Stepping into a charged debate over school segregation on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Chancellor Carmen Fariña said Wednesday that while diversity benefits all students, integration should not be forced on families.

In one of her most extensive public discussions of the issue, Fariña explained that she had sought out diverse schools for her own children. But as schools chief, she said she believes that creating schools with a wide mix of students is more the job of individual schools and parents than the city, since not all families place the same value on diversity.

“What I believe in and what I can convince other people to believe in are not necessarily the same thing,” she told the capacity crowd at a forum at P.S. 191 on West 61st Street. Developing diverse schools, she added, is a complicated process that “needs to be planned for, it needs to be accepted, and it needs to be carefully thought out.”

Fariña and Mayor Bill de Blasio have increasingly been called upon to address the city’s deeply entrenched school segregation by parents and advocates who point to the mayor’s vow to reign in inequality. In response, both officials have sought to embrace diversity without endorsing changes to enrollment or zoning policies that could potentially drive middle-class families out of the school system.

Despite those efforts, Fariña faces that exact scenario at P.S. 191, a low-performing school that serves mostly poor students of color from an adjacent public-housing complex.

The city has proposed sending the school some wealthier students who would have attended P.S. 199, a high-flying school just blocks away that is severely overcrowded. Some 199 parents have responded to the plan by threatening to flee the district, while others have called for a solution that directly confronts the race and class segregation at both schools.

Fariña displayed little sympathy for parents seeking to keep hold of their 199 seats at all costs, saying that overcrowding will only be solved through “hard decisions,” not “fairy dust.” But she also declined to get behind alternative zoning proposals floated by parents, which they say would alleviate overcrowding while also doing more to integrate both schools.

When asked directly how the administration is working to increase school diversity, she suggested that community resistance — like that on display at 199 — is a major concern. Any effort to “impose it from the outside” would require buy-in from parents, she said.

“Parents make choices,” she told the crowd. “When you have choice, then parents have to decide what’s their biggest priority.”

Fariña recited many points about school diversity that she has made before.

Chancellor Carmen Fariña fielded several questions about school diversity at a town hall meeting Wednesday on the Upper West Side.
Chancellor Carmen Fariña fielded several questions about school diversity at a town hall meeting Wednesday on the Upper West Side.

She argued that it should extend beyond race and class to include students with disabilities and those still learning English. And she insisted that integration can happen school-by-school, using dual-language programs and school tours to attract more middle-class parents without the need for system-wide policy changes.

“It’s something I’m encouraging schools around the city to do,” she said.

In fact, P.S. 191 has tried to woo more middle-class parents through tours and partnership with local cultural centers, but many remain deeply skeptical of the school because of its below-average test scores and a “persistently dangerous” designation it recently received from the state.

Fariña also suggested that an alternative to integrating schools is having them form “sister school” partnerships, such as the one between the Upper West Side’s affluent P.S. 87 and a low-income school in the South Bronx. She has touted that partnership before, saying P.S. 87 shares a percentage of its vast parent-association funds with the Bronx school and that students write and sometimes visit one another, according to DNAinfo New York, which reported that some P.S. 87 parents said the partnership was not as extensive as Fariña indicated.

Ana Guillermo, a P.S. 199 parent who asked Fariña what she was doing to address school segregation in the Upper West Side and across the city, said she was not satisfied “at all” with the response.

“She didn’t answer the question, actually,” Guillermo said, adding that the administration needs a clear plan to tackle segregation. “We live in a multicultural city, but the schools are not integrated.”

Fariña left after the forum, and members of the District 3 Community Education Council stayed for several more hours to discuss the rezoning.

Most of the council’s elected parent leaders said they do not support the proposed rezoning, which would shrink 199’s catchment area and expand those around 191 and P.S. 452, a newer school to the north. But many also raised questions about the feasibility of alternative plans.

One much-discussed plan would create a single “super zone” for both 191 and 199, allowing families to apply to either school. But several council members said that skirts the problem that many parents could still refuse to apply or send their children to 191.

“There is nothing the DOE or CEC can do to force families to go to 191,” said CEC 3 President Joe Fiordaliso. “It makes me so uncomfortable and disappointed to say, but it’s a reality that we cannot ignore.”

A more radical plan would divide students by grade between 191, 199, and P.S. 342, a school that is set to open in 2018. All local students would attend each school for a few grades, which would presumably make the schools equally diverse.

Asked about that plan, Fariña said it raised logistical concerns, such as which teachers would be held accountable for students’ test scores.

By the end of the meeting, the discussion had turned to the possibility of delaying the vote on the city’s final proposal, currently scheduled for next month. District Superintendent Ilene Altschul cautioned that unless some families are removed from 199’s zone, its kindergarten waitlist could reach 125 students next year.

At one point in the discussion, Noah Gotbaum, a council member who has promoted the super zone plan, said “there is an elephant in the room that isn’t being discussed.”

“For us to look at this issue,” he said, “and to pretend that segregation is not the major cause of overcrowding at 199 and under-enrollment at 191 is a fantasy.”