making plans

New York City is finally releasing its school diversity plan. Here’s what it says about pre-K and middle school admissions

PHOTO: Rob Bennett/Office of Mayor Bill de Blasio
Mayor Bill de Blasio visits Sunnyside Community Services Pre-K in Queens on March 14, 2014.

After months of anticipation, New York City will soon get its first glimpse at a plan to address school segregation — starting with the youngest learners.

As part of a larger plan to be released Tuesday, some details of which were shared with Chalkbeat, the education department will allow privately run preschools to join its Diversity in Admissions initiative. Schools that apply to that program are allowed to set aside a percentage of seats for students who are low-income, learning English, or meet other criteria.

Another element of the long-awaited plan, according to education officials: allowing middle schools to open up enrollment borough-wide. The changes would apply in the 2017-18 application cycle.

Whether either proposal will lead to significant integration is an open question.

While schools in the Diversity in Admissions program have mostly met their targets for admissions offers, it’s not yet clear whether the schools have successfully changed or maintained the diversity of their student bodies.

And while opening middle school enrollment could encourage students to leave segregated neighborhoods, it won’t necessarily change the makeup of schools. The city already allows open enrollment at the high school level, yet those schools remain starkly segregated by race, class and academic achievement level.

Met with growing demands for school integration, Mayor Bill de Blasio promised in August to release a “bigger vision” to address the problem. The city’s full proposal is being called “Equity and Excellence for All: Diversity in New York City Public Schools.”

Until now, only public pre-Ks have been able to apply for set-asides under Diversity in Admissions. But a majority of seats in the city’s Pre-K for All program — 60 percent — are provided through community-based organizations.

“Increasing the diversity of classrooms from pre-K through 12th grade is a priority,” Deputy Chancellor Josh Wallack said in an emailed statement.

Opening up the process could be especially significant since a recent study found that pre-K classrooms are more segregated than kindergartens. Halley Potter, who completed the study for the progressive think tank The Century Foundation, said that integration in pre-K is important because students are just beginning to develop awareness around race and class.

Research has shown that diverse pre-Ks have cognitive benefits and can help combat prejudice.

Potter had not seen the city’s Diversity in Admissions plan. But, speaking broadly about ways to integrate pre-Ks, she called that initiative a “great first step.”

“We need to think about efforts like the pilot diversity program as really important to help move some schools communities forward,” she said. “But in order to really move the needle in a much wider range of schools, those lessons needs to be applied in a broader way.”

As one example, she suggested offering transportation for families to widen their pre-K options.

Some have criticized the set-aside approach as piecemeal and say the education department hasn’t studied the potential impact of the initiative on other area schools. Only 21 schools so far have joined the initiative, out of about 1,800 across the city.

The city did not provide specifics on its plans for opening up middle school admissions. Parents in multiple districts have already been discussing ways to make the process more fair and less stressful for parents. Among them: District 2, which includes much of lower Manhattan and the Upper East Side; District 3, which includes the Upper West Side and part of Harlem; and District 15 in Brooklyn.

Back to school

Emanuel touts pre-kindergarten, but will his envisioned $175 million initiative survive him?

PHOTO: Photo: Steve Hendershot / Chalkbeat
Brownell Elementary teacher Jane Godina addresses her pre-K class Wednesday, Sept.5, 2018, after Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel visited it on the second day of school.

The morning after making a surprise announcement that he won’t seek reelection, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel scheduled a public appearance at a pre-kindergarten at Brownell Elementary, a predominantly black school located just east of Englewood on the South Side.

Wednesday’s visit served as a show of support for one of his signature initiatives—universal pre-K, which is only in its first year of rollout and could be vulnerable if the city’s next mayor does not share Emanuel’s enthusiasm.

Speaking briefly, Emanuel said he believes that the program will proceed fully without him, pointing to leadership from Illinois Senate President John Cullerton and also Democratic gubernatorial nominee J.B. Pritzker, whose namesake foundation helped underwrite an innovative social impact bond program in 2014 that funded an initial wave of pre-K seats in low-income schools.  

