hello from the other side

Advocates seize chance to push for Upper West Side desegregation, but face stiff resistance

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Members of the District 3 Equity in Education Task Force and the Parent Leadership Project. From left: Lori Falchi, Flor Donoso, Claudia Ortega and her daughter Sophia, Ujju Aggarwal, and Mariela Angulo.

Hand after hand shot up last week inside a sweltering auditorium on the Upper West Side.

They belonged to dozens of parents who had come to grill an education department official about the city’s contentious plans to rezone two sought-after schools, P.S. 199 and P.S. 452. Many parents fiercely oppose the plans, which would draw more low-income students into the disproportionately white and affluent schools.

The parents at the meeting, who were almost all white, asked technical questions about how the city came up with its enrollment projections and whether an oversight panel could still reject the city’s proposed “scenarios.” But when the microphone was passed to a woman sitting off to the side, she tried to steer the conversation to a larger issue.

“I wonder if you would speak to what either of the scenarios would do to address the situation of segregation in the entire district?” asked Ujju Aggarwal, an organizer with the District 3 Equity in Education Task Force.

Advocates like Aggarwal have spent over a decade pointing out the sharp race and class imbalances among the schools in Manhattan’s District 3, which spans from West 59th Street to 122nd. They have repeatedly called for a district-wide desegregation plan during that time, without much luck.

But with city officials paying new attention to school segregation and the proposed zone changes highlighting the district’s deep divides, advocates have seized on the moment to renew their desegregation drive. At the same time, they are trying to amplify the voices of low-income black and Hispanic parents, who are a majority in the district but have been overshadowed by parents opposed to the rezonings.

“We only hear one side all the time,” said Marilyn Barnwell, a member of the equity task force. “But there are more of us who are concerned.”

P.S. 199 and P.S. 452 epitomize the district’s imbalances: While about half the district’s students come from low-income families, less than 10 percent of students do at those two schools. And only 20 percent or less of their students are black or Hispanic, even though those groups account for more than half of the district’s students.

A community education council meeting in District 3 last week. Advocates say those meetings have been dominated by parents opposed to rezonings of P.S. 452 and P.S. 199.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
A community education council meeting in District 3 last week. Advocates say those meetings have been dominated by parents opposed to rezonings of P.S. 452 and P.S. 199.

Dozens of P.S. 452 parents have flocked to meetings to publicly denounce the plan for that school, which would involve moving it into a building a mile south that sits across from a public-housing development. Behind the scenes, some parents distributed anonymous surveys and talking points against the plan.

Last fall, many parents rallied against the city’s plan to shift some families from the P.S. 199’s zone into that of P.S. 191, a lower-performing school nearby that serves many students who live in public housing. In both cases, parents said they welcomed greater school diversity even as they opposed plans that could achieve it.

But advocates say the rezoning battles have given the false impression that most district parents prefer the status quo over integration. They say many families are dismayed by the district’s disparities, and believe that desegregation would help equalize resources and ease the burden on schools that serve an outsize share of high-needs students.

They also feel that diversity is a crucial part of children’s education.

“I want her to learn how to communicate with other people and have respect for people,” said Mariela Angulo, a Venezuelan immigrant whose daughter will soon begin pre-kindergarten. “I don’t want her with [just] one kind of people and one kind of group.”

Angulo is a member of the Parent Leadership Project, a District 3-based advocacy group that grew out of the now-defunct Center for Immigrant Families and whose members co-founded the District 3 Equity in Education Task Force. As far back as the early 2000s, those advocates have lobbied for “controlled choice,” a desegregation plan that would erase the district’s zones and assign students to schools based on their preferences and their demographics. The goal is to break up the clustering of affluent students at some schools, and high-needs students at others.

Task force members and their allies on the district’s community education council have repeatedly floated controlled choice as an alternative to the city’s proposed rezonings. The council, which must approve any zone changes, hosted two public forums this year to discuss controlled choice, but it has not endorsed the idea.

