calling for backup

Educators on front line of desegregation debate say city must take the lead

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Michelle Baptiste (center), a second-grade teacher at P.S. 92 in Brooklyn, is running for a spot on the union's executive board.

Confronting one of the nation’s most segregated school systems, New York City’s schools chief recently said she is searching for ways to alleviate the problem “organically,” without mandating changes.

But that approach won’t suffice, several educators and parents said during a discussion Tuesday at the Brooklyn Historical Society. With enrollment policies and parent choices together fueling a system where more than half of schools qualify as severely segregated, they suggested that small-scale remedies that rely on local buy-in will fall short.

“The segregation wasn’t organic, and the integration is not going to be organic either,” said Jill Bloomberg, the principal of Park Slope Collegiate, a grade 6-12 school in a gentrifying part of Brooklyn where many schools remain racially isolated.

Michelle Baptiste, a teacher at P.S. 92 in Prospect-Lefferts Gardens, Brooklyn, put it more bluntly.

“I don’t think that we can look to the Department of Education,” she told the crowd. “They haven’t taken any leadership.”

The relatively rare public criticism of the education department by employees reflects the frustration felt by some educators — and some parents and advocates — who had hoped that Mayor Bill de Blasio’s emphasis on social justice would spur aggressive action on school segregation. Instead, Fariña has only recently started to call school diversity a top priority, and her most significant initiative on that front has been signing off on diversity plans at seven schools.

The comments also highlighted a tension in the de Blasio administration’s approach to integration: Officials are seeking solutions that entire communities will embrace, yet middle-class parents have long demonstrated that they will staunchly oppose changes that limit their access to sought-after schools.

In practice, that has meant that the city recently backed enrollment changes designed to promote diversity at the seven schools that developed their own plans, but postponed a zoning change on the Upper West Side that was fiercely resisted by some parents. To advocates, the backlash there and in response to a similar rezoning proposal in Brooklyn made clear that more widespread integration will only happen if the city forcefully pushes for it.

“The DOE needs to be the one to take responsibility for this,” said Miriam Nunberg, a Park Slope Collegiate parent who co-founded a group that is trying to reform the District 15 middle school admissions process. “Asking different communities to be responsible for integrating schools on a case-by-case basis is not going to work.”

Journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones moderated the panel.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones moderated the panel.

The panel, part of a series of talks titled, “Why New York? Our Segregated Schools Epidemic,” was moderated by Nikole Hannah-Jones, a writer for the New York Times Magazine who has reported extensively on school segregation. Her child attends P.S. 307, which was at the center of the Brooklyn rezoning debate last fall. (Her husband, Faraji Hannah-Jones, is co-president of P.S. 307’s parent-teacher association and was on the panel.)

She started the talk by offering some sobering statistics: While about 70 percent of students citywide are black or Hispanic, those groups make up over 90 percent of the population at more than half of city schools, according to a 2012 Times analysis. Meanwhile, half of the city’s white students are concentrated in just 7 percent of schools, DNAinfo found.

The panelists laid the blame partly on the city and partly on individual parents.

Some middle-class parents choose to cluster at popular schools that enroll more white students and fewer poor students than the city average. But parents make those decisions within a system of zone lines, school-choice policies, and selective schools that ends up sorting students from different backgrounds into different schools.

“You have a lot of parents who want to do the right thing, who want to enroll their kids in integrated schools,” Nikole Hannah-Jones said, “but the choices of schools are very minimal.”

Advocates note that even if de Blasio is off to a slow start, his predecessor, Michael Bloomberg, seldom addressed school segregation or took steps to tackle it head-on. Meanwhile, Fariña has asked a top deputy to explore possible enrollment-policy changes that could promote diversity.

“Diversity is very important to me,” she said recently. “It’s how I’ve lived my life as a teacher, a principal, and even as a parent.”

But as policymakers debate the best path toward integration, a few panelists described the daily reality of schools that are separated largely by race and class.

Baptiste, the teacher at P.S. 92, where more than 90 percent of students come from low-income families, said staffers can become overwhelmed by the number of students who arrive scarred by the effects of poverty. She said she refused to send her own son to the school he was zoned for because it had a similarly high concentration of low-income students.

“That’s what I was trying to get away from,” she said. “That kept me up with night terrors and sweats.”

Nathaniel Okoroji, a student at Brooklyn Technical High School, called that school “deeply segregated.” While it has more racial diversity than some of the city’s other eight elite “specialized” high schools, just 16 percent of students last year were black or Hispanic.

