sorting the students

On the Upper West Side, a radical plan to desegregate schools faces an uphill climb

On the Upper West Side and in southern Harlem, like in most parts of New York City, students are matched with an elementary school based on their address. While that system lets students attend school close to home, it also can also reproduce a community’s housing segregation in its schools.

But some parents and educators in Manhattan’s District 3 have a bold plan to fix that: They want to erase the zone lines around those schools, letting parents apply to anywhere in the district. Then a computer algorithm would match students with schools by factoring in their choices, but also their demographics, so that students from different backgrounds are spread evenly across the district.

On Tuesday, the district’s Community Education Council will host the first of two information sessions about that style of admissions, known as “controlled choice.” Another Manhattan district and one in Brooklyn are also exploring such systems, and education department officials watching closely to see what they come up with.

But the prospect of District 3 adopting a controlled choice system anytime soon appears slim.

Families who live near one of the district’s highest-performing schools recently lashed out at a proposal to alter its zone, and families at other top district schools would most likely oppose any plan to abolish the zones that guarantee them spots in those schools. Meanwhile, several members of the CEC, which must approve zoning changes, have expressed skepticism about controlled choice.

Theresa L.C. Hammonds, a CEC member who is part of a parent group that drew up a controlled-choice plan for the district, said she strongly believes that enrollment system would be an improvement over the current one. However, she said it must come with greater city support for the district’s lower-performing schools so that they are attractive to a range of parents, who must also be willing to give those schools a chance.

“If a family perceives a school across the street to lack quality because of test scores,” she said, “it doesn’t matter what kind of choice system you have in place, the family’s not going to send their child to that school.”

District 3, which is home to luxury high-rise buildings alongside public housing developments, is filled with students from a mix of backgrounds, and yet many of its schools are largely divided along race and class lines. While the district is 36 percent white, a number of schools are more than 90 percent black and Hispanic.

That segregation came into sharp focus this fall when the city proposed redrawing the zone lines around P.S. 199, a sought-after school on West 70th Street with outstanding test scores and a student body that is two-thirds white and only 8 percent poor. The rezoning would have shifted some would-be 199 parents to P.S. 191, a low-performing school just nine blocks away, whose student population is 85 percent black and Hispanic and primarily low-income.

Following fierce resistance from families in P.S. 199’s zone, the city agreed to table that proposal. Now, parent leaders on the CEC are working with education department planners to come up with new ways to alleviate the intense overcrowding at popular P.S. 199, while perhaps also boosting diversity in the district.

Parents have come up with at least two proposals. One would create a single zone around P.S. 191 and 199, while the second plan would have students attend one school for the early grades and the other for subsequent grades.

However, P.S. 199 parents and faculty members have rejected both plans, according to CEC members and minutes of CEC meetings.

“There’s still significant pushback from parts of the 199 community,” said CEC member Noah Gotbaum, who has championed the shared-zone plan.

A more radical option would be to scrap the zones entirely and adopt a controlled-choice admissions system.

That’s the plan promoted by the District 3 Task Force for Equity in Education, a small group of parents and educators that has been searching for solutions to the district’s divisions and disparities since 2012. This past December, the parent association and school leadership team at P.S. 75 wrote the CEC asking it to explore a controlled-choice system for the district.

Ujju Aggarwal, a task force member and researcher at the CUNY Graduate Center, said removing the zones could help curb the practice of wealthy families moving into expensive neighborhoods in order to nab a seat at the top schools.

“It takes away the ability to create your gated enclave,” she said, “and says, Let’s make sure all our schools are great schools.”

The community education councils in District 1 in Manhattan and District 13 in Brooklyn are both using state grants to explore diversity-oriented admissions systems like controlled choice. However, those districts have an advantage over District 3: their elementary or middle schools are already “unzoned,” meaning families can apply to anywhere they choose.

Chancellor Carmen Fariña has said she is open to locally generated plans to increase school diversity — as long as parents are on board. But controlled choice could be a tough sell in District 3.

At public meetings and interviews, several CEC members raised concerns about such a system. They said it could lengthen students’ travel time without addressing the disparities in funding and test scores that lead some schools to become so much more desirable to middle-class parents than others.

“If what we want to achieve is a level of equity,” said Kim Watkins, chair of CEC 3’s zoning committee, “controlled choice isn’t going to do that — it isn’t what changes a school.”

A representative from District 1 will speak at Tuesday’s forum at 6:30 p.m. at P.S. 145, as will Michael Alves, a consultant who has helped many districts design controlled-choice systems.

Watkins emphasized that the council has not yet taken a stance on controlled choice. She said the meeting is intended to provide parents with information on that model and to gauge their interest.

“A lot of people don’t understand it and a lot of people don’t want it,” she said. “Whether or not they don’t want it because they don’t understand it is the question.”

