A tale of two schools

For two sharply divided Manhattan schools, an uncertain path to integration

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Parents and teachers attended a meeting Saturday at P.S. 191 about a proposed rezoning.

The two schools sit nine blocks apart on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, but it’s as if they occupy different universes.

P.S. 199 on West 70th Street is a National Blue Ribbon Award-winner with state test scores twice as high as the city average, whose muscular parent-teacher association raised over $800,000 in the 2014 fiscal year, tax filings show. The majority of its students are white, and just 8 percent qualify as poor.

A short walk south to West 61st Street, P.S. 191 serves mainly students from the public housing across the street. It yields test scores far below the city average, and its parent group raised about $24,000 last year. Most of its students are black or Hispanic, and nearly 90 percent are poor.

The separate-and-unequal worlds of the neighboring schools emerged over many decades. But now, an opening for integration may have appeared.

In order to stem overcrowding at 199, where soaring demand created the city’s longest kindergarten waitlist this year, the city education department has proposed new zone lines that would reroute some would-be 199 students to 191, which has many open seats. In that way, a solution to overcrowding could spur integration.

Some parents want the city to go even further and erase the boundary between the schools. They say a single zone for both schools would end the practice of separate schools for rich and poor, and bring a greater mix of students into each.

“We have an unbelievable opportunity here,” said Noah Gotbaum, a local education council member who has championed that idea, at a recent rezoning meeting.

However, the vast divide between the two schools could undercut either plan. 199 might remain more popular even in a unified zone, and wealthier parents say they might shun 191 even if they were zoned for it.

That was the message at the meeting earlier this month, where parents who said they had settled in the high-priced precinct near Lincoln Center largely because of 199 insisted that 191 — with its low test scores and reports of violence — is an unacceptable alternative.

“If I don’t get into P.S. 199,” said Robert LaSalle, the father of a one-year-old girl, “I’m going to send my kid to private school, or I’m going to move to another district.”

A solution to overcrowding faces a backlash

P.S. 199 (left) is a top-ranked school surrounded by pricey residential buildings. P.S. 191 (right), which serves many students from the Amsterdam Houses (far right), has struggled low test scores and a "persistently dangerous" designation by the state.
P.S. 199 (left) is a top-ranked school surrounded by pricey residential buildings. P.S. 191, which serves many students from the Amsterdam Houses (far right), has struggled low test scores and a “persistently dangerous” designation by the state.

In a neighborhood where apartments can sell for upwards of $1 million and many parents could afford private school, 199’s academic success has kept local parents clamoring for spots.

To meet the demand, the school has squeezed in at least 150 students more than its building was designed for, leading to full classrooms, jam-packed playgrounds, and traffic gridlock during dismissal. Still, more than 90 families in the school’s zone landed on the kindergarten waitlist this year, prompting some to flee to private schools and others to plead with city officials to find them space at 199.

The city’s solution is to shrink 199’s catchment area and expand those around 191 and P.S. 452, a relatively new school to the north. Education department officials, who will make a final proposal next month, say their plan could increase the share of white students in 191’s zone by nearly a quarter.

But for parents drawn to the pricey neighborhood in part by 199’s prestige, overcrowding is not a sufficient reason to deny them seats — especially when the substitute is 191.

“People would rather have overcrowding at 199 than send their kid to 191,” said Vivian Chen, the parent of a 199 kindergartener whose building would be rezoned for 452. “You don’t move to this kind of neighborhood for that.”

In their own words

Click to hear what local parents and students have to say about the neighborhood’s schools. The blue area is the proposed zone for P.S. 199; the purple area is P.S. 191’s proposed zone.

The situation mirrors one in a gentrifying pocket of Brooklyn, where the city has proposed shifting incoming students from packed P.S. 8 to nearby P.S. 307. But the divide is sharper between the two Manhattan schools and perhaps harder to bridge: Their test-score gap is significantly wider, and the state recently branded P.S. 191 a “persistently dangerous school” based on data from the past two academic years.

Parents and faculty say the designation is misleading. Still, it dealt a crushing blow to the school’s reputation and gave students the legal right to transfer out. Already, the city has had to offer 18 incoming kindergarteners seats at other schools, and 28 current students have applied for transfers, according to an education department spokesman.

Faced with that label and the school’s test scores, some parents who could soon be zoned for 191 have not been swayed by arguments that the school is actually on the upswing. When City Councilwoman Helen Rosenthal spoke during the Oct. 7 hearing about the school’s enthusiastic new principal and extra funding it has received, many parents were skeptical.

“Are the test scores wrong though or are they right?” one man called out. He added, “It’s not just money, it’s parents.”