In contrast to the rezoning opponents, only a scattering of parents have attended the council’s meetings to call for controlled choice. Advocates say some parents feel excluded by the meetings, which are mostly conducted in English and sometimes held during the workday. Flor Donoso, a task force member who has three children in District 3 schools, said a council member asked her at one meeting why more parents from her group hadn’t shown up.

“I was a little offended, because you’re talking about 9 o’clock in the morning,” she said. “Parents are working.”

Joe Fiordaliso, a P.S. 199 parent and the district’s education-council president, said the council had “bent over backwards” to make its meetings accessible to all parents by holding them at different times and locations, and had provided Spanish-language translation at the controlled-choice forums. He also formed a committee to look at diversity and inequity in the district and propose solutions, he noted.

While advocates say a silent army of parents supports district-wide desegregation, Fiordaliso and others are not convinced. Saying that a move to controlled choice would pose a number of logistical challenges without any guarantee of improving school quality across the district, he argued that few parents actually support it.

“The fact that those alternative ideas aren’t resonating isn’t my fault,” he said. “Maybe it’s because those ideas don’t make any sense or they’re so radical and unproven that they’re not accepted by the community.”

Partly because of such skepticism, some local advocates have started to look beyond the council for new ways to promote district-wide integration.

Emmaia Gelman, a District 3 parent and equity task force member, said she was upset that a “tiny subset of parents” who opposed the rezonings seemed to dominate many of the council meetings, drowning out the larger conversation about segregation across the district. So this spring she joined with a few other parents to help form a new organizing group, Public School Parents for Equity and Desegregation.

The group’s goal is to spark conversations among parents, particularly ones who have been under-represented at council meetings. They plan to bring up issues like disparities in parent fundraising and classroom materials that don’t reflect students from diverse backgrounds. But their main focus will be on integration.

“There’s a missing piece of this narrative,” said co-founder Toni Smith-Thompson, “which is parents speaking about the benefits of integration for all kids.”

desegregation dilemma

Silicon Valley’s school integration paradox: More black and Hispanic students get to college — and get arrested

PHOTO: Thomas Hawk / Creative Commons

New research on schools in the heart of Silicon Valley comes to a familiar conclusion: Poor black and Hispanic students get a leg up academically by attending a less segregated school.

But the results come with a significant downside. Those students who left their hometowns to attend wealthier schools in places like Palo Alto were also more likely to be arrested.

The study, which was conducted by Columbia professor Peter Bergman and has not been formally peer-reviewed, speaks to both the promise of integration and the complicating factors — including discrimination — that can dampen its effectiveness.

“Policies that aim to integrate schools … could reap long-run benefits in college enrollment,” writes Bergman, who himself attended public school in Palo Alto. “These policies should simultaneously consider programs to mitigate the potential risks for participating students as well.”

Bergman examined an initiative created after a 1985 lawsuit settlement required several northern California school districts to allow a small number of students from Ravenswood, a largely low-income district, to transfer to more affluent schools in places like Palo Alto and Menlo Park. (Technically, the program can be used in both directions, but only two students have ever transferred into the less-affluent districts.)

Since the program included a random lottery, Bergman was able to compare the outcomes of students who won a spot versus those who applied but did not.

The results were fairly dramatic. Using data from 1998–2008, the study finds that students who got the chance to attend the more affluent schools were 10 percentage points more likely to go to college.

These results were driven by enrollment in two-year colleges, and the effects were largest for boys.

This is consistent with older research on integration programs, which have been shown to boost test scores, graduation rates, college attendance, and adult income for students of color.

Bergman was also able to link students who transferred school districts with their adult arrest records. Here, the results were more discouraging: The program increased the likelihood a student would be arrested by about 5 percentage points, with an even greater impact on boys and black students.

The rise in arrests was due to driving- and drug-related offenses outside the students’ hometowns, and there was no increase in violent crime. This suggests that the arrests may have less to do with any changes in criminal behavior and more to do with students doing more driving — and having more run-ins with police — in wealthier areas, where they had made connections or were attending school.

“Lurking in the background is definitely this idea of racial profiling,” Bergman told Chalkbeat. “[If] you’re driving a beat up Civic in Palo Alto and you’re minority, you really stand out — it’s all Teslas around here.”

