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In Manhattan’s vast District 2, some parents seek a district-wide integration plan

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
District 2 held a forum Monday about school segregation and the impact sorting students into different programs or schools based on their academic records.

The next New York City school district to come up with its own plan to combat school segregation could be Manhattan’s vast District 2, where some schools do not reflect the district’s diversity.

At a public forum Monday about integration, parent leaders argued that the selective admissions systems used by many of the district’s middle schools have worked to sort students along race and class lines.

For instance, East Side Middle School on the Upper East Side, which admits only high-achieving students, is 83 percent white and Asian and just 11 percent low-income. But City Knoll Middle School in Hell’s Kitchen, a new school that accepts any District 2 resident who applies, is just 28 percent white and Asian and 73 percent poor. (Overall, the district’s middle-school students are about two-thirds white and Asian and 44 percent low income.)

Several districts across the city are probing the link between school admissions policies and segregation, and considering alternative enrollment systems that would promote diversity. Now some parent leaders are hoping that District 2, which includes some of the city’s wealthiest enclaves and its most sought-after schools, will join them.

“There are so many ways to skin this cat,” Shino Tanikawa, president of the district’s community education council, told the crowd Monday. “The first thing we have to do as a district is at least start the conversation on diversity.”

Districts 1 and 3 in Manhattan and District 13 in Brooklyn are exploring a type of admissions system known as “controlled choice,” which is designed to curb school segregation. That model matches students with schools based on their preferences as well as information such as their family’s income level, so that high and low-income students are spread evenly among the district’s schools.

Funded by state integration grants, Districts 1 and 13 are months into a public planning process around new admissions systems. While the city education department has not committed to adopting their final plans, officials have said they will at least consider them.

On Monday, Tanikawa said she hopes her district will begin a similar process of reevaluating the way its students are assigned to schools. She said that could include setting school diversity goals, recruiting under-represented families to enroll at specific schools, and changing the admissions policies at the district’s middle schools.

“I’m hoping this is the start of a series of conversations on this,” Tanikawa said, adding that she would like the district’s education council to form a diversity committee and to apply for one of the state grants.

District 2’s grade 6-8 middle schools vary in terms of their racial composition. “S” represents schools that screen students based on test scores and other criteria; “LU” stands for limited unscreened schools that do not consider applicants’ academic records. (Graphic courtesy of Shino Tanikawa/District 2 CEC)
District 2’s grade 6-8 middle schools vary in terms of their racial composition. “S” represents schools that screen students based on test scores and other criteria; “LU” stands for limited unscreened schools that do not consider applicants’ academic records. (Graphic courtesy of Shino Tanikawa/District 2 CEC)

The majority of District 2’s schools with middle grades screen at least some of their applicants using a variety of criteria, including the students’ state test scores, attendance records, interviews, and writing or math assessments. Some of the highest-performing middle schools — including East Side, The Salk School of Science, and the Clinton School for Writers and Artists — enroll smaller shares of black, Hispanic, and poor students than the district average.

The discussion about admissions policies and diversity has lately centered on a new West Village middle school, known as 75 Morton Street, set to open in 2017. Some parents have called for the school’s catchment area to be drawn so that it enrolls a mix of students from different backgrounds.

Josephine Ishmon said Monday that she is searching for a diverse, high-quality middle school for her daughter, whose ethnic background is Puerto Rican, African American, and Japanese. But she said she is worried about finding one, since many of the district’s top schools are “predominantly white.”

“My question is, as parents, how do we do something to change that?” she said. “Are we just waiting around for the good will of principals?”

Carol Burris, the former principal of South Side High School in Long Island, gave a presentation at the forum about her former district’s yearslong effort to phase out separate classes for high and low-performing students. She summarized years of research showing that mixed-ability classes benefit lower-skilled students and do not harm their higher-skilled peers.

“When you have a middle-school system that sorts and selects,” she said, “there is so much promise that you are missing.”


Lee says ‘parent choice’ education initiative coming soon in Tennessee

Gov. Bill Lee became Tennessee's 50th governor in January and pledged to make K-12 education a priority, including providing parents with more choices.

