district debut

Lower East Side families get first look at a sweeping plan to integrate schools

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
A meeting in District 1 earlier this year where district leaders presented a socioeconomic integration plan that crafted.

Lower East Side residents got their first look Tuesday at a school-integration plan that would overhaul the way students are assigned to local elementary schools, and — if approved — would mark the first district-wide effort by the de Blasio administration to combat New York City’s entrenched school segregation.

The plan, which local parents and educators in Manhattan’s District 1 developed through a state grant, would fundamentally change how students in that district are matched with schools. Instead of the current system, where families are chosen by lottery at schools of their choice, the proposed system would factor socioeconomic information about families into the matching process. The goal is to more evenly spread the neediest students across a district where, today, poor students of color are concentrated at a subset of schools.

Education department officials have not yet signed off on the preliminary plan, and most parents have not yet had a chance to weigh in on it. But among proponents, there is a sense that if the district does not act quickly, its schools will only become more divided by race and class.

“If we continue to do what we’re doing, we’re going to get the same results,” Superintendent Daniella Phillips said during Tuesday’s presentation at P.S. 20. “So we need to pilot and innovate and try something different.”

In most parts of the city, students are assigned to an elementary school based on where they live. But District 1, which includes the East Village, does not have school zones; instead, parents enter lotteries for their chosen schools.

In the past, the district maintained racial and ethnic quotas to prevent certain groups from clustering at the most popular schools, but the city eliminated that system several years ago. Today, the district is marked by vast disparities among schools.

For instance, while 70 percent of the district’s students are considered low-income, the poverty rate varies from 100 percent to 21 percent at individual schools. And the eight schools with the highest concentration of low-income students enroll only a handful of students who are white.

The proposal would re-introduce families’ demographic information into the admissions system, under a model known as “controlled choice.” Now, families applying to pre-kindergarten and kindergarten would first submit information about their income level and whether they earned a high school or college degree, along with whether their child lives in temporary housing, is not a native English speaker, or has a disability.

The city would then assign each student an “at-risk” score based on that information, and families would select three to five schools. Finally, a computer algorithm that factors in all that data would assign each family a school. The goal would be for every school to enroll a mix of low-income and at-risk students that falls within 5 percentage points of the district average.

Michael Alves, a controlled-choice consultant who helped District 1 create its proposal, said this enrollment system would represent a major departure from the current “diversity-blind” approach.

“You’ll have a fundamentally different, choice-based assignment system,” he told the small crowd on Tuesday.

Superintendent Daniella Phillips said many families in District 1 would like more diversity in their schools.
Superintendent Daniella Phillips said many families in District 1 would like more diversity in their schools.

Parents, teachers, and school administrators have been meeting since October to craft the plan, and some of their recommendations grew out of public workshops that the district’s community education council hosted last school year. The group’s work is tied to a $1.25 million state grant designed to revamp struggling schools by convincing more affluent families to enroll at them. (District 13 in Brooklyn also received a grant, and is considering a similar change to its admissions system.)

District 1’s grant proposes using a teaching program that emphasizes students’ talents and interests as one way to attract more families to P.S. 15, a low-performing school where nearly half of students live in temporary housing and all qualify as poor. But the district is also using the grant as an opportunity to explore the broader enrollment-system change, and the local community education council has been asking each of the district’s 25 elementary and middle schools to endorse a resolution in favor of controlled choice.

The council “is trying to document the unified support that exists for equity and fairness in admissions,” it wrote in an email last month.

The push for support may partly be an effort to convince city officials to sign off on the plan. Chancellor Carmen Fariña said at a District 1 forum last month that she is seeking locally created diversity plans, but she did not comment on the controlled-choice proposal.

Education department spokesman Will Mantell noted that the city recently approved seven school-level diversity plans, and said that Superintendent Phillips and the department have helped support the implementation of the state grant.

“While no recommendation or proposal has been submitted to the DOE,” Mantell said in a statement, “we’ve worked closely with District 1 in implementing its [state] grant and look forward to reviewing any recommendations made by its working groups.”

Meanwhile, the working group still need to test out its proposed matching algorithm. And it wants to gather feedback from the public before submitting a final plan to the city in June.

Group members acknowledged they needed to step up their outreach efforts after Tuesday’s presentation, which was sparsely attended. Some people who did attend were still left with questions.

One woman asked whether a controlled-choice system would be enough to alter enrollment patterns in a district where some schools are vastly more popular than others. While some schools struggle to attract applicants, the largely white and affluent East Village Community School had to put about 100 families on a pre-kindergarten waiting list last year.

Lawrence Mirsky, a parent at that school, said he still did not understand the process by which the plan would be vetted and approved. He also questioned whether it might drive dissatisfied parents to send their children to schools outside the district.

“Is this controlled choice possibly going to push more people out,” he said, “and make the place less diverse?”

study says...

Do ‘good’ parents prep their kids for gifted exams? The answer varies by race, study finds

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Kindergarten students at Brooklyn School of Inquiry, a citywide gifted and talented program, learn how to read a number line in Nov. 2016.

Is getting your child into a gifted-and-talented program a mark of good parenting? How you answer may depend largely on your race or ethnicity, according to new research.

