money matters

When diversity backfires: How schools can lose funding as they try to integrate

PHOTO: Christina Veiga

For years, M.S. 442 Carroll Gardens School for Innovation served mostly low-income students. But with more well-off families picking the Brooklyn school than ever before, it is at a tipping point — and so is its budget.

Schools in Brooklyn must enroll at least 60 percent poor students to receive Title I money, a pot of federal funding that supports schools with many needy families. The recent influx of middle-class students has pushed M.S. 442 right below that threshold, to just under 59 percent last school year, likely leaving it with a budget hole of almost $120,000.

“We’ll have to dig deep,” said Principal Noreen Mills. “My main concern and goal is for my students to have all the opportunities we have now, when we do have Title I funding.”

Across New York City, parents, educators and students have led a grassroots effort to better integrate schools, which are among the most segregated in the country. But for all its academic and social benefits, greater socioeconomic diversity can create new problems for school budgets.

When high-poverty schools attract just enough middle-class families to fall below the Title I cut off, the federal funding spigot abruptly shuts off. While the city education department extends the funding for one year after schools cease to qualify, principals are soon left scrambling to plug the budget hole — even as they continue to serve a large share of low-income students who may need extra support.

“There’s no nuance in it,” said Jody Drezner Alperin, a parent at M.S. 442. “You either are, or aren’t,” a Title I school.

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Students start the school day at M.S. 442 in Brooklyn.

Those newly diverse schools may not yet have enough higher-income families who are able to raise or donate funds equivalent to the lost Title I money. But even if that’s possible, some principals hesitate to rely too heavily on parents’ checkbooks. They worry that doing so would devalue the contributions of families who can’t afford to donate, while giving affluent parents greater sway over school decision-making and programming.

“It throws it over to the middle class to be the financial saviors of the school,” said Julie Zuckerman, the principal of Castle Bridge School, a mixed-income school in Washington Heights that doesn’t yet qualify for Title I. “We want to have the resources to do right by all the kids.”

At M.S. 442, more than 74 percent of students qualified for free lunch just five years ago, the measure the city uses to decide whether a school will get Title I money. That was before the school underwent a makeover and moved to a new building, which drew in many higher-income families. Today, about 48 percent of students qualify for free lunch.

But the influx of middle-class parents has not meant an infusion of cash. The school still relies on its roughly $120,000 in Title I funding per year to pay for student clubs, sports teams, teacher training, and mental-health services for students and families. (Because the school dipped below the Title I cutoff last year, it is currently receiving its one-year funding extension.)

The parent organization still gets $1 donations and holds bake sales. On its website, it asks families to consider pledging $4.42 a month — far short of the $200 yearly suggested donation at a nearby middle school with a less needy population.

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Noreen Mills is the principal of M.S. 442 Carroll Garden School for Innovation, which has fallen just below the threshold to qualify for federal Title I funding.

Rather than selling tickets to events like movie nights as a way to raise money, the M.S. 442 parent organization invites families to come for free, Drezner Alperin said. It sees the gatherings as opportunities to build community — but it also knows that charging admission would place a burden on some families.

“Our fundraising ability is reflective of the community of our school,” Drezner Alperin said. “Some people give, some people can’t.”

Now, schools have a new tool to try to save their Title I funding — and their socioeconomic diversity.

In 2015, the education department launched the “Diversity in Admissions” program, which allows schools to reserve a portion of their seats for disadvantaged students — some have saved spots for students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch or who are still learning English. So far, 42 schools have joined.

For schools in gentrifying neighborhoods, the program can help ensure they remain an option for low-income families — and that the schools hold onto their Title I funding. But it can also work in the other direction: Schools popular with middle-class families can set aside spots for a larger number of disadvantaged students than they currently serve. Doing so can boost their diversity and also, potentially, help them qualify for Title I money.

That’s what Principal Zuckerman is hoping to engineer at the Castle Bridge School.

The school’s progressive approach, where students get to choose which books to read and projects to pursue, appeals to many middle-class families, among others. But its dual-language classes taught in English and Spanish — along with targeted recruitment — has ensured the school enrolls many low-income students, too.

The result is a mixed-income school that has, until now, fallen just short of the Title I cutoff. Without that boost, the school uses $100,000 from its budget to pay for after-school programs, while the parent organization raises more than $2,000 a month to support a snack program that lets students cook and share food.

So when Zuckerman had the chance to become one of the first schools to join the Diversity in Admissions program, she jumped at the opportunity to protect the school’s diversity from the threat of gentrification — and to push it above the Title I threshold. With 60 percent of seats reserved for students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, and another 10 percent set aside for children with incarcerated parents, she expects Castle Bridge to qualify for Title I funding next school year.

The extra funding would free up money in the school’s budget to take students on a camping trip where students from different backgrounds would get to explore the world together, Zuckerman said. In that way, the Title I money would help the school truly take advantage of its diversity.

“The idea is that we want to bring multiple communities that can learn how to speak across cultural divides or differences,” she said.

Find your school

How many students apply to Chicago’s most competitive high school programs? Search by school.

PHOTO: Hero Images / Getty Images
CPS released school-by-school results from its new GoCPS high school application system

How many students ranked each public high school program among their top three choices for the 2018-2019 school year? Below, search the first-of-its-kind data, drawn from Chicago Public Schools’ new high school application portal, GoCPS.

The database also shows how many ninth grade seats each program had available, the number of offers each program made, and the number of students that accepted offers at each program.

