in the zone

Eric Nadelstern, former Klein deputy, has a radical solution for struggling schools: Unzone the city

PHOTO: Cassi Feldman
Eric Nadelstern

Eric Nadelstern, who served as deputy chancellor for the education department in the Bloomberg era, thinks of himself as part of a revolution in public education.

We were “dismantling a system that didn’t work and building new stuff,” he said. The slate of reforms enacted under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg included swelling New York City’s charter school sector and creating hundreds of new, small schools. The changes were not always popular — particularly with the city’s powerful teachers union — but they certainly made a splash.

Four years after Bloomberg left office and six years after Nadelstern left the Department of Education, the deputy chancellor-turned-professor says his administration didn’t go far enough. Sitting in his office at Teachers College, Nadelstern said if he could do it again, he’d try something even more radical: unzoning the entire city.

Under Bloomberg, Nadelstern says, the Department of Education catered to the middle class, which he considers a critical mistake. As they went about remaking the school system, the department preserved — and in some cases expanded — parts of the system that worked well for middle-class families, such as zoned schools in well-off neighborhoods and screened schools citywide.

Nadelstern’s solution: “Get rid of it.” He wants to rid the system of zone lines that sort students into elementary schools and screened and specialized schools that pick students based on their test scores, grades and interviews.

The idea — while seemingly far-fetched — puts the former Bloomberg administrator into conversation with today’s integration advocates. Nadelstern sees this plan as a mechanism for improving racial and economic diversity in the city’s schools. Though more school choice hasn’t always led to desegregation, Nadelstern says his more radical approach could help diversify and improve struggling schools.

We talked to Nadelstern about his big idea, why school principals should have more power, and how the current Department of Education is reversing many of his team’s initiatives.

The interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

What are you most proud of from your time at the DOE?

I’m proud of the autonomy zone … In almost every school district in the country, you’ve got a kind of command-and-control paramilitary structure … The superintendent to the principal to the teachers to the kids. And here, we tried to come up with a structure where the school was at the top of the pyramid. And the rest of us were there to support the work of principals and teachers with kids in classrooms. So the decision-making was pushed as far toward the schools as we possibly could. We eliminated superintendents, the network leaders [who supported groups of schools] worked for principals — they didn’t work for us. They were evaluated on the basis of how well the principals thought they were supporting them and whether or not the schools in their charge were showing growth. Now it’s kind of hard to see how schools [and superintendents] are evaluated.

Is there anything you regret from your time at the DOE?

Yes. I’ve got a major regret. I thought, primarily because of the experience I had [as founding principal of] International High School, that if you worked with principals and demonstrated that by sharing authority you became more influential, that they would internalize that lesson and share their authority with teachers, principals and the upper-grades kids. I was never explicit. I just thought it would happen.

I modeled it and I thought by doing that, they would internalize it, but they didn’t. They jealously hoarded their newfound authority and that made it a big mistake.

What exactly would it have looked like in a perfect world, if it had trickled down?

Well, I’ll tell you what it looked like at International High School, because that was the model that I had in my head. Teachers hired other teachers, they supported them, they evaluated them. There was a lot of peer review going on and that made the important decisions around continuation of service during probation, around tenure, around evaluation after tenure.

I thought having a faculty govern the school was important because if you give teachers agency, they will do everything they can to make sure kids succeed. In an urban area like New York, that’s the only way you’re going to get teachers to work hard enough to be successful. You can’t pay them enough, you can’t cajole them enough, you can’t scare them enough. You just give them more ownership of effort and then they will do it.

What do you think about the way that the high school admissions system unfolded?

You know, we made progress. Prior to Klein and Bloomberg, there were too many vested interests that could get kids into particular schools, outside the structure of whatever the process was. Local politicians could call a superintendent and say, “I’d like to get this particular kid into that school.” The supes would make it happen.

Bloomberg/Klein really got rid of that level of corruption … So the politicians hated us because they lost enormous patronage, which they had always exercised in the school system. That was prevalent when I started as a teacher and even as a superintendent. You knew if the local state senator or congressman called, that since they had the purse strings, you’d have to do what they asked you to do. So under Bloomberg/Klein, that went out the window.

What still needs to change?

What I would do is unzone the whole city. It’s problematic because the quality of students’ education in New York is directly related to which neighborhood they live in, which directly relates to socioeconomic status, and you’ve got parents paying three-and-a-half million dollars for a co-op on the Upper West Side so that they can send their kid to P.S. 199. And if there’s a lottery at that school and kids from the Bronx can apply, and the kid from across the street has to go to P.S. 191, six blocks away, the parents are going to get pissed off.

Did you propose this at the time?

Yeah, that was one [idea], but they didn’t buy it. They believed in doing everything to keep the middle class.

