opting out of ed-opt

Why some New York City high schools that were designed to be diverse aren’t

Students in a ninth-grade English class at Richard R. Green High School of Teaching in lower Manhattan.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Students in a ninth-grade English class at Richard R. Green High School of Teaching in lower Manhattan.

In New York City’s stratified high school system, some schools abound with academic superstars, while others are crowded with students who struggle with basic math and reading.

One group of schools was designed to be different.

Using an admissions model that experts have called a “triumph of educational engineering,” these high schools are set up to enroll students along a neat academic bell curve, reserving spots for applicants at different academic rungs. Many of the schools also feature a career-focused theme like business management or nursing that is meant to entice a range of students to apply.

The approach, which is called educational option, or “ed opt,” dates back to the 1970s, but it has been held up recently as a tool for integrating schools. Last month, the education department said it was expanding the number of ed-opt schools as one step to make its high schools more diverse.

But there’s a problem: At many schools, it’s not working.

Consider the Richard R. Green High School of Teaching, a small school in Lower Manhattan that uses the ed-opt admissions system.

Last year, fewer than a half-dozen of the school’s 151 freshmen had passed the state English tests in eighth grade, according to newly released education department data. And the lack of academic diversity is matched by the school’s racial breakdown: 90 percent of students are black or Hispanic, while just 2 percent are white.

"74% of fully ed-opt schools enrolled virtually no ninth-graders who read on grade level."

“You’ve got a school that’s supposed to be ed opt with that diversity, but isn’t so much,” said Principal Nigel Pugh. “That’s one of the things we’ve been working on a lot.”

His school is not alone.

Of the high schools that use ed opt as their sole admissions system last school year, 32 of 43 enrolled virtually no freshmen who had passed the previous year’s state English test, city data show. (Another 83 high schools use ed opt in combination with other admissions methods.)

And while the model is touted as a tool that can lead to racial diversity, the average fully ed-opt school has a student population that is 86 black and Hispanic and only 6 percent white.

The problem, experts and principals say, is that most of those schools find it impossible to fill their slots for high-performing students. A key reason is that New York City’s high school choice system now features a multitude of selective schools that compete with ed-opt programs for top students — but which don’t have to enroll students at a mix of skill levels.

In that system, sought-after selective schools usually come out on top. Last year, out of nearly 500 traditional high schools, just 81 selective schools enrolled almost two-thirds of the ninth-graders who read on grade level, leaving many ed-opt schools to vie for the rest.

“The problem with ed-opt schools,” said Clara Hemphill, editor of the website, Insideschools, “is that if they can’t attract a range of kids, then they just have low-performers.”

The rise and fall of ed opt

Today, much of ed opt’s luster has been lost to selective schools. But when it emerged in the 1970s and 80s, some of its early adopters were incredibly popular.

Take Murry Bergtraum High School, one of eight original ed-opt schools. In 1985, more than 23,000 students applied for its 850 seats. (By contrast, fewer than 300 students applied for its 150 ed-opt seats in 2014.)

Unlike the neighborhood high schools that most students attended in those years, ed-opt programs were able to draw students from across the city — like magnet programs, which began around the same time. Both were designed partly as a way to draw middle-class families into schools that grown more segregated after white flight to the suburbs. But ed-opt programs came with a twist: They had to enroll students of varying skill levels.

Eventually, the city settled on its current goal that 16 percent of incoming students should be low-performing, 68 percent average, and 16 percent top-performing, as measured by their seventh-grade scores on the state English exams. Academically diverse schools are often mixed by race and class as well, which decades of research have shown to benefit students in the classroom and beyond.

Ed-opt programs became increasingly common until Mayor Michael Bloomberg took office and closed many schools, and their numbers fell. Today, 146 schools use the model for at least part of their admissions, including 20 new programs set to start next fall.

"Six out of every 10 eighth-graders who passed their English tests enrolled in just 81 selective schools last year."

In the past, high-performing students flocked to the most popular ed-opt schools because they had few alternatives. “If it weren’t for the quotas, given the way smart kids are trying to vote with their feet, the city could have several more superschools on its brag list tomorrow,” New York magazine proclaimed in a 1998 article about ed-opt schools.

But, in later years, there was a rise in the number of selective schools that screen all of their students by test scores, middle-school grades, and attendance — and that are free to take only the top performers. The swelling competition added to the recruitment challenges for ed-opt schools whose location or reputation had already made it hard to attract students.

