A tale of two schools

For two sharply divided Manhattan schools, an uncertain path to integration

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Parents and teachers attended a meeting Saturday at P.S. 191 about a proposed rezoning.

The two schools sit nine blocks apart on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, but it’s as if they occupy different universes.

P.S. 199 on West 70th Street is a National Blue Ribbon Award-winner with state test scores twice as high as the city average, whose muscular parent-teacher association raised over $800,000 in the 2014 fiscal year, tax filings show. The majority of its students are white, and just 8 percent qualify as poor.

A short walk south to West 61st Street, P.S. 191 serves mainly students from the public housing across the street. It yields test scores far below the city average, and its parent group raised about $24,000 last year. Most of its students are black or Hispanic, and nearly 90 percent are poor.

The separate-and-unequal worlds of the neighboring schools emerged over many decades. But now, an opening for integration may have appeared.

In order to stem overcrowding at 199, where soaring demand created the city’s longest kindergarten waitlist this year, the city education department has proposed new zone lines that would reroute some would-be 199 students to 191, which has many open seats. In that way, a solution to overcrowding could spur integration.

Some parents want the city to go even further and erase the boundary between the schools. They say a single zone for both schools would end the practice of separate schools for rich and poor, and bring a greater mix of students into each.

“We have an unbelievable opportunity here,” said Noah Gotbaum, a local education council member who has championed that idea, at a recent rezoning meeting.

However, the vast divide between the two schools could undercut either plan. 199 might remain more popular even in a unified zone, and wealthier parents say they might shun 191 even if they were zoned for it.

That was the message at the meeting earlier this month, where parents who said they had settled in the high-priced precinct near Lincoln Center largely because of 199 insisted that 191 — with its low test scores and reports of violence — is an unacceptable alternative.

“If I don’t get into P.S. 199,” said Robert LaSalle, the father of a one-year-old girl, “I’m going to send my kid to private school, or I’m going to move to another district.”

A solution to overcrowding faces a backlash

P.S. 199 (left) is a top-ranked school surrounded by pricey residential buildings. P.S. 191 (right), which serves many students from the Amsterdam Houses (far right), has struggled low test scores and a "persistently dangerous" designation by the state.
P.S. 199 (left) is a top-ranked school surrounded by pricey residential buildings. P.S. 191, which serves many students from the Amsterdam Houses (far right), has struggled low test scores and a “persistently dangerous” designation by the state.

In a neighborhood where apartments can sell for upwards of $1 million and many parents could afford private school, 199’s academic success has kept local parents clamoring for spots.

To meet the demand, the school has squeezed in at least 150 students more than its building was designed for, leading to full classrooms, jam-packed playgrounds, and traffic gridlock during dismissal. Still, more than 90 families in the school’s zone landed on the kindergarten waitlist this year, prompting some to flee to private schools and others to plead with city officials to find them space at 199.

The city’s solution is to shrink 199’s catchment area and expand those around 191 and P.S. 452, a relatively new school to the north. Education department officials, who will make a final proposal next month, say their plan could increase the share of white students in 191’s zone by nearly a quarter.

But for parents drawn to the pricey neighborhood in part by 199’s prestige, overcrowding is not a sufficient reason to deny them seats — especially when the substitute is 191.

“People would rather have overcrowding at 199 than send their kid to 191,” said Vivian Chen, the parent of a 199 kindergartener whose building would be rezoned for 452. “You don’t move to this kind of neighborhood for that.”

In their own words

Click to hear what local parents and students have to say about the neighborhood’s schools. The blue area is the proposed zone for P.S. 199; the purple area is P.S. 191’s proposed zone.

The situation mirrors one in a gentrifying pocket of Brooklyn, where the city has proposed shifting incoming students from packed P.S. 8 to nearby P.S. 307. But the divide is sharper between the two Manhattan schools and perhaps harder to bridge: Their test-score gap is significantly wider, and the state recently branded P.S. 191 a “persistently dangerous school” based on data from the past two academic years.

Parents and faculty say the designation is misleading. Still, it dealt a crushing blow to the school’s reputation and gave students the legal right to transfer out. Already, the city has had to offer 18 incoming kindergarteners seats at other schools, and 28 current students have applied for transfers, according to an education department spokesman.

