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PODCAST: Parents Want 'Controlled Choice' to Say Where Kids Go to School

By Emily Frost | April 21, 2015 11:50am
 Donna Nevel shares her thoughts on why our current public school admissions policy isn't working and the new system she and a group of other parents are proposing. 
Donna Nevel Talks to DNAinfo About Controlled Choice
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UPPER WEST SIDE — A group of local parents wants the Department of Education, the mayor and local leaders to try out a new system for determining public school admissions that's called "controlled choice."

Donna Nevel is helping to lead the charge in the neighborhood to have race, income, special needs and language proficiency become factors for determining where a child goes to school. These "controls" would create a more equitable and diverse distribution of students across the district, she said. 

"We don't want an admissions policy determined by whether you can afford a $2 million co-op to send your kid to that particular school," Nevel said.

DNAinfo reporter Emily Frost talked with Nevel about the issue of school segregation in the neighborhood and the admissions policy she believes would change that. 

Emily:  Donna, tell me a little bit about why you first moved here, and why you stayed in the neighborhood, and what significant changes you've seen while living here.

Donna: I've been here for some time, since my 20 year old was little. My husband has been living here for longer. We are on 106th between Amsterdam and Broadway, and we've loved our neighborhood and our community. Unfortunately, it has been gentrifying, and so we've seen displacement of families who've actually lived here for quite some time, but it still remains a neighborhood that's really reflective of many different communities and backgrounds in New York City.

Emily: You think the Upper West Side still has that community feeling?

Donna: I think this area, it’s Manhattan Valley, has been a very special community. Again, it's been threatened with gentrification, with displacement, but it's been a very I think ... I don't know. I feel it's been a wonderful community to be part of, and would like to be able to ... I think all of us would like it to be able to remain a community that really does serve families from all backgrounds, racially, economically, and not just increasingly for those with resources.

Emily: Are you fighting the gentrification in any way? Is there anything you feel you can do?

Donna: I know there's strong organizing going on. I've focused my energies on issues around equity and justice in public education. That's the movement I've been part of, but I know that there's some amazing organizers who've been challenging gentrification, and, of course, it's all interconnected. It's issues of justice. It's issues about who has the right to live in a community and who doesn't, and who determines that. Of course, we understand that gentrification is a larger process going on. Manhattan is increasingly becoming inaccessible to the majority of people. That's not something just happening in this neighborhood.

Emily: Is justice, in terms education and housing, is that something that you work on the side, or is that your daily work?

Donna: I'm part of a group called PARCEO, the Participatory Action Research Center, and we work together with community based groups who are fighting for justice in lots of ways. If it's public education, really being led by low income and families of color, who are the ones being excluded from a very segregated and unequal school system, so that's really through that work I've been doing. But, also, my children are now out of high school, but from the time they were in preschool through high school, I was intimately involved with this work, and was part of a center called the Center for Immigrant Families that really looked at, because of parents' experiences, the issues of segregation and inequality in the public schools and District 3 on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

Emily:  That segues into my next question, which is that I found that a lot of black students are leaving District 3 schools, and that, also, the schools are more segregated. There are white enclaves and black enclaves in the District 3 schools. That’s something that your group is aiming to fix. Can you explain for people who don't understand, just backing up, how the system works now? How do elementary school students get placed in schools in this district?

Donna: There's been citywide a system of supposed choice, where parents are told you choose schools that you'd like your children to go to, and part of that, also, is to be able to go to schools in your catchment area.

Emily: The catchment area is usually pretty small, right?

Donna: Pretty small. In fact, my catchment school is not even the school that was closest to my house. When people have looked at how the lines have been drawn, there's some phenomenon, like a [NYCHA] project on a particular street could be excluded from a zone line. I mean the zone lines are not always so clear how they've been drawn, and, in fact, have promoted segregation and inequality in the district.

District 3 is not that large a district. We go from the fifties up to 122nd. We are considered one of the most diverse districts in the city. We're, also, one of the most segregated.

After Center for Immigrant Families really documented the mechanisms of exclusion, what's happened is that there have been certain schools that it just was kind of understood, which I put in quotes, that for some families there was almost a sign "do not apply," or "you are not welcome." This was going on in our district for quite some time, but it was almost considered that's just the way it was, and everybody knew it.