The district deployed the GoCPS system for the first time in advance of the 2018-2019 school year. The system had students rank up to 20 choices from among 250 programs in 132 high schools. Through the portal, applicants had the choice to apply separately to, and rank, the city’s 11 in-demand, selective enrollment programs. Before the GoCPS system streamlined the high school application process, students lacked a common deadline or a single place to submit applications.

A report released Thursday by the University of Chicago Consortium of School Research and the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago found that the system is mostly working as intended. The majority of students who used GoCPS ultimately got one of their top three choices. But the study also disclosed problems that the district now faces: There are too many empty seats in high schools. Main findings of the report are here.

School choice

New data pulls back curtain on Chicago’s high school admissions derby

PHOTO: Joshua Lott / Getty Images
Chicago's new high school application system has provided a centralized inventory of school-by-school application data

Before the online portal GoCPS system streamlined the high school choice process, Chicago schools lacked a common deadline or single place portal to submit applications. Some students would receive several acceptances, and others would get none. But a new report shows that the new, one-stop application system is working as intended, with the majority of students ultimately getting one of their top three choices.

But the study, released Thursday by the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research and the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, also lays bare a major problem with which the city’s public schools must wrangle: There are too many empty seats in high schools.

And it shows that demand varies by income level, with students from low-income neighborhoods casting more applications than students from wealthier ones and applying in greater numbers for the district’s charter high schools. Click here to search our database and see demand by individual school. 

The report leaves unanswered some key questions, too, including how choice impacts neighborhood high schools and whether a streamlined application process means that more students will stick with their choice school until graduation.

Deployed for the first time in advance of the 2018-2019 school year, the GoCPS system let students rank up to 20 choices from among 250 programs in 132 high schools. Separately, applicants can also apply to, and rank, the city’s 11 in-demand selective enrollment programs through the GoCPS portal.

The data paints a never-before-seen picture of supply and demand for seats at various high school programs across Chicago Public Schools. One in five high school options is so popular that there are 10 applicants for every seat, while 8 percent of programs fall short of receiving enough applications, according to the report.    

CPS CEO Janice Jackson said the new data presents a full, centralized inventory and will help the district “have the kind of conversations we need to have” with communities. The district is facing pressure from community groups to stop its practice of shuttering under-enrolled schools. Asked about what kind of impact the report might have on that decision-making, Jackson said that “part of my leadership is to make sure that we’re more transparent as a district and that we have a single set of facts on these issues.”

As for declines in student enrollment in Chicago, “that’s no secret,” she said. “I think that sometimes, when when we’re talking about school choice patterns and how parents make decisions, we all make assumptions how those decisions get made,” Jackson said. “This data is going to help make that more clear.”

Beyond selective enrollment high schools, the data spotlights the district’s most sought-after choice programs, including career and technical education programs, arts programs, and schools with the highest ratings: Level 1-plus and Level 1.

“What that says to me is that we’re doing a much better job offering things outside of the selective schools,” said Jackson, who pointed out that 23 percent of students who were offered seats at both selective enrollment and non-selective enrollment schools opted for the latter.

“Those [selective] schools are great options and we believe in them, but we also know that we have high-quality schools that are open enrollment,” she said.

Programs in low demand were more likely to be general education and military programs; programs that base admissions on lotteries with eligibility requirements; and programs located in schools with low ratings.

Other findings:

  • Chicago has far more high school seats than students — a dynamic that’s been clear for years and that the report’s authors stress is not interfering with the admissions process. About 20,000 freshman seats remain unfilled across CPS for the upcoming school year. At least 13,000 of those empty seats are a consequence of plummeting enrollment at CPS.
  • It’s still not clear how neighborhood schools, which guarantee admission to students who live within their boundaries, affect demand. About 7,000 students are expected to enroll at their neighborhood high schools. When CPS conducts its 20th day count of enrollment at district schools, more complete details will be available. Lisa Barrow, a senior economist and research advisor at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, said one of the things researchers weren’t able to dig into is the demand for neighborhood programs, because students didn’t have to rank their neighborhood schools.
  • The report suggests that the process would be more streamlined if students could rank selective enrollment programs along with other options. “If students received only one offer, there would be less need to adjust the number of offers to hit an ideal program size,” the report says.
  • Students don’t participate in the new process evenly. The report shows that students from low-income neighborhoods were more likely to rank an average of 11.7 programs, while students from the wealthiest neighborhoods ranked an average of 7.3. The authors said it was not clear whether that meant students from wealthier neighborhoods were more willing to fall back on their neighborhood schools.  
  • Students from the city’s lowest-income neighborhoods were also more likely to rank a charter school as their top choice (29 percent), compared to students from the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods (10 percent). The same was true of low academic performers (12 percent), who chose charter schools at a percentage considerably higher than their high-performing peers (12 percent).
  • While the new admissions process folded dozens of school-by-school applications into one system, it didn’t change the fact that schools admit students according to a wide range of criteria. That means the system continues to favor students who can navigate a complicated process – likely ones whose families have the time and language skills to be closely involved.

Barrow, the researcher from the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, said one final question the report cannot answer is whether better matching students with high schools on the front end increases the chance that they stick around where they enroll as freshmen.

“If indeed they are getting better matches for high schools,” Barrow said, “then I would expect that might show up in lower mobility rates for students, so they are more likely to stay at their school and not transfer out.”

This story has been updated to reflect that the excess capacity in Chicago high schools does not interfere with the admissions process.