district debut

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

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
A meeting in Manhattan's District 1, one of 11 New York City district's eligible for the new grants.

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?”

back to court

Nashville appeals judge’s order to share student information with state charters

The battle over student contact information will continue between Tennessee’s charter schools and its second largest school district.

Attorneys for Metro Nashville Public Schools on Friday appealed Chancellor Bill Young’s order to provide state-run charter schools with the names, phone numbers, and addresses of students.

The appeal came on the same day that Young originally set for Nashville’s district to comply with a new state law requiring sharing such information if charter operators request it. But a recent court extension assured Nashville leaders that they could exhaust the appeals process first.

The disagreement — which also touches on student privacy, school choice, and enrollment — has vexed state officials and lawmakers as they’ve sought to mitigate skirmishes between the state’s growing charter sector and its two largest districts, in Nashville and Memphis. Last month, Gov. Bill Haslam brought all parties to the table to seek a solution outside the courts. The State Department of Education was tasked with developing a way forward, but has not yet submitted a proposal.

While the state has urged local districts to comply with the year-old charter law, Nashville leaders argue it runs afoul of a federal law that gives districts discretion over who gets student contact information. For instance, school systems routinely share such information with companies that sell yearbooks and class rings.

The tussle has implications for the state’s largest school system, Shelby County Schools, in Memphis. Leaders there also have refused to hand over the information to charters in the state’s Achievement School District, which seeks to turn around Tennessee’s lowest-performing schools.

What Memphis parents should know about how schools share student information

Parents are divided on the issue. Some say the information exchange is an invasion of privacy, including when a Nashville charter school sent a barrage of text messages to parents, resulting in a $2.2 million settlement last year. Others say allowing charters to contact prospective students allows them to better explore their options.

Starting young

These 11-year-old Brooklyn students are asking New York City to do something about segregated schools

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Matilda and Eliza Seki, left, and their friends Noa and Benji Weiss, right, collected signatures at a district 15 meeting to discuss middle school integration efforts.

While they learned about the history of segregation, a group of Brooklyn 11-year-olds took a good look around their classrooms and realized their schools weren’t so different from the photos in their textbooks.

So Matilda and Eliza Seki paired up with their friends Noa and Benji Weiss — two sets of twins — and decided to do something about it. They launched a petition on Change.org calling on the city to integrate its schools.

“We learned about separate and equal in the civil rights movement, and that it was not equal,” Eliza said, referring to the “separate but equal” legal doctrine once used to justify segregation. “And since there are schools with people of only one race, and it’s all separated, it cannot be equal.”

Matilda and Eliza are in the sixth grade at M.S. 839, and Noa and Benji are fifth-graders at P.S. 10. They already have a bit of experience in activism, having joined the Women’s March in D.C., and helping to lead environmental clubs at their school. They hold sophisticated views for kids their age, and are aware of the hurdles ingrained in addressing school segregation.

Describing how housing patterns can tie into school quality, Benji began his thoughts by saying: “Let’s say you’re from a different culture or race and you don’t have as much money as other people do — because we still live in a racist country — and you’re in an area where the housing is cheaper but you don’t have as good schools.”

Across New York City, adults have debated how to spur integration in the country’s largest school system — and one of the most segregated. According to one recent analysis, the city’s most selective high schools enroll 84 percent white and Asian students, even though those groups make up only 30 percent of the city’s student enrollment.

But student-organized groups have also been at the forefront of a grassroots movement for more diverse schools. The work of budding advocates Matilda, Eliza, Noa and Benji caught the attention of some those groups, and they’ve now joined the ranks of Teens Take Charge and IntegrateNYC as some of the youngest members. The changes they’d like to see go beyond admissions policies, but also include a push for additional resources for underserved schools, hiring more teachers of color and curricula that reflects all students and cultures.

“We decided it was an important issue and we wanted to help fix it,” Noa said.

Matilda added: “Our schools should look like our city.”

Their schools are in District 15, where 81 percent of white students are concentrated in just three of the district’s most selective middle schools, according to an analysis by parents. The city has launched a series of public workshops to craft a new admissions model to integrate middle schools there, but these kids already have their own ideas for how to do that.

Benji, who is heading to middle school next year, said it would be “pretty good” if schools stopped picking students based on criteria such as class grades and attendance. Such “screening” contributes to segregation because of a number of factors — from which elementary schools students attend, to their parents’ ability to navigate the complicated admissions process.  

“It’s… important to learn about different peoples’ backgrounds, and religions, and cultures,” he said. “And also to make sure that all kids, no matter their race, religion or where they live can get the same, good education.”