Low bar?

New York City’s school diversity goals could be met just through changing demographics, report finds

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn

When New York City recently released its plan to spur school diversity, advocates praised the city for setting specific goals while skeptics said the bar was set too low.

A new report from the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School crunches demographic data and finds those skeptics may be right.

Even without undertaking any changes to the way students are assigned to schools, the city would likely meet its diversity goals simply due to demographic trends that are already underway, according to the report, “No Heavy Lifting Required: New York City’s Unambitious School ‘Diversity’ Plan.”

“These goals would be easy to achieve,” said Nicole Mader, an author of the report. “They could probably happen under the status quo, and that is concerning because there is a groundswell of support for school desegregation and integration.”

In early June, the city released a plan that set explicit diversity benchmarks and spelled out initiatives to increase racial and economic integration in schools — though the plan didn’t actually use the words “integration” or “desegregation.” Over the next five years, the goals call for increasing the number of students in “racially representative” schools by 50,000, and decreasing the number of “economically stratified” schools by 10 percent.

A racially representative school is defined as having a student body that is between 50 percent and 90 percent black and Hispanic. The report, by Mader and Ana Carla Sant’Anna Costa, notes that many of the schools within the city’s racially representative range “would still count as intensely segregated” under commonly accepted academic measures. Add in demographic trends, and the goal seems even less ambitious.

Citywide, the number of white and Asian students is growing, while the number of black students is decreasing. Given those shifts, the number of schools within the city’s racially representative range has grown by about 2.4 percent a year. Just a slight increase in pace, to 2.9 percent, would allow the city to meets its goal, the report notes.

“In fact, the only barrier that may stand in the way of reaching this goal is the rapid concentration of students into the predominately white and Asian schools,” according to the report. “The number of students at those schools has increased by more than 34,000. This more than cancels out all the progress that has been made on the other end of the goal’s range, where 30,000 fewer students now attend highly segregated black and Hispanic schools than did five years ago.”

Another problem with the goal, according to the report: It allows the city to declare victory even if a school’s overall demographics shift slightly — say, from 90.1 percent black and Hispanic, to 90 percent — because that school’s entire population would count towards the 50,000-student benchmark.

There are currently 105 schools that are between 90.1 and 92 percent black and Hispanic, the report notes, citing an original analysis by The Bell podcast, which explores segregation through the eyes of New York City students. If each of those schools enrolled an average of 10 more white or Asian students, the city would meet its goal.

The findings regarding the city’s economic integration goals are similar. The number of schools with an acceptable level of economic need, by the city’s definition, is already increasing by about 4 percent each year. That natural growth would only have to increase to 4.6 percent, and the city’s goal would be met.

But again, there’s a catch: High-income schools are growing three times faster than those that fall within the city’s definition of an acceptable level of need.

In an email, education department spokesman Will Mantell called the city’s goals “significant” but also just an “initial” step.

“These goals demonstrate the many ways we measure diversity and provide an important yardstick for our progress,” he wrote.

Mantell added that an advisory group, created under the city’s plan, will be tasked with helping to establish longer-term goals.

The report gives a series of recommendations to make the city’s benchmarks more meaningful.

The city could call for targets to be set at the district level, rather than citywide. That would encourage the creation of local solutions and “not mask deepening segregation” in some areas. Another recommendation: including information about the progress of individual schools in relation to integration goals on the city’s Quality Snapshots, a tool that is used to assess schools.

“If you just put this data out there, then school principals know … parents are seeing it,” Mader said. “The idea of just publishing it might be an incentive, in and of itself, to do this work.”

study says...

Do ‘good’ parents prep their kids for gifted exams? The answer varies by race, study finds

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Kindergarten students at Brooklyn School of Inquiry, a citywide gifted and talented program, learn how to read a number line in Nov. 2016.

Is getting your child into a gifted-and-talented program a mark of good parenting? How you answer may depend largely on your race or ethnicity, according to new research.

Allison Roda, an assistant professor of education at Molloy College in Long Island, interviewed more than 50 white, black, and Hispanic parents at an unidentified New York City school to learn about their attitudes towards gifted programs. (Her sample did not include any Asian parents.)

She found that the white parents view applying for gifted programs and preparing their children to score well on the admissions test as hallmarks of good parenting.

For the black and Hispanic families, being a good parent had more to do with choosing a diverse classroom for their child and not “gaming” the system by practicing for the gifted test, according to the report, which appeared recently in the peer-reviewed journal Teachers College Record.

The report comes as the education department and elected officials are considering how to enroll more students of color in gifted programs.

