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.”

survey says

More bullying reported at New York City schools, study shows

PHOTO: Anthony Lanzilote

More New York City students say there is bullying in their schools, a report released Monday showed. The findings also revealed that many schools reporting the greatest number of violent incidents on campus have no social workers on staff.

The report was commissioned by New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer.

Stringer also released an audit of how school safety matters are recorded, and concluded that the education department should provide more oversight and streamline incident reporting rules.

“The audit found clear breakdowns in communication in the reporting and tracking of incidents and actions taken,” according to a press release from Stringer’s office.

The education department disputed some of the comptroller’s findings, and in a written statement, spokeswoman Miranda Barbot wrote: “We have detailed protocols in place to ensure allegations of bullying are immediately reported, investigated and addressed, and are investing in both anti-bullying initiatives and mental health supports.”

But the pair of reports raises scrutiny of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s school discipline reforms, which favor  “restorative” practices that emphasize mediation over punishment, and make it harder to suspend students.

Advocates of the de Blasio reforms say the shift is necessary because black and Hispanic students are more likely to be arrested or disciplined at school. Research has shown such disciplinary action can lead to higher dropout rates. Critics of the reforms, meanwhile, say the changes have created more chaotic schools.

The findings are also likely to add to a chorus of parents and elected officials who say more emotional supports are needed for the city’s most vulnerable students. Students who experience a mental health crisis during the school day may be handcuffed and shuttled to hospitals. The city’s latest budget, which was approved last week, includes an additional $2 million to hire social workers and guidance counselors in schools that currently don’t have any.

Here are some highlights from the reports.

More students report there is bullying in their schools — but the data comes with a catch.

Last year, the education department’s annual survey showed that 82 percent of students said their peers “harass, bully, or intimidate others in school.” That’s up year over year, and up significantly from 65 percent of students in 2012, which was the lowest rate recorded since at least 2010. (De Blasio’s discipline reforms started to take effect around 2015.)

A note about these numbers: Prior to 2017, the survey asked whether students harass, bully or intimidate other students none, some, most, or all of the time. The most recent survey responses were slightly different: none of the time, rarely, some of the time, or most of the time — a change that may have artificially inflated the bullying numbers.

That’s enough to render the survey data unreliable said Max Eden, a researcher who has studied school climate for the conservative-leaning Manhattan Institute — a critic of the mayor’s discipline reforms. Still, taken with other findings, it’s reasonable to think that bullying is on the rise at city schools, he said.

Among the other evidence: A first-of-its-kind report, released this month under a new city law, that showed substantiated bullying incidents are on track to increase this year.

Schools that log the most violent incidents often lack mental health supports.

Guidance counselors and social workers are key when it comes to creating safe schools because they can help address the root cause of violent or troublesome behavior, advocates who want more mental health supports say.

But many of the city’s neediest schools go without that help.

Of the schools reporting the most violent incidents on campus, 36 percent lack a full-time social worker, the comptroller found. On campuses where there are social workers, caseloads are a staggering 700 to one. That far exceeds the recommended ratio from the National Association of Social Workers of 250 general education students per social worker — and it’s higher than the citywide average of 612 students per social worker, according to the comptroller.

The comptroller’ compares that to the ratio of New York Police Department school safety agents who are placed in schools: There is one safety agent per 228 students, according to the report.

“Our city is failing to meet the social and emotional needs of our students,” Councilman Mark Treyger, of Brooklyn, who has pushed the city to report more up-to-date bullying data and to hire more school counselors, said in an emailed statement.

Schools may be underreporting violent incidents, something the education department disputes.

In a separate audit, the comptroller compared logs kept by school safety agents to incident reports filed by school leaders. In 21 percent of cases, incidents that were noted by safety agents were not reflected in the school reports.

The school data, in turn, are used to report incidents to the state for its Violent and Disruptive Incident Report, or VADIR. The discrepancy could raise questions about the already-controversial reporting system. (VADIR has been criticized for classifying schoolyard incidents as serious offenses, and the state has tweaked its definitions in response to those kinds of concerns.)

This finding also comes with some caveats. The comptroller looked at only 10 schools — a tiny sample of the city’s portfolio of about 1,800. And the education department took issue with the methodology.

In its response to the audit, education department officials said that the police data doesn’t align with the state’s reporting categories, and that the information may not be comparable because of student privacy concerns and recordkeeping issues on campuses where multiple schools share a building.  

