Achieving Diversity

Is large-scale school integration possible in New York City? New report lays out steps to help it happen

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos

It took more than a year of bitter fighting to change school zone lines to better integrate just a few schools on the Upper West Side.

With that in mind, tackling school segregation on a larger scale may seem like an impossible task. But a report released Wednesday by the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs lays out ways to jumpstart integration citywide.

“We think the city can create conditions under which more parents can choose, voluntarily, integrated schools,” said Clara Hemphill, one of the report’s authors and the founder of the school review site InsideSchools.

The city could offer extra funding to diverse schools, for instance, or open magnet programs to attract families beyond regular school zones, she said at a panel held  at the New School on Wednesday.

The report suggests that desegregation efforts should start early: in the city’s pre-K centers. Funding for pre-K comes from different sources, depending on a family’s income. Red tape associated with those different funding streams can make it difficult to mix children of different socioeconomic backgrounds in the same classrooms.

Though the city has taken steps to change that, the report notes that many pre-K directors are still unaware they can “blend” classrooms.

The city should also find ways to break up concentrations of homeless students in some schools, according to the report. Children who are homeless miss school more often and often have greater needs than peers in stable housing, and the rates of homelessness varies from almost zero at some schools to more than 50 percent at others.

Josh Wallack, the deputy chancellor who oversees diversity efforts for the Department of Education, pointed out at Wednesday’s panel that some schools with high populations of homeless children have built effective programs to meet their needs.

“It could be an open question for us to wrestle with, as to whether you want to break that up,” he said. “I don’t think there will be a one-size-fits-all solution here.”

The report also calls for moving ahead with a new enrollment proposal called “controlled choice” in District 1 on the Lower East Side. The district won a state grant to help integrate its schools, but local parents have been frustrated by bureaucratic hurdles that are likely to delay the plan by at least a year.

Hemphill cautioned that controlled choice, which ensures an economically diverse student body, may not be a solution in all districts, especially in areas where parents aren’t happy with their public school options.

“You have to have an aggressive plan to improve school quality before you institute controlled choice,” she said. “You have to be careful how you work the formula so you don’t scare away the parents you need to make the schools integrated.”

Councilman Brad Lander, who was also on the panel, said it will take time to get integration policies right. While recognizing the need for citywide action, Lander said it will take “step-by-step” approaches to lay the groundwork for broader plans.

“Because there’s a stark moral reality to how awful it is to have this segregated a school system, there’s a desire to fix it immediately, with a big solution that will solve it tomorrow,” he said. “I actually think that it is the step-by-step work, making it work in lots of individual schools, bridging that up to the district level … that’s going to be successful.”

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.

Achieving Diversity

Does gifted education help pave the way to specialized high schools? Here’s what we know

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

The way Sam Adewumi sees it, the lack of diversity in New York City’s elite specialized high schools is largely a pipeline problem. And it starts with gifted education.

It worked for Adewumi, a black alum of Brooklyn Technical High School (class of ’84) and now a teacher there. Growing up in the Bronx, he attended gifted programs through middle school, which paved the way for his admission to one of the city’s elite specialized high schools, and later, to Cornell University.

“This is the legacy, to me, of the gifted and talented program,” said Adewumi, who also runs a test prep program to help students prepare for the specialized high schools test. “There’s not another generation of us coming forward. So right now, we lost a generation.”

While 70 percent of New York City students are black or Hispanic, they comprise less than 30 percent of the city’s gifted students. And black and Hispanic students received only 10 percent of offers to specialized high schools in the latest admissions round.

A new task force is attempting to address both deficits, but that raises a question not fully answered by Adewumi’s anecdote: Is gifted education really a pipeline for specialized high schools?

Based on a small analysis, the answer seems to be yes — and no.

Of the 357 fifth-graders in citywide gifted schools in 2011-12, about 33 percent ended up attending a specialized high school last year. That’s according to numbers crunched for Chalkbeat by Nicole Mader, a senior research fellow at the Center for New York City Affairs at The New School.

But the numbers don’t break down evenly: Of the white and Asian students, 40 percent went on to specialized high schools. Of the black and Hispanic students, only 14 percent did.

Another 14 percent of the black students ended up at other highly-selective high schools, as did 8 percent of the Hispanic students.

Mader only analyzed students in citywide programs for this project, a fact that could skew the numbers since admission to citywide gifted programs is more competitive, requiring a near-perfect test score. Seats in citywide gifted schools, which only enroll students who are gifted, represent about 13 percent of the total fifth-grade seats in all gifted programs, according to data from the city.

Although limited, the data is in line with previous findings that black and Hispanic students — even those who are high achieving — are less likely to attend competitive high schools.

To Adewumi, the results of Mader’s analysis are not surprising. Rather, they point to a bottleneck that begins with a lack of options for high-achieving students once they reach middle school.

“The pipeline breaks in the whole middle school process,” he said, rattling off middle schools in Brooklyn that once had gifted programs, but no longer do. “How do you create access?”

His hunch is confirmed by research. A cadre of elite middle schools send an outsized number of students to specialized high schools, according to a separate report co-authored by Mader.  That report found that about 60 percent of seventh-grade students who went on to specialized high schools came from only 45 middle schools — out of more than 530 total in the city.

That echoed the findings of a study by researchers at New York University, which found that “more than half of the students who were admitted to a specialized high school came from just 5 percent of the city’s public middle schools.”

Of the students in those top “feeder” schools, 58 percent were in programs, including gifted programs, that required tests for admission.

However, Sean Corcoran, who co-authored the NYU report, says the role of gifted education in preparing kids for specialized high school is unclear. Corcoran and co-author Christine Baker-Smith did not study whether there’s any consistent difference in gifted programs that gives students a leg up. Those feeder schools may just sort out students who are already high-achieving, he said.

“The kinds of kids who do well on the admissions tests, in general, are kids who would do well at other schools,” Corcoran said. “So it’s not like starting another gifted program will all of a sudden make a lot more kids more competitive.”

There are a number of factors that contribute to low representation of black and Hispanic students in specialized high schools, said Clara Hemphill, editor at the school review website InsideSchools. Although she has qualms about New York City’s gifted programs starting in kindergarten and basing admission on a standardized test score, she doesn’t necessarily oppose the creation more gifted programs.

“Anything that would increase the academic rigor for talented black and Latino kids is a good thing,” she said

“What you need is exposure to a demanding curriculum and a peer group of academically successful kids,” Hemphill added. “In the middle class neighborhoods, most of the ordinary zoned elementary schools have that. In poor and working class neighborhoods, not many do.”