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.

the right mix

How to integrate Manhattan middle schools? This parent says make them enroll a mix of low- and high-achievers

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Parents weigh in on a proposal to integrate District 2 middle schools by making them enroll students with a range of academic abilities.

In Manhattan’s vast District 2, students can choose which middle schools to apply to — but many of the schools get to choose which students to accept. As a result, some schools wind up with many high-achieving, privileged students, while others serve many needy, struggling students.

One parent has a plan to fix that: Require each middle school in the district, which stretches from Lower Manhattan through Chinatown to the Upper East Side, to enroll a mix of struggling, average, and high-achieving students. Shino Tanikawa, a member of the district’s Community Education Council, presented her idea at a committee meeting on Wednesday.

“We need an admissions system that does not judge students or value some students more than others,” she said.

Tanikawa is part of a small but growing group of advocates across the city who are trying to combat segregation by reforming how students are assigned to schools — a grassroots effort that the de Blasio administration has encouraged and, in one district, turned into official policy.

But the administration has so far only been willing to act on plans that have local support. That could present a challenge for Tanikawa’s proposal in District 2, where parents are used to competing for spots at selective middle schools. While most families support classroom diversity in theory, many also want their own children surrounded by students with similar skill levels.

“There is research that shows that just as some kids at the lower end need support,” said Debra Freeman, a parent at Wednesday’s meeting, “there are kids who are at a higher end who will be very bored and can have issues if they’re not sufficiently challenged.”

District 2 families can enroll at middle schools near where they live, or apply to others across the district. Eighteen programs at the district’s 24 middle schools are “screened,” meaning they rank applicants based on factors including test scores, grades, interviews and other factors. Most schools consider students’ attendance records in admissions decisions — a screen the education council has proposed to eliminate based on research showing that poor students are more likely to miss school.

Critics say that screening applicants by ability exacerbates school segregation, since academic achievement is closely linked to students’ socioeconomic status. In District 2, schools are largely divided along race and class lines: Among schools with middle-school grades, the student-poverty rate ranges from a high of 70 percent to a low of 3 percent, according to data collected by Tanikawa.

“These are public schools,” said Robin Broshi, a member of the education council who supports the proposal to mix students with different academic abilities. “There’s no reason why one segment of a population should have a systematic advantage over another segment of the population to public schools.”

Tanikawa’s plan is based on the so-called educational option, or “ed opt,” admissions system used by some of the city’s high schools. Designed to promote integration, schools using that model aim to enroll students along a range of different academic levels. However, many have struggled to attract enough high performers because they compete for those students with the most selective schools.

To prevent the same thing from happening in District 2, Tanikawa’s plan calls for all the middle schools to use the ed-opt model. Tanikawa said the district should also adopt recruitment practices to attract a diverse mix of applicants to each school, and better ways to share information about schools with parents. She would pair those changes with efforts to attract more teachers of color to the district and ensure that classroom instruction reflects all cultures.

But getting families to apply to middle schools that currently serve more needy students is likely to be an uphill battle, with a school’s selectivity often equated with its quality. Parents who listened to Tanikawa’s proposal said that some of the district’s middle schools offer advanced courses and are known for sending students to elite high schools — while others are not.

“Work has to be done around these middle schools because there are disparities,” said Tunisia K. Riley, a parent in the district.

Other districts that have tried to adjust their middle-school admissions policies to promote integration have faced pushback.

When the superintendent in neighboring District 3 floated a plan to integrate Upper West Side middle schools by reserving some seats for low-income students, some parents rebelled and the idea was shelved. An outcry also ensued at Medgar Evers College Preparatory School in Brooklyn when the education department changed admissions there. Parents at the elite school worried academics there would “deteriorate.”

In District 2, a final plan is still a long ways off.

Tanikawa intends to recruit parents, principals and district leaders to come up with specifics for the proposal. While the education council does not have the power to enact it, Tanikawa hopes that if it garners enough local support, the city will make good on its promise to back local integration efforts and sign off on the plan.

That is what happened in District 1, which includes the East Village and Lower East Side. After years of advocacy, parent leaders won city approval for a new admissions system designed to make the district’s elementary schools more diverse. It will be in place for the upcoming school year.

“I’m hoping people will have the courage to change the system in a meaningful way,” Tanikawa said.

side effects

After an early childhood overhaul, paying families are bringing diversity to some New York City child care centers

PHOTO: Janie Ziye Shen
A door at the Magical Years early childhood center in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, welcomes families in four languages.

