Taking Stock

City took steps to boost academic diversity in 2015, new report shows

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.”

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. 

poster campaign

How one Memphis student is elevating the conversation about school discipline

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Posters created by junior Janiya Douglas have amplified student voices about the culture of White Station High School in Memphis.

Now in her third year of attending a premier public high school in Memphis, Janiya Douglas says she’s observed discipline being handed out unevenly to her classmates, depending on whether they are on the college preparatory track.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
From left: Janiya Douglas and Michal Mckay are student leaders in Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

“We’re heavily divided in an academic hierarchy,” said Janiya, a junior in the optional program for high-achieving students at White Station High School. “It’s obvious students are treated differently if they are in traditional classes.”

Janiya also has observed racial disparities in how students are disciplined, and the state’s data backs that up. White Station students who are black or Hispanic are suspended at significantly higher rates than students who are white.

Frustrated by what she’s seen, Janiya took her concerns last Friday to the hallways of White Station and hung 14 posters to declare that “our school doesn’t treat everybody equally.”

By Monday morning, the posters were gone — removed by school administrators because Janiya did not get prior approval — but not before other students shared images of some of the messages on social media.

Now, Janiya is seeing some fruits of her activism, spawned by her participation in Bridge Builders CHANGE, a student leadership program offered by a local nonprofit organization.

In the last week, she’s met with Principal David Mansfield, a school counselor and a district discipline specialist to discuss her concerns. She’s encouraged that someone is listening, and hopes wider conversations will follow.

The discussions also are bringing attention to an online petition by the education justice arm of Bridge Builders calling for suspension alternatives across schools in Memphis.

White Station often is cited as one of the jewels of Shelby County Schools, a district wrought with academic challenges. The East Memphis school is partially optional, meaning some students test into the college prep program from across the county.

But Janiya and some of her classmates say they also see an academically and racially segregated school where students zoned to the traditional program are looked down upon by teachers. Those students often get harsher punishments, they say, than their optional program counterparts for the same actions.

“Our school doesn’t treat everybody equally. A lot of groups aren’t treated equally in our school system,” junior Tyra Akoto said in a quote featured on one poster.

“If we get wrong with a teacher, they’ll probably write us up. But if a white student was to do it, they’ll just play it off or something like that,” said Kelsey Brown, another junior, also quoted in the poster campaign.

A district spokeswoman did not respond to questions about disciplinary issues raised by the posters, but offered a statement about their removal from the school’s walls.

White Station is known for “enabling student voice and allowing students to express their opinions in various ways,” the statement reads. “However, there are protocols in place that must be followed before placing signs, posters, or other messages on school property. Schools administrators will always work with students to ensure they feel their voices are heard.”

PHOTO: @edj.youth/Instagram
Members of the education justice arm of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program

To create the posters, Janiya interviewed about two dozen students and had been learning about about school discipline disparities as part of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

State discipline data does not differentiate academic subgroups in optional schools. But white students in Shelby County Schools are more likely to be in an optional school program and less likely to be suspended. And statewide in 2014-15, black students were more than five times as likely as white students to be suspended.

White Station reflects those same disparities. About 28 percent of black boys and 19 percent of black girls were suspended that same year — significantly higher than the school’s overall suspension rate of 14 percent. About 17 percent of Hispanic boys and 7 percent of Hispanic girls were suspended. By comparison, 9 percent of white boys and 2 percent of white girls were suspended.

Shelby County Schools has been working to overhaul its disciplinary practices to move from punitive practices to a “restorative justice” approach — a transition that is not as widespread as officials would like, according to Gina True, one of four specialists implementing a behavior system called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, or PBIS.

“The whole goal is to not get them suspended, because we want to educate them,” said True, who met this week with Janiya and several other students from Bridge Builders. “When students are cared for emotionally, they perform better academically. As counselors, that’s what we’ve been saying for years.”

Janiya acknowledges that she didn’t follow her school’s policy last week when hanging posters without permission at White Station. But she thinks her action has been a catalyst for hard conversations that need to happen. And she hopes the discussions will include more student input from her school — and across the district.

“Those most affected by the issues should always be a part of the solution,” she said.

Correction: April 10, 2017: A previous version of this story said Janiya put up 50 posters at her school. She designed 50 but actually posted only 14.