a primer

A Chalkbeat cheat sheet: What’s going on with Upper West Side desegregation

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
District 3 Superintendent Ilene Altschul, right, has proposed a middle school integration plan.

A viral video and a late-night tweet by New York City’s new schools chancellor may have left you trying to catch up with the debate about a proposal to integrate Upper West Side middle schools.

Here’s a primer to the controversy that suddenly has everyone talking about state tests, middle school admissions, and privilege:

What was that meeting in the video about?

  • There’s a plan on the table to offer a share of seats at 16 middle schools to students who have low scores on statewide math and English exams. Those 16 schools are in District 3, which includes the Upper West Side and part of Harlem.
  • The expectation there now is that high test scores — achieved most often by the district’s middle-class students — should guarantee families their top choice of middle schools.
  • The plan’s specifics are still a work in progress. But as the proposal stands now, 10 percent of admissions offers would go to students scoring at the lowest level (level 1), and another 15 percent would go to students scoring just below the proficiency bar (level 2).
  • Those admissions rules would increase the proportion of low-scoring students at some highly sought-after schools, according to a city analysis, but have little impact at others.

Whose plan is it? Who supports it?

  • Officials in District 3 — namely, District 3 Superintendent Ilene Altschul. This is not a citywide plan, and it’s not a proposal put forth by the mayor’s office.
  • While the video showed parents speaking vehemently against the proposal, many on the district’s elected parent council are on board. The council plays only an advisory role in setting these kinds of admissions rules, though.
  • Many middle school principals in the district are also speaking out in favor of the proposal and say they could handle having students with a wider range of academic abilities than they serve now.
  • While research suggests that academic integration generally benefits all students, some research shows that when the gulf among students is too wide, neither high- nor lower-performing students are better off.

Why is this getting so much attention?

  • New York City’s schools are deeply segregated by race and class, and conversation about whether and how to change that has picked up recently. Among the latest developments: advocates have focused on segregation at the city’s specialized high schools, where black and Hispanic students accounted for just 10.4 percent of offers.
  • Unlike some parts of the city, the area that makes up District 3 is pretty diverse — yet schools are starkly divided: While less than 10 percent of the students at some middle schools come from low-income families, nearly 100 percent do at others.
  • The controversy gets at unspoken and often unexamined rules about who gets what privileges in New York City — in this case, who gains entry into desirable middle schools. Parents have expected that their children would receive spots there if they do well on tests, and this proposal challenges that notion.
  • The video shows in stark terms what some see as the unlevel playing field that underlies the current system. An angry mom insists that telling children that they didn’t get to attend a great middle after “you worked your butt off” will drive home the message that “life sucks.” But Henry Zymeck, the principal of The Computer School, noted that some parents spent $5,000 in tutoring on state exams — an expense that is out of reach for most parents.
  • Now Chancellor Richard Carranza has weighed in. He said he’s still looking into the details of the proposal, but called it “well thought-out” and “very moderate, quite frankly.”

Is this related to the last big public fight about integration on the Upper West Side?

  • You might be thinking about this case, where the education department proposed new attendance zone lines for elementary schools that would send some students headed for high-performing P.S. 199 instead to P.S. 191, which has had much lower test scores and far more students who are poor and of color.
  • While it is the same neighborhood and the cases brought similar tensions to the fore, they aren’t directly related.
  • One of the goals of that plan was to diversify schools, but officials were also trying to alleviate overcrowding. Here’s a look back at where things stand with those schools today.
  • But yes, many of the same parents are involved. The meeting in the video was even at one of the two elementary schools in question, P.S. 199 — the more affluent and outspoken of the two schools in the 2015 fight.
  • Altschul, the district superintendent, also proposed an integration plan two years ago that would have affected district middle schools. That plan would have required schools to set aside 30 percent of seats for students from low-income families, but it died after she did not win over principals.

What happens next?