Faced with that label and the school’s test scores, some parents who could soon be zoned for 191 have not been swayed by arguments that the school is actually on the upswing. When City Councilwoman Helen Rosenthal spoke during the Oct. 7 hearing about the school’s enthusiastic new principal and extra funding it has received, many parents were skeptical.

“Are the test scores wrong though or are they right?” one man called out. He added, “It’s not just money, it’s parents.”

In interviews, other current and prospective 199 parents repeated the notion that some of 191’s challenges stem from limited parent involvement. One father said that while 199 parents compete to be classroom volunteers, at 191, “nobody cares.” They also worried about sending their children to a school where most of their classmates would be behind academically, at least according to test scores.

Kim Watkins, a member of the district’s education council whose daughter attended 191 until she got into a gifted program at a different school this year, said it would be reasonable to ask would-be 199 parents to take a chance on 191 — if it weren’t for the “incredibly disparate level of student performance” at the two schools.

“You don’t gamble with your kids’ lives like that,” she said.

Despite the public talk about data and designations, some 191 parents and faculty are convinced that part of their neighbors’ wariness about the school stems from the population it serves.

“They think because it’s the projects, it’s bad kids,” said Elizabeth Merced, a 191 parent who lives in the Amsterdam Houses across from the school.

A ‘super zone’ to combat segregation

A parent spoke out against the city's rezoning plan, which switches the school that certain residential buildings are paired with from 199 to 191.
A parent spoke out against the city’s rezoning plan, which switches the school that certain residential buildings are paired with from 199 to 191. (Photo credit: Patrick Wall)

While the city’s plan to redraw the zoning lines is mainly an effort to curb overcrowding, the shared zone idea put forward by parent leaders has an additional goal: integration.

Families that live within the combined 191-199 “super zone,” as some have called it, could apply to either school. If a school receives more applicants than it has seats, a lottery would go into effect.

Proponents say the plan would open 199 to some students from the housing projects and could send a larger number of affluent students to 191 than a traditional rezoning would. More importantly, they say, it could begin to chip away at the perception that one school belongs to rich families and another belongs to those who are poor.

“A super zone creates equality,” said Seth Rosenthal, who lives in a building whose zoned school would switch from 199 to 191 under the city’s proposal. “Instead of drawing lines, let’s have two great schools.”

Education department planners mapped out a potential shared zone at the request of the District 3 Community Education Council. But the officials have cautioned that such plans have faltered elsewhere when an in-demand school gets flooded with applicants and the less-popular school receives its lottery losers. Some parents share those doubts.

“It’s not going to make 191 more attractive to prospective parents,” said Vildan Altuglu, who lives in 199’s zone, at a rezoning meeting Saturday. “It will not solve the problem.”

Meanwhile, other parents have floated a third plan: pairing the two schools so that students attend one for the early grades and the other for later grades. The schools had such an arrangement decades ago, but it eventually fell apart.

“That was the beginning of the end of diversity,” said Dr. Elena Nasereddin, who was principal of 191 in the 1990s and early 2000s.

City officials have not presented that pairing as an option at the rezoning meetings. In general, Mayor Bill de Blasio — like his predecessor — has been reluctant to make school diversity an overt goal of zoning or admissions-policy changes.

Education department spokeswoman Devora Kaye said creating a diverse school system is an important goal, and that officials consider the impact on school diversity when creating new zones. She said the city would consider all zoning options for 191 and 199, and would work with families at both schools “to ensure the proposal best serves students in the community.”

The district’s community education council, which consists of elected parent leaders, is expected to vote on the city’s final proposal on Nov. 19. If they approve the plan, it would go into effect next school year.

A test ahead, with serious consequences

P.S. 191 Principal Lauren Keville hopes to convince more parents to give her school a chance.
P.S. 191 Principal Lauren Keville hopes to convince more parents to give her school a chance. (Photo credit: Patrick Wall)

For now, the plan at 191 is to keep pushing to improve the school, while asking more parents to give it a chance.

Principal Lauren Keville, who is starting her second year at the school, said she has moved swiftly to raise the level of academics by hiring new teacher coaches, installing a new writing curriculum, and instituting a tablet-based reading program. In order to address the behavior incidents, she said she has brought in a new social worker and a school-wide curriculum designed to help students manage their emotions, which has led to a major decrease in incidents this year.

