sorting the students

New York City families spend millions of hours choosing high schools, and students from poor neighborhoods finish last: report

PHOTO: Jessica Glazer

New York City eighth graders and their families are spending up to 5.7 million hours every year navigating a high school admissions process that was in part designed to break the link between students’ ZIP codes and their academic outcomes — but that link remains strong, according to a new report.

While the city’s overall four-year graduation rate was 70.5 percent last year, it was as high as 95 percent for students from Greenwich Village and SoHo but as low as 60.9 percent for students who lived in the Morris Heights neighborhood of the Bronx.

That’s the takeaway from a report released Wednesday by Measure of America, which is unusual for focusing on where students live, rather than where they go to school. Below are a few key findings:

Disparities in graduation rates are greater between the city’s neighborhoods than they are between its racial and ethnic groups. 

The report attributes this in part to the city’s residential segregation — which affects the schools families choose, too.

“Parents and kids alike canvass friends, relatives, and neighbors for information about which schools would be a good fit. This approach may serve to limit the schools that families investigate and to which they feel comfortable applying to those suggested by people they know and trust. Because New York City is highly segregated by race, ethnicity, educational attainment, and income, this circle of trusted advisors tends to be limited to others who share one’s socioeconomic status. This insularity benefits the privileged, who hear about and apply to the best schools, and harms the disadvantaged, whose social networks tend to be limited to others with fewer resources.”

The high-school choice system can leave average students in low-income neighborhoods out of luck.

Researchers point to what they call “cumulative disadvantage,” starting with the effects of poorer health and economic insecurity that often come with living in poor neighborhoods.

“The best high schools in the city require certain qualifications—a minimum score on a standardized test, strong English essay writing skills, or the ability to play a musical instrument or produce high-quality works of art. As a result, students whose elementary- and middle-school education and family background did not prepare them to score well on entrance exams, perform, or assemble a portfolio—a group that is disproportionately low-income—are at a disadvantage in gaining admission.”

One of their conclusions:

“We often hear about smart, motivated teens from poor pockets of the city who have benefited from leaving underperforming schools behind. But what about those who have not benefited? The data show that far too many young people from low-income black and Latino neighborhoods in the Bronx and central Brooklyn are winding up in high schools with low graduation rates, going to school mostly with other teens who share their socioeconomic disadvantages.”

Even the process of picking schools is weighted against students in poor neighborhoods.

One factor is what the researchers call “time poverty”:

“The most competitive schools hold few open houses, make a limited number of ‘test tickets’ available in a very short window, and schedule interviews within a several-week period. Competition in this arena is a blood sport, and successful admission to the best selective high schools requires focus, contacts, money, time, flexibility, transportation, extreme attention to detail, and the ability to prioritize the school admissions process over work or family obligations. In all of these areas the privileged have a significant advantage over others, especially poor families and immigrant families.”

Another is geography.

“Although most students leave their immediate neighborhoods to attend high school, their preference tends to be schools that are closer to home … Four of the five poorest community districts in NYC, for instance, are concentrated in the Bronx; attending a school in a more affluent area would require a long trip for someone living in Morrisania or East Tremont.”

The backdrop to this is that New York City’s high school graduation rates have risen sharply over the last 10 years. And, of course, the admissions process isn’t easy for anyone — including middle-class families and people who navigate it for a living.

Here’s what it looks like, how it came to be, and one perspective on what it would take to get more students into schools where they’d be likely to graduate.

democrats for school integration

Want to reduce racial segregation? Elect a Democrat to school board, study says

PHOTO: Matt Detrich

When Republicans won control of the Wake County, North Carolina school board in 2009, they promised to eliminate the district’s racial integration program in favor of “community schools” closer to students’ homes — and they did. By 2012, Democrats had retaken control and were trying to change course.

The shifts caught the attention of Duke professor Hugh Macartney, who wondered whether party labels predict how school boards will address — or fail to address — school segregation.

Now, a new study released by Macartney and John Singleton of the University of Rochester suggests that Wake County was not unique. Electing Democratic school board members, they found, leads to less-segregated schools.

The results are substantial: Electing at least one Democrat leads to students being “reassigned in such a way that the school board is now 18 percent closer to achieving the district [average racial breakdown] for each school,” said Macartney.

The first-of-its-kind paper, which is set to be released through the National Bureau of Economic Research, examines hundreds of school board elections in North Carolina between 2008 and 2012. The researchers compared districts that narrowly elected Democrats to those that narrowly elected non-Democrats — largely Republicans, but including independents. (Like most school board races, the North Carolina elections were technically nonpartisan; the researchers later matched school board candidates to the party they were registered with.)

Racial segregation was likely reduced, Macartney and Singleton show, by changes to school attendance zones. Non-Democrats made fewer changes, “potentially allowing residential sorting to increase segregation without substantial intervention,” the paper says.  

“The reductions in segregation with the change of the school board are really interesting and line up with, anecdotally, what we’ve seen in some school districts that have made strong moves on this front,” said Halley Potter a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a progressive think that that backs school integration.

Democratic efforts to reduce segregation may have caused one unintended — albeit unsurprising — consequence: “white flight,” the migration of white families out of a district in order to avoid integration efforts.