Enrollment 101

Should ‘Newark Enrolls’ be scrapped? A guide to the debate over Newark’s controversial enrollment system

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

Now that Newark’s school board has appointed a new school superintendent, both face a fundamental question that has long roiled the district: How should its 51,000 public-school students enroll in school?

Some in the city want to keep the current system, which folds together admissions for district and charter schools, insisting that it reduces the burdens placed on parents. Others want to overhaul or even abolish the system, arguing that it shuts some students out of their top choices and boosts charter-school enrollment at the expense of district schools. It’s a heated debate that’s now coming to a head.

In the not-so-distant past, enrollment meant walking to your neighborhood school to register, or submitting an application directly to one of the city’s many charter schools. But in 2014, the district adopted a radically different system, first called “One Newark” and now known as “Newark Enrolls,” that allows families to apply to almost any public school in the city — traditional, magnet, or charter — using a single online tool.

Newark was one of the first districts in the country to adopt this type of centralized enrollment system, which was designed to make it easier for families to take advantage of the city’s different school options. But its glitchy rollout sparked an uproar among parents, as charter critics attacked it as a ploy to funnel students into the city’s growing charter sector.

Four years and numerous improvements later, many families have grown used to the system, which uses an algorithm to assign students to schools based partly on their preferences. “If they’re able to select their school, and their child is going to their first choice, then there’s not a problem,” said Stacy Raheem, who as a staffer at Unified Vailsburg Services Organization, a West Ward community organization, helped about 40 parents apply to kindergarten for the fall.

And yet, the enrollment system, which was installed by an unpopular state-appointed superintendent, has never recovered from the controversy that marked its origins.

Now, the system’s fate will be decided by the elected school board — which just regained authority over the district this year — with help from the district’s newly selected superintendent, Roger León. As they weigh their options, board members have been hearing from district officials and charter-school leaders, who are scrambling to defend the system. But diehard critics continue to call for its dismantling.

“All you guys will be held accountable,” said Daryn Martin, a parent organizer, during public comments at a board meeting last week where he denounced the enrollment system. “Something’s got to be done about this.”

As Newark’s school-enrollment debate ramps up, here’s a guide to how it works and what could change.

What is Newark Enrolls?

“Newark Enrolls” is the city’s single enrollment system for most charter and district schools. About 12,100 families used it to apply to more than 70 schools this year.

Families can rank up to eight schools on a single application, which most complete online. (Those without online access can fill out paper applications.) Then a computer algorithm matches each student to a school based on the student’s preferences, available space, and rules that give priority to students who live near a school or whose siblings go there.

It costs the district about $1.1 million per year to manage the system.

Which schools are part of it?

Most of the city’s charter, magnet, and traditional schools participate in Newark Enrolls.

Newark is one of just a handful of cities, including Camden, Denver, and Washington, D.C., to feature this kind of “common” or “universal” enrollment system. It’s meant to spare parents from having to submit multiple, time-consuming applications that may have different deadlines — a system that advantaged families with the most time and resources. A centralized process also prevents schools from discouraging high-needs students from applying, an accusation that charter schools often face.

The city’s charter schools, which are independently operated, must agree to let the district manage their admissions. This year, 13 of the city’s 19 charter operators signed on. Charter schools that don’t participate, such as Robert Treat Academy and Discovery, handle their own admissions lotteries.

Students can also apply to the city’s six magnet high schools through Newark Enrolls. But unlike other district or charter schools, magnet schools are allowed to rank applicants based on their grades, test scores, and other factors, before the matching algorithm is run.

How well does it work?

There are different ways to measure that.

One indicator of success is how many families get their desired school. This year, 84 percent of incoming kindergarteners were matched with their top choice, and 94 percent got one of their top three choices. Among rising ninth graders, many of whom were competing for seats at the city’s coveted magnet high schools, only 41 percent got their first choice and 70 percent got one of their top three.

Another metric is parent satisfaction with the process. Among nearly 1,800 people who took a survey after completing an online application this year, 95 percent said they were “satisfied” or “very satisfied” with the enrollment process. A similar share said the application was “easy” or “very easy” to navigate.

Yet another yardstick is equity. One stated goal of the universal enrollment system was to ensure that charter schools, which enroll a third of Newark students, serve their fair share of students with disabilities. To achieve that goal, the system’s algorithm gives these students a boost when applying to schools where this population is underrepresented among applicants.

Both charter and magnet schools now serve more special-needs students than they did before Newark Enrolls. The increase was especially dramatic at magnet schools, where the percentage of ninth-graders with disabilities jumped from 5 to 13 percent between 2014 and 2017,  according to a recent report by researchers at Columbia University, who note that the changes may have been caused by other policy changes in addition to the new enrollment system.

