the segregation situation

Is reversing school segregation possible in New York City? Expert panel weighs in

Two of Dougco parent Meredith Massar's daughters join friends in a "peaceful protest" outside the Douglas County Public Schools administration building Thursday.

A panel at the Brooklyn Historical Society Wednesday night tackled the thorny issue of school diversity, sparking a conversation about whether integration is a viable option and delving into the causes of school segregation in New York City.

“We want to get to the bottom of this,” said moderator Beth Fertig, who covers the city’s public schools for WNYC, after reminding the crowd that a report released last year found that New York’s schools are among the most segregated in the country.

But with school segregation — and the country’s largest school system — there are no simple answers. Panelists discussed the nuances of racial versus socioeconomic segregation and argued about whether magnet schools or changes to enrollment policies could be workable, long-term solutions.

The panel comes at a time when school segregation has garnered attention in New York, following a UCLA study that detailed how the the state’s schools are deeply divided along racial lines. The report found that in 19 of New York City’s 32 community school districts, 10 percent or less of public-school students were white in 2010.

The event, which drew a large audience, started with a foundational question: What causes school segregation?

Panelists disagreed about whether the issue is best understood as divisions along socioeconomic or racial lines. Socioeconomic segregation is the best way to frame the issue, said Clara Hemphill, the founder of Insideschools, a website that offers reviews of the city’s public schools. Hemphill said that concentrated poverty is the largest challenge to a school’s academic performance.

Nikole Hannah-Jones, a writer for the New York Times Magazine who has spent years covering school segregation, argued that the issue at hand is race. Black, middle-income Americans are more likely than poor white children to live in poor neighborhoods, which means black children are more likely to attend high-poverty schools, she said.

“This is a racialized poverty,” Hannah-Jones said. “I think sometimes we are more comfortable with class-based [segregation] because we feel we can transcend our class and you can’t transcend your race, but these two are absolutely linked.”

Craig Gurian, a civil rights lawyer, pointed to a map of the city, color-coded to show where low percentages of black residents lived in blue and areas with high percentages of black residents live in red. The map revealed clusters of each color but little overlap.

“Even though you can’t go 10 minutes in New York City without hearing how diverse the city is, it’s actually residentially an extraordinarily segregated place,” Gurian said. “And where you have segregated housing you have segregated schools.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio and Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña also faced criticism over their slow response to integration plans proposed by a dozen individual schools last year, an issue Chalkbeat highlighted earlier this month. Both officials were asked about the delays, and whether they have plans to promote diversity, on the first day of school.

Fertig paraphrased their responses: “In other words, no solution,” she said.

Panelists themselves were split over whether there are feasible ways to combat school segregation. Some panelists offered magnet schools as a potential tool. But Hannah-Jones said that when she talks and writes about segregation, “I never end on a hopeful message.”

“If you are in a city with one of the most progressive mayors in the country, and we are under the Obama administration, and they will not talk about school integration and segregation,” Hannah-Jones asked, “what really hope does one have that we’re going to see any large-scale change for the masses?”

Norm Fruchter, a senior policy analyst at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform and a member of the Panel for Educational Policy, noted that he plans to introduce a proposal at the next PEP meeting that he hopes will be “a beginning discussion” about how the city could boost school diversity.

The proposal is to strike a footnote in city rules that says race may be considered in school enrollment decisions only by court order. Fruchter also said he favors setting aside a certain percentage of seats in each high school for students with disabilities, English language learners, and over-the-counter students, who enroll outside of the traditional admissions process.

He acknowledged that enrollment changes aimed at distributing the city’s neediest students are more difficult to implement in middle and elementary schools, Fruchter said, since a family’s address plays a large role in determining younger children’s school assignments.

“I can’t figure out how you would do this below the high school level,” he said.

At the end of the discussion, Fertig asked the crowd whether they believed integration should have been on the education agenda that Mayor Bill de Blasio outlined in a high-profile speech earlier on Wednesday. The mayor’s plan includes expanding access to Advanced Placement classes, adding reading specialists to elementary schools, and providing computer science instruction in all schools.

One parent raised her hand to raise a different point: The battle that matters most to black and Hispanic families is not whether their children’s schools are segregated, but whether they have access to the resources they need.

“Parents of color have thrown up their hands,” she said, then directed her comments at white members of the audience and panel.

“Segregation is not our conversation,” she said. “This is y’alls conversation.”

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.