Achieving Diversity

Five New York City school districts putting integration on the map

Districts across New York City are pursuing plans to integrate their schools. (Photo credit: New York City Department of Education)

As the school year ramps up, so do plans to integrate New York City classrooms.

School segregation in one of the country’s most diverse cities dominated headlines over the last school year. Across the city, parents, education leaders and elected officials are tackling the problem.

Some plans are small-scale, individual school approaches. The city Department of Education announced in May that any district school could submit plans to change enrollment policies to increase diversity.

Other proposals have the potential for district-wide impact. In many cases, those plans are bubbling up from the districts’ Community Education Councils, but any changes to enrollment policies still require Department of Education approval.

Here’s a quick look back at what has already been accomplished in those districts — and what to expect in the months ahead.

District 1

District 1 includes the Lower East Side. (Photo credit: New York City Department of Education)

Stretching back to the 1990s, elementary schools in District 1 on the Lower East Side weighed student diversity in admissions decisions. That changed under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, leaving a pure choice policy in place.

In some Lower East Side schools today, 100 percent of students are low-income; in others, only about 20 percent are. That’s compared to a poverty rate of 69 percent district-wide. But the area includes a rich mix of students: 21 percent Asian, 17 percent black, 42 percent Hispanic and 17 percent white, according to city figures.

Now the district is trying to get back to its roots. With funding from the state’s Socioeconomic Integration Pilot Program grant, or SIPP, community members hope to implement a plan to make elementary schools more reflective of their neighborhood.

Diversity advocates are pushing for a “controlled choice” system that would reintroduce student diversity as a consideration in admissions. Under a proposal presented in March, students would be assigned an “at-risk” score based on family income, disability status and other factors. Families would apply to three to five schools, and a computer algorithm would determine assignments.

In July, a consultant working for the district said the plan had been presented to a top-level official at the city Department of Education. On Tuesday, a DOE spokesman said the consultant is currently using city data to model how the proposal might work. “We look forward to discussing the results of this analysis when complete,” he wrote in a statement.

An update on the general proposal is expected at the CEC’s October 5 meeting.

District 2

District 2 includes most of lower Manhattan and the Upper East Side. (Photo credit: New York City Department of Education)

In meandering District 2, which covers most of lower Manhattan and the Upper East Side, the integration conversation is just kicking off.

The Community Education Council recently launched a diversity committee to explore inequities in district middle schools, most of which are already unzoned.

District 2 includes a mix of students — 23 percent Asian, 16 percent black, 33 percent Hispanic and 24 percent white, according to city figures. But those demographics are not represented in many of its middle schools, with Asian students clustered at some and white students disproportionately represented at others — and poverty levels ranging from almost 100 percent of students to less than 10 percent at some schools.

“I think everyone on the CEC recognizes that our schools are segregated and we ought to do something about it,” said Shino Tanikawa, chair of the district’s diversity committee.

It’s too early to tell what integration plans might look like in the district. Tanikawa wants to host community forums to get feedback on what changes are needed.

Tanikawa suspects advocates will have to assuage concerns from both parents and principals about the potential impact of mixing high-achieving students with struggling learners — something she plans to present research on. To make sure schools and teachers are equipped to meet the needs of all students, Tanikawa hopes to gradually phase in any changes to school admission policies.

“It will be very difficult but, luckily, research is on our side,” she said. “In the end, this is deeply personal and emotional for each family.”

Tanikawa hopes the community can agree on a proposal, or a set of recommendations for the city Department of Education, by the end of this school year.

District 3

District 3 includes the Upper West Side. (Photo credit: New York City Department of Education)

In the Upper West Side’s District 3, a long-fought rezoning battle could change admissions boundaries for 11 schools.

The district’s students are 8 percent Asian, 23 percent black, 34 percent Hispanic and 31 percent white. Half of students live in poverty.

City planners and the Community Education Council say the rezoning could relieve overcrowding while increasing student diversity. But debate around only a few schools with vastly different demographics threatens those goals — and has largely drowned out voices calling for more ambitious, district-wide plans.

Parents have come out in droves to protest a proposal that would shift some students from P.S. 199, a school with stellar test scores and a majority-white student body, to P.S. 191, which serves mostly black and Hispanic students from the surrounding public housing, and has struggled on standardized tests.

Some advocates in District 3 hope to shift the focus from individual schools to a truly district-wide vision for integration. The District 3 Equity in Education Task Force, along with a recently formed group called New York City Public School Parents for Equity and Desegregation, is pushing for controlled choice as an option.

“It’s like they’re addressing the symptoms of this lack of school equity and segregation in the schools, but there’s little effort to think about it more broadly and more constructively,” said Chris Parkman, the parent of a fourth-grader at P.S. 75 and a member of Parents for Equity and Desegregation.

Some CEC members have also called for schools in Harlem, on the northern edge of District 3, to be included in rezoning conversations.

