annals of choice

In Brooklyn's District 13, a task force aims to engineer socioeconomic integration

Seven years ago, when John O’Reilly arrived at Brooklyn’s Academy of Arts & Letters, nearly three quarters of the middle school’s students came from low-income families — mirroring the demographics of District 13, where the school is located.

Now, O’Reilly estimates those students make up less than 40 percent of the school’s population, and their numbers are declining annually as Arts & Letters’ growing popularity and new elementary school have made it a desirable destination for middle-class families in the gentrifying district.

O’Reilly, promoted to principal at the popular Fort Greene school in 2012, wants to make sure that the school doesn’t completely “flip,” or stop serving poor children.

“I need to find a way to hold on to that,” he said. “We are better all together than when we are apart, and we need more schools to look like that.”

The challenge of gentrification, and a potential solution

O’Reilly’s sentiment is something on the mind of many educators working in pockets of the city school system that are rapidly gentrifying.

While some neighborhood schools have attracted more affluent families, other nearby schools continue to serve mostly poor students. Advocates of integrated schools say that mixing these students more evenly is a crucial strategy to combat inequity. They cite research that shows low-income students learn more when they attend class with more affluent students — and, contrary to some parents’ fears, affluent students do not see their performance decline.

“This goes to the heart of what de Blasio is talking about,” said Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation who has studied the issue for nearly two decades. “The ‘two cities’ he talks about is directly correlated to segregation in the school system.”

O’Reilly believes he’s found his own way to address the issue at Arts & Letters, which admits students through an admissions lottery. He wants to reserve a portion of seats — up to 40 percent — for low-income students.

The idea has support from his parents and a district-wide task force on diversity, plus “verbal confirmation” from the Department of Education to begin in the 2015-2016 school year, O’Reilly wrote in a weekly dispatch posted online in December, though a spokesman for the department said no decision had yet been made.

Setting lottery “set-asides”  that favor certain types of students is common in the charter school world, but it’s unusual for schools run by the city. In fact, a similar practice was eliminated in a lower Manhattan district under the Bloomberg administration, which standardized enrollment policies to favor a pure choice model for families.

Engineering socioeconomic diversity is a delicate and often controversial pursuit. Most elementary schools admit students based on where they live, making diverse student bodies unlikely. In many parts of the city that have few middle-class residents, achieving a class balance within schools is unrealistic.

And setting aside seats for low-income applicants inevitably means keeping out more affluent families who are pining for a seat in O’Reilly’s school, which last year received more than six applications for every available slot. It’s a tension that O’Reilly knows he will face as the plan gets closer to becoming a reality.

In early, theoretical conversations with parents about diversity, “I only got positive feedback,” O’Reilly said.  “It’s only been since I said I believe this is going to happen that people have expressed concern.”

A unique opportunity, and recent history, in District 13

Still, advocates see the not-fully-gentrified District 13 as being particularly ripe for establishing socioeconomically integrated schools.

A few blocks away from Arts & Letters are two sprawling low-income housing projects and the shelter that until recently housed Dasani, the girl whose life the New York Times chronicled late last year. Her zoned elementary school, P.S. 67, 96 percent of student receive a lunch subsidy and more than 10 percent are homeless, according to InsideSchools.

At the same time, the median family income in Fort Greene jumped by $10,000 from 2009 to 2012, according to recent census estimates. In nearby Clinton Hill and Bedford-Stuyvesant, it increased at roughly the same rate.

The gentrification has had an impact on District 13 schools, with mixed results.

A decade ago, P.S. 8 in Brooklyn Heights was under-enrolled, and most students were poor and came from outside its attendance zone. David Goldsmith, whose daughter attended the school at the time, recalled that he used to beg other middle-class parents to take a chance on the school.

“They were fearful of class and race issues,” said Goldsmith, whose daughter attended middle school at Arts & Letters during its early years.

Parents were eventually won over by new administrators who joined the school in 2003. The school flipped shortly afterward. Now, the school is bursting at the seams, and only 18 percent of students qualify for free or reduced price lunch.

But at P.S. 11 in Clinton Hill, parents have struggled to make the same case to their new neighbors, especially after Community Roots Charter School opened in 2006 and again in 2011, when Arts & Letters started an elementary school. The expansion caused friction at P.S. 11 and P.S. 20, which shares a building as Arts & Letters, because it was seen as siphoning off middle-class families.

