School segregation debates grabbed New York headlines in 2015. Now what?

Students at the High School of Fashion Industries earlier this year.
Students at the High School of Fashion Industries earlier this year.

In 2015, New Yorkers took a hard look at school segregation — and officials took some small steps to address it.

City lawmakers passed a bill requiring the education department to release new data about school demographics. The state awarded a few small grants to revamp struggling schools by attracting affluent families. Then two contentious rezoning proposals drew even greater attention to neighborhoods where nearby schools seem worlds apart. Soon after, Chancellor Carmen Fariña agreed to remove part of the city’s school-admissions code that some saw as a barrier to integration efforts, and to allow a handful of schools to experiment with new enrollment policies.

“There’s more momentum now than really almost any time since I started this work,” said David Tipson, executive director of the school diversity advocacy group New York Appleseed.

Still, the underlying race and class tensions that flared up during the year’s rezoning debates went unresolved, and many of the city’s 1,800 schools remain as segregated as ever. As 2016 approaches, here are four big questions about the future of diversity in the city’s schools.

The big one beneath them all: Will the push for integration build in the new year, or fade away?

1. Will the city find ways to turn gentrification into integration?

This fall, the city proposed shifting some families out of the zones around two popular, jam-packed elementary schools and into the zones for two lower-performing, less prestigious schools. It did not go over well.

The two sought-after schools — P.S. 8 in Brooklyn Heights and P.S. 199 in the Upper West Side — serve many white, affluent students, while their neighbors enroll many low-income students of color. The rezoning would have helped integrate the divided schools, but many parents decided the disparities were too great and railed against the plans. In response, the city tabled the P.S. 199 proposal and delayed a vote on the P.S. 8 plan, which is now set for Jan. 5.

Among other lessons, the rezoning battles made clear that most parents’ main concern is getting their children into a school they consider top-notch.

“What we hear a lot is, they want the best for their child — that’s the biggest priority,” said Allison Roda, a researcher at Rutgers University-Newark who studied New York City’s largely segregated gifted and talented programs. “And that trumps diversity.”

In the rezoning cases, many families had settled in the high-priced neighborhoods zoned for P.S. 8 or 199 to have access to those schools. But elsewhere across the city, middle-class families move into mixed-income, mixed-race neighborhoods and then cluster at popular public schools elsewhere, enroll their children in gifted programs, or pay for private school.

That phenomenon is reflected in maps published by the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs this month, which show dozens of segregated elementary schools in the middle of diverse neighborhoods.

But experts say it’s possible to draw those newcomers into the local schools. The city can help the schools strengthen their instruction and add enrichment programs, while school leaders can use advertising, tours, and parent mixers to make families from different backgrounds feel welcome. The idea is that, with strong leadership and support from the city, many schools have the potential to become more diverse, said Clara Hemphill, the founding editor of Insideschools, who helped create the enrollment maps.

“If the conventional wisdom is that you can’t do anything about school segregation until you fix housing,” she said, “maybe that’s not the case.”

2. Will the city get behind efforts that stretch across whole districts?

In a major victory for leaders at seven schools, the city agreed last month (after a yearlong delay) to let them try new admissions policies designed to enroll students from different backgrounds. Advocates cheered the decision, but they also pointed out the obvious: Seven diverse schools isn’t a lot.

So some parent leaders are working on bigger plans.

In Districts 1 (Lower East Side) and 13 (Bedford-Stuyvesant, Fort Greene), they are using the state integration grants to explore “controlled choice” policies. Under that system, which is used in several cities, parents can apply to any school in a given area, not just one they are zoned for. A computer program then matches children to schools, taking into account demographic data such as families’ ZIP codes or income levels, in an effort to make the enrollment at each school resemble the diversity of the district. (Both groups are expected to submit plans to the state this spring.)

Parent leaders in District 3 on the Upper West Side, which includes P.S. 199, are studying that system too. But they’re also looking into other options, such as pairing adjacent but segregated schools, so that some students attend one for the lower grades and the other for later grades.

