Choosing integration

In a district aiming for integration, can New York City sway parents’ school choices?

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Carry Chan, left, will become acting superintendent in District 1 when Daniella Phillips, right, leaves this month to join the central education department.

New York City officials are hoping that an unused corner of a Lower East Side elementary school will help achieve what has long eluded this otherwise diverse Manhattan neighborhood: integrated schools.

They have converted a sunny section of P.S. 15 Roberto Clemente into a “Family Resource Center,” a hub for information about public schools in District 1. With slick posters and folded brochures, the district is hoping parents will reconsider schools they previously overlooked or even shunned.

That will require more than simply spreading the word about a school’s new gifted program or particular teaching style — it will also necessitate changing mindsets. The challenge is formidable, but it is an essential one to overcome if a new admission system the city created to better integrate the neighborhood’s schools is going to work.

“Too often we have coded messages, that this particular subset of schools is good for ‘those’ families,” said Daniella Phillips, District 1’s superintendent. “We’re trying to break open those stereotypes.”

To do that, the city is counting on a scattershot of approaches: Along with the new admissions system and center, the district is pouring resources into a long-struggling school to make it more appealing to middle-class families, and individual schools are taking their own small steps to welcome a different set of families than they’re used to serving — all in the hope of opening parents’ minds to a wider set of schools.

“I know habits are formed and they’re hard to break,” said Naomi Peña, a member of the district’s parent council who has been one of the most vocal advocates for integration plans. “But we have to start telling people in this community that there are other schools that aren’t being looked at.”

Unlike in most areas of New York City, District 1 families are not bound by attendance zones in elementary school. Instead, they must rank their choice of local schools and are matched to one.

The system has been in place since 1991 when the district did away with zone lines and many schools adopted admissions policies that weighed student diversity. As more white and affluent families moved in, the choice system was supposed to free students from their segregated neighborhoods and give everyone a chance to attend the same schools.

But over time, the city stripped away the diversity measures, leaving an unregulated choice process in place. Before the change, only one school enrolled a radically different student body from the rest of the district, according to a report commissioned by local parents. Since then, the district’s schools have grown more and more segregated.

District 1 spans the Lower East Side, East Village, and a sliver of Chinatown. As a whole, the student body is diverse: 16 percent are black, 41 percent are Hispanic, 22 percent are Asian, and 18 percent are white. Almost 70 percent of students are considered poor.

Yet few schools reflect that diversity. About 65 percent of white students attend just a quarter of the district’s elementary schools, which also enroll far fewer poor students.

For years, advocates in the district have pushed for a return to an admissions system that factors in diversity, but city officials were reluctant to rein in parent choice. Now, they plan to turn that choice into a tool for integrating the district’s 16 traditional elementary schools.

Starting this year, the new admissions system will give children who are poor, homeless, or not fluent in English priority for two-thirds of seats at district schools in kindergarten and pre-K — a target designed to bring each school’s population in line with the demographics of last year’s overall applicant pool in the district. Students with disabilities will also receive a preference. Those who don’t fall into any of those categories get priority for a third of spots.

But there’s a catch.

The new rules make a difference only if enough families from either priority group apply to a particular school. If, for example, few poor families rank a school, that school will simply admit more middle-class applicants from its pool.

That’s where the resource center comes in: City leaders and advocates believe that if they arm parents with accurate, consistent information about all the district’s schools, they will consider applying to a wider range of choices.

However, convincing parents to expand their horizons also means combating stereotypes that harden around schools, since many parents rely as much on word of mouth as data when selecting schools.

Allison Roda, a researcher who has studied how parents choose schools for their children, said families often turn to social networks to learn which schools are desirable. On the playground and in apartment lobbies, families swap stories about which schools have daily recess and the how much money their PTAs raise.

Getting families to give different schools a chance is no easy feat.

“Schools need to change their reputations,” Roda said. “And they need a group of parents to take a leap of faith and try it out.”

To that end, individual schools are thinking about how they can make themselves attractive to more families.

At East Village Community School, which enrolls the most white students of any elementary school in the district, the parent association stopped charging a fixed admissions price for fundraisers and money is going towards stocking classroom libraries with books that feature protagonists of color. Other schools that share buildings but serve starkly different student bodies — such as The Neighborhood School and P.S. 63 STAR Academy — have offered joint tours for prospective parents.

“We want all of our schools to reflect the dynamic, diverse, rich culture that we have in District 1,” Darlene Cameron, principal of P.S. 63, said at a recent public meeting. “We’re all going to do that work together.”

The city is also showering extra resources into some schools to give parents a new reason to choose them.

For years, P.S. 15 has served mostly students with intense needs: Last year, 40 percent of students were homeless. With help from a state integration grant and the city’s program for struggling schools, it has added a raft of enhancements. It launched a gifted program and adopted a new teaching style that allows students to explore their own interests. It also converted a corner of the library into a “maker space” where students can tinker with technology.

Whether the city’s efforts to get parents to think differently will pay off remains to be seen. Families must submit their choices for kindergarten by January 12, and they’ll find out in March where their children will attend kindergarten.

