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.

March for Our Lives

Memphis students say Saturday protest is not just about school shootings. It’s about all gun violence.

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post
A student at Columbine High School holds a sign during a protest of gun violence, on March 14, 2018 in Littleton, Colorado.

Students marching Saturday in Memphis against gun violence say they are not only protesting the shootings that killed 17 people last month at a Florida high school. They also are speaking out against shootings that happen daily in their own city.

Seventeen-year-old John Chatman says he fears school shootings, but he especially fears the common gun violence in his neighborhood of South Memphis. He has lost close friends to shootings.

“It can happen anywhere, anytime,” Chatman said. “I think [this march] is a great stand. We should protest against school shootings. But we have to talk about what kids like me are seeing in Memphis on the daily.”

Memphis had 200 homicides in 2017, down from 228 the previous year, the deadliest year recorded in the city in two decades.

Chatman is one of hundreds of Memphians expected to participate in this weekend’s March for Our Lives event as part of a nationwide protest sparked by the Feb. 14 school shooting in Parkland, Florida. The largest march will be in Washington, D.C., where up to a half million protesters are expected, but smaller demonstrations are planned in cities and towns across the nation. In Tennessee, other marches are slated for Jackson, Nashville, Chattanooga, Knoxville, Clarksville, Cookeville, and Johnson City.

The Memphis march will start at 10 a.m. at Claiborne Temple, and Savanah Thompson will be there. One of more than a dozen student organizers, she worries that news about people getting shot has become commonplace.

“Being in Memphis, you get used to hearing about gun violence,” said Thompson, a freshman at White Station High School. “This affects the youth in our city. … We never want a school shooting to happen in Memphis or anywhere ever again.”

Alyssa Kieren, a student leader at Collierville High School, hopes the march fosters a sense of unity.

“We’re trying to stress that this isn’t a partisan issue,” Kieren said. “We have to acknowledge there is a problem and we have to come up with solutions. … The thing we’re upset about is that children are dying in our schools, and they’re dying in our city.”


Memphis candidate no longer in running to lead Achievement School District

The only Memphis applicant to lead Tennessee’s school turnaround district is no longer under consideration.

Keith Sanders told Chalkbeat Thursday that Education Commissioner Candice McQueen called him with the news that he would not advance in the application process to become superintendent of the Achievement School District. Sanders is a Memphis-based education consultant and former Memphis school principal who most recently was chief officer of school turnaround at the Delaware Department of Education.

The state later confirmed that Sanders will not advance, citing concerns from the search firm hired to find the next leader of the turnaround district.

In a March 21 letter to McQueen, the search firm highlighted Sanders’ time as a charter school leader in New Orleans as a reason he should not advance. Sanders co-founded Miller-McCoy Academy, an all-boys public school that closed in 2014. The school was academically low-performing, and Sanders and his co-founder left the school before it shuttered amidst allegations of financial mismanagement and cheating, according to the letter.

“Given the visibility of the ASD role, I think there are too many questions about his time at Miller-McCoy for him to be credible,” wrote Mollie Mitchell, president of The K-12 Search Group, in the letter.

The announcement comes a day after Stephen Osborn, a finalist for the position, visited Memphis for a second time to meet with local stakeholders. Osborn is currently the chief of innovation for Rhode Island’s Department of Education.

Sanders said he was shocked to be eliminated, as just weeks earlier he was told that he would advance as one of two finalists.

“I was given an itinerary for two days next week for my final interview process,” Sanders said. “I’m shocked that I’ve been suddenly and abruptly removed from this process. I want to be clear in this community I reside in — I did not withdraw.”

In addition to Sanders and Osborn, other candidates under consideration are Brett Barley, deputy superintendent for student achievement with the Nevada Department of Education, and Adam Miller, executive director of the Office of Independent Education and Parental Choice at the Florida Department of Education.

McQueen emphasized during her Memphis visit on Wednesday that the superintendent search is still in progress.

“We certainly have an expectation that we’ll bring in others,” she told reporters. “At this point, we wanted to move one forward while we’re continuing to solicit additional information from the search firm on current candidates as well as other candidates who have presented themselves over last couple of weeks.”

The new superintendent will succeed Malika Anderson, who stepped down last fall after almost two years at the helm. Kathleen Airhart, a longtime deputy at the State Department of Education, has served as interim leader.

The job will require overseeing 30 low-performing schools, the majority of which are run by charter organizations in Memphis.

Editor’s note: We have updated this story with comment from the Tennessee Department of Education.