done deal

Finally, a school rezoning plan for the Upper West Side is approved

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
P.S. 199 (left) is a top-ranked school surrounded by pricey residential buildings. P.S. 191, which serves many students from the Amsterdam Houses (far right), has struggled with low test scores.

The District 3 Community Education Council voted Tuesday night to approve a controversial school rezoning plan that officials hope will alleviate overcrowding and integrate schools.

Members of the volunteer board voted nine to one to adopt the new school boundaries, with many emphasizing the opportunity to address historic segregation on the Upper West Side.

“Today we are taking a step to right a wrong,” said council member Manuel Casanova. “This plan puts all schools on a path to be successful.”

In a statement, schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña praised the vote and “robust” community feedback.

“This is a critical step and we will continue working closely with schools to implement this plan and support families and educators during the transition,” she said.

While many parents and community members spoke in favor of the plan, others passionately argued it won’t do much to fix jam-packed schools or segregation.

Council members admitted the changes are a modest start toward greater school diversity. Though calls for large-scale integration plans failed to gain traction during the rezoning process, many council members on Tuesday committed to pursuing the issue longer-term.

“Our district is rich in diversity,” said council member Kimberly Watkins. “We have a lot to do.”

The plan is more than a year in the making. It follows a previous proposal that was tabled by city Department of Education officials after mounting opposition.

As approved, the plan shifts zone lines around high-performing P.S. 199, cutting some families from the Lincoln Towers community out of the boundary while including other new, luxury buildings. That has been one of the main points of contention, along with the move of P.S. 452 about 16 blocks south. P.S. 452 will take the place of P.S. 191, which is moving to a new building.

Parents at P.S. 452 were divided over the move. CEC members called for busing to be provided to ease the burden on families, and council chair Joe Fiordaliso said the city has committed to do so.

“I can’t think of anything that is more logical and reasonable,” he said.

Under the new plan, the zone for P.S. 191, which previously included much of the Amsterdam Houses public housing complex, will also be split among P.S. 199 and P.S. 452. CEC members and DOE officials hope the move will more evenly distribute the area’s poor and minority students among schools.

Many parents spoke up in support of that goal.

“I think sharing our school with lots of new families is a good thing,” said Hilda Blair, a parent at P.S. 452. “If we all do this together, I know we can be successful.”

It will take time to determine whether the plan works. P.S. 191 has underperformed on state tests compared with its neighbors, and parents unhappy with the zoning changes have threatened to transfer schools — creating concerns about potential overcrowding at P.S. 87.

“If this is an overcrowding nightmare, that’s on you,” Debby Saito, co-president of the P.S. 87 parent organization, told council members. “There will be less individual attention for students; There will be more exhaustion for teachers.”

Another sticking point: Residents in Lincoln Towers contend the city’s process and data used for the rezoning were both flawed, and have hired an attorney.

“Why is my child not worth you rolling up your sleeves to get the data right and get buy-in?” asked Elyse Reilly, a new parent whose son would be rezoned from P.S. 199 to P.S. 191.

CEC member Noah Gotbaum, who cast the lone vote against the rezoning, railed against the process undertaken to arrive at the final plan. The council has been accused of violating open meetings laws when it created its own rezoning proposal and submitted it in a letter to city officials.

“I’m glad we’re changing the zoning. That’s a good move,” Gotbaum said. “But the collateral damage was never discussed… The chaos this council is going to create is real.”

A separate vote on a plan to rezone schools in Harlem was put on hold Tuesday. The CEC had asked for changes in zone lines in the northern end of the district after city officials announced their intention to merge P.S. 241 STEM Institute of Manhattan. But parents there have had little time to weigh in on the proposal, which was announced two weeks ago.

Ultimately, Tuesday’s vote is likely not the end of this debate, which has raised larger questions about how desegregation can be achieved if parents fight to preserve the status quo.

“The change we need to make is really big,” said council member Dennis Morgan. “We need to change our understanding of what a good school is, and I don’t know how to do that yet.”

pipeline problems

City pols’ report questions the fairness of starting new gifted classes in third grade

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, left, and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, right, hosted a task force to discuss issues in gifted education and specialized high schools.

When the New York City education department recently opened new gifted classes in historically underrepresented neighborhoods, it altered its approach to admissions.

By starting the programs in third grade rather than kindergarten and changing how students got in, experts said enrollment would be more fair. Black and Hispanic students make up only 27 percent of students in gifted classes, though they comprise close to 70 percent of students citywide.

But a report released Wednesday by the Bronx and Brooklyn borough presidents questions that approach, suggesting that starting in third grade is too late.

“Why deprive all gifted students of a chance at early advanced coursework?” the report asks. “Couldn’t additional services lessen the gap between ability and achievement at a young age?”

Most gifted programs start in kindergarten, with admission based on the results of formal tests. Historically, students in poorer neighborhoods take and pass the tests in much lower numbers than those in wealthier school districts.

