making plans

Push to curb academic segregation on the Upper West Side generates a backlash — and support

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
District 3 is floating a plan to boost academic diversity in middle schools, including Wadleigh Secondary School.

A plan to make it more likely that higher- and lower-performing students on the Upper West Side go to middle school together is stoking divisions among some families there.

Officials in District 3 are pushing a plan to offer at least a quarter of seats at the district’s 16 middle schools to students whose state test scores suggest they are not proficient in reading and math. Ten percent of admissions offers would go to students scoring at the lowest level, and another 15 percent would go to students scoring just below the proficiency bar.

The change would have dramatic effects at some of the district’s schools, according to a city analysis, while other schools would see their student population change less.

Most likely to be shaken up by the proposal, if it goes into effect: The expectation in the district that high test scores — achieved most often by the district’s middle-class students — should guarantee families their top choice of middle schools.

“A lot of people are afraid of change,” said Maria Santa, whose daughter attends a district elementary school that few middle-class families choose. “I don’t think people are going to stand for this.”

Indeed, the proposal has drawn sharp criticism at some of the public meetings that the education department is holding to inform parents and drum up support. An NY1 report about one meeting, held at P.S. 199 during the school day Tuesday, featured parents who pushed back strongly against the proposal, saying their kids would be shut out of the most sought-after schools.

“You’re telling them, ‘You’re going to go to a school that’s not going to educate you in the same way you’ve been educated: Life sucks!’” one woman shouted.

But many of the district’s elected parent leaders are on board, as are other local parents. So, too, are principals in the district, who say the move could protect their schools after the city barred them from seeing how students ranked them on their applications.

That change, announced in June, was the city’s effort to eliminate strategic tricks that weren’t in middle school directories but were known by savvy parents and consultants that some families hire to guide them through the admissions process.

But in District 3, one of three Manhattan districts currently using “revealed rankings” in middle school admissions, principals said they actually used information about how much students wanted to go to their schools to engineer more diverse student populations.

“What first choice allowed us to do is fairly distinguish between [students], because anyone could list us first,” said Marlon Lowe, principal of Mott Hall II in Morningside Heights. “We would interview you, we would get to know your scholar and we would make a serious, thoughtful decision based on many variables.”

Mott Hall II’s admissions process resulted in a relatively diverse student population – but other schools in the district are segregated by race and achievement level.

About 87 percent of admissions offers at J.H.S. 54 Booker T. Washington, for example, went to students who earned top scores on state tests, and about 60 percent of students are white. At P.S. 149 Sojourner Truth, a pre-K through 8th grade school where more than 60 percent of students are black, just 6 percent of offers went to students who earned high test scores.

“We are not offering all students equity and access across all the district,” said District 3 Superintendent Ilene Altschul. “We need to do something.”

At one recent meeting, Altschul hastened to reassure parents who might worry that top-scoring students will have a tougher time getting into the most coveted schools. She admitted that fewer families would get their first pick under the plan — but she said the percentage of students who are admitted to one of their top three choices should remain about the same.

A simulation based on application data from 2017 suggests there could be significant changes, especially in schools that attract top-scoring students. At West End Secondary School, the number of students with the highest test scores would fall 19 percentage points, resulting in 66 percent of all students earning top test scores. But at P.S. 180, which has middle school grades, the simulation found that just one more high-performing student would be offered admissions under the new plan.

That’s a product of how families are ranking the schools, said Kristen Berger, a parent who has been leading the district’s diversity efforts as chair of the parent council’s middle school committee. Higher-scoring students just aren’t ranking schools where a majority of students have lower test scores, she said. It may also be harder to change the makeup of K-8 schools, Berger said, since many students chose to stay through middle school.

“The most crucial component to this is to give serious consideration to a wide range of schools,” Berger said. “It’s a big step, I definitely recognize it … but in the long run this is better for our children.”

Some members of the district’s elected parent council said that reality means the city needs to do more than just reserve seats for lower-scoring students.

“This is not remotely enough,” Daniel Katz, who sits on the council, said about the projected change at P.S. 180. “The number of impacted children at these schools is basically non-existent.”

Another council member, Genisha Metcalf, raised concerns that the proposal could steer more families away from schools that currently serve many low-performing students.

“If we want to see true diversity,” Metcalf said, “the plan needs to both include how do we get students into those highly sought-after schools, and, how do we ensure that the schools people are considering undesirable are not in an even worse spot.”

