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?”

desegregation dilemma

Silicon Valley’s school integration paradox: More black and Hispanic students get to college — and get arrested

PHOTO: Thomas Hawk / Creative Commons

New research on schools in the heart of Silicon Valley comes to a familiar conclusion: Poor black and Hispanic students get a leg up academically by attending a less segregated school.

But the results come with a significant downside. Those students who left their hometowns to attend wealthier schools in places like Palo Alto were also more likely to be arrested.

The study, which was conducted by Columbia professor Peter Bergman and has not been formally peer-reviewed, speaks to both the promise of integration and the complicating factors — including discrimination — that can dampen its effectiveness.

“Policies that aim to integrate schools … could reap long-run benefits in college enrollment,” writes Bergman, who himself attended public school in Palo Alto. “These policies should simultaneously consider programs to mitigate the potential risks for participating students as well.”

Bergman examined an initiative created after a 1985 lawsuit settlement required several northern California school districts to allow a small number of students from Ravenswood, a largely low-income district, to transfer to more affluent schools in places like Palo Alto and Menlo Park. (Technically, the program can be used in both directions, but only two students have ever transferred into the less-affluent districts.)

Since the program included a random lottery, Bergman was able to compare the outcomes of students who won a spot versus those who applied but did not.

The results were fairly dramatic. Using data from 1998–2008, the study finds that students who got the chance to attend the more affluent schools were 10 percentage points more likely to go to college.

These results were driven by enrollment in two-year colleges, and the effects were largest for boys.

This is consistent with older research on integration programs, which have been shown to boost test scores, graduation rates, college attendance, and adult income for students of color.

Bergman was also able to link students who transferred school districts with their adult arrest records. Here, the results were more discouraging: The program increased the likelihood a student would be arrested by about 5 percentage points, with an even greater impact on boys and black students.

The rise in arrests was due to driving- and drug-related offenses outside the students’ hometowns, and there was no increase in violent crime. This suggests that the arrests may have less to do with any changes in criminal behavior and more to do with students doing more driving — and having more run-ins with police — in wealthier areas, where they had made connections or were attending school.

“Lurking in the background is definitely this idea of racial profiling,” Bergman told Chalkbeat. “[If] you’re driving a beat up Civic in Palo Alto and you’re minority, you really stand out — it’s all Teslas around here.”

Another potential factor: cops in affluent areas have more time and resources to prioritize traffic stops and drug enforcement.

“The Palo Alto police [are] probably facing a lot less baseline crime, so they have a lot of time on their hands,” Bergman said.

Still, the study can’t identify the cause, or explain the consequences for students, such as time in jail.

The research also doesn’t wade into other key questions about this type of integration program, including how it affects students who remain in the poorer, racially segregated schools.

It’s unclear why students who participated saw those academic gains. Research on older programs has found that the academic benefits of integration seem related to increases in school spending, potentially driven by the presence of families with greater political sway. Indeed, in this case, the more affluent California districts generally had greater resources and lower student–teacher ratios.

New layer

Tennessee cuts ribbon on its first charter school under State Board of Education

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Principal Jonas Cleaves cuts the ribbon at Bluff Hills High School's opening day ceremony. He is surrounded by students, faculty and leaders of Green Dot and the State Board of Education.

With the snip of a ribbon, Tennessee leaders helped to officially open a charter school on Tuesday in Memphis that marks a major shift in how the charter sector can grow in the state.

Bluff City High School, operated by Green Dot Public Schools in southeast Memphis, is the first charter school authorized by the State Board of Education.

The school opened last week at full capacity with 160 ninth-graders and a waiting list, despite uncertainty about its location as recently as four months ago. The plan is to grow the school to 600 students and four grades by 2020.

Bluff City’s opening adds a new layer of oversight to charter schools in Tennessee, where local school boards and the state-run Achievement School District already have that authority. Now the State Board does too under a 2014 state law that allows charter applicants to appeal to the State Board when local school boards deny their applications.

That’s what happened in Memphis last August when Shelby County Schools denied Green Dot’s application. The State Board later voted unanimously to overrule the local board.

“We felt like Green Dot really was prepared to serve this community well, and I think that’s already born out in the fact that it’s fully … enrolled even in its first year,” said Sara Heyburn Morrison, the board’s executive director.

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Math students are at work during the school’s second week.

Most students came from Wooddale and Kirby middle schools, both operated by Green Dot under the ASD. Green Dot used a lottery system to decide which of 270 applicants could attend. The operator already runs two other Memphis high schools, Fairley and Hillcrest, also under the ASD.

“Part of the reason we even applied for this school in the first place is — when the moratorium on growth for the Achievement School District happened — we were just starting our third year with Wooddale Middle and had bused 27 students across the city to Fairley. We still do that, but it’s hard for students,” said Megan Quaile, Green Dot’s executive director in Tennessee. “If they didn’t have a ride home, they didn’t get to participate in extracurriculars or sports the way you would if you were able to walk home from school.”

Quaile said her organization felt strongly about appealing the local school board’s decision. “We have been running schools since 2000, and we have a very strong high school model,” she said of the California-based operator.

Bluff City is starting with 10 classrooms and plans to build a gym this fall.

“Working with the State Board of Education has just been a very positive experience,” Quaile said. “They’re very thoughtful, they’re very responsible. We’ve worked really well with them to get everything started.”

Now the State Board will need to work with both Shelby County Schools and the ASD to align the city’s public schools and services to meet students’ needs in the Bluff City. That could be challenging given that the State Board stepped in to authorize the new Memphis school. 

“This is new territory for all of us in terms of the working relationship that we’ll need to continue to build out with Shelby County,” said Heyburn Morrison, whose team will also begin overseeing two Nashville charter schools in 2019.

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Darryl Buchanan and Adarrius Hicks are founding class members of Bluff City High School.

While the road to starting Bluff City High School was complicated, students who participated in Tuesday’s opening ceremony were mostly just interested in what lies ahead. They were excited to have a say in building the school’s culture by voting on a mascot (the wolves) and a school color (Carolina blue). Plans are also underway to establish clubs and a student government.

“I feel pressure, but this is going to make us into better leaders,” said Darryl Buchanan, 14, who wants his education to prepare him to be a politician someday. “Everyone here is going to be something and they want us to be successful. They want us to be a somebody.”