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.”


In most U.S. cities, neighborhoods have grown more integrated. Their schools haven’t.

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
Sold signs can be seen on many of the homes in Stapleton on August 1, 2018, in Denver, Colorado.

Between 1990 and 2015, Seattle’s neighborhoods saw a notable decline in racial segregation.

It would make sense, then, to think that the city’s public schools had also become more integrated. Not so.

In fact, they were headed in the opposite direction. In 1990, only 3 percent of schools were intensely segregated — that is, at least 90 percent of students were nonwhite — but by 2015, that number had spiked to 17 percent.

That’s not entirely surprising. During that time, a high-profile Supreme Court case made it more difficult for Seattle to integrate its schools by race. But new research looking at America’s 100 largest cities shows that the diverging trends in Seattle — neighborhoods growing more diverse, as their schools grow more segregated — is not an anomaly.

The analysis finds that, between 1990 and 2015, 72 percent of U.S. cities saw their neighborhoods grow less racially segregated, by one measure. Sixty-two percent saw their schools grow more segregated over that same period.

“There is this incredibly striking trend,” said Ryan Coughlan, a professor at Guttman Community College, CUNY, who conducted the research. “It raises all kinds of alarm bells and questions as to what that’s about.”

Most cities did not see schools segregate as much as Seattle did. And 27 cities, like Durham, North Carolina and Memphis, Tennessee, saw both their schools and neighborhoods grow less segregated in concert over that 25-year period. But overall, the study finds that integrating neighborhoods didn’t predict integrating schools in those same cities.

The analysis has significant limits, particularly when looking at single cities. It uses one of several possible ways to measure segregation: the degree to which the racial breakdown of students in individual schools or neighborhoods mirror the demographics of the rest of the district or city. In most cases, charter schools are not included. That makes the data less useful in places like Detroit, where charters now enroll half the city’s students.

The big-picture trend matters, though. More integrated schools have long been shown to improve academic outcomes for low-income students and students of color. Living in a more integrated neighborhood has also been linked to long-run benefits for younger kids.

“Because of the connections between integration and educational opportunities, the dramatic increase in school segregation alongside the decrease in neighborhood segregation requires the immediate attention of school leaders, policymakers, and the public as a whole,” Coughlan wrote.

What’s behind those trends?

The analysis, published last month in the peer-reviewed Peabody Journal of Education, can’t say why that’s happening. The end of many legal desegregation orders during that time likely played a role. Coughlan also hypothesizes that the rapid increase in school choice, through charter schools and other means, had something to with it.

“These are 100 different urban areas with very different circumstances,” Coughlan said.

The paper’s starting point is 1990, before the first charter school law passed in the U.S. Since then, school choice has rapidly grown, through charters and other means.

In Seattle, though, charter schools are almost certainly not the cause of its increase in school segregation, since the city has very few.

Another city that saw a major spike in school segregation along with a modest decline in neighborhood segregation is Charlotte. Like Seattle, it’s seen a resegregation of schools in the wake of high-profile court cases.

Charlotte also has a number of charter schools; there and elsewhere in North Carolina, other research has found that charters have likely exacerbated segregation. (Coughlan’s Charlotte data does not include charter schools.) Nationally, research has shown that charters either exacerbate school segregation or have no effect on it.

“The broader literature at this point I think shows that charter schools do not integrate schools,” said Ann Owens, a sociologist at the University of Southern California who studies segregation.

Other research has shown that the existence of different school options can promote neighborhood integration (also described as gentrification). That could help explain Coughlan’s results, with a family’s ability to opt out of a neighborhood school encouraging their move to a neighborhood they wouldn’t otherwise have considered.

The disconnect between housing and schooling trends has important implications. For one, it means that divided neighborhoods shouldn’t be used as an excuse to do nothing about divided schools, said Tomas Monarrez, a researcher at the Urban Institute who has studied school boundaries.

“Neighborhood segregation is the result of a long, long history of discriminatory policies both on the part of private agents and the federal government,” he said. “School systems have gotten to ride that and say segregation’s not our fault.”

Instead, he argued, school leaders should be taking affirmative steps to integrate schools, and recognize that they may have to continually adjust their policies. “School attendance boundaries don’t have to replicate neighborhood segregation,” Monarrez said. “You can gerrymander school attendance boundaries to decrease it.”

City-by-city data

You can look up how residential and school segregation changed in your city from 1990 to 2015 below. Keep in mind that a city and its corresponding school district do not always overlap perfectly — the school data for Indianapolis, for example, includes just the Indianapolis Public Schools, the city’s central district but one of 11 districts in the city.

Segregation, here, means the degree to which the demographics of students in individual schools mirror the rest of the city’s public school students. This captures whether different groups of students are spread evenly across schools in a city, but it doesn’t say much about cities where virtually all students are students of color. Most segregation occurs between rather than within school districts.

Source: “Divergent Trends in Neighborhood and School Segregation in the Age of School Choice,” Peabody Journal of Education.


Some Asian American groups have backed the SHSAT, but this one says the exam should go

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Stuyvesant High School is one of the city's most sought-after specialized high schools.

In the fight to integrate New York City’s coveted specialized high schools, one source of opposition has stood out.

Asian parents and alumni have waved signs at City Hall, heckled education leaders at town halls, and marched in protest of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to eliminate the test that serves as the sole entrance criteria for the elite schools.

That’s why it’s noteworthy that the Coalition for Asian American Children and Families is calling for the test to be nixed in favor of an admissions system that weighs multiple factors, releasing a report on Tuesday that attempts to bring nuance to a debate that has often played out in sound bites.

“We believe that current admissions processes to specialized high schools contribute to the problems of segregation and inequity in NYC public schools,” the advocacy organization’s report notes.

Specialized high schools enroll a disproportionate share of Asian students. Many have argued that the mayor’s plan, which aims to enroll more black and Hispanic students in the schools, pits one community of color against others. Only about 10 percent of specialized high school students are black or Hispanic, even though those students comprise about 70 percent of enrollment citywide.

The Coalition’s report offers a counter-narrative to the debate, highlighting that many Asian organizations have long called for admissions changes at the specialized high schools and arguing that Asian students would benefit from an overhaul.

But the organization stops short of endorsing de Blasio’s proposal, blasting his administration for failing to include the Asian community in its development or rollout. (One of the coalition’s co-directors is a mayoral appointee to the citywide Panel for Educational Policy.)  

“We remain highly critical of the processes that he and the Department of Education have taken in crafting and releasing those proposals to the public,” the report says.

An education department spokesman said the city looks forward to working with the coalition to eliminate the test, and said the city is presenting its plan to every community school district.

The report comes as parents are considering suing over the city’s diversity efforts and supporters of the test have hired a lobbyist to fight the potential changes.

The coalition’s stance also highlights the steep challenge de Blasio faces as he gears up to lobby state lawmakers to scrap the entrance exam, which is currently required by state law. Though Democrats managed to gain control of the Senate in the latest election, the issue doesn’t have a clear party line — and some of the mayor’s natural allies have expressed doubt, or even backed away from the mayor’s proposal.

Read the full report here