  • The leaders on the Community Education Council and the district superintendent have taken the proposal on the road to get feedback from parents in the district. The next CEC meeting is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. on May 16 at P.S. 242. A special meeting that will focus on the admissions proposal will take place at 6:30 p.m. on May 22 at P.S. 163.
  • It’s possible for the plan to get tweaked, based on the feedback received.
  • Altschul would then formally propose the changes to the education department for approval. The parent education council wouldn’t have a formal role in approving the plan. The goal is for changes to go into effect in the 2019-20 school year.

harlem renaissance

After a battle to integrate middle schools, parents turn their attention to Harlem

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Genisha Metcalf, center right, and Dennis Morgan, far left, are among the parents at P.S. 180 who are leading a grassroots effort to boost Harlem schools.

Along a stretch of brick wall at P.S. 180 Hugo Newman, a massive mural proclaims “Young, gifted, and Harlem.”

The sunny new painting at the K-8 school, which was donated by a local artist, is not the typical volunteer effort. It’s part of a push by parent leaders and city officials to boost Harlem schools — the crucial next step toward making a new, contentious integration plan work.

The education department this summer approved changes to the way students are admitted to middle schools in District 3, an effort to spur diversity in a deeply segregated district that spans the Upper West Side and part of Harlem. The fight to get it approved captured national attention, but the admissions changes may have been the easy part.

Students there are still free to apply to their choice of middle schools, so demographics won’t shift at many schools unless families make different decisions about where to send their children. For Harlem, that means competing for students with schools that have far more resources and are in strong demand with middle-class parents.

That’s why, in the coming year, the district will undertake a “visioning” campaign for Harlem with the aim of floating plans to meet the schools’ needs while canvassing the community to find out what families want. There are also on-the-ground efforts, like those being led by parents at P.S. 180, to paint a more positive picture of Harlem schools.

“This isn’t just about what we’ve heard before: ‘Harlem schools are struggling,’ and that older narrative,” said Dennis Morgan, a parent on the local Community Education Council whose children attend P.S. 180. “There are actually really, really informed parents, [and] really, really, talented and gifted children here — that are more than what the narrative speaks to.”

The plan

District 3 families apply to middle schools rather than being zoned to one based on their address. Despite that wide degree of choice, the district is segregated: Booker T. Washington enrolls almost 70 percent white and Asian students; The district average is 40 percent. At P.S. 149 Sojourner Truth, a K-8 school, virtually all of the students are black or Hispanic.  

Beginning next year, middle schools will give admissions preference for a quarter of seats to students with low test scores and poor report card grades, and who come from low-income families. That could result in more racial diversity in some schools since academic performance and poverty are often linked to race and ethnicity.

But the admissions priority will only make a difference if schools have a diverse group of applicants to pull from. Today, many do not.  

Based on a simulation of admissions offers, patterned on how families applied to schools last year, many Harlem schools would remain essentially unchanged by the integration plan.

The projections show that P.S. 076 A. Philip Randolph, a K-8 school on 121st Street, would see its demographics remain basically the same. Wadleigh Secondary School for the Performing & Visual Arts, a Harlem school that narrowly survived an attempt to shut it down this year, would admit about one more high-performing student. Both would still serve mostly students who struggled on state tests and come from low-income families.

The biggest changes would be seen outside of Harlem, where more low-performing students would get admitted to some of the district’s most sought-after schools.

For parents on the local education council, which for years has pushed the education department to address segregation in its middle schools, the admissions changes alone were problematic: They mean that more Harlem students will likely be leaving their neighborhood schools, but the plan did nothing to address why parents aren’t picking those schools in the first place.

“That does nothing for investing in these schools,” said Genisha Metcalf, a parent on the education council whose daughter attends P.S. 180.

The work ahead

Harlem faces intense competition for students from the more selective schools to its south, and charters in its own backyard.

Students who passed state tests cram into a few schools on the Upper West Side that use tough admissions criteria. Meanwhile, Harlem is home to 10 of the district’s 11 charter schools. A recent report from the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School found that 63 percent of Harlem families enroll in schools outside the neighborhood.