She is also marketing the school to parents. Last Wednesday, she greeted a roomful of prospective parents who had come for the first of many weekly tours the school will give this fall, and at the rezoning meetings she has invited anyone from the community to visit.

“I encourage you to come and see us,” Keville said at one meeting, “so that we can dispel some of the ugly rumors that are out there about our school.”

It remains an open question whether her outreach will convince parents who had counted on sending their children to a high-flying school like 199 to consider one with a tarnished reputation should any new zones be approved. The answer to that question, many believe, could seal the fate of 191 and its students.

“Until we ensure that our schools are both ethnically and economically diverse,” P.S. 191 Assistant Principal Sandra Perez said at Saturday’s hearing, “we will continue to be a school that struggles.”

Additional reporting by Monica Disare. Graphic by Stephanie Snyder and Monica Disare.

fact-finding mission

Signal Mountain leaders look to Shelby County as model for school district secession

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
From left: Bartlett City Schools Director David Stephens and Lakeland School System Director Ted Horrell update state legislators on their new districts in 2015.

A cluster of towns that broke off from Shelby County Schools to create their own school systems in 2014 is about to host visitors from another Tennessee town looking into the viability of leaving Hamilton County Schools.

A committee from Signal Mountain, on the outskirts of Chattanooga, is scheduled next week to visit with leaders from Arlington, Bartlett, Collierville, Millington and Germantown. Along with Lakeland, the six towns have just completed a third year of operating their own school systems, just outside of Memphis.

Signal Mountain is in its second year of discussions about a possible pullout from the Chattanooga-based district. The community has three of Hamilton County’s higher-performing schools, as well as fewer poor and minority students. Its Town Council created the committee in January to look into the feasibility of creating a separate district, which would siphon off both students and revenue from Hamilton County Schools.

As part of their visit, the seven-member panel will hold open meetings with municipality leaders at Arlington High School. Signal Mountain Mayor Chris Howley and Councilwoman Amy Speek are scheduled to join the sessions.

“We felt it was valuable for us to meet with board members and school officials to gain insight on how the process went, what they learned, what they might do differently,” said committee chairman John Friedl.

“We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel,” he added.

The visit will come days after Shelby County’s secessions were spotlighted in a national report on the trend of wealthier and whiter communities to splinter off from larger school systems that are poorer and more diverse. The report was crafted by EdBuild, a nonprofit research group that focuses on school funding and equity. The report also listed Signal Mountain among nine towns across the nation that are actively pursuing pullouts.

The town of Red Bank, which is just east of Signal Mountain, also recently announced it will investigate launching a separate district.

If Signal Mountain residents vote eventually to create their own school system, they would use the same Tennessee law that allowed municipality voters in Shelby County to exit Tennessee’s largest district. The law, which EdBuild calls one of the most permissive in the nation, allows a town with at least 1,500 students to pull out without the approval of the district it leaves behind or consideration of the impact on racial or socioeconomic equity.

Signal Mountain leaders will focus next week on lessons learned by leaders in Shelby County.

After breaking off in 2014, the municipalities gained about 30,000 students, 33 schools and all of the challenges that come with launching new school systems. That includes funding, staffing and facilities. “We all started out with a central office staff of one, … and we had to build from there,” Millington Municipal Schools Director David Roper said during a 2015 presentation to state lawmakers.

The Shelby County breakaway also ended up in court over charges that the exit was racially motivated. But a federal judge eventually dismissed that lawsuit by Shelby County Schools.

The Signal Mountain exploration also has been met with some community resistance. A group called Stay with HCSD is advocating staying with Hamilton County Schools.

You can view the full schedule of Signal Mountain leaders’ visit below:

Breakaway districts

Memphis-Shelby County spotlighted in national report on school district secession

PHOTO: EdBuild
Six suburban towns pulled out of Shelby County Schools in 2014 to start their own districts in the wake of the 2013 consolidation of city and county schools.

The 2014 exodus of six suburban towns from the newly consolidated Memphis school system is one of the nation’s most egregious examples of public education splintering into a system of haves and have-nots over race and class, says a new report.