Okoroji said that he and other black students often face racism and “anti-blackness” from other students.

“It’s very toxic,” he said. “It’s very hard to learn to the best of your ability when you’re always worried what that kid next to you is going to say.”

Counselor Comeback

Years after laying them off, Newark brings back attendance workers to track down absent students

PHOTO: Newark Public Schools
Superintendent Roger León (center) with more than 40 new attendance counselors the district has hired.

A new school-attendance squad is on the job in Newark, ready to phone families and track down truant students.

More than 40 new attendance counselors and truancy officers made their official debut this week — part of a campaign by Superintendent Roger León to curb rampant absenteeism in the district. The linchpin of León’s approach is the rehiring of the attendance workers, who were laid off nearly six years ago amid questions about their effectiveness.

The employees — some new and some returning — will help craft school attendance plans, contact families, and bring truant students back to class with the help of Newark police officers.

They have their work cut out for them: Nearly a quarter of students have already missed about two weeks or more of school since September, according to district officials.

In his drive to boost attendance, León also launched a back-to-school campaign last fall and eliminated some early-dismissal days when students tend to skip class. At a school board meeting Tuesday, León said those efforts have resulted in fewer “chronically absent” students who miss 10 percent or more of school days for any reason. So far this school year, 23 percent of students are chronically absent, down from 30.5 percent during the same period the previous school year, he said.

“Right now, we’re in a really, really good place,” León told the board. “Having hired these attendance officers will get us where we need to go.”

A long to-do list awaits the attendance workers, who will earn between $53,000 and $95,531, according to a district job posting. They will create daily attendance reports for schools, call or visit families of absent students, and make sure students who are frequently out of school start showing up on time.

They will also be tasked with enforcing the state’s truancy laws, which authorize attendance officers to arrest “habitually truant” students and allow their parents or guardians to be fined. Newark’s attendance counselors will gather evidence for potential legal actions, deliver legal notices to students’ homes, and appear in court “when required,” according to the job posting.

The district is also establishing a new “truancy task force” to track down truant students, as required by state law. The task force will include both district employees and police officers who will patrol the streets searching for truants to transport back to school.

The teams will be “going up and down every one of our corridors and getting kids in school,” León said Tuesday, adding that they will eventually be provided buses.

Criminal-justice reform advocates across the country have criticized state laws, like New Jersey’s, which criminalize truancy. As a result of such laws, parents can face fines or even jail time and students can be put on probation or removed from their homes. Meanwhile, a 2011 study found that truant students who faced legal action were more likely to earn lower grades and drop out of school than truant students who did not face those sanctions.

While truancy laws may be on the books, districts have discretion in how they enforce them.

Peter Chen, a policy counsel for Advocates for Children of New Jersey, has studied absenteeism in Newark and said he did not know how the district’s new attendance workers would carry out the law. But he cautioned against “punitive strategies,” such as issuing court summonses or suspending frequently absent students, which can temporarily boost attendance but eventually drive students further away from school.

“Once the school is viewed as the enemy, as somebody who is out to get the student, it’s incredibly difficult to rebuild a trusting relationship,” he said. “And what we see time and again is that a trusting relationship between a school and a family or student is a critical component to building a school-wide attendance strategy that works.”

Superintendent León declined to be interviewed after Tuesday’s board meeting, saying he would answer written questions. As of Wednesday evening, he had not responded to those questions.

At the meeting, he did not rule out the possibility of the district’s truancy officers making arrests. But he said the police officers’ job was not to arrest truant students, only to protect the attendance workers.

“I need to make sure that any staff members that we hire are safe,” he said.

In 2013, then-Superintendent Cami Anderson laid off all 46 of the district’s attendance counselors. She attributed the decision to budget constraints and limited evidence that the counselors had improved attendance.

The district shifted the counselors’ responsibilities to school-based teams that included administrators, social workers, and teachers. Critics said the district was expecting schools to do more with less, and the Newark Teachers Union — which had represented the attendance counselors — fought the layoffs in court. An administrative law judge sided with the union, but then-State Education Commissioner David Hespe later overturned the decision.

León, who became superintendent in July, promised to promptly restore the attendance counselors. However, his plans were delayed by a legal requirement that the district first offer the new jobs to the laid-off counselors, some of whom had moved out of state. By the beginning of February, all the positions had been filled and, on Friday, León held a roughly 90-minute meeting with the new attendance team.