What remains to be seen is whether the city will get behind those plans. As the rezoning uproar made clear, changes that could disrupt some parents’ path to their preferred schools are likely to face stiff resistance. Still, advocates say they’re giving the city the benefit of the doubt.

“I remain optimistic that we’ll see progress on district-wide efforts next year,” said City Councilman Brad Lander. “That’s the urgent next step.”

3. Will the city wade into high school diversity?

High schools tend to be less segregated than elementary schools, which generally enroll students based on where they live. But students are still quite divided by their backgrounds and by academic preparation.

About a quarter of high schools screen applicants by considering test scores, work portfolios, interviews, and other criteria. That includes eight elite “specialized” schools that base admissions solely on the results of an entrance exam. This year, just 12 percent of admitted students were black or Hispanic, even though those groups make up 70 percent of city eighth-graders.

The city has launched some modest initiatives to address these issues, including small-scale programs to help guide students through the application process or prepare them for the specialized entrance exam. But advocates say much bigger changes are needed.

For instance, they say, the city could create more “education-option” high schools that intentionally enroll a mix of students at different academic levels. It could also more evenly distribute latecomer students, who are placed in schools outside of the normal application process and often pose special challenges. Most significantly — but hardest to do — it could make sure that students have more strong schools to choose from in all parts of the city, either by improving existing schools or creating new ones.

Leslie Santee Siskin, an education researcher at New York University, pointed out that students currently travel from all over the city to attend selective, sought-after high schools like Beacon in Hell’s Kitchen.

“Why don’t we have 10 Beacons?” she said.

4. Will diversity become an official priority?

Next week, the extent of the city’s school segregation should come into sharp focus.

Thanks to a bill Mayor Bill de Blasio signed into law this spring, the city must soon release an unprecedented batch of data about the students enrolled in every school, along with a description of any efforts to more evenly distribute the city’s students.

But the council also passed a resolution this spring calling on the education department to declare diversity a priority when making decisions like where to build new schools or how to draw school zone lines. New York Appleseed went so far as to draw up a model policy statement, along with specific ways that schools, superintendents, and the education department could enact it.

So far, the city has not taken up that proposal. City Councilman Ritchie Torres, who co-sponsored the resolution, said he would continue to push the city on it in the coming year.

“My hope is that the city will create a comprehensive, citywide plan,” he said. “School diversity will not happen on its own.”

father knows best

How a brush with death convinced one dad to get his diploma, with a boost from the Fatherhood Academy

PHOTO: Courtesy of Steven Robles
Steven Robles with his family

Steven Robles thought he might not live to see his daughter’s birth.

In May 2016, the 20-year-old was in the hospital after being shot during what he described as an argument in his neighborhood.

A year later, Robles just graduated from City University of New York’s Fatherhood Academy. He passed his high school equivalency exam and is happily celebrating his daughter Avare’s 8-month birthday.

“That conflict is what got me into the program, and what happened to me before she was born motivated me to stay in the program,” Robles said. “It motivated me to manage to pass my GED.”

Robles grew up in Brownsville, Brooklyn and attended Franklin K. Lane High School. Though he liked his teachers, Robles said other students at the school were not “mature enough,” and the disorderly school environment made it hard for him to concentrate.

A quiet student, Robles said teachers would often overlook his presence in the classroom. Between that and friction with other classmates, Robles lost interest in school.

“My parents didn’t try to help me, either,” Robles said. “Nobody really tried to help me with that school, so I just stopped going.”

It was a whole different experience for him once he arrived at the Fatherhood Academy at LaGuardia Community College, a program run by CUNY for unemployed and underemployed fathers ages 18 through 28. The Academy, now partnering with the New York City Housing Authority at its LaGuardia location, was launched in 2012 and also has programs at Hostos and Kingsborough Community Colleges.

