Pre-K diversity

Many of New York City’s pre-K classrooms are highly segregated, according to new report

PHOTO: Jessica Glazer

As a growing number of parents, educators and policy-makers debate the best way to integrate the city’s schools, one word rarely gets mentioned: pre-K.

A report released Tuesday by the Century Foundation, a think tank focused on inequality, hopes to change the conversation.

New York City’s pre-K classrooms are more segregated on average than its kindergarten classrooms, the report found. One in six pre-K classrooms were highly homogeneous, with 90 percent or more of students coming from a single racial or ethnic background. That’s compared with one in eight kindergarten classrooms.

The report is based on data from the first year of the city’s universal pre-K program, which has earned praise for both its rapid growth and attention to quality. Launched under Mayor Bill de Blasio, the city has more than tripled the number of 4-year-olds attending free preschool since 2014.

Halley Potter, a fellow at the foundation who authored the report, said the city’s program creates an opportunity to bring young children from different backgrounds together in the classroom.

“But unless that opportunity is really cultivated, and unless we have data to support what diversity looks like, then it can be missed,” she said.

Ensuring diversity in pre-K classrooms could create a foundation for integration in later grades — but doing so will require better data collection and specific policy changes, Potter said.

Research shows that children develop an awareness of social and racial differences as early as kindergarten, and preschool students in integrated classrooms are less likely to show bias toward minorities. They also learn better: Students from all socioeconomic groups show learning gains in mixed classrooms.

“We think about it and talk about it all the time,” said Ken Jockers, executive director of Hudson Guild, a community-based preschool provider in Chelsea. “We want kids to have the most substantive experience possible, and the most substantive experience possible, from our perspective, includes broad diversity.”

But there are inherent difficulties in integrating preschools in New York City.

In order to ramp up universal pre-K quickly, the Department of Education relied on both city schools and community-based organizations. The majority of pre-K seats — 60 percent in 2014 — are provided in community-based “early education centers.”

The city announced in May that public schools could propose plans to consider student diversity in their enrollment, as early as pre-K, under the Diversity in Admissions program. But early education centers cannot participate. At the same time, the community-based centers are more likely to be racially and ethnically segregated, Potter found.

Even among early education centers, there are disparities. Black and Hispanic children are concentrated in certain programs that receive funding specifically for low-income students, according to the study.

There are other reasons the centers tend to be less diverse. They often cater to specific religious and ethnic groups, or have strong ties to the immediate community. And parents who can afford to enroll a 3-year-old in paid preschool get preference for a free universal pre-K slot at the same center the following year.

“That means when those centers are enrolling for universal pre-K, they’re getting mostly affluent families for those seats,” Potter said. Rather than eliminate that preference, Potter said the city should add additional seats for four-year-olds. “It’s a challenging problem because continuity is important for kids.”

The extent of socioeconomic diversity in pre-K classrooms is hard to know. Since all Pre-K for All students have the option of free lunch, families who enroll do not fill out eligibility forms for those meals — a common way public schools track student poverty. Pre-K is also excluded from annual school diversity reports, a new mandate passed by the City Council.

“It’s a big gap,” Potter said. “If we want to make sure that universal pre-K provides an opportunity for families of different socioeconomic backgrounds to have kids in a classroom together, we need to find a way to look at whether that’s happening.”

But the community-based model also provides unique opportunities, Potter said. Unlike district schools, early education centers aren’t tied to specific geographical boundaries. And parents may be willing to travel for quality, or so their child can attend a specific program, such a dual-language class, offered in a center. The city should work to help early education centers market those programs, Potter said.

She also called on the city to allow pre-K centers to pilot diversity programs, add more pre-K classrooms in public schools and ensure that preschool students are considered in rezoning and school integration decisions.

“We want to make sure that, in particular, some of our most vulnerable students have a chance to attend high-quality classrooms,” Potter said. “One of the best ways to do that is to make sure there are a lot of diverse classrooms.”

