barriers to entry

Great divide: How extreme academic segregation isolates students in New York City’s high schools

PHOTO: Sarah Glen

Every fall, Scott Conti, principal of New Design High School in Lower Manhattan, faces the same challenge: absorbing a new cohort of students, many of whom didn’t pass the state’s math and reading exams in eighth grade.

Last year, of more than 100 incoming ninth-graders, only six who had taken the eighth-grade math test had passed. Only 15 had passed English.

Less than a mile away, there’s another school where the majority of ninth-graders passed the same exams — often with flying colors. And that school, New Explorations into Science, Technology and Math or NEST+m, is not alone: Dozens of city high schools have large concentrations of students who sailed through middle school.

The difference: New Design has little control over the students it admits, while NEST+m picks students based on test results and previous academic success.

“When the school opened, I don’t think we quite got how the admission policy would define us,” Conti said.

Indeed, high school admissions rules have placed New Design — and its students — in a system of staggering academic segregation. A small percentage of schools drain off the top students, leaving the majority of schools with very few students entering on grade-level.

A Chalkbeat analysis found that over half the students who took and passed the eighth-grade state math exam in 2015 wound up clustered in less than 8 percent of city high schools. The same was true for those who passed the English exam.

Meanwhile, nearly 165 of the city’s roughly 440 high schools had five or fewer ninth-graders who took and passed the state math test in 2015. (Some students take algebra in eighth grade, so do not have to take the eighth-grade test.)

When it comes to English, the trend is similar, though less severe: There are 79 schools where five or fewer of last year’s ninth-graders had passed the eighth-grade test.

The city is engaged in a robust conversation about racial segregation in elementary school, which is driven largely by housing patterns. Yet high schools — which are open to students from every corner of the city — have maintained a parallel system of privilege by using academic “screens” instead of geography.

“Academic screens are a mechanism for sorting the students who have had educational privilege into places where they continue to get educational privilege,” said Megan Moskop, high school admissions coordinator at M.S. 324 in Washington Heights “And the students who don’t have that privilege continue not to have it.”

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PHOTO: Monica Disare
A middle school student talks to a high school counselor as he tries to decide where to apply to high school.

The city has long maintained some schools for very high achievers, including Stuyvesant High School, which started admitting students based on a test in the early 1900s. But between 2002 and 2009, there was a dramatic growth in the options available exclusively to high-scoring students.

In 2002, the year Mayor Michael Bloomberg took office embracing a platform of school choice, only 15.8 percent of school programs screened students for academic success, according to numbers provided by Sean Corcoran of NYU Steinhardt. By 2009, that share had increased to 28.4 percent. (Some schools house multiple programs with different admissions methods.)

The era marked an “under-the-radar explosion of screened schools,” said David Bloomfield, an education professor at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center.

At the same time the city whittled down the number of high schools designed to enroll students with different ability levels. In 2002, 55.4 percent of city high school programs were what’s called educational option,” meaning they are set up to serve specific portions of high-achieving, low-achieving and average students. (In practice, few do.) By 2009, that share had dropped to 27.7 percent, according to Corcoran’s numbers.

The perils of screening have long been known. A team of researchers warned the city back in 1986 about some of the problems that remain in place today.

In 1986, then-New York City schools chancellor Nathan Quinones convened a group of researchers to examine high school admissions. The group, tasked with increasing access for students and maintaining school quality, warned explicitly against screened programs.

“As a general principle there should be no screened programs,” the report reads.

"I would hate to have my future determined by how I did in seventh grade."Clara Hemphill

The report also argues against interviews, tests developed by schools, placement based on residence, and admissions credit for those who attend open houses. The goal was to avoid “invalid and/or biased admissions criteria.” Yet all of those admissions practices are commonplace in the high school admissions system today.

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration has recognized these problems and started chipping away at them. The city is not interested in approving new screened programs, city officials said, and has reduced the number of seats in screened schools by 500 since 2015, a roughly 2.5 percent decrease in the percentage of screened seats. Officials also increased the number of educational option seats by 14 percent since 2015.

