LES school diversity study raises questions about "dezoning"

A group of urban planners have validated what some teachers and parents on the Lower East Side say they’ve been watching over the last decade: Schools in the neighborhood are growing more segregated.

The planners say they can’t explain the changes, but local parents blame the Department of Education’s emphasis on districtwide choice for allowing the neighborhood’s schools to become increasingly segregated, in an arrangement that researchers say is not good for students of any race or class. Some parents have even lobbied against the department’s proposals to “dezone” other districts, in some cases helping sway other parent leaders away from agreeing to admissions rules like District 1’s.

What the parents are trying to prevent are more stories like the Lower East Side’s, where there is potential for school diversity but students instead increasingly attend schools where their classmates are very much like themselves.

A damning report

A few blocks apart in the Lower East Side, the Neighborhood School is 40.6 percent white, while P.S. 142, just a few blocks away, is 2.8 percent white. More than a decade ago, a gap that size didn’t exist.

In 2000, when the district was 6 percent white, only one of the district’s 15 schools had demographics very different from the district as a whole. In 2011, with the district more than 16 percent white, five schools were more than 37 percent white, while 15 others had percentages in the single digits.

“There’s an increasing clustering of the white population and an increasing clustering of the Hispanic population,” explained George Janes, an associate with the planning firm WXY, which analyzed enrollment patterns in District 1 elementary and middle schools.

The report, commissioned by District 1’s elected parent council, showed other changes as well. Since 2000, the gap between the schools with the highest and lowest average state test scores grew significantly, as did the gap between the schools with the most and fewest students eligible for free lunch.

The reason, according to Community Education Council 1 President Lisa Donlan, is the district’s choice-based assignment policy for elementary schools.

“The chancellor’s comment to our district was, choice is equity. We’ve said, no it isn’t. And now we have the data to prove it,” Donlan said.

District 1’s evolution

District 1, which includes much of the East Village, has long been an anomaly among the city’s 32 school districts. Most districts are divided into attendance zones, and students living in each zone are given priority to attend a single school. But since the early 1990s, District 1 elementary schools have not been zoned. Instead, parents apply for a seat at all schools they want their children to attend, then receive at least one placement.

Immediately after the district did away with school zones, many of its schools adopted admissions policies aimed at producing diverse student populations. But by 2007, after the Bloomberg administration had worked to standardize school enrollment policies, all of the mechanisms used to encourage school diversity had disappeared.

Between 2000 and 2012, a greater percentage of children who lived in the district began attending its public schools, a change driven mostly by an influx of white families moving into the area, the report found. But as more children began attending the heavily Hispanic schools, schools in the district grew apart from each other in subtle but significant ways, presumably as families chose schools with demographics similar to their own. They, in turn, attracted more similar families to those schools.

The report’s authors were careful to say they did not have the tools to prove that District 1’s assignment policy was the cause of the increased segregation, though that is clearly how some, including Donlan, see the results.

This isn’t the first time the district’s increased school segregation has been noted. Advocates in District 1 say their neighborhood is worth watching because the area is unusually ripe for racial integration. Unlike some districts in the Bronx and central Brooklyn, where most schools are more than 90 percent black or Hispanic, District 1 now has a mix of Hispanic, black, white, and Asian residents.

A citywide movement

Under Mayor Bloomberg, the Department of Education’s theory about how to boost the performance of students who have traditionally lagged behind has been to create new schools and give more choices about which to attend. That theory has driven the Bloomberg administration’s approach to high school admissions completely, and over time, the department has pushed districtwide choice down to the middle school and even elementary school level.

Between last fall and the spring of this year, the city gave presentations to Community Education Councils in districts 4, 5, 6, 12, and 16, touting dezoning’s power to give parents more choices and to create a process that reflects parent preferences. (Deciding zoning policy is one of the only remaining powers of the CECs, who must initiate and approve changes.)

Districts 7 in the South Bronx and District 23 in Central Brooklyn saw similar presentations last year before moving ahead with dezoning.

““We feel that it can’t get any worse, because we’re failing. So we have to do something that’s going to change the whole spectrum of our district,” CEC 7 President Nedya Franco told the New York Post last year. “Now [principals] have to prove what you have in the building and you have to bring students in. We feel there’s more accountability.”

But most of the Community Education Councils didn’t take up the dezoning proposals. In districts 5 and 6 in Upper Manhattan, the presentations provoked angry protests from parents, who accused the city of pushing the policy in order to boost charter schools.

Sonja Jones, chair of District 5’s Community Education Council, said community feedback led her council to put aside thoughts of dezoning. Dozens of parents opposed to dezoning showed up to the council’s town hall meeting, and the city did not move forward with presenting a formal plan. “This is not something we want or would stand by and allow to happen,” she said.

She worried that dezoning would lead to big enrollment shifts throughout the district, which would be divisive as parents tried to get into the “top” schools and difficult for other parents to understand. “You’d have a flock of parents going to what they consider the best schools based on test scores, which might not really represent the schools,” she said.

“At this point, it’s not going to happen,” Jones said. “That doesn’t mean that it won’t resurface.”

Donlan, who has long voiced her concerns with the current choice policy, helped mobilize parents and council members in other districts to avoid the policy. Their refrain is that making expanded choice the ultimate goal leads to inequity, because parents of high-needs students often don’t have the time or networks to access high-quality information about what the choices mean.

“Lower-income New Yorkers often do not have the time, resources, or access to information to make meaningful distinctions among elementary schools or to negotiate the admissions process to gain entry to the school of their choice,” notes an October report from New York Appleseed, a group that promotes diverse public schools.

The Community Education Councils have stopped most of the momentum for dezoning, and the end of the mayor’s term this year has made it unlikely the ideas will be revisited soon. But advocates are hoping that the new data, and potentially a new emphasis on community input, could make a broader impact on the debate about how the city’s students are assigned to schools.

Moving forward

The city didn’t dispute the report’s findings about District 1, though officials said that the city could not legally use race to assign students to schools.

“When CECs choose to unzone they are empowering parents to choose among a wide array of schools,” spokesman Harry Hartfield said in response to the study. “Families in unzoned districts have the power to select any school they choose from. We believe in school choice for families, and the policy of this administration has always been to expand access for parents as much choice as possible.”

Advocates of a more managed choice process say they aren’t asking for students to be assigned to schools based on race — they are just asking for diversity to become an explicit goal of the system.

David Tipson, director of New York Appleseed, pointed to the recent process of creating an admissions process for P.S. 133 in Park Slope as an example of how the Department of Education has eventually embraced some assignment policies that account for diversity. That school is drawing some students from District 13 and some from District 15, which has more white and middle-class families.

“I hope that the next administration looks much more carefully at how to design a choice system for equity and diversity,” Tipson said.

Bill de Blasio’s spokesman Dan Levitan declined to comment on the report, though Donlan said she had reached out to the campaign about the study. “This certainly fits in with the tale of two cities,” she added.