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.”

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.”