Another potential factor: cops in affluent areas have more time and resources to prioritize traffic stops and drug enforcement.

“The Palo Alto police [are] probably facing a lot less baseline crime, so they have a lot of time on their hands,” Bergman said.

Still, the study can’t identify the cause, or explain the consequences for students, such as time in jail.

The research also doesn’t wade into other key questions about this type of integration program, including how it affects students who remain in the poorer, racially segregated schools.

It’s unclear why students who participated saw those academic gains. Research on older programs has found that the academic benefits of integration seem related to increases in school spending, potentially driven by the presence of families with greater political sway. Indeed, in this case, the more affluent California districts generally had greater resources and lower student–teacher ratios.

New layer

Tennessee cuts ribbon on its first charter school under State Board of Education

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Principal Jonas Cleaves cuts the ribbon at Bluff Hills High School's opening day ceremony. He is surrounded by students, faculty and leaders of Green Dot and the State Board of Education.

With the snip of a ribbon, Tennessee leaders helped to officially open a charter school on Tuesday in Memphis that marks a major shift in how the charter sector can grow in the state.

Bluff City High School, operated by Green Dot Public Schools in southeast Memphis, is the first charter school authorized by the State Board of Education.

The school opened last week at full capacity with 160 ninth-graders and a waiting list, despite uncertainty about its location as recently as four months ago. The plan is to grow the school to 600 students and four grades by 2020.

Bluff City’s opening adds a new layer of oversight to charter schools in Tennessee, where local school boards and the state-run Achievement School District already have that authority. Now the State Board does too under a 2014 state law that allows charter applicants to appeal to the State Board when local school boards deny their applications.

That’s what happened in Memphis last August when Shelby County Schools denied Green Dot’s application. The State Board later voted unanimously to overrule the local board.

“We felt like Green Dot really was prepared to serve this community well, and I think that’s already born out in the fact that it’s fully … enrolled even in its first year,” said Sara Heyburn Morrison, the board’s executive director.

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Math students are at work during the school’s second week.

Most students came from Wooddale and Kirby middle schools, both operated by Green Dot under the ASD. Green Dot used a lottery system to decide which of 270 applicants could attend. The operator already runs two other Memphis high schools, Fairley and Hillcrest, also under the ASD.

“Part of the reason we even applied for this school in the first place is — when the moratorium on growth for the Achievement School District happened — we were just starting our third year with Wooddale Middle and had bused 27 students across the city to Fairley. We still do that, but it’s hard for students,” said Megan Quaile, Green Dot’s executive director in Tennessee. “If they didn’t have a ride home, they didn’t get to participate in extracurriculars or sports the way you would if you were able to walk home from school.”

Quaile said her organization felt strongly about appealing the local school board’s decision. “We have been running schools since 2000, and we have a very strong high school model,” she said of the California-based operator.

Bluff City is starting with 10 classrooms and plans to build a gym this fall.

“Working with the State Board of Education has just been a very positive experience,” Quaile said. “They’re very thoughtful, they’re very responsible. We’ve worked really well with them to get everything started.”

Now the State Board will need to work with both Shelby County Schools and the ASD to align the city’s public schools and services to meet students’ needs in the Bluff City. That could be challenging given that the State Board stepped in to authorize the new Memphis school. 

“This is new territory for all of us in terms of the working relationship that we’ll need to continue to build out with Shelby County,” said Heyburn Morrison, whose team will also begin overseeing two Nashville charter schools in 2019.

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Darryl Buchanan and Adarrius Hicks are founding class members of Bluff City High School.

While the road to starting Bluff City High School was complicated, students who participated in Tuesday’s opening ceremony were mostly just interested in what lies ahead. They were excited to have a say in building the school’s culture by voting on a mascot (the wolves) and a school color (Carolina blue). Plans are also underway to establish clubs and a student government.

“I feel pressure, but this is going to make us into better leaders,” said Darryl Buchanan, 14, who wants his education to prepare him to be a politician someday. “Everyone here is going to be something and they want us to be successful. They want us to be a somebody.”