Additionally, many of de Blasio’s education initiatives have focused on strengthening high school curriculum and ensuring all students have access to advanced coursework.

“The work of fostering academic diversity goes hand-in-hand with our Equity and Excellence for All agenda to strengthen all our schools,” said education department spokesman Will Mantell.

Still, roughly a third of school programs today are either academically “screened” or require an audition. Floyd Hammack, a retired New York University researcher who worked on the 1986 report, said he sees echoes of the situation his team was trying to address.

For him, today’s high school landscape is like a bad flashback. “All this does, ultimately, is make people think that the system is a game that they’ve got to figure out how to play.”

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The depth of academic screening in the city is eye-popping. Proficient students are concentrated in screened schools — which admit students based on tests, auditions, or prior academic performance — and at large comprehensive high schools, many of which set aside seats for high-achievers.

But there are fewer large high schools than in the past. Most of today’s schools are smaller, and may have few, if any, ninth-graders reading and performing math on grade-level.

City officials did not dispute Chalkbeat’s findings, but noted that about 18,000 eighth-graders took algebra in 2015 and since some of them skip the math exam, that muddies the statistics. (Those students are missing from the data as eighth-grade test takers, but it stands to reason they are also more likely to be enrolled in selective schools, meaning the general conclusions would likely hold.)

The city also said looking at the schools that enroll the most passers can be misleading, since those schools also enroll a disproportionate share of the city’s total students. Roughly a third of last year’s ninth-graders were in the schools Chalkbeat identified as home to more than half the city’s total English and math passers.

Still, the vast majority of students are not in those top schools.

The city’s intense academic stratification has consequences for student learning, explained Halley Potter, a researcher at the Century Foundation, a think tank focused on reducing inequality. Students in poor-performing schools often contend with ill-prepared teachers, lower expectations, and more behavioral issues, Potter said.

“When you sum up all of those studies, you see a really clear pattern that low-level tracks have harmful effects for students,” Potter said.

On the flip side, a number of studies, though not all, have indicated that mixing academic levels does not harm high-achievers. Potter pointed to a review of 15 studies conducted between 1972 and 2006 that showed that sorting students by ability level had virtually no effect, positive or negative, on average or high-ability students.

Alexander White, principal of Gotham Professional Arts Academy, had fewer than five incoming ninth-graders last year who passed their math or English exams the year before. He said he understands exactly why it’s so important to have a diverse mix of students. Imagine a class conversation about whether to keep the electoral college, White said. Having even a few high-performing students to guide the conversation could make all the difference, he said.

“Peer-to-peer education is like the secret ingredient in raising student achievement,” White said.

The stratification also means that many students are effectively shut out of top-tier schools. Just ask Gloria Carrasquillo, the guidance counselor at J.H.S. 151 Lou Gehrig, a school in the Bronx.

Each year, parents of eighth-grade students come into her office hoping to get their children into schools that send a high percentage of graduates to college. But Carrasquillo often has to break the news that there are few of those schools available to them, usually because their children don’t have the grades to qualify for screened schools.

“They don’t have the opportunity because they are blocked,” Carrasquillo said. “They are not admitted, so they cannot prove they can do better.”

"If we're just thinking about it plainly, screens are a function of exclusion for black and brown and low-income kids."Matt Gonzales

Clara Hemphill, editor of the school-review website Insideschools, sees several problems with the current system.

Students in schools with mainly low-achieving peers may find there is no advanced coursework available to them, Hemphill said. Thirty-nine percent of the city’s high schools do not offer a standard college-prep curriculum in math and science, and more than half do not offer a single Advanced Placement course in math, according to a 2015 study by the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs.

The system also locks individual students into schools based on their seventh-grade grades and test scores, since that year is factored into high school admissions. That means there’s no second chance for a student to blossom academically in high school.

“I would hate to have my future determined by how I did in seventh grade,” Hemphill said.

***

PHOTO: Monica Disare
At 9:30 in the morning, the line to get into the citywide high school fair already snaked around the corner.

While the city is trying to expand course offerings, including by allowing students on certain shared campuses to merge for Advanced Placement classes, other problems are more deeply entrenched.