When students leave, they take crucial funding with them since school budgets are based on enrollment. Three Harlem schools had fewer than 200 students last year.

“We have to focus on what it’s going to take for kids to enroll in these schools,” said Kim Watkins, a member of the Community Education Council. “We’ve got to start listening to the community and working with the various stakeholders… to make sure we understand what it is we need to offer.”

That’s the next phase of the district’s integration plans. With the middle school admissions changes in effect, the city is now weighing ways to boost enrollment in Harlem schools. Among the possibilities: Opening new pre-K classes in the neighborhood; eliminating the zoning around P.S. 241, a science and technology school; and opening a standalone middle school since Harlem is almost exclusively served by K-8 campuses.

The city is also looking at ways to make school offerings more equitable across the district, promising to implement more rigorous Regents math and science courses in every middle school and to expand tutoring options.

Before the city makes any moves, though, officials are fanning across the district to listen to parent feedback and partner with local organizations to hear concerns and collect new ideas.

“We know there’s real work to do to strengthen programming in Harlem and across District 3, and we’re excited to partner with the community, including principals, parent leaders, and families, on the Harlem visioning process,” education department spokesman Doug Cohen said in an emailed statement.  

Already, some ideas are percolating among Community Education Council members.

Morgan wants to partner with local business and has called on the district to devise ways to share dramatically lopsided PTA fundraising — a move that has been met with fierce opposition elsewhere. While some Harlem schools struggle to raise budgets in the hundreds of dollars, the PTA at P.S. 87 on the Upper West Side was named the second wealthiest parent organization in the country in a report last year by the Center for American Progress. The school raised $1.6 million, according to the report.

“That’s the place where this resourcing gap gets closed,” Morgan said.

Perhaps the more difficult work ahead, though, is shifting parents’ perceptions so they’ll pick Harlem schools. The fight to approve the admissions changes shows how far parent leaders have to go.

In public meetings to float the integration plans, one concern was repeated over and over again: Middle class parents argued there were only a few “good” schools in the district, and they worried the city’s plans would make it harder for their children to enroll in those schools. None of the most sought-after schools, which receive a crush of applications each year, are in Harlem.

Metcalf sat in many of those meetings and was irked by the way her neighborhood schools were portrayed. It went against her experience at P.S. 180, a school where she said parents are involved and the staff are dedicated.

So when artist Ronald Draper donated his talent to produce an original work for the district, Metcalf brainstormed with Harlem parents and educators to come up with something that would send that message. The piece spans about 50 feet, with the neighborhood defined by the people who live there. In a corner, Draper described Harlem as an adjective: “to shine bright.”

“We wanted something that was loud and proud,” Metcalf said. “It was like: What’s something that’s really representative of every single student in not only this building, but in Harlem?”

In addition to their massive new mural, Metcalf has printed out postcards that tout the school’s hydroponics lab, dual language classes, and music program — another piece of a grassroots campaign to highlight what’s already working in the neighborhood’s schools.

Parent leaders have been calling for more attention to be paid to Harlem schools for some time now. A similar integration battle, over the rezoning of some district elementary schools, led the education council to plan a “Harlem Summit,” which turned into an annual informational event for the area’s parents.

This time, the district is armed with a state grant that provides training and guidance around school integration issues. There is another crucial difference: The local Community Education Council now includes parents like Metcalf and Morgan, who send their children to Harlem schools. For them, the work is personal.

“I care about all kids, but this is my kid’s future,” Metcalf said.

Compare and Contrast

Comparing the Upper West Side and Harlem integration plans: Here’s how schools, admissions offers could change

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Parents gathered at a recent Community Education Council meeting in District 3 to learn about the city's plan to integrate Upper West Side and Harlem middle schools.

Following an uproar over a plan to integrate Manhattan’s District 3, the Department of Education introduced three more proposals to change the makeup of middle schools on the Upper West Side and in Harlem.

