Low bar?

New York City’s school diversity goals could be met just through changing demographics, report finds

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn

When New York City recently released its plan to spur school diversity, advocates praised the city for setting specific goals while skeptics said the bar was set too low.

A new report from the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School crunches demographic data and finds those skeptics may be right.

Even without undertaking any changes to the way students are assigned to schools, the city would likely meet its diversity goals simply due to demographic trends that are already underway, according to the report, “No Heavy Lifting Required: New York City’s Unambitious School ‘Diversity’ Plan.”

“These goals would be easy to achieve,” said Nicole Mader, an author of the report. “They could probably happen under the status quo, and that is concerning because there is a groundswell of support for school desegregation and integration.”

In early June, the city released a plan that set explicit diversity benchmarks and spelled out initiatives to increase racial and economic integration in schools — though the plan didn’t actually use the words “integration” or “desegregation.” Over the next five years, the goals call for increasing the number of students in “racially representative” schools by 50,000, and decreasing the number of “economically stratified” schools by 10 percent.

A racially representative school is defined as having a student body that is between 50 percent and 90 percent black and Hispanic. The report, by Mader and Ana Carla Sant’Anna Costa, notes that many of the schools within the city’s racially representative range “would still count as intensely segregated” under commonly accepted academic measures. Add in demographic trends, and the goal seems even less ambitious.

Citywide, the number of white and Asian students is growing, while the number of black students is decreasing. Given those shifts, the number of schools within the city’s racially representative range has grown by about 2.4 percent a year. Just a slight increase in pace, to 2.9 percent, would allow the city to meets its goal, the report notes.

“In fact, the only barrier that may stand in the way of reaching this goal is the rapid concentration of students into the predominately white and Asian schools,” according to the report. “The number of students at those schools has increased by more than 34,000. This more than cancels out all the progress that has been made on the other end of the goal’s range, where 30,000 fewer students now attend highly segregated black and Hispanic schools than did five years ago.”

Another problem with the goal, according to the report: It allows the city to declare victory even if a school’s overall demographics shift slightly — say, from 90.1 percent black and Hispanic, to 90 percent — because that school’s entire population would count towards the 50,000-student benchmark.

There are currently 105 schools that are between 90.1 and 92 percent black and Hispanic, the report notes, citing an original analysis by The Bell podcast, which explores segregation through the eyes of New York City students. If each of those schools enrolled an average of 10 more white or Asian students, the city would meet its goal.

The findings regarding the city’s economic integration goals are similar. The number of schools with an acceptable level of economic need, by the city’s definition, is already increasing by about 4 percent each year. That natural growth would only have to increase to 4.6 percent, and the city’s goal would be met.

But again, there’s a catch: High-income schools are growing three times faster than those that fall within the city’s definition of an acceptable level of need.

In an email, education department spokesman Will Mantell called the city’s goals “significant” but also just an “initial” step.

“These goals demonstrate the many ways we measure diversity and provide an important yardstick for our progress,” he wrote.

Mantell added that an advisory group, created under the city’s plan, will be tasked with helping to establish longer-term goals.

The report gives a series of recommendations to make the city’s benchmarks more meaningful.

The city could call for targets to be set at the district level, rather than citywide. That would encourage the creation of local solutions and “not mask deepening segregation” in some areas. Another recommendation: including information about the progress of individual schools in relation to integration goals on the city’s Quality Snapshots, a tool that is used to assess schools.

“If you just put this data out there, then school principals know … parents are seeing it,” Mader said. “The idea of just publishing it might be an incentive, in and of itself, to do this work.”

Education on screen

School segregation at center of new documentary from collective founded by Ava DuVernay

PHOTO: ARRAY

Sixty years to the day after the Little Rock Nine integrated a high school in Arkansas, a documentary chronicling how many of America’s school systems have segregated again is set to debut at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis.

The film, “Teach Us All,” is the basis of what first-time filmmaker Sonia Lowman hopes will be a national student-led movement to integrate schools. The film is being released with a social action curriculum meant to help students gather information about their own school systems and push for change.

“We are at a point where we are regressing, where we’re at risk of eroding the gains of the civil rights movement,” Lowman said.

In the film, Lowman looks at Little Rock schools separated by race and class, both when the Supreme Court cut down school segregation laws and more recently. But it’s not just the South: the film explores segregation in New York City and Los Angeles by race, class and language.

PHOTO: ARRAY
Central High School in Little Rock, Ark. where nine students integrated the then all-white school in 1957.

It also touches on the challenges schools face in attempting to integrate, and the complicated choices parents have to make about where to send their children for school.

Read our Q&A with Ruby Bridges, who at six years old was the first black student to integrate New Orleans schools.

The documentary is being distributed by ARRAY, a collective founded in 2010 by producer Ava DuVernay, an award-winning filmmaker who produced the movie “Selma” and the documentary “13th.” “Teach Us All” will be shown in 12 cities and be released on Netflix on Sept. 25.

The National Civil Rights Museum, where the film will premiere in Memphis, has taken an active role this year in hosting events that delve into issues of educational equity. Museum President Terri Freeman recently said she sees education-focused programming as a key part of their mission.

“For the museum not to have conversation about education, with the museum being an institution of education in an informal way, would be for the museum to not do what it’s supposed to,” Freeman said at a panel discussion on school segregation. “If people come to look at photographs, but there’s no change involved, then in my estimation we failed as an institution.”

You can watch the trailer below. RSVP to register to attend the Memphis screening:

Q and A

Former Success Academy lawyer hoping to start own charter network wants to ‘take it to the next level’

As the former top lawyer for Success Academy, Emily Kim had a hand in almost every aspect of New York City’s largest and most controversial charter-school network — from negotiating lunch times for schools in shared buildings to defending Success in court.

