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.”

defensor escolar

Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.