Steps Forward Toward More Diverse Schools

Steps Forward Toward More Diverse Schools

Last spring, our community held a forum at John Jay Educational Campus to address issues of segregation in our public schools – and to look at what steps we can take toward schools that better reflect the diversity of our city. Sixty years after Brown v. Board of Education, we learned that New York’s schools are the most segregated in the country. But we also learned that schools, districts (especially District 1, 3, and 13), and advocates across New York City are working hard to make change.

At that meeting, the District 15 Community Education Council (who co-sponsored the event with Council Member Carlos Menchaca and me) announced its new CEC 15 Resolution on Diversity. That resolution called on the DOE to prioritize diversity, especially when establishing the admissions policy for new schools.

So I’m pleased to report that this week, we made a small but meaningful step forward. The DOE agreed to an admissions plan – suggested by the community – for the new “PS/IS 437” (in Kensington) that will strengthen diversity, include a new middle school, and promote collaboration.

Preserving Diversity in Kensington/Windsor Terrace Schools

When the DOE announced back in 2010 that they were building a new school on Caton Avenue and E. 7th Street (PS/IS 437), parents in Kensington and Windsor Terrace were pleased – the schools there are overcrowded, and the neighborhoods are growing.

But they also had concerns.  Led by parents and educators at the nearby PS 130, they asked DOE to make sure that the new school would not undermine the PS 130 community, and that the building include a new middle school.  At the time, the DOE committed to me in writing that they would work with us to address these issues.

Located on the Kensington/Windsor Terrace border, PS 130 is the elementary school that best matches the overall diversity of District 15 (charts here). Under the leadership of Principal Maria Nunziata, the school builds on this diversity through an array of great programs and support.

So we were nervous when DOE’s first proposal for PS 437 was a rezoning that would have undermined diversity – by cutting the neighborhood into two halves, north and south, with the resulting that both PS 130 & PS 437 would have become significantly less diverse than PS 130 is today.  Parents organized at several meetings. We used the data from our diversity forum. The District 15 CEC was extremely supportive.

I’m pleased to report that DOE listened to the community, and this week they formally recommended a plan that will preserve diversity, expand Pre-K to 5 seats, include a new middle school, and promote genuine collaboration.

Under this plan, PS 130 will become a larger, “split-sited” school. Pre-K through 2nd graders will go to the current PS 130 building, while 3rd through 5th graders will attend the new building. The grades and classes will remain diverse, all kids will benefit from the new facilities, and the school community will remain united.

In addition, the new building will house a new District 15 Middle School (they are looking for a founding principal now, and it will be available next fall). The school will also house a District 75 (special education) school. And the schools are already collaborating on how they can best support all students. Supports from the District 75 school will be available for PS 130 kids with an IEP, and all students will have the chance to see the benefits of working together across difference.

Thanks to CEC 15 President Naila Rosario, District 15 superintendent Anita Skop, PS 130 Principal Maria Nunziata, the PS 130 PTA and parent community, and to the DOE’s Carrie Marlin for their strong work in this process.

Builds on Our Work at PS 133

This success builds on the work at PS 133 in Park Slope to insure diverse admissions. In 2012, a dedicated coalition of the CECs from District 13 (with strong leadership from both David Goldsmith & Barbara Freeman) & District 15 (then led boldly by Jim Devor), leadership from PS 133 (Principal Heather Foster-Mann) came together to push for a creative admissions process for the new, larger building that was built to allow PS 133 to grow significantly.

As a result of those efforts, DOE agreed to make the new PS 133 an unzoned school that draws applicants from throughout Districts 13 and 15. What’s unique: 35% of the seats are prioritized for kids who are English Language Learners, or eligible for Free & Reduced Price Lunch. The diversity is supported with dual language programs (in Spanish and French) and a nurturing school environment.

The good news: the new admissions process is (mostly) working. Earlier this fall, we got a report from DOE on the first two years under the new policy. There are challenges, to be sure (especially attracting enough ELLs), but the data shows both that the DOE is taking the policy seriously, and that it is helping maintain a diverse student body. Meanwhile Principal Foster-Mann, the teaching staff, and the parent community are helping it grow into a truly great school.   

Still a Long Way to Go

Of course, there’s still a very long way to go. Gentrification, residential segregation, test-based admissions, and “choice” admissions processes that don’t value diversity continue to take our schools (in District 15, and far beyond) in the wrong direction.

In District 15, we have a lot of work to do in our middle schools, where many 5th grade students and parents remain frustrated by the current middle school choice process – we need more options, more emphasis on diverse schools, and some better ways of dealing with the stress of the current situation.

And we need to do more to support those schools in our district that have diversity as a core goal (including the Brooklyn New School, Brooklyn Children’s School, Brooklyn School for Collaborative Studies, Park Slope Collegiate and others). They need the ability to have clear and predictable admissions policies, transportation for students, and support for diverse learners.

Toward City Hall: City Council Hearing Next Month

On a broader level, we need policies that help address long-standing, deeply-rooted segregation in the New York City school system as a whole. 

To help push those efforts forward, I'm working with the Council's Education Committee Chair, Danny Dromm, on a City Council hearing next month.

We'll hear about the problem, and about efforts to solve it -- from schools and districts that have made diversity a priority, from advocates who are challenging the "specialized high school" admission process, and above what's working around the country.  We'll also consider some legislation that we are developing to better track what's going on in our schools, and set goals for moving forward. 

Hopefully, we can work together with DOE, educators, parents, and communities to look honestly at the scourge of segregation, establish a policy that affirms the value of diverse schools, and take concrete steps to help us get there.

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