debating admissions

Parents at a selective middle school fear an influx of ‘unscreened’ students

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
District 3 Superintendent Ilene Altschul discusses a proposal to close the middle school at P.S. 165 at a public meeting on Nov. 8.

On a block wedged between Harlem and the Upper West Side, two middle schools share a regal building. The similarities largely end there.

Mott Hall II is “screened” — meaning students are picked based on their previous academic performance. Students outpace the district average on state tests, and the school receives seven applications for every available seat.

Mostly separated on a different floor, the middle school at P.S. 165 accepts students from the zoned elementary school. Only 8 percent of middle school students passed state math tests last year, and enrollment in the upper grades is shrinking.

The education department is proposing to close the middle school at P.S. 165, which could give popular Mott Hall II room to grow. But P.S. 165 students would be entitled to opt into Mott Hall II without meeting its academic criteria, which has Mott Hall II parents worried that the performance of their school could erode if it is flooded with students who struggle academically.

“Shouldn’t they earn it? My daughter earned her right into Mott Hall,” said Sophia Fofana, whose daughter attends the school, at a public meeting held Wednesday to discuss the possible changes. “Mott Hall II is a rigorous school and, no disrespect to the teachers at [P.S. 165], but obviously they’re not the same and these kids are going to have a hard time.”

The controversy is similar to many that have erupted over the years among parents who want to protect their selective schools from changes that they fear could make them less exclusive. The debates also raise the larger question of whether some public schools should be permitted to choose their students — as a quarter of New York City middle schools now do — while others must enroll anyone who applies.

Both the proposal to shutter P.S. 165 and subsequently expand Mott Hall II are in the early stages. Neither has been formally proposed, let alone approved.

If the middle school is closed, about 100 current students there are entitled to enroll in a higher-performing alternative. Those students would not have to go through the normal screening process, which allows schools to sort through applicants based on their grades, test scores, interviews and other criteria.

A shift in the student body could also have unintended consequences when it comes to diversity. Enrollment at Mott Hall II largely mirrors the demographics of District 3, where it sits — a rarity in New York City, which has among the most segregated school systems in the country. P.S. 165, meanwhile, enrolls more black and Hispanic students.

“It works because there is a balance. And that’s what we signed up for,” said Shanti Menon, whose daughter is in seventh grade at the school.

Advocates for integration have argued that allowing schools to select students based on factors such as their academic performance or attendance records exacerbates segregation. But Mott Hall II is a unique case in that the school has been able to enroll a mixed student body. An influx of students from P.S. 165 could throw that off.

Parents describe Mott Hall II as the most diverse middle school in District 3, and most reflective of its demographic and economic averages. About 37 percent of students are Hispanic, 26 percent are black, 23 percent are white and 6 percent are Asian. The poverty rate is about 47 percent.

At P.S. 165, meanwhile, 81 percent of middle school students are black or Hispanic. With a poverty rate of 74 percent, the school serves considerably more poor students than the district average of about 48 percent.

Raven Snook, whose daughter attends Mott Hall II, said she picked the school precisely because of its diversity. While Snook is white, her husband is Puerto Rican.

“It will radically change the diversity levels, at least temporarily,” she said.

If the closure is approved, education department officials say it’s not a given that P.S. 165 students would enroll next door. Superintendent Ilene Altschul pointed out that P.S. 165 has a dual language program, and families may want to enroll in another similar school. Department officials added that many students come from another school district entirely, so they may look for options closer to home.

Altschul said the education department would work with each family to find the best fit for their child.

“Not every child will go to Mott Hall II,”  she said at Wednesday’s meeting. “We are not taking the sixth and seventh grade and moving them to Mott Hall II.”

By December, officials expect to present a formal plan that would close the middle school at P.S. 165. The Panel for Education Policy, a citywide body, would vote on it in January. Any impacts on Mott Hall II should become clearer once that proposal is presented.

