The Wait Continues

Fariña says city is still reviewing schools’ diversity plans, with quick changes unlikely

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña

For nearly a year, a group of principals has waited for the city’s permission to change their admissions policies so that as more white, middle-class families seek seats in their schools, spots remain open for students from needier backgrounds.

On Tuesday, they learned that they will have to wait even longer.

Speaking on a public radio show, Chancellor Carmen Fariña said officials are still reviewing the proposals that several principals submitted last October. She expressed some reservations about their request to reserve a portion of seats for students from low-income or immigrant families, saying she wouldn’t want those policies to “disenfranchise” any students.

While she insisted that and the mayor are concerned about school diversity and are reviewing enrollment policies citywide, she also suggested that diversity can be promoted without making structural changes, such as by teaching students about world religions.

Either way, she signaled that her interest in school diversity will not translate into immediate policy changes, including at those schools that have been waiting to make admissions tweaks.

“I believe in diversity,” she said on the Brian Lehrer show. “I think it’s going to be very carefully thought through and decided on a case by case.”

Fariña’s response dismayed advocates who have called on her and Mayor Bill de Blasio to more aggressively combat school segregation, which is more severe in New York than most school districts.

“I don’t think there’s any way to hear those comments and think they’re on top of this issue,” said David Tipson, executive director of the school diversity advocacy group, New York Appleseed.

A dozen principals met with Fariña and other top officials last fall to discuss diversity and admissions. Many of the schools — including Arts & Letters Academy in Fort Greene, P.S. 8 in Brooklyn Heights, and Central Park East II in East Harlem — had watched their share of white students rise and black and Hispanic students decline in recent years as the areas around their schools gentrified.

At the meeting, the principals were told that their plans to reserve some seats for certain student groups could violate federal law, according to several attendees. Advocates and even some de Blasio-appointed members of the city’s education policy board have challenged this reading of the law.

Fariña on Tuesday said she worried about any plan that would give preference to one group over another.

“We’re looking at every plan individually,” she said. “We need to make sure that diversity plans don’t disenfranchise other students.”

Several of the principals modeled their proposals on the admissions system at P.S. 133 in Park Slope, a school that accepts students from beyond its immediate neighborhood and sets aside more than a third of its seats for low-income students and those still learning English. The school is housed in a new building and offers popular dual-language programs, which has helped it attract a range of families.

While Fariña did not say Tuesday whether the schools that want to adopt a P.S. 133-style admissions system would be allowed to do so, she did say that would be a possibility for new schools.

“As new schools get built, that’s certainly something we would consider,” she said.

Fariña appeared on the Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC Tuesday, where she spoke about enrollment policies and school diversity.
Fariña appeared on the Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC Tuesday, where she spoke about enrollment policies and school diversity.

Many advocates who back school-by-school diversity plans say they must be accompanied by district-wide policies that prevent students from a particular racial or socioeconomic group from clustering at individual schools. Without such a “controlled choice” system, popular schools with effective diversity plans might enroll a mix of students even as their neighbors enroll students mostly from one group.

Fariña hinted at the need for both types of solutions, saying that officials are reviewing enrollment policies “as a collective whole, as well as individually.”

“We’re looking at how do we make it equitable,” she said.

A widely cited 2014 report found that New York City school segregation has increased in recent decades, with 85 percent of black students and 75 of Hispanic students attending schools with a small number of white students.

Advocates argue that the city cannot make a real dent in those numbers without overhauling its enrollment policies, which they say exacerbate residential segregation. However, Fariña has previously said that individual schools can address the issue by offering attractive language or special-education programs that draw in a diverse pool of applicants.

On Tuesday, she added that the de Blasio administration has taken other steps to promote diversity, such as by canceling classes on the Lunar New Year and two Muslim holidays so students can celebrate. She said schools could build on that effort by teaching students about the holidays.

Tipson, the diversity advocate, said that proposal is no match for policies that ensure schools enroll students of different backgrounds.

