diversity in decline

Even fewer black and Hispanic students win seats at city’s elite high schools this year

Students take an AP exam at Bronx Science, one of the city's specialized high schools.

Despite sustained pressure on the city to increase diversity to the city’s most elite public high schools, the already-small number of black and Hispanic students winning seats fell this year, highlighting Mayor Bill de Blasio’s struggle to fulfill his promise to make those schools’ populations more reflective of the city.

Just 4 percent of offers to the eight specialized high schools where admission is based solely on exam scores went to black students, while just over 6 percent went to Hispanic students, according to data released Friday by the education department. Together, those groups represent about 70 percent of the city’s public-school population.

One of the schools, Staten Island Technical High School, did not have a single black student receive an offer this year, down from 10 offers last year. And just 23 black and Hispanic students won seats at the most prestigious of those schools, Stuyvesant High School, compared to 31 students last year.

On the campaign trail, de Blasio promised to overhaul the way students are admitted to those schools by replacing the single test with multiple criteria, such as grades and work samples. However, a bill in the state legislature that would have instituted such a change seems to have stalled, and de Blasio has not focused his lobbying efforts in Albany on reviving it.

When the offer numbers were released last year, Chancellor Carmen Fariña proposed several possible ways to boost diversity at the specialized schools, such as expanding a test-preparation program and considering changes to the admissions system. However, even as the share of offers to black and Hispanic students declined this year, Fariña did not put forward any specific plans to reverse the slide — instead suggesting that the expansion of pre-kindergarten would help remedy the problem over time.

“We continue to review a variety of strategies to foster diversity at these schools,” she said in a statement Friday. “Still, we know that the best way to promote diversity at these schools is to ensure that every students gets a high-quality education starting in pre-K.”

The education department also released a different figure, which highlighted one area of diversity where it is making progress: the number of students with disabilities at selective high schools.

This year, 2,534 students with disabilities received offers to screened schools, which are separate from the specialized schools and base admissions on multiple factors, including state test scores, class grades, and attendance. That number is up from 919 students in 2012, when the previous administration ordered those schools to begin enrolling more students with special needs.

Still, the glaring lack of racial diversity at the specialized schools represents a formidable challenge for de Blasio, whose son attended the largest of those schools, Brooklyn Technical High School. During his mayoral campaign, de Blasio insisted that the schools “have to reflect the city better.”

Out of 27,000 eighth-graders who took the two-and-a-half-hour admissions exam this fall, just over 5,100 students scored high enough to receive offers. Nearly 54 percent of those students were Asian, a group that accounts for just under 16 percent of the citywide student population. About 27 percent of offers went to white students, who represent roughly 15 percent of all students.

“It’s important that our City’s specialized high schools reflect the diversity around them, and we are committed to achieving that without impacting rigorous standards,” Fariña added in her statement, hinting at the concern among some alumni that replacing the test-only admissions system would result in lower standards. They insist that a single entrance exam is the most fair and objective system.

The department also announced Friday that 93 percent of the 76,487 eighth-graders who submitted applications in December have now been matched with a high school, which is about the same percentage as last year. About three-quarters of those students received one of their top three choices (they are allowed to select up to 12 schools).

That leaves roughly 7 percent of students without matches. Those students will participate in a second admissions round, which is also open to students who are unhappy with their offers.

The city will host fairs on March 12 and 13 where students can meet representatives of schools that still have available seats. Then they must submit their second applications by March 18, and wait for a match in May.

Correction: This story has been corrected to show that just over 6 percent of offers to the eight exam-admissions specialized high schools this year went to Hispanic students, not 7 percent.

Shrinking

It’s official. Achievement School District will close a second school in Memphis

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
KIPP Memphis University Middle is closing after three years of operation under the state-run Achievement School District. The school operates in a former school building operated by Shelby County Schools.

In the months since KIPP decided to pull out of one of its state-run charter schools, officials with Tennessee’s turnaround district have been publicly mum about what happens next, leaving most to believe the Memphis school will close at the end of the school year.

A top official with the Achievement School District now confirms that’s the plan.

The ASD is not seeking a successor to KIPP for Memphis University Middle School and “is not obligated to look for another operator,” said Bobby White, the ASD’s chief of external affairs.

White noted that the South Memphis school was started from scratch — and is not an existing low-performing school taken from the local district with the charge of turning it around.

University Middle thus becomes the second ASD charter school that will close under the 5-year-old turnaround district. Klondike Preparatory Academy Elementary, a turnaround school also in Memphis, is already slated to shut down this spring after its operator, Gestalt Community Schools, pulls out of the ASD completely. KIPP will continue to operate three other ASD schools in Memphis and four other charters through Shelby County Schools.

The confirmation of a second closure comes as state leaders are reexamining the ASD’s structure and purpose and proposing to curtail its ability to grow — even as the state-run district struggles with sustainability due to a lack of students in Memphis, where the bulk of its schools are located. A bill filed recently in the legislature would stop the ASD from starting new charter schools such as KIPP’s University Middle, rather than just overhauling existing schools that are struggling.

The ASD was created as a vehicle to dramatically improve schools in the state’s bottom 5 percent but began authorizing charter organizations to start some new schools as well. The pending legislation, which is supported by leaders of both the State Department of Education and the ASD, would return the district to its original purpose.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Bobby White is the ASD’s chief of external affairs.

KIPP’s Memphis board cited low enrollment and a remote location when voting last December to pull out this spring from University Middle, which it opened in 2014. Its leaders have told parents they plan to merge the school with KIPP Memphis Preparatory Middle, another ASD school located about nine miles away.

