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.

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.

making plans

Controversial integration plan for Upper West Side middle schools changes, but it’s unclear whether more parents will get on board

PHOTO: Rachel Holliday Smith
CEC member Genisha Metcalf speaks at Wednesday’s hearing on a proposal to desegregate Manhattan’s west side middle schools.

Following controversy over a plan to desegregate  Upper West Side and Harlem middle schools, the Department of Education unveiled two alternatives it hopes sit better with parents and educators.

At a Community Education Council hearing Wednesday night, the education department gave an overview of two alternatives to the initial proposal to integrate the district’s 16 middle schools, which angered some parents who were concerned it would shut their children out of sought-after schools.

The major difference between the initial proposal and the new plans is that they factor more than just state test scores into admissions offers — but it’s unclear whether the changes will quell the uproar over the integration effort, which has gained nationwide attention.

In both new plans, the agency aims to level the playing field for middle schoolers in the diverse but highly segregated west side Manhattan district.

In the first proposal, priority for 25 percent of middle school seats in every middle school in the district would be given to students who come from elementary schools with high economic needs and have low scores on both English and mathematics fourth grade state tests.

Out of that quarter of seats, 10 percent would be given to students in a group comprised of the very highest-need schools with the lowest-performing test scores; 15 percent of seats would be set aside for the next-highest need and lowest-performing group of students.

In the second proposal, priority for 25 percent of seats would be given to students based on a combination of their report cards and state test scores.

The hearing was much calmer than one several weeks ago, when a video went viral showing mostly white parents complaining that their children wouldn’t receive coveted middle school spots after excelling on state tests. The furor grew when Chancellor Richard Carranza tweeted the footage with a headline that said: “Wealthy white Manhattan parents angrily rant against plan to bring more black kids to their schools.” He has stood by  his decision to share the footage, saying it “speaks for itself.”

On Wednesday, parents repeatedly told the CEC as well as District 3 Superintendent Ilene Altschul and other education department officials that the proposals, while addressing very high- and low-performing students and schools, leave other students behind.

In education department simulations of how each proposal would work, both plans resulted in double-digit increases in the number of low-performing students offered seats in three high performing schools: J.H.S. 54 Booker T. Washington, P.S. 245 The Computer School and West End Secondary School.

“Great, we’re doing a bigger push for diversity in some of the schools that have been highly sought after that historically fewer parents or students felt like they had as an option, but what are we doing to attract level 3 and level 4 students to [P.S. 180 Hugo Newman College Preparatory School]?” asked parent and CEC member Genisha Metcalf, referring to a school that fell roughly in the middle of the education department models for how each proposal would affect the district’s schools.

“Otherwise, we’re overcrowding four schools,” she added, over loud applause from the audience.

“Here’s the problem: Maybe instead of there being four desirable middle schools, there should be fifteen,” said parent Josh Kross, 41. “This is only going to create more problems.”

About a dozen parents asked questions of the plan during Wednesday’s hearing, asking how the plan would affect students with disabilities (it will not because those students will be prioritized first, regardless of the new plan, the education department said) and students who opt out of tests (students without state test scores will not be considered for the 25 percent of set-aside seats in the diversity plan, Altschul said).

They also brought very specific concerns such as whether or not potential changes to the plan would change the economic makeup of the school enough to threaten its Title I status, a federal designation that gives more funding to high-poverty schools.

“You didn’t have the answers … You didn’t do the math,” said parent Leslie Washington, whose daughter is in fourth grade at P.S. 242.

Though most who spoke up opposed the plan in some form, the proposal did have supporters in the room, including a group of principals and teachers. Cidalia Costa, a middle school teacher at West Prep Academy, said a plan to desegregate the area is “long overdue” to fix a system that’s been flawed for years.

“This plan is not for people who already have an advantage to get more advantage. So, I’m sorry, but I have to advocate for my students because they face a lot of challenges,” she said.

The Department of Education plans to make a decision about the proposal by the end of the school year, and changes would go into effect for the District 3 middle school class of 2019. A public comment period is up through May 29. The CEC is taking feedback through email at d3feedback@gmail.com.

After the meeting, Kristen Berger, chair of the CEC’s middle school committee, said she isn’t sure which proposal would be best. But she’s happy the conversation about measures to desegregate schools in the district is ongoing.

“It is a small fix, but it is a movement in the right direction,” she said of the middle school effort, adding that the group still needs to address system-wide issues including whether “all schools at all levels, elementary, and middle, are of good enough quality.”