In interviews, other current and prospective 199 parents repeated the notion that some of 191’s challenges stem from limited parent involvement. One father said that while 199 parents compete to be classroom volunteers, at 191, “nobody cares.” They also worried about sending their children to a school where most of their classmates would be behind academically, at least according to test scores.

Kim Watkins, a member of the district’s education council whose daughter attended 191 until she got into a gifted program at a different school this year, said it would be reasonable to ask would-be 199 parents to take a chance on 191 — if it weren’t for the “incredibly disparate level of student performance” at the two schools.

“You don’t gamble with your kids’ lives like that,” she said.

Despite the public talk about data and designations, some 191 parents and faculty are convinced that part of their neighbors’ wariness about the school stems from the population it serves.

“They think because it’s the projects, it’s bad kids,” said Elizabeth Merced, a 191 parent who lives in the Amsterdam Houses across from the school.

A ‘super zone’ to combat segregation

A parent spoke out against the city's rezoning plan, which switches the school that certain residential buildings are paired with from 199 to 191.
A parent spoke out against the city’s rezoning plan, which switches the school that certain residential buildings are paired with from 199 to 191. (Photo credit: Patrick Wall)

While the city’s plan to redraw the zoning lines is mainly an effort to curb overcrowding, the shared zone idea put forward by parent leaders has an additional goal: integration.

Families that live within the combined 191-199 “super zone,” as some have called it, could apply to either school. If a school receives more applicants than it has seats, a lottery would go into effect.

Proponents say the plan would open 199 to some students from the housing projects and could send a larger number of affluent students to 191 than a traditional rezoning would. More importantly, they say, it could begin to chip away at the perception that one school belongs to rich families and another belongs to those who are poor.

“A super zone creates equality,” said Seth Rosenthal, who lives in a building whose zoned school would switch from 199 to 191 under the city’s proposal. “Instead of drawing lines, let’s have two great schools.”

Education department planners mapped out a potential shared zone at the request of the District 3 Community Education Council. But the officials have cautioned that such plans have faltered elsewhere when an in-demand school gets flooded with applicants and the less-popular school receives its lottery losers. Some parents share those doubts.

“It’s not going to make 191 more attractive to prospective parents,” said Vildan Altuglu, who lives in 199’s zone, at a rezoning meeting Saturday. “It will not solve the problem.”

Meanwhile, other parents have floated a third plan: pairing the two schools so that students attend one for the early grades and the other for later grades. The schools had such an arrangement decades ago, but it eventually fell apart.

“That was the beginning of the end of diversity,” said Dr. Elena Nasereddin, who was principal of 191 in the 1990s and early 2000s.

City officials have not presented that pairing as an option at the rezoning meetings. In general, Mayor Bill de Blasio — like his predecessor — has been reluctant to make school diversity an overt goal of zoning or admissions-policy changes.

Education department spokeswoman Devora Kaye said creating a diverse school system is an important goal, and that officials consider the impact on school diversity when creating new zones. She said the city would consider all zoning options for 191 and 199, and would work with families at both schools “to ensure the proposal best serves students in the community.”

The district’s community education council, which consists of elected parent leaders, is expected to vote on the city’s final proposal on Nov. 19. If they approve the plan, it would go into effect next school year.

A test ahead, with serious consequences

P.S. 191 Principal Lauren Keville hopes to convince more parents to give her school a chance.
P.S. 191 Principal Lauren Keville hopes to convince more parents to give her school a chance. (Photo credit: Patrick Wall)

For now, the plan at 191 is to keep pushing to improve the school, while asking more parents to give it a chance.

Principal Lauren Keville, who is starting her second year at the school, said she has moved swiftly to raise the level of academics by hiring new teacher coaches, installing a new writing curriculum, and instituting a tablet-based reading program. In order to address the behavior incidents, she said she has brought in a new social worker and a school-wide curriculum designed to help students manage their emotions, which has led to a major decrease in incidents this year.

She is also marketing the school to parents. Last Wednesday, she greeted a roomful of prospective parents who had come for the first of many weekly tours the school will give this fall, and at the rezoning meetings she has invited anyone from the community to visit.

“I encourage you to come and see us,” Keville said at one meeting, “so that we can dispel some of the ugly rumors that are out there about our school.”

It remains an open question whether her outreach will convince parents who had counted on sending their children to a high-flying school like 199 to consider one with a tarnished reputation should any new zones be approved. The answer to that question, many believe, could seal the fate of 191 and its students.

“Until we ensure that our schools are both ethnically and economically diverse,” P.S. 191 Assistant Principal Sandra Perez said at Saturday’s hearing, “we will continue to be a school that struggles.”