What the Center for Immigrant Families' parents did together was to say, "This isn't an individual problem that each of us is having. This is systemic. This reflects systemic inequality," and looking at the question of who has access to our public schools. These are public schools. Looking at issues like being told if you're in the district, go uptown where you'll be more comfortable, or asking you how much you can contribute to a school, being quite clear that it means monetary contribution, and other mechanisms that really basically make it clear who is wanted and who is not.

Emily:  Even if a family was zoned for a school next to their house, they would get the message that they were not welcome there, and to go uptown?

Donna: Years ago the district was ... Half the seats were out of catchment seats. There were parents traveling to take their children to school ... Transportation back and forth has been very extensive in our district.

Emily: That was the norm.

Donna: That was the norm. People were traveling, but there was access for some people and not for others, and others were told, "No, you should be in your neighborhood," while, in fact, some of the schools were ... People were traveling all over the district to get there, but it was clear that they were catering to largely white and largely middle, upper income families.

Everybody cares deeply about the education of their children, and there's this thing put out there of 'certain families care more than others,' but that reflects race and class bias. I think that's a notion that anyone who speaks to parents from different backgrounds can see is just not rooted in reality. All parents care deeply about their children's education, and when we talk about our community schools, all our schools in District 3 should be our community schools. That's what we've been ... Parents wanted to document the problems to show that this was actually happening in the district.

What's interesting about the report was that sometimes outsiders come into a community and say, "Oh, this community is unequal," and the report gets shelved, and people are like, "Who are these outsiders?" But, in fact, this grew out of the community itself, who documented over 350 stories of exclusion. That's really where this organizing began.

Emily: Is there an example of where maybe zone lines are drawn in an exclusionary way, or a family was told something? Are there certain schools where that's very evident?

Donna: I mean we had stories documented where parents who were from a catchment area were discouraged from going to the school, and told that they wouldn't be comfortable in the school. But the problem is larger than that. The catchment areas, it's a problem when you have somebody go to a real estate office and say, "I want my kid to go to this school," so you're moving to a $2 million co-op or more, so that your child to go to a school.

Then we want to look at and say we want schools that well serve all our children. We don't want an admissions policy determined by whether you can afford a $2 million co-op to send your kid to that particular school. I believe that's not how we would formulate what a fair school system would be like.

Having access to public schools is a very fundamental step. It's not the be all and end all, but who schools serve and who they don't serve, it's a very important indicator in our society of whether we're being fair and just, or whether we're being discriminatory. We all want our children to get a good education, but I believe if you think about it, do we want our children to get a good education at the expense of another child? Do we want our children to have access to a school, because, for example, in my case, I'm white and privileged economically? Do I want my child to have access to a public school because of that?

For those of us who have any principles of equity, I think we need to work to have our public schools reflect the kind of society we want to live in. Right now the schools our deeply segregated, deeply unequal.

Emily: People stopped busing and traveling for schools, and started to only go to what was right next to their house or apartment?

Donna: I think there are more schools now that are being filled up because people are going in their catchment area, but there's, also, families traveling to have their kids into gifted and talented programs, which remain very segregated as well. There's still travel in our district.

What we believe is that at this point, particularly with increasing gentrification, you can't have schools determined by these very narrowly defined zone lines, particularly in districts, again, where families which are very fluid and families are traveling.

We have what's called an invisible, not so invisible line, on 96th Street,... We really have an apartheid school system, so there's something very pernicious about that. Again, it's sort of saying that's just the way it is in this district, so we want to push a system ... We'd love people to change their attitudes, of course, and say, "I don't want my child to go to a school where some children are privileged over others," but short of that, short of changing attitudes, we want structures that don't allow discrimination, that don't allow inequality, that don't allow unequal access to our public schools. We want a system that really promotes respect for each family, and where the schools reflect the community, the broader community.

Emily: You started to work with a group of residents here. Can you tell me about the story of how you get organized, and then what controlled choice is, which is the system that the group decided to propose?

Donna: We then, as I said, began working with lots of community members, parents, educators, principals, and eventually joined a task force for fairness and equity in admissions, and we've been working together the past two years, and have produced a document, which I assume you've seen, that really talks about ... As a framework for the kind of school admissions policy we'd like to see in our district.