Still, the District 3 Community Education Council, which is made up of parent volunteers, has pressed the education department to start working with families who could be affected. Middle school applications are due Dec. 1, but the plans may not be finalized until well after families have made their decisions.

“They deserve to have an accurate picture of what the schools will look like,” said Kristen Berger, an education council member.

Education council members and parents have been frustrated with how quickly the changes could be approved, saying families in the Harlem area of District 3 have gotten short-shrift compared with their wealthier neighbors to the south. When the education department proposed to change the attendance zone at several elementary schools in the Upper West Side, parents dragged the debate on for more than a year.

“People in Harlem keep being told they’re not high enough of a priority to be afforded the depth of conversation that is afforded to white parents in District 3,” said Kim Watkins, the education council president. “It’s really disrespectful.”

integration conversation

What happened when Denver prioritized enrolling low-income students at some affluent schools

PHOTO: Andy Cross/The Denver Post
Creativity Challenge Community second graders close their eyes and collect their thoughts during a 15-minute mindfulness class in 2016.

Two years ago, Denver Public Schools approached its most affluent schools with an idea: What if, after enrolling all of the students who lived in their school boundaries, they prioritized filling their remaining open seats with low-income students from other neighborhoods?

The goal was to increase socioeconomic integration in a gentrifying city where housing patterns have exacerbated a familiar problem: At some schools, very few students qualify for subsidized lunches. At other schools, nearly all do. And there aren’t enough schools in between, even though some research shows all students benefit when schools are integrated.

Six elementary schools with poverty rates far below the district average signed on to the idea. They were joined last year by Denver’s largest and most sought-after high school, East High, where hundreds of kids compete each year for freshman spots.

The results have been mixed. While the prioritization made little difference in diversifying the student population at some small elementary schools, it had a bigger effect at East, where every low-income eighth-grader who applied through Denver’s school choice system for a spot in this year’s freshman class was admitted, said Brian Eschbacher, the district’s executive director of planning and enrollment services. At smaller schools, a limited number of open seats and a lack of transportation to and from school hindered the results, he said.

The small-scale pilot program is one of the strategies being reviewed by the Strengthening Neighborhoods Initiative, a committee comprised of community leaders whose task is recommending policies to drive greater socioeconomic integration in the city’s schools.

Questions remain about the efficacy and equity of expanding the pilot. Among them, said the committee co-chairwoman, Diana Romero Campbell, is whether the responsibility to integrate Denver’s schools should fall solely on its low-income students — or whether more affluent students should share the burden of traveling outside their neighborhoods for the sake of integration.

“It really is, ‘What are the incentives that are needed?’ ” said Romero Campbell, who is president of Scholars Unlimited, a local nonprofit organization that runs after-school and summer learning programs. “…If you make it a big mandate, does that disincentivize people and does it become busing all over again? The general consensus is that’s not what we want to do.”

PHOTO: Denver Public Schools
This map shows the percentage of students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, a proxy for poverty, in each elementary school boundary.

In 1973, Denver Public Schools became the first school district outside the South ordered by the Supreme Court to desegregate through forced busing. By the time the district was freed from the order in 1995, tens of thousands of white students had left city schools for suburban and private ones. At the time, Denver Public Schools had about 64,000 students.

The district has tried over the past decade to attract students back, and enrollment has climbed precipitously, as has the city’s overall population. Today, Denver Public Schools educates about 92,000 students, three-quarters of whom are students of color and two-thirds of whom qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, a proxy for poverty.

Denver has universal school choice, which means that under a system that debuted in 2012, all students can use a single form to apply to any school in the district. That includes district-run schools and charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately run.

Some charters, such as the high-performing Denver School of Science and Technology, prize integration, and their enrollment rules have always reflected that goal. As the district opened more of its own schools and set up new “enrollment zones,” which are bigger boundaries that contain several schools, it followed suit, Eschbacher said. Certain schools have enrollment “floors” that require that at least half of their students qualify for subsidized lunches.