Additional reporting by Monica Disare. Graphic by Stephanie Snyder and Monica Disare.

universal choice

Denver’s window for choosing schools opens Tuesday

PHOTO: Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post
Sophia Camacena sits with classmates in kindergarten on the first day of school at McGlone Academy in Denver on Aug. 15, 2018.

The one-month window for Denver families to list their top school choices for next school year starts Tuesday and runs through Feb. 15.

Denver Public Schools expects to inform families of their school placement results in late March.

Denver Public Schools has a universal school choice system that allows families to use a single online form to request to attend any district-run or charter school in the city. Charter schools are publicly funded but independently run. This year, 60 of Denver’s 213 schools are charters.

While many school districts nationwide have a contentious relationship with charter schools, Denver is known for its collaboration with them, which includes the universal enrollment system. That collaboration has been the subject of criticism from parents, teachers, and community members who see the independent schools as siphoning students and resources from district-run schools.

The 93,000-student school district especially encourages families with children going into the so-called transition grades of kindergarten, sixth, and ninth grade to fill out a choice form. Families list their top five school choices, and the district uses a lottery system to assign students.

Schools can set their own enrollment priorities. Many district-run schools give high priority to students who live within their boundary and to siblings of current students, for example.

The district also has 15 “enrollment zones,” which are expanded boundaries with several schools in them. Students who live in zones are guaranteed a spot at one of the schools in the zone but not necessarily the school closest to them.

Denver has used zones as a way to increase school integration. Many neighborhoods in Denver are segregated by race and income, and the district’s reasoning is that widening boundaries provides the opportunity for a more diverse school population.

But a 2016 district analysis found that enlarging middle school boundaries had not decreased school segregation as much as district officials hoped it would.

The district also has a school integration pilot program that gives students from low-income families priority to enroll at schools that serve mostly students from affluent families. The results have been modest, and district officials are exploring ways to expand the impact.

how we got here

I’m a white teacher who chose a high-poverty school for my daughter. Here’s why.

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat

When I read Saratu Ghartey’s story last fall that beautifully and honestly captured her experience touring, searching for, and finally selecting a “good” preschool for her son, I recognized myself. I, too, have been consumed by tours and distraught by the inequity among schools across districts — for years as an educator and now as a parent, too.

I spent the first decade of my career teaching at Title I schools that served mostly black and brown students, many from immigrant families. The first was an ambitious small high school with unrealized dreams of inspiring community organizing, and the other a more established 6-12 progressive school nestled in an affluent Brooklyn neighborhood. Regardless of location, neither school was sought after by middle-class white families.

Some of my students came resistant, unconvinced that they had anything to gain from a white lady like myself. And in the beginning, their doubts won me over. So I sought out mentors, drowned myself in teacher books, and eventually learned how to lead with a stern, intentional, witty kind of love. I committed myself to crafting curriculum that was culturally relevant, to helping students see the ways that their stories, their histories, their voices mattered.

I was often disheartened by the apathy I saw, kids more interested in their cell phones than the texts I had presumptively selected. Often when I pushed disengaged students, I found that their minds were on a sick loved one, an anniversary of a death, a shooting in their building, the chronic discomfort of a shelter. My lesson was white noise floating above the soundtrack of their trauma. And, as teens do, they formed community around their traumas, taking on each other’s burdens so that the load would be dispersed. This meant that many of my students were often distracted, and I often found myself drained and ill-equipped to give each student’s crisis proper attention.

And yet, I was also energized by my students’ willingness to re-engage each day. Teenagers, though often grouchy, are refreshingly optimistic. Their resilience, brilliance, humor, and belief in possibilities fueled me. They were not hamstrung by crises, and some went on to win writing contests and earn competitive scholarships at prestigious colleges. I loved them fiercely, and we always made space for laughter. My colleagues were among the most dedicated, innovative humans I have met and they helped transform the lives of their students.

Because of these experiences, I am one of the white parents Ghartey describes: I have chosen to enroll my white daughter in a high poverty, mostly black and Latinx school because this school embraces and values the children of our neighborhood. Ghartey asserts that the stakes for her black son are too high to make this choice, and unfortunately, the stakes are different indeed. Though I worry that class and cultural differences may leave my daughter feeling out of the loop and efforts to fit in may present as cultural appropriation, I, unlike Ghartey, do not fear that assimilating to her school culture will lead my daughter to become entangled in the criminal justice system. Authorities will never view her skin color as inherently threatening.

So I share my own experiences more for families like mine, grappling with whether the benefits of a diverse school outweigh the perceived costs. I know that they do, for all students — a perspective informed in part by having worked for the past year at a more economically diverse school where addressing students’ socio-emotional needs is more manageable because fewer students live in poverty.

