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.”

5 step plan

If Carranza wants to take on screening in New York City, here are 5 things he could do

PHOTO: Monica Disare
A high-school choice fair in Brooklyn in 2016.

Tracking is pervasive in New York City from kindergarten through high school, with 28 percent of all schools sorting students based on grades, test scores and other factors.

That’s why Chancellor Richard Carranza’s comment that screening is “antithetical” to the mission of public schools was so surprising. But the question is, what can he do to change the system?

Any action will be contentious and difficult. On the one hand, advocates argue that screening creates divisions along racial and socioeconomic lines. However, others say it has produced some of the most popular, even iconic schools in the city and helps keep middle class families in the public school system.

If Carranza is serious about tackling problems with screening, here’s a list of five areas he could tackle.

1.) Eliminate District 2 priority

New York City’s high school admissions process is based on the idea that students can apply to any school in the city, regardless of their zip codes. But one of the wealthiest school districts in the city has essentially cordoned off certain schools for students who live within the district’s boundaries

District 2, which encompasses the Upper East Side and downtown Manhattan, is home to some of the most popular high schools in the city, including Eleanor Roosevelt and Baruch College Campus High School and N.Y.C. Lab School for Collaborative Studies.

These schools have near-perfect graduation rates, and thousands of students rank them as one of their top 12 schools each year. However, they are so competitive it is nearly impossible for students outside of the district to snag a seat.

Maurice Frumkin, a former city education department official who now runs an admissions consultancy, said it’s heartbreaking to tell students that the rules effectively prevent them from attending a great school.

“I have to sit with kids in the Bronx who are more than qualified for Eleanor Roosevelt and I have to tell them, ‘Sorry, you can’t get into that school. It’s impossible,’” Frumkin said.

These schools enroll a disproportionately low share of black and Hispanic students. For instance, 15.5 percent of Eleanor Roosevelt’s student body is comprised of black and Hispanic students. Citywide, about 67 percent of students are black and Hispanic.

2.) Change the admissions rules at five specialized high schools

At the red-hot center of this fight are eight elite high schools that admit students based on a single test. These schools have drawn intense scrutiny after only about 10 percent of admissions offers went to black and Hispanic students this year.

The city’s official position has long been that admissions at specialized high schools are codified in state law. But in fact, only three schools — Stuyvesant High School, Bronx High School of Science, and Brooklyn Technical High School are written into state law. Experts say the city could change admissions at the remaining five schools with a vote from the city’s school oversight board.

Mayor Bill de Blasio recently said he will “revisit” the subject. Carranza has also seemed receptive to changes, saying that he is not in favor of single-test admissions.

Without a single test, the city could pick new admissions methods that would likely lead to a more diverse student body. They could select the top-performing students at middle schools across the city, or admit students based on factors such as grades and attendance.

3.) Create one common application for all screened schools

Since New York City’s screened schools have latitude to craft their own admissions criteria, students may have to submit test scores, grades, examples of their work, and attendance records. Or they may have to sit for tests at the schools, interviews, write essays, or complete artistic auditions.

The set of requirements is dizzying and disadvantages students without the time and savvy to  navigate the system. Those learning English might find it difficult to navigate school websites. The High School Directory, a large book of school options intended to help students sort through admissions requirements, has historically left out information. Some of the open houses that explain this information are nearly impossible to get into and affluent families can pay for a service that tells them when to be near a computer to sign up.

Additionally, fulfilling some of these requirements is easier for families preparing years in advance. For instance, one of the city’s most prestigious schools, Beacon High School, asks students to submit a sample of their work. However, that is only possible if students know in advance to save their best work. Many parents from more affluent areas of the city start preparing for high school admissions early — sometimes in elementary school.

If the city instituted one, centralized set of admissions requirements for screened schools, the process would be simpler to navigate. That may help students from low-income backgrounds who have difficulty sorting through the process now.

City officials are aware that applying to high school can be difficult for families. Officials have tried to tackle the problem by providing more information to students and parents. For instance, they launched a tool that helps students search information about schools and provide more translated copies of the High School Directory. They also promised to improve access to open houses.

4.) Reduce the share of screened schools throughout the system

Advocates who believe any screening mechanisms, including test scores, attendance rates, or auditions, are inherently biased, say the city should either eliminate screening or seriously reduce the share of schools allowed to pick their students.

Nearly a third of high schools in New York City today have some screen for academic success or artistic talent — but it wasn’t always that way. During Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration, the share of screened schools shot up around the city. In 2002, only 15.8 percent of school programs screened students for academic success. By 2009, that share had increased to 28.4 percent. (Some schools have multiple programs.)

