The Wait Continues

Fariña says city is still reviewing schools’ diversity plans, with quick changes unlikely

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña

For nearly a year, a group of principals has waited for the city’s permission to change their admissions policies so that as more white, middle-class families seek seats in their schools, spots remain open for students from needier backgrounds.

On Tuesday, they learned that they will have to wait even longer.

Speaking on a public radio show, Chancellor Carmen Fariña said officials are still reviewing the proposals that several principals submitted last October. She expressed some reservations about their request to reserve a portion of seats for students from low-income or immigrant families, saying she wouldn’t want those policies to “disenfranchise” any students.

While she insisted that and the mayor are concerned about school diversity and are reviewing enrollment policies citywide, she also suggested that diversity can be promoted without making structural changes, such as by teaching students about world religions.

Either way, she signaled that her interest in school diversity will not translate into immediate policy changes, including at those schools that have been waiting to make admissions tweaks.

“I believe in diversity,” she said on the Brian Lehrer show. “I think it’s going to be very carefully thought through and decided on a case by case.”

Fariña’s response dismayed advocates who have called on her and Mayor Bill de Blasio to more aggressively combat school segregation, which is more severe in New York than most school districts.

“I don’t think there’s any way to hear those comments and think they’re on top of this issue,” said David Tipson, executive director of the school diversity advocacy group, New York Appleseed.

A dozen principals met with Fariña and other top officials last fall to discuss diversity and admissions. Many of the schools — including Arts & Letters Academy in Fort Greene, P.S. 8 in Brooklyn Heights, and Central Park East II in East Harlem — had watched their share of white students rise and black and Hispanic students decline in recent years as the areas around their schools gentrified.

At the meeting, the principals were told that their plans to reserve some seats for certain student groups could violate federal law, according to several attendees. Advocates and even some de Blasio-appointed members of the city’s education policy board have challenged this reading of the law.

Fariña on Tuesday said she worried about any plan that would give preference to one group over another.

“We’re looking at every plan individually,” she said. “We need to make sure that diversity plans don’t disenfranchise other students.”

Several of the principals modeled their proposals on the admissions system at P.S. 133 in Park Slope, a school that accepts students from beyond its immediate neighborhood and sets aside more than a third of its seats for low-income students and those still learning English. The school is housed in a new building and offers popular dual-language programs, which has helped it attract a range of families.

While Fariña did not say Tuesday whether the schools that want to adopt a P.S. 133-style admissions system would be allowed to do so, she did say that would be a possibility for new schools.

“As new schools get built, that’s certainly something we would consider,” she said.

Fariña appeared on the Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC Tuesday, where she spoke about enrollment policies and school diversity.
Fariña appeared on the Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC Tuesday, where she spoke about enrollment policies and school diversity.

Many advocates who back school-by-school diversity plans say they must be accompanied by district-wide policies that prevent students from a particular racial or socioeconomic group from clustering at individual schools. Without such a “controlled choice” system, popular schools with effective diversity plans might enroll a mix of students even as their neighbors enroll students mostly from one group.

Fariña hinted at the need for both types of solutions, saying that officials are reviewing enrollment policies “as a collective whole, as well as individually.”

“We’re looking at how do we make it equitable,” she said.

A widely cited 2014 report found that New York City school segregation has increased in recent decades, with 85 percent of black students and 75 of Hispanic students attending schools with a small number of white students.

Advocates argue that the city cannot make a real dent in those numbers without overhauling its enrollment policies, which they say exacerbate residential segregation. However, Fariña has previously said that individual schools can address the issue by offering attractive language or special-education programs that draw in a diverse pool of applicants.

On Tuesday, she added that the de Blasio administration has taken other steps to promote diversity, such as by canceling classes on the Lunar New Year and two Muslim holidays so students can celebrate. She said schools could build on that effort by teaching students about the holidays.

Tipson, the diversity advocate, said that proposal is no match for policies that ensure schools enroll students of different backgrounds.

“It’s horrible to think that she would say that lesson plans can substitute for actually having kids encounter different cultures in their own schools,” he said.

diversity push

Denver Public Schools is identifying more students of color as highly gifted, but big disparities remain

PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons

In the second year of an effort to provide students of color greater access to Denver Public Schools’ magnet programs for highly gifted students, white and Asian students continue to be over-identified and Hispanic and black students continue to be under-identified.

The district did see a small bump in the percentage of black students identified as highly gifted after testing this year. But the percentage of Hispanic students identified — after a sizable jump in the first year of universal testing — stayed flat.

In short, while Hispanic and black students make up 69 percent of students districtwide, they make up just 29 percent of the population identified as highly gifted by the district’s new universal testing system. Highly gifted students are a subset of gifted students, and in DPS are eligible for nine specialized magnet programs, including one at the highly sought-after Polaris at Ebert Elementary.

The lack of diversity in Denver’s highly gifted program reflects the difficulty school districts nationwide face in trying to ensure their gifted programs reflect the complexion of their populations.

