Integration efforts kick off in Manhattan’s District 2, home to some of NYC’s most affluent and coveted schools

Manhattan’s District 2 is moving forward with plans to better integrate schools across a large swath of the borough, from Chinatown and TriBeCa, to Greenwich Village, Chelsea, and the Upper East Side. 

District leaders last week presented the outlines of a pilot proposal to rethink admissions and make schools more welcoming for all students, stemming from a state grant aimed at improving schools by making them more diverse.

But the path toward reform is likely to hit resistance. 

The district has one of the highest shares of families in the city who are white and affluent — a constituency likely to fight to preserve access to some of the most sought-after schools in the system. At 27%, white student enrollment is the sixth-highest out of 32 districts in the city, and many families pay top dollar to live in the area. In fact, District 2 spans seven of the country’s top 100 expensive ZIP codes.

But there are wide disparities among schools. At Chinatown’s P.S. 2, more than 90% of students come from low-income families, many of them recent immigrants. At P.S. 41 in Greenwich Village, just 7% of students live in poverty. Across the district, more than half of students in the area’s public schools come from low-income families. 

District and state leaders on Thursday held the first of a planned series of public meetings to get feedback from parents, teachers, students and other community members before drilling into specifics about what the proposals will look like. Many of the nearly 100 people in the gym of Union Square’s The Clinton School seemed supportive of addressing the district’s disparities — and said the positive tone contrasted with previous District 2 meetings on the topic of integration.

“Many of us want action,” said Kaena Clark, the mother of two children in the district. “I don’t think this is going to hurt my white kids. I think this is going to help my white kids.” 

Maud Maron, president of the local Community Education Council and a member of the team charged with implementing the state grant, said she was “sympathetic” to parents who may find themselves frustrated by ever-changing admissions policies in the district and the city. 

“But I’m also sympathetic that if you don’t change, things don’t change,” Maron said. 

Here are the broad outlines of what’s under consideration in District 2.

Pilot programs addressing racial disparities in suspension rates

Schools need to move cautiously to avoid unintended consequences, Maron said, pointing to the potential that students of color could face disproportionate punishment in more diverse schools. Advocates across New York City have pushed to reform harsh discipline practices in schools, arguing they can have dramatic consequences on academic performance and whether students end up in the justice system.

“This is hard work to do right,” Maron said. “I’m a public defender. When people talk about the school-to-prison pipeline, I see where that ends.”

Under the grant, she said schools have already begun to focus on what’s happening inside their own classrooms, with pilot programs and teacher training to address racial disparities in suspension rates, and to develop lessons that reflect students’ diverse backgrounds and learning needs. 

By doing so, the grant team hopes to increase test scores and reduce chronic absenteeism. 

Possible elementary school changes

At the elementary school level, the grant team is proposing to zero in on admissions in Chinatown, where some schools have been struggling with declining enrollment, perhaps due to gentrification and changing immigration patterns. 

The grant is focusing on:

  • P.S. 1 
  • P.S. 2
  • P.S. 42 
  • P.S. 124 
  • P.S. 126 
  • P.S. 130

Maron said there have been attempts at individual schools to address enrollment issues, but that can have cascading effects on nearby campuses. So the grant team wants to look at all the schools in the area to come up with solutions.

Piloting admissions changes in middle school

The grant team has also come up with the outlines of a proposal that would change the way students are admitted to middle schools, with an eye toward leveling the playing field for students who face certain disadvantages in the competitive process. 

The aim is for the changes to be developed by June, affecting next year’s applicants at the following schools: 

  • 75 Morton
  • Wagner Middle School 
  • Baruch Middle School
  • The Clinton School

The grant team says schools could potentially give extra weight to applications from students who are homeless, have a disability, come from a low-income family, attend a low-performing elementary school, or have low scores on state exams — or some combination of those factors. Which factors would be considered, and how much weight to give each of them, are still under consideration.

Many District 2 middle schools “screen” students, meaning admission is based on competitive criteria including test scores and attendance records. As a result, the most sought-after schools post strong test scores and impressive graduation rates — but tend to enroll few students who have struggled academically, or who come from low-income families, or are black or Hispanic. 

At the Clinton School, only about 16% of students are black or Hispanic. Those students make up about 46% of enrollment across the district. 

The District’s proposal likely means that schools would still screen students, echoing an approach that District 3 recently took to try to integrate middle schools on the Upper West Side and in Harlem. In Brooklyn, District 15 middle schools recently opted to remove screens altogether, a move that led to more dramatic progress toward integration, according to city data. 

No mention of District 2 priority for high school

Segregation is particularly stark in District 2’s high schools, some of which give admissions priority to students who live in the district or have attended other schools there. That admissions advantage is unusual. 

In New York City, students are required to apply to high schools, a policy that aims to give students a chance to attend school outside of their often-segregated zip codes. The admissions priority, however, has allowed District 2 — one of the least racially and economically representative in the city — to essentially maintain its own set of local schools. At Eleanor Roosevelt on the Upper East Side, virtually all of the admitted students came from within the district and enrollment is 66% white.

The district’s grant proposal makes no mention of changing the admissions priority. But some schools that give District 2 priority have already tweaked their admissions rubrics in ways that could lead to more academic diversity. 

Why is District 2 rethinking admissions?

Across the city, dozens of school districts have received the New York State Integration Project grant. The first phase kicked off in the 2017-18 school year and guided districts through drilling into data, shining a light on the causes of segregation, and beginning to think of ways to spur more diversity. 

Now, District 2 and others have moved on to the grant’s second stage, which involves piloting potential solutions. Successful districts will move on to the third and final stage later this year, which will guide officials toward scaling their integration plans district-wide. 

The program grew out of the efforts of former state education Commissioner John B. King, in one of his last moves before leaving to join the Obama administration as U.S. education secretary. It had been overseen by Angelica Infante-Green, a strong ally in addressing the state’s status as one of the most segregated in the county before she left to become schools chief in Rhode Island. 

Without the grant’s original champions, it remains to be seen whether the state education department stays committed to its goals as districts begin to actually implement what are sure to be controversial changes.

A spokesperson for the city’s education department pledged to support this “important” work.

“We’re thrilled that more communities are having conversations around integration and diversity because we know our schools are stronger when they reflect the diversity of our city,” said Katie O’Hanlon.