By the numbers

More gifted programs join New York City’s school diversity efforts

PHOTO: Christina Veiga

New York City will expand its efforts to diversify its starkly segregated Gifted and Talented programs, education department officials announced Tuesday.

Starting next year, two more gifted programs will join 42 other schools that have already changed their admissions policies in an attempt to enroll a more diverse group of students.

P.S. 11 the William T. Harris School in Chelsea will reserve 30 percent of its open gifted seats for kindergarten and first-grade students who qualify for free- or reduced-price lunch based on their family income, are homeless or live in public housing. At TAG Young Scholars Academy, 40 percent of seats will be set-aside for kindergarten students who qualify for free or reduced-price meals.

The addition of TAG is significant: As one of only five citywide gifted schools, students need a higher score to qualify for admissions, making those schools even more coveted. It joins Brooklyn School of Inquiry, another citywide gifted program that recently became a part of the city’s diversity efforts.

Diversity in the city’s gifted programs has been a challenge in New York City. Enrollment in gifted programs is almost the reverse of the overall demographics in the school system: Black and Hispanic students make up only 27 percent of students in gifted classes, though they comprise close to 70 percent of students citywide.

The city is also increasing the number of school districts that have gifted programs starting in third grade, rather than kindergarten, and use criteria other than test scores for admissions. The new districts are: 9 in South Bronx, 19 in East New York and 29 in northeast Queens. Experts say those changes are likely to make admissions more fair, since test scores for incoming kindergartners are more likely to reflect advantages in their childhood — such as their parents’ ability to pay for test prep.

But advocates who see gifted programs as crucial pipeline to the city’s specialized schools — crown jewels of the high school system that are themselves highly segregated — have questioned the wisdom of waiting to enroll some students in gifted program, while others get an earlier start.

“Why deprive all gifted students of a chance at early advanced coursework?” asked a recent report by a taskforce convened by the Brooklyn and Bronx borough presidents. “Couldn’t additional services lessen the gap between ability and achievement at a young age?”

The department also released figures that show the number of students taking entrance exams for the coveted programs remained about steady, along with the number of kids who earned a qualifying score. About 28 percent of test-takers scored high enough to apply for a seat, down just one percentage point from the previous year.

Overall, city figures show that more than 32,500 children took the gifted tests this year. That is a slight decrease compared to last year, when about 35,000 were tested. Officials attribute the decline to an overall lower number of incoming kindergarteners.

Once again, more affluent districts saw a greater number of test takers. In District 32 in Bushwick, only 159 students took the exams and 23 earned a qualifying score. (There are more than 12,000 students overall in the district.) Meanwhile, District 3, which includes the Upper West Side, had almost 1,400 test-takers. Almost 600 qualified for gifted, and the district enrolls a total of almost 23,000 students.

Unintended consequences

When Denver stopped lunch-shaming, debt from unpaid meals skyrocketed

PHOTO: David Buffington | Getty Images

After the Denver schools chief made a high-profile announcement last August guaranteeing a full meal to students whether or not they had the money to pay, many advocates cheered the end of so-called “lunch-shaming” in the 92,000-student district.

Then came an unpleasant surprise: Debt from unpaid lunches soared, rising to $356,000 from $13,000 the year before.

Denver’s exploding meal debt — amounting to roughly 900 unpaid lunches every school day of the year — illustrates the balancing act districts nationwide face amid growing public support for policies prohibiting lunch-shaming. Such shaming often involves giving students who can’t pay small, alternative meals, putting stickers or stamps on them to remind their parents to pay, or even throwing out their meals.

In the last couple years, a growing number of districts nationwide have established policies to curb lunch-shaming. Some states, including New York, Iowa, and New Mexico, have passed statewide legislation with the same goals. The idea behind such measures is to free students from the burden of debt they have no power to pay and ensure they don’t go hungry at school. But with school districts obligated to pay for the meals, food service leaders are often left scrambling to cover mounting costs.

