pep update

Education panel meeting generates emotions but not action on school diversity

At the Panel for Educational Policy meeting Tuesday night, panel members vowed to continue pushing for school diversity while tabling a measure that would force the city to clarify its stance on using race in school admissions.

The question before the panel was whether to strike a footnote in the city’s regulations that has become a focal point of a larger conversation about the lack of racial diversity in most New York City schools. The 24-word footnote says race may be considered in school enrollment decisions only by court order — a legal interpretation that has been challenged by a number of prominent advocates.

On Tuesday, panel members said they needed to meet with more constituents and advocates before they could make an informed decision.

“People just wanted to give it more time,” said Norm Fruchter, the panel member who introduced the measure.

A meeting was supposed to take place Sept. 28 between panel members, city officials, and advocacy groups to discuss the issue, Fruchter said, but it was cancelled for a reason unknown to Fruchter.

The lack of attendees and panel members at Tuesday’s meeting, held on Staten Island, also warranted postponing the discussion, said Vanessa Leung, the panel’s policy chair. The Department of Education also said the absence of a number of panel members was key to tabling the proposal.

“Fostering diversity in our schools is a critical issue, and we look forward to having this discussion with the PEP next month when more panel members are able to attend,” department spokesman Harry Hartfield said. Only nine of the 13 panel members attended the meeting.

Diversity was front and center at the panel’s August meeting, when the board adopted updates to the admissions regulations, including the footnote in question.

The footnote implies the city believes involving race in school admissions is unconstitutional in most cases. Advocates contend that is a fundamental misreading of the law, which they say allows a district to consider race, along with other characteristics, if race-neutral approaches fail to produce diverse schools.

A number of schools have crafted their own plans to retain or boost diversity and are waiting on administrative approval. Meanwhile, Chancellor Carmen Fariña has voiced concerns about any plan that would give preference to one group over another, saying she wouldn’t want new policies to disenfranchise any students.

The tabled measure did not stop panel members from vowing, sometimes passionately, that diversity remains a top priority for them.

As panel member Lori Podvesker talked about the panel’s efforts to put “a lot of time and energy and heart and soul” into exploring diversity options, she was briefly at a loss for words.

“As a special ed person I can’t stress enough how important it is to me for students with disabilities to be part of this conversation,” Podvesker said, sparking cheers from the crowd, many of whom were parents of special-education students who came to express grievances to the panel.

Panel members promised that the footnote discussion would return.

“Tabling it doesn’t mean it’s going away,” Fruchter said. “It’s coming back, hopefully at the next meeting.”

back to court

Nashville appeals judge’s order to share student information with state charters

The battle over student contact information will continue between Tennessee’s charter schools and its second largest school district.

Attorneys for Metro Nashville Public Schools on Friday appealed Chancellor Bill Young’s order to provide state-run charter schools with the names, phone numbers, and addresses of students.

The appeal came on the same day that Young originally set for Nashville’s district to comply with a new state law requiring sharing such information if charter operators request it. But a recent court extension assured Nashville leaders that they could exhaust the appeals process first.

The disagreement — which also touches on student privacy, school choice, and enrollment — has vexed state officials and lawmakers as they’ve sought to mitigate skirmishes between the state’s growing charter sector and its two largest districts, in Nashville and Memphis. Last month, Gov. Bill Haslam brought all parties to the table to seek a solution outside the courts. The State Department of Education was tasked with developing a way forward, but has not yet submitted a proposal.

While the state has urged local districts to comply with the year-old charter law, Nashville leaders argue it runs afoul of a federal law that gives districts discretion over who gets student contact information. For instance, school systems routinely share such information with companies that sell yearbooks and class rings.

The tussle has implications for the state’s largest school system, Shelby County Schools, in Memphis. Leaders there also have refused to hand over the information to charters in the state’s Achievement School District, which seeks to turn around Tennessee’s lowest-performing schools.

What Memphis parents should know about how schools share student information

Parents are divided on the issue. Some say the information exchange is an invasion of privacy, including when a Nashville charter school sent a barrage of text messages to parents, resulting in a $2.2 million settlement last year. Others say allowing charters to contact prospective students allows them to better explore their options.

Starting young

These 11-year-old Brooklyn students are asking New York City to do something about segregated schools

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Matilda and Eliza Seki, left, and their friends Noa and Benji Weiss, right, collected signatures at a district 15 meeting to discuss middle school integration efforts.

While they learned about the history of segregation, a group of Brooklyn 11-year-olds took a good look around their classrooms and realized their schools weren’t so different from the photos in their textbooks.

So Matilda and Eliza Seki paired up with their friends Noa and Benji Weiss — two sets of twins — and decided to do something about it. They launched a petition on calling on the city to integrate its schools.

“We learned about separate and equal in the civil rights movement, and that it was not equal,” Eliza said, referring to the “separate but equal” legal doctrine once used to justify segregation. “And since there are schools with people of only one race, and it’s all separated, it cannot be equal.”

Matilda and Eliza are in the sixth grade at M.S. 839, and Noa and Benji are fifth-graders at P.S. 10. They already have a bit of experience in activism, having joined the Women’s March in D.C., and helping to lead environmental clubs at their school. They hold sophisticated views for kids their age, and are aware of the hurdles ingrained in addressing school segregation.

Describing how housing patterns can tie into school quality, Benji began his thoughts by saying: “Let’s say you’re from a different culture or race and you don’t have as much money as other people do — because we still live in a racist country — and you’re in an area where the housing is cheaper but you don’t have as good schools.”

Across New York City, adults have debated how to spur integration in the country’s largest school system — and one of the most segregated. According to one recent analysis, the city’s most selective high schools enroll 84 percent white and Asian students, even though those groups make up only 30 percent of the city’s student enrollment.

But student-organized groups have also been at the forefront of a grassroots movement for more diverse schools. The work of budding advocates Matilda, Eliza, Noa and Benji caught the attention of some those groups, and they’ve now joined the ranks of Teens Take Charge and IntegrateNYC as some of the youngest members. The changes they’d like to see go beyond admissions policies, but also include a push for additional resources for underserved schools, hiring more teachers of color and curricula that reflects all students and cultures.

“We decided it was an important issue and we wanted to help fix it,” Noa said.

Matilda added: “Our schools should look like our city.”

Their schools are in District 15, where 81 percent of white students are concentrated in just three of the district’s most selective middle schools, according to an analysis by parents. The city has launched a series of public workshops to craft a new admissions model to integrate middle schools there, but these kids already have their own ideas for how to do that.

Benji, who is heading to middle school next year, said it would be “pretty good” if schools stopped picking students based on criteria such as class grades and attendance. Such “screening” contributes to segregation because of a number of factors — from which elementary schools students attend, to their parents’ ability to navigate the complicated admissions process.  

“It’s… important to learn about different peoples’ backgrounds, and religions, and cultures,” he said. “And also to make sure that all kids, no matter their race, religion or where they live can get the same, good education.”