Education department officials have long made it clear that grassroots support is critical to pursuing any diversity efforts. (New Chancellor Richard Carranza has indicated he is more open to pushing for integration than his predecessor, Carmen Fariña, who said changes to schools’ demographics should happen “organically.”)

A previous plan to make District 3 middle schools more economically diverse died after parents and principals rallied against it. In 2016, Altschul proposed setting aside 30 percent of seats at each middle school for low-income students, but wasn’t able to build support for the change.

Now, Altschul has won over principals, but parents are airing concerns. At a recent public meeting, one father stood up to ask whether his son’s teachers will get extra help if more students with low test scores are admitted to his school.

He was echoing a concern that has come up repeatedly at selective schools, where parents worry that any changes to admissions could water down instruction. While research suggests that academic integration generally benefits all students, some research shows that when the gulf among students is too wide, neither high- nor lower-performing students are better off.

“That’s my biggest concern,” said the father, whose son attends the Computer School and who declined to be quoted by name. “With more challenging kids in the class, you’re putting on much more stress” on teachers.

Some middle-class families say they’re prepared to embrace the changes, even if their own children might face a tougher path to their first-choice middle school. Nicole Greevy, who has a child in third grade in District 3, acknowledged it may take time for the plan to have a noticeable impact in schools, but she called it a “terrific start.”

“I think diversity benefits everyone,” she said. “I did not have a classmate who was African American until I got to college and that was a failure on the part of my schools. I want my child to have a better experience than I did.”

If Altschul formally proposes the changes to the education department and it gets city approval, the changes would go into effect in the 2019-20 school year — the same time when the citywide middle school changes will be implemented. She said the change is needed to help boost performance for all students.

“This is the work we really need to do around closing the achievement gap,” she said. “Integrating students across all levels is really what’s essential. It really does strengthen learning for all students.”

harlem renaissance

After a battle to integrate middle schools, parents turn their attention to Harlem

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Genisha Metcalf, center right, and Dennis Morgan, far left, are among the parents at P.S. 180 who are leading a grassroots effort to boost Harlem schools.

Along a stretch of brick wall at P.S. 180 Hugo Newman, a massive mural proclaims “Young, gifted, and Harlem.”

The sunny new painting at the K-8 school, which was donated by a local artist, is not the typical volunteer effort. It’s part of a push by parent leaders and city officials to boost Harlem schools — the crucial next step toward making a new, contentious integration plan work.

The education department this summer approved changes to the way students are admitted to middle schools in District 3, an effort to spur diversity in a deeply segregated district that spans the Upper West Side and part of Harlem. The fight to get it approved captured national attention, but the admissions changes may have been the easy part.

Students there are still free to apply to their choice of middle schools, so demographics won’t shift at many schools unless families make different decisions about where to send their children. For Harlem, that means competing for students with schools that have far more resources and are in strong demand with middle-class parents.

That’s why, in the coming year, the district will undertake a “visioning” campaign for Harlem with the aim of floating plans to meet the schools’ needs while canvassing the community to find out what families want. There are also on-the-ground efforts, like those being led by parents at P.S. 180, to paint a more positive picture of Harlem schools.

“This isn’t just about what we’ve heard before: ‘Harlem schools are struggling,’ and that older narrative,” said Dennis Morgan, a parent on the local Community Education Council whose children attend P.S. 180. “There are actually really, really informed parents, [and] really, really, talented and gifted children here — that are more than what the narrative speaks to.”

The plan

District 3 families apply to middle schools rather than being zoned to one based on their address. Despite that wide degree of choice, the district is segregated: Booker T. Washington enrolls almost 70 percent white and Asian students; The district average is 40 percent. At P.S. 149 Sojourner Truth, a K-8 school, virtually all of the students are black or Hispanic.  

Beginning next year, middle schools will give admissions preference for a quarter of seats to students with low test scores and poor report card grades, and who come from low-income families. That could result in more racial diversity in some schools since academic performance and poverty are often linked to race and ethnicity.

But the admissions priority will only make a difference if schools have a diverse group of applicants to pull from. Today, many do not.  

Based on a simulation of admissions offers, patterned on how families applied to schools last year, many Harlem schools would remain essentially unchanged by the integration plan.

The projections show that P.S. 076 A. Philip Randolph, a K-8 school on 121st Street, would see its demographics remain basically the same. Wadleigh Secondary School for the Performing & Visual Arts, a Harlem school that narrowly survived an attempt to shut it down this year, would admit about one more high-performing student. Both would still serve mostly students who struggled on state tests and come from low-income families.

