Last October, the head of New York City’s school system met with a group of principals who were deeply concerned that their elementary schools might eventually contribute to the scourge of school segregation.

Many had watched as wealthier, mostly white families moved into fashionable precincts of Manhattan and Brooklyn and nabbed seats in the same handful of public schools, many of them celebrated for their strong academics and progressive bent. The principals feared that if that pattern persisted, their schools’ diversity would fade into homogeneity.

A few principals presented a solution: If the city let them reserve a portion of their seats for high-needs students, such as those from low-income families or who live in public housing, the schools could preserve — or in some cases, create — diverse student bodies. Chancellor Carmen Fariña and other top officials heard them out, then asked the principals to submit detailed proposals.

Nearly a year later, several of those principals said they have yet to receive an official response to their plans, much less permission to carry them out.

“We had the discussion, but then the system stayed the same,” said Principal Anna Allanbrook of the Brooklyn New School, which has seen its share of white students rise and black and Hispanic students decline over the past decade, like many of the 12 schools at the Oct. 1 meeting.

City officials say they are continuing to evaluate different ways to promote school diversity. But their slow pace and focus so far on making less-popular schools more attractive through marketing and specialized programs have dismayed advocates, who say that a meaningful integration plan requires changing admissions policies.

The city’s schools are among the country’s most segregated, and the share of black and Hispanic students attending schools with very few white students has risen over the past two decades — well before Mayor Bill de Blasio took office. The problem, like school segregation nationally, is linked to deep-rooted residential segregation. Its potential fixes raise thorny legal questions and the politically charged prospect of disrupting systems that enable white, middle-class students to cluster at top schools.

Despite those challenges, even some of de Blasio’s usual allies say they are growing impatient, and often evoke the mayor’s “tale of two cities” rhetoric when urging the city to attack school segregation. If the administration will not back a dozen schools with concrete plans to ensure diverse enrollments, the critics reason, then integration must not be a top priority.

“Don’t pretend you value diversity and then keep those 12 schools waiting indefinitely,” said City Councilman Ritchie Torres, who pushed through a resolution earlier this year calling on the education department to declare diversity a priority when setting policy.

“Most of the efforts to promote diversity have been at the grassroots level,” he added. The city, “far from supporting them, has been a stumbling block.”

Amid gentrification, schools hope to preserve diversity

The dozen schools are located in swiftly gentrifying neighborhoods, including Arts & Letters Academy in Fort Greene, P.S. 84 in Williamsburg, The Neighborhood School in Manhattan’s East Village, and Castle Bridge School in Washington Heights. Several of the schools are “unzoned,” allowing them to enroll students through a lottery system from outside their immediate surroundings.

With attractive programs, families from a mix of backgrounds who live nearby, and some enrollment flexibility, advocates say the schools are ideal settings to establish diverse student populations — which decades of research has shown to benefit all students academically and socially, with low-income students of color reaping the biggest rewards. In fact, the schools already are more diverse than many city elementary schools, which tend to be more segregated than middle and high schools because most admit students based on where they live.

The worry among advocates and people at those schools is that wealthier, mostly white students will continue to flock to those schools and crowd out others unless new checks are placed on the schools’ admissions.

“The problem is, you get this momentary instance of integration before the school starts flipping the other way,” said David Tipson, executive director of the school diversity advocacy group, New York Appleseed.

Data: NY State Education Department and NYC Department of Education, Credit: Sarah Glen/Chalkbeat

The schools’ solution — reserving a portion of seats for specific student groups — is modeled on the admissions system at P.S. 133 in Park Slope, which the previous administration allowed to set aside more than a third of its seats for low-income students and those still learning English.

Such set-asides only work under specific conditions. The schools must sit near concentrations of families of different economic classes, or be able to provide transportation to students who live farther away. Crucially, they must have strong reputations or sought-after programs that can draw middle-class families who are shopping around for schools, as well as the ability to recruit families with less wherewithal to snag in-demand seats.

People at several schools said parents back the set-aside plans. But if policies that effectively capped the share of middle-class students at any school were approved, it’s likely that some affluent families hoping to secure seats in those schools might push back.

“I imagine there would be some parents who would say, ‘Hey wait a minute, this isn’t fair,’” said Michele Greenberg, a parent and co-chair of the diversity committee at the Children’s School in Brooklyn, which is one of the schools seeking to reserve some seats for high-needs students.

Gravitating toward “magnet schools,” the city shies away from policy changes

Fariña and the other top officials at the 2014 meeting had their own ideas about how to cultivate diversity at the schools.

They suggested establishing attractive language or special education programs, after-school classes, or evening courses for adults as a way to pull in more families, according to an official summary of the meeting. The idea of enhancing schools in order to appeal to a mixture of families and generate diversity — advice that Fariña has often repeated — is a new spin on former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s emphasis on school choice and competition.