Updated with response from Department of Education Deputy Chancellor of Strategy and Policy Josh Wallack:

“In two years, New York City built a universal Pre-K for All program that serves every four-year-old with free, full-day, high quality programs, and more than 70,400 four year olds have registered for the 2016-17 school year. We’re serving families in every neighborhood, and with a centralized enrollment system and targeted outreach workers, we’ve made it easier for families to enroll and for programs to recruit students. Diversity in classrooms remains an important priority for the Department of Education, because we believe children in diverse classrooms learn from each other and learn better, and we are constantly looking for ways to improve on that through Pre-K for All and across the school system.”

Chalkbeat explains

How school desegregation efforts could change, or not, after DeVos’s move to scrap Obama-era guidance on race

PHOTO: U.S. Department of Education
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos visiting the Christian Academy for Reaching Excellence in Miami.

The Trump administration’s decision to withdraw guidance dealing with race in school admissions last week wasn’t just about colleges.

School districts across the country have grappled with how to integrate their schools, too. And one of the seven documents withdrawn by the education and justice departments offered a roadmap for districts looking to voluntarily integrate their elementary and secondary schools.

This move is important symbolically — particularly in light of a surge of discussions about the persistence of segregation in public schools. But it’s not likely to have far-reaching policy implications, since only a handful of districts voluntarily use race in school assignment decisions.

Here’s what we know about what this change might mean for K-12 schools. Keep in mind that the retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy, who has authored a number of the key affirmative action opinions, puts things in even more flux. Critics of affirmative action hope Kennedy’s replacement will join other conservative judges to further limit the consideration of race in state and local policies, including school admissions decisions.

What was this guidance?

What’s relevant to K-12 education is a 14-page Obama-era document that explained how school districts can attempt to racially integrate schools without getting into legal trouble. (The document was targeted at districts that wanted to adopt desegregation policies on their own, not districts bound by federal desegregation orders.) That’s what DeVos rescinded.

It offered advice for school districts looking to make policy changes to diversify schools. Districts should first consider factors like students’ neighborhood or poverty level. But, the guidance read, “if a school district determines that these types of approaches would be unworkable, it may consider using an individual student’s race as one factor among others.”

It’s hardly a push for wide-scale race-based policies, but it left some room to use race if districts find they had exhausted alternatives.

This guidance was necessary, some argue, because the Supreme Court has weighed in on this issue in a complex way. A 2007 case, Parents Involved v. Seattle School District, struck down Seattle’s school assignment plan for its reliance on race to make admissions decisions.

“The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race,” wrote Chief Justice John Roberts in a widely quoted passage of the opinion. But Kennedy, the key fifth justice in the majority, didn’t fully sign on to this — continuing to allow districts to use race as a factor, but not the sole one.

“A district may consider it a compelling interest to achieve a diverse student population. Race may be one component of that diversity, but other demographic factors, plus special talents and needs, should also be considered,” Kennedy wrote. “What the government is not permitted to do … is to classify every student on the basis of race and to assign each of them to schools based on that classification.”

The Bush administration issued its own interpretation of the ruling in 2008, encouraging school districts not to consider race, though it did not say that doing so was prohibited in all circumstances. By publishing a guide for using race in 2011, the Obama administration was offering practical help but also sending a message that its goals were different.  

Erica Frankenberg, a professor who studies K-12 desegregation at Penn State, said the user-friendly way the guide was written was part of the Obama administration’s strategy to encourage districts to integrate their schools.

Did any school districts use it?

According to recent research, 60 school districts in 25 states have school assignment policies meant to create more diverse schools. Of those, just 12 districts take race into account, rather than just socio-economic status. (Using socio-economic status isn’t affected by this debate about race-based admissions.)

But it’s hard to tell if the guidance was a deciding factor for any school districts.