When New York City reduced funding for the Magical Years child care center in 2012, staff there lobbied to gain back the seats they would have to cut.

Their effort fell short, so they turned to another funding stream: families in the neighborhood, Brooklyn’s Sunset Park, who were desperate for high-quality child care spots and who could pay for it.

Today, Magical Years is a vibrant space with toddlers singing songs in Spanish, Chinese, and English, and with a waitlist numbering in the hundreds. At any given time, nearly two thirds of infants and toddlers come through the city’s child care system, bringing in as much as $425 a week in city funding; the rest are from families that pay $250 a week for their spots.

In a city where early childhood programs are highly segregated by race and class, Magical Years suggests that the city’s recent early childhood overhaul might inadvertently have laid the groundwork for integration.

Families who might otherwise never brush elbows actively mingle and learn from one another At Magical Years, said Ann Goa, the center’s former director, adding, “We can see the connection and communication that parents have” with each other.

The changes at Magical Years represent an unintended consequence of a massive overhaul to how the city manages early childhood education, known as EarlyLearn. While there have never been many slots for infants in subsidized child care centers, the initiative reduced those spaces even more. The city started sending more children younger than 3 into less expensive programs run out of providers’ homes and paying some existing child care centers for fewer spots.

Like Magical Years, a handful of other centers in that position who were also in gentrifying neighborhoods responded by actively recruiting local paying families to help supplement the lost revenue. As a result, some, but not all, have created rare oases of integration — something that research suggests benefits poorer students and doesn’t harm other students.

Across the city, it’s unclear exactly how many paying families are sending children to child care centers that are otherwise city-funded. The city does not track this number, which is likely to be small because there are relatively few subsidized centers that serve infants, and many of those are in very high-poverty neighborhoods with few families able to pay for care.

PHOTO: Janie Ziye Shen

But where this dynamic has played out, it has had an impact. At Magical Years, typically 14 of 42 seats are filled with paying customers, some of them employees at NYU Langone, the large health and social service organization that oversees Magical Years.

Magical Years places toddlers whose families pay privately in the same classrooms with children whose families are in EarlyLearn, paving the way for socioeconomic and racial integration.

But other centers funnel children from private-paying families into classrooms separate from their EarlyLearn classes.

At a Friends of Crown Heights center in the gentrifying Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, for example, a handful of  infant and toddler rooms are reserved primarily for “private pay” families. These rooms appear to be more racially diverse than other rooms in the center.

Center administrators — who operate 20 early childhood programs under a $42 million contract with the city — explain that the decision was largely driven by a desire to simplify bookkeeping. Different funding sources come with different regulations, they say, so it is easiest to group all children whose spots are paid in the same way together.

If a city representative wants to see the medical records of all the children in the EarlyLearn program, for instance, having those children in one classroom makes it easier for the center to comply, according to Hugh Hamilton, director of program development.

“It is for accounting purposes,” Hamilton said, adding that when the children at their centers play outside, staff at Friends of Crown Heights say, kids of all backgrounds come together.

To some researchers who study early childhood education, this approach is a mistake.

“Programs that are segregated by race/ethnicity and income are rarely, if ever, of equal quality,” write Jeanne Reid and Sharon Kagan of the National Center for Children and Families at Columbia University in their 2016 report, “A Better Start: Why Classroom Diversity Matters in Early Education.”

As the city takes an increasing interest in both early childhood education and integration, people who have experienced the wrenching changes that affected Magical Years are debating how spots for poor children should be handled.

Vaughan Toney, president of Friends of Crown Heights, says he’d like to see the city reinstate all of the subsidized infant slots lost during the EarlyLearn transition. Families with the means to pay privately, he says, have other options, while some low-income families that his organization serves have to travel to Friends of Crown Heights centers because their neighborhoods have no early childhood centers.

Kathleen Hopkins, vice president of NYU Langone’s community programs, has a different take. Though Magical Years’ private-pay slots reap far less revenue than the subsidized ones, Hopkins says the center wouldn’t want to switch those slots back to city-funded ones and risk losing the diversity that exists now.

“Families share strengths and assets and learn different cultural beliefs and value systems, and that just enriches the environment for the children,” she said.

Hopkins said she would rather see the center expand to make space for more of everything — more subsidized and more private slots. “Segregated centers are never a good thing,” she said.

This story is adapted from a forthcoming report by the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School that looks at subsidized infant and toddler child care.