What's in a name?

State’s draft diversity statement addresses ‘segregation,’ a word the mayor’s plan avoided

PHOTO: Monica Disare
The New York State Board of Regents

Last week, the mayor’s drew headlinesand criticism — for his long-awaited diversity plan. Among the concerns — the mayor chose not to use words like “integration” or “segregation” to define the problem.

The state, on the other hand, isn’t mincing words. On Monday, the Board of Regents discussed its own draft diversity statement. “More than sixty years after Brown v. Board of Education,” it states in its opening paragraph, “New York is the most segregated state in the country.”

Language matters, notes Ian Rosenblum, executive director of EdTrust-NY. “They called it what it was and that’s very important because if you want to address the problem well, it’s important to fully understand the problem,” he said. “And the challenges that we face are the challenges of integration and segregation.”

The state’s draft document, “Promoting Diversity: Integration in New York State,” is meant as an introduction to the problem and solutions. But it does name some strategies that could help schools integrate, including redrawing zone lines or providing transportation to ensure housing patterns do not cement segregation.

“I still have a hard time accepting the fact that we have the most segregated schools in the country,” said Regent Judith Johnson, likely drawing on a landmark 2014 UCLA study. “We don’t think that’s a place where New York should be.”

Vice Chancellor Andrew Brown expressed the urgency that many felt the mayor’s plan lacked. “Unless we tackle this monster, I’m afraid that we’re never going to get there for those that most need us,” he said.

It remains unclear which concrete strategies the board will choose to adopt. A workgroup will start the process of creating a path forward. The Board of Regents will discuss next steps at its July retreat.

Monday’s discussion is a continuation of a conversation the Board of Regents had in April about how to leverage the federal Every Student Succeeds Act to integrate schools. Those ideas, which involve creating a metric to measure diversity and using integration as a school-improvement strategy, were included in Monday’s Regents document.

Convincing school districts across the state to value integration could be difficult task. Several members of the 17-person board said they are worried about creating mandates — and fear that forcing the issue will not produce the desired results.

Regent Susan Mittler, who represents a district with rural areas, spelled out some pushback the state may encounter trying to integrate schools in her area.

“You can’t sit 6-, 7- and 8-year-olds on the bus for an hour for the sake of integration,” she said. She raised a different idea to overcome the challenge, one the city’s chancellor has also endorsed: pen pals. “I know a number of districts that actually find another school, like in the inner city, and they actually [become] pen pals and then do trips and begin to integrate,” Mittler said.

Since integration is a tricky subject to tackle, the Regents should ensure they are prepared, Brown said.

“We can’t come out with a BB gun,” Brown said. “We need cannons. This is a big issue.”

Sorting the Students

Another integration plan for Upper West Side middle schools is met with some support, but also familiar concerns

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
The education department presented a new proposal to integrate Upper West Side and Harlem middle schools.

The education department on Tuesday presented yet another proposal for integrating Upper West Side and Harlem middle schools, drawing both support and concern from parents.

Under the latest proposal, every middle school in District 3 would offer a quarter of seats to students who have low test scores and report card grades, and qualify for free- or reduced-price lunch — a commonly used proxy for poverty. Since race and class are often linked to academic performance, the proposal could integrate schools on a number of measures.

The district has gained nationwide attention for its integration efforts, which have drawn heated pushback from some parents who worry their children will be shut out of the most sought-after schools.

But many others have applauded the push for change in a diverse yet starkly segregated district — including a number of local principals. On Tuesday, five school leaders stood in support of pursuing integration plans.

“This is a move towards diversity, towards equity, and it’s a great thing,” P.S. 84 Principal Evelyn J. Lolis told the crowd. “The choice is yours.”

The district’s 16 middle schools don’t have attendance zones. Instead, students currently apply to the schools of their choice, and most schools set admissions criteria based on factors such as an interview, attendance, or test scores.

District leaders originally proposed only considering student test scores in their integration proposal. Just last week, they presented two alternate proposals that look at a combination of test scores, report card grades, and whether a student attended a school with many other needy students.

The new plan was presented after some raised concerns about the plan not taking into account low-performing students who attend less needy schools. This latest proposal considers whether an individual student is considered poor — rather than the demographics of his or her entire elementary school. At high-performing West End Secondary School, there would be a 13-point increase in the number of poor, struggling students who are offered admission — up from only 5 percent.