To create lasting attendance gains, experts advise schools to consider every aspect of what they do — their discipline policies, the emotional support they provide students, the quality of teaching, and the relationship between staffers and families. Simply outsourcing attendance to designated employees will not work, they warn.

Superintendent León appears to agree. In an interview last year, he said he expects all school employees to join in the work of improving attendance.

“The last thing that needs to happen is for people to walk away saying, ‘Oh, attendance is going to be solved because now we have the attendance counselors,’” León said. “No, everyone has to worry about attendance.”

Newark Enrolls

After changes and challenges, Friday’s deadline to enroll in Newark schools finally arrives

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
A student fills out an information sheet at Central High School's booth at the citywide school fair in December.

Newark families have just a few hours left to apply to more than 70 public schools for next fall.

At noon on Friday, the online portal that allows families to apply to most traditional and charter school will close. After that, they will have to visit the district’s enrollment center. Last year, nearly 13,000 applications were submitted.

The stakes — and stress — are greatest for students entering high school. Each year, hundreds of eighth-graders compete for spots at the city’s selective “magnet” high schools, which many students consider their best options.

This year, those eighth-graders have to jump through an extra hoop — a new admissions test the magnets will use as they rank applicants. District students will sit for the test Friday, while students in charter and private schools will take it Saturday.

That’s news to many parents, including Marie Rosario, whose son, Tamir, is an eighth-grader at Park Elementary School in the North Ward.

“I don’t know nothing about it,” she said. District officials have been tight-lipped about what’s on the new test, how it will factor into admissions decisions, or even why introducing it was deemed necessary.

Students can apply to as many as eight schools. Tamir’s top choice was Science Park, one of the most sought-after magnet schools. Last year, just 29 percent of eighth-graders who ranked it first on their applications got seats.

“I’m going to cross my fingers,” Rosario said.

Students will find out in April where they were matched. Last year, 84 percent of families applying to kindergarten got their first choice. Applicants for ninth grade were less fortunate: Only 41 percent of them got their top choice, the result of so many students vying for magnet schools.

This is the sixth year that families have used the online application system, called Newark Enrolls, to pick schools. Newark is one of the few cities in the country to use a single application for most charter and district schools. Still, several charter schools do not participate in the system, nor do the vocational high schools run by Essex County.

Today, surveys show that most families who use the enrollment system like it. However, its rollout was marred by technical glitches and suspicions that it was designed to funnel students into charter schools, which educate about one in three Newark students. Some charter critics hoped the district’s newly empowered school board would abolish the system. Instead, Superintendent Roger León convinced the board to keep it for now, arguing it simplifies the application process for families.

Managing that process has posed challenges for León, who began as schools chief in July.

First, he ousted but did not replace the district’s enrollment chief. Then, he clashed with charter school leaders over changes to Newark Enrolls, leading them to accelerate planning for an alternative system, although that never materialized. Next, the district fell behind schedule in printing an enrollment guidebook for families.

Later, the district announced the new magnet-school admissions test but then had to delay its rollout as León’s team worked to create the test from scratch with help from principals, raising questions from testing experts about its validity. Magnet school leaders, like families, have said they are in the dark about how heavily the new test will be weighted compared to the other criteria, including grades and state test scores, that magnet schools already use to rank applicants.

Meanwhile, León has repeatedly dropped hints about new “academies” opening inside the district’s traditional high schools in the fall to help those schools compete with the magnets. However, the district has yet to hold any formal informational sessions for families about the academies or provide details about them on the district website or in the enrollment guidebook. As a result, any such academies are unlikely to give the traditional schools much of an enrollment boost this year.

District spokeswoman Tracy Munford did not respond to a request Thursday to speak with an official about this year’s enrollment process.

Beyond those hiccups, the enrollment process has mostly gone according to plan. After activating the application website in December, the district held a well-attended school fair where families picked up school pamphlets and chatted with representatives. Individual elementary schools, such as Oliver Street School in the East Ward, have also invited high school principals to come and tell students about their offerings.

American History High School Principal Jason Denard said he made several outings to pitch his magnet school to prospective students. He also invited middle-school groups to tour his school, and ordered glossy school postcards. Now, along with students and families across the city, all he can do is wait.

“I’m excited to see the results of our recruitment efforts,” he said. “Not much else is in my control — but recruitment is.”