first steps

Prodded by advocates, city unveils district-wide integration plan for Lower East Side

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña visits P.S. 15 in District 1 in 2014.

The New York City education department on Tuesday revealed a plan that officials hope will spur more economic diversity in Lower East Side elementary schools.

It is the first effort under Mayor Bill de Blasio to tackle segregation on a district-wide basis, and follows years of lobbying by parent advocates in District 1, which also includes the East Village. The plan’s goal is for each school’s share of disadvantaged students to match the district’s, though that will depend to a large degree on recruitment efforts and families’ admissions decisions.

“This is a pretty significant step for the city,” said Matt Gonzales, who leads school integration efforts for the nonprofit New York Appleseed, adding that he expects the city to eventually do even more to promote integration in that district “and ultimately throughout the city.”

While District 1 includes a diverse mix of students, its schools are largely segregated. At some, virtually all students are low-income. In others, fewer than a quarter are.

Last year, 67 percent of students who applied to schools in the district were either eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, still learning English, or living in temporary housing. The city’s plan would create a new admissions system for the district with the goal that each school would enroll a similar share of students from those groups.

Based on application patterns from last year, the city projects that six out of 16 district elementary schools would come within 10 percentage points of the diversity target under the new plan — up from three schools currently. However, officials said they expect a new enrollment center opening this fall will help schools meet their enrollment goals by encouraging families to apply to a wider range of schools. Called a Family Resource Center, it will share information with families about the application process and the programs offered at each school.

“We’ll be able to help families see the wide variety of high quality options there are in District 1,” said Josh Wallack, a deputy chancellor who oversees diversity initatives. “That itself may have a profound impact on equity and diversity in the schools, just by broadening the choices parents are making.”

In order to reach the enrollment goals, two-thirds of admissions offers at each school would be reserved for students who meet the district’s definition of disadvantaged, with the rest available to less needy students. However, whether each school meets those targets will ultimately depend on where families choose to apply.

The new admissions system, which has not yet been formally adopted, would first apply to students entering pre-K and kindergarten in the fall 2018.

But parent advocates in the district who had spent years helping design a complex enrollment system to integrate local schools say the education department has watered down their vision.

They had asked for more factors to be considered to determine whether students are disadvantaged, such as whether they have a disability and the education level of their parents. They also called for a system that provides parents with information about the odds that their child would get into each school in order to help them decide where to apply.

Without that information, the system is less transparent and could make parents wary, said Naomi Peña, a parent on the local education council who has worked on integration efforts in the district.

“You rank your schools but you don’t know what you’re going to get,” she said of the department’s proposal. “It’s hard to get parents to buy-in, and this is exactly why.”

The education department has faced rising pressure to address the widespread segregation in city schools, and this summer released a plan laying out steps to do so. It included a pledge to work with advocates and the superintendent in District 1, who had already used a $1.25 million state grant to come up with their own diversity proposal.

District 1 is a logical place for the education department to pilot a district-wide integration strategy. It is small and diverse, and parents have been supportive of integration efforts — though many have become disenchanted with the education department’s slow-moving approach. In addition, all of the district’s elementary schools are unzoned, meaning families can apply to any school regardless of where they live in the district.

Advocates say their plans for the district stalled because city officials worried that fewer families would be matched with schools where they applied. On Tuesday, officials released projections showing that the number of families accepted into a school of their choice wouldn’t change significantly under the new proposal.

The education department now plans to host information sessions at every school to gather feedback from parents. Officials hope to finalize the plan by October, when parents start applying to schools for the next academic year.

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.