Achieving Diversity

What diverse schools do differently: New report outlines 10 promising approaches

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

With a rezoning debate barely settled in Brooklyn — and another still raging on the Upper West Side — New York City has been forced to reckon with the fact that many of its schools are deeply segregated.

But it’s worth remembering that there are success stories in our midst, schools that have taken deliberate steps to enroll a diversity of students, creating “Integrated Schools in a Segregated City.”

That’s the name of a report released Wednesday by the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs, where staff at the school-review site Insideschools spent a year uncovering lessons from local schools that are tackling segregation.

The findings, released ahead of a forum to discuss integration, highlight 10 strategies that have already shown promise in New York City. Here are a few of them.

School has to be welcoming for everyone

Schools that successfully enroll a mix of students also manage to create a climate that welcomes everyone, the report notes.

P.S. 312 in Bergen Beach, Brooklyn — home to families from Russia, Haiti, Korea and beyond — invites families to visit and talk about their cultures and share traditional foods. That has helped build relationships between parents, and while more minority students have enrolled in the school in recent years, the report says, it hasn’t experienced “the rapid white flight that schools in neighboring Canarsie witnessed some 30 years ago.”

Sometimes, maintaining diversity takes leadership from the top. The report found that the principal at P.S. 261 in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, helped set an inclusive tone by encouraging the PTA to reach out to parents of color for the school’s annual fundraiser.

Other times, parents themselves play an important role. At P.S. 11 in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, the diverse PTA leads school tours for prospective families.

“Since the PTA represents just about every race and ethnic group imaginable, visiting parents are likely to see someone who looks like them as a tour leader, and the tour leaders are great ambassadors for their school,” the report notes.

Change can be good

Whether it’s a new school in an old building, or an existing school in a new space — a change of scenery can attract more families of all kinds.

“Parents are more willing to take a chance on a new school with no track record than with an old school with a long history of low performance and poor discipline,” the authors say.

Closing a school is often unpopular, and it doesn’t always work, they acknowledge. But “it’s way easier to start a school from scratch with a new principal, new staff, and new kids than to turn around an existing school with a longstanding bad reputation.”

In other cases, change happens inside the classroom. P.S. 84 in Williamsburg, Brooklyn enrolled a more diverse mix of students after overhauling its curriculum, starting new programs and moving away from “scripted lessons” that emphasized basic skills.

Similarly, implementing gifted or dual-language programs can attract more middle-class and language-diverse families, though those programs can themselves become segregated. The report points to P.S. 9 in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, a school with integrated gifted and dual-language programs.

Different admissions policies can help

Schools that accept students from outside regular zone lines, such as AmPark Neighborhood School in the Kingsbridge section of the Bronx, may attract students of different backgrounds, the report notes.

The Hellenic Classical Charter School in Sunset Park, Brooklyn is another example. Though it grew out of a Greek-Orthodox parochial school, demographic changes have resulted in a student body where few are of Greek heritage.

“Other cultures are celebrated, too. Each classroom studies a different country in preparation for the school’s multicultural fair; Cinco de Mayo and Martin Luther King, Jr. Day are important holidays,” the report notes.

New admissions policies have also shown moderate success. The city Department of Education has allowed some schools to set aside seats for students who are low-income, learning English or who meet other criteria. So far, such “Diversity in Admissions” plans have been approved at 19 schools, and are seen as a way to preserve diversity in gentrifying neighborhoods.

move it

First girls, now boys: A look inside Denver’s newest single-gender, athletic-focused charter school

PHOTO: Travis Bartlett Photography
Students at The Boys School of Denver play a game with a teacher on the first day of school in August 2017.

One of the first things the new sixth-graders at Denver’s new all-boys public school learned last week was the school cheer. And unlike what you might expect on the first day of a school that drew kids from 31 different elementary schools from all corners of the city — kids who were, for the most part, strangers in matching T-shirts — they were not at all timid.

The first time they tried the cheer, their voices boomed as loudly as tween boys’ voices can.

“I am!” school leader Nick Jackson shouted with the enthusiasm of a summer camp counselor.

“We are!” the boys answered in kind.

“I am!” “We are!”

“I am!” “We are!”

Two claps. Loud. “Boys School!”

In the seconds of silence that followed, Jackson held out his arm.

“Feel this! Feel this!” he said. “Those are goosebumps.”

NEW SCHOOLS OPENING 2016-17

The Boys School of Denver is one of five new schools opening this fall in Denver Public Schools (see box). The five schools are opening for a variety of reasons ranging from a need to accommodate a growing number of students in certain neighborhoods to a desire to provide families more high-quality options in a city that prizes school choice.

The school district’s first day was Monday but The Boys School, a charter with autonomy over its schedule as well as other aspects of its program, started a few days early.

On the first morning, 87 sixth-graders showed up to the massive campus of the Riverside Church in northwest Denver, where The Boys School is renting space this year. The school plans to add a grade each year until it eventually serves students in grades 6 through 12.

It’s a replication of sorts of Denver’s successful Girls Athletic Leadership School, an all-girls charter middle and high school. GALS, as it’s called, opened in 2010 with the aim of building girls’ self-esteem and sharpening their focus through physical movement and positive gender messages. That means starting the day with 45 minutes of movement, taking “brain breaks” during lessons, and requiring classes on deconstructing stereotypes in addition to academics.

