Sorting the Students

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

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
A parent spoke in favor of integration plans for Upper West Side and Harlem middle schools at a Tuesday Community Education Council meeting.

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.

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.

survey says

More bullying reported at New York City schools, study shows

PHOTO: Anthony Lanzilote

More New York City students say there is bullying in their schools, a report released Monday showed. The findings also revealed that many schools reporting the greatest number of violent incidents on campus have no social workers on staff.

The report was commissioned by New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer.

Stringer also released an audit of how school safety matters are recorded, and concluded that the education department should provide more oversight and streamline incident reporting rules.

“The audit found clear breakdowns in communication in the reporting and tracking of incidents and actions taken,” according to a press release from Stringer’s office.

The education department disputed some of the comptroller’s findings, and in a written statement, spokeswoman Miranda Barbot wrote: “We have detailed protocols in place to ensure allegations of bullying are immediately reported, investigated and addressed, and are investing in both anti-bullying initiatives and mental health supports.”

But the pair of reports raises scrutiny of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s school discipline reforms, which favor  “restorative” practices that emphasize mediation over punishment, and make it harder to suspend students.

Advocates of the de Blasio reforms say the shift is necessary because black and Hispanic students are more likely to be arrested or disciplined at school. Research has shown such disciplinary action can lead to higher dropout rates. Critics of the reforms, meanwhile, say the changes have created more chaotic schools.

The findings are also likely to add to a chorus of parents and elected officials who say more emotional supports are needed for the city’s most vulnerable students. Students who experience a mental health crisis during the school day may be handcuffed and shuttled to hospitals. The city’s latest budget, which was approved last week, includes an additional $2 million to hire social workers and guidance counselors in schools that currently don’t have any.

Here are some highlights from the reports.

More students report there is bullying in their schools — but the data comes with a catch.

Last year, the education department’s annual survey showed that 82 percent of students said their peers “harass, bully, or intimidate others in school.” That’s up year over year, and up significantly from 65 percent of students in 2012, which was the lowest rate recorded since at least 2010. (De Blasio’s discipline reforms started to take effect around 2015.)

A note about these numbers: Prior to 2017, the survey asked whether students harass, bully or intimidate other students none, some, most, or all of the time. The most recent survey responses were slightly different: none of the time, rarely, some of the time, or most of the time — a change that may have artificially inflated the bullying numbers.

That’s enough to render the survey data unreliable said Max Eden, a researcher who has studied school climate for the conservative-leaning Manhattan Institute — a critic of the mayor’s discipline reforms. Still, taken with other findings, it’s reasonable to think that bullying is on the rise at city schools, he said.

Among the other evidence: A first-of-its-kind report, released this month under a new city law, that showed substantiated bullying incidents are on track to increase this year.

Schools that log the most violent incidents often lack mental health supports.

Guidance counselors and social workers are key when it comes to creating safe schools because they can help address the root cause of violent or troublesome behavior, advocates who want more mental health supports say.

But many of the city’s neediest schools go without that help.

Of the schools reporting the most violent incidents on campus, 36 percent lack a full-time social worker, the comptroller found. On campuses where there are social workers, caseloads are a staggering 700 to one. That far exceeds the recommended ratio from the National Association of Social Workers of 250 general education students per social worker — and it’s higher than the citywide average of 612 students per social worker, according to the comptroller.

The comptroller’ compares that to the ratio of New York Police Department school safety agents who are placed in schools: There is one safety agent per 228 students, according to the report.

“Our city is failing to meet the social and emotional needs of our students,” Councilman Mark Treyger, of Brooklyn, who has pushed the city to report more up-to-date bullying data and to hire more school counselors, said in an emailed statement.

Schools may be underreporting violent incidents, something the education department disputes.

In a separate audit, the comptroller compared logs kept by school safety agents to incident reports filed by school leaders. In 21 percent of cases, incidents that were noted by safety agents were not reflected in the school reports.

The school data, in turn, are used to report incidents to the state for its Violent and Disruptive Incident Report, or VADIR. The discrepancy could raise questions about the already-controversial reporting system. (VADIR has been criticized for classifying schoolyard incidents as serious offenses, and the state has tweaked its definitions in response to those kinds of concerns.)

This finding also comes with some caveats. The comptroller looked at only 10 schools — a tiny sample of the city’s portfolio of about 1,800. And the education department took issue with the methodology.

In its response to the audit, education department officials said that the police data doesn’t align with the state’s reporting categories, and that the information may not be comparable because of student privacy concerns and recordkeeping issues on campuses where multiple schools share a building.