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.”

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.

making plans

Controversial integration plan for Upper West Side middle schools changes, but it’s unclear whether more parents will get on board

PHOTO: Rachel Holliday Smith
CEC member Genisha Metcalf speaks at Wednesday’s hearing on a proposal to desegregate Manhattan’s west side middle schools.

Following controversy over a plan to desegregate  Upper West Side and Harlem middle schools, the Department of Education unveiled two alternatives it hopes sit better with parents and educators.

At a Community Education Council hearing Wednesday night, the education department gave an overview of two alternatives to the initial proposal to integrate the district’s 16 middle schools, which angered some parents who were concerned it would shut their children out of sought-after schools.

The major difference between the initial proposal and the new plans is that they factor more than just state test scores into admissions offers — but it’s unclear whether the changes will quell the uproar over the integration effort, which has gained nationwide attention.

In both new plans, the agency aims to level the playing field for middle schoolers in the diverse but highly segregated west side Manhattan district.

In the first proposal, priority for 25 percent of middle school seats in every middle school in the district would be given to students who come from elementary schools with high economic needs and have low scores on both English and mathematics fourth grade state tests.

Out of that quarter of seats, 10 percent would be given to students in a group comprised of the very highest-need schools with the lowest-performing test scores; 15 percent of seats would be set aside for the next-highest need and lowest-performing group of students.

In the second proposal, priority for 25 percent of seats would be given to students based on a combination of their report cards and state test scores.

The hearing was much calmer than one several weeks ago, when a video went viral showing mostly white parents complaining that their children wouldn’t receive coveted middle school spots after excelling on state tests. The furor grew when Chancellor Richard Carranza tweeted the footage with a headline that said: “Wealthy white Manhattan parents angrily rant against plan to bring more black kids to their schools.” He has stood by  his decision to share the footage, saying it “speaks for itself.”

On Wednesday, parents repeatedly told the CEC as well as District 3 Superintendent Ilene Altschul and other education department officials that the proposals, while addressing very high- and low-performing students and schools, leave other students behind.

In education department simulations of how each proposal would work, both plans resulted in double-digit increases in the number of low-performing students offered seats in three high performing schools: J.H.S. 54 Booker T. Washington, P.S. 245 The Computer School and West End Secondary School.

“Great, we’re doing a bigger push for diversity in some of the schools that have been highly sought after that historically fewer parents or students felt like they had as an option, but what are we doing to attract level 3 and level 4 students to [P.S. 180 Hugo Newman College Preparatory School]?” asked parent and CEC member Genisha Metcalf, referring to a school that fell roughly in the middle of the education department models for how each proposal would affect the district’s schools.

“Otherwise, we’re overcrowding four schools,” she added, over loud applause from the audience.

“Here’s the problem: Maybe instead of there being four desirable middle schools, there should be fifteen,” said parent Josh Kross, 41. “This is only going to create more problems.”

About a dozen parents asked questions of the plan during Wednesday’s hearing, asking how the plan would affect students with disabilities (it will not because those students will be prioritized first, regardless of the new plan, the education department said) and students who opt out of tests (students without state test scores will not be considered for the 25 percent of set-aside seats in the diversity plan, Altschul said).

They also brought very specific concerns such as whether or not potential changes to the plan would change the economic makeup of the school enough to threaten its Title I status, a federal designation that gives more funding to high-poverty schools.

“You didn’t have the answers … You didn’t do the math,” said parent Leslie Washington, whose daughter is in fourth grade at P.S. 242.

Though most who spoke up opposed the plan in some form, the proposal did have supporters in the room, including a group of principals and teachers. Cidalia Costa, a middle school teacher at West Prep Academy, said a plan to desegregate the area is “long overdue” to fix a system that’s been flawed for years.

“This plan is not for people who already have an advantage to get more advantage. So, I’m sorry, but I have to advocate for my students because they face a lot of challenges,” she said.

The Department of Education plans to make a decision about the proposal by the end of the school year, and changes would go into effect for the District 3 middle school class of 2019. A public comment period is up through May 29. The CEC is taking feedback through email at d3feedback@gmail.com.

After the meeting, Kristen Berger, chair of the CEC’s middle school committee, said she isn’t sure which proposal would be best. But she’s happy the conversation about measures to desegregate schools in the district is ongoing.

“It is a small fix, but it is a movement in the right direction,” she said of the middle school effort, adding that the group still needs to address system-wide issues including whether “all schools at all levels, elementary, and middle, are of good enough quality.”