Sorting the Students

Latest Upper West Side rezoning battle renews debate over how best to integrate schools

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
A P.S. 452 parent spoke out Monday evening against the city's plan to move and rezone the school.

This week marked the second time in less than a year that parents on the sharply segregated Upper West Side gathered in droves to protest a rezoning plan with the potential to make their schools more diverse.

This round, it was parents from P.S. 452 opposing a plan to move their school into a building 16 blocks south, where it would have more space and a new zone that could potentially include more low-income families. The school’s population is 74 percent white and Asian and 9 percent low-income, in a district that is 43 percent white and Asian and 48 percent poor.

At two meetings where the plan was discussed this week, parents wearing “Do Not Move P.S. 452” buttons explained that they had bought homes in the costly neighborhood around 77th Street to be near the high-performing school. While many said that segregation was a serious problem in the district, they found it unfair that their school should have to shoulder the burden of integration.

“Why do we have to fix that issue for the whole district?” one woman asked.

The backlash, which echoed the opposition to a different rezoning plan in the Upper West Side’s District 3 last fall, demonstrated again the conundrum facing the de Blasio administration around school integration.

The mayor has expressed support for school diversity, but he also has said the city must respect parents’ real-estate investments (a statement that at least one P.S. 452 parent repeated this week), while Chancellor Carmen Fariña has warned against forcing integration “down people’s throats.”

To city education officials, the rezoning battles reinforce a belief that they must move slowly and carefully to promote integration, letting individual schools lead the way.

But advocates question that logic. They say that some parents will always resist desegregation plans that limit their access to sought-after schools, so the city should power through the opposition and get behind district-wide plans.

“These partial, short-term solutions don’t really address the enduring problems of overcrowding, inequity, and segregation,” said Ujju Aggarwal, a member of the District 3 Task Force for Equity in Education, a small group of parents and educators pushing for an enrollment system designed to promote integration. “I think we do need strong leadership from the city.”

P.S. 452 parents showed up en masse at Monday's meeting to oppose the city's plan.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
P.S. 452 parents showed up en masse at Monday’s meeting to oppose the city’s plan.

The city’s proposal would move P.S. 452 from the building it shares with two other schools to one on 61st Street now occupied by P.S. 191. That school would shift one block west into a building currently under construction.

The move could draw more low-income families into P.S. 452 since its new zone would likely include a nearby public-housing project. While the city has not openly called the move an integration plan, officials said they considered school diversity when crafting it.

Several P.S. 452 teachers and a handful of parents said they welcomed the move. Not only would it give the school its own gym and library, but it would also allow it to serve a broader cross-section of the community.

“The one thing I’m missing in my kids’ current education,” said P.S. 452 parent Beate Sissenich, “is a mixed-income constituency.”

The plan for a multi-school move follows a more straightforward proposal last year to rezone P.S. 191 and its neighbor, P.S. 199, a hotly desired school with high test scores and mostly affluent students. The idea was to reduce severe overcrowding at 199 by shifting some families from its zone to 191’s, a high-poverty school with much lower scores.

But after P.S. 199 parents showed up en masse at hearings to oppose the plan, the city tabled it. Now, P.S. 452 parents appear to be following their playbook.

They signed up by the dozen to speak at this week’s meetings, where they explained how the move would lengthen their children’s commutes and rupture the tight-knit community they had cultivated. They also rejected any suggestion that they do not value diversity.

“Painting any opposition as classist or racist is as bad as it can get,” said Jason Jones, the former “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” comedian, near the end of Monday’s nearly three-hour meeting.

The rezoning debates have largely overshadowed calls for a “controlled choice” enrollment system that would eliminate the district’s zones and fill each school with a mix of students from different backgrounds. The resistance to rezoning just one or two schools has convinced some officials that the district is not ready for a large-scale zoning change.

Meanwhile, the local superintendent has floated the idea of requiring every middle school to enroll at least 30 percent low-income students. Already, some parents are questioning whether that plan will lower their chances of nabbing a seat at the district’s most popular middle schools.

“We think that diversity is clearly an issue that needs to be addressed in the district,” P.S. 199 parent Liz Sutherland said at a meeting Wednesday. But she asked whether the plan would achieve that, and worried that the city would place her daughter in a school “that is not a good fit for my child.”

Education department spokeswoman Devora Kaye said the city will continue to work with District 3’s parents, schools, and education council to come up with a plan that meets the community’s needs. She added that several public meetings are scheduled in the district, “where we expect a range of views to be shared.”

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.