shifting lines

In gentrifying Brooklyn, rezoning plan that sparked diversity debate is approved

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Members of Brooklyn's District 13 Community Education Council approved a contentious rezoning plan Tuesday evening.

Parent leaders in gentrifying Brooklyn narrowly approved a contentious rezoning plan Tuesday that has brought widespread attention to the deep race and class divisions between neighboring schools in some parts of the city.

After a weeks-long delay to give officials more time to meet with affected families, the community education council in Brooklyn’s District 13 voted 6-3 to approve the zone change for next fall. As a result, some families who would have been eligible for kindergarten spots at popular but jam-packed P.S. 8 in Brooklyn Heights will now be shifted to lower-performing P.S. 307 in nearby Vinegar Hill, which has many open seats.

While the plan was designed to relieve the overcrowding at P.S. 8 that has intensified as the school’s popularity has grown and more families have moved into its sprawling zone, it could also have the effect of diversifying P.S. 307. That school serves mostly low-income black and Hispanic students, including many who live in adjacent public housing, while the majority of P.S. 8 students are white and many are wealthy.

The plan triggered a backlash both from current P.S. 307  parents and some who would be rerouted there, illustrating the challenges of integrating a school even when it is surrounded by a mix of families. As Mayor Bill de Blasio has faced rising calls to address the lack of diversity at many schools in New York City — which is one of the nation’s most segregated districts — this rezoning battle and a similar one in the Upper West Side have come to epitomize just how difficult that will be.

But for all the fierce debates this zone change stirred up since it was proposed in September, its immediate effects could be limited. While it will shrink P.S. 8’s lengthy waitlist, the building will still be filled far above capacity. And it is possible that many would-be P.S. 8 parents who are now matched with P.S. 307 will choose not to enroll there, leaving both schools nearly as segregated as before.

“I don’t believe we’re going to make as much history as we say,” said Ben Greene, a CEC13 member and P.S. 307 parent, before he voted against the plan late Tuesday evening.

The city’s proposal came after P.S. 8 has had to cut its pre-kindergarten program and repurpose its arts classrooms to free up space for a steady stream of new students. Now at 140 percent of its intended capacity, the school last year had to place 50 prospective kindergarten students on a waitlist.

The rezoning will shrink P.S. 8’s catchment area – which spans from Brooklyn Heights to the Navy Yard – and expand P.S. 307’s, which is now just a fraction of the size of P.S. 8’s. Even though P.S. 307 draws many students from outside its current zone, it still cannot fill all its seats.

While the plan might make logistical sense, many parents rejected it.

Doreen Gallo, director of the DUMBO Neighborhood Alliance, spoke out against the rezoning plan Tuesday.
Doreen Gallo, director of the DUMBO Neighborhood Alliance, spoke out against the rezoning plan Tuesday.

Some P.S. 307 parents and residents of the Farragut Houses, who have long sent their children to that school, worried that an influx of wealthy newcomers could change the school’s character and jeopardize its federal Title I funding, which is tied to the share of needy students it enrolls. In response to those concerns, the city has said it will allow the school to reserve a portion of its seats for low-income students.

At heated public hearings, long-time residents of the area made clear that they saw the rezoning as an extension of the gentrification that has transformed the neighborhoods around the schools. Even though P.S. 307’s expanded zone retains the Farragut Houses (and actually adds more of its buildings), some residents feared that their children would be forced out as families from high-priced enclaves like DUMBO are let in.

“We have all new kinds of folks coming into town,” Farragut resident Deborah Stewart said at Tuesday’s meeting, “but the people who have been here deserve the right to have the same access to what’s being made available.”

For their part, some DUMBO parents who were set to be rezoned for P.S. 307 expressed concerns about the school’s safety record and its test scores, which fall far below the city average (though they are comparable to those at schools that serve students from similar backgrounds). Some P.S. 307 parents took offense to this, and felt that racial biases fueled some of the fears about the school, where 90 percent of students are black or Hispanic and only five percent are white. (At P.S. 8, 60 percent of students are white.)

“It makes some of these parents uncomfortable when they walk into a classroom and it’s all black and Latino,” said Faraji Hannah-Jones, co-president of P.S. 307’s parent-teacher association.

A sizable crowd attended the final rezoning vote Tuesday, which followed a series of heated public hearings this fall.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
A sizable crowd attended the final rezoning vote Tuesday, which followed a series of heated public hearings this fall.

It remains to be seen whether parents who had planned to send their children to P.S. 8 will enroll them in P.S. 307 now simply because the zoned lines have changed. Instead, some may try to secure a spot for their children in gifted and talent programs or charter schools, or decide to pay for private school, said Clara Hemphill, the founding editor of Insideschools, who is studying school segregation in New York.

“I don’t get the impression that there’s a bunch of DUMBO parents who are breaking down the door to get into 307,” she said, noting that P.S. 307 has struggled to fill its pre-K seats, which are already open to students outside its zone.

Parents who are affected by the rezoning will have little time to weigh their options. Because the vote was postponed, the kindergarten enrollment process for next year is already underway, and ends Jan. 15.

Education department spokeswoman Devora Kaye said the city will help both schools and their families transition to the new zones.

Ansley Samson, a member of P.S. 8’s parent-teacher association, said her school plans to partner with P.S. 307 during that process to “bridge the distance” between their two communities, which only seemed to widen during the high-profile rezoning debate.

“Being under the microscope has created more division,” she said. “I wish we had been able to find a way, all of us, to come together.”

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede