City Council Hearing: Finding Ways Forward to Confront Segregation and Increase Diversity In NYC’s Schools

City Council Hearing: Finding Ways Forward to Confront Segregation and Increase Diversity In NYC’s Schools

Sixty years after the U.S. Supreme Court declared in 1954 in Brown v. Board of Education that “separate but equal is inherently unequal,” New York’s public schools are among the most segregated in the country. On December 11, 2014, the New York City Council took a stark look at issues of school segregation and diversity – in a day-long hearing that I worked with Education Committee Chair Danny Dromm to convene. The hearing was contentious at times (you can view the whole 9-hour video here), but pointed to some concrete ways forward.

Public schools are, for me, our most important democratic institutions – the mechanism by which all our children are supposed to receive an opportunity to learn, grow, and succeed.  Segregated schools communicate an enormous amount to our kids about what sort of society we really value. Taking real steps to confront school segregation is necessary if we care about the core democratic principal of equal opportunity.At the hearing, we heard persuasive evidence that diverse classrooms are good for all kids, across lines of race and class. Promoting racial and economic diversity of schools is proven to improve the educational achievement and life opportunities of low-income kids (who are too often, otherwise, consigned to schools of extreme poverty). But diversity is not only good for students-of-color or low-income students: integrated classrooms enable all our kids to develop strong critical thinking, analytic ability, and the ability to work in teams that they will need thrive in a diverse city, in a global economy, in an ever-more interconnected world.

Unfortunately, the barriers to diverse education are stark. Residential segregation means that most zoned NYC elementary schools are racially isolated (and the way NYC has historically zoned school districts often makes this even worse). Even where we offer choice, aggressive screening, vague rules, and the lack of policies to encourage diversity still too-often result in extremely segregated outcomes. 

Establishing diversity as a policy goal, and tracking our progress

Given these barriers, there’s no simple “silver bullet” to confront segregation. But one good starting point would be to establish that it is a goal of the NYC public school system to provide diverse educational settings, and track our progress annually toward that goal. That’s why Council Member Ritchie Torres and I have introduced a resolution that calls on the NYC Department of Education to prioritize and plan for diversity, and a “school diversity progress tracking” bill that would require DOE to issue an annual report to measure progress toward those goals (not only looking at race, ethnicity, and gender, but also students with disabilities, English language learners, and income as well). 

I’m pleased that these two bills have received strong support from our City Council colleagues, and were supported at the hearing by the de Blasio Administration and the NYC Department of Education (represented by Ursulina Ramirez, Chancellor Farina’s chief of staff, and several other high-ranking DOE officials). More than that, the DOE indicated they are working on plans to improve school diversity in concrete ways, and invited follow-up conversations to help make that progress real. With broad support, hopefully those two bills will move forward toward passage in early 2015.

Concrete steps

With an overarching policy goal and a system for measuring progress in place, New York City schools can focus on the concrete range of strategies that help to bring about more diverse classrooms. We explored many of these at the hearing:

  • The “PS 133 model” of non-zoned elementary schools with (Constitutionally-sound) affirmative admissions policies: The DOE cited as one strong example the model we worked together (with the District 13 and 15 CECs, Council Member Steve Levin, Principal Heather Foster-Mann, and Appleseed) to achieve in 2012. PS 133 is an “unzoned” school (which accepts students from both District 13 and 15), with a priority for students who are English Language Learners or eligible for free-and-reduced-price lunch, for 35% of its seats. The model is only in its second year, but it builds on other similar models (including the Brooklyn New School) and has promising results so far.  Several other schools (including the Brooklyn Children’s School, and Fort Greene’s Academy of Arts and Letters) would like to utilize this model, and District 15 has expressed interest in this being the model for new schools built in coming years.
  • Valuing diversity within zoning decisions: Often, residential segregation is so stark that any zoning lines will insure monochromatic schools. But in some cases, it is possible to achieve better results. Our recent successful efforts at the new PS 437, which will be “split-sited” with PS 130, help point the way here. There are quite a few other places around the city (think about the district line between the Upper East Side and East Harlem) where stark lines of segregation could be blurred with thoughtful school zoning.
  • District-wide “controlled choice:” In three districts in diverse parts of NYC (the Lower East Side, Upper West Side/Morningside Heights, and Fort Greene/Brooklyn Heights/Clinton Hill), parents, educators, and advocates are pushing for a district-wide approach to insuring more diverse schools. The “controlled choice” model (championed by Michael Alves, who spoke at the hearing), allows parents or students to rank choices for schools, but applies filters (like those at PS 133) to insure a diverse mix of students. Representatives from Districts 1, 3, and 13 proposed at the hearing that their districts be allowed to pilot models of controlled choice.
  • Middle school admissions: As we know too well in District 15, the current process for “middle school choice” admissions can be confusing, demoralizing, too heavily based on screening, and amplify the problems of segregation. Individual middle schools in District 15 – including the Brooklyn School for Collaborative Studies, Park Slope Collegiate, New Voices, the School for International Studies, and the Brooklyn Prospect Charter School (which does admissions through a lottery process with priorty for ELLs and low-income students) – have been working to confront the problem. But systemic changes in the direction of “controlled choice” will likely be needed. 
  • Educational Option High Schools: One of NYC School’s unsung successes are “Educational Option High Schools,” which consciously aim for a diverse mix of students (based on middle school academic success). These were curtailed in recent years, despite strong interest from students and a good track record of success. 