Gov. Bill Lee hinted that he soon will introduce a legislative initiative to give parents more education options for their children, even as Wednesday’s deadline passed to file bills for lawmakers to consider this year.

“We continue to believe that choice is important and that we want to look at every opportunity for choices for parents,” the Republican governor said.

But whether his proposal will include school vouchers or a similar type of program remains a mystery.

“We haven’t definitively put together the legislation around what that choice looks like, but we will be in the coming days,” Lee said.

The door remains open because of numerous vaguely described education bills known as “caption bills” that met the filing deadline on Wednesday. Any of these could be turned into voucher-like legislation by the bill’s sponsor.

On the campaign trail and in his victory speech, Lee pledged to give parents more education options. But he’s been coy about what that could look like and whether he would champion such a crucial policy shift during his first year in public office — one with the potential to end in a significant legislative defeat. Over the past decade, vouchers have been fended off consistently in the legislature by an unlikely alliance of Democrats and rural Republicans.

Vouchers would let parents of eligible students use taxpayer money to pay for private school tuition and fees. But this year, Tennessee’s voucher supporters have talked about taking a different voucher-like approach known as education savings accounts, or ESAs.

Education savings accounts would let parents withdraw their children from public schools and receive a deposit of public funds into government-authorized accounts. The money could be used to cover everything from private school tuition and tutoring to homeschool materials and online learning programs.

While a new survey suggests that most Tennesseans support education savings accounts, school boards across the state are on record opposing both approaches. They argue that such programs would drain state funds from traditional public schools and increase student segregation. They’re also concerned that students in those non-public programs would not be held to the same standards and performance measures as students in public schools.

Rep. Mark White, a Memphis Republican who leads a key panel that all education legislation must clear, said any bills to create an education savings account program would have to include strong accountability measures to get his support.

In Arizona, where lawmakers approved education savings accounts in 2011, the program has been marred by rampant fraud. A recent audit reported that parents who used the program misspent $700,000 from their 2018 accounts on banned items that included cosmetics and clothing.

Sen. Raumesh Akbari said Arizona’s experience should give Tennessee lawmakers pause.

“It would have to be a really tight bill for me to support it,” said the Memphis Democrat. “A lot of folks like the flexibility of an education savings account. But when you’re talking about public dollars, there has to be a measure of accountability.”

The results of a Mason-Dixon survey released this week showed that 78 percent of Tennesseans who were polled recently support passage of legislation to create education savings accounts. The survey was commissioned by the pro-voucher group American Federation for Children.

“During last year’s campaign season, many candidates spoke boldly about parental choice in education,” said Shaka Mitchell, the group’s Tennessee director. “The polling shows that voters were listening and expect those promises to result in laws that are just as bold.”

Lee spoke with reporters Wednesday about his legislative agenda after addressing Tennessee school superintendents meeting in Nashville. A day earlier, he announced his legislative initiative to expand access to vocational and technical training for high school students, another promise he campaigned on.

“It will increase the number of kids that are career-ready within a year of leaving high school,” he told members of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents.

Lee said he also wants to strengthen the state’s programs for developing principals and create more opportunities and curriculum focused on science, technology, engineering, and math.

“I want to be an educator governor,” he told the superintendents. “I want [Tennessee] to be a state that is an education state.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include results of the Mason-Dixon survey.

tough sell

Rezoning debate highlights gap in opportunities at two Memphis high schools

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Under Mark Neal's leadership, Melrose High School has earned its way off the state's "priority" list of low-performing schools.

As Shelby County Schools considers a rezoning that would transfer 260 White Station High School students to Melrose High School, some in the community are calling the proposal a needed correction, while others don’t want to move students from a higher-performing school to a lower-performing, but improving, one.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Jonathan Cross speaks at the rezoning meeting Monday.

