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.”

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.

moving forward

With critical parents now on board, New York City will move forward with district-wide diversity plan

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Parents and school leaders met on Oct. 19 to discuss the new admissions plan.

After a long and public battle over how to integrate schools on the Lower East Side, the New York City education department has finally won over some critical parent advocates — a crucial step as officials move forward with the de Blasio administration’s first district-wide diversity plan.

The plan creates a new admissions process for students entering pre-kindergarten and kindergarten in the small, segregated district in Lower Manhattan with the goal of getting each school to enroll roughly equal percentages of needy students. The changes will take effect this fall as families apply to schools for the following year.

Last month, when the city first announced its proposal for District 1, which also includes the East Village, the local Community Education Council accused officials of not acting boldly enough and disregarding the community’s vision for what an integration plan should include.

Since then, the department appears to have eased some of their concerns. Most notably, it added students with disabilities to the list of student groups that each school must admit in proportions roughly equal to the district average.

As department officials held public meetings in each of the district’s roughly two-dozen schools over the past month to sell the plan to parents and get feedback, they also were more responsive to members of the education council, said Naomi Peña, the council president who had been one of the department’s most outspoken critics.

“There has been a major shift in the way the DOE has compromised with the community,” she said, adding that the council is now generally supportive of city’s plan. “I think they understand if you want to be successful you have to work with parent leaders.”

Whereas requests for information had previously languished without response, she said officials recently worked through the weekend to run enrollment simulations based on questions from parents. She also said department officials assured her that they will closely monitor the plan — and that they have agreed to make changes if the new system fails to show results.

“This is like when you’re in the last round of boxing,” she said. “However we get to a diverse community is what I’m looking for.”

District 1 elementary schools do not have zones that determine enrollment. Instead, families apply to any schools they choose. While overall the district enrolls a diverse mix of students, many schools do not reflect that. For example, the poverty rate at East Village Community School is just 22 percent — a fraction of the district average of about 70 percent. Meanwhile, virtually all of the students at P.S. 15 Roberto Clemente are poor.

Under the new system, students who are learning English, live in temporary housing, or qualify for free and reduced-price lunch will get first dibs on offers to about two-thirds of the seats in every school — a percentage meant to mirror the share of those students across the entire district. More privileged students who don’t fall into any of those categories will be given preference for a third of seats in each school.

Based on feedback from the public meetings, the city said Thursday that it will also consider whether a student has a disability when making enrollment offers as a way of ensuring that those students are evenly spread across the district.

“We know that all students benefit from diverse and inclusive classrooms, and District 1 is taking an important step forward with their districtwide diversity plan,” schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña said in a statement.

In another change, the city is urging — but not requiring — families to list five school choices on their applications. Families who do so will have a better chance of getting one of their choices. The idea is to encourage parents to consider a wider variety of schools so that parents of the same race and class don’t stick to the same schools.

The change comes after some wealthier parents voiced concerns that needy students from outside the district could get priority for seats over their children. Last year, about 47 percent of applicants to District 1 schools lived in other districts, according to the department.

“We moved here in part because of the quality of the schools in District 1 and the diversity,” David Hung, a parent whose son is entering pre-K next year, said at a recent community meeting that was held before the department’s final plan was announced. “So it’s both somewhat troubling and ironic that as a result of this policy — which I’m very supportive of — that we may in fact not be able to have our kids attend District 1.”

City and parent leaders hope that a new “Family Resource Center,” which opened this month and will provide parents with information about all the district’s schools as they fill out their applications, will expand the range of schools that parents consider.

The new system comes after two years of work by parents, district, and school leaders who landed a state grant to pursue integration strategies in the district — and follows a series of delays and false starts. Advocates had hoped to make these enrollment changes last fall.

Advocates say they hope the process there will serve as an example for other districts, as support for integration strategies grows across the city.

“This is a great way to show how a true community plan can be led, and fingers crossed can be a model,” Peña said.