The DOE agreed to meet with educators, parents, and advocates to explore opportunities for advancing these and other options to advance diversity through admissions procedures in future school years. We also discussed the other supports that are necessary – outreach, translation for parents, transportation, and supports for diverse learners – to help diverse schools succeed.

Specialized High Schools

By far the most contentious part of the hearing surrounded New York City’s eight “specialized high schools” (including Stuyvesant, Bronx, Science, and Brooklyn Tech), for which admissions is based solely on the Specialized High School Admission Test (SHSAT).

In 2012, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Latino Justice, the Community Service Society, the Center for Law and Social Justice at Medgar Evers College, and an array of other organizations brought a federal civil rights lawsuit to rectify the shocking underrepresentation of African-Americans and Latinos at these schools. These organizations support legislation in the State Legislature – which is supported by a resolution offered by Council Member Inez Barron at our hearing – that would require these schools to broaden their admissions criteria to include “multiple measures” such as middle-school grades, state test scores, and attendance in addition to the Specialized High Schools Aptitude Tests (SHSAT) with the goal of diversifying admissions.

Many alumni, students, family, and faculty members from these schools testified in favor of maintaining the SHSAT as the sole entrance criteria – arguing that it is better to have one, single, objective measure. While I disagree (largely for reasons outlined here), I appreciate their passion in coming out to testify. I was moved in particular by Stuyvesant students who rightly objected to the stereotypes of Asian students (as “test robots,” she said) that are sometimes called forth in this debate. And I especially appreciated that some who objected to “multiple measures” admissions offered other ideas to address the appalling lack of African-American and Latino students at their schools.

The last testimony at the hearing was one of the best – from Eero Alum, who graduated last year from the High School for American Studies (HSAS) at Lehman College, one of the specialized high schools. If you are interested in this topic, I strongly urge you to watch the 20-minute “Reforming Admissions” documentary he made last year on this topic. Eero explores the problem (through his own stark experience), interviews students and faculty, and goes through a wide range of potential solutions: moving to multiple measures, re-establishing the Discovery program, making test prep available to underrepresented groups, pre-registering all eighth graders for the SHSAT, and (his favorite) guaranteeing a seat at one of the high schools to the valedictorian of every middle school in the city. Whatever your position, if you care about the specialized high schools, I think you’ll agree the video is worth watching. 

Strengthening a “Community of Practice”

Perhaps the best part of the hearing was that it served as an opportunity to see and build support for the community of parents, educators, and activists who have been hard at work confronting segregation and push for school diversity.

So I want to extend special thanks to: Parent leaders like Lisa Donlan (District 1), Ujju Aggarwal, Yasmin Secada, and Donna Nevel (District 3), David Goldsmith (District 13), Jim Devor and Naila Rosario (District 15). Academics and advocates including Michael Alves, David Tipson of Appleseed NY, David Bloomfield of Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center, Linda Tropp of UMass-Amherst, and Amy Stuart Wells of Columbia University Teachers College. Advocates including Dennis Parker of the ACLU, Janella Hinds from the United Federation of Teachers, and Lazar Treschan from the Community Service Society, and many others. Several charter schools that have focused on making diverse admissions policies work (including the Brooklyn Prospect Charter School and BUGS). And some dynamite students, including a great group of students from Bronx Academy of Letters, who created the project “IntegrateNYC4Me.” 

I also want to thank City Council Education Committee Chair Danny Dromm for convening the hearing (and sitting through all 9 hours!), the Council’s Education Committee staff – Aysha Schomburg, Jan Atwell, and Joan Polovny – and my staff, Ben Smith and Vicki Sell, for their hard work to make the hearing a success.

If you are interested in getting involved, please contact Vicki Sell in my office at vsell [at] council [dot] nyc [dot] gov, and we’ll stay in touch as we move forward.

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