But most of the schools at the meeting had no trouble attracting families, with some receiving many applications for every open seat. Their focus was on managing the enrollment process to make sure their schools stayed diverse. That’s when the officials grew more hesitant, several principals said.

First, they said the schools would need to show how any admissions tweaks would “promote student learning,” and how they might affect other schools, according to the meeting summary. The officials also expressed concern that admissions policies that singled out certain student groups risked running afoul of federal law, the principals said.

“It felt like a cold bucket of water being thrown on us,” said John O’Reilly, principal of Brooklyn’s Arts & Letters Academy, which wants permission to reserve 40 percent of available seats for low-income students.

“The lawyer,” said Naomi Smith, principal of Central Park East II in East Harlem, “explained why each thing wasn’t possible.”

A footnote on race sparks a fierce debate

Last week, the debate over how far the city can legally go to achieve school diversity centered on a few words tucked into a footnote to some agency regulations.

The city has long insisted that school admissions policies cannot legally factor in students’ race. Schools, such as Brooklyn New School, and entire districts, such as Manhattan’s District 1, were forced to drop admissions policies over time that considered race alongside other characteristics.

Katie Lapham, a teacher in East New York, spoke about the importance of school diversity for her students and her daughter (pictured) at the Aug. 26 Panel for Educational Policy meeting.
Katie Lapham, a teacher in East New York, spoke about the importance of school diversity for her students and her daughter (pictured) at the Aug. 26 Panel for Educational Policy meeting.

Although the newer admissions proposals revolve around characteristics such as family income and language, city officials have called those factors a “slippery slope” that could lead to illegal policies, according to multiple advocates. Jim Devor, the former president of Brooklyn’s District 15 education council, said officials initially opposed P.S. 133’s set-asides for non-native English speakers because language status amounted to a racial category.

The issue flared up at a public meeting last week when the city’s Panel for Educational Policy approved updates to the city’s admissions regulations. Advocates who attended the meeting wanted the panel to remove the footnote, which says race may be considered in school enrollment decisions only by court order.

The line appears to stem from the city’s reading of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that struck down two school districts’ admissions policies that factored in race. Michael Best, the city education department’s former general counsel, wrote in a 2008 email to an advocate that the “Court’s decision made clear that consideration of the race of individual students in school admissions is unconstitutional.”

But advocates say the ruling allows race to be used as one of multiple factors in admissions decisions. In a 2011 memo that discussed the ruling, the federal education and justice departments said districts should first try “race-neutral approaches” to achieve school diversity, which could include considering students’ socioeconomic backgrounds. If those fail, then districts can consider students’ race along with other characteristics, the memo says.

Norm Fruchter, an education researcher who serves on the policy panel, said during the meeting that he sensed the line in the city’s rules is “legally inaccurate and potentially damaging.” He proposed a review of the line, which the other panel members approved.

He also commended the de Blasio administration for hosting discussions on school diversity, such as the October 2014 meeting with the principals. But he noted that the principals have waited nearly a year for the city to respond to their requests.

“I’m not a lawyer, but I think this is too long,” Fruchter said. “What I fear is that this is the tip of the iceberg in terms of how long discussions take with no action,” he added, to applause.

Fariña’s chief of staff, Ursulina Ramirez, said she agreed the diversity discussions were “taking probably longer than anticipated.” She promised to organize a meeting between advocates and officials to discuss the contested line as well as school diversity in general.

Education Department spokesman Harry Hartfield would not answer questions about the 2014 meeting or the status of the principals’ proposals. He also would not say whether the city is considering broader changes to school admissions or other policies in order to promote diversity.

“There are challenges associated with any possible change,” he said in a statement, “and it’s critical that every proposal be deliberate, thorough and designed with the input of educators, families, advocates, elected officials and community members.”

Proponents of diversity refuse to wait

While the city deliberates, integration proponents are moving forward with plans that could prod the administration into action.

In May, the City Council passed a law forcing the education department to report annually on school demographics and its efforts to increase diversity within schools. In a recent op-ed, Councilmen Brad Lander and Ritchie Torres, who have spearheaded the council’s school diversity drive, applauded de Blasio for signing that legislation, but added that with “a real commitment” the city would be able to double the number of students in integrated schools in five years.

Meanwhile, parents, educators, and the local education councils in a few school districts — including Manhattan’s District 1 and Brooklyn’s Districts 13 and 15 — are studying ways to create district-wide admissions systems that preserve parents’ ability to choose schools while preventing individual schools from enrolling a disproportionate amount of students from any one group.

David Goldsmith, president of District 13’s education council, said the district would use a state grant to host public planning sessions about school diversity. He said he was surprised de Blasio has not more aggressively pursued school integration, not only as a matter of civil rights, but also because it is a proven way to lift students’ academic performance.

A mechanic, he evoked the image of a car engine to argue that the administration’s other school-improvement efforts will fall short if it ignores segregation.

“If you don’t fix that big hole in the radiator, it will overheat,” he said, “no matter how much antifreeze you keep pouring in.”