The study shows that electing a Democrat leads to a reduction in the share of white students attending the public school district, though the research can’t definitely identify the cause. This effect does not wipe out the integration gains, though.

Potter notes that some of the departing families may have left heavily white districts, which would not hamper integration efforts. She also points out that the effect may have been caused by families of color entering the district as opposed to white families leaving.

The paper has not been formally peer-reviewed. But David Deming, a Harvard economist who has examined segregation in North Carolina and briefly reviewed the study, said the authors used a well-established research approach.

The study highlights the importance of school board elections, given the ability of one policymaker to ameliorate segregation — as well as the diverging education agendas of different parties.

“Policymaking is all about trade-offs, and we should expect Republicans to prioritize different things than Democrats do. Like achievement and choice, for example,” said Mike Petrilli of the Fordham Institute, a conservative education think tank.

But a number of studies have shown that more integrated schools improve the achievement of low-income and black students. Deming’s research found that the end of busing-based integration efforts in Charlotte led to higher crime rates and lower achievement among students of color.

Macartney’s study doesn’t look at the effect of a board’s partisan makeup on student outcomes. He also found no link between changes in economic — as opposed to racial — segregation in schools and a board’s political leanings.

In addition to the changes in enrollment zones, one possible explanation for the results is Republican support for school choice policies. Other research has found that North Carolina’s charter schools have increased segregation.

However, Potter says one way to make integration more politically tenable is to include some parent choice in assignment systems designed to prioritize diversity.

Wake County, she said, is one example of the power of school board elections to derail such integration plans. The study, Potter said, “reveals some precariousness that we want to think about — how to set up enrollment plans and priorities that can’t be unwound with one election.”

Indianapolis schools divided

Admissions changes are diversifying Indianapolis Public Schools most popular magnets. Now, the district may go further.

PHOTO: Provided by Indianapolis Public Schools
The magnet priority admission boundaries adopted by Indianapolis Public Schools in 2016.

New rules designed to make Indianapolis Public Schools’ most sought after schools more accessible for low-income families and children of color appear to be working. But with admissions still skewed, the administration is proposing going even further.

Across IPS, just one in five students are white and nearly 70 percent of students are poor enough to qualify for meal assistance. But at three of the district’s most sought after magnet schools, white students fill most of the seats and the vast majority of students come from middle class or affluent families.

At a board meeting last month, district staff highlighted School 60 (the Butler University lab school), School 84 and School 2 (both Center for Inquiry schools) as three schools where seats fill up fast and enrollment doesn’t reflect the demographics of the district.

In a bid to make those schools more accessible for low-income families and children of color, the board changed the admissions rules for magnets last fall. They shrank the boundaries that give priority to families who live near the schools, which is important because the three most popular schools drew from areas with more white, affluent families. And they changed the timeline for magnet admission to allow families to apply later.

“Magnet schools were born out of the civil rights movement and were intended to help school districts to re-integrate,” former-board member Gayle Cosby said at the time. “We want to make sure that magnet schools are not actually serving a different purpose in our district.”

The changes appear to have opened Schools 2, 84 and 60 to more students of color, according to data from the first admission cycle under the new rules. Next year, 32 percent of kindergarteners are expected to be children of color. That’s more than double last year, when just 14 percent of kindergarteners were not white.

But those demographics don’t come close to matching the district, where 72 percent of kindergarteners are children of color.

IPS director of enrollment and options Patrick Herrel said the goal should be for admissions at the most popular magnet schools to reflect district demographics.

“All kids, regardless of background, (should) have an equal chance of accessing some of our highest quality schools,” he said. “We moved in the right direction, but we are absolutely not there yet.”

The changes also aim to make the schools more economically diverse, but the data on income diversity among kindergarteners won’t be available until students complete enrollment and income verification paperwork, according to an IPS official.

District staff say IPS could do more. Last month, they presented the board with a plan to reserve more seats for students who apply late in the cycle. IPS data shows that students who apply later in the spring are more likely to come from low-income families and to be children of color.  

The move would double down on a change made last year, when the district switched from a single admissions lottery in January to three lotteries. Last year, 70 percent of seats were available in the January lottery, but 30 percent were held for lotteries in March and April. The new proposal calls for going further by reserving half the seats at magnet schools for the March and April lotteries.

When the board voted on the change to admissions rules last fall, there was strong momentum behind the move to change magnet lottery rules, following a Chalkbeat and IndyStar series on segregation in schools that found the district’s most popular programs primarily served privileged students. But there was also resistance from some parents, many of whom came from neighborhoods that lost their edge in gaining entry to popular schools.

It’s unclear whether board members will be willing to risk more backlash from parents who have the means to travel to other districts or pay private school tuition. The board did not vote on the latest lottery proposal, and it received mixed feedback.

Board member Diane Arnold said she supports holding more seats for later lotteries when more children of color apply.

“I like the fact that we are looking at playing with those percentages … connecting that to equity and trying to get more children engaged in those programs,” she said.

But board member Kelly Bentley was more skeptical. Equity is important, she said, but if parents don’t know whether their children are admitted to their top choice school until late April, they might choose another school.

“That’s a … loss of a student and a loss of revenue to the district,” she said. “I think we need to be very careful on making any changes.”