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.

parent power

From Amazon to air conditioners, parent leaders quizzed de Blasio and Carranza at forum

PHOTO: Reema Amin/Chalkbeat
Mayor Bill de Blasio and schools Chancellor Richard Carranza host a forum for parents in Queens, the first of five stops across the city.

Deborah Alexander, a parent whose school district covers Long Island City, asked Mayor Bill de Blasio Wednesday night why the local Community Education Council wasn’t asked to be on a committee providing input on Amazon’s controversial move to the Queens neighborhood.

De Blasio agreed. “You’re right,” the mayor said,  “the CEC should be on the committee, so we’re going to put the CEC on that committee.”

Not every question received such a cut-and-dry answer at the mayor and Chancellor Richard Carranza’s first “parent empowerment” listening tour event in Queens that drew about 200 local parents who were elected or appointed to certain boards and received invites. The pair faced a host of tough questions from parent leaders about problems including school overcrowding, the lack of air conditioners, lead in water, and busing.

By the end of the meeting, de Blasio told the audience that they should always get quick responses to their questions from the department and “that you can feel the impact of your involvement…that’s up to us to help that happen.”

He also called the listening tour “overdue,” and said that Carranza has told him the city needs to do more to reach out. Parents have often criticized city officials for not being plugged into the community.

Some questions needed more time to be answered. Bethany Thomas, co-president of the PTA at Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School, asked why the education department had not yet signed off on aspects of the school’s plan to have more than one principal. De Blasio asked Carranza to come up with an answer by next month.

Another parent said students at P.S. 62 were drinking from school water fountains that tested positive for lead last year, even though, according to the parent, the issue had not been addressed. De Blasio asked city officials to visit the school Thursday.

Other comments were even more complicated, often causing de Blasio and Carranza to rush parents along and condense comments to one specific issue. One Asian parent, who serves on a middle school’s PTA, gave an impassioned speech about feeling like “the enemy” after de Blasio announced a proposal in June to scrap the specialized high schools admissions test in order to diversify the schools. Currently 62 percent of specialized high school students are Asian.

“This was not about saying anyone is the bad guy,” de Blasio said, who has defended the plan as a way to bring more black and Hispanic students to those high schools.

Several parents asked why their schools still don’t have air conditioners. After de Blasio and Carranza said there is a plan to put air conditioners in every school by 2021, a mother with children at John Adams High School tearfully explained that her children will be out of school by then.

Carranza said he understood her problem, and the department would follow up, but that electrical wiring at each building makes it tough to solve the problem sooner than planned.

Alexander — the parent who asked about Amazon — questioned Carranza and de Blasio about how parent feedback would be used. She talked about the resolutions her Community Education Council passes that never get responses or feedback from the education department.

“We come, all of us, unpaid, away from our families, away from our jobs, away from bed times and dinners,” Alexander said. “We want to know what we’re doing is impactful, not a checked box.”

De Blasio said the city owes her “a process,” and department officials should respond in “real-time” — which could mean a couple of weeks. Carranza and de Blasio pledged to get a report of the meeting back to the parent leaders, noting how city leaders are following up with concerns.

elected school board

In Chicago, not everyone agrees with the grassroots call for an elected school board

PHOTO: Stephen J. Serio
Panelists at a Chalkbeat Chicago forum on the city's next mayor and public schools included, from left, Jesus "Chuy" Garcia, Daniel Anello, Jitu Brown, and Beth Swanson

Despite a growing call for an elected school board, it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution to Chicago’s troubled public school system.

Panelists at a Chalkbeat Chicago forum Wednesday evening split on whether an elected school board would offer more public accountability, especially given concerns that factions such as the teachers union would out-organize, and outspend, other candidates.

Daniel Anello, the CEO of school choice group Kids First, said he worried that an election determined by the size of campaign spending wouldn’t necessarily produce a board responsive to student and family needs.

“You need a school board that is representative of the communities we are talking about, but I worry if you take away accountability from the mayor, the mayor can absolve themselves of schools,” said Anello, noting his worries about big money entering a school board election. “My concern is that it is going to turn into a proxy war of ideology.”  

PHOTO: Stephen J. Serio
The crowd at the Chalkbeat Chicago Education for All event at Malcolm X College

The conversation was part of a larger discussion, hosted by Chalkbeat Chicago and sponsored by a new AT&T economic development initiative called Believe Chicago, about the next mayoral election and the future of city schools. Of the leading mayoral candidates who were invited, Lori Lightfoot and Paul Vallas attended.

The evening produced little agreement, except that school quality still differs dramatically by the address and race of students, and that the next mayor needs to be willing to have difficult, and even confrontational, conversations.

In addition to Anello, the panelists included Elizabeth Swanson, the vice president of strategy and programs at the Joyce Foundation and the former deputy chief of staff for education for outgoing Mayor Rahm Emanuel; community organizer Jitu Brown, who led the 2013 hunger strike that saved Dyett High School; and Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, a county commissioner and newly elected member of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Brown, who is the national director for the community education group Journey for Justice, made an impassioned plea for an elected school board, calling it one of the few pathways for communities of color to regain any influence over an education system he argued wasn’t working for them.

“In order for us to hold a system that has never loved us accountable, we must have democracy, we must have decision-making authority around how these institutions function in our community,” Brown said. “Is this a silver bullet? No. But is it a necessary ingredient? Yes.”

Another burning question raised during the night:. Should homegrown schools chief Janice Jackson keep her job?

Brown praised Jackson as a talented teacher and strong principal in the black community before her ascent to the central office — but expressed deep concern that she’s unable to run the district “with her instincts and what she knows how to do.”

“I think her work is highly politicized,” Brown said. “National Teachers Academy was being closed over a land grab, and her position on that was not the right position. Parents had to go to state appellate court in order to get that victory. Situations like that give me pause.”

But Anello and Swanson answered with high praise for the work Jackson has done and strong endorsements for her continuing to run the show at the nation’s third-largest school district.

Anello touted Jackson as a down-to-earth and accessible schools chief.

“If you want to have a conversation with her just pick up the phone,” he said. “That is rare in a school leader. It would be a shame and an absolute mistake to tell her to step down when you have a unicorn.”

Swanson said Jackson’s on-the-ground experience in school communities helps her relate to and inspire educators and school leaders, and her experience managing the $5 billion Chicago Public Schools make her a strong candidate to keep the job, whoever occupies the mayor’s office next year.

“I think Janice is an incredible leader, really unique,” Swanson said.

Panelists also diverged on whether the new mayor should freeze charter school expansion in the city.

Garcia questioned whether the city’s more than 100 charter schools have lived up to their billing as laboratories to experiment with and improve education. Chicago, he said, has “been infected with charter mania,” and instead needs to pivot toward the importance of ensuring current schools are adequately funded.

Anello tried quelling the debate on charters vs. neighborhood schools, arguing that parents are agnostic about school type and more concerned about quality education and good schools for their children.

“I would start by listening to communities and families,” he said.