City planners hope to present an official rezoning proposal this month, with a CEC vote expected in November.

District 13

District 13 in Brooklyn includes Brooklyn Heights, Vinegar Hill, DUMBO, and other neighborhoods. (Photo credit: New York City Department of Education)

District 13 in Brooklyn, like District 1 in Manhattan, landed a state SIPP grant that local leaders want to use to explore large-scale integration plans. The district — which includes Brooklyn Heights, Vinegar Hill, DUMBO, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Fort Greene and Prospect Heights — is targeting its middle schools.

The students in the area are 19 percent Asian, 48 percent black, 16 percent Hispanic and 14 percent white. Almost 67 percent are poor.

Under the grant process, the district has already opened a bilingual program in M.S. 113 Ronald Edmonds Learning Center in Fort Greene. Community members hope the program will make the under-enrolled school more attractive to the community and to newcomers as the neighborhood gentrifies.

“This is not about telling people where to go. It’s about creating a system where people can make choices that encourage diversity [and] integration,” said David Goldsmith, president of the Community Education Council in District 13 and a member of the SIPP working group. “Because we know that’s what works and what’s good for our kids.”

Goldsmith said the SIPP working group hopes to present its larger integration plans to the community by January, and to get final approval from the city by June.

District 15

District 15 in Brooklyn includes Park Slope, Carroll Gardens, Red Hook and Sunset Park. (Photo credit: New York City Department of Education)

In District 15, which includes Park Slope, Carroll Gardens, Red Hook and Sunset Park, a grassroots group of parents is looking for ways to make applying for middle schools easier — and more fair — for all students.

The district’s demographics create an opening for integration: 16 percent of students are Asian, 15 percent black, 38 percent Hispanic and 28 percent white, according to city stats. More than half — 66 percent — are poor.

As Chalkbeat reported in July, District 15 Parents for Middle School Equity has surveyed community members about the difficulties of the application process, and is working to rally supporters to make changes.

The group is also pushing its CEC to organize forums so frank discussions on segregation — and the search for solutions — can begin. So far, Parents for Middle School Equity hasn’t endorsed any particular integration plan over another.

“The conversation needs to start with listening to parents and listening to the educators,” said Miriam Nunberg, cofounder of the group.

Nunberg said the group may use New York City Council participatory budgeting sessions to request money that could be used to explore diversity plans. City Councilman Brad Lander represents much of the area, and has been an outspoken voice on school segregation issues.

“There are a lot of ways it can happen,” Nunberg said. “We believe very strongly that the community is able to come up with a better process.”

This story has been corrected to reflect that District 13’s SIPP working group, not the CEC, hopes to present an integration proposal in January.

Chalkbeat explains

How school desegregation efforts could change, or not, after DeVos’s move to scrap Obama-era guidance on race

PHOTO: U.S. Department of Education
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos visiting the Christian Academy for Reaching Excellence in Miami.

The Trump administration’s decision to withdraw guidance dealing with race in school admissions last week wasn’t just about colleges.

School districts across the country have grappled with how to integrate their schools, too. And one of the seven documents withdrawn by the education and justice departments offered a roadmap for districts looking to voluntarily integrate their elementary and secondary schools.

This move is important symbolically — particularly in light of a surge of discussions about the persistence of segregation in public schools. But it’s not likely to have far-reaching policy implications, since only a handful of districts voluntarily use race in school assignment decisions.

Here’s what we know about what this change might mean for K-12 schools. Keep in mind that the retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy, who has authored a number of the key affirmative action opinions, puts things in even more flux. Critics of affirmative action hope Kennedy’s replacement will join other conservative judges to further limit the consideration of race in state and local policies, including school admissions decisions.

What was this guidance?

What’s relevant to K-12 education is a 14-page Obama-era document that explained how school districts can attempt to racially integrate schools without getting into legal trouble. (The document was targeted at districts that wanted to adopt desegregation policies on their own, not districts bound by federal desegregation orders.) That’s what DeVos rescinded.

It offered advice for school districts looking to make policy changes to diversify schools. Districts should first consider factors like students’ neighborhood or poverty level. But, the guidance read, “if a school district determines that these types of approaches would be unworkable, it may consider using an individual student’s race as one factor among others.”

It’s hardly a push for wide-scale race-based policies, but it left some room to use race if districts find they had exhausted alternatives.

This guidance was necessary, some argue, because the Supreme Court has weighed in on this issue in a complex way. A 2007 case, Parents Involved v. Seattle School District, struck down Seattle’s school assignment plan for its reliance on race to make admissions decisions.

“The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race,” wrote Chief Justice John Roberts in a widely quoted passage of the opinion. But Kennedy, the key fifth justice in the majority, didn’t fully sign on to this — continuing to allow districts to use race as a factor, but not the sole one.