Allison Roda, an assistant professor of education at Molloy College in Long Island, interviewed more than 50 white, black, and Hispanic parents at an unidentified New York City school to learn about their attitudes towards gifted programs. (Her sample did not include any Asian parents.)

She found that the white parents view applying for gifted programs and preparing their children to score well on the admissions test as hallmarks of good parenting.

For the black and Hispanic families, being a good parent had more to do with choosing a diverse classroom for their child and not “gaming” the system by practicing for the gifted test, according to the report, which appeared recently in the peer-reviewed journal Teachers College Record.

The report comes as the education department and elected officials are considering how to enroll more students of color in gifted programs.

In New York City, most gifted programs are housed in separate classrooms within a larger school. Often, the two are divided along racial lines, with white and Asian students far more likely to be admitted to gifted programs. Meanwhile, black and Hispanic students — who represent 70 percent of the city’s public-school population — comprise less than 30 percent of the gifted-and-talented enrollment.

The most common entry point for gifted programs is kindergarten, with admissions based on test results. The white families Roda interviewed said they felt intense social pressure to have their children take those exams.

Many of them said they questioned whether they should subject their children to such high-stakes testing, but they went along because “everyone else is doing it,” the report says. They also saw it as a pathway to competitive schools in later grades — and even college.

“They know it’s not fair,” Roda said. “They feel the need to do it to get their children on the right track.”

While the black and Hispanic parents Roda interviewed had their children tested for gifted, none reported paying for tutors or otherwise preparing children for the test. For them, having to practice for the test meant your child wasn’t really gifted.

“They know that all of the students who are in those programs were prepped,” Roda said. “So that takes away from the legitimacy of the label and the program they were placed in, and they don’t believe in that.”

Once their children started school, parents of color saw that their kids would be an extreme minority in gifted classes. They also reported that the gifted programs weren’t all that different from the education their children were receiving in general education classes. For those reasons, many opted not to retest their child if he or she initially missed the cut-off score for admission — as opposed to white parents, who repeatedly signed up their children for retakes.

“They just equate it to a way to segregate children whose parents prep them for the test,” Roda said.

Despite the time and resources white families said they poured into preparing for the gifted test, they didn’t think it was an accurate measure of giftedness. On that point, families of color agreed. Black, white and Hispanic families also agreed that school diversity was important.

Understanding those similarities and differences could be important for efforts to better integrate gifted classes and the school system more widely. While some elected officials have called for expanding access to test prep and testing all pre-K students for giftedness as a way to increase black and Hispanic student enrollment, Roda’s research suggests that may not work since parents of color told Roda they were opposed to test prep.

Instead, Roda suggests, the city should begin to spread the practices used in gifted classrooms to entire schools.

“Be more inclusive and enrich the curriculum that way,” Roda said. “And don’t be so focused on the test.”

drinks and debate

What would an equitable high school choice process look like? Chalkbeat readers weigh in.

PHOTO: Stanley Collado
Chalkbeat hosted an event to debate how the high school admissions process could be more fair.

New York City’s choice system is supposed to give every student a shot at attending a top high school. But in reality, low-income students of color are often stuck in low-performing schools.

Last week, Chalkbeat invited a parent and student, a researcher and an admissions advocate, and two education department officials to take part in a public discussion. We wanted to know: When it comes to the high school choice process, what are the barriers separating some students from high-achieving schools — and how can those obstacles be removed?

We want you to join the discussion. Click here or keep reading to learn how.

Two competing schools of thought emerged during the talk, which about 120 people came to watch. On one side, some said the problems revolve around some families’ limited information about how to navigate the time-intensive application process, and solutions should be geared towards improving communication and guidance for families and students.

But others said the problems go much deeper: Students who attend high-needs schools often aren’t prepared to compete for seats in the most exclusive high schools, even as their families often lack the time and resources to help them find other strong alternatives.

“The whole system is flawed and it’s geared to have certain students fail,” said Tanesha Grant, a parent from Washington Heights whose daughter attends Urban Assembly School for the Performing Arts. “Every child is equal. We make them unequal with the process.’”

After the discussion, audience members — who included people who work in schools and education-oriented nonprofits, along with parents — voted on ways to make the admissions process more fair.

The solution that earned the most votes was reducing or eliminating screened schools, which admit students based on their test scores, interviews and report card grades, among other criteria.

The second most popular solution was providing better information to students and families, perhaps by improving the high school directory or adding more guidance counselors in middle schools who can help guide students through the process.

Many other attendees came up with their own solutions.

Those included: expanding the role of parent coordinators, who are already stationed in schools, to help families understand the process; changing the algorithm that matches students to schools so that diversity is weighed in admissions decisions; and hiring more black and Hispanic teachers who can serve as a welcoming presence when students of color are picking schools. You can find more in the photos.

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

The audience also submitted dozens of written questions about how the process is working (or not). They wanted to know how much leeway schools get to choose their students, what is being done to help immigrant families understand the process, and how the city can create more high-quality high schools in neighborhoods that lack them.

Now, we want to you to weigh in.

We distilled the audience queries into a handful of questions based on common themes that emerged. We’re hoping to follow up on some of them — but first we want to know which ones are shared by the most readers.

We’d love it if you’d use the form below to vote on which question is also puzzling you — or if there’s another you’d like us to pursue.

Thanks for joining the discussion!