shifting lines

In gentrifying Brooklyn, rezoning plan that sparked diversity debate is approved

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Members of Brooklyn's District 13 Community Education Council approved a contentious rezoning plan Tuesday evening.

Parent leaders in gentrifying Brooklyn narrowly approved a contentious rezoning plan Tuesday that has brought widespread attention to the deep race and class divisions between neighboring schools in some parts of the city.

After a weeks-long delay to give officials more time to meet with affected families, the community education council in Brooklyn’s District 13 voted 6-3 to approve the zone change for next fall. As a result, some families who would have been eligible for kindergarten spots at popular but jam-packed P.S. 8 in Brooklyn Heights will now be shifted to lower-performing P.S. 307 in nearby Vinegar Hill, which has many open seats.

While the plan was designed to relieve the overcrowding at P.S. 8 that has intensified as the school’s popularity has grown and more families have moved into its sprawling zone, it could also have the effect of diversifying P.S. 307. That school serves mostly low-income black and Hispanic students, including many who live in adjacent public housing, while the majority of P.S. 8 students are white and many are wealthy.

The plan triggered a backlash both from current P.S. 307  parents and some who would be rerouted there, illustrating the challenges of integrating a school even when it is surrounded by a mix of families. As Mayor Bill de Blasio has faced rising calls to address the lack of diversity at many schools in New York City — which is one of the nation’s most segregated districts — this rezoning battle and a similar one in the Upper West Side have come to epitomize just how difficult that will be.

But for all the fierce debates this zone change stirred up since it was proposed in September, its immediate effects could be limited. While it will shrink P.S. 8’s lengthy waitlist, the building will still be filled far above capacity. And it is possible that many would-be P.S. 8 parents who are now matched with P.S. 307 will choose not to enroll there, leaving both schools nearly as segregated as before.

“I don’t believe we’re going to make as much history as we say,” said Ben Greene, a CEC13 member and P.S. 307 parent, before he voted against the plan late Tuesday evening.

The city’s proposal came after P.S. 8 has had to cut its pre-kindergarten program and repurpose its arts classrooms to free up space for a steady stream of new students. Now at 140 percent of its intended capacity, the school last year had to place 50 prospective kindergarten students on a waitlist.

The rezoning will shrink P.S. 8’s catchment area – which spans from Brooklyn Heights to the Navy Yard – and expand P.S. 307’s, which is now just a fraction of the size of P.S. 8’s. Even though P.S. 307 draws many students from outside its current zone, it still cannot fill all its seats.

While the plan might make logistical sense, many parents rejected it.

Doreen Gallo, director of the DUMBO Neighborhood Alliance, spoke out against the rezoning plan Tuesday.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Doreen Gallo, director of the DUMBO Neighborhood Alliance, spoke out against the rezoning plan Tuesday.

Some P.S. 307 parents and residents of the Farragut Houses, who have long sent their children to that school, worried that an influx of wealthy newcomers could change the school’s character and jeopardize its federal Title I funding, which is tied to the share of needy students it enrolls. In response to those concerns, the city has said it will allow the school to reserve a portion of its seats for low-income students.

At heated public hearings, long-time residents of the area made clear that they saw the rezoning as an extension of the gentrification that has transformed the neighborhoods around the schools. Even though P.S. 307’s expanded zone retains the Farragut Houses (and actually adds more of its buildings), some residents feared that their children would be forced out as families from high-priced enclaves like DUMBO are let in.

“We have all new kinds of folks coming into town,” Farragut resident Deborah Stewart said at Tuesday’s meeting, “but the people who have been here deserve the right to have the same access to what’s being made available.”

For their part, some DUMBO parents who were set to be rezoned for P.S. 307 expressed concerns about the school’s safety record and its test scores, which fall far below the city average (though they are comparable to those at schools that serve students from similar backgrounds). Some P.S. 307 parents took offense to this, and felt that racial biases fueled some of the fears about the school, where 90 percent of students are black or Hispanic and only five percent are white. (At P.S. 8, 60 percent of students are white.)

“It makes some of these parents uncomfortable when they walk into a classroom and it’s all black and Latino,” said Faraji Hannah-Jones, co-president of P.S. 307’s parent-teacher association.

A sizable crowd attended the final rezoning vote Tuesday, which followed a series of heated public hearings this fall.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
A sizable crowd attended the final rezoning vote Tuesday, which followed a series of heated public hearings this fall.

It remains to be seen whether parents who had planned to send their children to P.S. 8 will enroll them in P.S. 307 now simply because the zoned lines have changed. Instead, some may try to secure a spot for their children in gifted and talent programs or charter schools, or decide to pay for private school, said Clara Hemphill, the founding editor of Insideschools, who is studying school segregation in New York.

“I don’t get the impression that there’s a bunch of DUMBO parents who are breaking down the door to get into 307,” she said, noting that P.S. 307 has struggled to fill its pre-K seats, which are already open to students outside its zone.

Parents who are affected by the rezoning will have little time to weigh their options. Because the vote was postponed, the kindergarten enrollment process for next year is already underway, and ends Jan. 15.

Education department spokeswoman Devora Kaye said the city will help both schools and their families transition to the new zones.

Ansley Samson, a member of P.S. 8’s parent-teacher association, said her school plans to partner with P.S. 307 during that process to “bridge the distance” between their two communities, which only seemed to widen during the high-profile rezoning debate.

“Being under the microscope has created more division,” she said. “I wish we had been able to find a way, all of us, to come together.”

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.