sorting the students

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

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Chancellor FariƱa 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.”

Find your school

How many students apply to Chicago’s most competitive high school programs? Search by school.

PHOTO: Hero Images / Getty Images
CPS released school-by-school results from its new GoCPS high school application system

How many students ranked each public high school program among their top three choices for the 2018-2019 school year? Below, search the first-of-its-kind data, drawn from Chicago Public Schools’ new high school application portal, GoCPS.

The database also shows how many ninth grade seats each program had available, the number of offers each program made, and the number of students that accepted offers at each program.

The district deployed the GoCPS system for the first time in advance of the 2018-2019 school year. The system had students rank up to 20 choices from among 250 programs in 132 high schools. Through the portal, applicants had the choice to apply separately to, and rank, the city’s 11 in-demand, selective enrollment programs. Before the GoCPS system streamlined the high school application process, students lacked a common deadline or a single place to submit applications.

A report released Thursday by the University of Chicago Consortium of School Research and the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago found that the system is mostly working as intended. The majority of students who used GoCPS ultimately got one of their top three choices. But the study also disclosed problems that the district now faces: There are too many empty seats in high schools. Main findings of the report are here.

School choice

New data pulls back curtain on Chicago’s high school admissions derby

PHOTO: Joshua Lott / Getty Images
Chicago's new high school application system has provided a centralized inventory of school-by-school application data

Before the online portal GoCPS system streamlined the high school choice process, Chicago schools lacked a common deadline or single place portal to submit applications. Some students would receive several acceptances, and others would get none. But a new report shows that the new, one-stop application system is working as intended, with the majority of students ultimately getting one of their top three choices.

But the study, released Thursday by the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research and the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, also lays bare a major problem with which the city’s public schools must wrangle: There are too many empty seats in high schools.

And it shows that demand varies by income level, with students from low-income neighborhoods casting more applications than students from wealthier ones and applying in greater numbers for the district’s charter high schools. Click here to search our database and see demand by individual school. 

The report leaves unanswered some key questions, too, including how choice impacts neighborhood high schools and whether a streamlined application process means that more students will stick with their choice school until graduation.

Deployed for the first time in advance of the 2018-2019 school year, the GoCPS system let students rank up to 20 choices from among 250 programs in 132 high schools. Separately, applicants can also apply to, and rank, the city’s 11 in-demand selective enrollment programs through the GoCPS portal.

The data paints a never-before-seen picture of supply and demand for seats at various high school programs across Chicago Public Schools. One in five high school options is so popular that there are 10 applicants for every seat, while 8 percent of programs fall short of receiving enough applications, according to the report.    

CPS CEO Janice Jackson said the new data presents a full, centralized inventory and will help the district “have the kind of conversations we need to have” with communities. The district is facing pressure from community groups to stop its practice of shuttering under-enrolled schools. Asked about what kind of impact the report might have on that decision-making, Jackson said that “part of my leadership is to make sure that we’re more transparent as a district and that we have a single set of facts on these issues.”

As for declines in student enrollment in Chicago, “that’s no secret,” she said. “I think that sometimes, when when we’re talking about school choice patterns and how parents make decisions, we all make assumptions how those decisions get made,” Jackson said. “This data is going to help make that more clear.”

Beyond selective enrollment high schools, the data spotlights the district’s most sought-after choice programs, including career and technical education programs, arts programs, and schools with the highest ratings: Level 1-plus and Level 1.

“What that says to me is that we’re doing a much better job offering things outside of the selective schools,” said Jackson, who pointed out that 23 percent of students who were offered seats at both selective enrollment and non-selective enrollment schools opted for the latter.

“Those [selective] schools are great options and we believe in them, but we also know that we have high-quality schools that are open enrollment,” she said.

Programs in low demand were more likely to be general education and military programs; programs that base admissions on lotteries with eligibility requirements; and programs located in schools with low ratings.

Other findings:

  • Chicago has far more high school seats than students — a dynamic that’s been clear for years and that the report’s authors stress is not interfering with the admissions process. About 20,000 freshman seats remain unfilled across CPS for the upcoming school year. At least 13,000 of those empty seats are a consequence of plummeting enrollment at CPS.
  • It’s still not clear how neighborhood schools, which guarantee admission to students who live within their boundaries, affect demand. About 7,000 students are expected to enroll at their neighborhood high schools. When CPS conducts its 20th day count of enrollment at district schools, more complete details will be available. Lisa Barrow, a senior economist and research advisor at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, said one of the things researchers weren’t able to dig into is the demand for neighborhood programs, because students didn’t have to rank their neighborhood schools.
  • The report suggests that the process would be more streamlined if students could rank selective enrollment programs along with other options. “If students received only one offer, there would be less need to adjust the number of offers to hit an ideal program size,” the report says.
  • Students don’t participate in the new process evenly. The report shows that students from low-income neighborhoods were more likely to rank an average of 11.7 programs, while students from the wealthiest neighborhoods ranked an average of 7.3. The authors said it was not clear whether that meant students from wealthier neighborhoods were more willing to fall back on their neighborhood schools.  
  • Students from the city’s lowest-income neighborhoods were also more likely to rank a charter school as their top choice (29 percent), compared to students from the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods (10 percent). The same was true of low academic performers (12 percent), who chose charter schools at a percentage considerably higher than their high-performing peers (12 percent).
  • While the new admissions process folded dozens of school-by-school applications into one system, it didn’t change the fact that schools admit students according to a wide range of criteria. That means the system continues to favor students who can navigate a complicated process – likely ones whose families have the time and language skills to be closely involved.

Barrow, the researcher from the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, said one final question the report cannot answer is whether better matching students with high schools on the front end increases the chance that they stick around where they enroll as freshmen.

“If indeed they are getting better matches for high schools,” Barrow said, “then I would expect that might show up in lower mobility rates for students, so they are more likely to stay at their school and not transfer out.”

This story has been updated to reflect that the excess capacity in Chicago high schools does not interfere with the admissions process.