sorting the students

Upper West Side superintendent floats integration plan to reduce the class divide among middle schools

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Chancellor Fariña spoke about school diversity at a town hall in District 3 in 2015. She is seated next to Superintendent Ilene Altschul, second from right.

The Upper West Side is a district of stark class divisions: While less than 10 percent of the students at some middle schools come from low-income families, nearly 100 percent do at others.

But now, the local superintendent has a proposal meant to narrow the divides in District 3, which also includes southern Harlem.

The plan, which Superintendent Ilene Altschul has recently floated to some principals and the district’s education council, is for each middle school to enroll at least 30 percent low-income students. That would represent a significant increase for several schools, which could push affluent students to a wider range of schools across the district — a change many of their families are likely to resist.

The idea is one of a growing number of bottom-up plans to promote integration in New York City, which has one of the nation’s most intensely segregated school systems. While some individual schools have adopted new admissions policies, no entire districts have yet.

But at the prodding of local principals and parents, several superintendents are looking to change that. Since they can control enrollment policies across many schools, they are uniquely positioned to advance large-scale integration plans — especially under Chancellor Carmen Fariña, who has invested new power in superintendents while outsourcing the work of integration to local leaders.

“The role of superintendent is critical,” said David Tipson, executive director of the integration advocacy group New York Appleseed. “Superintendents have a unique ability to call principals together and exercise real leadership.”

The average poverty rate among District 3’s 19 schools with grades six through eight is about 56 percent. Yet the rate at individual schools varies widely: At six schools, less than one-third of students qualify for free or reduced-priced lunch. At 12 others, two-thirds or more do.

Altschul’s idea would most directly impact the six schools that enroll the fewest low-income students. She has not publicly explained how those schools would boost their numbers, and a spokesman said she was not available for an interview this week.

But one city-endorsed method is to reserve a portion of a school’s seats for a targeted student group. If that were to happen, some affluent students who apply to those schools would likely be routed elsewhere in the district.

That would help break up the concentration of low-income students at some middle schools and affluent ones at others, but it could also provoke a backlash from wealthier families who feel they are losing spots at the most sought-after schools.

Some parents have already been pushing for an integration plan for the district’s elementary schools that would involve abolishing their zone lines. But that “controlled choice” plan has faced skepticism, and when the city proposed redrawing the zone lines around just two schools last fall, parents at one of the district’s wealthiest schools blocked the changes. Some of those parents said they would move or pay for private schooling is they lost access to their preferred school.

Any plan to better integrate the district’s middle schools would also have to grapple with the admissions policies at the schools that currently serve the fewest low-income students. Those schools screen students using entry exams, musical auditions, or a review of grades, test scores, and other measures. Those schools would either need to recruit more low-income students who meet their requirements or change their rules.

Altschul has discussed the enrollment goals with principals in a voluntary diversity group, and on Monday she shared the idea with a committee of District 3’s education council. A department spokesman said the discussions will continue through the fall and will include officials from the education department’s enrollment office.

John Curry is the longtime principal of Community Action School, a middle school on West 93rd Street where more than two-thirds of students qualify for subsidized lunch. He said that part of the reason for the district’s segregation is the tendency of affluent white parents to apply to just a handful of district schools.

But if an integration plan shifted some of those families to other schools, their children would continue to excel academically while also learning to work with a more diverse group of classmates, Curry said.

“This might be frightening to some principals and parents to have a big shift,” he said, “but once this happens, I think it will be to the benefit of everybody.”

The district council’s middle-school committee chair, Kristen Berger, said there is a clear need for the district to more evenly distribute low-income students. But she said she wants more information about how Altschul’s idea would work.

“I certainly am happy we’re looking at diversity issues,” she said, “but I want to make sure parents are fully informed of what’s going on.”

Other districts are also exploring integration plans with the help of their superintendents.

Parent-led groups in Manhattan’s District 1 and Brooklyn’s District 13 are pushing for controlled-choice admissions systems; in each case, the local superintendents helped secure state grants and have been involved in the planning. And in Brooklyn’s District 15, Superintendent Anita Skop said she is in discussion with several middle-school principals about ways to enroll more low-income students.

Chancellor Fariña, who recently invited any school that is interested to submit diversity plans for the department to review, has so far let superintendents spearhead the development of district-level plans. While some critics have called for more top-level leadership, Fariña has made clear that she prefers to let districts come up with “organic” integration plans rather than forcing plans “down people’s throats.”

“Increasing diversity at our schools is a priority,” department spokesman Will Mantell said in an email, “and we’ve invited superintendents and principals to work with their communities to develop diversity strategies that meet their unique needs.”