The Shelby County towns are among 47 that have seceded from large school districts nationally since 2000. Another nine, including the town of Signal Mountain near Chattanooga, Tenn., are actively pursuing separation, according to the report released Wednesday by EdBuild, a nonprofit research group focusing on education funding and inequality.

EdBuild researchers said the growing trend toward school secession is cementing segregation along socioeconomic and racial lines and exacerbating inequities in public education.

And Shelby County is among the worst examples, they say.

“The case of Memphis and Shelby County is an extreme example of how imbalanced political power, our local school-funding model, and the allowance of secession can be disastrous for children,” the report says.

After the 2014 pullout, Shelby County Schools had to slash its budget, close schools under declining enrollment, and lay off hundreds of teachers. Meanwhile, the six suburban towns of Arlington, Bartlett, Collierville, Germantown, Lakeland and Millington have faced challenges with funding and facilities as they’ve worked to build their school systems from the ground up.

The report says Tennessee’s law is among the most permissive of the 30 states that allow some communities to secede from larger school districts. It allows a municipality with at least 1,500 students to pull out without the approval of the district it leaves behind or consideration of the impact on racial or socioeconomic equity.

PHOTO: EdBuild
States that don’t prohibit secession from school districts are shaded in blue.

“This isn’t a story of one or two communities. This is about a broken system of laws that fail to protect the most vulnerable students,” said EdBuild CEO Rebecca Sibilia. “This is the confluence of a school funding system that incentivizes communities to cordon off wealth and the permissive processes that enable them to do just that.”

The Shelby County pullout is known in Memphis as the “de-merger,” which happened one year after the historic 2013 merger of Memphis City Schools with the suburban county district known as Legacy Shelby County Schools. The massive changes occurred as a result of a series of chess moves that began in 2010 after voters elected a Republican supermajority in Tennessee for the first time in history.

Under the new political climate, Shelby County’s mostly white and more affluent suburbs sought to establish a special school district that could have stopped countywide funding from flowing to the mostly black and lower income Memphis district. In a preemptive strike, the city’s school board surrendered its charter and Memphians voted soon after to consolidate the city and county districts. The suburbs — frustrated over becoming a partner in a consolidated school system they didn’t vote for — soon convinced the legislature to change a state law allowing them to break away and form their own districts, which they did.

Terry Roland, a Shelby County commissioner who supported the pullouts, said the secession wasn’t about race, but about having local control and creating better opportunities for students in their communities. “There are a lot of problems in the inner city and big city that we don’t have in municipalities in terms of poverty and crime,” Roland told Chalkbeat on the eve of the report’s release. “We’re able to give folks more opportunities because our schools are smaller.”

The report asserts that money was at the root of the pullouts. Through taxes raised at the countywide level, suburban residents were financially supporting Memphis City Schools. The effort to create a special school district was aimed at raising funds that would stay with suburban schools and potentially doing away with a shared countywide property tax, which would have been disastrous for the Memphis district.

"These policies are still relatively new in Tennessee. But I think a tsunami is coming as a result."Rebecca Sibilia, CEO, EdBuild

“What we’re talking about here is the notion of people pulling out of a tax base that’s for the public good,” Sibilia said. “That’s akin to saying you’re not going to pay taxes for a library because you’re not going to use it. … You can see this as racially motivated, but we found it was motivated much more by socioeconomics.”

The report asserts that funding new smaller districts is inefficient and wasteful.

The United States spends $3,200 more on students enrolled in small districts (of fewer than 3,000 students) than on the larger districts (of 25,000 to 49,999 students), according to the report. Small districts also tend to spend about 60 percent more per pupil on administrative costs.

Under Tennessee’s current law, Sibilia believes the Shelby County de-merger is only the first of more secessions to come. She notes that Tennessee’s law is similar to one in Alabama, where a fourth of the nation’s secessions have occurred. Already in Chattanooga, residents of Signal Mountain are in their second year of studying whether to leave the Hamilton County Department of Education.

“There’s a direct link between very permissive policies and the number of communities that take advantage of them,” Sibilia said. “These policies are still relatively new in Tennessee. But I think a tsunami is coming as a result.”

Editor’s note: Details about the merger-demerger have been added to this version of the story.