Emanuel’s plan offers 3,700 more free pre-kindergarten slots to low-income families this year at a cost of $20 million, then ramps up the number of available seats across the next three years. Ultimately, the district aims to offer free, full-day pre-K to every 4-year-old in the city for the 2021-22 school year at an all-in cost of $175 million.

The district did not respond to requests for the number of pre-K seats it has filled. Some schools have reported that their programs are full, with families on waitlists, while other schools have reported vacant seats. Parents complained at board meetings this summer that they found the application process confusing and chaotic.

At Brownell, the full-day offering is a hit, according to pre-K teacher Jane Godina, speaking after Emanuel had come and gone.

“We were always struggling with enrollment with our half-day program, and this year we were just slammed,” said Godina, whose class consists of 20 students. “Full-day is really what this neighborhood needs.”

Parent Lovlis Jordan agrees. She has two kids enrolled in the class, and walks seven blocks from home to drop them off before heading downtown, where she works as an office-tower security guard. Full-day pre-kindergarten means she can avoid complicated childcare arrangements, and she likes the feel of Godina’s class.

“It’s hands on, and it’s small—not too chaotic,” Jordan said.  

The importance of full-day, pre-K classes doesn’t just reflect parental needs or Emanuel’s political will: A powerful contingent of civic and philanthropic leaders support the idea here, too. “Early childhood education enjoys widespread support for many leaders at the state and local level,” said Ireta Gasner, vice president of Illinois policy at the Ounce of Prevention. “We’re confident that this will be an important issue for a new mayor.”

Now advocates are armed with some telling data. Three out of four Illinois kids are unprepared when they begin kindergarten, according to first-of-its-kind data released last month by the Illinois State Board of Education. Godina said pre-K classes help kids acclimate to routines and pick up social-emotional skills, not to mention some ABCs.

“It gets them to work on all those things so that when they’re in kindergarten, they’re far more prepared than their peers,” she said.

As for pulling the plug on the universal pre-K initiative, Brownell’s principal, Richard Morgan, said that would be a big mistake.

“Any person in their right mind, if they know what the research says and they understand what’s good for children, would never pull the mat out from under them,” said Morgan, who has led Brownell for 14 years. “Once you become full-day, people begin to knock the doors down because that’s what everybody wants.”

Last year, when only a half-day pre-K was offered, some parents skipped Brownell, which had 216 students on the 20th day of the 2017-18 school year and is considered “underutilized” by the district. This year, Morgan said of his pre-K, “everyone is trying to get in.”

 

Race and class

Designing diversity: How one Memphis charter school set out to recruit its students

PHOTO: Brandon Dill/The Commercial Appeal
Principal Chandra Sledge-Mathias speaks to Crosstown High School's inaugural ninth grade class outside the building on the first day of school.

On the first day of school, Sharonda Walker noticed her daughter and other students at the brand new Crosstown High School immediately sorted themselves by race as they made small talk outside the building.

PHOTO: Brandon Dill/The Commercial Appeal
English teacher Deion Jordan speaks with Crosstown High School’s inaugural ninth grade class on the first day of school.

“They went into packs and it was black and white,” said Walker, who is black and lives in Klondike, within walking distance of the school. “It wasn’t intentional, but people tend to hang around people that look like them.”

Leaders at the new charter school have set out to make something that is rare in Memphis, a school that is a mix of races, socio-economic levels, and academic standing. School officials mapped the district, pounded the pavement, and then adjusted their strategy as they saw their population start to fill in with mostly middle-class and affluent white students.

The demand to create diverse schools is growing, especially among charter schools that were formed as an alternative for students of color in poor neighborhoods. Education leaders across the nation have increasingly acknowledged that schools segregated by race and family income hurt students and their communities.

Crosstown High leaders are finding that all their efforts aren’t enough and that they still have work to do.

PHOTO: Brandon Dill/The Commercial Appeal
Left, Ginger Spickler, Crosstown High School’s director of strategic partnerships and projects.

“It’s going to be ongoing work. It’s never going to be finished,” said Ginger Spickler, the school’s director of strategic partnerships and projects.