Even with KIPP’s departure, ASD officials had authority to continue to operate University Middle with another manager. However, the challenges with enrollment and location made that option highly unlikely.

The middle school is housed in the former White’s Chapel Elementary School building, which Shelby County Schools closed in 2013 with 181 students — more than KIPP was able to attract under the ASD.

Under-enrollment was also cited by leaders of Gestalt, a Memphis-based charter organization that announced last fall plans to pull out of both of its ASD schools. The state-run district has since found a new operator for one Gestalt school and confirmed last month that it plans to close the other.

the right mix

How two Manhattan moms are trying to convince their peers that integration is good for everyone

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Shino Tanikawa, left, and Robin Broshi, right, say academic integration is a key to creating diverse schools.

As support among local advocates and officials builds for policies to help desegregate New York City schools, two Manhattan moms say mixing students of different ability levels is a key part of the equation.

Robin Broshi and Shino Tanikawa, both members of the District 2 Community Education Council, point to the middle schools in their district, which includes lower Manhattan, Chinatown and the Upper East Side. Most middle schools there are unzoned and supposed to be open to everyone. But with a highly selective application process, many of the schools end up divided academically — and by race and class.

Broshi and Tanikawa are determined to change that, but first they’ll have to convince their peers that academically integrated schools work for everyone — even students who are already high-achievers.

“My feeling is most parents will support a racially diverse school and they might even support a socioeconomically diverse school, but they still might have a problem understanding that an academically diverse school is also good for their kids,” Tanikawa said.

Their effort is rooted in an understanding of how race and class impact student achievement, and how using test scores and report cards in admissions decisions can shut vulnerable students out.

“If you look at test scores and you say, ‘We want to create academically screened schools that also reflect all the other diversities,’ you’re not really going to be able to do that,” Broshi said. “The whole reason we’re in this situation is because there’s an academic component.”

***

The kind of academic mixing that Broshi and Tanikawa propose is something similar to the city’s “educational option” high schools. Also known as “ed-opt,” these schools were designed to enroll students from across the educational spectrum. The city Department of Education has said it’s not interested in adding screened programs at the high school level, and has increased the number of ed-opt seats by 14 percent since 2015.

Broshi and Tanikawa aren’t yet advocating for specific changes to the middle school admissions process; they hope those details will grow out of community conversations that are just getting started. One forum the educational council organized last spring, which featured researchers talking about their work on integration, attracted a crowd of parents.

Still, Tanikawa knows it will take more than that to convince wary peers. If necessary, she’s ready to visit every PTA in the sprawling district to make her case.

“The only way to do it is to go to where the parents are, not to ask them to come to where we are,” Tanikawa said.

She is likely to face fierce resistance.

In 2013, when the city Department of Education opened a new middle school on the Upper East Side and proposed that only half the student body be screened, about 500 people wrote to the department calling for full academic screening instead.

“Without a screen … there is no ability to control what kind of kids will enroll,” one commenter wrote. “Half of the students will get in purely on luck, and these students will impede the success of the school.”

***

The question of how mixing students affects an overall student body has yielded a significant amount of research, much of which supports a different conclusion: As with integrating students of different races and economic backgrounds, mixing students with different academic abilities can benefit all.

One meta-analysis of four decades of research showed that academic mixing had positive effects for struggling students — and no effect, positive or negative, for average and high-achieving students.

Other studies have found more advantages.

One study of a Long Island high school found that graduation rates among all students shot up when the district stopped using different academic “tracks” with separate curricula for high- and low-performing students. Instead, all students were taught under a program that was previously only taught to top students.

Certain mixed-class models are especially promising, said Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a think tank that studies inequality.

He recommends approaches such as “embedded honors,” where students are taught the same lessons in the same classroom, but assigned varying levels of work. Cooperative learning, where small groups of students at different achievement levels help each other, can also work, he said. A review of almost 400 studies found that cooperative learning can boost higher-level thinking and promote the generation of new ideas, Kahlenberg writes in his book “All Together Now.”

But de-tracking is not easy to get right. In cases where the gap between top-performers and struggling students is too big, there may be no benefits for either.

Other research has shown that struggling students can, in fact, have a negative effect on peers. In one study, economists looked at the impact of the arrival of hurricane evacuees on Houston schools. The result: low-achieving evacuees brought down the average performance of high-achieving Houston students. On the other hand, the arrival of high-performing evacuees had a positive effect.

***

Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and author of “The Diverse Schools Dilemma,” said it’s “reasonable” for parents to ask how their children will do in an academically mixed classroom.

Regardless of a school’s student body, he says, educational success depends largely on the quality of teaching and leadership.

“If the school can do a reasonable job to provide some accommodations for your child, and you get to have this experience of integration, then that’s great,” Petrilli said. “But there are tradeoffs. And I guess in the best case scenario, parents should be able to make a decision about those tradeoffs.”

For Tanikawa, the tradeoffs, if there are any, are well worth it if academic mixing leads to greater integration by race and class. The benefits of diverse schools — better graduation rates in high school and college, and even higher incomes later in life — have been thoroughly documented.

In the classroom, students from different backgrounds bring new experiences and ideas, which stimulates more engaging classroom discussions, improves critical thinking and may even boost creativity, according to one 2016 report from the Century Foundation. It prepares students to work in multicultural environments and can lead to more civic participation later in life.

“I know there’s a lot more to schools than academic achievement,” Tanikawa said. “I want parents to start thinking about what else makes a good education.”