The students at my current school often produce more, take their thinking further, and perform better on state tests not because I have magically become a better teacher or because they have greater aptitude — it is because a majority of them come from middle-class homes. A majority of them trust that school will help them succeed (as it helped their parents) and enter the classroom with their personal needs satisfied. Their investment fuels an atmosphere where learning is the main focus.

This dynamic allows me as a teacher to dedicate more time to students whose skills are lagging or who need additional emotional support to deepen their thinking. Last year, one of my students lived in temporary housing and entered with a vendetta against books. I was able to give him the extra attention he needed — access to headphones, a laptop, a school Audible account, new books by the brilliant and relatable Jason Reynolds — and this reader jumped three grade levels by June. I could do that because the majority of the other students in his class could make progress with greater independence.

In another class, I was able to offer individualized attention to a student whose home language was Montenegrin, and whose struggles with English syntax barred her from comprehending grade-level texts. In collaboration with our dynamic special educator and speech teacher, I helped this student gain confidence and make progress. We discovered midway through the year that another student, whose parents were embroiled in a divorce, was contemplating suicide. Because his crisis was not competing with many others, we were able to get him the immediate attention, support, and resources he needed.

I also witnessed the powerful benefits classroom diversity had on my white, middle-class students. One boy learned through his interactions with a Latinx classmate who lived in public housing that the phrase “all lives matter” was offensive, and a girl found inspiration in a black peer who boldly shared her critical insights with peers but who privately struggled with writing mechanics. In his final evaluation of the class, a white student, who flaunted his wealth and openly ridiculed his less affluent peers, reflected that his experience that year taught him how to listen more to people and be kinder. “You never know what someone is going through,” he wrote.

This isn’t just the beauty of a diverse school — this is the reason public schools exist. When we pool our resources and allow everyone to access to rich, joyful learning and high expectations, we allow public schools to be the great equalizers that they ought to be. Yet, in a city where we have the unique opportunity to bring kids of various backgrounds together through school, we usually decline. When middle class parents flock en masse to specific schools, they deplete others of the opportunity to realize public education’s equalizing potential. And even as individual families make difficult choices to integrate schools, the system remains hypersegregated.

As I weigh K-5 options for my daughter, I am not immune to that sinking feeling that my daughter is going to miss out if I don’t fight for entry into the schools that get all the buzz. I’m drawn to more progressive options outside of our neighborhood where children learn more through exploration, teachers have the luxury to draw out their natural creativity and curiosity to deepen learning, where success on the state test feels more like an afterthought than the driving mission.

PHOTO: Contributed by Stumpf
Alie Stumpf and her family

Yet these schools are already oversaturated with white upper to middle class kids — demographics that stand in stark contrast to our beloved neighborhood. As Ghartey wrote, many families of color choose schools with a more traditional approach when possible. I could also throw our hat in the ring at the “unicorn” school and others like it. But I think the unspoken requirement to beg for admission into a public school disqualifies the institution from truly being for the people.

As I consider these possibilities, I recall what journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones said at a recent event I attended for parents and advocates seeking a less segregated school system: “If you make the choice only for your child, you’re choosing to sacrifice someone else’s.” I know true equity means giving up privilege so that others may also enjoy it. It means making myself vulnerable to the “rocks” Ghartey mentions that are inevitable whenever a community changes. It means that my daughter’s classrooms may not look as flashy as the most coveted elementary schools because her teachers are using their prep periods to respond to the social-emotional needs of their students. It may mean that some of her peers come to school distracted, or that the presence of the state test looms over too much of the work they do.

But let’s get real: my daughter will carry her whiteness and its privileges into this setting and will be just fine; the rocks for her are never going to be as sharp as they are for Ghartey’s family. Throughout most of history, we’ve left it to black families to be the pioneers of integration. It’s long past time for white families to step up in New York City.

And they should because it’s best for us, too, on the merits: at an economically and racially diverse school, my daughter will grow up as part of a vibrant, resilient community, among classmates who live both a few blocks away and a whole world apart, broadening her perspective and enfolding her in a real neighborhood. The attractions of diversity played a big role in my and my husband’s decision to settle in the city rather than the suburbs. But that’s only window-dressing if we don’t insist that this diversity be reflected inside schools and not just outside them.

Though I am hopeful about Chancellor Richard Carranza’s initiatives to increase school diversity, I think school integration will only be achieved when white families like mine commit to integrated schools in their own neighborhoods. It may take hard work — more PTA involvement, more fundraisers, more listening and understanding — but most things worth having do.

Alie Stumpf has been teaching reading and writing in New York City public schools since 2006. She lives in Brooklyn and currently teaches sixth-grade humanities in Manhattan.