“It’s horrible to think that she would say that lesson plans can substitute for actually having kids encounter different cultures in their own schools,” he said.

vouchers

Lee says ‘parent choice’ education initiative coming soon in Tennessee

PHOTO: TN.gov
Gov. Bill Lee became Tennessee's 50th governor in January and pledged to make K-12 education a priority, including providing parents with more choices.

Gov. Bill Lee hinted that he soon will introduce a legislative initiative to give parents more education options for their children, even as Wednesday’s deadline passed to file bills for lawmakers to consider this year.

“We continue to believe that choice is important and that we want to look at every opportunity for choices for parents,” the Republican governor said.

But whether his proposal will include school vouchers or a similar type of program remains a mystery.

“We haven’t definitively put together the legislation around what that choice looks like, but we will be in the coming days,” Lee said.

The door remains open because of numerous vaguely described education bills known as “caption bills” that met the filing deadline on Wednesday. Any of these could be turned into voucher-like legislation by the bill’s sponsor.

On the campaign trail and in his victory speech, Lee pledged to give parents more education options. But he’s been coy about what that could look like and whether he would champion such a crucial policy shift during his first year in public office — one with the potential to end in a significant legislative defeat. Over the past decade, vouchers have been fended off consistently in the legislature by an unlikely alliance of Democrats and rural Republicans.

Vouchers would let parents of eligible students use taxpayer money to pay for private school tuition and fees. But this year, Tennessee’s voucher supporters have talked about taking a different voucher-like approach known as education savings accounts, or ESAs.

Education savings accounts would let parents withdraw their children from public schools and receive a deposit of public funds into government-authorized accounts. The money could be used to cover everything from private school tuition and tutoring to homeschool materials and online learning programs.

While a new survey suggests that most Tennesseans support education savings accounts, school boards across the state are on record opposing both approaches. They argue that such programs would drain state funds from traditional public schools and increase student segregation. They’re also concerned that students in those non-public programs would not be held to the same standards and performance measures as students in public schools.

Rep. Mark White, a Memphis Republican who leads a key panel that all education legislation must clear, said any bills to create an education savings account program would have to include strong accountability measures to get his support.

In Arizona, where lawmakers approved education savings accounts in 2011, the program has been marred by rampant fraud. A recent audit reported that parents who used the program misspent $700,000 from their 2018 accounts on banned items that included cosmetics and clothing.

Sen. Raumesh Akbari said Arizona’s experience should give Tennessee lawmakers pause.

“It would have to be a really tight bill for me to support it,” said the Memphis Democrat. “A lot of folks like the flexibility of an education savings account. But when you’re talking about public dollars, there has to be a measure of accountability.”

The results of a Mason-Dixon survey released this week showed that 78 percent of Tennesseans who were polled recently support passage of legislation to create education savings accounts. The survey was commissioned by the pro-voucher group American Federation for Children.

“During last year’s campaign season, many candidates spoke boldly about parental choice in education,” said Shaka Mitchell, the group’s Tennessee director. “The polling shows that voters were listening and expect those promises to result in laws that are just as bold.”

Lee spoke with reporters Wednesday about his legislative agenda after addressing Tennessee school superintendents meeting in Nashville. A day earlier, he announced his legislative initiative to expand access to vocational and technical training for high school students, another promise he campaigned on.

“It will increase the number of kids that are career-ready within a year of leaving high school,” he told members of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents.

Lee said he also wants to strengthen the state’s programs for developing principals and create more opportunities and curriculum focused on science, technology, engineering, and math.

“I want to be an educator governor,” he told the superintendents. “I want [Tennessee] to be a state that is an education state.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include results of the Mason-Dixon survey.

tough sell

Rezoning debate highlights gap in opportunities at two Memphis high schools

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Under Mark Neal's leadership, Melrose High School has earned its way off the state's "priority" list of low-performing schools.

As Shelby County Schools considers a rezoning that would transfer 260 White Station High School students to Melrose High School, some in the community are calling the proposal a needed correction, while others don’t want to move students from a higher-performing school to a lower-performing, but improving, one.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Jonathan Cross speaks at the rezoning meeting Monday.