At the top of the list: School screening has a long history of segregating students by race and income. Higher-income, Asian and white students are more likely to pass standardized exams than their low-income black and Hispanic peers.

While 25 percent of all city eighth-graders passed the state math exam in 2016, for instance, only 13.2 percent of black students and 15.9 percent of Hispanic students did. In English, 40.5 percent of all city eighth-graders passed the test, but only 29.2 percent of black students and 30.7 of Hispanic students passed.

The city’s most elite schools — the specialized high schools where admission is based on a single test — have come under fire for having few students of color. Only 4 percent of specialized school offers went to black students this year and just over 6 percent went to Hispanic students, though roughly 70 percent of the city’s student body is black and Hispanic.

But other screened schools reflect similar inequities, said Matt Gonzales, school diversity project director for New York Appleseed and an advocate for school integration. Any type of screen, whether it is a test, audition, or a look at previous academic history, will end up disadvantaging low-income students and students of color, he said.

Gonzales said high schools should be part of the citywide conversation about diversity, and that he hopes when the city unveils a large-scale plan to promote desegregation — which officials said they plan to do by June — it will include some measures geared toward integrating high schools. One of those measures, he said, could be further reducing the number of screened schools.

Screens “are designed to privilege and preference white and middle-class students,” Gonzales said. “If we’re just thinking about it plainly, screens are a function of exclusion for black and brown and low-income kids.”

Conti, the principal of New Design High School, knows firsthand that clustering higher- and lower-achieving students makes it harder for schools like his to succeed. He loves working with his students, but gets no extra support with the near-Herculean task of helping so many students entering the school below grade-level graduate on time.

Conti knows there are no easy answers. “It’s horribly complex,” he said. “It’s a knot right now that’s going to be very hard to untie.”

Education Gap

For Michigan’s 3- and 4-year-olds with special needs, ‘it’s hard’ to find a place to learn

PHOTO: Daniel Jones
Nicole and Shaun Maloy want their son, Alexander, 3, (sitting on his dad's lap) to have the same access to education as his five siblings.

Nicole Maloy has been trying to get her son Alexander into a preschool that can address his speech delay since the day he turned 3.

When he was younger, he was in a program called Early On that works with babies and toddlers who have special needs. When he’s older, he’ll be in a kindergarten program where teachers will be required by law to make sure he gets what he needs.

But right now he’s 3 and, in Michigan, there’s no clear path for parents trying to get special services for their 3- and 4-year olds.

That’s because the state’s lumbering process for transitioning 3-year-olds with special needs and disabilities into early childhood intervention programs is rife with miscommunication, lack of easily accessible information, and a shortage of spaces for 3- and 4-year-olds.

For the state’s estimated 13,000 preschoolers with special needs, it’s more difficult for parents to find places that will accept their children than it is for other preschoolers, said Richard Lower, the state’s director of preschool education.

In fact, there is a shortage of spots for all the state’s preschoolers. But “when you have a subset of 3-year-olds with disabilities, it’s even harder for them to find care,” said Lower. “It’s not impossible, but it’s hard.” Early On is the state’s early intervention program for children with special needs from birth to 36 months.

Parents often are confused by the options, or they just don’t know what the options are.

Experts and advocates call this time between Early On and kindergarten a gap – the lack of adequate seats, services, and widely available education for 3- and 4-year-olds with special needs.

There is no one program in Michigan that will accept all 3- or 4-year-olds regardless of the severity of their disability. Depending on eligibility and availability, parents can opt for the state-funded Great Start Readiness Program for 4-year-olds from low-income families, and the federal Head Start program, which accepts 3- and 4-year-olds with special needs regardless of income.

The local district can help evaluate a child with special needs, obtain a diagnosis, and place the child.  

Parents are desperate for better resources to figure out how to best help their children obtain the critical early education they need to be kindergarten ready. Studies show that the impact of early education extends through their lifetime, determining kindergarten readiness, third-grade reading proficiency, school attendance, high school graduation rates, and even income-earning potential in adulthood.

As they grow older, children with special needs who successfully receive early intervention services may not need to be in special education classes in school, studies show. Early On, at its best, reduces the number of children who need special education services when they reach school age.

