getting the green light

Exclusive: After year delay, city will allow diversity plans at several schools

PHOTO: Anika Anand
Children play in the gym of P.S. 133 in Park Slope in 2013. The school's admissions system, which sets aside some seats for low-income students and English learners, has served as a model for other schools hoping to maintain a diverse mix of students.

The city will allow seven schools to change their admissions policies to make sure they enroll a diverse mix of students, sources said Thursday, more than a year after a group of principals began lobbying to do so.

The education department would not immediately confirm that the plans had been approved. But people with direct knowledge of the schools’ proposals, who were not authorized to speak publicly, said an official announcement was expected Friday.

The schools will be able to reserve a portion of their available seats — anywhere from 10 to 60 percent — for low-income students, English learners, students who are involved in the child-welfare system, or children who have incarcerated parents, according to sources.

The expected announcement would represent a significant shift for Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has spoken about the value of school diversity but has been reluctant to make policy changes to promote it. The previous administration let one district school, P.S. 133 in Park Slope, adopt a diversity-focused admissions policy, but the current administration has so far declined to sign off on similar policies that other schools have requested.

The policy shift comes as the city has faced increasing pressure to directly address school segregation and the lack of student diversity at many schools, a push partly sparked by racially charged debates over rezoning proposals in Brooklyn and Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Last month, education department officials bowed to that pressure by moving to strike a footnote from the city’s school admissions code that had been criticized for potentially blocking efforts to create diverse schools.

“Empowering elementary schools to use admissions processes that strengthen diversity is a strong step in our ongoing effort to confront the segregation of our schools,” City Councilman Brad Lander said in a statement. He and Councilman Ritchie Torres co-sponsored a bill, which de Blasio signed into law this spring, that will force the education department to report annually on school demographics and its efforts to increase diversity within schools.

Two schools in Lander’s district — Brooklyn New School and Brooklyn Children’s School — are among those that will be allowed to adopt new admissions policies. The other schools are: the Academy of Arts & Letters in Fort Greene, Brooklyn Arts and Science Elementary School in Crown Heights, the Earth School and the Neighborhood School in the East Village, and Castle Bridge School in Washington Heights, according to people with knowledge of the plans.

In Oct. 2014, a group of principals met with top department officials and floated diverse-enrollment plans similar to that at P.S. 133, which the Bloomberg administration allowed to reserve more than a third of its seats for low-income students and those still learning English. The idea is to preserve a diverse mix of students at the schools even as more white and affluent students enroll. At the start of this school year, several of the principals said they had yet to hear back from the city about their proposals.

But in recent days, advocates who have been pushing de Blasio to do more to promote school integration said they have heard that the city was preparing to allow some of the schools to save a portion of seats — or create “set-asides” — for particular student groups.

“My understanding is that now they’re granting set-asides to certain individual schools,” said David Goldsmith, president of the Community Education Council in Brooklyn’s District 13, where P.S. 133 is located.

Principals from P.S. 133 and three other District 13 schools attended last year’s diversity meeting with top officials, including Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña. One of the schools was the Academy of Arts & Letters, which has seen its share of low-income students fall from about three-quarters to less than 40 percent over the past several years as the school’s neighborhood has rapidly gentrified. Under its newly approved plan, the school will be able to reserve 40 percent of available seats for low-income students — effectively keeping its share of those students from shrinking any further.

Admissions systems like those the city is set to approve can help schools in gentrifying areas avoid “tipping,” or switching from a mix of students from different backgrounds to a majority of students from middle-class families that are settling in the school’s neighborhood.

While advocates have welcomed the prospect of the city granting individual schools permission to tweak their admissions policies to ensure diversity, they have also argued that district-wide policies are crucial. Otherwise, a school with set-asides might enroll a mix of students while surrounding schools could become increasingly segregated.

“If you solve a problem in one school and create a greater problem in five schools as a result,” said Goldsmith, the CEC president, “what are you really accomplishing?”

Education department spokeswoman Devora Kaye said that the city is working with educators, parents, and lawmakers to promote school diversity.

“Students learn from the diverse experiences and cultures of their fellow students, and it’s important that our schools reflect the diversity of our City,” she said in a statement.

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.