diversity of opinion

Council increases pressure on city to address school segregation

PHOTO: Mary Ellen McIntire
City Councilman Brad Lander at a parent forum on school diversity in June 2014.

City lawmakers introduced a slate of legislation Wednesday meant to prod the administration to boost diversity in the city school system, which is among the most segregated in the country.

One resolution calls on the city to prioritize racial and ethnic diversity in its decision-making, while another urges state lawmakers to pass a bill amending the admission policy for the city’s most selective schools, which admit few black and Hispanic students. A bill would require the city to issue annual reports with demographic information about each school and district — including data about students’ race and family income — along with steps the city is taking to make schools more diverse.

The council must still hold a hearing and vote on the legislation, which would also require the city to release demographic data about accelerated programs and charter schools. But it’s unclear whether city officials are interested in wading into the jumble of zones, district rules, and citywide policies that together determine which students attend what schools.

Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña has spoken broadly about the importance of diversity and said she was “disappointed” after a report this spring found New York state’s schools to be the most segregated in the country, with segregation in city schools on the rise. She also endorsed a state bill that would require eight of the city’s specialized schools to consider other measures beyond a student’s score on a test when making admissions decisions.

But she has not hinted at policy changes that would promote diversity across districts or across the entire school system. In May, Fariña told parents at a town-hall meeting that trying to increase diversity is “a school-by-school decision right now.”

“The scandal here is not that we’re failing; the scandal here is that we’re not even trying,” said Councilman Ritchie Torres, who sponsored the resolution calling on the administration to make diversity a top consideration when setting admissions guidelines, creating new schools or school zones, and other policies. He added that, based on Fariña’s actions to date, “It’s unclear whether this is high on her list.”

On Wednesday, Department of Education spokeswoman Devora Kaye said that the city recognizes “the critical value” of a diverse student body. “We are exploring additional ways to reflect this diversity in every zip code, and look forward to reviewing the package of legislation,” she said.

Under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the Department of Education created a new high school admissions process that allows students to attend schools across the city. Over the years, the department pushed districtwide choice down to the middle-school level and even the elementary-school level in a few areas.

But most elementary-school students are still assigned to a single school based on where they live, complicating efforts to diversify schools in a city where many neighborhoods are not diverse at all. To change that, some advocates want the city to allow schools and districts to adopt “diversity-positive” admission policies like those in place at Brooklyn’s P.S. 133.

“The advocates have been a little disappointed in what we’ve heard” from Fariña on those issues, said David Tipson, the director of New York Appleseed, a group that promotes policies that foster school diversity. “We’re really pushing the DOE to exercise more leadership.”

The council has little authority over the school system, so its proposals could only push the education department to tackle school segregation.

Councilman Brad Lander, who introduced the reporting bill, said the administration has many options. He pointed to P.S. 133, which sets aside a portion of its seats for English-language learners and students from low-income families. The city could also increase the number of “education option” high schools that reserve slots for students at different academic levels, Lander noted.

“The problem is a big, massive problem, so I don’t have a silver bullet to create integrated schools in the near term,” he added. “What I think is that there are a lot of steps that we can take in that direction that we aren’t currently taking.”

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.