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.