done deal

Finally, a school rezoning plan for the Upper West Side is approved

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
P.S. 199 (left) is a top-ranked school surrounded by pricey residential buildings. P.S. 191, which serves many students from the Amsterdam Houses (far right), has struggled with low test scores.

The District 3 Community Education Council voted Tuesday night to approve a controversial school rezoning plan that officials hope will alleviate overcrowding and integrate schools.

Members of the volunteer board voted nine to one to adopt the new school boundaries, with many emphasizing the opportunity to address historic segregation on the Upper West Side.

“Today we are taking a step to right a wrong,” said council member Manuel Casanova. “This plan puts all schools on a path to be successful.”

In a statement, schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña praised the vote and “robust” community feedback.

“This is a critical step and we will continue working closely with schools to implement this plan and support families and educators during the transition,” she said.

While many parents and community members spoke in favor of the plan, others passionately argued it won’t do much to fix jam-packed schools or segregation.

Council members admitted the changes are a modest start toward greater school diversity. Though calls for large-scale integration plans failed to gain traction during the rezoning process, many council members on Tuesday committed to pursuing the issue longer-term.

“Our district is rich in diversity,” said council member Kimberly Watkins. “We have a lot to do.”

The plan is more than a year in the making. It follows a previous proposal that was tabled by city Department of Education officials after mounting opposition.

As approved, the plan shifts zone lines around high-performing P.S. 199, cutting some families from the Lincoln Towers community out of the boundary while including other new, luxury buildings. That has been one of the main points of contention, along with the move of P.S. 452 about 16 blocks south. P.S. 452 will take the place of P.S. 191, which is moving to a new building.

Parents at P.S. 452 were divided over the move. CEC members called for busing to be provided to ease the burden on families, and council chair Joe Fiordaliso said the city has committed to do so.

“I can’t think of anything that is more logical and reasonable,” he said.

Under the new plan, the zone for P.S. 191, which previously included much of the Amsterdam Houses public housing complex, will also be split among P.S. 199 and P.S. 452. CEC members and DOE officials hope the move will more evenly distribute the area’s poor and minority students among schools.

Many parents spoke up in support of that goal.

“I think sharing our school with lots of new families is a good thing,” said Hilda Blair, a parent at P.S. 452. “If we all do this together, I know we can be successful.”

It will take time to determine whether the plan works. P.S. 191 has underperformed on state tests compared with its neighbors, and parents unhappy with the zoning changes have threatened to transfer schools — creating concerns about potential overcrowding at P.S. 87.

“If this is an overcrowding nightmare, that’s on you,” Debby Saito, co-president of the P.S. 87 parent organization, told council members. “There will be less individual attention for students; There will be more exhaustion for teachers.”

Another sticking point: Residents in Lincoln Towers contend the city’s process and data used for the rezoning were both flawed, and have hired an attorney.

“Why is my child not worth you rolling up your sleeves to get the data right and get buy-in?” asked Elyse Reilly, a new parent whose son would be rezoned from P.S. 199 to P.S. 191.

CEC member Noah Gotbaum, who cast the lone vote against the rezoning, railed against the process undertaken to arrive at the final plan. The council has been accused of violating open meetings laws when it created its own rezoning proposal and submitted it in a letter to city officials.

“I’m glad we’re changing the zoning. That’s a good move,” Gotbaum said. “But the collateral damage was never discussed… The chaos this council is going to create is real.”

A separate vote on a plan to rezone schools in Harlem was put on hold Tuesday. The CEC had asked for changes in zone lines in the northern end of the district after city officials announced their intention to merge P.S. 241 STEM Institute of Manhattan. But parents there have had little time to weigh in on the proposal, which was announced two weeks ago.

Ultimately, Tuesday’s vote is likely not the end of this debate, which has raised larger questions about how desegregation can be achieved if parents fight to preserve the status quo.

“The change we need to make is really big,” said council member Dennis Morgan. “We need to change our understanding of what a good school is, and I don’t know how to do that yet.”

work ahead

Five months in, crucial part of New York City’s school diversity plan begins to take shape

PHOTO: Mayoral Photography Office
Mayor Bill de Blasio hosts a town hall in Brooklyn in October.

Five months after New York City officials announced a much-anticipated plan to address school segregation, an advisory group that is supposed to help put the plan into action is finally starting to take shape.

Behind the scenes, city officials have been recruiting potential members, while the group’s leaders have started some initial planning before the first full meeting on Dec. 11.

Chaired by high-profile civil rights leaders, their charge is to spearhead an independent effort to turn the city’s general plans into specific recommendations for how to spur integration in the country’s largest school district — and one of the most segregated.

Advocates have held out hope that the group will push Mayor Bill de Blasio to move faster and further on integration in his second term than he did in his first. But they also have reason to temper their expectations.

Establishing the group bought de Blasio another year to act on the politically volatile issue, a tactic he has deployed on other controversial matters including rising homelessness, the Riker’s Island jail, and contested public monuments. The integration group’s recommendations may not be released until December 2018, one member said — about six months after the original deadline, and several years after advocates began demanding action on segregation. And even then, city leaders can pick and choose among the recommendations, which are non-binding.

Politics 101 is: When you don’t want to decide, appoint a commission,” said David Bloomfield, a professor of education, law, and public policy at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. 

To lead the work, the de Blasio administration chose respected figures who can speak with authority on race and segregation — but who are not advocates who have demanded aggressive action. They are José Calderón, president of the Hispanic Federation; Hazel Dukes, president of the NAACP for New York State; and Maya Wiley, former chair of the Civilian Complaint Review Board, who previously served as de Blasio’s legal advisor.