The district-wide task force on diversity wants to manage the demographic changes in District 13 so that the effect on schools isn’t determined by competition. Led by parents, including Goldsmith; a handful of principals, including O’Reilly; and Superintendent Barbara Freeman, the task force has been studying districts where integration policies have been implemented, such as Wake County, N.C., and Cambridge, Mass., and are developing a plan to establish more diverse schools in District 13.

The group wants to build on the momentum established by a handful of recent enrollment initiatives in the district. In one case, Freeman and the superintendent of District 15, which includes much of middle-class Brownstone Brooklyn, together applied last year for funds from the U.S. Department of Education that would let four schools with high concentrations of poor and nonwhite students open new programs in an effort to woo more affluent and white students from both districts.

At the same time, P.S. 133, another District 13 school, was reopening with an innovative admissions model. This year, P.S. 133 began enrolling students from both District 13 and District 13, while also setting quotas for low-income students and students who are learning English.

Goldsmith said it’s still too early to know what policies the task force will end up proposing. But he said he’d like to eventually develop a districtwide version of the weighted lottery model at P.S. 133.

Known nationally as “controlled choice,” the model’s aim is to offer an integrated education to all students in the district. No student is mandated to attend a school based on where they live. Instead, students are sorted based on a combination family preference, proximity, and prioritized demographic or achievement factors. Admission is often determined by set-aside lotteries at oversubscribed schools and then tweaked so that each school reflected the overall district’s student population.

Goldsmith acknowledged that in order for such a system to work, it needs broad support.

“These plans have to come from the community,” he said. “They have to come from the ground up.”

An uncertain future for controlled choice

How quickly the task force could build public support and turn controlled choice into reality remains unclear. Even at Arts & Letters, O’Reilly said he knows that there are plenty of unanswered questions.

One question is technical: How will students be identified as middle-class or poor before they are admitted, since that information is generally collected once students are already enrolled?

Others are political: Will the new administration at the Department of Education keep the informal promise that O’Reilly said he received last year to move forward with his plans for a weighted lottery?

De Blasio has said little about what he’d do to change enrollment policies under the Bloomberg administration. For him, the primary engines to address the socioeconomic and racial achievement gap are through expanding early education and lengthening the middle school day. Chancellor Carmen Fariña signaled support for creating more schools like P.S. 133 during a recent meeting with District 15 parents, but said, “These things take a long time.”

And then there’s the crucial question of public support: Will middle-class families, whose chances of admission to one of District 13’s most desirable schools would fall under the proposal, lobby against the plan? And will they choose to attend often lower-performing schools with many poor students, or will they curb the experiment by leaving the district?

Roberta Davenport, principal of P.S. 307 and another task force member, is optimistic that local residents will come to appreciate all of the options in the district.

P.S. 307 is one of three schools in the district, along with P.S. 15 in Red Hook, to have won the federal grant to create magnet programs aimed at attracting diverse families. The school, which is wedged among the Farragut Public Houses in Vinegar Hill and serves subsidized lunch 90 percent of students, received $1.8 million to develop its science and technology offerings.

Davenport said she hopes the new program — along with a program for autistic students — would attract more families from outside P.S. 307’s zone. In the future, she said, she anticipates her school’s high proportion of low-income students to drop.

“Each school will hopefully have something unique to offer,” said Davenport, who grew up in the same Farragut houses where many of her students live today. “It’s part of the vision for District 13. We are a district of choice.”

father knows best

How a brush with death convinced one dad to get his diploma, with a boost from the Fatherhood Academy

PHOTO: Courtesy of Steven Robles
Steven Robles with his family

Steven Robles thought he might not live to see his daughter’s birth.

In May 2016, the 20-year-old was in the hospital after being shot during what he described as an argument in his neighborhood.

A year later, Robles just graduated from City University of New York’s Fatherhood Academy. He passed his high school equivalency exam and is happily celebrating his daughter Avare’s 8-month birthday.

“That conflict is what got me into the program, and what happened to me before she was born motivated me to stay in the program,” Robles said. “It motivated me to manage to pass my GED.”

Robles grew up in Brownsville, Brooklyn and attended Franklin K. Lane High School. Though he liked his teachers, Robles said other students at the school were not “mature enough,” and the disorderly school environment made it hard for him to concentrate.

A quiet student, Robles said teachers would often overlook his presence in the classroom. Between that and friction with other classmates, Robles lost interest in school.

“My parents didn’t try to help me, either,” Robles said. “Nobody really tried to help me with that school, so I just stopped going.”