“A district may consider it a compelling interest to achieve a diverse student population. Race may be one component of that diversity, but other demographic factors, plus special talents and needs, should also be considered,” Kennedy wrote. “What the government is not permitted to do … is to classify every student on the basis of race and to assign each of them to schools based on that classification.”

The Bush administration issued its own interpretation of the ruling in 2008, encouraging school districts not to consider race, though it did not say that doing so was prohibited in all circumstances. By publishing a guide for using race in 2011, the Obama administration was offering practical help but also sending a message that its goals were different.  

Erica Frankenberg, a professor who studies K-12 desegregation at Penn State, said the user-friendly way the guide was written was part of the Obama administration’s strategy to encourage districts to integrate their schools.

Did any school districts use it?

According to recent research, 60 school districts in 25 states have school assignment policies meant to create more diverse schools. Of those, just 12 districts take race into account, rather than just socio-economic status. (Using socio-economic status isn’t affected by this debate about race-based admissions.)

But it’s hard to tell if the guidance was a deciding factor for any school districts.

“Even with the 2011 guidance in place, voluntary integration is still an incredibly complicated thing to do,” said Frankenberg. In addition to a plan being in compliance with the law, this approach require garnering political will and tackling logistics like transportation.

Why are some people concerned about it being rescinded?

The guidance represents the official viewpoint of the administration, but the underlying law hasn’t changed. It does mean that districts won’t have the backing of federal government when it comes to race-conscious integration policies. That might make districts using race more fearful of a lawsuit.

“This is a legal intimidation strategy from a very conservative administration that is really intent on not having race a part of decision making and policy,” said Liliana Garces, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin who studies race, law, and education.

The move to rescind the documents fall into set of decisions by the Department of Education to deprioritize voluntary desegregation. Last year, the department discontinued an Obama-era grant program that was intended to help schools increase socio-economic diversity. (According to The Atlantic, 26 districts had been interested in applying for integration grants before that program was scrapped by the DeVos administration.)

To no longer have [the guidances] as an official stance is certainly at the very least, a missed opportunity to use the bully pulpit,” said Frankenberg, who supports race-based integration efforts.

Others support the move, arguing that attempts to use race in public policy are unconstitutional.  

“Being opposed to racial preferences is not being against diversity, which is what the critics will claim: It’s simply being against discrimination,” Roger Clegg, of the anti-affirmative action Center for Equal Opportunity, told Education Week. “The federal government should not be going out of its way to encourage such discrimination.”

What does research say about school integration?

It’s found that low-income students and students of color benefit from racially integrated schools. One recent study found that graduation rates of black and Hispanic students fell modestly after the end of a court order mandating desegregation plans. Another study found that Palo Alto’s school integration program led to big boosts in college enrollment among students of color (though, surprisingly, also led to an uptick in arrests).

Research has also shown that income is not a good proxy for race when looking at academic outcomes — even when accounting for differences in family income, black students were substantially less likely to complete high school and enroll in college. Other research has shown that attempting to use income to integrate schools by race isn’t nearly as effective as using race directly.

sounding off

New Yorkers respond to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s push to overhaul admissions at elite but segregated specialized high schools

PHOTO: Benjamin Kanter/Mayoral Photo Office
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio earlier this year.

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s push to better integrate New York City’s specialized high schools was met with fierce pushback but also pledges of support after the mayor announced Saturday he would work to overhaul admissions at the elite schools.

The reaction foreshadows the battle that lies ahead if de Blasio is going to convince lawmakers to sign off a key piece of his plan.

Considered the Ivies of the city’s high school system, eight of the nine specialized high schools admit students based on the results of a single entrance exam (the remaining performing arts school requires an audition.) The most significant but controversial change de Blasio is proposing is to scrap the test in favor of a system that offers admission to top students at every middle school, which requires a change in state law for some of the specialized high schools.

Many alumni from those schools have fought fiercely to preserve the entrance exam requirement, worrying that changing the admissions rules will lower academic standards.

Many made the familiar arguments that the city should instead focus on improving the quality of middle schools, or expand access to gifted programs, to serve as a feeder into top high schools.

Alumni who would like to see the Specialized High School Admissions Test remain in place likely have many lawmakers on their side. New York State Senator Toby Ann Stavisky, a Democrat who represents several Queens neighborhoods, released a statement that she “couldn’t disagree more” with the mayor’s proposal.

The reaction also captured concerns about how the changes could impact Asian students, who make up a disproportionate share of enrollment at the specialized high schools. Those students are also likely to come from low-income families.

But others took to social media to support the mayor’s proposal. Specialized high schools have enrolled an increasingly shrinking share of black and Hispanic students: While two-thirds of city students are black or Hispanic, only about 10 percent of admissions offers to those schools go to black or Hispanic students.

Some thanked the mayor for taking action after campaigning for years to make changes.

And not all alumni were against the changes. Also included in the mayor’s plan is an expansion of Discovery, a program that helps admit low-income students who just missed the cutoff score on the entrance exam.