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.

Getting the diploma

New York eases graduation requirements for students with disabilities

Parent rally outside the state education building for more diploma options. (Courtesy Betty Pilnik)

In a significant change to New York’s graduation requirements, students with disabilities will soon be able to earn an alternative diploma without passing any of the state’s exit exams.

Instead, the state will allow them to replace a minimum score on the Regents exams with a work-readiness credential, which they can earn through work experience and vocational classes or by passing an exam that assesses entry-level work skills.

Supporters, including parents who lobbied for the rule change, say it is a reasonable way to prevent students with disabilities from missing out on a diploma because of low test scores. But critics have argued the policy would lower the state’s graduation standards.

On Monday, when the state Board of Regents approved the change as an “emergency measure,” state officials tried to preempt any suggestion that the change would water down the standards.

“We’re not saying that they have to do less. We’re saying that the standards are the same and the requirements are the same,” said Angelica Infante-Green, a deputy education commissioner, during the Regents’ monthly meeting. “What we’re talking about is, if you have a disability that precludes you from actually passing the exam, or demonstrating what you know with the current exams, this is the mechanism to do it.”

A Regents committee voted in favor of the rule Monday after it was added to their meeting agenda without prior notice or public comment — prompting an outcry from at least one education advocacy group. If the full board signs off Tuesday, the change will go into effect immediately, enabling students to graduate under the new requirements as early as next month.

The state currently grants different types of high-school diploma. A traditional “Regents” diploma requires students to pass four Regents exams. An alternative “local” diploma is available to certain students — including those with disabilities, who are still learning English, or who have struggled academically — who pass two exams or meet other requirements.

Students with disabilities only need a score of 55 (or 52, on appeal) on their math and English exams rather than the usual 65 to earn a local diploma. Under the new policy, they will not need to achieve any minimum score.

Instead, superintendents will review students’ work to check that it reflects appropriate knowledge of the material, students must pass their classes and participate in the exams. They will also have to earn a work-readiness credential called the Career Development and Occupational Studies Commencement Credential, or CDOS.

The credential, created in 2013 for students with disabilities, is meant to certify that students are ready for employment. There are two ways to earn it: One option allows students to complete 216 hours of vocational coursework and participate in job shadowing. The other lets students take an approved work-readiness exam, some of which have been criticized for lacking rigor.

It is unclear how many students would benefit from this new option. (Last year, only 418 students with disabilities took advantage of a “superintendent’s review” option allowing them to earn a local diploma by passing just the math and English Regents exams.) State officials have not estimated how many students may benefit from the new option but said they do not expect it to be a large number.

The policy is designed to help students like Lauren Elie and Brandon Pilnik, whose mothers were among the parents lobbying the state for years to change the graduation rules. After Monday’s vote, they burst into applause.

Brandon and Lauren, who are dating and each have a disability, are both one Regents exam shy of a diploma. Lauren, who missed the qualifying score on her English exam by one point, is working with kindergarteners as a teacher’s aide; Brandon is a musician who plays at a senior rehab center. Both have had to take internships instead of full-time jobs because they lack diplomas, their parents said.

“I was very excited, beyond excited,” said Betty Pilnik, Brandon’s mother, who has been fighting for the policy change for more than two years. “Anyone who knows Brandon knows that he deserves this.”

Ashley Grant, an attorney at Advocates for Children, said some of her organization’s clients have completed their required high-school courses but struggled to pass the exit exams. She said it was encouraging that the state is creating a route to graduation that bypasses the exams — which she does not consider to be the same as easing requirements.

“Simply removing the barrier of Regents exams doesn’t mean standards are being lowered,” she said.

But some proponents of strong state standards took the opposite view. Stephen Sigmund, executive director of the advocacy group High Achievement New York, who criticized the last-minute addition of the measure to the Regents’ agenda, noted that the latest graduation change comes just a year after the state created the “superintendents’ review” graduation option.

“The Regents shouldn’t make significant policy changes with an 11th hour and 59th minute addition to the agenda,” he said in a statement. “Removing another graduation requirement, demonstrating a minimum score on ELA and Math Regents exams, so soon after the last change is the wrong direction.”

The state will expected public comments on the new policy through Feb. 12. After that, the Regents are expected to vote on a permanent rule change in March.

Alex Zimmerman contributed reporting.

Follow the money

Rich PTA, poor PTA: New York City lawmaker wants to track school fundraising

New York City is home to some of the richest PTAs in the country, while other schools struggle to even recruit parent volunteers.

To better understand the disparities, City Councilman Mark Treyger on Monday will introduce legislation requiring the education department to track the membership and fundraising of schools’ parent organizations. The law would require an annual report to be posted to the education department’s website.

“We need to make sure all of our kids are receiving the same level of opportunity across the board,” Treyger said.

In the city and across the country, powerhouse parent organizations raise vast sums of money to boost the budgets of schools that tend to serve wealthier students — widening the gulf between them and schools with needier students.

For example, the PTA at P.S. 87 on the Upper West Side was named the second wealthiest parent organization in the country in a report this year by the Center for American Progress. At a school where just 9 percent of students qualified as poor in 2013-14, the parent organization raised almost $1.6 million that year, according to the report.

In the very same district, P.S. 191’s PTA had about $11,000 in the bank as of January 2016, according to meeting minutes posted on online. About 78 percent of its students are poor.

Some districts have tried to reduce such disparities by requiring PTAs to share their wealth or restricting how the organizations can spend their money. But such limitations are not without controversy. In California, for example, parents have pushed for their own school district rather than pool their fundraising dollars.

The bill will be introduced at Monday’s City Council stated meeting.