Sorting the Students

Indianapolis writer wonders if ‘our discomfort was rooted in prejudice’ when he didn’t get his child’s first school choice

PHOTO: Robert Scheer/IndyStar
First graders work on coursework at IPS School 84, one of the Center for Inquiry campuses, Indianapolis, Wednesday, May 18, 2016. Ethnically, the Center for Inquiry School 84 is one of the least diverse in the IPS system, and enrollment priority is given to kids living near its Meridian-Kessler location.

When it comes time to choose schools for their children, many progressive families find their commitment to diversity is put to the test.

The tension between the desire to create diverse schools and the visceral fear of sending your child to an imperfect school is laid bare in a first-person piece for Indianapolis Monthly, in which writer Matthew Gonzales describes his own family’s struggle.

The school choice lottery didn’t grant his son their first pick for prekindergarten. Gonzales wanted his child to attend a highly coveted magnet program called the Center for Inquiry, which is often favored by middle-class families within Indianapolis Public Schools.

Unlike most of the urban district’s schools, enrollment at some of the CFI programs has skewed disproportionately white and wealthy, in part because the district placed those schools in higher-income neighborhoods and prioritized admission to families living nearby.

IPS has in recent years taken steps to reduce the preference given to families living near magnet schools and open more seats to other students, which officials say they hope will improve racial and socioeconomic diversity at popular and high-performing magnet programs.

But that may force middle-class families who don’t get in to decide whether they’re willing to send their children to other district schools.

Gonzales’ child got into their second choice: a Montessori school located in a poor neighborhood, attended mostly by students of color and students from low-income families. He wrote:

The more we learned about School 87, the less comfortable we were with the idea of sending our son there. And though we hated to admit it, we knew our discomfort was rooted in prejudice.

‘Prejudice’ is a harsh word, but it’s the right one: We had never visited School 87, and we had no specific reason to believe that our son would be unlikely to get a good education there. We simply saw a school with lots of poor kids in a poor neighborhood, and our parental instinct — impulsive, judgmental, illogical — kicked in.

Despite early apprehensions, Gonzales said his son loved the school and thrived. Still, the following year, the family enrolled the child at a CFI program in downtown Indianapolis after applying through the lottery again for kindergarten.

There, his son entered a classroom of mostly white students, and Gonzales wondered whether he had made the right choice after all:

Not only had I deprived him of valuable experiences with kids different from him, but in my own small way I was also helping perpetuate the racial segregation that has dogged our city, well, forever.

Read the Indy Monthly story here.

change is coming

City may consider more than just test scores in controversial Upper West Side integration proposal

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
District 3 Superintendent Ilene Altschul, right, has proposed a middle school integration plan.

This week’s meeting to discuss an integration proposal for Upper West Side middle schools was already expected to be controversial. But it could get even more heated, with the city planning to present an alternative approach, leaders said.

An education department spokeswoman said a “new scenario” for integrating District 3 middle schools will be presented at a Community Education Council meeting on Wednesday. Under the current proposal, which has drawn scorn from some parents, a quarter of seats at every middle would be offered to students who earn low scores on state tests.

The city may add other factors to mix, including whether a student is poor or attended an elementary school with many other needy students, according to Kristen Berger — a parent who has been leading integration efforts as a member of the local education council. Some of the changes were first reported by NY1. 

“The goal is to refine the plan so that it can be the best one,” she said.

Education department spokeswoman Toya Holness declined to release any details about the potential changes, saying, “To send it out wide — without any context, or information, or ability to take questions — I don’t know that’s helpful.”

The debate in District 3 has captured nationwide attention after a viral news video showed a crowd of mostly white, middle class parents angrily pushing against the plan at a meeting last month. Since test scores are often tied to a students’ race and class, the proposal has the potential to integrate schools racially, economically, and academically.

It is unclear if adding other factors to the formula would quiet that furor — or how it would impact the plan’s goal of integrating starkly segregated Upper West Side middle schools.

Despite the controversy, there have also been plenty of supporters, including many principals in the district. It’s not known whether school leaders and parents will back the latest changes — especially since a previous proposal to integrate district middle schools based on students’ economic status died after a public backlash.

Though city officials have stressed all along that the outlines of the proposal could change, parent leaders on Monday said they are worried about the murky process and short timeframe. Officials hope to have a plan in place by June, when entering fifth grade families start planning for middle school.

“We are extremely concerned about the timing of this last-minute change,” the local Community Education Council wrote Monday in a joint letter to city officials.

Still, the council notes it is broadly supportive of the city’s diversity goals.

The education council doesn’t have a formal role in proposing or approving any changes to the middle school admissions process, but members have played a leading role in pushing the city to address stark school segregation in an otherwise diverse district. In the council’s letter to the chancellor, parents call on the city to take a more holistic approach, such as providing anti-bias training in District 3 schools and more academic supports, including social workers and bilingual teachers.

“We have a genuine interest in moving the initiative forward,” said Kim Watkins, president of the council. “But we very strongly believe it’s missing some important implementation pieces.”

late addition

Exclusive Center School will join Upper West Side integration push, education department says

PHOTO: Monica Disare
The New York City education department is based out of Tweed Courthouse in downtown Manhattan.

One of the most exclusive schools on the Upper West Side could be included in a controversial integration plan after all — just a year later.

The apparent reversal regarding the Center School came after the New York Post reported that the school was left out of the proposal being debated in District 3. Under the plan, a quarter of seats at every middle school in the district would be reserved for students who struggle on state tests.

The Center School has become known for enrolling the children of celebrities such as “Sex in the City” star and gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon, who once argued against a proposal to move the school because she worried it would exacerbate segregation. The Center School serves among the fewest poor students in the district, and last year was almost 60 percent white — almost double the district average.

Yet the Post reported on Sunday that the school was exempt from the integration proposal because it enrolls students starting in fifth grade, instead of sixth. The tabloid also raised questions about how students are admitted there, calling the application process “a mystery.” The school is one of the few citywide that still runs its own admissions, instead of being overseen by the education department.

“They have their completely own, independent rubric which they don’t have to release or justify,” Alina Adams, an education consultant, told the Post. “Nobody knows how kids get into that school.”

The report prompted questions from elected officials. City Councilman Ritchie Torres asked the Department of Investigation and the Human Rights Commission to look into the school’s admissions and why it wasn’t included in the integration plan, the Post reported Monday. And City Councilman Mark Treyger, who heads the education committee, wrote a letter to the chancellor demanding similar answers.

“We need to ensure that all students have the same education opportunities, and that starts by making sure that our schools have transparent application processes,” Treyger wrote.

Many integration advocates have made similar arguments. Critics of the city’s screening process — which allows some schools to pick their students based on factors such as report card grades and attendance — say the system is often confusing and favors parents who have the time and savvy to figure it out.

Since test scores are closely linked to race and class, the District 3 proposal could integrate schools on multiple levels. But it has faced pushback from parents who have come to expect that high test scores — achieved most often by the district’s middle-class students — should guarantee families their top choice of middle schools. No changes have been formalized yet, but the district superintendent hopes to have a plan in place for the 2019-20 school year.

Should it take effect, education department spokesman Doug Cohen said it would apply to Center School fifth graders entering in the 2020-21 school year. He added that the department is “working” to bring all middle schools under its centralized process for the next admissions cycle. That includes Center School.

“As part of the transition, the school will begin posting its admissions rubric,” Cohen wrote in an email.