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.”

new year

Here are the Memphis schools opening and closing this school year

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Alcy Elementary Schools is being demolished this summer to make way for a new building on the same property that will also house students from Charjean and Magnolia elementary schools.

Six schools will open and six will close as the new school year begins next month.

This year’s closures are composed mostly of charter schools. That’s a shift from recent years — about two dozen district-run schools have shuttered since 2012. All of the schools opening are charter schools, bringing the district’s total to 57, which is more than half of the charter schools statewide.

Below is a list of closures and openings Chalkbeat has compiled from Shelby County Schools and the state-run Achievement School District.

Schools Opening

  • Believe Memphis Academy is a new college preparatory charter school that will focus on literacy while serving students in fourth and fifth grade, with plans to expand to eighth grade.
  • Crosstown High School will focus on creating student projects that solve problems of local businesses and organizations. The school will start with 150 ninth-graders and will be housed in a building shared with businesses and apartments in Crosstown Concourse, a renovated Sears warehouse.
  • Freedom Preparatory Academy will open its fifth school starting with middle schoolers. It will eventually expand to create the Memphis network’s second high school in the Whitehaven and Nonconnah communities.
  • Memphis Business Academy will open an elementary school and a middle school in Hickory Hill. The schools were originally slated to open in 2017, but were delayed to finalize property and financing, CEO Anthony Anderson said.
  • Perea Elementary School will focus on emotional health and community supports for families living in poverty. District leaders initially rejected its application, but school board members approved it. They liked the organization’s academic and community work with preschoolers in the same building.

Schools Closing

  • Alcy Elementary School will be demolished this summer to make room for a new building. It is expected to open in 2020 with students from Charjean and Magnolia elementary schools.
  • Du Bois High School of Arts and Technology and Du Bois High School of Leadership and Public Policy will close. The charter network’s founder, Willie Herenton, a former Memphis school superintendent, said in April the schools are closing because of a severe shortage of qualified teachers.
  • GRAD Academy, part of the Achievement School District, announced in January the high school would close because the Houston-based charter organization could not sustain it. It was the third school in the district to close since the state-run district started in 2012.
  • Legacy Leadership Academy is closing after its first year because the charter organization lost its federal nonprofit status, and enrollment was low.
  • Manor Lake Elementary is closing to merge with nearby Geeter Middle School because low enrollment made for extra room in their buildings. The new Geeter K-8 will join eight others in the Whitehaven Empowerment Zone, a neighborhood school improvement program started by Vincent Hunter, the principal of Whitehaven High School.

policy promise

Newark’s district-charter enrollment system is here to stay, new superintendent said in meeting

PHOTO: Courtesy of Uncommon Schools
Superintendent Roger León at a recent training that brought together district and charter-school principals.

Newark families will continue to use a single system to apply to traditional and charter schools, the district’s new superintendent told charter-school leaders at a meeting last week.

The comments by Superintendent Roger León, which were recounted by people at the meeting, are his clearest statement to date that he intends to preserve the system known as “Newark Enrolls” — even though critics, including some school board members, have called for it to be dismantled. Proponents say the system simplifies the enrollment process for families and gives them access to more schools, while critics say it is meant to boost charter-school enrollment.

León also said that charter schools are a “big part” of his overall vision for the district, and added that he would not force them to help pay for Newark Enrolls, which cost the district about $1.1 million to manage this past school year, according to attendees of the June 27 meeting.

Charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately managed, now serve about a third of Newark public-school students. Yet they remain controversial, with critics arguing that they drain resources and engaged families from the traditional school system. In March, Mayor Ras Baraka called for a halt to their expansion.

As a Newark Public Schools graduate and veteran educator who is popular among many of the city’s charter-school critics, León was expected by some observers to take a harsher stance against charter schools than his state-appointed predecessors, who encouraged the charter sector’s growth. That is why the charter leaders were encouraged to hear León, who officially started as superintendent on July 1, promise to work closely with their schools and retain the joint district-charter enrollment system.

“We heard his words loud and clear,” said Michele Mason, executive director of the Newark Charter School Fund, which convened the meeting. “We walked away feeling confident in his commitment to keeping a unified enrollment system.”

A district spokeswoman did not provide any response on Tuesday.

León spoke for over an hour at the meeting, which was attended by representatives of 14 of the city’s 18 charter school operators, including KIPP New Jersey, North Star Academy, Great Oaks Legacy, and Robert Treat Academy. It was one of a series of private meetings León held in the weeks since the school board chose him as superintendent in May. He also met with clergy members, union officials, district-school principals, and parent leaders.

During the charter meeting, he vowed to visit many of their schools in the fall, according to attendees. He also decried the divisions between some staunch district and charter-school supporters, saying he wants every school to be successful.

More provocatively, León noted that some of Newark’s traditional public schools have lower standardized test scores than the charter schools that were closed by the state in recent years for poor performance, the attendees said. He then reiterated his point that every school, whether district or charter, should be a good option for families.

He echoed some of those ideas in a press release Monday marking the start of his tenure.

“We will promote parent choice and ensure that every student is enrolled in a high-quality school in every ward throughout this city, regardless of school type,” León was quoted as saying in the press release.

The state decides when to shutter charter schools or allow new ones to open; the Newark school board and superintendent have little say in the matter. But the district does control the enrollment system, which was launched in 2013 as part of a sweeping overhaul by former Superintendent Cami Anderson that also involved closing some schools.

One of only a few combined district-charter enrollment systems in the country, it was designed to make it easy for families to apply to multiple schools without having to fill out separate applications or meet different deadlines. The centralized system, which allows families to apply to up to eight schools, was also billed as a way to ensure that schools did not exclude hard-to-serve students. (Since it was launched, magnet and charter schools have enrolled more students with disabilities — though still less than traditional schools.)

Newark Enrolls has become popular with many families, with 95 percent of 1,800 survey respondents this year saying they were “satisfied” or “very satisfied” with it. However, it remains tainted by its early rollout, when some students received no placements or were separated from their siblings, and by the perception among critics that it is a ploy to steer students into charter schools.

Newark Teachers Union President John Abeigon, a fierce charter-school critic, recently called the enrollment system “a failure.”

In 2016, the school board passed a resolution to dismantle it — but the state, which controlled the district at that time, ignored it. This year, the board regained full control over the district. In April, it gained three new members who said during the campaign that Newark Enrolls is seriously flawed.

One of the new members, Dawn Haynes, who is now vice chair of the board, said at a candidate forum that the enrollment system has led to students being assigned to schools far away from where they live. As a result, some students arrive late to school or even end up in dangerous situations as they navigate unfamiliar neighborhoods, according to Haynes.

“It needs to be dismantled,” she said.

León, who was an assistant superintendent under Anderson, said recently that he would “reflect on” concerns that families have with Newark Enrolls. The only change he has floated so far is reinstating an appeals committee that families could turn to if they are unhappy with the school they’re matched with.

Now, both critics and proponents of the enrollment system are waiting for León’s next moves.

If he hopes to preserve the system — and keep charter schools in it — he will need to bring along skeptics on the board, which has promised to review the district’s enrollment policies. He will also have to make his case to critics in the community, such as Johnnie Lattner, a parent organizer who ran for a school board seat.

Lattner, who is a co-founder of the group PULSE, or Parents Unified for Local School Education, said he was surprised to learn that León plans to keep Newark Enrolls because many community members oppose it.

“People selected him because they think he will listen to what the community wants,” Lattner said. “So that’s very concerning to me.”