The community meeting Monday was the first of 10 such gatherings to discuss the district’s plan to rezone a portion of 19 schools with the goal of moving 3,200 students to schools closer to home. Students currently living in those areas can choose to stay at their current school, but parents, not the district, would then be responsible for transportation. (For an overview of all proposed rezonings, read our story from last week.)

This particular meeting was focused on the proposal involving White Station and Melrose.

“The kids already have a fantastic option for education,” at White Station High School, said Jonathan Cross, who owns a house in the proposed area that would no longer be zoned for the East Memphis high school.

If the school board approves the plan, rising ninth graders in the area would be zoned to Melrose this fall. The neighborhood, Sherwood Forest, was rezoned to White Station, from Melrose, at least 20 years ago. Neighborhood advocates in the city’s historic African-American community of Orange Mound say that decades-old change has contributed to the enrollment decline at Melrose.

The rezoning would help level the enrollment at the two schools where Melrose had declining enrollment and White Station was crowded. Under the rezoning, enrollment at Melrose could increase by 44 percent and decrease at White Station by 12 percent. Currently 586 students attend Melrose, while 2,142 attend White Station.

“We’re just reclaiming what was taken from Orange Mound,” Claudette Boyd, a neighborhood advocate, said.

The fight for students in the square-mile that the rezoning plan addresses highlights Shelby County Schools’ struggle to ensure high school students have similar opportunities wherever they go in the district.

“All of our schools need to be high-quality options that offer comprehensive work to our students,” acknowledged Angela Whitelaw, the district’s chief of schools.

Melrose, which has the highest concentration of high school students from low-income families in the city, recently earned its way off the state’s “priority list” of low-performing schools; still fewer than one-quarter of students score at grade level in any subject.

The rezoning could boost Melrose’s enrollment to what the district considers acceptable, meaning that students fill at least 60 percent of the building’s capacity — up from 52 percent capacity this year.

White Station High School, which conversely has the second-lowest concentration of poor students, routinely performs above the district average in all subjects, but in the last three years has seen academic achievement decline.

State of Education in Orange Mound

    • Parents, students and community stakeholders are invited to a community discussion about:
    • Attendance zone for Melrose High
    • Opening of charter schools
    • School closures
    • Status of Aspire Hanley
    • Childhood trauma (ACEs)

The event is sponsored by Committee of Melrose Alumni, Orange Mound Development Corporation, and Orange Mound Community Parade Committee. Grand prize drawing for a 39-inch television. Must be present to win.

  • When: 12 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 9
  • Where: Orange Mound Community Center, 2572 Park Ave. Memphis, TN 38114

Making sure that Orange Mound students have preferred admission to their neighborhood school has been a priority for Joyce Dorse-Coleman, who was elected to the Shelby County Schools board in August.

“This may be new to some of you, but this is not new,” she told meeting attendees, referring to neighborhood residents attending Melrose, which she said “used to have high enrollment.”

At Monday’s meeting, Whitelaw outlined the sports teams and clubs Melrose offers, as well as course offerings that can count for college credit and industry certification.

But some parents are wary of the Shelby County Schools claims — saying that if Melrose was as academically strong as the district claims, most of the students slated for rezoning would already be attending that school, which is closer to where they live.

“If the kids my child hangs out with don’t go to Melrose, we don’t have a strong neighborhood school,” said Michelle Ficklen, who has lived in the proposed rezoned area for about 20 years.

In a district report last year, Melrose High had few options for advanced coursework that could prepare students for the rigor of college classes. There were no Advanced Placement classes, three dual enrollment, and 21 honors. Next year, Melrose is slated to get some Advanced Placement classes, eight dual enrollment classes, but will offer six fewer honors classes, according to Linda Sklar, the district’s optional school coordinator.

By contrast, White Station High already has the highest number of Advanced Placement and honors courses, and the second highest number of dual enrollment classes in the district.

School board member Stephanie Love, who was present at Monday’s meeting, said district staff should see “what classes [White Station students] were in and mirror some of them at Melrose.”

“What’s going to happen if they choose somewhere else?” she said after the meeting.

The school board will likely vote on the rezoning plans in late February or early March, district officials said.