We've been working together with parents in District 1 and District 13, who've, also, been looking at their districts and have been proposing a similar type of admissions policy. Each district would have it designed to meet the needs of their district, but it's rooted in the same principles of fairness. It's called controlled choice, because while the system is called choice now, it really should be called choice for some and not for others, and so controlled means what's the controls? It's controlled for equity. It's controlled for fairness. It's controlled to make sure that schools serve the overall community, and not a particular segment of the community that's based on, again, particular type of privilege, and this is race, and class, and English language learners, and children with special needs.

Geography is one of the elements of that, too. It's not ruling out geography. It's just that doesn't become determinative. It's not ruled by geography. You look at many factors, but you will not have schools that are eighty percent white and upper income in a district that's seventy percent families of color. That would not result in a community controlled system.

Emily: If a child was applying to the school on their block, their race, class, special education needs ... What were the other factors? Geography. Would all be factors that the school would evaluate, but it would have to make sure it had a mix.

Donna: Right. But it's not the school that would determine ... There's a very transparent ...

Emily:  Like an algorithm.

Donna: Algorithm. It's very transparent. Now, under controlled choice, when we've looked at it across the country, many districts have implemented them, you actually have a much better result in parents getting their first or second choice than in the system we have now.

Emily: You might be told you're not going to go to the school on your block, but actually you're going to go to a school further uptown, because that's the way the algorithm worked out in order to have a very diverse, equitable distribution of kids across the district.

Donna: Right. Everybody who is [already] in school remains where they are, so there's nothing changed in that regard. Then what you do ... It's a three to five year process, really, of creating the kind of change, and part of it is that you're not just ... Connected to this is that if you're a parent, you don't think, "Oh, I own these two schools," but you actually have an investment then. You’re thinking, "This is about all our schools." It really encourages families in a district, because of the way the structure is, to really think about how can we strengthen the schools in our districts.

If there's one school that lots of families aren't applying for, then as a community, we think, "How can we support that school?"

Now, we know that parents travel already, so that's a fact. That's well documented in District 3. Again, it's a very easy district to travel back and forth. What we're saying now is that these other inputs would be considered important.

Think about that as a value. We're including a value that says, "Every school is actually going to have an admissions process that reflects all families in the district." What better education for our children, because we can talk to our children till we're blue in the face, and say, "Value all children," but if we send them to schools that value some and not others, that's a much stronger message than anything we can say at home.

Emily:  A parent moving into the district has to say, "I have to value and make sure all of the schools are up to par, because my child could go to any of them," but the parent then has to care about every school? Is that what you're saying?

Donna: What's happened in many districts is that, in fact, that process has happened. There were the few schools that were considered ones that were "OK," and, again, this notion of what makes a good school, it's, also, so biased. It's rooted in a lot of I think prejudices. But what we've seen with other controlled choice schools, where they have implemented controlled choice, is that, yes, it becomes a greater investment in all the schools.

I think once it starts to happen and you see that the school works well, and, in fact, your child is learning, and flourishing, and growing, and actually in a wonderful learning environment, it's by living it, and that's why we would like to have a pilot study, because I deeply believe that if we live this for a period of time and see how much it benefits all of us and our whole community, because it's good for everyone, and it means that we won't have a district that we all know now is based on inequity rather than equity, and based on lack of fairness rather than fairness. We could be a model district to show that this is something that can actually work, and that can really well serve all our families.

The group that's working on this has broadened. We have people working together from different parts of the district, from different backgrounds, from different communities. It's obviously an uphill battle, but we've spoken to people in the mayor's office, and the DOE, who have been wanting to know more, and have been open to it. We're going to be meeting more with our community education council, with our superintendent, just to continue to keep this conversation alive with an ultimate question of how do we create schools that really well serve all our families.

Emily: People are always anxious about change, but there are examples going back a couple decades of other cities that have successfully implemented controlled choice. Can you talk about those and how it worked in those areas?

Donna: Well, it's happened ... Michael Alves, who is one of the people who has helped implement community controlled choice in different districts across the country, has worked with lots and lots of districts, recently in the Raleigh Durham area, which has been implementing a model of controlled choice, Cambridge, Massachusetts, other places, districts in I believe Rochester.

Emily: It's been tested?

Donna: Oh, yes, yes. Clearly, controlled choice has been tested in different cities, and has worked well. I mean every admissions policy needs ongoing work and vigilance, and this task force, the past two years, this wasn't a group that just walked in and said, "Yeah, controlled choice." We did our homework. There were people with many different perspectives, that document that you saw that we were happy to share with anyone, reflected a lot of work and thought and research over a two year period.