The school lunch debt is one reason Denver district officials quietly introduced snacks such as Doritos and Rice Krispies Treats in elementary school cafeteria lines late this past winter. The new additions, seen as unhealthy by some parents, helped generate around $41,000 in new revenue for the nutrition services department.

Diane Pratt-Heavner, director of media relations for the School Nutrition Association, said she hasn’t yet heard of another district with a debt increase the size of Denver’s following the introduction of a lunch-shaming prevention policy. But she said it’s an issue the group, which represents school food service employees, plans to watch closely.

“In many districts, allowing all kids to automatically get a free meal …. can turn into a real financial challenge for the program,” she said, noting that it can take away the incentive for parents to fill out the free and reduced-price meal application.

Nearly one-third of the district’s lunch debt last year came from families who were eligible for free or reduced-price meals, but signed up part-way into the school year, after their children had already received free school lunches. The federal government covers lunch costs for students eligible for free lunches and part of the cost for students who qualify for reduced-price lunches. For elementary school students in Colorado (and starting next year for middle-schoolers), the state covers the remaining cost of reduced-price lunches.

Another 68 percent of Denver families with unpaid meal debt don’t qualify for free or reduced-price meals. Still, district officials said it’s impossible to determine how many of those families would qualify for subsidized lunches if they applied, how many struggle financially but just miss the cut-off for eligibility, and how many can afford to pay for school lunches but choose not to.

Theresa Peña, regional coordinator for outreach and engagement in Denver’s nutrition services department, supports the district’s new lunch-shaming prevention policy, which ended the practice of giving students with lunch debt cheese sandwiches or graham crackers and milk.

Still, district officials didn’t expect the ballooning lunch debt, which at one point was projected to hit a half-million dollars, she said.

Peña said the district is stepping up efforts to get every family to fill out the free- and reduced-price meal application for next year — an extra challenge in the current political climate in which some immigrant families fear leaving a paper trail.

Last year, in addition to adding new revenue-generating snacks in elementary schools, the district tried to recoup the debt by making weekly robocalls to parents, working with principals to do outreach to families, and in some cases sending letters home with students.

“We made a pretty hard push,” Peña said. “It did make an impact, but not as great an impact as we had hoped.”

A national problem

Most districts nationwide accrue some debt for unpaid meals.

A 2016 survey by the School Nutrition Association found that three-quarters of school districts rack up unpaid meal debt, up slightly from 71 percent two years before.

In Denver, the amount of lunch debt ranges widely by school, with some accruing less than $50 and others accruing thousands. Omar D. Blair Charter School had the highest lunch debt among Denver schools last year at $11,500. Meanwhile, Florida Pitt Waller, Joe Shoemaker Elementary, Thomas Jefferson High School, and Cheltenham Elementary all reported lunch debts between $2,500 and $5,000.

At Shoemaker, where two-thirds of students are eligible for free or reduced-price meals, Kitchen Manager Chris Juarez said he believes much of the school’s $4,000 in lunch debt came from families who would have qualified for subsidized lunches but didn’t apply. Sometimes, he said, families don’t realize they have to re-submit their application each year; this fall, he plans to meet with returning families — in addition to new families — to emphasize that fact.

Other parents don’t realize they have to add to the form if a related child joins their household, he said. And language barriers may still be a problem, even though the form is available in many languages. In addition, some may worry that filling out the form means their immigration status can be tracked. A 2017 Denver school board resolution specified that the district does not collect or maintain any information on students’ immigration status.

Juarez suspects only a small percentage of Shoemaker families can afford to pay for their children’s lunches, but choose not to.

Shoemaker Principal Christine Fleming, said her top priority is making sure kids get to eat lunch, no matter what. She sees non-payment as a “parent issue,” and said, “I don’t want 5-, 6-, 7- year olds to carry that burden.”

