getting the green light

Exclusive: After year delay, city will allow diversity plans at several schools

PHOTO: Anika Anand
Children play in the gym of P.S. 133 in Park Slope in 2013. The school's admissions system, which sets aside some seats for low-income students and English learners, has served as a model for other schools hoping to maintain a diverse mix of students.

The city will allow seven schools to change their admissions policies to make sure they enroll a diverse mix of students, sources said Thursday, more than a year after a group of principals began lobbying to do so.

The education department would not immediately confirm that the plans had been approved. But people with direct knowledge of the schools’ proposals, who were not authorized to speak publicly, said an official announcement was expected Friday.

The schools will be able to reserve a portion of their available seats — anywhere from 10 to 60 percent — for low-income students, English learners, students who are involved in the child-welfare system, or children who have incarcerated parents, according to sources.

The expected announcement would represent a significant shift for Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has spoken about the value of school diversity but has been reluctant to make policy changes to promote it. The previous administration let one district school, P.S. 133 in Park Slope, adopt a diversity-focused admissions policy, but the current administration has so far declined to sign off on similar policies that other schools have requested.

The policy shift comes as the city has faced increasing pressure to directly address school segregation and the lack of student diversity at many schools, a push partly sparked by racially charged debates over rezoning proposals in Brooklyn and Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Last month, education department officials bowed to that pressure by moving to strike a footnote from the city’s school admissions code that had been criticized for potentially blocking efforts to create diverse schools.

“Empowering elementary schools to use admissions processes that strengthen diversity is a strong step in our ongoing effort to confront the segregation of our schools,” City Councilman Brad Lander said in a statement. He and Councilman Ritchie Torres co-sponsored a bill, which de Blasio signed into law this spring, that will force the education department to report annually on school demographics and its efforts to increase diversity within schools.

Two schools in Lander’s district — Brooklyn New School and Brooklyn Children’s School — are among those that will be allowed to adopt new admissions policies. The other schools are: the Academy of Arts & Letters in Fort Greene, Brooklyn Arts and Science Elementary School in Crown Heights, the Earth School and the Neighborhood School in the East Village, and Castle Bridge School in Washington Heights, according to people with knowledge of the plans.

In Oct. 2014, a group of principals met with top department officials and floated diverse-enrollment plans similar to that at P.S. 133, which the Bloomberg administration allowed to reserve more than a third of its seats for low-income students and those still learning English. The idea is to preserve a diverse mix of students at the schools even as more white and affluent students enroll. At the start of this school year, several of the principals said they had yet to hear back from the city about their proposals.

But in recent days, advocates who have been pushing de Blasio to do more to promote school integration said they have heard that the city was preparing to allow some of the schools to save a portion of seats — or create “set-asides” — for particular student groups.

“My understanding is that now they’re granting set-asides to certain individual schools,” said David Goldsmith, president of the Community Education Council in Brooklyn’s District 13, where P.S. 133 is located.

Principals from P.S. 133 and three other District 13 schools attended last year’s diversity meeting with top officials, including Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña. One of the schools was the Academy of Arts & Letters, which has seen its share of low-income students fall from about three-quarters to less than 40 percent over the past several years as the school’s neighborhood has rapidly gentrified. Under its newly approved plan, the school will be able to reserve 40 percent of available seats for low-income students — effectively keeping its share of those students from shrinking any further.

Admissions systems like those the city is set to approve can help schools in gentrifying areas avoid “tipping,” or switching from a mix of students from different backgrounds to a majority of students from middle-class families that are settling in the school’s neighborhood.

While advocates have welcomed the prospect of the city granting individual schools permission to tweak their admissions policies to ensure diversity, they have also argued that district-wide policies are crucial. Otherwise, a school with set-asides might enroll a mix of students while surrounding schools could become increasingly segregated.

“If you solve a problem in one school and create a greater problem in five schools as a result,” said Goldsmith, the CEC president, “what are you really accomplishing?”

Education department spokeswoman Devora Kaye said that the city is working with educators, parents, and lawmakers to promote school diversity.

“Students learn from the diverse experiences and cultures of their fellow students, and it’s important that our schools reflect the diversity of our City,” she said in a statement.

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.