The Wait Continues

Fariña says city is still reviewing schools’ diversity plans, with quick changes unlikely

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña

For nearly a year, a group of principals has waited for the city’s permission to change their admissions policies so that as more white, middle-class families seek seats in their schools, spots remain open for students from needier backgrounds.

On Tuesday, they learned that they will have to wait even longer.

Speaking on a public radio show, Chancellor Carmen Fariña said officials are still reviewing the proposals that several principals submitted last October. She expressed some reservations about their request to reserve a portion of seats for students from low-income or immigrant families, saying she wouldn’t want those policies to “disenfranchise” any students.

While she insisted that and the mayor are concerned about school diversity and are reviewing enrollment policies citywide, she also suggested that diversity can be promoted without making structural changes, such as by teaching students about world religions.

Either way, she signaled that her interest in school diversity will not translate into immediate policy changes, including at those schools that have been waiting to make admissions tweaks.

“I believe in diversity,” she said on the Brian Lehrer show. “I think it’s going to be very carefully thought through and decided on a case by case.”

Fariña’s response dismayed advocates who have called on her and Mayor Bill de Blasio to more aggressively combat school segregation, which is more severe in New York than most school districts.

“I don’t think there’s any way to hear those comments and think they’re on top of this issue,” said David Tipson, executive director of the school diversity advocacy group, New York Appleseed.

A dozen principals met with Fariña and other top officials last fall to discuss diversity and admissions. Many of the schools — including Arts & Letters Academy in Fort Greene, P.S. 8 in Brooklyn Heights, and Central Park East II in East Harlem — had watched their share of white students rise and black and Hispanic students decline in recent years as the areas around their schools gentrified.

At the meeting, the principals were told that their plans to reserve some seats for certain student groups could violate federal law, according to several attendees. Advocates and even some de Blasio-appointed members of the city’s education policy board have challenged this reading of the law.

Fariña on Tuesday said she worried about any plan that would give preference to one group over another.

“We’re looking at every plan individually,” she said. “We need to make sure that diversity plans don’t disenfranchise other students.”

Several of the principals modeled their proposals on the admissions system at P.S. 133 in Park Slope, a school that accepts students from beyond its immediate neighborhood and sets aside more than a third of its seats for low-income students and those still learning English. The school is housed in a new building and offers popular dual-language programs, which has helped it attract a range of families.

While Fariña did not say Tuesday whether the schools that want to adopt a P.S. 133-style admissions system would be allowed to do so, she did say that would be a possibility for new schools.

“As new schools get built, that’s certainly something we would consider,” she said.

Fariña appeared on the Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC Tuesday, where she spoke about enrollment policies and school diversity.
Fariña appeared on the Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC Tuesday, where she spoke about enrollment policies and school diversity.

Many advocates who back school-by-school diversity plans say they must be accompanied by district-wide policies that prevent students from a particular racial or socioeconomic group from clustering at individual schools. Without such a “controlled choice” system, popular schools with effective diversity plans might enroll a mix of students even as their neighbors enroll students mostly from one group.

Fariña hinted at the need for both types of solutions, saying that officials are reviewing enrollment policies “as a collective whole, as well as individually.”

“We’re looking at how do we make it equitable,” she said.

A widely cited 2014 report found that New York City school segregation has increased in recent decades, with 85 percent of black students and 75 of Hispanic students attending schools with a small number of white students.

Advocates argue that the city cannot make a real dent in those numbers without overhauling its enrollment policies, which they say exacerbate residential segregation. However, Fariña has previously said that individual schools can address the issue by offering attractive language or special-education programs that draw in a diverse pool of applicants.

On Tuesday, she added that the de Blasio administration has taken other steps to promote diversity, such as by canceling classes on the Lunar New Year and two Muslim holidays so students can celebrate. She said schools could build on that effort by teaching students about the holidays.

Tipson, the diversity advocate, said that proposal is no match for policies that ensure schools enroll students of different backgrounds.

“It’s horrible to think that she would say that lesson plans can substitute for actually having kids encounter different cultures in their own schools,” he said.

back to court

Nashville appeals judge’s order to share student information with state charters

The battle over student contact information will continue between Tennessee’s charter schools and its second largest school district.