The plan didn’t quell all of the parent complaints, though the evening lacked the fireworks of earlier meetings. Some wondered whether schools will be able to serve more struggling students in the same classrooms as higher performing students, and how schools will support those classes. Though diversity has generally been shown to benefit students, Andy Weinstein, a parent at P.S. 84, pointed to studies that showed negative effects when students were mixed by ability levels.

“The research suggests it won’t work and in fact may backfire,” he said. “I think mandating academic diversity and taking a one size fits all approach is a disservice.”  

Community Education Council member Genisha Metcalf echoed the concerns of other parents who said that the district’s plans ignore some of the highest-needs schools. A simulation of the latest proposal shows that many schools with lower test scores would remain essentially unchanged.

P.S. 149 Sojourner Truth, a K-8 school, would actually get more low performing and poor students, according to an education department proposal — from 68 percent of students to 70 percent. Community Action school would go from having 64 percent poor and struggling students, to 63 percent.

Metcalf said the district should focus on providing those schools with much-needed resources.

“I think we’re conflating some issues. Equity is providing all schools with equal opportunity, equal access to resources,” she said. “Equity is not taking a few students from the highest needs schools and sending the message that we need to shuffle kids out of their community.”

For each integration proposal, the education department says more families would receive an offer to a more preferred middle school choice than under the current admissions system. Under the latest proposal, about 113 families — about 5 percent of the total — would not get matched to a school they chose, compared with 78 families last year.

The education department’s goal is to have a final plan in place by June, when families start the middle school selection process.

change is coming

City may consider more than just test scores in controversial Upper West Side integration proposal

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
District 3 Superintendent Ilene Altschul, right, has proposed a middle school integration plan.

This week’s meeting to discuss an integration proposal for Upper West Side middle schools was already expected to be controversial. But it could get even more heated, with the city planning to present an alternative approach, leaders said.

An education department spokeswoman said a “new scenario” for integrating District 3 middle schools will be presented at a Community Education Council meeting on Wednesday. Under the current proposal, which has drawn scorn from some parents, a quarter of seats at every middle would be offered to students who earn low scores on state tests.

The city may add other factors to mix, including whether a student is poor or attended an elementary school with many other needy students, according to Kristen Berger — a parent who has been leading integration efforts as a member of the local education council. Some of the changes were first reported by NY1. 

“The goal is to refine the plan so that it can be the best one,” she said.

Education department spokeswoman Toya Holness declined to release any details about the potential changes, saying, “To send it out wide — without any context, or information, or ability to take questions — I don’t know that’s helpful.”

The debate in District 3 has captured nationwide attention after a viral news video showed a crowd of mostly white, middle class parents angrily pushing against the plan at a meeting last month. Since test scores are often tied to a students’ race and class, the proposal has the potential to integrate schools racially, economically, and academically.

It is unclear if adding other factors to the formula would quiet that furor — or how it would impact the plan’s goal of integrating starkly segregated Upper West Side middle schools.

Despite the controversy, there have also been plenty of supporters, including many principals in the district. It’s not known whether school leaders and parents will back the latest changes — especially since a previous proposal to integrate district middle schools based on students’ economic status died after a public backlash.

Though city officials have stressed all along that the outlines of the proposal could change, parent leaders on Monday said they are worried about the murky process and short timeframe. Officials hope to have a plan in place by June, when entering fifth grade families start planning for middle school.

“We are extremely concerned about the timing of this last-minute change,” the local Community Education Council wrote Monday in a joint letter to city officials.

Still, the council notes it is broadly supportive of the city’s diversity goals.

The education council doesn’t have a formal role in proposing or approving any changes to the middle school admissions process, but members have played a leading role in pushing the city to address stark school segregation in an otherwise diverse district. In the council’s letter to the chancellor, parents call on the city to take a more holistic approach, such as providing anti-bias training in District 3 schools and more academic supports, including social workers and bilingual teachers.

“We have a genuine interest in moving the initiative forward,” said Kim Watkins, president of the council. “But we very strongly believe it’s missing some important implementation pieces.”