“I have interviewed many of the men who come into the program and I often ask the question, ‘What brought you here?'” said Raheem Brooks, program manager of the Fatherhood Academy at LaGuardia Community College. “Mostly every young man says, ‘I’m here because I want to create a better life for my child than I had.’ So, I think the main theme of the program is that we help promote intergenerational change.”

At the LaGuardia branch, 30 students attend classes three times a week over the course of 16 weeks. Subjects include mathematics, social studies, and writing for students seeking to get their high school equivalency diplomas. Students also attend workshops run by counselors who guide them in professional development and parenting.

Robles found out about the program after seeing a flier for it in his social worker’s office at Graham Windham, a family support services organization. Curious to see what the Academy offered, he called to find out more and officially enrolled after passing a test to prove he could read above seventh-grade level.

“Before the Academy, I was not really into school at all,” Robles said. “But when I got there, it just changed my life. In this program, I didn’t know anybody there, there were no distractions. It made me more focused, and I just really wanted to get my GED and education.”

What helped Robles the most was getting to learn from the other fathers in the class, who were going through similar experiences as him.

“Little things I didn’t know, I learned from them because they were also fathers,” Robles said. “I just liked the way they were teaching us.”

In fact, he liked the Academy so much, he doesn’t plan to leave. He is applying to study criminal justice at LaGuardia Community College and to become a mentor for the Academy next year.

Currently, Robles lives with his grandparents, his daughter and the mother of his child. Getting a place for his family is next on his to-do list, he said.

“Avare always has a smile on her face and always puts a smile on my face,” Robles said. “She motivates me to get up and do what I have to do. Anything I could do for her, I will.”

Though school did not play a huge role in his life growing up, that is not what Robles wants for his daughter. He said after participating in the Academy, he wants to make sure Avare stays motivated and in school.

“I hear a lot from people about how they think they can’t do it,” Robles said. “I almost lost my life before my daughter was born and that motivated me. If I could do it, you could do it.”

Behind the brawl

Three things to know about the Tennessee school behind this week’s graduation brawl

PHOTO: Arlington Community Schools
Arlington High School is a 2,000-plus-student school in suburban Shelby County in southwest Tennessee.

Arlington High School is considered the crown jewel of a 3-year-old district in suburban Shelby County, even as its school community deals with the unwelcome attention of several viral videos showing a fight that broke out among adults attending its graduation ceremony.

The brawl, which reportedly began with a dispute over saved seats, detracted from Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance and the more than $30 million in scholarships earned by the school’s Class of 2017. No students were involved.

“It was unfortunate that a couple of adults in the audience exhibited the behavior they did prior to the ceremony beginning and thus has caused a distraction from the celebration of our students’ accomplishments,” Arlington Community Schools Superintendent Tammy Mason said in a statement.

Here are three things to know about the 13-year-old school in northwest Shelby County.

With more than 2,000 students, Arlington is one of the largest high schools in Shelby County and is part of a relatively new district.

It’s the pride of a suburban municipality that is one of six that seceded from Shelby County Schools in 2014 following the merger of the city and county districts the year before. (School district secessions are a national trend, usually of predominantly white communities leaving predominantly black urban school systems.) More than 70 percent of Arlington’s students are white, and 6 percent are considered economically disadvantaged — in stark contrast to the Memphis district where less than 8 percent are white, and almost 60 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

The school’s graduation rate is high … and climbing.

Last year, after adding interventions for struggling students, the school’s graduation rate jumped a full point to more than 96 percent. Its students taking the ACT college entrance exam scored an average composite of 22.5 out of a possible 36, higher than the state average of 19.9. But only a fifth scored proficient or advanced in math and a third in English language arts during 2015-16, the last school year for which scores are available and a transition year for Tennessee under a new test.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits with students at Arlington High School during a 2016 tour.

The school was in the news last August when Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visited its campus.

The commissioner spoke with students there to kick off her statewide listening tour that’s focused on ways to get students ready for college and career. McQueen highlighted the school’s extracurricular activities and students’  opportunities to intern for or shadow local professionals. She also complimented Arlington for having an engaged education community.