Officials expect only modest changes at first, with the number of schools meeting their diversity targets going from three to six in the first year — leaving a majority still segregated. But with the resource center up and running, officials hope to see a bigger shift than the preliminary numbers show.

They point to Cambridge, Massachusetts, as proof that the new system could have wider impact.

After decades of controlled-choice admissions, 84 percent of Cambridge students now attend racially balanced schools, according to a recent report by The Century Foundation, a think tank that promotes school integration. That city has served as an inspiration for District 1. Michael Alves, who is credited with creating the controlled choice model in Cambridge, served as a consultant to New York City. And District 1 parents visited the city — and its Family Resource Center — to learn more.

Unlike New York City’s center, parents in Cambridge have to visit the center to sign up for kindergarten and pre-K. But even with that requirement potentially giving the district a greater opportunity to steer parents’ choices, it still can’t get middle-class families to choose certain schools, according to Jeff Young, Cambridge’s former school superintendent. Seats in some of the city’s lowest-performing schools often go unfilled because parents won’t send their children there, he said.

Back in District 1 — where the services schools provide often reflect the needs of the families who choose them — it may be difficult to quickly break up the district’s longstanding enrollment patterns.

For instance, P.S. 110 Florence Nightingale enrolls a racially and socioeconomically diverse population. But its class diversity, in particular, means the school may have fewer resources for low-income families than ones where the majority of families are poor. Because fewer than 60 percent of P.S. 110 students qualify for subsidized lunch, the school does not receive extra federal funding reserved for high-poverty schools.

That has left parents like Marqui Smith, a self-employed marketing worker whose daughters attend P.S. 110, wondering if the school is right for her family.

“Now I’m in a school where most of the parents are not lower-income, so everything from school parties we cannot afford to go to, school trips are higher,” Smith said.

Crystal Perry, a parent of two children at East Village Community School, said it will be difficult for schools without the extra resources that P.S. 15 has amassed to woo families. Affluent families have options, she said, including enrolling their children next door, in one of the city’s wealthiest school districts.

“Parents still won’t send their kids to those schools that are struggling,” Perry said. “And if they’re forced into it by the DOE, they’ll simply redistrict. They’ll go to District 2.”

Still, school officials say they are optimistic that efforts the city is undertaking now will pay off in the future with more integrated schools in one of the most diverse corners of the city.

“It’s a process that happens over time,” said Irene Sanchez, P.S. 15’s principal. “As we get the word out, and families hear about what’s actually happening — not the rumor they heard three years ago — we should begin to see that change start to happen.”

Correction: This story previously incorrectly stated that P.S. 110 does not offer free after-school programming.

bus breakdown

Facing his first crisis, Carranza fired a top official. But can he fix New York City’s yellow bus system?

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza rode a school bus to P.S. 377 in Ozone Park, Queens, on the first day of the 2018-2019 school year.

Just days after responding to the city’s school bus crisis by firing a top official and reassigning another, schools Chancellor Richard Carranza put his staff on notice that when things go wrong they better act quickly — or he will find someone who will.

“When things don’t go right I expect a sense of urgency to serve our community,” Carranza said in an interview with Chalkbeat Monday. “And if we can’t make it happen, then we’ll make sure that there are people in place that will make it happen. It’s really that simple.”

Problems with the city’s school bus services are not unusual, especially at the start of the school year. But since the start of classes, the city’s school transportation hotline has seen a 17 percent increase in calls over the same period last year. And revelations about drivers who were not properly vetted, buses arriving late, students trapped on hours-long routes crisscrossing the city, or buses simply not arriving at all have dominated the opening weeks of Carranza’s first full school year, splashing across the front page of the Daily News.

Last week, after deeming the situation “unacceptable,” Carranza fired Eric Goldstein, the CEO of school support services responsible for transportation, school food, and the public school sports league. Carranza also reassigned Elizabeth Rose, who had been CEO of school operations and a top deputy under former Chancellor Carmen Fariña, to focus solely on transportation contracts.

Carranza said Monday that a broader shakeup to the $1.2 billion-per-year bus system, which serves roughly 150,000 students, two-thirds of whom have disabilities, could be coming.

“As we understand more fully how [the Office of Pupil Transportation] in particular operates, I wouldn’t be surprised if there aren’t some more changes,” he said. Leading that effort will be Kevin Moran, a former borough field support director who will now serve as a senior advisor to Carranza on transportation — while the city searches for a permanent leader.

The busing problems are the first significant test of Carranza’s leadership during a crisis since taking the helm of the nation’s largest school system last April. So far, Carranza’s response has echoed his reaction to much larger issues such as school segregation — that he’s interested in systemic fixes and doesn’t want to excuse the issue just because it has bedeviled past chancellors. Under changes made by Carranza’s administration, school bus drivers will undergo the same background checks and have investigations handled by the same education department unit as other schools staffers.

But so far, his response to the crisis has drawn mixed reactions from some advocates, observers, and education department insiders.