It was a whole different experience for him once he arrived at the Fatherhood Academy at LaGuardia Community College, a program run by CUNY for unemployed and underemployed fathers ages 18 through 28. The Academy, now partnering with the New York City Housing Authority at its LaGuardia location, was launched in 2012 and also has programs at Hostos and Kingsborough Community Colleges.

“I have interviewed many of the men who come into the program and I often ask the question, ‘What brought you here?'” said Raheem Brooks, program manager of the Fatherhood Academy at LaGuardia Community College. “Mostly every young man says, ‘I’m here because I want to create a better life for my child than I had.’ So, I think the main theme of the program is that we help promote intergenerational change.”

At the LaGuardia branch, 30 students attend classes three times a week over the course of 16 weeks. Subjects include mathematics, social studies, and writing for students seeking to get their high school equivalency diplomas. Students also attend workshops run by counselors who guide them in professional development and parenting.

Robles found out about the program after seeing a flier for it in his social worker’s office at Graham Windham, a family support services organization. Curious to see what the Academy offered, he called to find out more and officially enrolled after passing a test to prove he could read above seventh-grade level.

“Before the Academy, I was not really into school at all,” Robles said. “But when I got there, it just changed my life. In this program, I didn’t know anybody there, there were no distractions. It made me more focused, and I just really wanted to get my GED and education.”

What helped Robles the most was getting to learn from the other fathers in the class, who were going through similar experiences as him.

“Little things I didn’t know, I learned from them because they were also fathers,” Robles said. “I just liked the way they were teaching us.”

In fact, he liked the Academy so much, he doesn’t plan to leave. He is applying to study criminal justice at LaGuardia Community College and to become a mentor for the Academy next year.

Currently, Robles lives with his grandparents, his daughter and the mother of his child. Getting a place for his family is next on his to-do list, he said.

“Avare always has a smile on her face and always puts a smile on my face,” Robles said. “She motivates me to get up and do what I have to do. Anything I could do for her, I will.”

Though school did not play a huge role in his life growing up, that is not what Robles wants for his daughter. He said after participating in the Academy, he wants to make sure Avare stays motivated and in school.

“I hear a lot from people about how they think they can’t do it,” Robles said. “I almost lost my life before my daughter was born and that motivated me. If I could do it, you could do it.”

Behind the brawl

Three things to know about the Tennessee school behind this week’s graduation brawl

PHOTO: Arlington Community Schools
Arlington High School is a 2,000-plus-student school in suburban Shelby County in southwest Tennessee.

Arlington High School is considered the crown jewel of a 3-year-old district in suburban Shelby County, even as its school community deals with the unwelcome attention of several viral videos showing a fight that broke out among adults attending its graduation ceremony.

The brawl, which reportedly began with a dispute over saved seats, detracted from Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance and the more than $30 million in scholarships earned by the school’s Class of 2017. No students were involved.

“It was unfortunate that a couple of adults in the audience exhibited the behavior they did prior to the ceremony beginning and thus has caused a distraction from the celebration of our students’ accomplishments,” Arlington Community Schools Superintendent Tammy Mason said in a statement.

Here are three things to know about the 13-year-old school in northwest Shelby County.

With more than 2,000 students, Arlington is one of the largest high schools in Shelby County and is part of a relatively new district.

It’s the pride of a suburban municipality that is one of six that seceded from Shelby County Schools in 2014 following the merger of the city and county districts the year before. (School district secessions are a national trend, usually of predominantly white communities leaving predominantly black urban school systems.) More than 70 percent of Arlington’s students are white, and 6 percent are considered economically disadvantaged — in stark contrast to the Memphis district where less than 8 percent are white, and almost 60 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

The school’s graduation rate is high … and climbing.

Last year, after adding interventions for struggling students, the school’s graduation rate jumped a full point to more than 96 percent. Its students taking the ACT college entrance exam scored an average composite of 22.5 out of a possible 36, higher than the state average of 19.9. But only a fifth scored proficient or advanced in math and a third in English language arts during 2015-16, the last school year for which scores are available and a transition year for Tennessee under a new test.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits with students at Arlington High School during a 2016 tour.

The school was in the news last August when Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visited its campus.

The commissioner spoke with students there to kick off her statewide listening tour that’s focused on ways to get students ready for college and career. McQueen highlighted the school’s extracurricular activities and students’  opportunities to intern for or shadow local professionals. She also complimented Arlington for having an engaged education community.