Emily: And dissent and argument, and figuring it out?

Donna: Absolutely.

Emily: You've talked about how the figuring out which school your child would go to under controlled choice would be a transparent process where there would be a family resource center.

Donna: That's key. The family resource center is key, a place where families can really go, a very accessible center with lots of information.

Emily: So that people could see how the algorithm worked?

Donna: Right, exactly. Really, a family resource center is so critical, because it means that parents really can have access to finding out about the schools and learning about the schools, which is, also, very important to that. We've seen in our research that, in fact, controlled choice policy is much more effective when there are very thoughtful family resource centers.

Emily: People would drop into the family resource center, and what would happen there?

Donna: They'd learn about the different schools. Be able to really then make decisions based on knowledge about the schools. Then it would be based on, "Oh, well, this school focuses on the arts. Oh, this school has dual language," because there are different themes of schools. That’s a wonderful thing.

Emily: Because right now people are hearing about schools through word of mouth and biased word of mouth, would you say? Do you think the system of learning about district schools is flawed?

Donna: I think it's, one, word of mouth, but, two, a lot of parents very clearly are told, "Don't apply to that school. It's not open to you." We don't want that. We can't accept that. We can't have schools that have those invisible or sometimes not so invisible signs based on how you're treated the minute you enter the space. You know what I mean? That’s something we really want to have.

I felt very lucky to have my children go to a school where every family was valued, and where you weren't privileged because your first language was English, or you had economic resources. We'd love all our schools to be like that.

Emily: Were you surprised when you heard from families that they were explicitly being told 'you're not welcome at this school?'

Donna: It actually began in a workshop, a community workshop, where parents went around the room, and were saying, "I went there, and they told me this," and then someone else would say, "Oh, this happened to me," and then realizing this was systemic. At first, you think ... It's so natural. You think, "What did I do wrong? Why couldn't I get my child in," and then you realize it's nothing you did wrong. It's systemic racism, classism. It's systemic inequality.

That’s when recognizing that to say, "This is something, as a community, we're going to respond to," and those of us, like myself, whose children have gone to the community schools, to join in, to be a part of this. To join a movement that's led by those who have been most impacted by the discrimination in our district, and to come together as partners and allies in this work.

Emily: What do you think the main argument is against controlled choice? You said you thought it was going to be an uphill battle. Why is that?

Donna: For those who've been privileged by the system, it might not be an automatic change, although I think increasingly we're seeing more openings and openness to it. When I say it's an uphill battle, I think changing an entrenched system is an uphill battle.

What I do feel is that change can and will come. I think there is increasing community support. I think there's been very, very powerful organizing going on for a long time. I think there's a reclaiming of our schools taking place, and these are our public schools. There's movements for justice in education among parents, among teachers, among activists locally, nationally. There's challenge to all sorts of inequality from the high stakes test, to the privatization of our public schools taking place, and so this one part of that broader movement.

I feel hopeful in that, because there's lots and lots of parents, and educators, and community members out there saying, "We want, we demand a just education system." Yes, it's an uphill battle, but the organizing is very powerful.

Emily: What about the parent who says "I made sacrifices. I didn't move here. I wanted to move there, and I moved to this building so that I could send my kid to that school, and now you're going to change it, and that sacrifice or that choice doesn't matter. It's irrelevant."

Donna: I'd say we want your child to go to a wonderful school, and your child will, and we want our children to go to wonderful schools, and what we're going to do is create a district where our schools are actually reflective of our values as a community, and so your child is going to benefit from that greatly and so will you as part of the community.

I, also, think that, again, geography being one of the inputs means that families, also, will have opportunities to attend schools nearby ... Controlled choice doesn't say you cannot attend a school in your ten block geographic area. In fact, you figure out is it a mile, a mile and a half, and that plays into it, so it's not really ... It's the opposite of an exclusionary policy. It's so inclusive.

Does it mean you will automatically get that first choice because you bought that co-op? No. But your child will be well served, together with all children in the community. I would always turn it around and say this isn't about your being denied your rights. It's about building an admissions policy that's actually going to respect the rights of all our children.