What Joel and Bloomberg were afraid of was turning New York into Atlanta, having the white students enroll elsewhere, and I think you risk that and unzone the whole city. I don’t think you do it tomorrow. I don’t think you say, “OK, today we did it this way, tomorrow we’re going to unzone the whole city.” I think the way you do it is you find three districts — one in the South Bronx, one in Central Brooklyn and District 1 on the Lower East Side — and you unzone those three districts. A kid in that district can apply to any school in that district. And then elementary, middle school and high school. And then you bring other districts into it, and pretty soon you allow kids to apply for schools out of the district. And it would take about three years before you got to the point where any kid could apply into any school in the city. Before most people knew what was going on, that would be the system. Any kid could apply to any school and you admit strictly on the basis of lottery.

Is that for diversity reasons?

Yeah, because a kid who lives on St. Ann’s Avenue has very few choices in the Bronx. Kids in parts of Brooklyn, Central Brooklyn have very few choices. Now, charter schools have helped, they’ve helped in Harlem and a few other neighborhoods. But it’s not enough. You really ought to admit in every school the way charter schools have been, and any kid anywhere ought to be able to apply.

And the city ought to assume the responsibility at least for kids though middle school of getting the kids to that school. It’s a reasonable expenditure. It would be expensive, but it would be … an important thing.

Doesn’t the high school admissions system show us that we need to do more than just unzone schools? High schools are unzoned now, but we’ve created this system of screens on screens.

Yeah, so [high school] really isn’t unzoned because what schools did to protect against unzoning is they took advantage of, at first it was called education option programs, and now it’s called limited unscreened programs or screened programs. You’ve got to get rid of all of that stuff.

Get rid of all of it. Then you would unzone the city. There would be no way for a school to say, “I’ve got this special program and we only need students who score off the charts on English tests.” Remember, admission to my school, [International High School], was kids failed an English test to get into my school. That was the admissions [method]. In a city where the kids who are succeeding are largely white, largely Asian, largely female, you’ve got to give African-American and Latino males an option to go somewhere other than the school closest to their homes, starting in kindergarten.

I’m curious what you see as your role in this. During the Bloomberg years we saw an increase in the share of screened schools; we saw the creation of limited unscreened schools.

I saw my job then as protecting the new schools we had opened for two years. And I did. I ensured that new schools in their first two years didn’t have to serve the full range of kids in the community because they weren’t staffed enough, they didn’t have big enough budgets to provide the full range of services. That proved controversial … but I think it was important for those schools to get off to a good footing. In year three, they had to take anybody, offer every level of ELL education, special ed education, all the specialized programs for kids. In the first two years, we gave them an opportunity to grow and build the resources they needed.

One of the ways we were able to protect them is by creating a “limited unscreened” designation. But remember, over a very short period we closed 140 schools and opened over 500 new small schools. And it only made sense to nurture those schools at the beginning. Now we’re not doing that. We’re not opening 500 new schools a year, or over three years, or at all. And so we’ve now grown into a different period, where I think every school ought to be unscreened and any kid in the city, anywhere in the city, ought to be able to apply to any school.

Has that happened anywhere else? Could this be the next big experiment?

None of this has happened anywhere. New York would have to show the rest of the country how to do it.

Doesn’t school choice inherently create competition and an incentive for principals to bend the rules and to recruit certain students?

I wouldn’t do that. Not even for basketball. I wouldn’t let them recruit.

So you would get rid of high school fairs? How would families find out about schools?

The high school fairs are ridiculous. And so you’d set up some other way to make parents aware of what the opportunities are. You’d train guidance counselors to do it. You’d have to go beyond that.

Does this admissions conversation at all affect your evaluation of the small schools movement?

No. Although I do think school is not forever. And I think small schools, like large schools, if they stop performing and serving kids, ought to disappear and we ought to give other people a chance to do a better job.

We’re nearing a three-year deadline on the Renewal School program. Do you have thoughts about how well it’s working?

I’ll sum it up by saying this: Failed schools never reinvent themselves. Period. There’s no data that says they do. The idea essentially is part of the age-old central office practice of rewarding failure and penalizing success. Oh, you’re not doing well? We’ll give you a lot of money. You are doing well, we’re not going to give you that. They’d do much better to reverse that and close those schools. You can’t ask the people who caused the failure in the first place to come up with a better idea. You can find other people to come up with a better idea. But you can’t ask the same people responsible for the failure to come up with a better idea and give them more money. They don’t have better ideas — that’s why they’re failing.

Do you see unzoning schools as the school improvement strategy for struggling ones?

Well, that’s part of it. And the other part of it is … that if you don’t attract kids, you don’t exist. So it’s a way of closing schools without saying you’re going to close the school. You can’t attract more than X number of kids, you can’t be a viable school.

