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.”

study says...

Do ‘good’ parents prep their kids for gifted exams? The answer varies by race, study finds

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Kindergarten students at Brooklyn School of Inquiry, a citywide gifted and talented program, learn how to read a number line in Nov. 2016.

Is getting your child into a gifted-and-talented program a mark of good parenting? How you answer may depend largely on your race or ethnicity, according to new research.

Allison Roda, an assistant professor of education at Molloy College in Long Island, interviewed more than 50 white, black, and Hispanic parents at an unidentified New York City school to learn about their attitudes towards gifted programs. (Her sample did not include any Asian parents.)

She found that the white parents view applying for gifted programs and preparing their children to score well on the admissions test as hallmarks of good parenting.

For the black and Hispanic families, being a good parent had more to do with choosing a diverse classroom for their child and not “gaming” the system by practicing for the gifted test, according to the report, which appeared recently in the peer-reviewed journal Teachers College Record.

The report comes as the education department and elected officials are considering how to enroll more students of color in gifted programs.

In New York City, most gifted programs are housed in separate classrooms within a larger school. Often, the two are divided along racial lines, with white and Asian students far more likely to be admitted to gifted programs. Meanwhile, black and Hispanic students — who represent 70 percent of the city’s public-school population — comprise less than 30 percent of the gifted-and-talented enrollment.

The most common entry point for gifted programs is kindergarten, with admissions based on test results. The white families Roda interviewed said they felt intense social pressure to have their children take those exams.

Many of them said they questioned whether they should subject their children to such high-stakes testing, but they went along because “everyone else is doing it,” the report says. They also saw it as a pathway to competitive schools in later grades — and even college.

“They know it’s not fair,” Roda said. “They feel the need to do it to get their children on the right track.”

While the black and Hispanic parents Roda interviewed had their children tested for gifted, none reported paying for tutors or otherwise preparing children for the test. For them, having to practice for the test meant your child wasn’t really gifted.

“They know that all of the students who are in those programs were prepped,” Roda said. “So that takes away from the legitimacy of the label and the program they were placed in, and they don’t believe in that.”

Once their children started school, parents of color saw that their kids would be an extreme minority in gifted classes. They also reported that the gifted programs weren’t all that different from the education their children were receiving in general education classes. For those reasons, many opted not to retest their child if he or she initially missed the cut-off score for admission — as opposed to white parents, who repeatedly signed up their children for retakes.

“They just equate it to a way to segregate children whose parents prep them for the test,” Roda said.

Despite the time and resources white families said they poured into preparing for the gifted test, they didn’t think it was an accurate measure of giftedness. On that point, families of color agreed. Black, white and Hispanic families also agreed that school diversity was important.

Understanding those similarities and differences could be important for efforts to better integrate gifted classes and the school system more widely. While some elected officials have called for expanding access to test prep and testing all pre-K students for giftedness as a way to increase black and Hispanic student enrollment, Roda’s research suggests that may not work since parents of color told Roda they were opposed to test prep.

Instead, Roda suggests, the city should begin to spread the practices used in gifted classrooms to entire schools.

“Be more inclusive and enrich the curriculum that way,” Roda said. “And don’t be so focused on the test.”

drinks and debate

What would an equitable high school choice process look like? Chalkbeat readers weigh in.

PHOTO: Stanley Collado
Chalkbeat hosted an event to debate how the high school admissions process could be more fair.

New York City’s choice system is supposed to give every student a shot at attending a top high school. But in reality, low-income students of color are often stuck in low-performing schools.

Last week, Chalkbeat invited a parent and student, a researcher and an admissions advocate, and two education department officials to take part in a public discussion. We wanted to know: When it comes to the high school choice process, what are the barriers separating some students from high-achieving schools — and how can those obstacles be removed?

We want you to join the discussion. Click here or keep reading to learn how.

Two competing schools of thought emerged during the talk, which about 120 people came to watch. On one side, some said the problems revolve around some families’ limited information about how to navigate the time-intensive application process, and solutions should be geared towards improving communication and guidance for families and students.

But others said the problems go much deeper: Students who attend high-needs schools often aren’t prepared to compete for seats in the most exclusive high schools, even as their families often lack the time and resources to help them find other strong alternatives.

“The whole system is flawed and it’s geared to have certain students fail,” said Tanesha Grant, a parent from Washington Heights whose daughter attends Urban Assembly School for the Performing Arts. “Every child is equal. We make them unequal with the process.’”

After the discussion, audience members — who included people who work in schools and education-oriented nonprofits, along with parents — voted on ways to make the admissions process more fair.

The solution that earned the most votes was reducing or eliminating screened schools, which admit students based on their test scores, interviews and report card grades, among other criteria.

The second most popular solution was providing better information to students and families, perhaps by improving the high school directory or adding more guidance counselors in middle schools who can help guide students through the process.

Many other attendees came up with their own solutions.

Those included: expanding the role of parent coordinators, who are already stationed in schools, to help families understand the process; changing the algorithm that matches students to schools so that diversity is weighed in admissions decisions; and hiring more black and Hispanic teachers who can serve as a welcoming presence when students of color are picking schools. You can find more in the photos.

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

The audience also submitted dozens of written questions about how the process is working (or not). They wanted to know how much leeway schools get to choose their students, what is being done to help immigrant families understand the process, and how the city can create more high-quality high schools in neighborhoods that lack them.

Now, we want to you to weigh in.

We distilled the audience queries into a handful of questions based on common themes that emerged. We’re hoping to follow up on some of them — but first we want to know which ones are shared by the most readers.

We’d love it if you’d use the form below to vote on which question is also puzzling you — or if there’s another you’d like us to pursue.

Thanks for joining the discussion!