Searching for answers to segregation, Fariña enlists top deputy and solicits local ideas

This summer, schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña started a new ritual: Every third Saturday of the month, she sits down with a top deputy and spends a couple hours talking about school diversity.

“How are we going to get it done? What are some of the enrollment consequences? How do we bring people to the table?” she said in an interview with Chalkbeat last week.

The meetings resulted in her most significant diversity-related initiative to date: a pilot program announced in November that will allow seven schools to take steps to enroll students from a mix of backgrounds. She expects many more schools to join the program in the future, she said.

During those weekend meetings with her deputy chancellor for strategy and policy, Josh Wallack, the pair identified aspects of the enrollment system that need review, she said at a town hall event last year — things like how students with special needs are placed at schools and how certain middle schools screen applicants. Meanwhile, Wallack has been keeping tabs on two planning teams exploring enrollment systems aimed at boosting diversity.

Wallack’s involvement is an indication of how seriously Fariña is now taking the issues of enrollment and diversity, since he previously oversaw some of this administration’s most complex education initiatives, including the massive expansion of pre-kindergarten and a reorganization of the city’s school-support bureaucracy.

Her attention to those issues follows a rash of reports and public hearings last year that drew attention to the severe racial and socioeconomic segregation that persists throughout New York City schools. It also comes after some lawmakers and advocates criticized Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration for doing little to address the problem, and Fariña herself for suggesting that part of the solution involved teaching students about world religions and connecting them with pen pals.

And while her recent steps have been modest, some of those same advocates view them as a sign that the administration may be open to larger policy shifts aimed at integration.

“We’ve been really pleased to see the evolution of the chancellor’s thinking over the time she’s been in office, particularly over the last six months,” said David Tipson, executive director of the school diversity advocacy group New York Appleseed.

At the same time, Fariña continues to regard diversity as a goal achieved largely through grassroots efforts that the education department can support but not spearhead. And, perhaps recalling an earlier era of widespread “white flight” and protests against court-ordered busing, she remains deeply wary of policies that could provoke middle-class families by reducing their access to top schools or their home values.

“The rezoning and redistricting doesn’t happen because we mandate it — it has to happen because we talked and listened to everybody,” she said. “It’s not a mandate you’re putting down people’s throats.”

The first phase of Fariña’s tenure was dominated by the pre-K rollout and department restructuring. But more recently, she has been assessing the city’s mind-numbingly varied enrollment systems for pre-kindergarten, elementary, middle, and high schools.

“Enrollment is one of the most serious issues,” she said at the town hall meeting at Manhattan’s P.S. 191 in October. “I would put this even over overcrowding.”

Experts consider enrollment systems key to school diversity, since they influence how evenly students from diverse backgrounds and with different needs are distributed among schools.

Parent-led groups in Manhattan’s District 1 and Brooklyn’s District 13 are using state grants to explore district-wide enrollment systems that would factor in student demographics when making school placements, as a way to more evenly disperse students across schools. Wallack has been studying those groups’ emerging plans, according to a spokeswoman, and he visited the District 13 group.

“I think they are beginning to look seriously at student enrollment, which has a lot to do with segregation,” said David Goldsmith, president of District 13’s community education council.

Fariña has also discussed enrollment and diversity issues at a couple of her regular meetings with parent leaders. But rather than seek feedback on potential policies, she has asked the district representatives to share their own ideas, according to participants.

That could reflect the fact that the city’s 32 local districts have very different demographics and varying levels of interest in school diversity. It also indicates Fariña’s willingness to let her newly empowered superintendents play a larger role in district planning, some parent leaders said.

“I got the sense that she wants to do something more bottom up than top down” regarding diversity, said Nan Eileen Mead, first vice chair of the chancellor’s parent advisory council.

Pursuing community-designed changes to enrollment policy would also guard Fariña from imposing plans that inflame parents — particularly affluent parents with the ability to opt out of the public system and the political clout to fight any changes. When the education department proposed new zone lines in the Upper West Side last year, families who stood to lose their spots in a sought-after school protested and the plan was tabled.

Fariña is acutely aware that many families choose to buy or rent housing based on the performance of the local schools, since the city’s zoning policies generally guarantee families seats in their nearest elementary school.

In the interview, she recalled the time an older woman holding a slip of paper with an address scribbled on it arrived at P.S. 6, the popular Upper East Side school where Fariña was principal for many years. The woman wanted to make sure that the apartment she planned to buy her daughter was zoned for the school, Fariña said, so that her future grandchild could attend.

De Blasio is also well aware of that phenomenon. When asked last year why the city does not redraw more zone lines to spur integration, he said that would be unfair to families who have “made massive life decisions and investments because of which school their kid would go to.”

But Fariña also suggested that the city’s changing demographics — in particular, the influx of middle-class families into mixed-income neighborhoods — set up the conditions for diversity.

“Partially, some of this is almost going to be taken care of by the fact that the city is changing so radically with gentrification,” she said.

Experts dispute the idea that gentrification automatically promotes school diversity, pointing out that many middle-class families cluster at the same high-performing schools or selective programs. In a follow-up interview, Fariña revised her message.

“I just want to be clear that gentrification is not my strategy for diversity,” she said. “It’s just a reality of life, particularly in some neighborhoods in the city.”

Meanwhile, Fariña insists that integration often happens school by school, parent by parent.

She has encouraged principals to add dual-language programs — which are popular among parents across race and class lines — and to hold more open-house events to market their schools. And she has urged parents to reconsider schools that may once have had dicey reputations or where all the children do not resemble their own.

Fariña noted that she had enrolled her own children in Brooklyn’s P.S. 29, where she taught and where many students at that time came from low-income families, she said.

“Diversity is very important to me,” she said. “It’s how I’ve lived my life as a teacher, a principal, and even as a parent.”