In New York City, most gifted programs are housed in separate classrooms within a larger school. Often, the two are divided along racial lines, with white and Asian students far more likely to be admitted to gifted programs. Meanwhile, black and Hispanic students — who represent 70 percent of the city’s public-school population — comprise less than 30 percent of the gifted-and-talented enrollment.

The most common entry point for gifted programs is kindergarten, with admissions based on test results. The white families Roda interviewed said they felt intense social pressure to have their children take those exams.

Many of them said they questioned whether they should subject their children to such high-stakes testing, but they went along because “everyone else is doing it,” the report says. They also saw it as a pathway to competitive schools in later grades — and even college.

“They know it’s not fair,” Roda said. “They feel the need to do it to get their children on the right track.”

While the black and Hispanic parents Roda interviewed had their children tested for gifted, none reported paying for tutors or otherwise preparing children for the test. For them, having to practice for the test meant your child wasn’t really gifted.

“They know that all of the students who are in those programs were prepped,” Roda said. “So that takes away from the legitimacy of the label and the program they were placed in, and they don’t believe in that.”

Once their children started school, parents of color saw that their kids would be an extreme minority in gifted classes. They also reported that the gifted programs weren’t all that different from the education their children were receiving in general education classes. For those reasons, many opted not to retest their child if he or she initially missed the cut-off score for admission — as opposed to white parents, who repeatedly signed up their children for retakes.

“They just equate it to a way to segregate children whose parents prep them for the test,” Roda said.

Despite the time and resources white families said they poured into preparing for the gifted test, they didn’t think it was an accurate measure of giftedness. On that point, families of color agreed. Black, white and Hispanic families also agreed that school diversity was important.

Understanding those similarities and differences could be important for efforts to better integrate gifted classes and the school system more widely. While some elected officials have called for expanding access to test prep and testing all pre-K students for giftedness as a way to increase black and Hispanic student enrollment, Roda’s research suggests that may not work since parents of color told Roda they were opposed to test prep.

Instead, Roda suggests, the city should begin to spread the practices used in gifted classrooms to entire schools.

“Be more inclusive and enrich the curriculum that way,” Roda said. “And don’t be so focused on the test.”

drinks and debate

What would an equitable high school choice process look like? Chalkbeat readers weigh in.

PHOTO: Stanley Collado
Chalkbeat hosted an event to debate how the high school admissions process could be more fair.

New York City’s choice system is supposed to give every student a shot at attending a top high school. But in reality, low-income students of color are often stuck in low-performing schools.

Last week, Chalkbeat invited a parent and student, a researcher and an admissions advocate, and two education department officials to take part in a public discussion. We wanted to know: When it comes to the high school choice process, what are the barriers separating some students from high-achieving schools — and how can those obstacles be removed?

We want you to join the discussion. Click here or keep reading to learn how.

Two competing schools of thought emerged during the talk, which about 120 people came to watch. On one side, some said the problems revolve around some families’ limited information about how to navigate the time-intensive application process, and solutions should be geared towards improving communication and guidance for families and students.

But others said the problems go much deeper: Students who attend high-needs schools often aren’t prepared to compete for seats in the most exclusive high schools, even as their families often lack the time and resources to help them find other strong alternatives.

“The whole system is flawed and it’s geared to have certain students fail,” said Tanesha Grant, a parent from Washington Heights whose daughter attends Urban Assembly School for the Performing Arts. “Every child is equal. We make them unequal with the process.’”

After the discussion, audience members — who included people who work in schools and education-oriented nonprofits, along with parents — voted on ways to make the admissions process more fair.

The solution that earned the most votes was reducing or eliminating screened schools, which admit students based on their test scores, interviews and report card grades, among other criteria.

The second most popular solution was providing better information to students and families, perhaps by improving the high school directory or adding more guidance counselors in middle schools who can help guide students through the process.

Many other attendees came up with their own solutions.

Those included: expanding the role of parent coordinators, who are already stationed in schools, to help families understand the process; changing the algorithm that matches students to schools so that diversity is weighed in admissions decisions; and hiring more black and Hispanic teachers who can serve as a welcoming presence when students of color are picking schools. You can find more in the photos.

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

The audience also submitted dozens of written questions about how the process is working (or not). They wanted to know how much leeway schools get to choose their students, what is being done to help immigrant families understand the process, and how the city can create more high-quality high schools in neighborhoods that lack them.

Now, we want to you to weigh in.

We distilled the audience queries into a handful of questions based on common themes that emerged. We’re hoping to follow up on some of them — but first we want to know which ones are shared by the most readers.

We’d love it if you’d use the form below to vote on which question is also puzzling you — or if there’s another you’d like us to pursue.

Thanks for joining the discussion!