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.

Hello Again

Debora Scheffel chosen by acclamation to fill State Board of Ed vacancy

State Board of Education member Debora Scheffel at a campaign event in 2016. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

A Republican vacancy committee unanimously selected Debora Scheffel to fill the opening left by Pam Mazanec on the State Board of Education.

Mazanec, a staunch defender of parental rights and school choice who represented the 4th Congressional District, resigned at the end of January to focus on her other obligations. Scheffel previously represented the 6th Congressional District on the board but lost that seat in 2016 to Democrat Rebecca McClellan.

McClellan’s narrow victory gave control of the board to Democrats for the first time in 46 years. Scheffel, who serves as dean of education at Colorado Christian University, moved to Douglas County, and ran unsuccessfully for school board there in 2017.

Scheffel’s selection does not change the balance of power on the state board because she replaces another Republican. Scheffel faced no opposition at the vacancy committee meeting, which took place Saturday in Limon.

Scheffel has said she wants to continue Mazanec’s work on behalf of rural schools and in support of parent and student choice, as well as work to protect student data privacy, a cause she previously championed on the board.

The district takes in all of the eastern Plains, as well as the cities of Longmont, Greeley, and Castle Rock.

Future of Schools

Indianapolis struggles to balance how much money schools need with what people will pay

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Lewis Ferebee

Without a massive influx of cash from taxpayers, Indianapolis’ largest school district could be in dire financial straits. But the fate of the referendums asking voters for more money is in limbo.

Even as the Indianapolis Public Schools board revealed plans to reduce how much money it is seeking from voters, the administration portrayed the district’s financial future as precarious. During a board discussion Thursday, officials underscored how critical it would be for the tax increase to pass. It’s unclear, however, whether the district will get the extra cash it needs to avoid making painful cuts.

Critics have suggested the request — $936 million over eight years — is too high and that the district has not offered enough detail on how the money raised would be spent. With only tepid support for the tax plan, district leaders appear poised to reduce the amount they are seeking. That move could win over new allies, but it could also undercut their efforts to gain support.

Next year, the administration is expecting spending could outpace income by more than $45 million. The plan for filling that gap hinges on raising more than $46 million from a referendum that will go before voters in May.

Without that extra money, Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said, the district would have to burn through its savings or make vast cuts that could include freezing teacher pay, cutting school budgets, and reducing transportation.

The district would need to begin making cuts immediately, said board member Kelly Bentley. “It’s just going to get worse the next year, and the next year,” she added.

The district’s future will look brighter if leaders are able to win public support for more funding, although it’s no longer clear how much money they will ask for. The original plan, which was approved by the board in December, includes two referendums to raise property taxes. One would ask voters to give the district as much as $92 million more per year for eight years for operating expenses such as teacher pay. Another measure, which the district is not expected to change, would pay for $200 million in improvements to buildings.

Ferebee said the amount he originally proposed was based on what the district needs rather than what would be politically feasible. In the face of community feedback, however, the district is crafting a plan that would have a lower price tag. Next, the district will need to explain what services will be cut to keep down costs, he said.

“I anticipate people will want to know, ‘what are the tradeoffs?’ ” Ferebee said. “We owe it to the community to provide that explanation, and we will.”

Indiana districts have pursued more than 160 property tax referendums since 2008, when state lawmakers created the current school funding system. About 60 percent of those referendums have been successful, according to data from Indiana University’s Center for Evaluation and Education Policy.

Stephen Hiller, who has been studying referendums with the center for nearly a decade, said that it’s likely that many districts have had to reconcile how much money they would ideally want with how much taxpayers might be willing to pay. But that conversation likely happens before a referendum is announced and approved by the board.

“I think IPS has it a little more difficult here that it’s happening in the open after they’ve approved it in a very public way,” he added.

School board president Michael O’Connor said that the district’s willingness to change the plan is a sign that local government works.

“We live in the community within which we serve, and all of us have heard pretty plainly and clearly, ‘we think that number might be too big,’ ” he said. “We are being responsive to our constituents.”

Reducing the referendum could be enough to win over many supporters. Several groups that have supported the current administration in the past have not yet taken a stand.

Tony Mason of the Indianapolis Urban League said in a statement that the district needs more money to pay high-quality teachers and meet the needs of its diverse students. But he raised concerns about the potential impact of the tax increase on residents with fixed- or low-incomes.

“IPS will still need to continue in its efforts to make the case for the substantial amount it is requesting,” Mason said. “The IUL is an avid supporter of education, particularly for urban schools that struggle with unique challenges.”

Chelsea Koehring, who taught in the district and now has two children at the Butler Lab School, shares the view that the district needs more money. But leaders have not offered enough details about how the money would be spent, she said, and changing the request raises red flags.

“People, you should’ve had this together before you asked,” she said. “Lowering it at this point — I don’t know that that’s going to instill confidence in anyone that they have any clue what they are doing.”

Correction: February 17, 2018: This story has been corrected to reflect that Indiana districts have pursued more than 160 property tax referendums since 2008. Some districts have held multiple referendums.