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.”

By the numbers

Where specialized high school students come from (and where they don’t)

PHOTO: Flickr
Brooklyn Technical is one of the city's prestigious specialized high schools.

Early every school day, private charter buses rumble through the Upper West Side to ferry students from the city’s wealthiest school district into one of the poorest.

The students head to Bronx High School of Science and the High School of American Studies at Lehman College, just two of the city’s coveted specialized high schools that draw virtually no students from their surrounding neighborhoods.

Across New York City, just a handful of school districts and middle schools send an outsized share of students to specialized high schools, celebrated for their track record of preparing graduates for Ivy League colleges and high-powered careers.

The numbers are striking: Students from only 10 middle schools make up a quarter of all specialized high school admissions offers — a total of 1,274 offers, according to data provided to Chalkbeat. That’s almost four times more than all of the admissions offers to students living in the city’s 10 poorest districts combined.

That reality could be upended with a controversial proposal put forward by Mayor Bill de Blasio to overhaul admissions to specialized high schools. Rather than admit students based on the results of a single test, the city is pushing a plan to admit the top 7 percent of students from every middle school, based on a combination of their state test scores and report card grades

The proposal would require a change in state law, and lawmakers have already shelved the plan for this year. But if city officials can persuade lawmakers to approve the change, it would cut off a reliable pipeline into the city’s most elite high schools — a tiny subset of selective middle schools — and draw more top performers from every corner of the five boroughs.

ZIP code is limiting destiny right now in New York City,” de Blasio said at a recent press conference.

Critics, though, say the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test helps preserve the high standards at the schools, considered by many to be the crown jewels of the system. They suggest other ways for diversifying the schools, such as making test preparation more widespread.

Chalkbeat compared education department data of specialized high school offers in schools and districts across the city. Here are some highlights from the numbers.

Some districts send many students to specialized high schools, while others send almost none.

Affluent District 2 — which stretches across Lower Manhattan, most of Chinatown and the Upper East Side —  accounts for almost 13 percent of all specialized high school admission offers. That number is even more eye-popping when you consider that it enrolls only about 4 percent of all the city’s public school eighth graders. 

Click on the map to learn which districts send the most students to specialized high schools.

The 10 districts that are home to the most black and Hispanic students made up about 4 percent of admissions offers.

Just because a student was offered admission, that doesn’t mean that he or she will ultimately choose to go to a specialized high school. In fact, research has shown that black and Hispanic students, and girls, are less likely to accept their offers.

The district figures include admissions offers that were made to students in private schools and those who were homeschooled. Private school students earned about 13 percent of offers.

A tiny number of schools send a disproportionate number of students to specialized high schools

The disparities are so large that just two middle schools — The Christa McAuliffe School and Mark Twain I.S. 239 — get more students into specialized high schools than the city’s 10 poorest districts combined. (One caveat about these numbers: The district offers are based on where students live, not where they attended school. So it’s possible that students living in the poorest districts are enrolled at Mark Twain, which is open to all students regardless of where they live in the city.)

“If you think it’s unlikely that only a couple of dozen schools have a monopoly on talent, then we have a problem,” said Richard Buery, a former deputy mayor for the city who has endorsed de Blasio’s proposal to change specialized high school admissions.

All together, the top 10 middle schools enroll only about 18 percent black and Hispanic students. They are among the most sought-after in the city, but they are also extremely selective. 

Many top-sending middle schools select their students based on test scores, their own exams, interviews, attendance, and other factors.

The numbers get at an ongoing debate over whether schools should be allowed to “screen” students in this way: While some say high-performers are better served in classrooms where most students are like them, others say that separating students by ability exacerbates segregation because black and Hispanic students are more likely to struggle in school.

Among the middle schools sending the most students to specialized high schools is Booker T. Washington in District 3, which is at the center of another contentious integration battle. The superintendent there has proposed setting aside a quarter of seats at every district middle school for students who are low-performing.

The plan has sparked an uproar from parents who worry their high-achieving kids will be shut out of the most sought-after middle schools. The city’s numbers sheds light on the backlash: More than 53 percent of Booker T. Washington eighth graders are offered a spot at specialized high schools.

Kristen Berger, a parent on the local Community Education Council who has pushed to integrate the district’s middle schools, said the current system fuels competition for the few schools that feed students into top-tier high schools.

“I think it’s part of a wider New York angst,” she said. “We’re looking downstream like, ‘What elementary school goes to what middle school, goes to which high school, goes to which college?'”

She also said that it calls into question the city’s high school choice process, which is supposed to allow students to aim for any school, regardless of where they may live.

“We certainly wouldn’t want middle schools to be a limiting factor,” she said. “We would want all students to have the full range of options, whether it’s for middle school or for high school.”

end of the road

Specialized high school admissions bill is on hold until next year, Heastie says

PHOTO: Photo by Jonathan Fickies for UFT
UFT President Michael Mulgrew interviews New York State Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie.

A bill to eliminate the specialized high school admissions test likely does not have a path forward this year in the New York State legislature.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie said he would take up the issue next session, likely stymying any chance that the bill will come before the Assembly this year for a vote.

“We want to come up with something that is good for all students and so I think over the next few months and into next session we’ll be having discussions with all of the stakeholders,” Heastie said, which was first reported in Capital Tonight. Heastie said he made the decision after talking to members of his party and the Asian Pacific task force, which represents a community that has come out in force against the proposal.

The bill already had an extremely difficult path forward this year. Mayor Bill de Blasio threw his weight behind the plan only a few weeks before the end of the legislative session, and lawmakers expressed little interest in tackling the controversial bill in such a short amount of time.

The bill had cleared the Assembly’s education committee but faced very long odds of passing in the Senate. Not only has the Senate been struggling with a stalemate this session, the chair of the Senate’s education committee said the committee had no plans to meet again before the end of the year, according to the New York Post.

Still, Heastie’s hesitance to tackle the bill is telling of how divisive the issue is among lawmakers. Many legislators even Democratic lawmakers whose support the mayor will likely need to pass the bill have come out against the current plan to overhaul specialized high school admissions.

The bill backed by the mayor would phase out the Specialized High School Admissions Test, which is currently the only way students can earn a spot at the set of eight elite public high schools. Instead, it would use middle school grades and test scores to determine admission.

The mayor’s rationale for the change is that it will allow more black and Hispanic students to attend the schools. Currently only about 10 percent of admissions offers go to black and Hispanic students, while about two-thirds of the city’s students are black and Hispanic.

But the plan is already facing intense opposition from alumni groups and leaders in the Asian American community. Asian students comprise 62 percent of students at the city’s prestigious schools.

This story has been updated to reflect that Chalkbeat has confirmed Heastie’s statement.