are a good match for the school. Like the other schools, it resists factoring in test scores, which tend to be higher among affluent students.

When weighing applicants, the school gives preference to siblings of current students — one way of preserving the current mix of students from different backgrounds. The school also takes into account whether an applicant’s family has experienced an economic hardship, such as living in a homeless shelter or in public housing.

The city does not provide screened schools with information about applicants’ socioeconomic status, so principals seeking a mix of students from different income levels must rely on other indicators, such as the elementary school a student attended, or make an informed guess based on information provided by students or their families.

Education department spokeswoman Toya Holness said that the city has begun providing information about whether students qualify for free or reduced-priced lunch to seven elementary schools in a pilot program that lets those schools reserve some seats for low-income students. The city is studying the results of the program as it considers expanding it, she added.

At the city’s screened middle schools, principals are given wide latitude to decide what criteria to use to evaluate incoming students and then how to use those criteria to rank them. It’s that ranking process, where principals have nearly sole discretion, that allows some schools to pick only top-performing students.

Asked whether schools may use their screens to foster a school that is academically, racially, and socioeconomically diverse, Holness said in an email: “If a principal has sufficient applicants and seeks a diverse population, he or she has the discretion to do so through the way students are ranked for selection.”

The process for applying to middle school varies widely by district and school. An official middle-school directory lists the factors that screened schools consider, but the process they use to rank students is notoriously opaque — schools must share the rubrics they use to evaluate applicants only if families ask to see them.

In effect, some principals have taken advantage of that arcane system to try to make their schools diverse. Some experts question whether individual school leaders should have so much authority to define diversity and set targets, but others say that flexibility is worth the cost in transparency.

“At some point you have to have a little faith in human discretion, even if we can’t make that absolutely transparent,” said Laura Zingmond, a member of the city’s Panel for Educational Policy and a senior editor at Insideschools.

The scene in Dumbo

Carl King with his son, Josh, a pre-kindergarten student at P.S. 307.
PHOTO: Fabiola Cineas
Carl King with his son, Josh, a pre-kindergarten student at P.S. 307.

The tension between trust and transparency is playing out at the Dock Street School.

The school was not able to screen its first round of 139 applicants, who applied by the December deadline. But it will screen students who applied by the March deadline for new middle-school programs based on their fourth-grade report cards, test scores, and attendance.

What remains unclear is how the school will use those criteria to pick a diverse mix of students, and what type of diversity it will try to achieve.

Dock Street’s principal, Melissa Vaughan, did not respond to an interview request.

David Goldsmith, the president of District 13’s Community Education Council and a member of a 30-person team that helped develop the plans for Dock Street, said the system for choosing applicants has not been finalized. But he insisted that a mix of students would be admitted, and he urged families to consider the fact that the district has undertaken a years-long campaign to increase socioeconomic integration in its schools.

“You know the players here and the history of the district,” he said. “The commitment to diversity is very strong — that’s a fact.”

The district superintendent, Barbara Freeman, said the screening process would give the school more information about applicants in order to enroll a “mix of diverse learners.” She insisted that it is not, as some parents suspect, a way to admit only high-achieving students in a bid to make the school attractive to the district’s newer, more affluent residents.

“We never said that the school wants to screen for high-performing students only,” she said. “This is not a school just for gentrifiers.”

Still, some parents remain unconvinced.

Outside of P.S. 307 in Vinegar Hill, which is down the street from Dock Street’s soon-to-open building, several parents last week said they had heard few details about the new school’s admissions method. A few worried that the screening process would result in some long-time district residents losing spots to newcomers.

“It hurts my heart because it seems to be a kind of segregated style and creaming process,” said Carl King, whose son attends pre-kindergarten at P.S. 307. “By the time our children get to the screening, they might not make it in.”

Fabiola Cineas contributed reporting.

pre-k for all

New York City will add dual language options in pre-K to attract parents and encourage diversity

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Schools Chancellor Carmen FariƱa, back right, visits a Mandarin pre-K dual language program at P.S. 20 Anna Silver on the Lower East Side.

Education Department officials on Wednesday announced the addition of 33 dual language pre-K programs in the 2018-19 school year, more than doubling the bilingual opportunities available for New York City’s youngest learners.

