The Wait Continues

Fariña says city is still reviewing schools’ diversity plans, with quick changes unlikely

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña

For nearly a year, a group of principals has waited for the city’s permission to change their admissions policies so that as more white, middle-class families seek seats in their schools, spots remain open for students from needier backgrounds.

On Tuesday, they learned that they will have to wait even longer.

Speaking on a public radio show, Chancellor Carmen Fariña said officials are still reviewing the proposals that several principals submitted last October. She expressed some reservations about their request to reserve a portion of seats for students from low-income or immigrant families, saying she wouldn’t want those policies to “disenfranchise” any students.

While she insisted that and the mayor are concerned about school diversity and are reviewing enrollment policies citywide, she also suggested that diversity can be promoted without making structural changes, such as by teaching students about world religions.

Either way, she signaled that her interest in school diversity will not translate into immediate policy changes, including at those schools that have been waiting to make admissions tweaks.

“I believe in diversity,” she said on the Brian Lehrer show. “I think it’s going to be very carefully thought through and decided on a case by case.”

Fariña’s response dismayed advocates who have called on her and Mayor Bill de Blasio to more aggressively combat school segregation, which is more severe in New York than most school districts.

“I don’t think there’s any way to hear those comments and think they’re on top of this issue,” said David Tipson, executive director of the school diversity advocacy group, New York Appleseed.

A dozen principals met with Fariña and other top officials last fall to discuss diversity and admissions. Many of the schools — including Arts & Letters Academy in Fort Greene, P.S. 8 in Brooklyn Heights, and Central Park East II in East Harlem — had watched their share of white students rise and black and Hispanic students decline in recent years as the areas around their schools gentrified.

At the meeting, the principals were told that their plans to reserve some seats for certain student groups could violate federal law, according to several attendees. Advocates and even some de Blasio-appointed members of the city’s education policy board have challenged this reading of the law.

Fariña on Tuesday said she worried about any plan that would give preference to one group over another.

“We’re looking at every plan individually,” she said. “We need to make sure that diversity plans don’t disenfranchise other students.”

Several of the principals modeled their proposals on the admissions system at P.S. 133 in Park Slope, a school that accepts students from beyond its immediate neighborhood and sets aside more than a third of its seats for low-income students and those still learning English. The school is housed in a new building and offers popular dual-language programs, which has helped it attract a range of families.

While Fariña did not say Tuesday whether the schools that want to adopt a P.S. 133-style admissions system would be allowed to do so, she did say that would be a possibility for new schools.

“As new schools get built, that’s certainly something we would consider,” she said.

Fariña appeared on the Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC Tuesday, where she spoke about enrollment policies and school diversity.
Fariña appeared on the Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC Tuesday, where she spoke about enrollment policies and school diversity.

Many advocates who back school-by-school diversity plans say they must be accompanied by district-wide policies that prevent students from a particular racial or socioeconomic group from clustering at individual schools. Without such a “controlled choice” system, popular schools with effective diversity plans might enroll a mix of students even as their neighbors enroll students mostly from one group.

Fariña hinted at the need for both types of solutions, saying that officials are reviewing enrollment policies “as a collective whole, as well as individually.”

“We’re looking at how do we make it equitable,” she said.

A widely cited 2014 report found that New York City school segregation has increased in recent decades, with 85 percent of black students and 75 of Hispanic students attending schools with a small number of white students.

Advocates argue that the city cannot make a real dent in those numbers without overhauling its enrollment policies, which they say exacerbate residential segregation. However, Fariña has previously said that individual schools can address the issue by offering attractive language or special-education programs that draw in a diverse pool of applicants.

On Tuesday, she added that the de Blasio administration has taken other steps to promote diversity, such as by canceling classes on the Lunar New Year and two Muslim holidays so students can celebrate. She said schools could build on that effort by teaching students about the holidays.

Tipson, the diversity advocate, said that proposal is no match for policies that ensure schools enroll students of different backgrounds.

“It’s horrible to think that she would say that lesson plans can substitute for actually having kids encounter different cultures in their own schools,” he said.

Measuring schools

State education officials prepare 0 to 100 index to measure schools, slam push for A-F grades

PHOTO: Denver Post file

State education officials are preparing to roll out a new tool for parents to quickly learn which schools are succeeding and which ones are struggling. They’re also lashing out at another school measurement approach that’s been proposed in the legislature.

The dueling options are part of a national debate about the best way to measure schools.

