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.”

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.”

diversity plan

The country’s largest school system — and one of the most segregated — just released its ‘school diversity’ plan. Here are the highlights

PHOTO: Ann Schimke

New York City’s long-awaited plan for school diversity was released Tuesday morning, with surprisingly little fanfare. While some observers hailed aspects of the plan as a major step forward, others questioned the city’s relatively modest approach to the massive problem of school segregation.

Responding to a push from advocates, the city announced a policy statement prioritizing “diverse and inclusive” schools, and establishing explicit integration goals.

In an emailed statement, City Councilmen Ritchie Torres and Brad Lander called the setting of those goals “a bona-fide breakthrough.”

“We are not aware of any other big city that has voluntarily set such goals,” the statement said.

But other integration supporters question whether the plan goes far enough. For example, Matt Gonzales, who leads school integration efforts for the nonprofit Appleseed, described the city’s changes to high school admissions as “tinkering” around the edges.

“I don’t see that as leading towards some larger change,” he said. 

The 13-page document makes no mention of “integration” or “segregation,” opting instead to define the city’s goal as supporting “diversity,” which includes students who have disabilities, are learning English or live in temporary housing.

“We are sorry to see that the plan does not use the words ‘segregation’ and ‘integration,’” Torres and Lander wrote in their statement. “We will not break the cycle of segregation if we cannot even name it.”

Here are some the highlights from the plan:

Includes a policy statement. City council members have been asking the city to declare its commitment to integrated schools since at least 2015. Here’s the statement:

“The New York City Department of Education is committed to supporting learning environments that reflect the diversity of New York City. We believe all students benefit from diverse and inclusive schools and classrooms where all students, families and school staff are supported and welcomed. This work is essential to our vision of Equity and Excellence for all NYC students.”

Eliminates the “limited unscreened” admissions method for high schools. Chalkbeat has written extensively about how the high school application process favors families with the time and savvy to navigate an opaque process. This change, which will impact students starting high school in fall 2019, requires schools to stop giving admissions preference to students who attend open houses or high school fairs.

Sets measurable goals, as requested by advocates in a letter sent to Chancellor Carmen Fariña late last month. The city’s goals are to increase the number of students in racially representative schools by 50,000 over the next five years (there are more than 1 million students enrolled in city schools), while decreasing the number of “economically stratified” schools by 10 percent over the next five years. The city also aims to increase the number of “inclusive” schools that serve students who are learning English and students who have disabilities.

The city defines “racially representative” schools as those where black and Hispanic students make up at least 50 percent but no more than 90 percent of the population. Currently, black and Hispanic students make up about 70 percent of the student body citywide and only 31 percent of schools meet the city’s definition of being racially representative, according to the education department.

Creates a School Diversity Advisory Group. The body, which will include diversity experts, parents and students, will evaluate the city’s current goals and come up with formal recommendations by June 2018.

Expands on the city’s efforts to get more black and Hispanic students into specialized high schools by offering the entrance exam on a school day. The city is also boosting test prep and a program for kids who just missed the cut-off on the specialized high school exam, but none of these efforts have been shown to significantly change the makeup of students offered seats at the elite schools.

Expands the “Diversity in Admissions” initiative to private pre-K providers. The Diversity in Admissions program allows schools to set aside a percentage of seats for students who are poor or meet other criteria. Community organizations account for 60 percent of pre-K providers.

Establishes a “community stakeholder engagement process” in districts where school integration work is already underway. District 1 on the Lower East Side and District 13 in Brooklyn have been working on district-wide integration plans with the help of a state grant, though some parents feel the city education department has interfered with that process.

In Brooklyn’s District 15, parents have called for a public process to come up with changes to the middle school application process. Similar work is being led by parents in District 3, which includes the Upper West Side and part of Harlem, as well as District 2, which includes much of Lower Manhattan, Chinatown and the Upper East Side.