Fleming said she’s always reserved some money in a special “principal’s account” to cover the cost of unpaid lunches, including in 2017–18, when she set aside a few hundred dollars.

Previously, that practice was common across the district, Peña said, but once the lunch-shaming policy took effect, “a lot of them said, ‘Zero out my principal account. I’m not going to do that anymore.’”

In 2016–17, when the district’s lunch debt was just $13,000, an online fundraising campaign and a contribution from a private donor covered the outstanding balance. But not this year.

A district grant of $100,000 paid off lunch debt from students who were eventually eligible for free or reduced-price lunch last school year but whose parents may not have signed up right away. Peña said the district has not finalized how the remaining $256,000 will be paid, and has until June 30 to make a decision.

Is it junk food?

Before this year, elementary schools in Denver sold some snacks — officially called a la carte items — in their cafeterias. These included turkey sticks, granola bars, popcorn, string cheese, and yogurt.

Peña said the district decided to add more a la carte items in February, a few months after district food service supervisors visited nearby districts, including Jeffco and Cherry Creek, and learned that “a la carte sales were a big deal” there.

The additions include more than a half-dozen kinds of chips, Rice Krispies Treats, gummy fruit snacks, and pistachios. All of the items — some of which are slightly reformulated versions of the same products sold on grocery store shelves — adhere to federal rules governing school snacks. Parents were not informed of the new snack offerings when they were introduced.

Susan Scovell, who has two children at Bradley International School in southeast Denver and works part-time as a personal chef, said of the new snacks, “It’s pretty much total junk food.”

She got wind of them when her second-grade daughter began mentioning that friends routinely bought Doritos and Cheetos at lunch time.

“It took me months to figure out this was going on,” she said. “Most parents really had no idea.”

Scovell said the new snacks stand in stark contrast to the district’s efforts to emphasize scratch cooking and other kinds of healthy eating initiatives, such as the week-long fruit- and vegetable-tasting event at Bradley this spring.

Peña, who said the district plans to communicate better about the snack options this coming year, said parents can prevent their children from buying certain snacks. To do so, they need to contact the school’s kitchen manager and request that a note be added to the student’s school meal account citing the restriction. She conceded that the process may not be obvious or easy for all parents, and said the department will look to address that.

Peña also said that principals or kitchen managers have the option to limit the sale of a la carte snacks at their schools. For example, they can choose not to sell certain items, or restrict the sale of a la carte items to the last 15 minutes of the lunch period or to certain days of the week.

Denver is hardly unique in offering a la carte snacks at elementary schools.

Other large Colorado districts, including Douglas County, Jeffco, and Cherry Creek, also offer such items to grade school students. All three districts allow parents to limit or block their children’s snack purchases.

Carol Muller, state director of Colorado Action for Healthy Kids, which promotes nutrition and exercise initiatives in schools, said one of the top concerns she hears from parents across Colorado is about a la carte snacks. At the same time, she understands the financial pressures school cafeterias are under.

“It’s a really tough issue for everyone involved, including us,” she said. “We certainly support food service staff. We don’t want to add a bigger burden to them, but on the other hand, as a parent, I don’t find all the snacks acceptable either.”

stump speech

New York City schools Chancellor Richard Carranza on segregation, national politics, and being Mexican-American

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Chancellor Richard Carranza gave a speech to parents, educators, and community advocates about the need to integrate schools. They were gathered in Harlem for a town hall organized by Mayor Bill de Blasio's School Diversity Advisory Group.

In his two months on the job, Chancellor Richard Carranza has left little room to doubt how he thinks and feels about school diversity — or the lack of it.

He tweeted a blunt criticism of middle-class parents who protested an integration plan for Upper West Side middle schools. He questioned a fundamental way that many New York City schools admit students: by screening for academic achievement, which critics say exacerbates segregation. And he has unflinchingly described the school system as “segregated” and pushed for “integration,” two words that his predecessor never uttered publicly.

And then there is this fiery speech that he’s been delivering at meetings across the city.

