first steps

Prodded by advocates, city unveils district-wide integration plan for Lower East Side

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña visits P.S. 15 in District 1 in 2014.

The New York City education department on Tuesday revealed a plan that officials hope will spur more economic diversity in Lower East Side elementary schools.

It is the first effort under Mayor Bill de Blasio to tackle segregation on a district-wide basis, and follows years of lobbying by parent advocates in District 1, which also includes the East Village. The plan’s goal is for each school’s share of disadvantaged students to match the district’s, though that will depend to a large degree on recruitment efforts and families’ admissions decisions.

“This is a pretty significant step for the city,” said Matt Gonzales, who leads school integration efforts for the nonprofit New York Appleseed, adding that he expects the city to eventually do even more to promote integration in that district “and ultimately throughout the city.”

While District 1 includes a diverse mix of students, its schools are largely segregated. At some, virtually all students are low-income. In others, fewer than a quarter are.

Last year, 67 percent of students who applied to schools in the district were either eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, still learning English, or living in temporary housing. The city’s plan would create a new admissions system for the district with the goal that each school would enroll a similar share of students from those groups.

Based on application patterns from last year, the city projects that six out of 16 district elementary schools would come within 10 percentage points of the diversity target under the new plan — up from three schools currently. However, officials said they expect a new enrollment center opening this fall will help schools meet their enrollment goals by encouraging families to apply to a wider range of schools. Called a Family Resource Center, it will share information with families about the application process and the programs offered at each school.

“We’ll be able to help families see the wide variety of high quality options there are in District 1,” said Josh Wallack, a deputy chancellor who oversees diversity initatives. “That itself may have a profound impact on equity and diversity in the schools, just by broadening the choices parents are making.”

In order to reach the enrollment goals, two-thirds of admissions offers at each school would be reserved for students who meet the district’s definition of disadvantaged, with the rest available to less needy students. However, whether each school meets those targets will ultimately depend on where families choose to apply.

The new admissions system, which has not yet been formally adopted, would first apply to students entering pre-K and kindergarten in the fall 2018.

But parent advocates in the district who had spent years helping design a complex enrollment system to integrate local schools say the education department has watered down their vision.

They had asked for more factors to be considered to determine whether students are disadvantaged, such as whether they have a disability and the education level of their parents. They also called for a system that provides parents with information about the odds that their child would get into each school in order to help them decide where to apply.

Without that information, the system is less transparent and could make parents wary, said Naomi Peña, a parent on the local education council who has worked on integration efforts in the district.

“You rank your schools but you don’t know what you’re going to get,” she said of the department’s proposal. “It’s hard to get parents to buy-in, and this is exactly why.”

The education department has faced rising pressure to address the widespread segregation in city schools, and this summer released a plan laying out steps to do so. It included a pledge to work with advocates and the superintendent in District 1, who had already used a $1.25 million state grant to come up with their own diversity proposal.

District 1 is a logical place for the education department to pilot a district-wide integration strategy. It is small and diverse, and parents have been supportive of integration efforts — though many have become disenchanted with the education department’s slow-moving approach. In addition, all of the district’s elementary schools are unzoned, meaning families can apply to any school regardless of where they live in the district.

Advocates say their plans for the district stalled because city officials worried that fewer families would be matched with schools where they applied. On Tuesday, officials released projections showing that the number of families accepted into a school of their choice wouldn’t change significantly under the new proposal.

The education department now plans to host information sessions at every school to gather feedback from parents. Officials hope to finalize the plan by October, when parents start applying to schools for the next academic year.

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.

now hiring

Wanted: An enrollment chief who can help New York City meet its school diversity goals

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

The education department is in the market for a high-level official who will oversee enrollment decisions with an eye toward diversity.

Rob Sanft, who has led the Office of Student Enrollment for the last seven years, is stepping down. His replacement will be responsible for helping Mayor Bill de Blasio’s education department implement a plan, released last June, to boost school diversity.

The senior executive director of enrollment “will be expected to drive forward the vision of school diversity, in collaboration with other DOE offices,” according to the listing.

The enrollment chief has already been central to the city’s diversity initiatives. Deputy Chancellor Josh Wallack said in a statement that Sanft has already worked to end limited unscreened high school admissions, which can present barriers to students, and to change the way students are assigned to middle schools. Both were moves laid out in the city’s diversity plan.

“He has led reforms that make student enrollment easier and more equitable for hundreds of thousands of families every year,” Wallack said.

As more of the city’s diversity initiatives get off the ground, Wallack said integration issues will comprise an even larger role for the new enrollment chief. That only adds to the enormous responsibility of the office, which handles the city’s complicated high school admissions process and competitive gifted and talented program.

Integration advocates have called on the Department of Education to put a high-ranking official in charge of desegregation efforts. While that has yet to happen, Matt Gonzales, who heads integration efforts for the nonprofit New York Appleseed, found the city’s job posting encouraging.

“I think the fact that DOE is embedding a priority towards diversity into the job description of such an important role signifies a real investment in this work,” Gonzales wrote in an email.

David Kirkland, executive director of the New York University Metro Center, said advocates will keep an eye on who ultimately gets tapped for the position.

“Before we declare victory,” he wrote in an email, “I am curious about their background, their diversity status, their commitments to equity and integration, their willingness to work with the broader community to resolve issues.”