A recent annual federal education report ranked Michigan among the nation’s worst for serving children with special needs starting at age 3, and said the state “needs intervention,” the second lowest ranking in the report. That, combined with a special report from Lt. Gov. Brian Cally’s office last year that found schools are shouldering $700 million a year to pay for services for children with special needs that are not funded by the state, contribute to mounting evidence that Michigan is failing children with special needs.

Although  Gov. Rick Snyder successfully pushed to include an extra $5 million for Early On in next year’s state budget, no new funds were added for children older than 3.

“This is a statewide issue,” said Marcie Lipsitt, a parent advocate and consultant who helps families in southeastern Michigan navigate the complex special education system.

“There just isn’t enough support or funding for families of children with special needs,” she said. We need more capacity and more outreach for families.”

Lipsitt and other advocates said although systems already are in place, obtaining a transition plan from Early On or a local district often is where the system breaks down.

If a child is enrolled in Early On, district staff called coordinators help parents develop a transition plan to enroll their children in preschool, but it’s up to the parents to make sure the meeting happens.

The meeting is crucial, because coordinators also work with parents to set up appointments with therapists, doctors, and specialists.

Caryn Ivey, a parent advocate and co-director of Michigan Alliance for Families, said an array of issues may arise during the process that leave parents confused.

Some parents skip the transition meeting because they don’t understand its importance, she said. Parents may not understand the plan. Others don’t act quickly enough after the meeting; waiting for benchmarks like a formal evaluation and a diagnosis can take time, sometimes months.

If the child is not enrolled in Early On, parents should contact their local or intermediate school district. The process is similar. The district would help create an IEP, or an individualized education program for the child. The IEP describes  any services, accommodations, or therapies the child may need. District staff would also help get a diagnosis for the child, and then take steps to enroll the child in preschool.

To prevent delays, Ivey advises parents to speak to their home school district as soon as possible.

“That could be as simple as writing a letter to the home school district and asking a question: ‘My child just finished Early On, what should I do?’ ” she said.

This helps explain why Maloy’s struggle is not unusual. Before it was time for Alexander to graduate from Early On, she met with a transition coordinator in Detroit’s main district — a meeting all parents in the program should expect to happen six months before the child’s third birthday.

Alexander doesn’t have a formal diagnosis for his suspected autism and delayed speech. But Maloy’s coordinator scheduled appointments with specialists to evaluate him, and set up his education plan to accommodate his special needs. Maloy followed through on the appointments and received his individualized plan, but the Detroit school district doesn’t have a summer preschool program.  Maloy must wait until fall to enroll him, leaving at least a five-month gap in his education.

Also, to enroll him, she needs a diagnosis, which so far she said she hasn’t been able to get. Although some specialists she spoke with were hesitant to diagnose Alexander before his fourth birthday, others shared he could have been diagnosed as early as 18 months.

In the midst of this, Maloy feels her son is losing valuable time.

“I really want him to go somewhere as soon as possible so he can get the help that he needs,” she said.

Maloy thought the process would be faster and her son would be in school by now. While she waits for school to start in the fall, she is homeschooling Alexander and investigating other options for care.

She, like many parents with children who have disabilities, didn’t know Head Start was an option.

Head Start, a free federally funded program for children from low-income families, will accept children with special needs no matter their income. That means it may be a good choice for families who need a slot for their young sons and daughters.

In Head Start, children with special needs attend classes with other students, and they are given a formal assessment and a diagnosis soon after they apply for admission. While other parents may wait indefinitely, it typically takes up to two months at Head Start, saving parents time, and ensuring that necessary steps aren’t overlooked.

“We want to serve those children,” said Kate Brady-Medley, director of Head Start and Early Head Start for Starfish Family Services. Starfish is a social service agency that leads a collaborative of Detroit Head Start providers. Studies on Head Start show the program can influence everything from whether kids succeed in school, to whether they become smokers as adults.

“We have a federal mandate, and we’re trying always to have at least 10 percent of the children in our program have an identified, documented disability,” she said.

Children can miss valuable early intervention in school for a variety of reasons.