In January, New York City officials launched a task force to investigate persistent inequities in gifted education there and last year debate sprung up in Maryland’s largest school district after a report on school choice recommended controversial changes to promote greater racial equity in its highly gifted magnet programs.

While experts say that gifted students are found among all racial and ethnic groups, schools’ identification practices have historically favored upper-income white students. Until recently, Denver’s identification system typically required in-the-know parents who could seek out special testing for their kids.

“We’re kind of digging out of having that application-driven process,” said Rebecca McKinney, director of the district’s gifted and talented department. “It’s going to take us quite a few years.”

Last year, DPS launched a universal screening program that tested every kindergarten, second- and sixth-grade student for giftedness.

This year, it has formalized a program called the “talent pool” that gives kids who weren’t identified as gifted — but could be later — access to gifted services.

With gifted services set aside for about 10 percent of students at a school, talent pool students are added at schools where smaller percentages of students are designated as gifted. The idea is to ensure that each talent pool reflects the racial and ethnic diversity of the school.

McKinney said while the talent pool concept has existed in some form for years, now for the first time, students in the pools will be formally tracked to see how much growth they achieve and whether they end up getting officially identified as gifted.

Unlike highly gifted students, who are eligible for special magnet programs, gifted students in DPS receive extra services at their home schools.

Last year, after the first round of universal screening, district officials were heartened by increases in the proportion of Hispanic students identified as highly gifted. About 25 percent of students in that category were Hispanic, double their percentage in the highly gifted population the year before.

For black students, who make up about 13 percent of students districtwide, the first round of universal screening made almost no difference. They comprised 3 percent of the highly gifted pool — almost exactly the same as before universal screening began.

But things improved a bit this year, with about 5 percent of black students identified as highly gifted in the screening last fall.

“We’re still definitely not where we want to be,” McKinney said.

She said certain factors, such as low-income status or English-language learner status, can mask giftedness when students are screened. District officials have looked into having classroom teachers instead of gifted and talented teachers give the screenings because research shows students do better when they are familiar with the adult administering the assessment.

The district is also investing more in training for teachers and parents. Last August, the district brought in Joy Lawson Davis, a prominent advocate of diversity in gifted education, to provide teacher training.

Lawson Davis, a board member with the National Association for Gifted Children, will return in March for a training at Greenlee Elementary and an evening event focused on engaging parents as advocates for gifted children.

While Lawson Davis’s parent night will focus on black parents, McKinney said she plans to seek out speakers who can lead similar events for Hispanic parents.

Shrinking

It’s official. Achievement School District will close a second school in Memphis

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
KIPP Memphis University Middle is closing after three years of operation under the state-run Achievement School District. The school operates in a former school building operated by Shelby County Schools.

In the months since KIPP decided to pull out of one of its state-run charter schools, officials with Tennessee’s turnaround district have been publicly mum about what happens next, leaving most to believe the Memphis school will close at the end of the school year.

A top official with the Achievement School District now confirms that’s the plan.

The ASD is not seeking a successor to KIPP for Memphis University Middle School and “is not obligated to look for another operator,” said Bobby White, the ASD’s chief of external affairs.

White noted that the South Memphis school was started from scratch — and is not an existing low-performing school taken from the local district with the charge of turning it around.

University Middle thus becomes the second ASD charter school that will close under the 5-year-old turnaround district. Klondike Preparatory Academy Elementary, a turnaround school also in Memphis, is already slated to shut down this spring after its operator, Gestalt Community Schools, pulls out of the ASD completely. KIPP will continue to operate three other ASD schools in Memphis and four other charters through Shelby County Schools.

The confirmation of a second closure comes as state leaders are reexamining the ASD’s structure and purpose and proposing to curtail its ability to grow — even as the state-run district struggles with sustainability due to a lack of students in Memphis, where the bulk of its schools are located. A bill filed recently in the legislature would stop the ASD from starting new charter schools such as KIPP’s University Middle, rather than just overhauling existing schools that are struggling.

The ASD was created as a vehicle to dramatically improve schools in the state’s bottom 5 percent but began authorizing charter organizations to start some new schools as well. The pending legislation, which is supported by leaders of both the State Department of Education and the ASD, would return the district to its original purpose.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Bobby White is the ASD’s chief of external affairs.

KIPP’s Memphis board cited low enrollment and a remote location when voting last December to pull out this spring from University Middle, which it opened in 2014. Its leaders have told parents they plan to merge the school with KIPP Memphis Preparatory Middle, another ASD school located about nine miles away.

Even with KIPP’s departure, ASD officials had authority to continue to operate University Middle with another manager. However, the challenges with enrollment and location made that option highly unlikely.

The middle school is housed in the former White’s Chapel Elementary School building, which Shelby County Schools closed in 2013 with 181 students — more than KIPP was able to attract under the ASD.

Under-enrollment was also cited by leaders of Gestalt, a Memphis-based charter organization that announced last fall plans to pull out of both of its ASD schools. The state-run district has since found a new operator for one Gestalt school and confirmed last month that it plans to close the other.