The city quietly took steps to diversify dozens of middle and high schools last year, according to an education department report released Wednesday.
The department stopped most middle schools in three districts from screening applicants based on their academic records, and allowed 51 low-performing middle schools to recruit students from beyond their normal catchment areas, the report said. The department also added 20 new “educational option” high school programs designed to enroll students at different academic levels, according to the report, which listed several efforts to boost student diversity across the system that had not previously been announced.
In an email, David Tipson, executive director of the school-diversity advocacy group, New York Appleseed, singled out the increase in educational option schools as a “significant achievement” that “reverses the trend under the previous administration.”
The new report, he added, will “inform and elevate an important debate about the role of public policy in fostering school diversity.”
The report is a requirement of the School Diversity Accountability Act, a local law signed by Mayor Bill de Blasio in June, which followed a headline-grabbing 2014 study that said New York City has one of the nation’s most segregated school systems.
The tendency of students to attend separate schools based on their race and class gained renewed attention in 2015, thanks to media coverage, grassroots integration efforts, and flare-ups over school zones. But many of the city’s efforts to boost school diversity focus on potential proxies for race and class — such as students’ home language or their academic performance — and on disabilities.
For instance, the “ed opt” high schools admit a certain percentage of students with above-average, average, and below-average academic skill levels in an attempt to develop a diverse population. In contrast, many of the city’s most sought-after high schools only accept applicants with strong academic records. With the new additions, 146 of the city’s roughly 700 high school programs now use the ed-opt admissions system.
The districts that will mostly do away with academic screening at middle schools beginning next fall are District 7 in the Bronx and Districts 16 and 22 in Brooklyn, according to the report.
The 51 middle schools that can now recruit students from throughout their entire boroughs, not just their local zones or districts, are part of the city’s “Renewal” program for struggling schools. It’s unclear whether that policy, which is meant to address the very low enrollment at those schools, will be enough to draw in new students — much less a mix of students from different backgrounds.
To promote linguistic and perhaps ethnic diversity, the city added new dual-language programs this year that mix together native and non-native English speakers. It also began publishing admissions materials in multiple languages and calling Spanish-speaking families to encourage them to enroll their children in school.
The report also said the city launched a new pilot program this fall that set up support centers for homeless students during certain high school admissions fairs. Individual eighth-graders who live in temporary housing were invited to visit the support centers during the fairs to receive personal counseling, according to the report.
The integration of students with special needs into classes with non-disabled peers continued to be a focus.
The city expanded a program that mixes together students with and without autism, and added new bilingual special education classes. It also gave schools enrollment targets for students with disabilities, though the report does not indicate what share of schools hit those targets.
Some of the new initiatives are designed to spur socioeconomic diversity. Most notably, the city will allow seven elementary schools to pilot admissions policies where they reserve a portion of seats for low-income students or English learners.
It also was awarded the first portion of what could amount to $10 million in new state grants this year intended to revamp low-performing schools partly by filling them with more higher-income students. The city is planning to do that by adding enrichment programs at eight target schools. However, some experts have questioned the city’s plans, saying they fall far short of real integration efforts.
The report also lists enrollment data for every district and school, including the share of students who have disabilities, live in shelters, qualify for subsidized lunches, and who are still learning English. It also tallies the racial breakdown of each school and how its students performed on state tests. Most, if not all, of that data was already publicly available — but now it is compiled into a single document that may make it easier to compare schools and spot trends.
Education department spokesman Harry Hartfield said there is “no single solution” to the lack of diversity at many of the city’s schools, but that the agency would continuing working with lawmakers, educators, and families “to foster more ideas on how to create diverse schools.”
City Councilman Brad Lander, who co-sponsored the diversity bill, said in an interview before the report was released that this first installment would serve as a baseline to measure the city’s progress over time.
“We know we have segregated schools,” he said. “It’s going to show us that in fine-grained detail.”