Brooklyn parent leaders look for political support on school diversity

A group of parents in Brooklyn’s District 15 are calling on the city to make school diversity a new priority.

Frustrated by statistics that show decreasing diversity in their district’s schools, and enrollment policies they see as unfair to their own children, some parents, principals and teachers said they wanted to see change at a two-hour forum on Thursday. But the more than 100 participants came to few firm conclusions about the kind of diversity they want, and who is responsible for creating it.

The lack of specifics illustrates a central problem in tackling admissions and enrollment policies: making change involves navigating a tangled web of parent preferences, city policies and longstanding district boundaries.

On Thursday, the district’s elected parent leaders called on City Council members to require the Department of Education to make clear commitments to school diversity. The resolution, which the Community Education Council introduced but didn’t vote on, asks the department to develop admissions plans for new schools that prioritize diversity and to require schools to regularly release data on their diversity.

The resolution, which comes a few months after a UCLA analysis of federal education data said that New York state was home to the nation’s most segregated schools, broadens discussions about school integration that have been happening at individual schools throughout the district, including P.S. 133 and Park Slope Collegiate. But advocates said they are now looking to attract wider support.

At the forum, parents disagreed on what factors should be considered when trying to increase school diversity, with some attendees asking why the resolution did not mention race specifically. The resolution also focuses on policies for new schools, rather than reworking policies at existing schools.

City education leaders did address school diversity a few weeks ago on the anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board decision, and State Education Commissioner John King recently called out the city for its enrollment policies, which he said left neighboring schools serving dramatically different populations of students.

But at a recent town hall meeting in District 15, Chancellor Carmen Fariña said that discussions about diversity should take place school by school, for now. She also said that the city is working on increasing diversity in specialized high schools, and said the city was “disappointedin the results of the recent school segregation analysis on the anniversary of Brown v. Board.

Nalia Rosario, president of the district’s Community Education Council, said it was time for City Council members to call for specific commitments from the Department of Education.

“This is when the elected officials come in,” Rosario said.

City Council member Brad Lander, who represents Park Slope and co-hosted the forum with City Council member Carlos Menchaca, agreed that change would be welcome, but said that more local conversations were needed before elected officials could move forward.

After the meeting, Lander said he is drafting a bill that would require schools to put together annual diversity progress reports. He noted that the resolution’s calls for new schools to prioritize diversity was especially important, since the city’s capital budget includes funding for three new District 15 schools in the next five years.

City Council members Carlos Menchaca (left) and Brad Lander hosted a parents forum to discuss diversity in schools on Thursday. (Mary Ellen McIntire)

“We don’t have an admissions process or a line-drawing process which says diversity has to be a central question when we create a new school,” Lander said.

David Tipson, director of New York Appleseed, a nonprofit that was influential in creating a diversity-focused admissions policy at P.S. 133, an elementary school in District 15, said the conversation showed that some parents were willing to look beyond zoning policies that have benefitted them.

“For this to happen in District 15, where people really value their zone privileges, it shows a lot of courage and leadership from the CEC and from the elected officials,” he said.

Another challenge facing parents who want to see school diversity improve is that schools don’t have a lot of control over their own admissions processes. P.S. 133 was given specific permission to draw students from its own district and District 13 in an attempt to engineer above-average diversity.

Some parents noted that increasing school diversity also means making sure schools have the resources to offer programs attractive enough to reduce the fierce competition for a few of the most well-regarded schools.

“Every parent wants the best for their kids,” said P.S./M.S. 282 parent Corinne Frinnah. “And every parent here would like to see diversity.”

Geoff Decker contributed reporting.