In spring 2016, the education department opened new gifted classes in four districts that had gone years without — districts 7 and 12 in the Bronx and 16 and 23 in Brooklyn. Those programs admit students in third grade based on their classroom grades and teacher recommendations.

Using multiple measures instead of a single test score and starting the process later could make it less likely that students are admitted based on solely on the advantages they bring from home — such as the ability to prep for a test.

“This is good news that they’re using multiple measures and they’re opening up access to these programs,” researcher Allison Roda said at the time, though she added that she has reservations about separating students into gifted classrooms in the first place.

But the new report on gifted education from Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams and Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. raises questions about whether the changes are truly fair. Basing admissions on teacher recommendations may be problematic, the report argues, because bias could play a role in classifying students as gifted or disabled. And, most New York City students still enter gifted from a very early age.

“The DOE is adding third- and fourth-grade classes, but has still not committed to kindergarten, first, and second grade programs in all districts,” the report notes. “We demand this commitment to programs from the earliest ages equally throughout the city.”

Among the report’s other recommendations:

  • Universal gifted testing for pre-K students, unless parents choose to opt out.
  • Creating access to gifted classrooms in every community.
  • Expanding gifted options in middle school at either the district or citywide level. Research has found that just a handful of middle schools are major feeders for students who go on to specialized high schools, which are themselves starkly segregated.

In an emailed statement, an education department spokesman wrote: “We’ll review the recommendations in the report, and look forward to working with the borough presidents to increase access to high-quality schools.”

room for improvement

Digging into details of mayor’s diversity plan, critics see easy goals and iffy approaches

PHOTO: IntegratNYC4Me
New York City students calling for school integration rallied at City Hall on Saturday, May 27.

After waiting for almost a year, integration advocates finally learned what New York City plans to do about its severe school segregation. They were largely unimpressed.

“The tone the plan took was, ‘We encourage people to do this from the bottom-up.’ But the time for encouragement is over,” said Shino Tanikawa, a Community Education Council member in District 2 who has worked on school integration issues. “It’s time to start doing this work.”

Josh Wallack, a deputy chancellor in the education department, said the city’s proposal, released Tuesday, is the beginning of “a more intense conversation.”

“We made some really concrete steps,” he said.

Among the city’s goals: increasing the number of students in schools that are racially representative of the city. But the city’s definition of “racially representative” raised eyebrows. While the city’s students are 70 percent black or Hispanic, the education department defines racially representative schools as those that enroll between 50 percent and 90 percent black and Hispanic students, which some advocates consider too low a bar.

Even if the city reaches its goal for reducing the number of “economically stratified” schools by 10 percent in the next five years, about 60 percent would remain segregated by income.

“The goals are negligible in comparison to the scale of the problem,” Emmaia Gelman, a District 3 parent who has worked on integration efforts, wrote in a comment on a Chalkbeat report.

Some elements of the plan call for doubling down on programs that have shown little impact so far. For example, the city is expanding test prep for the Specialized High School Admissions Test, and administering the exam in more underrepresented schools.

Both have been tried, and yet there has been virtually no change when it comes to admissions offers made to black and Hispanic students. The expansion of these programs “will neither improve outcomes — just as they have not in the past — nor do they represent a public acknowledgement that the SHSAT is not the mechanism by which merit can be fairly assessed,” Lazar Treschan, who has studied specialized high schools for the Community Service Society of New York, wrote in a statement. Nevertheless, he called the department’s plan an “important” first step.

It’s unclear whether other larger-scale plans, such as eliminating the “limited unscreened” admissions method at high schools, will spur desegregation. Limited unscreened schools give admissions priority to students who express interest by attending an open house or high school fair, a system that advantages families with more time and resources.

Advocates were anxious to see how the city’s creation a School Diversity Advisory group will play out. The city has said this group will evaluate the city’s proposals thus far, come up with recommendations and help lead community engagement efforts in districts that are already working on diversity issues. The group’s recommendations are nonbinding and its representatives were selected by the city.

David Kirkland, executive director of the New York University Metro Center, said the group could “have teeth.”

But Matt Gonzales, who leads school integration efforts with the nonprofit New York Appleseed, said its success will “ultimately depend on who else is in that group.”

Part of the group’s work will be to make recommendations for the “long-term governance structure” for school diversity work within the education department. Miriam Nunberg, a parent in District 15 who has worked to make middle school admissions more equitable, said that will be important to watch as the city moves forward.

“The biggest thing missing is high-level, administrative oversight [by someone] who is financially empowered and accountable,” she said.

Tanikawa said she had hoped to see a requirement that individual school districts come up with their own plans to create and support integration.

“I wish there was a bigger, stronger commitment,” she said. “I know the chancellor has said she doesn’t like to mandate, but there are many mandates on schools. I don’t see why this can’t be a mandate that allows for a bottom-up, community-driven process.”

Hebh Jamal, a student activist with IntegrateNYC4Me, wants students to have a greater say as the city continues its work.

“We understand the problem. We see it every day,” she said. We’re going to continue to advocate for exactly the type of ideal school system we want.”