How can you say, “If you don’t attract kids, you won’t stay open” and expect principals not to recruit, though?

Because the way to attract kids isn’t to make false promises to kids at a fair or go to their junior high schools and say, “Come to me, I’ve got a swimming pool,” whether you’ve got one or not. The way to recruit kids and influence parents to send their kids to you is demonstrate how well students do at your school … Part of the job is helping them think about it differently.

But you’re always going to be rewarded for attracting the best students, right?

No. In a value-add system, where what you’re looking at isn’t how well kids do but what the distance is between where kids were when they came in versus where they are a year later, one of the things we discovered were the specialized schools had the hardest time showing progress. So I think after awhile, we decided to compare specialized schools with other specialized schools and we guaranteed that they would get at least a B.

You created more specialized schools, right?

Bloomberg created more specialized schools. He and Joel thought that it was part of their job to retain the middle class. I think it’s useful to retain the middle class, but that shouldn’t be the driving component of what you do. If the middle class stays, terrific. But I don’t think you create schools that segregate the middle class as a way of retaining the middle class. It doesn’t make sense.

With the unzoning, obviously you’d get pushback from parents who say, “My kid is brilliant. They need to be among other brilliant children.”

No, they need to be among all children because that reflects life. If you can only work with people as smart as you are, you create a very stilted view of work and the world.

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.”

***

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.

navigating the maze

This small nudge can help students avoid high schools with low graduation rates, according to a new study

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Middle school students write their names down at a high school fair in Brooklyn in 2016.

To help New York City students steer clear of high schools that are less likely to graduate students, it helps to whittle down their options.

That’s according to a new study, conducted by researchers across four universities, that provides insight into how relatively small interventions can change the behavior of city students as they sift choose among more than 400 high schools.

Aiming to answer questions about whether the city’s complex high school admissions process can be improved, the researchers gave students in 165 high-poverty middle schools a customized list of 30 New York City high schools with information about each high school. Every school on the “Fast Facts” list had a graduation rate above 70 percent and was within a 45-minute commute of the student’s middle school.

Researchers found that students who received Fast Facts were more likely than a control group to match with their first-choice school and were less likely to match with schools that had graduation rates below 70 percent.

Giving students more information, such as lists of non-selective schools or schools organized by theme, muted the benefits. Students who got the extra details were more likely to match to their first-choice school — but less likely than students who saw only the “Fast Facts” to avoid low-performing schools.

“Providing more information on top of the basic list dampened their use of the tool,” said Sean Corcoran, a New York University researcher who worked on the study. “It’s overwhelming.”

The findings could be useful if the city seeks to make its complex severely segregated high school system more fair. With more than 400 school options and a maze of admissions rules, the system favors families with the time and savvy to more easily maneuver through the difficult process. Even high-performing students from weak middle schools often do not try to gain admission to the city’s top high schools.

City officials say they are already tackling that dynamic.

“Each year, we continue to make the high school choice process easier and more accessible for families,” said education department spokesman Douglas Cohen. He added that the city has provided more translated copies of the high school directory, added more information to the directory and launched a tool called NYC School Finder.

Important questions remain about what is gained by steering individual students toward more high-performing schools. After all, simply attending a high school with a higher graduation rate does not guarantee that an individual student will benefit from that environment. Additionally, from a systemic perspective, if some students are admitted to more high-performing schools, others inevitably must fill seats at schools with lower-graduation rates.

Corcoran acknowledged these concerns but pointed out that some students can be steered to high schools that go relatively unnoticed — not only to those with competitive admissions processes.

“Everybody knows the brand-name high schools that everybody wants to go to,” Corcoran said. But, he said, more information can lead families to find the “under-the-radar high schools that are performing well but aren’t household names.”

That effect, the researchers found, is more likely among some students than others. Students from non-English-speaking households were more likely to benefit from the Fast Facts.

In a more troubling finding, white and Asian students who received Fast Facts were approximately 14 and 15 percent less likely to match with schools whose graduation rates sunk below 70 percent. Hispanic and black students, on the other hand, were about 6 and 2 percent less likely to match with the low-performing schools.

The differences were notable, Corcoran said, but not always statistically significant.  It’s also important, he said, to keep in mind that all students in the study came from high-poverty middle schools, so many of the white students were immigrants from places like Russia or the Middle East rather than relatively affluent New Yorkers who are already able to navigate the school system.

Still, he said the study’s findings suggested that Fast Facts alone would not resolve New York City’s high school admissions inequities.

“Information is not necessarily an equalizer,” Corcoran said. “If you provide information to everyone, it may turn out that it doesn’t level the playing field, but makes it more uneven.”

This story has been updated to include a statement from New York City education department officials.