Michigan’s elected board of education last year scrapped plans to assign letter grades to every school in favor of providing parents with a dashboard of information about test scores, graduation rates, and other measures of success such as attendance rates and student discipline.

That “parent dashboard” was unveiled last month. As soon as next week, the state is planning to beef up the dashboard with a new score, from 0 to 100, that is intended to summarize the quality of every school in the state.

The new index will give each school a single number based on seven factors, including test scores and graduation rates, the availability of classes like art and music, and proficiency rates for English learners. The index was part of the state’s plan to comply with the new federal school accountability law. 

Several factors will go into the index, though most points will be determined by test scores: 34 percent will be based on the percent of students who pass state exams. while 29 percent will be determined by whether test scores show students are improving. The rest of the score will be driven by school quality factors such as availability of arts and music (14 percent), graduation rates (10 percent), and progress by students learning English (10 percent). The last 3 percent will measure the percentage of students who take the state exam — a factor designed to discourage schools from giving the exam only to their highest-performing students.

Venessa Keesler, deputy superintendent at the Michigan Department of Education, said the index is not a ranking system, so multiple schools could end up with the same index score.

That’s a switch from the school ranking system Michigan has been using in recent years in which every school was placed against all other state schools, primarily on test scores. The schools in the bottom 5 percent of state rankings faced intervention, including the threat of closure.  

But GOP lawmakers say the parent dashboard and the index are too complicated, and they want to see an A-F letter grade system.

Lawmakers introduced legislation last week that would give every school a report card with six A-F grades measuring their performance in different categories. Bill sponsor Tim Kelly called it a “middle of the road” option that isn’t as simplistic as giving schools a single letter grade.

That plan came in for significant criticism Tuesday from the state board of education.

“This really isn’t OK,” said Nikki Snyder, a Republican board member. “If we want parents, students and teachers to be empowered, this is not the kind of chaos and confusion we should inject into our system. I absolutely do not support it.”

Another school board member, Casandra Ulbrich, the board’s Democratic co-president, raised concerns over how the scores would be decided.

“Someone has to create a complicated algorithm to determine the difference between A to B to C,” she said. “I have some real concerns about that.”

“I generally agree with Rep. Kelly,” said Richard Zeile, the Republican board co-president, “but school letter grades would be more misleading than helpful.”

A-F school ranking systems, which were used in 18 states as of last spring, have been divisive across the country, with some hailing them is a tool to increase transparency and others viewing them as too simplified and too easy for parents to misunderstand.

next steps

How to tackle New York’s severe school segregation? State policymakers spitball ideas

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Regent Collins and Regent Johnson engage in a discussion after a Board of Regents meeting in 2016.

A New York conference on the extensive research on the benefits of school integration. A convening of the state’s civil rights groups. A commission on equity and integration.

Those are some of the ideas being considered by a group of state policymakers tasked with addressing school integration in New York, which has some of the country’s most severe racial segregation. The group was established by Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa in 2016 to research topics that the board would have to weigh in on; over time, it has come to focus on school integration and racial equity.

At its meeting Tuesday during the Regents’ monthly gathering, the group also floated ways to desegregate schools. One idea was to create incentives for schools that take steps to enroll students from different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds.

The group’s ideas build on other state efforts to combat school segregation. In 2014, New York’s education department launched a series of grants designed to improve schools by integrating them; the latest rounds of grants will expand the program to more schools and is more focused on training district leaders to combat school segregation. And as part of a plan they were required to submit last year under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, officials discussed the idea of developing a new measure of school and district integration.

Those efforts come four years after a widely cited study by researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles found New York’s schools to be the most segregated in the country.

The group’s plans are still in their infancy: They will likely still be submitted to the full board, which would then have the chance to vet them before voting on whether to approve them.

Meanwhile, the group is still debating its own mission and objectives. During Tuesday’s discussion, one member suggested having the incentive program focus on “equity” rather than desegregation because some schools are unlikely to ever enroll many students of different races.

Regent Judith Johnson, who co-chairs the group, said Tuesday that she has struggled to figure out exactly what it should focus on — and how much to push integration in parts of the state where doing so could prove deeply unpopular. In New York City, many parents have resisted changes that would reroute their children to different schools in order to promote integration; in less diverse cities and towns, integration would likely require moving students across district lines.

“Not every district wants to address this issue,” Johnson said. “And so the question becomes: What is the role … of the Board of Regents?”