In some cases, the goal was to make sure a school’s population reflected the neighborhood population, he said. In others, it was to ensure families didn’t self-segregate within zones: all higher-income students at one school and none at the others, for example.

Then, two years ago, Eschbacher read a news story about school integration efforts in Brooklyn, N.Y. It inspired him to dash off a proposal to Superintendent Tom Boasberg that resulted in the district inviting schools where fewer than 40 percent of students qualified for free or reduced-price lunch to participate in a pilot prioritizing the enrollment of low-income students.

The schools’ boundaries wouldn’t change, Eschbacher explained, and they would still accept students who live within their boundaries first. But for the remaining open seats, they would give preference to low-income students who applied, boosting those students’ chances to attend one of the district’s more affluent schools, which also tend to be among its highest performing.

Asbury, Edison, Steele, Academia Ana Marie Sandoval and Creativity Challenge Community elementary schools opted in the first year, as did Slavens, which serves students in kindergarten through eighth grade. The following year, East High joined the pilot, as well.

Julia Shepherd, principal at Creativity Challenge Community, said her school opted in because integration has always been one of its goals. C3, as it’s called, opened in 2012 in a wealthier southeast Denver neighborhood as an all-choice, non-boundary school offering a curriculum that calls for collaborating with local museums and cultural institutions.

Its percentage of low-income students has historically been far below the district average. Last year, 9.5 percent of students qualified for free or reduced-price lunches. That number is up to 10.5 percent this year, but it’s 13.5 percent in kindergarten, which is the grade at which most new students enroll. Shepherd credits the increased diversity to the pilot program. Every low-income student who applied for a seat in C3’s kindergarten got in, she said.

“What we talk about so much here is community,” said Brent Applebaum, an assistant principal at C3. “…We want to be a representation of what Denver looks like.”

The pilot has been most successful at East, where historically about a third of all students have qualified for subsidized lunches. Of the 800 students in East’s freshmen class this year, 425 live in the boundary and 375 “choiced in,” Eschbacher said. The 375 includes 113 low-income students who live outside the boundary and don’t have a sibling at the school, which also gives applicants a priority. It also includes 170 non-low-income students who fit that description.

In the past, Eschbacher said, the 113 low-income students would have been tossed into a lottery with their non-low-income counterparts and faced a 50/50 chance of getting into the district’s most-requested school. Prioritizing them ensured they had a 100 percent chance, he said.

The numbers of low-income students who were accepted at each of the six elementary schools were so small that Eschbacher said he couldn’t disclose them for privacy reasons.

Part of the reason is that the factors that make the pilot work at East — lots of open seats and lots of demand — don’t exist at many other schools in the district, Eschbacher said. The seats at most more-affluent schools fill up with students who live in the boundary; Asbury had just five open kindergarten seats in 2016, according to district statistics, while Slavens had only six.

Full boundaries leave little room for choice students, low-income or not, Eschbacher said. “Are we giving them a boost no matter what?” he said. “Yep, we’re definitely trying. But one of the lessons we learned is that when few seats are available, it’s not going to move the needle very much.”

For enrollment prioritization to work, affluent schools must also attract enough interest from low-income students who want to choice in. That can be tough given that the district doesn’t provide transportation to most students who exercise choice. A recent district map of the percentage of low-income students in each elementary school boundary shows poor students are clustered in certain boundaries while wealthier students are clustered in others.

The Strengthening Neighborhoods Initiative has been meeting since June, and Romero Campbell, the co-chairwoman, said that all options are on the table as its initial work draws to a close. The committee has two more meetings scheduled and is expected to release its recommendations next month.

work ahead

Five months in, crucial part of New York City’s school diversity plan begins to take shape

PHOTO: Mayoral Photography Office
Mayor Bill de Blasio hosts a town hall in Brooklyn in October.

