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.

Follow the money

Rich PTA, poor PTA: New York City lawmaker wants to track school fundraising

New York City is home to some of the richest PTAs in the country, while other schools struggle to even recruit parent volunteers.

To better understand the disparities, City Councilman Mark Treyger on Monday will introduce legislation requiring the education department to track the membership and fundraising of schools’ parent organizations. The law would require an annual report to be posted to the education department’s website.

“We need to make sure all of our kids are receiving the same level of opportunity across the board,” Treyger said.

In the city and across the country, powerhouse parent organizations raise vast sums of money to boost the budgets of schools that tend to serve wealthier students — widening the gulf between them and schools with needier students.

For example, the PTA at P.S. 87 on the Upper West Side was named the second wealthiest parent organization in the country in a report this year by the Center for American Progress. At a school where just 9 percent of students qualified as poor in 2013-14, the parent organization raised almost $1.6 million that year, according to the report.

In the very same district, P.S. 191’s PTA had about $11,000 in the bank as of January 2016, according to meeting minutes posted on online. About 78 percent of its students are poor.

Some districts have tried to reduce such disparities by requiring PTAs to share their wealth or restricting how the organizations can spend their money. But such limitations are not without controversy. In California, for example, parents have pushed for their own school district rather than pool their fundraising dollars.

The bill will be introduced at Monday’s City Council stated meeting.

integration push

‘Be bold’: Advocates, lawmakers call on New York City to go further on school integration

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Advocates rallied at City Hall on Thursday to demand anti-bias training for teachers and culturally relevant education for students.

As New York City tries to increase the racial and socioeconomic diversity of its schools, it must do more to make sure every school is welcoming to students of all backgrounds, advocates said Thursday before a hearing on the city’s diversity plans.

To make the point that the city has overlooked what actually happens inside classrooms at diverse schools, advocates pointed to an anti-bias training for 600 teachers that was funded in this year’s budget. Advocates had expected the training to take place before school started — but, three months into the school year, it still has not, they said.

Without such trainings and teaching materials that reflect students’ backgrounds, schools cannot become truly integrated, said Angel Martinez, the mother of three children in Harlem.

“It’s not just about putting black and brown children into predominantly white classrooms,” Martinez said Thursday outside City Hall at a rally organized by the Coalition for Educational Justice. “That’s not diversity. That’s just a color scheme.”

An education department spokesman said the anti-bias trainings will build on other initiatives already under way to build more culturally responsive classrooms. One of the groups that will lead the anti-bias trainings said they would begin in January.

After prodding from advocates, the de Blasio administration in June released a plan to boost diversity in the city’s schools, which are among the most segregated in the country. At Thursday’s City Council education committee hearing, lawmakers said the plan’s proposals are too small-scale and its goals too modest.

Councilman Ritchie Torres of the Bronx faulted the city for not mentioning segregation or integration in its plan, opting instead for “diversity.”

“I worry that we’re white-washing the historical context of racial segregation,” Torres said. “It’s not only about words. It’s about a proper diagnosis.”

He urged officials to “be bold” and eliminate the admissions policy that lets “screened” schools select students based on grades, attendance, and other factors. The city’s plan does do away with an admissions policy that gave an edge to students who attend a school open house. Black and Hispanic students were less likely than their peers to benefit from that policy.

Deputy Chancellor Josh Wallack said the education department does not plan to create more screened schools. But, when pressed, he declined to say whether selective schools exacerbate segregation.

“I think it depends on the context,” he said. “But I do think it’s an issue we would do well to address.”

Councilman Brad Lander of Brooklyn also called for changes to the high school admissions process. Although the system allows students to apply to schools outside their own neighborhoods — offering the potential to circumvent residential segregated — students still end up largely sorted into different schools according to race, class, and academic achievement.

Lander said the city should consider a “controlled choice” model, which would factor student diversity in admissions decisions while still letting families choose where to apply. The city recently established such a system for elementary schools on the Lower East Side.

“We could have that ambition all across our high school system,” Lander said.

Wallack, the deputy chancellor, said the city’s plan is essentially a starting point. He pointed to a 30-member advisory group that is tasked with evaluating the city’s diversity plan, crafting its own recommendations, and soliciting ideas from the public. The group’s first meeting in Monday.

“These are initial goals and we set them out as a way of measuring our progress in some of this work,” he said.