The Boys School will follow the same model.

“For boys, they’re being pushed into being competitive or having a more assertive way about them,” said Carol Bowar, who is executive director of the organization. “We’re trying to neutralize that a bit to allow kids to develop and grow as who they are.”

A 2014 analysis of 184 studies from around the world found single-gender schools do not educate girls or boys better than co-ed schools. But Bowar points to other research on adolescent development, sex differences and how exercise can sharpen brain function, as well as GALS’s own results.

Last year, more GALS middle schoolers scored at grade level in English and math on state standardized tests than the districtwide averages. They also showed high academic growth; for instance, GALS middle schoolers scored better, on average, than 63 percent of Colorado students who had similar test scores the year before in math.

Leaders decided to open an all-boys school to offer the same opportunities to boys, Bowar said. Plus, she said, families with both sons and daughters repeatedly asked for one.

“We started hearing from year one, ‘I am so in love with your school for my daughter but I want it for my son,’” said Bowar, who herself has a sixth-grade son in the first class.

In a district where many schools are segregated by race, GALS has a more diverse student population than most. Last year, 55 percent of the 280 students at GALS middle school were students of color; 49 percent qualified for subsidized lunches, a proxy for poverty; 20 percent were English language learners; and 11 percent received special education.

Not all of those metrics are available yet for The Boys School. But Bowar provided some details: 57 percent of the sixth-graders registered before the first day of school were white, 28 percent were Latino, 11 percent were black, and 2 percent were Asian.

That’s fewer students of color than in the district as a whole. Overall, about 77 percent of DPS’s 92,000 students last year were students of color. About 23 percent were white.

GALS is also expanding outside Denver. A GALS middle school opened last year in Los Angeles, having been recruited there by a group of educators and community members. Educators in the Bay Area and Tucson are also interested in starting GALS schools, Bowar said. And the Los Angeles group plans to apply for a charter for a boys school, she said.

The Boys School is not Denver’s first-ever all-boys charter school. A previous all-boys charter with a different model, Sims-Fayola International Academy, closed in 2015 due to financial, logistical, and academic challenges.

After the assembly where they learned the school cheer, the inaugural Boys School sixth-grade class walked a couple blocks to a nearby city park blanketed by long grass that was still wet with morning dew. Jackson, who spent the previous three years at GALS, explained to them the rules of a game called Mighty Mighty Scoop Noodle Challenge.

Popular at the girls school, the game is similar to capture the flag. But instead of a single flag, players must steal several objects from the opposing team, including a foam pool noodle.

The boys split into two teams and lined up on opposite sides of a wide open field. When Jackson gave the signal, they ran toward each other with pre-adolescent abandon.

The first day of school was short on academics and packed with activities meant to help build a sense of belonging and brotherhood among the students, Jackson said, and to make the boys feel “well-held, comfortable, safe and like they’re a part of something.”

Too many kids, he said, are quick to abandon who they are in an attempt to fit in.

“We’re trying to change that,” Jackson said.

closures ahead

Mayor de Blasio: More Renewal schools will face closure this year

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Mayor Bill de Blasio at Brooklyn Generation School — part of the Renewal program

New York City will announce new closures and mergers of schools in its Renewal turnaround program this fall, Mayor Bill de Blasio said Tuesday, though it’s unclear how many schools will meet that fate.

“Some schools have done really, really well and I think are well on their way to no longer being Renewal schools,” de Blasio said at a press conference on state test score results. “There are going to be some when we go through the whole process, I’m certain, some will be slated for closure.”

The mayor indicated that the city’s plan will be revealed in November after a more complete review of each school’s performance, adding that schools that have become “too small to be effective” could also be shuttered.

Those comments come as the Renewal program is about to finish the third year of what the mayor initially called a three-year program, and has previously said schools that didn’t measure up could be closed. But de Blasio made clear that his signature turnaround effort would extend beyond that timeframe, saying schools that were showing “momentum” could stay in the program for one or two more years.

So far, the city has spent $383 million on Renewal — which infuses schools with extra social services and academic support — and has already budgeted $372 million over the next two years, according to figures from the Independent Budget Office. Due to previous mergers and closures (five Renewal schools closed this year) the program will cover 78 schools this fall, down from an original 94.

Designed to turn around the city’s lowest performing schools instead of following former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s practice of closing them, the Renewal program has produced mixed results so far.

On Tuesday, the city released test score data showing that elementary and middle schools in the program posted larger increases in English and math pass rates than the citywide average. Overall, Renewal schools saw a 3.2 percentage point increase in English proficiency, compared to 2.6 percent citywide. And Renewal schools improved by 1.5 percentage points in math, slightly more than the 1.2 citywide increase.

But the schools still score far below city averages, and 60 percent of them posted neutral or negative gains in math proficiency; 18 percent made no progress in English. Academic experts have also reached different conclusions about whether the program is generating positive academic results.

Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña emphasized Tuesday that some Renewal schools would see changes in leadership this September (education officials could not say how many schools would get new principals). Fariña also said “we’re going to be looking at our Renewal team, and we already started restructuring what some of the support will look like.”

It was also unclear how many schools could leave the Renewal program, and whether they will keep their nonprofit partnerships and extra academic support.

“We have to work out the details,” de Blasio said, “but we’re not going to leave a school in the lurch.”

Update: This story has been updated with a quote from Chancellor Carmen Fariña.