Stephanie Onyx successfully enrolled her daughter, Alexa, in preschool in her home district of Madison Heights with no disruptions, right after she graduated from Early On.

Alexis gets tickled by parents, Art and Stephanie Onyx, with brother Drew behind them.

But she pulled Alexa out of the program after the first year because she was dissatisfied with its quality. Onyx was confident it would be easy to enroll Alexa in another program.

It wasn’t so easy.

Several districts turned Alexa away because they considered her disabilities — cerebral palsy, low muscle tone, and inability to speak — too severe.

“Nobody would take her, and it was heartbreaking in this day and age,” Onyx said. “They had special education programs that had openings, but they wouldn’t take her.”

By law, school districts within the same county have to accept children with special needs – no matter how severe the disability is – but when parents don’t know the law and can’t afford an attorney – this happens often, advocate Lipsitt said.

“When a parent makes a request, legally the school district has to request the parents consent for an evaluation or give the parents a reason they are refusing an evaluation,” she said.

If Onyx had made a formal written request for an evaluation and allowed a district to deny her in writing, Lipsitt said, she could have taken legal action.

Making the request is as  simple as saying in a note to the district: ‘I am the parent of this child, and I am requesting a special education evaluation,’ ” and there is a 10-school-day time limit on that, ” she said.

When Onyx wasn’t able to get her daughter into a preschool, she gave up and homeschooled Alexa. The disadvantage of missing precious preschool time with other children became evident when Alexa, now 7, finally was accepted into kindergarten in the Troy district.

After a year of being homeschooled, she was not socially or emotionally prepared to attend school with her peers.

“That first year was a struggle — the entire year,” Onyx said. “We had a lot of meltdowns when she couldn’t get her way.”

Now, after just completing first grade, Onyx said Alexa is doing better and has fewer tantrums, but she still needs more time to catch up.

“She is able to learn and grow. She is able to progress,” Onyx said. “I knew that once in a program, she would progress, and I also know that she would be even further ahead had she been given that opportunity.”

New options could be opening for parents of 3-year-olds with special needs in the future, said Lower, the state’s director for preschool.

For the past few years under the Snyder administration, Lower said he’s researched and discussed with state legislators the possibility of expanding the Great Start Readiness Program, including possibly expanding it to 3-year-olds.

But it all comes down to money, he said.

If all the state’s 68,000 3-year-olds who fall at least 250 percent below the federal poverty level were included in such a program, and funding was calculated at the current per pupil rate of $7,250 for a 6- to 7-hour school day, the annual cost would be at least $493 million, he said.

That figure doesn’t factor in additional costs, including a required 1-to-6 teacher-student ratio, time for meal preparation, brushing teeth, and other activities throughout the school day that add costs to providing care for 3-year-olds.

Lower said a bigger investment in education is needed to increase the number of 3-year-olds in school.

“It’s a complex system that is not as fully developed as K-12, and it’s still being built in early childhood education. There are pieces that are great and high quality, and other pieces that are not as highly developed.”

sorting the students

How one Manhattan district has preserved its own set of elite high schools

Emmanuel Ruiz stands outside near his high school.

When Emmanuel Ruiz cracked open the city’s 600-page high school directory, he was in search of a school with a strong academic track where he could pursue math and technology. After careful consideration, the promising Brooklyn student selected his 12 favorites.

But when he handed the list to his advisor at Bridge to Enter Advanced Mathematics — a program for students interested in becoming scientists, engineers, and computer scientists — she immediately spotted a problem.

One of the schools on Ruiz’s list was Eleanor Roosevelt, which almost exclusively enrolls residents from Manhattan’s District 2, one of the most affluent school districts in the city. Ruiz, who lives in Bedford-Stuyvesant, had virtually no shot at attending because of where he lived.

“I was very confused and angry because I was trying to put down as many good schools as possible,” said Ruiz, who is now a sophomore at Manhattan Village Academy. “I thought, now it’s going to be hard to find another school that I really like.”

