money matters

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

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
As M.S. 442 attracts more high-income families, its federal Title I funding has come under threat.

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.

Sorting the Students

Another integration plan for Upper West Side middle schools is met with some support, but also familiar concerns

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
The education department presented a new proposal to integrate Upper West Side and Harlem middle schools.

The education department on Tuesday presented yet another proposal for integrating Upper West Side and Harlem middle schools, drawing both support and concern from parents.

Under the latest proposal, every middle school in District 3 would offer a quarter of seats to students who have low test scores and report card grades, and qualify for free- or reduced-price lunch — a commonly used proxy for poverty. Since race and class are often linked to academic performance, the proposal could integrate schools on a number of measures.

The district has gained nationwide attention for its integration efforts, which have drawn heated pushback from some parents who worry their children will be shut out of the most sought-after schools.

But many others have applauded the push for change in a diverse yet starkly segregated district — including a number of local principals. On Tuesday, five school leaders stood in support of pursuing integration plans.

“This is a move towards diversity, towards equity, and it’s a great thing,” P.S. 84 Principal Evelyn J. Lolis told the crowd. “The choice is yours.”

The district’s 16 middle schools don’t have attendance zones. Instead, students currently apply to the schools of their choice, and most schools set admissions criteria based on factors such as an interview, attendance, or test scores.

District leaders originally proposed only considering student test scores in their integration proposal. Just last week, they presented two alternate proposals that look at a combination of test scores, report card grades, and whether a student attended a school with many other needy students.

The new plan was presented after some raised concerns about the plan not taking into account low-performing students who attend less needy schools. This latest proposal considers whether an individual student is considered poor — rather than the demographics of his or her entire elementary school. At high-performing West End Secondary School, there would be a 13-point increase in the number of poor, struggling students who are offered admission — up from only 5 percent.

The plan didn’t quell all of the parent complaints, though the evening lacked the fireworks of earlier meetings. Some wondered whether schools will be able to serve more struggling students in the same classrooms as higher performing students, and how schools will support those classes. Though diversity has generally been shown to benefit students, Andy Weinstein, a parent at P.S. 84, pointed to studies that showed negative effects when students were mixed by ability levels.

“The research suggests it won’t work and in fact may backfire,” he said. “I think mandating academic diversity and taking a one size fits all approach is a disservice.”  

Community Education Council member Genisha Metcalf echoed the concerns of other parents who said that the district’s plans ignore some of the highest-needs schools. A simulation of the latest proposal shows that many schools with lower test scores would remain essentially unchanged.

P.S. 149 Sojourner Truth, a K-8 school, would actually get more low performing and poor students, according to an education department proposal — from 68 percent of students to 70 percent. Community Action school would go from having 64 percent poor and struggling students, to 63 percent.

Metcalf said the district should focus on providing those schools with much-needed resources.

“I think we’re conflating some issues. Equity is providing all schools with equal opportunity, equal access to resources,” she said. “Equity is not taking a few students from the highest needs schools and sending the message that we need to shuffle kids out of their community.”

For each integration proposal, the education department says more families would receive an offer to a more preferred middle school choice than under the current admissions system. Under the latest proposal, about 113 families — about 5 percent of the total — would not get matched to a school they chose, compared with 78 families last year.

The education department’s goal is to have a final plan in place by June, when families start the middle school selection process.

School Finance

Why some IPS schools are facing big budget cuts, and others are mostly spared from the pain

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
School 107 is expected to lose about $230,000 next year, one of the larger cuts in the district.

At campuses across Indianapolis Public Schools, principals are grappling with a painful prospect: cutting hundreds of thousands of dollars from their school budgets. And that may be just the beginning.

The district is looking to cut about $21 million from its $269 million general fund budget for 2018-19, including about $8.9 million that will come from budgets for schools and certified staff such as teachers, according to a preliminary budget document. Officials declined to give school-by-school breakdowns until they are finalized later this summer.

The district initially planned to fill its budget gap by asking voters for nearly $1 billion in extra funding in May, but after the proposal received little support, the board first shrunk and then delayed the request. The cuts that begin next year could continue if the state’s largest district isn’t able to find other savings or win voter support for a referendum to increase taxes and school funding in November.

“We have the hope of a referendum,” said Weston Young, the district’s chief financial manager.

Chalkbeat has the details on what types of schools are expected to lose the most, what schools might cut, and what this means for the future of the district.

Big schools — including high schools — are taking the brunt of the cuts.

When it comes to cutting spending, large schools are carrying more of the burden, according to the preliminary documents. That includes middle and high schools, as well as some elementary schools. At some of the district’s smallest campuses, however, officials say budgets are already too lean for significant cuts.

Indianapolis Public Schools sends money to schools using a formula known as student-based allocation, which gives them funding based on how many students they enroll and student needs. But every school also has a baseline amount of money district officials believe they need to operate.

Small schools that serve wide grade spans, which might only have one class at each grade level, often get extra money to be sure they reach the minimum. In contrast, large campuses typically get enough from the per student formula to be above baseline. On a basic level, the district budget is based around the idea that it costs less per child to educate students in large, efficient schools.

Because of that approach, campuses that were already at minimum funding levels won’t see significant cuts, Young said. On the flip side, however, bigger campuses are shouldering a larger share of the cuts.

That could be bad news for the four high schools that will remain open in the fall. The schools will be among the largest campuses in the district, and they are expected to face significant cuts.

Last month, Superintendent Lewis Ferebee told Chalkbeat that cuts would not damage the effort to revamp high schools because, in addition to baseline funding, the schools will have donations from private partners such as Salesforce.

“Obviously, we won’t have all the resources that we’d like to have,” he said, “but we will be in a good position come August of 2018.”

Magnet schools and career and technical education get extra money — and extra cuts.

On top of their regular budgets, choice programs, such as Montessori, International Baccalaureate, and career and technical education, receive millions of extra dollars each year. That spending is also on the chopping block as the district cuts costs.

But because the district had already planned spending on those programs and some areas are easier to reduce than others, cuts won’t be spread evenly, said Aisha Humphries, director of budget and strategy for the district. In Montessori schools, for example, instructional assistants are integral to the model, she said. In order to cut that, the district would have to change the school model.

“When you do budget cuts, it may be that we want to cut equally and make everybody feel the pain equally,” Humphries said, “but you may not be able to do that.”

But there are other areas where the district can more easily cut back, Humphries said, such as by reducing the number of foreign languages offered in middle school.

Schools are giving up technology, teachers, and other staff.

As the district cuts budgets, principals ultimately decide what painful trade offs to make. Under the new budgeting approach the district rolled out this year, principals are given a set amount of money, and they have control over how they spend most it. If a principal wants to make class sizes slightly larger to pay for a school social worker, for example, they can. When it comes to budget cuts, the approach is the same.

“They are still in the driver’s seat,” Young said.

When schools got budgets earlier this year, they were built on the assumption that the district would win the May referendum. But principals knew that additional funding might not come through, and some planned for potential cuts when they created their budgets, Young said.

When principal Jeremy Baugh learned School 107 is expected to lose about $230,000 next year, he already had some potential cuts in mind. The school will cut back on new technology, instructional supplies, and professional development. Baugh also won’t go through with his plan to hire two new educators.

School 107, which enrolls just over 600 students, is expected to have one of the larger budget cuts in the district. But in part because the school is growing and will get more money for those new students, he doesn’t expect to cut current staff.

“We didn’t have to make significant cuts that were impacting staff right now,” Baugh said. “So we felt pretty lucky.”