spotlight

Meet the NYC principal in the spotlight for defending desegregation against angry parents

PHOTO: NY1
Computer School Principal Henry Zymeck has won praise for his response to parents who protested an integration plan for Upper West Side and Harlem middle schools.

Video of last week’s heated meeting about a Manhattan school integration plan went viral in part because of the angry parents, and in part because of Henry Zymeck.

The principal at one of the affected middle schools, Zymeck took the mic and forcefully stood up for the plan, which would make it easier for students with low test scores to earn seats in sought-after schools.  

“There are kids that are tremendously disadvantaged,” he said. “To compare these students and say, ‘My already advantaged kid needs more advantage! They need to be kept away from those kids!’ is tremendously offensive to me.”

The comments have won praise from Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza — who said he was “proud of the principal in the video who spoke out about what equity really means” — and prompted questions about Zymeck himself.

Zymeck has led the Computer School for about a dozen years, building a relatively diverse (and popular) middle school in a district divided by race and academics. He and other principals, such as Marlon Lowe at Mott Hall II, have played an unusually public role in trying to build buy-in for the proposal across District 3, which stretches from the Upper West Side into part of Harlem.

“Whether it’s based on academics, on race, on economics — segregation is bad for kids,” Zymeck said. “When we’re a family, we try to look out for the best interest of all kids, not just the ones in our households. And that, to me, is what public education is about.”

Zymeck has spent his 26-year teaching career entirely at the Computer School, becoming an educator later in life after working on Wall Street and as a legal assistant. He grew up in the Northeast Bronx and attended public schools in the city. Since the footage of Zymeck spread online, he said he has gotten an enormous amount of feedback — mostly positive — from the likes of random strangers and former students. But he has become a reluctant center of attention.

“This is not about me,” he said, repeatedly noting the work of other principals in the district. “I really just want to do right by the kids in our district.”

Chalkbeat caught up with Zymeck to ask about the proposal and his response to the pushback. Here’s what he had to say about how schools can serve all students well and why principals like him have taken a leading role.

Why he believes in academic diversity

In District 3 and across New York City, middle and high school students are often sorted into schools based on their academic performance. Schools where most students struggle academically also often face more of the challenges that come with poverty.

Zymeck said that the proposal would help even the playing field and also benefit students.

“There are those who feel very strongly committed to what I’ll call homogeneous grouping in education … on both ends of the spectrum, that you can serve kids best when you divide them up by test scores,” he said.

But research, and his own experience, have convinced Zymeck otherwise.

The Computer School selects its students, and it offered 19 percent of its seats to students who scored just below the state’s standards in reading and math last fall. Under the plan the school would likely take in more students whose scores were in the very lowest tier.

Zymeck said that students who struggle on standardized tests often offer other strengths that benefit the classroom.

“Sometimes it’s the kid with the lowest test score that is the peacemaker, or is the artist, or is someone who has a photographic memory that plays into the group work,” he said.

On whether all schools are ready to serve more needy students

Some local parents have raised concerns about whether schools will get extra resources as they adapt to serving more struggling students. Will the changes water down instruction? Will higher-achieving students get ignored?

It’s “valid” to wonder how schools will serve all students well, Zymeck said, but he also worries those questions suggest some students are just less capable than others.

“I think that our school and its history has demonstrated that not only is the curriculum not watered down, it’s enriched,” he said.

Zymeck said it’s the job of principals and teachers to find ways to meet the needs of all their students, and to set high expectations for everyone.

“We can’t make excuses about why kids do and don’t achieve,” he said. “The culture of the school needs to match the students, not the other way around.”

Zymeck compared the logistics of the District 3 proposal to citywide changes over the last several years requiring schools to serve a more equitable share of students with disabilities — an effort he thinks has been very successful.  

“I think it starts with the commitment to do it,” he said.

On the role of principals

Principals have been front and center when it comes to developing and supporting the academic integration plan in District 3. It was drafted in response to city changes to the middle school admissions process, which school leaders felt would only exacerbate segregation.

“Part of our job is also to educate the parent community, and I think it’s important for the parent community to not just accept what we’re saying out of hand, but to hear us and to listen with an open mind, and to trust that we deeply care about their kids,” Zymeck said. “But we deeply care about all kids in the district.”

While most school leaders agree on the need to act, the final details of the plan are still being debated. For instance, principals at K-8 schools want to make sure they can retain the students they’ve served since elementary school, he said.

“There is a general consensus among my colleagues,” he said. “It’s not perfect, but it’s close enough that I feel comfortable moving forward with the plan as it stands.”

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.