Emily: You said that attitudes about diversity and valuing that as a piece of really part of a rich education are not moving quite fast enough, and so controlled choice steps in and does that for people?

Donna: I think that if we can, as a pilot project, create this structure that is fair and transparent and equitable, that that will be the most powerful way for families to be coming together and seeing how this system can work.

At the same time, yes, I think community education is very important. I'm a big believer in really listening to people's concerns, and struggles, and challenges about this, but, at the same time, we can't stop there. We have to continue to make sure that we don't allow a system that's so rooted in injustice to continue in the way it's continued.

Again, I think more and more people are joining that and increasingly committed to that. I love so much that so many families ... I mean the work we've been doing with parents in District 1 and 13, just to keep broadening our work together, and the parents in District 1 and District 13 have been working for a long time. We've been working together, and their CECs and superintendent in each district have been working together as well to try to promote controlled choice.

Of course, District 1 had a controlled choice system before the advent of mayoral control of our schools, which got rid of the controls, and you saw a change, and I think their CEC president, Lisa Donlan, and their community has really been working hard to be able to reinstate a form of controlled choice that would really well serve their district and District 13, also. Their CEC president, and their CEC, and their superintendent have been working together. We've learned a lot from each other and with each other, and, in fact, the CEC president in District 1, Lisa Donlan, has come and met with our task force, and really supported our work as we always want to do with theirs.

Emily:  The Lower East Side is diverse, but it's getting gentrified as well, so is that their motivation for making sure that the schools stay diverse?

Donna: They clearly are seeing gentrification, but I just think even seeing the change with the controls taken out... having seen what happened ... I mean they can talk about it better than I can, but seeing the process of the schools becoming increasingly segregated, they've really been working hard to undo that damage that happened under the Bloomberg administration and continues, so I think that what all our districts want is to be able to have pilot projects that would give us a chance. I mean things are really bad right now, and so this is an opportunity to really make a change, and to see how it works. It would be very carefully monitored, because we're all interested in that. We want to be really trying to implement a system that's going to work as well as possible.

Emily: Is the CEC, the community education council, that's a volunteer body, are they who you have to convince in order to get this pilot project running? Who has the authority?

Donna: There's different elements to it. Of course, working with the mayor's office, and the mayor, being the mayor control of our schools, and certainly with DOE, so that's all been going on as well. The CEC has some jurisdiction over zoning changes. Their powers have been stripped over the years.

Emily: They do have control over the zoning laws?

Donna: Certain zoning laws, but even more than that. We didn't do this just immediately through the CEC, because we really wanted to reach different communities, and, also, have educators part of it, so we really wanted to have an independent task force that could just work very hard on this, but we would love our CEC to be part of this as we move forward, and our superintendent. It's very important, so we really wanted to do our homework, and then bring that to the CEC, so we look forward to those continuing conversations.

Regardless of what the CEC has jurisdiction over or not, they're an important parent body in the community, and so we want to work together with them in as strong a way as we possibly can.

Emily: Right. Has the mayor been open to this idea?

Donna: We've met with people in the mayor's office who have been interested in learning more about it, and have been very open to it. Yes. I think there's been a lot of interest for good reason. It's a very sound plan, and it really ... Segregation and inequality is not going away, so this is an ability to address this within our admissions policies.

That could, also, be connected to other issues of equity, so I think ... It's very well thought out. District 1, District 13, District 3, parents and educators who have been working together. We've really been working hard for a long time, and, of course, communities across the country before us, so there's a lot of research. There’s a lot of documentation. There’s a lot of experience, and we'd love the opportunity, we deserve the opportunity to see how this works in our district, and that's what we're going to continue to work toward.

Emily:  Yeah. A pilot, you mentioned a time line of three to five years?

Donna: I think a pilot ... To really see, yeah, the change that we like for in our district, because it's not something that you hit over the head and it changes. It's a process, but it's a process moving in the right direction, in a meaningful direction toward equity, and just to keep putting it out there that this is about all our children. This is about affirmatively having an admissions policy that will really respect, reflect and serve all children in our district. I'm hopeful.

Emily:  Thank you for talking with me.

Donna: My pleasure.

Links to reports and data Donna mentioned:

► Center for Immigrant Families' Report: Segregated and Unequal: The Public Elementary Schools in District 3 in New York City

► District 3 Equity in Education Task Force: Executive Summary

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