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.”

bad fit

‘It’s not a solution’: How a Harlem co-location proposal is highlighting disparities between two schools

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Valencia Moore, PTA president at P.S. 36, called for more resources at the school.

A plan to co-locate two schools in Harlem is drawing intense opposition from residents who say the city Department of Education has long neglected the host school, P.S. 36.

The city wants to temporarily move some students from Teachers College Community School into P.S. 36, which overlooks Morningside Park. But at a community hearing Wednesday, parents blasted the proposal and accused the department of letting P.S. 36 languish until its space became needed by a wealthier, whiter school community.

Valencia Moore, PTA president of P.S. 36, listed all the repairs and resources she says are needed at her school: new electrical wiring, stronger Wi-Fi, replacement desks and new bookshelves.

“Some of our teachers are using milk crates to store their books,” she said. “We’re short-staffed now, where we have parents coming in and volunteering.”

She added that parents have asked the city for years to make repairs to the school’s playground. City officials on Wednesday said they are planning to make the fixes and promised to look into another recurring request — to renovate bathrooms. For parents, the city’s response only exacerbated a sense of inequity many feel.

“Now, all of a sudden you can find money to fix the playground — because you’re bringing a wealthier school,” said Sanayi Beckles-Canton, president of the local Community Education Council. “You have kids bullying other groups of kids because their school looks better. That’s going on in Harlem… We deserve better.”

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Sanayi Beckles-Canton, president of Community Education Council District 5 in Harlem.

TCCS is a diverse school where fewer than half of the students are low-income. Meanwhile, most of the students at P.S. 36 are black or Hispanic, and almost 90 percent are poor. To meet their students’ needs, P.S. 36 has partnerships with eight community organizations, which offer health screenings, counseling and mental health services within the building.

The co-location proposal stems from a battle to create a middle school for TCCS — something the community has pushed for. Opened in 2011 through a partnership between the city and Columbia University, the school is poised to admit its first sixth-grade class in the upcoming school year.

The problem is there’s no room for the extra grades at the current TCCS campus on Morningside Avenue, between 126th and 127th Streets. So city officials have proposed moving TCCS’s younger students — pre-K through second grade — into the P.S. 36 building. The move is supposed to be temporary until the Department of Education can find a permanent home for TCCS.

Parents at TCCS have concerns of their own.

Laura Blake has a daughter at TCCS. She said parents are skeptical the co-location would work, and worry that staff and resources will be stretched thin across two campuses.

“It’s not a solution,” she said.

She echoed concerns from P.S. 36 parents that there simply isn’t enough room for more students — despite assurances to the contrary from city officials.

Moore, the P.S. 36 PTA president, worried the co-location would impede her school’s ability to continue to host community partners and serve its sizeable population — 31 percent — of students with special needs.

“We’re the little people,” she said. “We shouldn’t be bombarded by people who have money.”

According to the co-location proposal, only 64 percent of P.S. 36 is currently being used and students will still be able to receive the special education services they’re entitled to.

A spokesperson for the Department of Education explained why the move was necessary. “As demand for TCCS grows among families, we’re committed to providing its students and staff with the space and resources they need to continue thriving,” Michael Aciman wrote in an email. “This temporary re-siting will help ensure that the school can continue to grow enrollment and expand the grades it serves, as we work diligently to find a permanent home that meets the needs of the entire TCCS community.”

The Panel for Educational Policy, a citywide body, is scheduled to vote on the proposal at their regular meeting on Feb. 28.

words matter

NYC Chancellor Carmen Fariña on pre-K diversity struggles: ‘This is parent choice’

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Chancellor Carmen Fariña

Chancellor Carmen Fariña is again drawing criticism from school integration advocates — this time for appearing to excuse racially segregated pre-K programs as products of “parent choice.”

When asked about diversity in the city’s pre-K program at a state budget hearing Tuesday, Fariña seemed to skirt the issue:

“The pre-K parent, rightly so, wants whatever pre-K program is closest to home. They’re in a rush to get to work. They have to do what they have to do. And the one thing that I can say [is] that all our pre-K programs are the same quality … Whether you’re taking a pre-K in Harlem or you’re taking a pre-K in Carroll Gardens, you’re going to have the exact same curriculum with teachers who have been trained the exact same way.

But I, as a parent, am not going to be running to another part [of the city]. So it’s a matter [of] applying. Parents apply. This is parent choice — the same way you can go to private school, parochial school, charter school, you can go to any pre-K. You have an application process, you fill it out. And generally, this year, I think people got one of their first top choices, pretty much across the city. So this is about parent choice.

… So I actually do not agree with this. I think if you’re counting faces, then it’s true. If you’re counting parent choice, it’s totally different. So I think to me diversity is also, we are now taking more students with IEPs [Individual Education Plans] in our pre-K programs. We are taking more students who are English Language Learners in our pre-K programs. Diversity has many faces.”

Fariña’s response didn’t sit well with some integration advocates, who want the chancellor to offer a more forceful commitment to tackling diversity issues.

“It’s basically an argument for separate but equal — that what really matters is drilling down on resources and teachers,” said Halley Potter, who has studied segregation in New York City’s preschools as a fellow at the think tank the Century Foundation. “The problem with that argument is that, in practice, that is rarely if ever true.”

In a recent study, Potter found that the city’s pre-K program is highly segregated. In one in six pre-K classrooms, more than 90 percent of students come from a single racial or ethnic background. And, Potter said, research shows quality goes hand-in-hand with diversity: Children in mixed pre-K classrooms learn more and are less likely to show bias.

Matt Gonzales heads school integration efforts with the nonprofit New York Appleseed. He said excusing segregation as a by-product of parent choice seems to “completely absolve officials” from taking steps to increase diversity in pre-K classrooms.

“That’s disappointing because we’re in a place where we’re looking at ideas and potential solutions to segregation in the city, and I worry whether pre-K is being left out,” he said.

The city called the critique unfair. “By any measure, these are extreme mischaracterizations of a thoughtful response on our commitment to pre-K quality,” Department of Education spokeswoman Devora Kaye wrote in an email. “Divisive rhetoric doesn’t move us towards solutions. The chancellor has always been committed to inclusive schools and classrooms, and we’ll continue our efforts to strengthen diversity in our schools.”

This isn’t the first time Fariña struck observers as tone-deaf on diversity. In October 2015, she suggested rich and poor students could learn from each other — by becoming pen pals.

The city has taken some steps to integrate pre-K classrooms, allowing a number of schools to consider “Diversity in Admissions.” But as of September, the program is only open to public schools, and the majority of pre-K centers in New York City are privately run.

Mayor Bill de Blasio and the Department of Education have said they are working on a plan to improve school diversity, and hope to release details by the end of the school year.

Monica Disare contributed to this report.