“Even with the 2011 guidance in place, voluntary integration is still an incredibly complicated thing to do,” said Frankenberg. In addition to a plan being in compliance with the law, this approach require garnering political will and tackling logistics like transportation.

Why are some people concerned about it being rescinded?

The guidance represents the official viewpoint of the administration, but the underlying law hasn’t changed. It does mean that districts won’t have the backing of federal government when it comes to race-conscious integration policies. That might make districts using race more fearful of a lawsuit.

“This is a legal intimidation strategy from a very conservative administration that is really intent on not having race a part of decision making and policy,” said Liliana Garces, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin who studies race, law, and education.

The move to rescind the documents fall into set of decisions by the Department of Education to deprioritize voluntary desegregation. Last year, the department discontinued an Obama-era grant program that was intended to help schools increase socio-economic diversity. (According to The Atlantic, 26 districts had been interested in applying for integration grants before that program was scrapped by the DeVos administration.)

To no longer have [the guidances] as an official stance is certainly at the very least, a missed opportunity to use the bully pulpit,” said Frankenberg, who supports race-based integration efforts.

Others support the move, arguing that attempts to use race in public policy are unconstitutional.  

“Being opposed to racial preferences is not being against diversity, which is what the critics will claim: It’s simply being against discrimination,” Roger Clegg, of the anti-affirmative action Center for Equal Opportunity, told Education Week. “The federal government should not be going out of its way to encourage such discrimination.”

What does research say about school integration?

It’s found that low-income students and students of color benefit from racially integrated schools. One recent study found that graduation rates of black and Hispanic students fell modestly after the end of a court order mandating desegregation plans. Another study found that Palo Alto’s school integration program led to big boosts in college enrollment among students of color (though, surprisingly, also led to an uptick in arrests).

Research has also shown that income is not a good proxy for race when looking at academic outcomes — even when accounting for differences in family income, black students were substantially less likely to complete high school and enroll in college. Other research has shown that attempting to use income to integrate schools by race isn’t nearly as effective as using race directly.

sounding off

New Yorkers respond to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s push to overhaul admissions at elite but segregated specialized high schools

PHOTO: Benjamin Kanter/Mayoral Photo Office
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio earlier this year.

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s push to better integrate New York City’s specialized high schools was met with fierce pushback but also pledges of support after the mayor announced Saturday he would work to overhaul admissions at the elite schools.

The reaction foreshadows the battle that lies ahead if de Blasio is going to convince lawmakers to sign off a key piece of his plan.

Considered the Ivies of the city’s high school system, eight of the nine specialized high schools admit students based on the results of a single entrance exam (the remaining performing arts school requires an audition.) The most significant but controversial change de Blasio is proposing is to scrap the test in favor of a system that offers admission to top students at every middle school, which requires a change in state law for some of the specialized high schools.

Many alumni from those schools have fought fiercely to preserve the entrance exam requirement, worrying that changing the admissions rules will lower academic standards.

Many made the familiar arguments that the city should instead focus on improving the quality of middle schools, or expand access to gifted programs, to serve as a feeder into top high schools.

Alumni who would like to see the Specialized High School Admissions Test remain in place likely have many lawmakers on their side. New York State Senator Toby Ann Stavisky, a Democrat who represents several Queens neighborhoods, released a statement that she “couldn’t disagree more” with the mayor’s proposal.

The reaction also captured concerns about how the changes could impact Asian students, who make up a disproportionate share of enrollment at the specialized high schools. Those students are also likely to come from low-income families.

But others took to social media to support the mayor’s proposal. Specialized high schools have enrolled an increasingly shrinking share of black and Hispanic students: While two-thirds of city students are black or Hispanic, only about 10 percent of admissions offers to those schools go to black or Hispanic students.

Some thanked the mayor for taking action after campaigning for years to make changes.

And not all alumni were against the changes. Also included in the mayor’s plan is an expansion of Discovery, a program that helps admit low-income students who just missed the cutoff score on the entrance exam.