Wiley, who is also professor of urban policy and management at the New School, said the group would try to boil down a decades-old problem with roots in housing policy, school-assignment systems, and structural racism to a set of realistic solutions.

“We’re looking for things that are actionable,” she said. “This is a big and complex set of questions.”

More recently, two additional members have been named to the group’s executive committee: Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation who is a longtime proponent of socioeconomic integration; and Amy Hsin, associate professor of sociology at Queens College.

The chairs have held at least two private planning meetings, and will continue to meet every six-to-eight weeks, said education department spokesman Will Mantell.

Mantell said the group will ultimately include 30-35 members who will be divided into committees. The city is reaching out to potential members “based on the recommendations of the executive committee and our ongoing discussions with advocates, researchers, educators, parents and community members,” he wrote in an email.

Wiley, the executive board member, said the group wants to bring a diversity of perspectives into the planning process, so will host public meetings in every borough to gather different ideas on school segregation and how to address it.

The group grew out of the city’s “school diversity plan,” which was released this summer after relentless pressure from advocates and recurring headlines about de Blasio’s relative silence on the city’s persistent school segregation. The plan left many advocates underwhelmed.

In particular, they said the city set unambitious racial and socioeconomic integration goals for itself. Pressed on such concerns, Mayor Bill de Blasio told reporters the plan was “a strong first step,” but added: “There will be more to come.”

To some advocates, the advisory group creates an opening to give teeth to the city’s plan.

David Kirkland, executive director of the New York University Metro Center, recently accepted an offer to become a member. He said he hopes — among other changes — to push the city to set more aggressive goals for “racially representative” schools, which the plan currently defines as those where 50 percent to 90 percent of students are black or Hispanic (together those groups make up 70 percent of city students).

“It’s not clear to me that we have the right metrics,” he said. “My hope is that this diversity plan is going to begin to change in significant ways.”

In order for the recommendations to take hold, its members must be truly representative of the community — and free from political pressure to sidestep thorny issues, advocates say.

New York City’s grassroots integration movement has been criticized as being dominated by white middle-class parents and activists, although it includes members of different races and backgrounds. To build broad support for their work, observers say, the advisory group will have to bring in more black and Hispanic families whose children make up the majority of city students — as well as Asian students, who are often left out of the conversation about integration.

“If we don’t have authentic and real representation,” said Matt Gonzales, who lobbies for school integration through the nonprofit New York Appleseed, “then we run the risk of running failed efforts in integration that we’ve already watched unravel” elsewhere.

Taking attendance

Want to make middle school admissions more fair? Stop looking at this measure, parents say

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Middle school students write their names down at a high school fair in Brooklyn.

Parents across New York City have pushed for changes in the way selective middle schools pick their students, saying the process is unfair.

Now, a group of Manhattan parents has come up with a novel solution: Stop looking at students’ attendance records.

The parent council in District 2 — where about 70 percent of middle schools admit students based on their academic records — points to research showing that students from low-income families are far more likely to miss school. Those children are at a distinct disadvantage in the competition for the district’s top middle school seats, the council argues, even though factors beyond the control of any fourth-grader — especially family homelessness — often account for poor attendance and tardiness.

“This outsized focus on attendance disproportionately impacts students who don’t have secure housing and may not have secure healthcare, and that is troubling to me,” said Eric Goldberg, a member of the community education council in District 2, which includes stretches of Lower Manhattan and the Upper East Side. “There are many factors that should not impact a student’s educational opportunities — and the way the system is set up, it does.”

Eighteen of the district’s 24 middle schools are “screened,” meaning they rank applicants based on factors including test scores, grades, and interviews. Of those, all but one school also considers how often students were late or absent in fourth grade, according to the parent council.

Most of the schools assign points to each factor they consider. Some give absences 10 times more weight than science or social studies grades, the council found, while others penalize students for even a single absence or instance of tardiness.

Disadvantaged students are especially likely to miss school.

A recent report by the city’s Independent Budget Office found that homeless students are more likely than other students to be chronically absent — typically defined as missing about 10 percent of the school year.

Schools with the highest chronic absenteeism are in communities in “deep poverty,” which have the highest rates of unemployment and family involvement with the child-welfare system, according to a 2014 report by the New School at the Center for New York City Affairs.

“We can use chronic absenteeism as a good guess of all the other things kids are dealing with,” said Nicole Mader, a senior research fellow at the New School and a co-author of the report. “If these middle schools are using absenteeism to weed kids out, that means they’re going to automatically weed out those kids who have the most barriers to academic success already.”

The attendance requirement can put pressure on any family, regardless of their financial status or housing situation.

Banghee Chi, a parent of two children in District 2, said she sometimes sent her younger daughter to school with a fever when she was in fourth grade rather than have her marked absent.

Her daughter would show up to class only to be sent to the school’s health clinic — which would call Chi to pick her up. Chi was thinking ahead to middle school, when a missed day of class could hurt her chances of getting into the most sought-after schools.

“It was something I was really conscious and aware of during my child’s fourth-grade year,” she said. “I think it’s unfair.”

The education council’s resolution, which will be put to vote in December, is nonbinding because middle schools set their own admissions criteria. But a show of support from parents could lead to action from the education department, which has been prodded by integration advocates to make other changes in high school and middle school admissions.

This summer, the department announced it would end the practice of “revealed rankings,” which allowed middle schools to select only those students who listed them first or second on their applications. The city is also appointing a committee of parents, educators, and community leaders in Brooklyn’s District 15 to come up with a proposal for making that district’s middle school applications process more fair.

“We’re collaborating with communities across the city to make school admissions more equitable and inclusive, including in District 2,” said department spokesman Will Mantell in an email. The department looks forward “to further conversations about this resolution and other efforts to improve middle school admissions in District 2.”