The result was 150 students that more closely mirror the demographics of the county than any other school in the district. More than a third of the students are white — making it the first charter school in Shelby County Schools to attract a significant number of white students. White students make up a small part of the entire district, about 7 percent.

Five schools have a higher share of white students than the county and Crosstown High, but most of them have academic requirements for students who want to attend. That’s not the case at Crosstown High because charter schools in Tennessee are not allowed to have admission tests. If there is a waiting list, the charter school conducts a computerized lottery to select students.

School leaders are quick to point out Crosstown High is not as diverse as they would like. They want to enroll more Hispanic students, who now represent only 2 percent of the student population. The school also fell nine percentage points below its goal for students from poor families. The school could draw more students from the neighborhood; four census tracts around the school have a median annual income of $36,643, with the lowest being $17,000. The highest was $51,000.

Graphic by Samuel Park
Graphic by Samuel Park

 

PHOTO: Brandon Dill/The Commercial Appeal
Crosstown High School is housed in a 1.5 million square-foot former Sears warehouse and store that has turned into a hub of businesses and apartments.

For Crosstown High leaders to have a diverse student body, they needed a diverse pool of applicants for the lottery, Spickler said.

So, they hit the road. They invited students across the city to apply — many were the same students they interviewed for a grant application to re-invent what high schools do. They tapped into various networks such as parent advocacy group Memphis Lift, student leadership organization BRIDGES, and Memphis Public Library’s student technology group, Cloud901. Along the way, school leaders preached the school’s project-based learning model, where students solve real-world problems and learn the math, science, English, and social studies skills required by the state along the way.

The effort lasted about two years. One such event at First Congregational Church featured students from middle schools in neighborhoods far flung from each other in geography and academic standing.

“I remember looking out and thinking, ‘If we can maintain this kind of representation of Memphis in everything that we’re doing, we’ll get there,’” Spickler said.

When applications first started trickling in, Crosstown High’s small team mapped where students were coming from and noticed they skewed toward white and middle-class families who were also considering private schools. That prompted the team to double down on visiting more middle schools with more students of color from poor families, Spickler said.

Map of Crosstown High students

Courtesy of Crosstown High School

Now that students are in the building, Spickler said the main way the school plans to help students foster relationships across racial and economic lines is through what are known as advisory groups. Administrators are picking groups of about 15 students, each representing a cross section of the school. They will meet with a teacher three times a week for 45 minutes to talk about relationship building. The hope is that the group of students would stay together throughout high school.

“That’s the foundation on which the rest of the model can work because we hope students learn to support each other,” Spickler said. “If they can apply that to the rest of their academics in a healthier frame of mind, it will be better for everybody.”

School leaders are fighting an uphill battle. Memphis schools never truly integrated after the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed school segregation, according to historians. In fact, schools have become more highly segregated in the city. A little more than half of Memphis schools are highly segregated, where 90 percent or more of students are black. That’s up from about 40 percent in 1971 when a Memphis judge used those statistics to call for a plan to end school segregation.

PHOTO: Brandon Dill/The Commercial Appeal
Crosstown High School’s inaugural ninth grade class greet each other on the first day of school.

Racial and economic diversity was “a huge factor” for parent Paul Guibao, whose white son is one of the 150 ninth-graders in the school’s inaugural class.

“You have to break those barriers because they happen early and not necessarily intentionally,” he said, adding his son had attended a predominately white private school prior to Crosstown High.

“Because that’s life. You’re not going to live your life in a bubble. You’re going to deal with people from all walks throughout your existence,” said Guibao, a lawyer who lives in the affluent neighborhood of Harbor Town. “There’s a certain sheltering with people. I don’t think that’s healthy for the individual and I don’t think that’s helpful for the future of our society.”

Walker, the mother who noticed the students sorting themselves on the first day of school, said the way Crosstown is approaching learning and diversity shows there’s hope for a new model in the district.

“So, I think it’s a task,” she said. “But with the structure at hand, I believe it’s going to foster working together — learning from everyone at the table.”