A charged debate about New York City’s elite specialized high schools, which admit students based on a single test and enroll a low share of black and Hispanic students, has blown open in recent days after Mayor de Blasio proposed changes to their admissions process. But the laser focus on these eight schools leaves out hundreds of other schools and programs across the system whose policies also segregate students by race and class.

The exclusivity starts in elementary school, with gifted and talented programs, and runs through middle school, with highly selective screened programs. By the time students get to high school, about one third of the city’s more than 400 high schools pick students based on grades, test scores, interviews, auditions, or other factors.

But critics say the rule Ruiz encountered in Manhattan’s District 2 is particularly frustrating because it excludes large swaths of students, even if they have excellent academic records. The district, which spans the wealthy neighborhoods of the Upper East Side, SoHo, and TriBeCa, is home to six sought-after and highly selective high schools, all of which have near-perfect graduation rates.

But while most of the schools receive thousands of applicants a year, they give preference to students who live or attend school inside the relatively affluent district, meaning the most popular options rarely have room for students from surrounding, less wealthy neighborhoods. For instance, at Eleanor Roosevelt, 100 percent of offers last year went to students or residents from District 2 and at Baruch, 98 percent of offers did. The rule, critics say, seriously undermines the idea that students can apply to any high school in the city regardless of their ZIP code.

This set of schools is also significantly more likely to exclude black, Hispanic, and poor students. At schools with the District 2 admissions preference that are highly selective, 26 percent of students are black or Hispanic compared to 47 percent in the district as a whole and 67 percent citywide. Similarly, only 41 percent of students at these schools live in poverty compared to 74 percent of overall city students.

 

The six schools included were Baruch College Campus High School, Eleanor Roosevelt High School, N.Y.C. Lab School for Collaborative Studies, N.Y.C. Museum School, Millennium High School and School of the Future. Millennium High School offers priority to students who live or attend school south of East Houston or West Houston Street. School of the Future offers priority to continuing 8th graders and then to District 2 students or residents. (Graphics by Sam Park)

 

Supporters of District 2’s geographic priority argue that different types of geographic priorities exist in communities across the city because it is important to have neighborhood schools. Others say that removing the priority status would benefit very few students and fail to put a true dent in a deeply segregated school system but it would anger a group of well-connected middle-class parents. These advocates say the real cause of the unequal system is not a single priority status at the six schools, but rather allowing schools to select students by ability in the first place.

But the policy is confounding to those who work with high-achieving students from low-income areas in other parts of the city.

“It seems illogical that a district that already has such a wealth of resources is preventing students from lower-income areas from getting into these great high schools,” said Lynn Cartwright-Punnett, Ruiz’s advisor at BEAM. “From a big picture, what’s best for all children perspective, this doesn’t make any sense.”

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The geographic priority in District 2, experts say, grew out of an attempt by officials to attract more middle-class families to public schools after years of decline in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

These families, officials reasoned, could draw resources into a system badly in need of a turnaround. In order to attract them, officials in District 2 started creating new alternative school options, said Jacqueline Ancess, who was the director of educational options in District 2 at the time and now runs a research center at Teachers College, Columbia University.

“Middle-class families in the public school system were at a low and this definitely brought more middle-class families into the schools,” Ancess said.

Throughout the 90s, more middle-class or affluent families started to enroll their children in Manhattan’s public schools. But when they reached high school, these families hit a snag: there were not enough high-quality options in the district, said Clara Hemphill, the founder of the school review site InsideSchools.

“There was a general sense that the high schools that were controlled by central were not offering kids the chance for a college prep curriculum and honestly weren’t even safe at the time,” Hemphill said.

The community school board in District 2 decided to take matters into its own hands and create high schools for students in the district.

One such school was Eleanor Roosevelt, which Upper East Side parents and then city councilmember Eva Moskowitz, now the CEO of Success Academy charter network pushed for. The debate was racially charged even back in 2001 when the school was approved. Upper East Side parents wanted an even more restrictive school zone that would have included families that lived east of Central Park between 59th and 96th streets. But officials feared that, since the population in those neighborhoods was overwhelmingly white, the plan would be challenged by civil rights groups, according to a New York Times article.