“In a lot of schools, [ed-opt programs] were in name only,” said Peter Goodman, who taught at James Madison High School in Brooklyn from the 1960s through the 90s.

Recruitment for ed-opt schools is “much more difficult now,” he added, “with all the screened options.”

English teacher Gina Malanga works with a student at Richard R. Green High School of Teaching in lower Manhattan.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
English teacher Gina Malanga works with a student at Richard R. Green High School of Teaching in lower Manhattan.

Ed opt vs. screened

Today, most of the fully ed-opt schools fail to draw almost any high-achieving students.

Those students might be unaware of the schools, uninterested in their themes, or unimpressed by their academics. But most of those top students are also jostling for spots at the city’s few “specialized” schools like Bronx Science or the many popular screened schools, which many families consider the surest pathway into elite colleges.

Now, low-performing students are most likely to apply to ed-opt schools, according to a 2013 report by the Research Alliance for New York City Schools. Last year, 83 percent of the incoming freshmen at the fully ed-opt schools did not read on grade level, according to city data, compared to 60 percent of freshmen at schools with screened or test-based admissions.

According to some experts, the only way to boost diversity at ed-opt schools is to reduce the number of screened schools, or convert them into ed-opt.

But, in fact, the reverse has happened.

Former ed-opt schools such as Baruch College Campus High School and Beacon High School shed their bell-curve admissions requirements, and are now among the city’s most competitive screened schools. And of the 20 new ed-opt programs taking applicants next fall, only three are switching away from fully screened admissions.

Carolyn Sattin-Bajaj, an education policy professor at Seton Hall University who has studied the city’s high school admissions system, said that simply applying the model to less popular schools is unlikely to help.

“Just slapping on the ed-opt label to a school that is not particularly in demand,” she said, “will not miraculously achieve diversity.”

In fact, administrators at a few current and prospective ed-opt schools said they doubt they will ever be able to hit their quota for above-average students. Rather than a path to diversity, some view ed opt more as a tool to carefully screen low-performing students.

At ed-opt schools, the city randomly offers admission to half of applicants, while the schools sort through the other half. Though they must admit a portion of students with low test scores, they can select ones who have good attendance records or who are the expected age, a sign they have not been held back.

“My thought is, if I’m going to get the lower-level kids anyway,” an assistant principal at one ed-opt school said, “I’d rather get the kids that I pick.”

Deputy Chancellor Phil Weinberg visited the High School of Telecommunication Arts and Technology, the diverse ed-opt school in Brooklyn that he led for many years.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Deputy Chancellor Phil Weinberg visited the High School of Telecommunication Arts and Technology in 2014, the diverse ed-opt school in Brooklyn that he led for many years.

Making ed opt work

Of course, under the right conditions, the ed-opt model can lay the groundwork for remarkably diverse schools.

Robert F. Kennedy Community High School, a longtime ed-opt school in Kew Gardens Hills, Queens, is filled with Asian, black, Hispanic and white students, city data shows. It welcomes freshmen who failed their middle-school exams, along with ones who aced them.

Principal Beshir Abdellatif said the school benefits from the diversity of families in the district it pulls from. But he also described an aggressive recruiting practice: He gives PowerPoint presentations to eighth-graders at all the local middle schools, attends their parent association meetings, and even added Mandarin-language courses to appeal to the area’s growing Chinese population.

“It’s tough but it’s worth it,” he said, pointing to the school’s mélange of students. “It’s like a mini-United Nations.”

Deputy Chancellor Phil Weinberg, who was the longtime principal of the High School for Telecommunication Arts and Technology, a diverse ed-opt school in Brooklyn, said the burden is on ed-opt schools to foster that diversity through “smart outreach” to families from different backgrounds. He suggested that the city would not alter the choice system — for example, by reducing the number of screened schools — simply to help ed-opt schools recruit more top students.

Families make choices “about where they might want to be,” he said. “Correcting for that isn’t something that we would do.”

That leaves diversity looking like a distant dream for some schools.

Evan Schwartz, principal of Alfred E. Smith High School in the South Bronx, said the city is allowing his school to launch an ed-opt program this fall because it has been able to drum up demand: Last year, five students applied for every open seat. And yet, he still doubts that the school will be able to attract the top-scoring students it would need to become academically diverse.

“I don’t know if, in the end,” he said about becoming ed opt, “it’s going to help us that much.”

Stephanie Snyder contributed reporting.

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.