Further sorting takes place far before high school. When students are as young as four they can sit for a Gifted & Talented test. These G&T programs are starkly segregated by race and class. Additionally, students are screened in one quarter of middle schools.

Matt Gonzales, who supports school integration work through the nonprofit New York Appleseed, said he believes middle schools screens should be eliminated. “Especially for 9 and 10-year olds, it’s kind of ridiculous to put kids through this process,” Gonzales said. “We’re actually just screening for families and not kids.”

City officials said they are trying to eliminate the use of screens when possible, but so far have not set a target for reducing the share of screened schools in the city.

5.) Require that screened schools set aside seats for students from disadvantaged backgrounds

Some of the city’s Gifted & Talented programs and Bard High School in Queens are already prioritizing admissions for some students who qualify for free-or-reduced-price lunch, which is often used as a proxy for poverty. The city could expand the number of schools doing the same.

Gonzales said it would make sense to start with a set aside program. Ultimately, he would want to see some type of “controlled choice” formula that takes a student’s background into account when assigning a school. (In this scenario, the formula could include both academic success and socioeconomic status.) But in the meantime, it might make sense to start smaller, he said.

“Whatever we do is going to have to be iterative,” Gonzales said. “Starting off with some priority system or set aside system, I think that would actually be a very good, methodical way to start tinkering with the way we do admissions.”

sorting the students

‘Why are we screening children? I don’t get that’: Chancellor Carranza offers harsh critique of NYC school admissions

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Chancellor Richard Carranza

New York City’s schools chief expressed a fundamental critique of the school system on Wednesday, arguing that sorting students by ability is “antithetical” to public education.

“I think the very fact that we’re talking about screening is an issue,” Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza said at a press conference in the Bronx. “Why are we screening kids in a public school system? That is, to me, antithetical to what I think we all want for our kids.”

A large chunk of the school system Carranza is running operates exactly that way. In New York City, about one quarter of middle schools and one third of high schools “screen” students which means they select for admission based on factors like test scores, interviews, attendance, grades, or artistic talent. Several renowned high schools — the “specialized” schools that include Stuyvesant and Bronx Science — only admit top scorers on an entrance exam.

Carranza’s comments reflect his interest in integrating schools, as academic sorting also means that black and Hispanic students are underrepresented in many of the city’s selective schools. They also may signal that he’s on a collision course with Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has not exhibited much enthusiasm for sweeping changes to the city’s schools — and with affluent city parents who see selective schools as a condition of their participation in public school system.

The education department did not say Wednesday whether Carranza planned to introduce new policies to reduce the number of schools screening students. Spokeswoman Toya Holness said he would continue to support ongoing work with superintendents to promote alternative admissions methods.

“As Chancellor Carranza has said, we are committed to equity and excellence for all students in New York City and central to that work is making the admissions process fairer for families,” she said.

Screened schools proliferated under previous Mayor Michael Bloomberg, though a small number have existed for decades. According to data compiled by Sean Corcoran of NYU Steinhardt, less than 16 percent of school programs screened students for academics in 2002; by 2009, it was more than 28 percent.

Proponents say those schools allow top students to access a more rigorous curriculum than is possible in a school with students of mixed ability, and they encourage wealthier families to stay in the public school system — and bring their political and financial capital along with them.

But a Chalkbeat analysis in 2016 detailed how screening has led to extreme academic sorting. Over half of the students who took and passed the state eighth-grade math exam in 2015 were clustered in less than 8 percent of city high schools. Meanwhile, nearly 165 of the city’s roughly 440 high schools had five or fewer ninth-graders who took and passed the state math test.

This, in turn, contributes to segregation along racial and socioeconomic lines. Low-income students of color are less likely to earn passing scores on state tests and may have more challenges navigating the city complicated admissions rules. The New York Times published an analysis in 2017 that shows as admissions methods get more competitive, schools become increasingly white and Asian.

When asked about the city’s intense academic sorting a few weeks into his tenure, Carranza said he wanted to tackle the problem.

“That is not acceptable,” he said during an interview with Chalkbeat. “And as I wrap my head around the data, those are conversations that I’m looking forward to having with my colleagues.”

Mayor de Blasio was reluctant to make more than incremental changes to those systems in his first term. Officials eliminated an admissions method that benefited students who could attend open houses and added a “blind ranking” element to some admissions systems to increase fairness.

But on Wednesday, de Blasio appeared to back Carranza, who is in his second month on the job.

“We’re certainly going to look at the screened schools because that’s something that deserves to be evaluated,” de Blasio said.

Christina Veiga contributed reporting.