Attorneys for Metro Nashville Public Schools on Friday appealed Chancellor Bill Young’s order to provide state-run charter schools with the names, phone numbers, and addresses of students.

The appeal came on the same day that Young originally set for Nashville’s district to comply with a new state law requiring sharing such information if charter operators request it. But a recent court extension assured Nashville leaders that they could exhaust the appeals process first.

The disagreement — which also touches on student privacy, school choice, and enrollment — has vexed state officials and lawmakers as they’ve sought to mitigate skirmishes between the state’s growing charter sector and its two largest districts, in Nashville and Memphis. Last month, Gov. Bill Haslam brought all parties to the table to seek a solution outside the courts. The State Department of Education was tasked with developing a way forward, but has not yet submitted a proposal.

While the state has urged local districts to comply with the year-old charter law, Nashville leaders argue it runs afoul of a federal law that gives districts discretion over who gets student contact information. For instance, school systems routinely share such information with companies that sell yearbooks and class rings.

The tussle has implications for the state’s largest school system, Shelby County Schools, in Memphis. Leaders there also have refused to hand over the information to charters in the state’s Achievement School District, which seeks to turn around Tennessee’s lowest-performing schools.

What Memphis parents should know about how schools share student information

Parents are divided on the issue. Some say the information exchange is an invasion of privacy, including when a Nashville charter school sent a barrage of text messages to parents, resulting in a $2.2 million settlement last year. Others say allowing charters to contact prospective students allows them to better explore their options.

Starting young

These 11-year-old Brooklyn students are asking New York City to do something about segregated schools

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Matilda and Eliza Seki, left, and their friends Noa and Benji Weiss, right, collected signatures at a district 15 meeting to discuss middle school integration efforts.

While they learned about the history of segregation, a group of Brooklyn 11-year-olds took a good look around their classrooms and realized their schools weren’t so different from the photos in their textbooks.

So Matilda and Eliza Seki paired up with their friends Noa and Benji Weiss — two sets of twins — and decided to do something about it. They launched a petition on calling on the city to integrate its schools.

“We learned about separate and equal in the civil rights movement, and that it was not equal,” Eliza said, referring to the “separate but equal” legal doctrine once used to justify segregation. “And since there are schools with people of only one race, and it’s all separated, it cannot be equal.”

Matilda and Eliza are in the sixth grade at M.S. 839, and Noa and Benji are fifth-graders at P.S. 10. They already have a bit of experience in activism, having joined the Women’s March in D.C., and helping to lead environmental clubs at their school. They hold sophisticated views for kids their age, and are aware of the hurdles ingrained in addressing school segregation.

Describing how housing patterns can tie into school quality, Benji began his thoughts by saying: “Let’s say you’re from a different culture or race and you don’t have as much money as other people do — because we still live in a racist country — and you’re in an area where the housing is cheaper but you don’t have as good schools.”

Across New York City, adults have debated how to spur integration in the country’s largest school system — and one of the most segregated. According to one recent analysis, the city’s most selective high schools enroll 84 percent white and Asian students, even though those groups make up only 30 percent of the city’s student enrollment.

But student-organized groups have also been at the forefront of a grassroots movement for more diverse schools. The work of budding advocates Matilda, Eliza, Noa and Benji caught the attention of some those groups, and they’ve now joined the ranks of Teens Take Charge and IntegrateNYC as some of the youngest members. The changes they’d like to see go beyond admissions policies, but also include a push for additional resources for underserved schools, hiring more teachers of color and curricula that reflects all students and cultures.

“We decided it was an important issue and we wanted to help fix it,” Noa said.

Matilda added: “Our schools should look like our city.”

Their schools are in District 15, where 81 percent of white students are concentrated in just three of the district’s most selective middle schools, according to an analysis by parents. The city has launched a series of public workshops to craft a new admissions model to integrate middle schools there, but these kids already have their own ideas for how to do that.

Benji, who is heading to middle school next year, said it would be “pretty good” if schools stopped picking students based on criteria such as class grades and attendance. Such “screening” contributes to segregation because of a number of factors — from which elementary schools students attend, to their parents’ ability to navigate the complicated admissions process.  

“It’s… important to learn about different peoples’ backgrounds, and religions, and cultures,” he said. “And also to make sure that all kids, no matter their race, religion or where they live can get the same, good education.”