Measuring schools

State education officials prepare 0 to 100 index to measure schools, slam push for A-F grades

PHOTO: Denver Post file

State education officials are preparing to roll out a new tool for parents to quickly learn which schools are succeeding and which ones are struggling. They’re also lashing out at another school measurement approach that’s been proposed in the legislature.

The dueling options are part of a national debate about the best way to measure schools.

Michigan’s elected board of education last year scrapped plans to assign letter grades to every school in favor of providing parents with a dashboard of information about test scores, graduation rates, and other measures of success such as attendance rates and student discipline.

That “parent dashboard” was unveiled last month. As soon as next week, the state is planning to beef up the dashboard with a new score, from 0 to 100, that is intended to summarize the quality of every school in the state.

The new index will give each school a single number based on seven factors, including test scores and graduation rates, the availability of classes like art and music, and proficiency rates for English learners. The index was part of the state’s plan to comply with the new federal school accountability law. 

Several factors will go into the index, though most points will be determined by test scores: 34 percent will be based on the percent of students who pass state exams. while 29 percent will be determined by whether test scores show students are improving. The rest of the score will be driven by school quality factors such as availability of arts and music (14 percent), graduation rates (10 percent), and progress by students learning English (10 percent). The last 3 percent will measure the percentage of students who take the state exam — a factor designed to discourage schools from giving the exam only to their highest-performing students.

Venessa Keesler, deputy superintendent at the Michigan Department of Education, said the index is not a ranking system, so multiple schools could end up with the same index score.

That’s a switch from the school ranking system Michigan has been using in recent years in which every school was placed against all other state schools, primarily on test scores. The schools in the bottom 5 percent of state rankings faced intervention, including the threat of closure.  

But GOP lawmakers say the parent dashboard and the index are too complicated, and they want to see an A-F letter grade system.

Lawmakers introduced legislation last week that would give every school a report card with six A-F grades measuring their performance in different categories. Bill sponsor Tim Kelly called it a “middle of the road” option that isn’t as simplistic as giving schools a single letter grade.

That plan came in for significant criticism Tuesday from the state board of education.

“This really isn’t OK,” said Nikki Snyder, a Republican board member. “If we want parents, students and teachers to be empowered, this is not the kind of chaos and confusion we should inject into our system. I absolutely do not support it.”

Another school board member, Casandra Ulbrich, the board’s Democratic co-president, raised concerns over how the scores would be decided.

“Someone has to create a complicated algorithm to determine the difference between A to B to C,” she said. “I have some real concerns about that.”

“I generally agree with Rep. Kelly,” said Richard Zeile, the Republican board co-president, “but school letter grades would be more misleading than helpful.”

A-F school ranking systems, which were used in 18 states as of last spring, have been divisive across the country, with some hailing them is a tool to increase transparency and others viewing them as too simplified and too easy for parents to misunderstand.

next steps

How to tackle New York’s severe school segregation? State policymakers spitball ideas

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Regent Collins and Regent Johnson engage in a discussion after a Board of Regents meeting in 2016.

A New York conference on the extensive research on the benefits of school integration. A convening of the state’s civil rights groups. A commission on equity and integration.

Those are some of the ideas being considered by a group of state policymakers tasked with addressing school integration in New York, which has some of the country’s most severe racial segregation. The group was established by Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa in 2016 to research topics that the board would have to weigh in on; over time, it has come to focus on school integration and racial equity.

At its meeting Tuesday during the Regents’ monthly gathering, the group also floated ways to desegregate schools. One idea was to create incentives for schools that take steps to enroll students from different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds.

The group’s ideas build on other state efforts to combat school segregation. In 2014, New York’s education department launched a series of grants designed to improve schools by integrating them; the latest rounds of grants will expand the program to more schools and is more focused on training district leaders to combat school segregation. And as part of a plan they were required to submit last year under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, officials discussed the idea of developing a new measure of school and district integration.

Those efforts come four years after a widely cited study by researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles found New York’s schools to be the most segregated in the country.

The group’s plans are still in their infancy: They will likely still be submitted to the full board, which would then have the chance to vet them before voting on whether to approve them.

Meanwhile, the group is still debating its own mission and objectives. During Tuesday’s discussion, one member suggested having the incentive program focus on “equity” rather than desegregation because some schools are unlikely to ever enroll many students of different races.

Regent Judith Johnson, who co-chairs the group, said Tuesday that she has struggled to figure out exactly what it should focus on — and how much to push integration in parts of the state where doing so could prove deeply unpopular. In New York City, many parents have resisted changes that would reroute their children to different schools in order to promote integration; in less diverse cities and towns, integration would likely require moving students across district lines.

“Not every district wants to address this issue,” Johnson said. “And so the question becomes: What is the role … of the Board of Regents?”