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City is Failing to Improve School Diversity, Parents and Advocates Say

By Amy Zimmer | December 11, 2014 7:33am
 Parents and school leaders in gentrifying neighborhoods are working on proposals to foster diversity through admissions policies.
Grassroots Movement to Improve School Diversity
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BROOKLYN — Ayanna Behin was hoping for action when she and other parents told Chancellor Carmen Fariña about an urgent issue facing their school this fall.

Behin, co-president of the PTA at Fort Greene's Academy of Arts and Letters, was growing increasingly alarmed as she watched the majority black, low-income school shift toward white, affluent students who had recently moved to the neighborhood.

But when Behin and other parents confronted Fariña about the issue of school diversity at a public meeting in October, they were shocked when it seemed that their concerns fell on deaf ears.

"It felt like it wasn't a priority to [the chancellor]," said Behin, recounting the meeting. "She seemed to be saying, if your school is getting too gentrified, move to another school and make that one gentrified.

"Maybe she needed to know it was an important issue to us — to voters — and that it falls within the mayor's 'tale of two cities' conversation," added Behin, a lawyer-turned-literary agent who is black and has two children with her Iranian-American husband.

Behin is one of many parents and advocates across the city who are growing frustrated with what they say is the Department of Education's inaction in the face of the pervasive segregation DNAinfo New York has reported in the city's public schools.

The Academy of Arts and Letters and several other schools in rapidly gentrifying areas have submitted proposals to the DOE this year asking that a portion of their seats be set aside for low-income students and other groups. At least five of the city's 32 school districts are also drafting broader plans to improve diversity across entire neighborhoods.

But the DOE has not approved any of the diversity proposals and, despite the grassroots push against segregation, education experts and advocates are growing concerned that the de Blasio administration will not act on the issue.

"The administration has been a disappointment regarding diversity," said David Bloomfield, a Brooklyn College education professor.

"Perhaps they hope that long-run initiatives like affordable housing and decreasing the wage gap will result in greater integration, but they have shown no motivation to reduce or redistribute privilege."

On the surface, the Academy of Arts and Letters, a K-8 school on Adelphi Street, is a uniquely diverse school with 52 percent black students, 25 percent white students, 15 percent Latinos and 6 percent Asians, according to DOE data from 2013-14.

It is one of only nine schools out of 1,600 across the city where black students were the largest group and white students were the second largest group, according to a DNAinfo analysis.

But the school is on the brink of a major demographic change as it becomes increasingly popular among affluent families buying pricey apartments in the area.

Last year's kindergarten class revealed a shift — 53 percent of the children were white, 24 percent were black, 13 percent were Latino and 9 percent were Asian.

The school's socioeconomic makeup is changing as well. The percentage of students receiving a free lunch has fallen from 80 percent to 40 percent over the past six years, principal John O'Reilly said.

To prevent the school's makeup from changing further, O'Reilly asked the DOE if he could set aside a portion of the school's kindergarten seats each year for low-income families.

"We are a school committed to inclusion," said O'Reilly, who is waiting to hear back from the DOE on the proposal. "The learning that happens in the classroom is so much richer when there are multiple perspectives."

There are no easy solutions to the diversity issue, many admit.

Families often want to send their children to neighborhood schools and New York City neighborhoods tend to be segregated by race and class, with affluent families paying hefty prices to live in areas with high-performing public schools.

Also a 2007 Supreme Court decision banned public school admissions based solely on race. Schools need to find other ways of defining diversity, using factors like socioeconomic status.

The diversity proposals that many New York City schools and districts are advocating for now are inspired by Park Slope's P.S. 133, which implemented a new admissions policy last year that gives priority to English language learners and low-income students.

David Tipson, director of New York Appleseed, a social justice nonprofit that helped P.S. 133 develop its diversity goals, said he is disappointed that the de Blasio administration has not sought to expand that school's program.

"This administration does not even appear to be willing to extend the very reasonable 133 plan to other schools," he said. "What we have received from the DOE is, unfortunately, the opposite of leadership."

In addition to Arts and Letters, other schools that are considering diversity proposals include the Brooklyn New School and Crown Heights' P.S. 705.

But school leaders believe that change must happen at the broader district level too, so that one school's admissions changes don't have a negative domino effect on nearby schools.

The Lower East Side and East Village's District 1, the Upper West Side's District 3 and District 13, which spans from Brooklyn Heights to Prospect Heights and Clinton Hill to Bedford-Stuyvesant, are all hoping to create plans that let schools admit students based on diversity goals.

Greenpoint and Williamsburg's District 14 and District 15, which includes Carroll Gardens, Park Slope and Sunset Park, also have diversity task forces.

"It's not a school-by-school thing, but looking at district-wide planning and lifting all schools up," said David Goldsmith, president of District 13's Community Education Council.

"We have to have conversations about these things because it tears our schools to pieces."

The stakes are particularly high on the Upper West Side, where some schools have PTAs that raise more than $1 million a year, while other schools serve primarily low-income students, said Ujju Aggarwal, of the Parent Leadership Project advocacy group.

"It is a question of resources that get concentrated in some schools because of segregation," said Aggarwal, whose group will unveil its plan to improve diversity in District 3's schools in early 2015.

While none of the proposals for individual schools were approved for next school year, DOE officials said they are still considering them. DOE officials are expected to discuss diversity at a City Council hearing on Thursday morning.

“Fostering diversity in our schools is a critical goal and we value the feedback of principals who have suggested strategies to help achieve that goal in their schools," DOE spokesman Harry Hartfield said.

"We are reviewing these proposals and will work with the schools to determine what the best next steps are."

This is the third article in a series on diversity in New York City's schools. Read Part 1 to see how diverse, or not, your public school is and Part 2 about how one Park Slope school is tackling the issue.