City pitches UWS school diversity plans

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DOE lays out scenarios for middle school admissions overhaul


  • Department of Education officials detailed proposed admissions changes intended to boost diversity in Upper West Side middle schools at a May 22 meeting of Community Education Council 3. Photo: Michael Garofalo

  • Schools Chancellor Richard A. Carranza has promised to address segregation in New York City public schools with a “sense of urgency.” Photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office

“There are pieces that need to be worked out, but if we continue to decide to try to find the perfect plan we will never move anywhere.”

Charles DeBerry, principal, P.S. 76

The volatile issue of racial segregation in Upper West Side schools made headlines last month when New York City Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza tweeted a viral video of parents criticizing a plan to reserve seats at high-performing middle schools for students with low standardized test scores. That plan has since been replaced with three alternative Department of Education proposals that aim to reduce racial segregation by setting aside middle school seats for students with academic deficiencies and/or economic need. The department hopes to settle on a revised middle school admissions policy by June. DOE officials detailed the new proposals at a May 22 meeting of Community Educational Council 3 at P.S. 163 on West 97th Street.

Five local principals spoke at the meeting in support of implementing an admissions diversity plan. “To not do anything would be a tremendous error on our part,” said Charles DeBerry, principal of P.S. 76 in Harlem. “I don’t think we have the perfect plan. There are pieces that need to be worked out, but if we continue to decide to try to find the perfect plan we will never move anywhere.”

District 3, which includes the Upper West Side and part of Harlem, is the most segregated district in New York City, said Kim Watkins, the chair of the district’s community education council. “The stark reality in District 3 is that across racial lines, socioeconomic lines and academic performance, there is severe stratification of our schools,” Watkins said. “The top schools are all wealthy, white and have high outcomes, and the very large majority of our schools that serve the middle school grades are high on the [Economic Need Index], they are black and Latino, and their student performances are lower.”

Students in District 3 apply to attend middle schools of their choice rather than being assigned to a school based on geographical zone, and most middle schools in the district use screening rubrics to evaluate applicants based on ability.

Each of the three plans is intended to achieve the same goals of increasing academic and socioeconomic diversity in District 3 schools. Under each proposal, all district middle schools would be required to offer 25 percent of seats to students that meet certain diversity qualifications. The plans differ in the academic and economic metrics used to identify the population of students qualifying to receive prioritized offers.

The criteria considered under each proposal, which education officials referred to as scenarios A, B and C, are as follows:

A. Prioritizes students from high-need elementary schools with low scores on state-mandated standardized tests. Prioritized admission offers would be reserved for students who attend elementary schools with high Economic Need Index ratings, a Department of Education statistic that estimates the percentage of students at a school facing economic hardship, and who scored at below-proficient levels on fourth-grade math and English exams. (Black and Hispanic students account for more than 80 percent of District 3 students who score at below-proficient levels on state exams.)

B. Gives priority to students with lower course grades and standardized test scores, and does not take economic factors directly into account.

C. Measures students using the same academic performance indicators as in the second scenario, but differs in that prioritized admissions offers would only be extended to students who also qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

In each scenario, the remaining 75 percent of middle school seats would be open to all students. The Department of Education projects that each policy would result in a net increase in the number of students receiving an offer from a preferred school.

The DOE plans to select one of the three scenarios in time for the admissions process for students starting sixth grade in 2019. “We’re trying to determine which best captures and aligns with our goals and our vision,” said District 3 Superintendent Ilene Altschul.

Some members of the public and the Community Education Council, which provides input to the Department of Education but has no statutory role, expressed concern that the policy’s focus on increasing diversity in the district’s higher-performing middle schools does little to address the underlying reasons for persistently poorer outcomes in lower-performing schools, particularly those in Harlem.

Genisha Metcalf, secretary of Community Education Council 3, criticized the admissions proposals for “not doing anything to support the middle schools that are most in need.”

“As we’re having conversations about equity I think we’re conflating some issues,” she said. “Equity is providing all schools with equal opportunity or access to resources. Equity is not taking a few students from the highest need schools and sending the message that you need to shuffle kids out of their community to get a highly sought-after education.”

Metcalf noted that according to Department of Education projections, P.S. 149 and P.S. 76, two Harlem schools with the highest Economic Need Index scores in the district, would see minimal changes in terms of academic diversity as a result of any of the three admissions proposals.

Others felt the proposals are not bold enough to produce school diversity results that accurately reflect the district’s demographics. Altschul said the Department of Education would be happy to consider bolder measures, and explained that the current proposals reflect a focus on “small steps.” “First let’s implement this, let’s look at it, see how we’re doing, look at the success measures and then determine what our next steps are,” she said.

Carranza, who took office as Chancellor in early April, drew citywide attention to the issue April 27 when he tweeted a video of a recent meeting on the District 3 admissions changes headlined “WATCH: Wealthy white Manhattan parents angrily rant against plan to bring more black kids to their schools.” The video showed parents criticizing an earlier diversity proposal as unfair on the grounds that it would result in students with higher test scores not receiving offers to their preferred schools. Carranza has vowed to bring “sense of urgency” to rectifying segregation in the city’s schools.

Martin Wallace, a parent whose son will start sixth grade next year at Mott Hall II on West 109th Street, said that while he has confidence that Carranza is serious about addressing segregation in the district, he feels the central issue of equity in school funding is left unaddressed by the admissions proposals.

“It doesn’t get to the core,” Wallace said. “Right now I think we’re still working around the edges. I get the sense that because of how controversial the redistricting was for the District 3 elementary schools, I think they’re taking a cautious, conservative approach. They want to make progress without creating too much controversy. It’s tough.”

Wallace and some other parents spoke in favor of redistributing funds raised by wealthier schools’ PTAs to needier schools across the district, a policy that has been implemented in a handful of school systems around the country.

The City Council will consider new legislation, introduced in May and co-sponsored by Upper West Side Council Member Helen Rosenthal, that would require the city’s Human Rights Commission to create a new office tasked with studying racial segregation in public schools and recommending policy changes to address the issue.

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