The biggest changes would be seen outside of Harlem, where more low-performing students would get admitted to some of the district’s most sought-after schools.

For parents on the local education council, which for years has pushed the education department to address segregation in its middle schools, the admissions changes alone were problematic: They mean that more Harlem students will likely be leaving their neighborhood schools, but the plan did nothing to address why parents aren’t picking those schools in the first place.

“That does nothing for investing in these schools,” said Genisha Metcalf, a parent on the education council whose daughter attends P.S. 180.

The work ahead

Harlem faces intense competition for students from the more selective schools to its south, and charters in its own backyard.

Students who passed state tests cram into a few schools on the Upper West Side that use tough admissions criteria. Meanwhile, Harlem is home to 10 of the district’s 11 charter schools. A recent report from the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School found that 63 percent of Harlem families enroll in schools outside the neighborhood.

When students leave, they take crucial funding with them since school budgets are based on enrollment. Three Harlem schools had fewer than 200 students last year.

“We have to focus on what it’s going to take for kids to enroll in these schools,” said Kim Watkins, a member of the Community Education Council. “We’ve got to start listening to the community and working with the various stakeholders… to make sure we understand what it is we need to offer.”

That’s the next phase of the district’s integration plans. With the middle school admissions changes in effect, the city is now weighing ways to boost enrollment in Harlem schools. Among the possibilities: Opening new pre-K classes in the neighborhood; eliminating the zoning around P.S. 241, a science and technology school; and opening a standalone middle school since Harlem is almost exclusively served by K-8 campuses.

The city is also looking at ways to make school offerings more equitable across the district, promising to implement more rigorous Regents math and science courses in every middle school and to expand tutoring options.

Before the city makes any moves, though, officials are fanning across the district to listen to parent feedback and partner with local organizations to hear concerns and collect new ideas.

“We know there’s real work to do to strengthen programming in Harlem and across District 3, and we’re excited to partner with the community, including principals, parent leaders, and families, on the Harlem visioning process,” education department spokesman Doug Cohen said in an emailed statement.  

Already, some ideas are percolating among Community Education Council members.

Morgan wants to partner with local business and has called on the district to devise ways to share dramatically lopsided PTA fundraising — a move that has been met with fierce opposition elsewhere. While some Harlem schools struggle to raise budgets in the hundreds of dollars, the PTA at P.S. 87 on the Upper West Side was named the second wealthiest parent organization in the country in a report last year by the Center for American Progress. The school raised $1.6 million, according to the report.

“That’s the place where this resourcing gap gets closed,” Morgan said.

Perhaps the more difficult work ahead, though, is shifting parents’ perceptions so they’ll pick Harlem schools. The fight to approve the admissions changes shows how far parent leaders have to go.

In public meetings to float the integration plans, one concern was repeated over and over again: Middle class parents argued there were only a few “good” schools in the district, and they worried the city’s plans would make it harder for their children to enroll in those schools. None of the most sought-after schools, which receive a crush of applications each year, are in Harlem.

Metcalf sat in many of those meetings and was irked by the way her neighborhood schools were portrayed. It went against her experience at P.S. 180, a school where she said parents are involved and the staff are dedicated.

So when artist Ronald Draper donated his talent to produce an original work for the district, Metcalf brainstormed with Harlem parents and educators to come up with something that would send that message. The piece spans about 50 feet, with the neighborhood defined by the people who live there. In a corner, Draper described Harlem as an adjective: “to shine bright.”

“We wanted something that was loud and proud,” Metcalf said. “It was like: What’s something that’s really representative of every single student in not only this building, but in Harlem?”

In addition to their massive new mural, Metcalf has printed out postcards that tout the school’s hydroponics lab, dual language classes, and music program — another piece of a grassroots campaign to highlight what’s already working in the neighborhood’s schools.

Parent leaders have been calling for more attention to be paid to Harlem schools for some time now. A similar integration battle, over the rezoning of some district elementary schools, led the education council to plan a “Harlem Summit,” which turned into an annual informational event for the area’s parents.

This time, the district is armed with a state grant that provides training and guidance around school integration issues. There is another crucial difference: The local Community Education Council now includes parents like Metcalf and Morgan, who send their children to Harlem schools. For them, the work is personal.

“I care about all kids, but this is my kid’s future,” Metcalf said.