Not long after, Mayor Michael Bloomberg decided to turn the entire high school admissions system on its head. In 2003, the administration decided students would no longer have access to a neighborhood high school they could attend by default. Instead, all students would apply to up to 12 schools and get matched to one.

But beneath this system of school choice, the city preserved a series of admissions rules that allowed students in certain areas of the city to have a leg up in admissions at schools in their neighborhoods. Some gave preference to students who lived in boroughs, districts, or even within particular streets.

Many of those priorities have survived until today — including preference in District 2. By the city’s count, there are 50 high schools that prioritize in-district students, a number that includes schools that specify students must live within certain streets. There are also an additional 28 zoned schools that set aside some seats for students from surrounding neighborhoods. These schools vary dramatically in selectivity and popularity.

Eric Nadelstern, who served as deputy chancellor for the education department during the Bloomberg era, said that it wasn’t a top priority to get rid of geographic preferences when Bloomberg revamped high school admissions. That’s partially because their model of school change required keeping middle-class families in the schools, he said.

“Their goal was to retain the middle class and this was their strategy for doing it,” he said. “I think where we erred was that we created an even more segregated school system.”

***

Years later, the education department has still not changed its stance on District 2 priority or many other geographic priorities, though officials did not rule out changes in the future.

“School communities should be inclusive learning environments that are representative of New York City, and we’re continuing to look at ways to make the high school admissions process fairer for all families in District 2 and across the City,” said education department spokesman Douglas Cohen.

Education department officials also noted that the schools have historically prioritized in-district students because there are no zoned high schools in Manhattan.

Even the principal at Eleanor Roosevelt High School, Dimitri Saliani, seems open to the discussion about how to change admissions in the city.

“I am in full support for the continued conversation of how we can address important issues related to admissions,” Saliani wrote to Chalkbeat in an email.

Several advocates and parents say that while the city’s high school admissions system needs to be overhauled, eliminating District 2 priority is not the way to do it. For instance, Nadelstern argues that tackling District 2 priority early on in a broader plan to desegregate schools could backfire and cause middle-class parents to pull their children from the public school system.

“What you can’t do in a city like New York is throw down the gauntlet in front of a politically powerful, organized parent group and expect to retain middle-class participation in the public schools,” Nadelstern said.

Other critics argue that geographic priority like that in District 2 isn’t the largest culprit in the stratified school system — sorting students by ability is. At many of these schools, even with the priority given in the district, students need near-perfect grades and test scores to earn admission. Since selective admission tends to favor affluent white students, nothing major can change until this “screening” mechanism is tackled, said Shino Tanikawa, vice president of the District 2 Community Education Council.

Eric Goldberg, another member of District 2’s Community Education Council, who is also the parent of a seventh-grade student, said he understands the benefits of having some neighborhood high schools, including having a community hub and lessening the travel burden for students. Goldberg agrees with Tanikawa that changing admissions at this small number of schools is not likely to make a major dent in school diversity without an overhaul of other admissions criteria.

“If we’re looking at this through a lens of diversity and integration,” Goldberg said, “I’m confident that we’re not looking in the right place.”

But to advocates and those who work with students in areas like the Bronx and Brooklyn — where many would have a short commute to some of the most coveted schools but can’t get accepted due to the geographic rule these explanations ring hollow. In a system built on school choice, giving students from every neighborhood a chance to attend the best schools in the city seems like a no-brainer to Maurice Frumkin, a former city education department official who now runs an admissions consultancy.

“You can’t have it both ways,” Frumkin said. “If you’re creating a truly equitable process, you can’t say, ‘Well, we’re creating a choice process and allowing families to apply anywhere they want … but by the way, we’re not truly allowing families to do that.”

In the meantime, students like Ruiz are being blocked from the schools based on their home ZIP code. Before he knew about the rule, Ruiz said he assumed that the population of a school uptown in Manhattan would be different than where he lives. But the admissions process made him feel like he wasn’t welcome there, he said.

“I’m just not fit to go to that school,” he said he realized. “It did come across as very unfair. I don’t think it should be like that.”

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that Shino Tanikawa is the vice president, not the president, of the District 2 Community Education Council.