“This is about equity and access for all families,” said Newark Charter School Fund Executive Director Michele Mason, who is calling on the school board to preserve the universal enrollment system.

Still, the system has not, by itself, erased enrollment disparities.

Traditional high schools continue to serve a far needier population than magnet or charter schools, where the share of ninth-graders with disabilities inched up from 13 to 15 percent over that period. (At traditional high schools, the rate is 22 percent.) Also, the policy that gives priority to students who live near schools effectively walls off popular options from students in other neighborhoods, while magnet schools are essentially allowed to turn away students with low test scores or poor attendance records.

And no matter how well the algorithm works, there are too few high-performing schools to match every student to one who applies. In the most recent admissions cycle, about 1,800 rising ninth-graders listed magnet schools as their top choice — but those schools only had 971 seats to offer.

Why has it been controversial?

The enrollment system’s reputation has never fully recovered from its explosive inception.

It was rolled out in late 2013 as part of “One Newark,” a sweeping overhaul that closed, consolidated, or restructured about a quarter of the city’s schools. Unveiled in one fell swoop by former Superintendent Cami Anderson, the plan was met with bitter protests and a federal civil-rights complaint.

Technical aspects of the enrollment system were initially flawed as well. Some families got no placements, while others had siblings sent to far-flung schools. Meanwhile, the district only provides busing to certain students with special needs — leaving families who are matched with distant schools to find their own transportation.

“They did a real good job of uprooting Newark,” said Daryn Martin, the parent organizer who spoke up at the most recent board meeting and whose children attended Ivy Hill Elementary.

Since then, the district has tweaked the algorithm and provided parents with more information to help them choose schools. School board members say they continue to get complaints from parents who have problems with the system — but far fewer than in the past.

Still, the system remains embattled. In 2016, the school board passed a resolution to dismantle it — though the state-appointed superintendent at that time, Christopher Cerf, kept it in place. Today, critics who say Newark Enrolls is designed to steer students into charter schools continue to demand that it be scrapped.

“Are we going to spend a lifetime improving something,” said Newark Teachers Union President Jon Abeigon, “or just admit it was a failure?”

What could — or should — change?

Several school board members have called for big changes to the enrollment system. But they’ve yet to say what those should be.

“It does not work for everyone,” said board member Yambeli Gomez at a forum in April before she was elected. “We just have to make it better.”

The challenge for the board, now that it’s back in charge of district policy, will be to find a way to fix the system’s flaws without introducing new inequities for students or hardships for parents.

The board has some time to do that. Under state guidelines, it must keep the current enrollment system in place for the coming school year. Already, several board members have discussed the system with the Newark Charter School Fund, and the full board peppered the district’s enrollment chief, Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon, with questions at a meeting at Science Park High School this month.

Most members acknowledge that it would be difficult to scrap Newark Enrolls entirely and return to a system where students are automatically assigned to their nearest district school because many schools have been closed. Not to mention, the survey data suggests that many parents favor the current system.

“You can’t just dismantle universal enrollment,” said board member Tave Padilla. “You would have chaos.”

But the board could overhaul the existing system. One option would be to boot charter schools from it. Doing so might steer more families into district schools, but it could also recreate some of very inequities universal enrollment was meant to eliminate — families with the ability to fill out multiple applications would enjoy the most school options, and unscrupulous charters could potentially skim students.

The possibility of being ejected from Newark Enrolls is causing alarm among some charter operators who worry they might attract fewer students if families have to once again fill out separate applications for each charter network or school, according to people in that sector. The concern is greatest among independent charter-school operators, who often have local roots but lack the advertising and recruitment budgets of the larger networks. Some operators have discussed creating a single application for all the city’s charter schools, but that will only be necessary if the board decides to terminate the universal system.

Another option is to find ways to improve the current enrollment process. Roger León, the incoming superintendent, appears to favor that route. In a recent interview, he floated the idea of restoring a committee that in the past would review every appeal from families who were unhappy with their assigned schools. Such a review panel could make an impersonal system feel more responsive to families, but it wouldn’t be able to satisfy every parent seeking a seat in one of the city’s limited number of high-performing schools.

Whatever the board decides, León said he is committed to maintaining a system where families have school options — even if the process for exercising that choice is altered.

“I believe families make decisions where their child should go,” he said, “and I don’t think anyone should change that.”