After spending six years with Success, Kim is setting off to launch her own charter network with locations in Manhattan’s District 6, which includes Inwood and Washington Heights, and the Bronx’s District 12, which includes the south and central Bronx. Called Zeta Charter Schools, she hopes to open in 2018.

PHOTO: Photo courtesy of Emily Kim
Emily Kim

Kim is still a big believer in Success — two of her children go there, and she praised its lightening-rod leader, Eva Moskowitz, as “brilliant” — but she thinks she has something different to offer.

“I chose the best schools possible for my own children,” she said during a recent interview with Chalkbeat near her home on the Upper West Side, “but I’m still going to innovate and take it to the next level.”

The school’s co-founders — Jessica Stein and Meghan Mackay — also have ties to Success, as do several board members listed in the school’s charter application. (One of the board members, Jenny Sedlis, is a Success co-founder and director of the pro-charter advocacy group, StudentsFirstNY.)

But Kim’s vision also seems tailored to avoid some of the usual critiques of charter schools, including that they rely on harsh discipline policies. By contrast, her plan for Zeta calls for limiting the use of suspensions. She also wants her schools to be diverse, though she admits that will be difficult in residentially segregated areas like the Bronx.

A mother of three, Kim has taught in classrooms in New York City, Long Island and even West Africa. She worked on special education issues in Philadelphia district schools before heading to law school at Temple and Columbia. While working as a corporate litigator, she took on a case pro-bono for Success — and was soon offered a job as the network’s first general counsel.

Below are edited highlights from our interview with Kim earlier this month where she described how her experience as an Asian-American growing up in Iowa shaped her views on school segregation, why she believes high-stakes tests are important, and what role she sees for charter schools like hers.

Kim talked about sending her son to Success:

My child was 4 years old when all of this kind of unfolded. The first school I visited was Eva’s school, Harlem 4.

… I was so astounded by what I saw — which is the energy of the teachers. Just the level of dedication, commitment, the joy and energy of their teachers — I was blown away.

Then Eva gave a talk at the end. She was clearly a hard-driving, almost in a sense, from my perspective then, a business person. So I thought, “That’s the type of person who should be running schools.”

What’s your role going to be as you launch your own charter schools?

I’ll be the CEO. I want to take all of the great things that I saw at Success and at other schools and — like in any other enterprise — I want to take the best of the best, and I want to implement it.

And then I want to work on implementing some of the ideas that I have as well.

What’s your goal for your schools?

The number one goal is to just create additional education opportunities. As a parent, I feel this very strongly: No parent should have to send their child to a school that is not a good school.

… Our schools are going to prepare kids for the tests, and the reason is that tests are access to power. And whether you like it or not, if you want to go to college — to a good college — if you want to go to law school like I did, you take the SATs. You take the LSAT. You have to do a good job.

How are you going to measure your schools’ success?

Academic outcomes are first and foremost because truly, if I can’t hit the academic outcomes, there’s no point. I’m wasting everybody’s time and I don’t want to do that. That’s number one.

… We’re looking at going backward from very rigorous high school and college curricula, and working backwards from there. So that’s our vision when we’re establishing our schools. What do kids need to be successful in college?

And it’s not just the testing outcomes, but it’s also the soft skills that kids need in order to get there. Kids need to be able to self-regulate, and that’s got to start in elementary school, in order to be successful in middle school.

On what her schools will look like:

One of the most important elements of our school design is going to be technology.

We’re still in early days, but I’m visiting many schools across the nation that are doing things that are very exciting in technology. I’m also going to be looking in the private sector to understand what are the skills that kids need to actually be innovators. I’d love if one of our students were able to invent an app that made a difference in the world.

Many New York City schools, district and charter alike, are highly segregated by race and class. Kim spoke about the city’s segregation:

In New York City, with the exception of Success Academy and other high-performing schools, you can go to the playground and look at the skin of the children who are playing there or look around the neighborhood and the socioeconomic status of the neighborhood, and you’ll know the quality of the school. It’s a terrible, terrible situation. And that’s 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education.

And how her own background informs her views on the issue:

I grew up in Iowa. I was one of the very few students who looked like me. My dad was a math professor. There were very few African Americans, few Hispanics, and very few Asians. That was hard in a lot of ways in that I grew up with a lot of teasing and whatnot. But I also was forced to navigate a world that I didn’t understand from my own experience.

… I have the perspective that it shouldn’t [just] be the case that minorities are integrating into the larger majority population. The majority population also has to integrate themselves in the minority enclaves. As long as we have this idea that it has to go one way only, that’s perpetuating the problem.

Have the city’s charter schools done enough when it comes to integration?

… It’s just so challenging for charters because honestly, opponents of charters use the segregation idea as another weapon against charters in terms of why they’re not serving the greater good — because they’re segregated.

Well, they’re segregated because they went into areas that were low income. Unfortunately, those kids weren’t getting a good education.

So what should the mission of charter schools be?

Charter schools were largely, originally intended to bring options to children who didn’t have them — so that would be low-income [students]. That’s not really my vision of charter schools. I think that charter schools are places where innovation can happen.

… I would love for what we learn through our [research-and-development] approach to be implemented at district schools. I’m very interested in district reform. I think there are a lot of challenges to district reform, but we’d love to come up with solutions that can be applied in other contexts.

Kim explained her decision to leave Success and start her own schools:

Staying with Success surely would have been a very rich experience, but I also thought I wanted to build something and I had some ideas.

… It was a really hard decision. But I’m really glad I did and every day I’ve made that decision, I feel like I’ve made the right decision.

I guess it will be answered once I have the schools up and running. If they’re doing well, then I’ll have my answer.