The expansion continues an aggressive push under the current administration, which has added 150 new bilingual programs to date. Popular with parents — there were 2,900 applications for about 600 pre-K dual language seats last year — the programs can also be effective in boosting the performance of students who are learning English as a new language.

Another possible benefit: creating more diverse pre-K classrooms, which research has shown are starkly segregated in New York City.

Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña said the new programs reflect the city’s commitment to serving all students, even as a national debate rages over immigration reform.

“It’s important to understand that immigrants or people who speak a second language are an asset,” Fariña said. She called bilingual education “a gift that I think all schools should have.”

Included in the expansion are the city’s first dual language pre-K programs in Bengali and Russian, which will open in Jamaica, Queens, and the Upper West Side, Manhattan, respectively. The other additions will build on programs in Spanish, Mandarin and Italian. Every borough is represented in the expansion, with 11 new programs in Manhattan, nine in Brooklyn, six in Queens, five in the Bronx, and two on Staten Island.

In the dual-language model, students split their time between instruction in English and another language. At P.S. 20 Anna Silver, where the recent expansion was announced, pre-K students start the morning in English and transition to Mandarin after nap time. Experts say the model works best when the class includes an equal mix of students who are proficient in each language so they can learn from each other as well as the teacher, though it can often be difficult to strike that balance.

Officials and some advocates view dual-language programs as a tool for integration by drawing middle-class families eager to have their children speak two languages into neighborhood schools that they otherwise may not have considered. Research has shown that New York City’s pre-K classrooms tend to be more segregated than kindergarten. In one in six pre-K classrooms, more than 90 percent of students are from a single racial or ethnic background. That’s compared with one in eight kindergarten classrooms, according to a 2016 report by The Century Foundation.

Sharon Stapel, a mother from Brooklyn, said she knew early on that she wanted her daughter to learn another language and strike relationships across cultures. So she travels to the Lower East Side with her four-year-old, Finch, to attend the Mandarin dual-language pre-K program at P.S. 20 Anna Silver. On Wednesday, the city announced it will add a Spanish dual language program at the school.

“We really see it as how you build community with your neighbors and your friends,” Stapel said. “It was also an opportunity for Finch to become involved and engage in the cultures and in the differences that she could see in the classrooms — and really celebrate that difference.”

Citywide, about 13 percent of students are learning English as a new language. That number does not include pre-K since the state does not have a way to identify students’ language status before kindergarten. However, based on census data, it is estimated that 30 percent of three- and four-year-olds in New York are English learners.

Dual-language programs can benefit students who are still learning English — more so than English-only instruction. Nationally and in New York City, students who are learning English are less likely to pass standardized tests and graduate from high school. In one study, students who enrolled in dual-language courses in kindergarten gained the equivalent of one year of reading instruction by eighth grade, compared with their peers who received English-only instruction.

The city has been under pressure to improve outcomes for English learners. Under the previous administration, New York City was placed on a state “corrective action plan” that required the education department to open 125 new bilingual programs by 2013. Though the city fell short of that goal, the current administration has agreed to place every English learner in a bilingual program by the 2018-19 school year.

Among the greatest barriers to achieving that is finding qualified teachers, Fariña said. In some cases, it can be hard to find teachers who are fluent in the target language. In others, teachers who are native in a foreign language may only be certified in their home country, and it can be hard to transfer that certification to New York.

In order to open an Urdu program recently, Fariña said, the teacher, who holds a degree from another country, went through Teaching Fellows, an alternative certification program that usually caters to career-changers or recent college grads.

“I think the biggest challenge we have right now is ensuring our teacher preparation courses are keeping up with our need and demand for teachers who can teach another language,” she said.

poverty

There are more students from low-income families in many Denver area districts

PHOTO: Joe Amon/The Denver Post
Homeless children in Aurora walk with bags of donated food after school.

Among traditionally high-poverty school districts in metro Denver, most are seeing more students from low-income families and a few are experiencing a decline, according to new data.

Many of those same school districts have substantial numbers of homeless students, too. That picture also has shifted, with most of those high-poverty Denver area districts posting declines in homeless students. Officials caution, however, that what might seem like a promising trend might be a result of other factors that sell short the extent of the problem.