Maggie Moroff, a disability policy expert at Advocates for Children, said busing issues often linger through much of the school year. In the past, the education department has reacted defensively, fixing bus issues in individual cases when advocacy groups get involved but rarely pledging to overhaul the system, she said.

“We get a lot of students at this time of year who have not been to school yet because they don’t have a bus,” Moroff said. “It’s exciting to hear the chancellor say, ‘it’s unacceptable and we’re going to do something about it.’”

But overhauling the bus system will be a massive undertaking, partly owing to the technical complexity of ferrying students to schools with different schedules, shifting rosters of students necessitating new routes — but also because the system is dependent on a rough-and-tumble web of private bus companies. (Goldstein, the support services CEO who Carranza fired, reportedly faced down the CEO of a bus company who confronted him with a loaded pistol during contract negotiations in 2010.)

Eric Nadelstern, a top education department deputy during the Bloomberg administration, said Carranza may be underestimating the bus system’s complexity and the value of keeping leaders with deep knowledge of it.

“Goldstein at the very least understood where the pitfalls were,” Nadelstern said, adding that removing a leader in the middle of a crisis may prove unwise. “I don’t think there’s anyone else in the system who has that knowledge or capacity.”

The Bloomberg administration attempted an overhaul of the bus system in 2007, hiring private consultants in an attempt to make it more efficient. That effort turned out to be a flop, the New York Times reported, “leaving shivering students waiting for buses in the cold and thousands of parents hollering about disrupted routines.” Klein eventually apologized but largely defended the reorganization at the time, saying, “I never think that the pain is worth it. On the other hand, I don’t think there’s any good time to make these changes.”

Others, including one current education department administrator who spoke on condition of anonymity, said they worried that Carranza wanted to show he was taking charge of the situation by making heads roll without immediately addressing the underlying problems.

But while Carranza admitted he does not yet have a full explanation of why the school bus system has repeatedly fallen short, he said he is committed to a longer-term solution.

“My understanding is this goes back at least decades,” Carranza told Chalkbeat. “There are some systemic issues that I don’t want to put a band-aid on, I want to actually find the root cause and fix.”

inner circle

With Earth, Wind and Fire tune, Chicago’s first chief equity officer announces new job

PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons
Earth, Wind and Fire in 1982

It’s little surprise that the public announcement of Chicago’s first chief equity officer, Maurice Swinney, came over Twitter. Last Friday, he announced his new job with a video of the iconic disco band Earth, Wind, and Fire performing the tune that made Sept. 21 famous.

Like his boss, Chicago schools CEO Janice Jackson, Swinney comes from the ranks of spirited Chicago principals and has an affinity for the social media platform. Swinney, the principal of Tilden Career Academy in Fuller Park on the South Side, now moves up the ranks to a cabinet-level job, and will head the four-person Equity Office with a $1 million budget.  

Jackson told Chalkbeat over the summer that the equity chief’s primary focus in year one would be how to narrow gaps in test scores and academic achievement between black and Latino students on one hand and their white and Asian peers on the other.

Priorities would include diversifying the district’s workforce, ensuring resources are distributed equitably across the district, and supporting efforts to award more contracts to minority- and woman-owned businesses. But the schools chief also emphasized then that it was too early to chart a course for the new equity office before filling the job.

Read more: Chicago forges ahead with a teacher experiment

Before moving to Chicago in 2012 to lead Tilden, Swinney was an associate principal at St. Amand High School, a majority-white school in Ascension Parish, Louisiana.

The choice signals growing attention from Chicago Public Schools’ central office on the issue of neighborhood schools. Last week, the district announced that neighborhood schools would get first priority in a new investment: expanding International Baccalaureate programs.

Tilden, whose student population is mostly black and Latino, is a struggling neighborhood school that illustrates many of the inequities so pervasive in the school system. It has fewer than 300 students in a building built for 2,000. Slightly more than half of its students graduate, compared with the district’s five-year rate of 78 percent. One in three enrolls in college.

Swinney’s appointment comes at a time when neighborhood schools are being squeezed by school choice, with students increasingly leaving their ZIP codes to attend schools across the city. Tilden is among a group of high schools that face additional pressure, with declining enrollment and newer charters and other options nearby.

Plans to open a South Loop high school are just the latest threat. Chicago’s Board of Education is set to vote on a boundary proposal Wednesday that would lop off attendance in its northern zone.  

On Friday, Jackson sent a letter announcing Swinney’s promotion to district staff. The letter touted “historic gains” at the school district but acknowledged “that an opportunity gap persists for some students,” that demands the district examine itself to identify and root out inequity “whether in resources, staffing, academic supports, social and emotional supports, or access to high-quality programs.”

She noted that Swinney, who has led Tilden since 2012, has been recognized for his emphasis on social emotional learning and postsecondary success by the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research’s To And Through Project, which focuses on ensuring students enroll in and finish college.

Jackson’s letter to staff stressed that, beyond the new equity office, every educator in the city shares “a collective responsibility” to build a diverse workforce for the district and increase equity in resource allocation for all students and schools.