The community meeting Monday was the first of 10 such gatherings to discuss the district’s plan to rezone a portion of 19 schools with the goal of moving 3,200 students to schools closer to home. Students currently living in those areas can choose to stay at their current school, but parents, not the district, would then be responsible for transportation. (For an overview of all proposed rezonings, read our story from last week.)

This particular meeting was focused on the proposal involving White Station and Melrose.

“The kids already have a fantastic option for education,” at White Station High School, said Jonathan Cross, who owns a house in the proposed area that would no longer be zoned for the East Memphis high school.

If the school board approves the plan, rising ninth graders in the area would be zoned to Melrose this fall. The neighborhood, Sherwood Forest, was rezoned to White Station, from Melrose, at least 20 years ago. Neighborhood advocates in the city’s historic African-American community of Orange Mound say that decades-old change has contributed to the enrollment decline at Melrose.

The rezoning would help level the enrollment at the two schools where Melrose had declining enrollment and White Station was crowded. Under the rezoning, enrollment at Melrose could increase by 44 percent and decrease at White Station by 12 percent. Currently 586 students attend Melrose, while 2,142 attend White Station.

“We’re just reclaiming what was taken from Orange Mound,” Claudette Boyd, a neighborhood advocate, said.

The fight for students in the square-mile that the rezoning plan addresses highlights Shelby County Schools’ struggle to ensure high school students have similar opportunities wherever they go in the district.

“All of our schools need to be high-quality options that offer comprehensive work to our students,” acknowledged Angela Whitelaw, the district’s chief of schools.

Melrose, which has the highest concentration of high school students from low-income families in the city, recently earned its way off the state’s “priority list” of low-performing schools; still fewer than one-quarter of students score at grade level in any subject.

The rezoning could boost Melrose’s enrollment to what the district considers acceptable, meaning that students fill at least 60 percent of the building’s capacity — up from 52 percent capacity this year.

White Station High School, which conversely has the second-lowest concentration of poor students, routinely performs above the district average in all subjects, but in the last three years has seen academic achievement decline.

State of Education in Orange Mound

    • Parents, students and community stakeholders are invited to a community discussion about:
    • Attendance zone for Melrose High
    • Opening of charter schools
    • School closures
    • Status of Aspire Hanley
    • Childhood trauma (ACEs)

The event is sponsored by Committee of Melrose Alumni, Orange Mound Development Corporation, and Orange Mound Community Parade Committee. Grand prize drawing for a 39-inch television. Must be present to win.

  • When: 12 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 9
  • Where: Orange Mound Community Center, 2572 Park Ave. Memphis, TN 38114

Making sure that Orange Mound students have preferred admission to their neighborhood school has been a priority for Joyce Dorse-Coleman, who was elected to the Shelby County Schools board in August.

“This may be new to some of you, but this is not new,” she told meeting attendees, referring to neighborhood residents attending Melrose, which she said “used to have high enrollment.”

At Monday’s meeting, Whitelaw outlined the sports teams and clubs Melrose offers, as well as course offerings that can count for college credit and industry certification.

But some parents are wary of the Shelby County Schools claims — saying that if Melrose was as academically strong as the district claims, most of the students slated for rezoning would already be attending that school, which is closer to where they live.

“If the kids my child hangs out with don’t go to Melrose, we don’t have a strong neighborhood school,” said Michelle Ficklen, who has lived in the proposed rezoned area for about 20 years.

In a district report last year, Melrose High had few options for advanced coursework that could prepare students for the rigor of college classes. There were no Advanced Placement classes, three dual enrollment, and 21 honors. Next year, Melrose is slated to get some Advanced Placement classes, eight dual enrollment classes, but will offer six fewer honors classes, according to Linda Sklar, the district’s optional school coordinator.

By contrast, White Station High already has the highest number of Advanced Placement and honors courses, and the second highest number of dual enrollment classes in the district.

School board member Stephanie Love, who was present at Monday’s meeting, said district staff should see “what classes [White Station students] were in and mirror some of them at Melrose.”

“What’s going to happen if they choose somewhere else?” she said after the meeting.

The school board will likely vote on the rezoning plans in late February or early March, district officials said.