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.”

Teens Take Charge

New York City students and podcasters team up to share stories of inequity in schools

PHOTO: Brett Rawson
Teens Take Charge is a student-led organization that hopes to spark change in schools.

If you ask Sherard Stephens, a senior at Hostos-Lincoln Academy of Science in the Bronx, there are two different types of schools in New York City: There are schools where resources are plentiful and students feel challenged academically. But there are dozens of others that barely provide the basics, and those largely cater to black, Hispanic and poor students.

Stephens and other students like him think it’s time to talk about that, which is why they’ve launched Teens Take Charge. The new group, which includes students from almost every borough, wants to give young people a voice when it comes to issues they know well: what goes on in their own schools.

“It’s all about us talking about the fact that we don’t have the resources to reach the same level of success,” he said.

On Friday, Teens Take Charge will host their first event at the Bronx Library Center. Through letters, storytelling and poetry, students will tackle issues such as segregation and standardized testing. They hope their stories, along with student-moderated discussions, will spark change within their schools.

Called “To Whom it Should Concern,” the event will also feature art work and a photo booth, and will be completely led by students. But they’ve had help along the way from Handwritten, an organization that focuses on the art of writing by hand, along with The Bell, a new podcast created by Taylor McGraw and Adrian Uribarri to highlight student voices.

McGraw teaches writing at Achievement First University Prep High School in Brooklyn and Uribarri works in communications. Their podcast, which launched this month, focuses on school segregation in New York City — more than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark Supreme Court decision that separate schools for black and white students are inherently unequal.

The podcast was inspired by just a few lines in Chief Justice Earl Warren’s opinion in that case, in which he wrote that segregation “generates a feeling of inferiority” for minority students “that may affect their hearts and minds.”

McGraw wanted to explore the impact that segregation has on students by letting them speak for themselves.

“I want to know: How does it make them think about themselves? How does it make them think about society and their place in it? And then, what’s their response to it?” McGraw said. “So many of the other inequities that we talk about and hear about stem from segregation.”

He hopes to share clips from Friday’s event in an upcoming podcast episode.

For more information about To Whom it Should Concern, click here. To listen to the first episode of The Bell or read more about Teens Take Charge, click here.

Great Divide

Middle school acceptance letters are out. Here’s why parents say the application process leads to segregation

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
M.S. 51 in Park Slope is one of the most coveted and competitive middle schools in District 15.

Starting today, thousands of New York City students will find out where they’ll be going for middle school — setting off a sorting process that parents say leads to school segregation.

Unlike elementary schools, many middle schools in New York City don’t have set attendance zones based on a student’s address, and families have to apply to get in. Some middle schools serve as a funnel to top high schools, but those “feeder” schools receive mountains of applications for a limited number of spots.

With countless hours of research plus school visits, high-stakes student interviews and even tests, many parents find the process too stressful for elementary school-aged students. But some say there’s an even bigger problem with the application process: It’s leading to racial, economic and academic segregation. Diverse, multicultural New York City has one of the most segregated school districts in the country.

In two local school districts, parents are pushing for changes to the application process to make it more fair.

In District 2 — which includes much of Lower Manhattan, Chinatown and the Upper East Side — two parents on the local Community Education Council want to make sure their middle schools include students at a range of academic levels. That will lead to more racial and economic integration, say Shino Tanikawa and Robin Broshi.

“There’s a lot more to schools than academic achievement,” Tanikawa recently told Chalkbeat. “I want parents to start thinking about what else makes a good education.”

Academic segregation is not just a middle school problem: Chalkbeat has chronicled the extreme academic sorting that goes on in New York City high schools.

In District 15, which includes Park Slope and Sunset Park in Brooklyn, a group of parents are also lobbying for changes to middle school admissions. City Councilman Brad Lander, who has taken a leading role on addressing school segregation, recently suggested the district should require all middle schools to set aside a certain percentage of seats for low-income students.

Mayor Bill de Blasio and the city Department of Education have said they are working on a larger-scale integration plan, expected to be released by June. Advocates say the process of creating that plan has been far too private — which could hurt its chances of success.