Measuring schools

State education officials prepare 0 to 100 index to measure schools, slam push for A-F grades

PHOTO: Denver Post file

State education officials are preparing to roll out a new tool for parents to quickly learn which schools are succeeding and which ones are struggling. They’re also lashing out at another school measurement approach that’s been proposed in the legislature.

The dueling options are part of a national debate about the best way to measure schools.

Michigan’s elected board of education last year scrapped plans to assign letter grades to every school in favor of providing parents with a dashboard of information about test scores, graduation rates, and other measures of success such as attendance rates and student discipline.

That “parent dashboard” was unveiled last month. As soon as next week, the state is planning to beef up the dashboard with a new score, from 0 to 100, that is intended to summarize the quality of every school in the state.

The new index will give each school a single number based on seven factors, including test scores and graduation rates, the availability of classes like art and music, and proficiency rates for English learners. The index was part of the state’s plan to comply with the new federal school accountability law. 

Several factors will go into the index, though most points will be determined by test scores: 34 percent will be based on the percent of students who pass state exams. while 29 percent will be determined by whether test scores show students are improving. The rest of the score will be driven by school quality factors such as availability of arts and music (14 percent), graduation rates (10 percent), and progress by students learning English (10 percent). The last 3 percent will measure the percentage of students who take the state exam — a factor designed to discourage schools from giving the exam only to their highest-performing students.

Venessa Keesler, deputy superintendent at the Michigan Department of Education, said the index is not a ranking system, so multiple schools could end up with the same index score.

That’s a switch from the school ranking system Michigan has been using in recent years in which every school was placed against all other state schools, primarily on test scores. The schools in the bottom 5 percent of state rankings faced intervention, including the threat of closure.  

But GOP lawmakers say the parent dashboard and the index are too complicated, and they want to see an A-F letter grade system.

Lawmakers introduced legislation last week that would give every school a report card with six A-F grades measuring their performance in different categories. Bill sponsor Tim Kelly called it a “middle of the road” option that isn’t as simplistic as giving schools a single letter grade.

That plan came in for significant criticism Tuesday from the state board of education.

“This really isn’t OK,” said Nikki Snyder, a Republican board member. “If we want parents, students and teachers to be empowered, this is not the kind of chaos and confusion we should inject into our system. I absolutely do not support it.”

Another school board member, Casandra Ulbrich, the board’s Democratic co-president, raised concerns over how the scores would be decided.

“Someone has to create a complicated algorithm to determine the difference between A to B to C,” she said. “I have some real concerns about that.”

“I generally agree with Rep. Kelly,” said Richard Zeile, the Republican board co-president, “but school letter grades would be more misleading than helpful.”

A-F school ranking systems, which were used in 18 states as of last spring, have been divisive across the country, with some hailing them is a tool to increase transparency and others viewing them as too simplified and too easy for parents to misunderstand.

next steps

How to tackle New York’s severe school segregation? State policymakers spitball ideas

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Regent Collins and Regent Johnson engage in a discussion after a Board of Regents meeting in 2016.

A New York conference on the extensive research on the benefits of school integration. A convening of the state’s civil rights groups. A commission on equity and integration.

Those are some of the ideas being considered by a group of state policymakers tasked with addressing school integration in New York, which has some of the country’s most severe racial segregation. The group was established by Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa in 2016 to research topics that the board would have to weigh in on; over time, it has come to focus on school integration and racial equity.

At its meeting Tuesday during the Regents’ monthly gathering, the group also floated ways to desegregate schools. One idea was to create incentives for schools that take steps to enroll students from different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds.

The group’s ideas build on other state efforts to combat school segregation. In 2014, New York’s education department launched a series of grants designed to improve schools by integrating them; the latest rounds of grants will expand the program to more schools and is more focused on training district leaders to combat school segregation. And as part of a plan they were required to submit last year under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, officials discussed the idea of developing a new measure of school and district integration.

Those efforts come four years after a widely cited study by researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles found New York’s schools to be the most segregated in the country.

The group’s plans are still in their infancy: They will likely still be submitted to the full board, which would then have the chance to vet them before voting on whether to approve them.

Meanwhile, the group is still debating its own mission and objectives. During Tuesday’s discussion, one member suggested having the incentive program focus on “equity” rather than desegregation because some schools are unlikely to ever enroll many students of different races.

Regent Judith Johnson, who co-chairs the group, said Tuesday that she has struggled to figure out exactly what it should focus on — and how much to push integration in parts of the state where doing so could prove deeply unpopular. In New York City, many parents have resisted changes that would reroute their children to different schools in order to promote integration; in less diverse cities and towns, integration would likely require moving students across district lines.

“Not every district wants to address this issue,” Johnson said. “And so the question becomes: What is the role … of the Board of Regents?”