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.”

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.