After tracing the history of school segregation, Carranza dives into national politics — praising the presidency of Barack Obama while lamenting the racial divisiveness that mars the current political climate. He talks about being Mexican-American, and what he hears when dissenters tell him — “Go back to Houston,” where Carranza briefly served as the head of schools.

He gave a version of this speech at a recent town hall in Brooklyn’s District 15. The speech reprinted here was delivered at a different town hall: A meeting in Harlem of the mayor’s School Diversity Advisory Group, which is tasked with forming recommendations to spur school integration.

This speech has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Let me give you the broader context of why this is important, beyond just the New York City Department of Education or our schools. I want you to think of three numbers: 64, 10, and 17.

Why is that important? Sixty-four years ago the question of diversifying schools, integrating schools, was definitively settled by the United States Supreme Court in Brown vs. Board of Education. They said that separate is never equal, and especially as it pertains to educational outcomes, it is not equal. The question I have for all of us tonight is: 64 years later what do we — the collective we — have to show for that? I will tell you that in communities across America, the answer is, not much. In some cases we’ve become more segregated. In some cases the intractableness of integrating schools and opportunities, and the gentrification that has happened with that, and the Balkanization that has happened around the racial divide, has become even more intractable. The fact that we’re gathered here today shows me that this community is willing to have tough conversations. 

Then what does 10 have to do with 64? I don’t know if you remember where you were 10 years ago, but I will never forget where I was 10 years ago on a November night. Ten years ago, this country elected the first black man president of the United States. We thought that would never happen, in at least our lifetime, with our history and what’s happened. That we would elect a black man president of the United States was in many cases, as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King said to us, we have reached the mountaintop, and we have now seen over that mountain top. We were jubilant. I was jubilant.

And we lulled ourselves into a false sense of complacency because we had entered a post-racial society. We elected a black president. Regardless of your politics, he did a good job for two terms. He didn’t embarrass us. He didn’t rip babies from mothers’ arms. He didn’t make fun of disabled people. When his words needed to lift us up, he lifted us up. When his words needed to motivate us, he motivated us. We elected a black man and we thought we had seen the mountaintop. We’re there.

So 64 and 10 gets you 17. Because that false sense of complacency has given us the last 17 months of a very different perspective on what it is to be an American, and a very different perspective on who has access. What has that 17 months taught us? That if we are not vigilant, that if we do not continue to live, and speak, and act upon the very foundation of what America is, then we will continue to drive that divide wider. The only way to move that conversation, is to have that conversation.

When I have my urban chancellor suit on people say, ‘Oh, Mr. Chancellor, let me tell you this, or let me tell you that.’ Well, when I don’t have the urban chancellor suit on, I’m in jeans and tennis shoes, or I have my Yankees baseball cap and a T-shirt, I guarantee you that I get followed in certain department stores. It’s happened everywhere I ever lived. When people don’t agree with what I have to say, and they say to me, ‘Go back to Houston,’ don’t make any mistake about the coded language. It’s really, ‘Go back to where you came from.’ I’m keeping it real: Were I a white man saying the same things, would they say go back to Europe? Someone who, my generation, generations of my family, never ever crossed the border? The border crossed us.

It’s important that we are in a room and we get past the micro-aggressive conversations that we have. It’s important to call it when we see it. It’s important that we put the real issue on the table, and the issue on the table is this: In one of the most diverse cities — not in America, in the world — in the largest school district in America —a school district that is a public school system — do we really provide opportunities for everyone?

When we talk about issues of how we screen students, we talk about who gets to go to what schools, and what’s the mechanism by which we decide that, so people can go to certain schools and not go to certain other schools. If we think about who’s being privileged — and I’m not talking about race, I’m not talking about money, I’m talking about opportunity — who’s being privileged with opportunity and who’s not? We, who own the schools, we who are the taxpayers, we who are New Yorkers, have to have this conversation.