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.

work ahead

Five months in, crucial part of New York City’s school diversity plan begins to take shape

PHOTO: Mayoral Photography Office
Mayor Bill de Blasio hosts a town hall in Brooklyn in October.

Five months after New York City officials announced a much-anticipated plan to address school segregation, an advisory group that is supposed to help put the plan into action is finally starting to take shape.

Behind the scenes, city officials have been recruiting potential members, while the group’s leaders have started some initial planning before the first full meeting on Dec. 11.

Chaired by high-profile civil rights leaders, their charge is to spearhead an independent effort to turn the city’s general plans into specific recommendations for how to spur integration in the country’s largest school district — and one of the most segregated.

Advocates have held out hope that the group will push Mayor Bill de Blasio to move faster and further on integration in his second term than he did in his first. But they also have reason to temper their expectations.

Establishing the group bought de Blasio another year to act on the politically volatile issue, a tactic he has deployed on other controversial matters including rising homelessness, the Riker’s Island jail, and contested public monuments. The integration group’s recommendations may not be released until December 2018, one member said — about six months after the original deadline, and several years after advocates began demanding action on segregation. And even then, city leaders can pick and choose among the recommendations, which are non-binding.

Politics 101 is: When you don’t want to decide, appoint a commission,” said David Bloomfield, a professor of education, law, and public policy at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. 

To lead the work, the de Blasio administration chose respected figures who can speak with authority on race and segregation — but who are not advocates who have demanded aggressive action. They are José Calderón, president of the Hispanic Federation; Hazel Dukes, president of the NAACP for New York State; and Maya Wiley, former chair of the Civilian Complaint Review Board, who previously served as de Blasio’s legal advisor.

Wiley, who is also professor of urban policy and management at the New School, said the group would try to boil down a decades-old problem with roots in housing policy, school-assignment systems, and structural racism to a set of realistic solutions.

“We’re looking for things that are actionable,” she said. “This is a big and complex set of questions.”

More recently, two additional members have been named to the group’s executive committee: Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation who is a longtime proponent of socioeconomic integration; and Amy Hsin, associate professor of sociology at Queens College.

The chairs have held at least two private planning meetings, and will continue to meet every six-to-eight weeks, said education department spokesman Will Mantell.

Mantell said the group will ultimately include 30-35 members who will be divided into committees. The city is reaching out to potential members “based on the recommendations of the executive committee and our ongoing discussions with advocates, researchers, educators, parents and community members,” he wrote in an email.

Wiley, the executive board member, said the group wants to bring a diversity of perspectives into the planning process, so will host public meetings in every borough to gather different ideas on school segregation and how to address it.

The group grew out of the city’s “school diversity plan,” which was released this summer after relentless pressure from advocates and recurring headlines about de Blasio’s relative silence on the city’s persistent school segregation. The plan left many advocates underwhelmed.

In particular, they said the city set unambitious racial and socioeconomic integration goals for itself. Pressed on such concerns, Mayor Bill de Blasio told reporters the plan was “a strong first step,” but added: “There will be more to come.”

To some advocates, the advisory group creates an opening to give teeth to the city’s plan.

David Kirkland, executive director of the New York University Metro Center, recently accepted an offer to become a member. He said he hopes — among other changes — to push the city to set more aggressive goals for “racially representative” schools, which the plan currently defines as those where 50 percent to 90 percent of students are black or Hispanic (together those groups make up 70 percent of city students).

“It’s not clear to me that we have the right metrics,” he said. “My hope is that this diversity plan is going to begin to change in significant ways.”

In order for the recommendations to take hold, its members must be truly representative of the community — and free from political pressure to sidestep thorny issues, advocates say.

New York City’s grassroots integration movement has been criticized as being dominated by white middle-class parents and activists, although it includes members of different races and backgrounds. To build broad support for their work, observers say, the advisory group will have to bring in more black and Hispanic families whose children make up the majority of city students — as well as Asian students, who are often left out of the conversation about integration.

“If we don’t have authentic and real representation,” said Matt Gonzales, who lobbies for school integration through the nonprofit New York Appleseed, “then we run the risk of running failed efforts in integration that we’ve already watched unravel” elsewhere.

Taking attendance

Want to make middle school admissions more fair? Stop looking at this measure, parents say

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Middle school students write their names down at a high school fair in Brooklyn.

Parents across New York City have pushed for changes in the way selective middle schools pick their students, saying the process is unfair.

Now, a group of Manhattan parents has come up with a novel solution: Stop looking at students’ attendance records.

The parent council in District 2 — where about 70 percent of middle schools admit students based on their academic records — points to research showing that students from low-income families are far more likely to miss school. Those children are at a distinct disadvantage in the competition for the district’s top middle school seats, the council argues, even though factors beyond the control of any fourth-grader — especially family homelessness — often account for poor attendance and tardiness.

“This outsized focus on attendance disproportionately impacts students who don’t have secure housing and may not have secure healthcare, and that is troubling to me,” said Eric Goldberg, a member of the community education council in District 2, which includes stretches of Lower Manhattan and the Upper East Side. “There are many factors that should not impact a student’s educational opportunities — and the way the system is set up, it does.”

Eighteen of the district’s 24 middle schools are “screened,” meaning they rank applicants based on factors including test scores, grades, and interviews. Of those, all but one school also considers how often students were late or absent in fourth grade, according to the parent council.

Most of the schools assign points to each factor they consider. Some give absences 10 times more weight than science or social studies grades, the council found, while others penalize students for even a single absence or instance of tardiness.

Disadvantaged students are especially likely to miss school.

A recent report by the city’s Independent Budget Office found that homeless students are more likely than other students to be chronically absent — typically defined as missing about 10 percent of the school year.

Schools with the highest chronic absenteeism are in communities in “deep poverty,” which have the highest rates of unemployment and family involvement with the child-welfare system, according to a 2014 report by the New School at the Center for New York City Affairs.

“We can use chronic absenteeism as a good guess of all the other things kids are dealing with,” said Nicole Mader, a senior research fellow at the New School and a co-author of the report. “If these middle schools are using absenteeism to weed kids out, that means they’re going to automatically weed out those kids who have the most barriers to academic success already.”

The attendance requirement can put pressure on any family, regardless of their financial status or housing situation.

Banghee Chi, a parent of two children in District 2, said she sometimes sent her younger daughter to school with a fever when she was in fourth grade rather than have her marked absent.

Her daughter would show up to class only to be sent to the school’s health clinic — which would call Chi to pick her up. Chi was thinking ahead to middle school, when a missed day of class could hurt her chances of getting into the most sought-after schools.

“It was something I was really conscious and aware of during my child’s fourth-grade year,” she said. “I think it’s unfair.”

The education council’s resolution, which will be put to vote in December, is nonbinding because middle schools set their own admissions criteria. But a show of support from parents could lead to action from the education department, which has been prodded by integration advocates to make other changes in high school and middle school admissions.

This summer, the department announced it would end the practice of “revealed rankings,” which allowed middle schools to select only those students who listed them first or second on their applications. The city is also appointing a committee of parents, educators, and community leaders in Brooklyn’s District 15 to come up with a proposal for making that district’s middle school applications process more fair.

“We’re collaborating with communities across the city to make school admissions more equitable and inclusive, including in District 2,” said department spokesman Will Mantell in an email. The department looks forward “to further conversations about this resolution and other efforts to improve middle school admissions in District 2.”