Enrollment data for the current school year was released by the state on Tuesday. The data, compared to previous year’s data, shows that most metro area school districts that serve high numbers of students that qualify for free or reduced price lunch — including Adams 14, Westminster, and Englewood — have seen a jump since 2014 in the percentage of those students.

At the top of that list is the Sheridan School District, southwest of Denver, where in 2014, 84.7 percent of students qualified for government-subsidized lunches. In 2017, 90 percent of Sheridan students qualify. And overall, the small district has shrunk — it’s now down to about 1,400 students — as families squeezed by a rise in housing prices moved out, officials said.

“What we’re hearing through our families is that some landlords are escalating rents monthly by a hundred dollars, which is a challenge,” said Michael Clough, the district superintendent.

One district, Denver Public Schools, reported a significant drop in the number of students qualifying for free or reduced price lunches. The school districts in Aurora and Mapleton have experienced flat or slight decreases from 2014 to 2017.

Metro area school districts with highest numbers of students who qualify for free or reduced price lunch:

DISTRICT 2014 2017
Sheridan School District 84.77% 90%
Adams 14 72.20% 86%
Westminster 76.36% 80%
Aurora 69.42% 69%
Denver 69.77% 67%
Englewood 62.56% 66%
Mapleton 60.13% 60%
Adams 12 37.81% 40%
Brighton 27J 38.45% 37%
Jeffco 31% 31%

Statewide the number of students who qualify for free or reduced price lunch decreased compared to last year, although the number of homeless students has increased.

Many districts in the metro area have seen a drop in the number of students reported as homeless, including in Aurora, Adams 14 and Westminster.

Officials in Adams 14, where the percent of homeless students dropped to 4.08 percent from 7.4 percent in 2014, said they worry that families are less willing to identify as being homeless, especially with concerns about immigration crackdowns.

“It’s been more of a search to try to find those families,” said Ruben Chacon, Adams 14’s director of climate and culture. “Our liaison goes to the couple of affordable housing complexes and knocks on doors to try to find kids we haven’t located.”

Chacon said that he tracked district students who were identified as homeless last year, and found that many have transferred out of the district. The Adams 14 boundaries don’t include much new housing, and as families exhaust their temporary situations, they leave, he said.

“There really isn’t a large affordable housing option available for new entries,” Chacon said. “We have a lot of long term residents and a lot of people who moved here as the housing market became more expensive in Denver, but if you look at the inside of our boundaries now we pretty much have zero housing growth.”

The Sheridan schools, on the other hand, are seeing a continued rise in the number of homeless students. Almost one in four Sheridan students are experiencing homelessness, an increase from 2014.

“We find it to be unbelievably stressful on families and on children, and our teachers as well,” Clough said. Because of the small size of the district, he said, officials are able to connect with homeless families and point them to various resources, including health services and a food bank, meaning many families might choose to stay nearby for the help instead of fleeing.

One district that hasn’t traditionally served high numbers of students from low-income households, Jeffco Public Schools, is now one of just three metro-area districts seeing a rise in homeless students. At the start of the current school year, 2.35 percent of Jeffco students identified as homeless.

Rebecca Dunn, coordinator of Community and Family Connections in the Jeffco district, said she believes a big part of the increased numbers is that the district is doing a better job tracking and identifying students who are experiencing homelessness.

“Our online registration system now has a very clear area where families can mark if they are experiencing homelessness and then what type,” Dunn said. “So we’re able to get that information much quicker. We also have just improved our outreach to schools so they know what to look for and are able to do that in a really sensitive manner.”

Percent of students who are reported as homeless in metro area school districts:

DISTRICT 2014 2017
Sheridan School District 21.55% 23.04%
Westminster 7.62% 6.56%
Englewood 5.13% 4.75%
Adams 14 7.42% 4.08%
Adams 12 2.98% 3.71%
Aurora 5.87% 2.72%
Jeffco 2.12% 2.35%
Mapleton 2.03% 1.67%
Denver 1.40% 1.11%
Brighton 27J 1.57% 1.03%

Below is a map highlighting the percent of a school district’s student population that qualifies for free or reduced price lunch in 2017. The darker-colored districts have a higher share of this group of students. Click on any district to see their percent.

Note: Data is not available for districts in red.