Compare and Contrast

Comparing the Upper West Side and Harlem integration plans: Here’s how schools, admissions offers could change

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Parents gathered at a recent Community Education Council meeting in District 3 to learn about the city's plan to integrate Upper West Side and Harlem middle schools.

Following an uproar over a plan to integrate Manhattan’s District 3, the Department of Education introduced three more proposals to change the makeup of middle schools on the Upper West Side and in Harlem.

The initial plan for integrating the 16 middle schools — which drew the ire of some parents concerned their children would be elbowed out of sought-after schools — was pulled by the education department. While the new plans also set aside 25 percent for low-performing students, they differ from the original option in an important way: they don’t rely solely on student test scores to guide admissions decisions.

We’ve placed each plan side-by-side to help you get up to speed. The district hopes to put its new admissions system into place in early June, in time for the middle school admissions process.

What would the plans do?

Each plan would give needy students priority for a quarter of admissions offers at 16 middle schools. Within those seats, 10 percent of offers would go to students who struggle the most, and 15 percent would go to students with the next-highest level of need.

However, the plans look at different factors to determine who gets priority:

Plan A would consider test scores and whether a student attended an elementary school where many students are economically needy.

Plan B would take test scores and report cards into account.

Plan C, presented by city officials Tuesday, would weigh test scores, report card grades, and whether a student qualifies for free- or reduced-price lunch — a commonly used measure of poverty. The plan considers whether an individual student is considered poor — rather than the demographics of his or her entire elementary school, which would be the case with Plan A.

How would the schools change?

Supporters of the plans hope they will extend academic opportunity to more students in District 3. And since race and class are often linked to academic performance, the proposal could integrate schools in numerous ways. But despite the controversy, the city’s projections actually show the impact of the changes are likely to be small because of how families are ranking schools. Some struggling students are already applying to the district’s more sought-after schools. But higher-performing students — who tend to be middle class — are not ranking schools where many students are poor or struggling.

These projections are based on how families applied to schools last year.

Under Plan A, the schools that would change the most are:

  • West End Secondary School would offer 21 percent of seats to students who have low test scores and come from high-needs elementary schools. That’s an increase of 19 percentage points.
  • The Computer School would offer 26 percent of seats to students in the priority group, up 15 percentage points.
  • West Side Collaborative Middle School would offer 49 percent of seats to students in the priority group — a decrease of 14 percentage points.

Under Plan B, the schools that would change the most are:

  • West End Secondary School would offer 25 percent of seats to students with low report card grades and test scores, an increase of 13 percentage points.
  • Dual Language Middle School would offer 64 percent of seats to the priority group. That is a 12-point decrease.
  • Both the Computer School and Booker T. Washington would see an 11 point increase in offers to the priority group. At the Computer School, 32 percent of offers would go to those students. At Booker T. Washington, the priority group would comprise 19 percent of offers.

Under Plan C, the schools that would change the most are:

  • West Side Collaborative would offer 47 percent of seats to students who have low test scores and report card grades, and qualify for free- or reduced-price lunch. That is a decrease of 16 percentage points.
  • The Computer School would offer 28 percent of seats to students in the priority group, an increase of 16 percentage points.
  • West End Secondary School would offer 17 percent of seats to the priority group — up 13 percentage points.

But under each plan, schools would still be largely divided between those that serve mostly top-performers and those who serve students who struggle.

How many families would be impacted?

Contrary to what the backlash to the plan suggests, they would actually only impact a small number of the almost 2,000 families applying to the district’s middle schools.

The city’s projections show more students benefiting from the changes because they would be offered a spot in a higher-ranked school, or get a match rather than be shut out. That is likely to be an important factor in the district’s decision making, since the city has proven uneasy about the impression that student would be forced into schools they don’t want to go to.

Under Plan A, 109 families would get a seat in a school that they ranked lower on their application. The city estimates that 96 families would not receive an offer to a school on their list — 18 more families than without the plan. But 169 students would be offered a seat at a school they ranked higher.

Under Plan B, 135 students would get a seat in a school that was lower on their application. It’s estimated that 100 families would not get accepted to any school on their list, 22 more than without the plan. On the other hand, 194 students would benefit. 

Under Plan C, 137 families would get a seat in a school that they ranked lower. The city’s projections show that 113 families wouldn’t be matched to a school they picked — 35 more families than before. That’s compared to 185 students who would be offered a seat at a school they ranked higher.