Lower East Side families get first look at a sweeping plan to integrate schools

Lower East Side residents got their first look Tuesday at a school-integration plan that would overhaul the way students are assigned to local elementary schools, and — if approved — would mark the first district-wide effort by the de Blasio administration to combat New York City’s entrenched school segregation.

The plan, which local parents and educators in Manhattan’s District 1 developed through a state grant, would fundamentally change how students in that district are matched with schools. Instead of the current system, where families are chosen by lottery at schools of their choice, the proposed system would factor socioeconomic information about families into the matching process. The goal is to more evenly spread the neediest students across a district where, today, poor students of color are concentrated at a subset of schools.

Education department officials have not yet signed off on the preliminary plan, and most parents have not yet had a chance to weigh in on it. But among proponents, there is a sense that if the district does not act quickly, its schools will only become more divided by race and class.

“If we continue to do what we’re doing, we’re going to get the same results,” Superintendent Daniella Phillips said during Tuesday’s presentation at P.S. 20. “So we need to pilot and innovate and try something different.”

In most parts of the city, students are assigned to an elementary school based on where they live. But District 1, which includes the East Village, does not have school zones; instead, parents enter lotteries for their chosen schools.

In the past, the district maintained racial and ethnic quotas to prevent certain groups from clustering at the most popular schools, but the city eliminated that system several years ago. Today, the district is marked by vast disparities among schools.

For instance, while 70 percent of the district’s students are considered low-income, the poverty rate varies from 100 percent to 21 percent at individual schools. And the eight schools with the highest concentration of low-income students enroll only a handful of students who are white.

The proposal would re-introduce families’ demographic information into the admissions system, under a model known as “controlled choice.” Now, families applying to pre-kindergarten and kindergarten would first submit information about their income level and whether they earned a high school or college degree, along with whether their child lives in temporary housing, is not a native English speaker, or has a disability.

The city would then assign each student an “at-risk” score based on that information, and families would select three to five schools. Finally, a computer algorithm that factors in all that data would assign each family a school. The goal would be for every school to enroll a mix of low-income and at-risk students that falls within 5 percentage points of the district average.

Michael Alves, a controlled-choice consultant who helped District 1 create its proposal, said this enrollment system would represent a major departure from the current “diversity-blind” approach.

“You’ll have a fundamentally different, choice-based assignment system,” he told the small crowd on Tuesday.

Parents, teachers, and school administrators have been meeting since October to craft the plan, and some of their recommendations grew out of public workshops that the district’s community education council hosted last school year. The group’s work is tied to a $1.25 million state grant designed to revamp struggling schools by convincing more affluent families to enroll at them. (District 13 in Brooklyn also received a grant, and is considering a similar change to its admissions system.)

District 1’s grant proposes using a teaching program that emphasizes students’ talents and interests as one way to attract more families to P.S. 15, a low-performing school where nearly half of students live in temporary housing and all qualify as poor. But the district is also using the grant as an opportunity to explore the broader enrollment-system change, and the local community education council has been asking each of the district’s 25 elementary and middle schools to endorse a resolution in favor of controlled choice.

The council “is trying to document the unified support that exists for equity and fairness in admissions,” it wrote in an email last month.

The push for support may partly be an effort to convince city officials to sign off on the plan. Chancellor Carmen Fariña said at a District 1 forum last month that she is seeking locally created diversity plans, but she did not comment on the controlled-choice proposal.

Education department spokesman Will Mantell noted that the city recently approved seven school-level diversity plans, and said that Superintendent Phillips and the department have helped support the implementation of the state grant.

“While no recommendation or proposal has been submitted to the DOE,” Mantell said in a statement, “we’ve worked closely with District 1 in implementing its [state] grant and look forward to reviewing any recommendations made by its working groups.”

Meanwhile, the working group still need to test out its proposed matching algorithm. And it wants to gather feedback from the public before submitting a final plan to the city in June.

Group members acknowledged they needed to step up their outreach efforts after Tuesday’s presentation, which was sparsely attended. Some people who did attend were still left with questions.

One woman asked whether a controlled-choice system would be enough to alter enrollment patterns in a district where some schools are vastly more popular than others. While some schools struggle to attract applicants, the largely white and affluent East Village Community School had to put about 100 families on a pre-kindergarten waiting list last year.

Lawrence Mirsky, a parent at that school, said he still did not understand the process by which the plan would be vetted and approved. He also questioned whether it might drive dissatisfied parents to send their children to schools outside the district.

“Is this controlled choice possibly going to push more people out,” he said, “and make the place less diverse?”