Five months after New York City officials announced a much-anticipated plan to address school segregation, an advisory group that is supposed to help put the plan into action is finally starting to take shape.

Behind the scenes, city officials have been recruiting potential members, while the group’s leaders have started some initial planning before the first full meeting on Dec. 11.

Chaired by high-profile civil rights leaders, their charge is to spearhead an independent effort to turn the city’s general plans into specific recommendations for how to spur integration in the country’s largest school district — and one of the most segregated.

Advocates have held out hope that the group will push Mayor Bill de Blasio to move faster and further on integration in his second term than he did in his first. But they also have reason to temper their expectations.

Establishing the group bought de Blasio another year to act on the politically volatile issue, a tactic he has deployed on other controversial matters including rising homelessness, the Riker’s Island jail, and contested public monuments. The integration group’s recommendations may not be released until December 2018, one member said — about six months after the original deadline, and several years after advocates began demanding action on segregation. And even then, city leaders can pick and choose among the recommendations, which are non-binding.

Politics 101 is: When you don’t want to decide, appoint a commission,” said David Bloomfield, a professor of education, law, and public policy at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. 

To lead the work, the de Blasio administration chose respected figures who can speak with authority on race and segregation — but who are not advocates who have demanded aggressive action. They are José Calderón, president of the Hispanic Federation; Hazel Dukes, president of the NAACP for New York State; and Maya Wiley, former chair of the Civilian Complaint Review Board, who previously served as de Blasio’s legal advisor.

Wiley, who is also professor of urban policy and management at the New School, said the group would try to boil down a decades-old problem with roots in housing policy, school-assignment systems, and structural racism to a set of realistic solutions.

“We’re looking for things that are actionable,” she said. “This is a big and complex set of questions.”

More recently, two additional members have been named to the group’s executive committee: Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation who is a longtime proponent of socioeconomic integration; and Amy Hsin, associate professor of sociology at Queens College.

The chairs have held at least two private planning meetings, and will continue to meet every six-to-eight weeks, said education department spokesman Will Mantell.

Mantell said the group will ultimately include 30-35 members who will be divided into committees. The city is reaching out to potential members “based on the recommendations of the executive committee and our ongoing discussions with advocates, researchers, educators, parents and community members,” he wrote in an email.

Wiley, the executive board member, said the group wants to bring a diversity of perspectives into the planning process, so will host public meetings in every borough to gather different ideas on school segregation and how to address it.

The group grew out of the city’s “school diversity plan,” which was released this summer after relentless pressure from advocates and recurring headlines about de Blasio’s relative silence on the city’s persistent school segregation. The plan left many advocates underwhelmed.

In particular, they said the city set unambitious racial and socioeconomic integration goals for itself. Pressed on such concerns, Mayor Bill de Blasio told reporters the plan was “a strong first step,” but added: “There will be more to come.”

To some advocates, the advisory group creates an opening to give teeth to the city’s plan.

David Kirkland, executive director of the New York University Metro Center, recently accepted an offer to become a member. He said he hopes — among other changes — to push the city to set more aggressive goals for “racially representative” schools, which the plan currently defines as those where 50 percent to 90 percent of students are black or Hispanic (together those groups make up 70 percent of city students).

“It’s not clear to me that we have the right metrics,” he said. “My hope is that this diversity plan is going to begin to change in significant ways.”

In order for the recommendations to take hold, its members must be truly representative of the community — and free from political pressure to sidestep thorny issues, advocates say.

New York City’s grassroots integration movement has been criticized as being dominated by white middle-class parents and activists, although it includes members of different races and backgrounds. To build broad support for their work, observers say, the advisory group will have to bring in more black and Hispanic families whose children make up the majority of city students — as well as Asian students, who are often left out of the conversation about integration.

“If we don’t have authentic and real representation,” said Matt Gonzales, who lobbies for school integration through the nonprofit New York Appleseed, “then we run the risk of running failed efforts in integration that we’ve already watched unravel” elsewhere.