Brooklyn parent leaders look for political support on school diversity

Elected parent leaders in District 15 presented a resolution Thursday that called on City Council members and the Department of Education to prioritize diversity in schools.

A group of parents in Brooklyn’s District 15 are calling on the city to make school diversity a new priority.

Frustrated by statistics that show decreasing diversity in their district’s schools, and enrollment policies they see as unfair to their own children, some parents, principals and teachers said they wanted to see change at a two-hour forum on Thursday. But the more than 100 participants came to few firm conclusions about the kind of diversity they want, and who is responsible for creating it.

The lack of specifics illustrates a central problem in tackling admissions and enrollment policies: making change involves navigating a tangled web of parent preferences, city policies and longstanding district boundaries.

On Thursday, the district’s elected parent leaders called on City Council members to require the Department of Education to make clear commitments to school diversity. The resolution, which the Community Education Council introduced but didn’t vote on, asks the department to develop admissions plans for new schools that prioritize diversity and to require schools to regularly release data on their diversity.

The resolution, which comes a few months after a UCLA analysis of federal education data said that New York state was home to the nation’s most segregated schools, broadens discussions about school integration that have been happening at individual schools throughout the district, including P.S. 133 and Park Slope Collegiate. But advocates said they are now looking to attract wider support.

At the forum, parents disagreed on what factors should be considered when trying to increase school diversity, with some attendees asking why the resolution did not mention race specifically. The resolution also focuses on policies for new schools, rather than reworking policies at existing schools.

City education leaders did address school diversity a few weeks ago on the anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board decision, and State Education Commissioner John King recently called out the city for its enrollment policies, which he said left neighboring schools serving dramatically different populations of students.

But at a recent town hall meeting in District 15, Chancellor Carmen Fariña said that discussions about diversity should take place school by school, for now. She also said that the city is working on increasing diversity in specialized high schools, and said the city was “disappointedin the results of the recent school segregation analysis on the anniversary of Brown v. Board.

Nalia Rosario, president of the district’s Community Education Council, said it was time for City Council members to call for specific commitments from the Department of Education.

“This is when the elected officials come in,” Rosario said.

City Council member Brad Lander, who represents Park Slope and co-hosted the forum with City Council member Carlos Menchaca, agreed that change would be welcome, but said that more local conversations were needed before elected officials could move forward.

After the meeting, Lander said he is drafting a bill that would require schools to put together annual diversity progress reports. He noted that the resolution’s calls for new schools to prioritize diversity was especially important, since the city’s capital budget includes funding for three new District 15 schools in the next five years.

City Council members Carlos Menchaca (left) and Brad Lander hosted a parents forum to discuss diversity in schools on Thursday.
PHOTO: Mary Ellen McIntire
City Council members Carlos Menchaca (left) and Brad Lander hosted a parents forum to discuss diversity in schools on Thursday.

“We don’t have an admissions process or a line-drawing process which says diversity has to be a central question when we create a new school,” Lander said.

David Tipson, director of New York Appleseed, a nonprofit that was influential in creating a diversity-focused admissions policy at P.S. 133, an elementary school in District 15, said the conversation showed that some parents were willing to look beyond zoning policies that have benefitted them.

“For this to happen in District 15, where people really value their zone privileges, it shows a lot of courage and leadership from the CEC and from the elected officials,” he said.

Another challenge facing parents who want to see school diversity improve is that schools don’t have a lot of control over their own admissions processes. P.S. 133 was given specific permission to draw students from its own district and District 13 in an attempt to engineer above-average diversity.

Some parents noted that increasing school diversity also means making sure schools have the resources to offer programs attractive enough to reduce the fierce competition for a few of the most well-regarded schools.

“Every parent wants the best for their kids,” said P.S./M.S. 282 parent Corinne Frinnah. “And every parent here would like to see diversity.”

Geoff Decker contributed reporting.

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.