making plans

New York City is finally releasing its school diversity plan. Here’s what it says about pre-K and middle school admissions

PHOTO: Rob Bennett/Office of Mayor Bill de Blasio
Mayor Bill de Blasio visits Sunnyside Community Services Pre-K in Queens on March 14, 2014.

After months of anticipation, New York City will soon get its first glimpse at a plan to address school segregation — starting with the youngest learners.

As part of a larger plan to be released Tuesday, some details of which were shared with Chalkbeat, the education department will allow privately run preschools to join its Diversity in Admissions initiative. Schools that apply to that program are allowed to set aside a percentage of seats for students who are low-income, learning English, or meet other criteria.

Another element of the long-awaited plan, according to education officials: allowing middle schools to open up enrollment borough-wide. The changes would apply in the 2017-18 application cycle.

Whether either proposal will lead to significant integration is an open question.

While schools in the Diversity in Admissions program have mostly met their targets for admissions offers, it’s not yet clear whether the schools have successfully changed or maintained the diversity of their student bodies.

And while opening middle school enrollment could encourage students to leave segregated neighborhoods, it won’t necessarily change the makeup of schools. The city already allows open enrollment at the high school level, yet those schools remain starkly segregated by race, class and academic achievement level.

Met with growing demands for school integration, Mayor Bill de Blasio promised in August to release a “bigger vision” to address the problem. The city’s full proposal is being called “Equity and Excellence for All: Diversity in New York City Public Schools.”

Until now, only public pre-Ks have been able to apply for set-asides under Diversity in Admissions. But a majority of seats in the city’s Pre-K for All program — 60 percent — are provided through community-based organizations.

“Increasing the diversity of classrooms from pre-K through 12th grade is a priority,” Deputy Chancellor Josh Wallack said in an emailed statement.

Opening up the process could be especially significant since a recent study found that pre-K classrooms are more segregated than kindergartens. Halley Potter, who completed the study for the progressive think tank The Century Foundation, said that integration in pre-K is important because students are just beginning to develop awareness around race and class.

Research has shown that diverse pre-Ks have cognitive benefits and can help combat prejudice.

Potter had not seen the city’s Diversity in Admissions plan. But, speaking broadly about ways to integrate pre-Ks, she called that initiative a “great first step.”

“We need to think about efforts like the pilot diversity program as really important to help move some schools communities forward,” she said. “But in order to really move the needle in a much wider range of schools, those lessons needs to be applied in a broader way.”

As one example, she suggested offering transportation for families to widen their pre-K options.

Some have criticized the set-aside approach as piecemeal and say the education department hasn’t studied the potential impact of the initiative on other area schools. Only 21 schools so far have joined the initiative, out of about 1,800 across the city.

The city did not provide specifics on its plans for opening up middle school admissions. Parents in multiple districts have already been discussing ways to make the process more fair and less stressful for parents. Among them: District 2, which includes much of lower Manhattan and the Upper East Side; District 3, which includes the Upper West Side and part of Harlem; and District 15 in Brooklyn.

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.”

By the numbers

New York City schools continue to give out fewer suspensions, though racial disparities persist

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Advocates protest school suspension policy in August 2016.

Student suspensions in New York City schools continued to fall last year year, but racial disparities remain, according to data released Monday.

The total number of suspensions dropped to 35,234 in the 2016-2017 school year, a 6.4 percent decrease from 2015-2016, according to figures released Monday by the education department. Arrests in schools were down 8 percent and summonses declined by 11 percent during the same time frame, according to the department.

While most student groups received fewer suspensions last year, black students and those with disabilities continued to be suspended at disproportionately high rates.

Over the past five years, suspensions have tumbled by 34 percent — a downward shift that started under the previous administration. But Mayor Bill de Blasio has made discipline reform a centerpiece of his education agenda, with a focus on pushing schools to adopt less punitive responses to misbehavior. As part of that shift, his administration has made it harder for schools to issue suspensions.

“As a parent and your mayor, there is nothing more important than the safety and wellbeing of all New York City kids,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a press release Monday that announced the latest suspension numbers, along with a slate of new initiatives meant to reduce school bullying. He added that the programs would “keep crime in schools [at] its historic low.”

Infogram

While de Blasio’s discipline-policy changes appear to be continuing to drive down suspension numbers, some educators and critics of the mayor argue that discipline has actually deteriorated in some schools as staffers struggle to respond to infractions without resorting to suspensions.

The principal’s union has balked at the city’s requirement that school leaders seek approval for suspensions in certain situations, including suspensions of young students. Union President Mark Cannizzaro has said that school leaders should have the final say on discipline decisions since they understand the situation best.

“There are a heck of a lot of things that we need to do to make sure that we respond to student behavior more appropriately, but taking the decision away from the principal is a bad thing,” he told Chalkbeat recently.

At the same time, advocates for discipline reform say the city hasn’t gone far enough to ensure schools don’t funnel students into the criminal justice system, and insist that teachers need more training on alternatives to suspensions. They point in particular to the far higher discipline rates for students of color and those with disabilities than of their peers.

Though 27 percent of city students are black, they accounted for about 47 percent of all suspensions last school year. That’s slightly lower than the previous year, when almost half of all suspensions were issued to black students.

“If this is a city that, in 2017, is committed to creating fair and equitable processes and policies throughout the city — particularly for young people of color — then there’s still a great deal of work that has to be done,” said Kesi Foster, an organizer with Urban Youth Collaborative, a student-led social justice organization.

Students with disabilities make up 19 percent of the city’s enrollment, but represented about 39 percent of all suspensions last year. According to the city, that number is down 5.6 percent year-to-year.

Though Foster praised the anti-bullying initiatives announced Monday, along with the overall downward trend in suspensions, he said the city needs to come up with a plan to specifically address the ongoing disparities.

City officials point out that major violent crime in schools is at its lowest level since 1998, when those statistics first started to be collected. The de Blasio administration also touts $47 million in annual spending on mental health supports for students and other efforts to improve school culture.

On Monday, the city announced an additional $8 million in spending on new initiatives to address bullying in the wake of a fatal school stabbing in a Bronx high school. The student accused of the killing was reportedly bullied.  

“These programs are part of the DOE’s ongoing work to ensure that schools are equipped with the critical resources they need to effectively manage incidents and address underlying issues head-on,” according to a city statement.

Alex Zimmerman contributed to this report.