MANHATTAN — The Department of Education recently made an important first step in fostering diversity in the city’s school system after more than a year of lobbying by principals and parents.
The DOE approved admissions procedures that give priority to low-income students, English Language Learners or those in the child welfare system at seven Manhattan and Brooklyn elementary schools where principals requested the changes in 2014.
Officials at the schools, including Crown Heights’ Brooklyn Arts and Science Elementary School, said making changes was critical because their incoming kindergarten classes were becoming less diverse racially and socioeconomically.
“This goes beyond just an awareness of others’ differences but moves to foster a more open-minded world view,” Principal Sandra Soto said.
DOE officials said their initiative is one piece of a larger effort to expand diversity at schools, though they declined to outline additional specifics.
At more than half of the city's 1,600 public schools, black and Hispanic students make up 90 percent or more of the student population, a DNAinfo analysis of 2013-14 DOE data found.
Meanwhile, half of the city's white students are concentrated in just 7 percent of the schools, and half of the city's Asian students are concentrated in just 6 percent of schools.
But many advocates are still calling for larger-scale changes — saying without a system-wide diversity initiative, the majority of the city's 1.1 million students will see no noticeable change.
DNAinfo New York asked experts for ways the city could tackle the issue.
1. Start with a working group.
Creating diverse schools is far too complex to address just through quotas, said David Bloomfield, professor of education leadership at Brooklyn College and The CUNY Graduate Center.
“Needed immediately is a political commitment and small working group to address educational, infrastructure, legal, and outreach dimensions of the problem, then fanning out into neighborhoods to engage supporters and opponents of rezoning, admission requirements, concentrations of wealth and poverty, and changing student populations,” he said.
2. Look at existing enrollment policies that promote diversity.
There are many “tried and true” student-assignment policies including controlled choice — where families rank their school choices and are assigned to schools based on those preferences combined with an algorithm that balances diversity across schools, experts say.
“We don’t need to re-invent the wheel,” David Tipson, director of New York Appleseed, a social justice nonprofit that advocates for equity in city schools, and Rene Kathawala, pro bono counsel for Orrick law firm, said in a joint statement.
The city should work in such areas as the Lower East Side and other neighborhoods where there is already broad-based community support for diversity, creating models that can eventually be transferred elsewhere, Tipson and Kathawala suggested.
Halley Potter, a researcher with the Century Foundation, suggested the city set up "diversity-conscious choice zones" in areas with socioeconomically and racially diverse populations — like Downtown Brooklyn and the Upper West Side — "where some of the most egregious school segregation is currently taking place."
“For the schools that receive fewer applications, the city should set aside more resources to help to increase interest there," she added.
3. Revamp programs that create internal segregation in elementary schools.
Gifted & Talented and dual-language programs in elementary schools create segregation within schools, Potter said.
“Separate Gifted & Talented programs should be replaced with a school-wide approach to gifted education,” Potter said.
“Dual-language programs can be a great tool for creating integrated enrollment, but in some schools, dual language programs enroll relatively more advantaged students,” she added. “To solve this problem and promote integration, the Department of Education should give preference in admissions for 50 percent of the seats in dual-language programs to English Language Learners.”
4. Alter high school admissions.
The city already has a choice-based system for high school, yet many of these programs wind up segregated.
“There are easy ways to increase opportunities for integration by altering the admissions criteria,” Potter said. “To begin with, the city could give additional weight to applications from low-income students, English language learners, or students with special needs when they are underrepresented in the application pool for a school."
That’s how Newark's public schools do their choice process, she said.
The city could also reserve a portion of seats for at-risk students, as Washington, D.C., schools will do next year, she said.
Also, the DOE could expand the number of schools using the “Educational Option” admissions model — which is used at Brooklyn's well-regarded Edward R. Murrow and Queens' popular Benjamin Cardozo high schools — that ensures students from many different academic performance levels are included in each incoming class, Potter added.
5. Shake up the school assignment process.
While parents and advocates say the DOE took a major step backward by tabling its Upper West Side rezoning plan after criticism, including that it would anger parents who specifically moved into a home because of its good schools, Teachers College professor Aaron Pallas suggested a bolder idea:
“An administration might say, "Heads up! Starting July 1, 2020, we're going to use [some algorithm] to assign children to neighborhood schools, and your child may not be assigned to the current school for which your address is zoned,’” he said. “'If you're not happy with that, you've got five years to move somewhere else.’”
Though Pallas acknowledged the idea might not be “politically feasible,” he thought “it might mobilize middle-class parents to demand changes in the schools to which their students might be assigned in the future.”
On the flip side, he said, “It could also result in middle-class parental flight out of the public school system, either by moving out of the city or enrolling in private school, and that's not a desirable outcome either.”