The initial plan for integrating the 16 middle schools — which drew the ire of some parents concerned their children would be elbowed out of sought-after schools — was pulled by the education department. While the new plans also set aside 25 percent for low-performing students, they differ from the original option in an important way: they don’t rely solely on student test scores to guide admissions decisions.

We’ve placed each plan side-by-side to help you get up to speed. The district hopes to put its new admissions system into place in early June, in time for the middle school admissions process.

What would the plans do?

Each plan would give needy students priority for a quarter of admissions offers at 16 middle schools. Within those seats, 10 percent of offers would go to students who struggle the most, and 15 percent would go to students with the next-highest level of need.

However, the plans look at different factors to determine who gets priority:

Plan A would consider test scores and whether a student attended an elementary school where many students are economically needy.

Plan B would take test scores and report cards into account.

Plan C, presented by city officials Tuesday, would weigh test scores, report card grades, and whether a student qualifies for free- or reduced-price lunch — a commonly used measure of poverty. The plan considers whether an individual student is considered poor — rather than the demographics of his or her entire elementary school, which would be the case with Plan A.

How would the schools change?

Supporters of the plans hope they will extend academic opportunity to more students in District 3. And since race and class are often linked to academic performance, the proposal could integrate schools in numerous ways. But despite the controversy, the city’s projections actually show the impact of the changes are likely to be small because of how families are ranking schools. Some struggling students are already applying to the district’s more sought-after schools. But higher-performing students — who tend to be middle class — are not ranking schools where many students are poor or struggling.

These projections are based on how families applied to schools last year.

Under Plan A, the schools that would change the most are:

  • West End Secondary School would offer 21 percent of seats to students who have low test scores and come from high-needs elementary schools. That’s an increase of 19 percentage points.
  • The Computer School would offer 26 percent of seats to students in the priority group, up 15 percentage points.
  • West Side Collaborative Middle School would offer 49 percent of seats to students in the priority group — a decrease of 14 percentage points.

Under Plan B, the schools that would change the most are:

  • West End Secondary School would offer 25 percent of seats to students with low report card grades and test scores, an increase of 13 percentage points.
  • Dual Language Middle School would offer 64 percent of seats to the priority group. That is a 12-point decrease.
  • Both the Computer School and Booker T. Washington would see an 11 point increase in offers to the priority group. At the Computer School, 32 percent of offers would go to those students. At Booker T. Washington, the priority group would comprise 19 percent of offers.

Under Plan C, the schools that would change the most are:

  • West Side Collaborative would offer 47 percent of seats to students who have low test scores and report card grades, and qualify for free- or reduced-price lunch. That is a decrease of 16 percentage points.
  • The Computer School would offer 28 percent of seats to students in the priority group, an increase of 16 percentage points.
  • West End Secondary School would offer 17 percent of seats to the priority group — up 13 percentage points.

But under each plan, schools would still be largely divided between those that serve mostly top-performers and those who serve students who struggle.

How many families would be impacted?

Contrary to what the backlash to the plan suggests, they would actually only impact a small number of the almost 2,000 families applying to the district’s middle schools.

The city’s projections show more students benefiting from the changes because they would be offered a spot in a higher-ranked school, or get a match rather than be shut out. That is likely to be an important factor in the district’s decision making, since the city has proven uneasy about the impression that student would be forced into schools they don’t want to go to.

Under Plan A, 109 families would get a seat in a school that they ranked lower on their application. The city estimates that 96 families would not receive an offer to a school on their list — 18 more families than without the plan. But 169 students would be offered a seat at a school they ranked higher.

Under Plan B, 135 students would get a seat in a school that was lower on their application. It’s estimated that 100 families would not get accepted to any school on their list, 22 more than without the plan. On the other hand, 194 students would benefit. 

Under Plan C, 137 families would get a seat in a school that they ranked lower. The city’s projections show that 113 families wouldn’t be matched to a school they picked — 35 more families than before. That’s compared to 185 students who would be offered a seat at a school they ranked higher.