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City's Sweeping Plan to Integrate Schools Includes Few Concrete Details

By Amy Zimmer | June 6, 2017 4:13pm
 East Side Community  School, a 6-12 school in the East Village, is one of several schools that has diversity-based admissions.
East Side Community School, a 6-12 school in the East Village, is one of several schools that has diversity-based admissions.
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DNAinfo/Serena Solomon

MANHATTAN — The city has announced its first comprehensive plan to tackle its massively segregated school system — by increasing the number of students in racially integrated schools while decreasing the number of schools where students are overwhelmingly rich or poor.

But the plan, released Tuesday, doesn't include concrete details on how the city plans to accomplish that ambitious task — and was released without any public fanfare or official press conference to announce the changes, which advocates questioned given the Department of Education's willingness to have a press conference for announcements with less significance.

The DOE plan pledges over the next five years that 50,000 more students will be attending “racially representative” schools, which are defined as those where black and Hispanic students make up at least 50 percent of the population but no more than 90 percent.

The DOE also plans to decrease the number of “economically stratified” schools by 10 percent — or 150 schools — in the next five years. These are schools where their economic needs are 10 points higher or lower than the citywide average.

No schools would be closed to achieve these goals, DOE officials said, rather, they believe they'll see demographics shift by making some changes to admissions for high schools and middle schools system-wide, along with specific schools and districts — like the Lower East Side's District 1 and District 13, spanning from Brooklyn Heights to Clinton Hill — setting diversity-based goals for their student bodies.

City schools are among the most segregated in that nation. Black and Latino students made up 90 percent or more of the student population of more than half of the city’s 1,600 public schools, according to a 2015 analysis by DNAinfo. Meanwhile, half of the city's white students were concentrated in just 7 percent of the schools, and half of the city's Asian students were in just 6 percent of schools, DNAinfo found.

“The New York City Department of Education is committed to supporting learning environments that reflect the diversity of New York City. We believe all students benefit from diverse and inclusive schools and classrooms where all students, families and school staff are supported and welcomed. This work is essential to our vision of Equity and Excellence for all NYC students,” the city said in its new policy statement.

The plan — which does not include the words “segregation” or “integration,” only “diversity” — comes after years of mounting pressure from families, educators and advocates calling on the city to present real solutions to integrate public schools.

It follows years of the city’s unwillingness to demonstrate a clear commitment to addressing segregation, including silence from the DOE when it came to issues of integration or halfhearted plans about resolving segregation, such as Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña's praise for a pen pal system between rich and poor schools as a substitute for integration programs.

And it comes just before the state is expected to unveil its own plan on integrating schools — as the Board of Regents recently discussed including integration in its plan under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act and has been reaching out to advocates to discuss possible directions.

Central to the DOE plan is the new School Diversity Advisory Group, which the city created to make formal policy recommendations. The board is chaired by prominent black and Hispanic leaders whose roles are primarily civil rights or politics-based: Hispanic Federation President Jose Calderón, Civilian Complaint Review Board Chair and former mayoral counsel Maya Wiley and Hazel Dukes, president of the NAACP New York State Conference.

Some immediate policy changes include the elimination of policies that complicate the middle and high school admissions process — which enable schools to remain segregated, according to advocates — like the limited unscreened method for high schools and letting middle schools see where students rank them. It creates a new online application system for middle and high schools in an attempt to level the playing field by cutting the time families need to invest in the process.

It also expands efforts to boost diversity at the eight elite high schools that require a special exam for entry as well as the city’s diversity-based admissions pilots.

Though all schools are now invited to apply to alter their admissions, with seats set aside for low-income students (after meeting seats for zoned students at neighborhood schools), only about 20 schools have signed up so far.

In addition, 15 new schools or programs opening over the next three years will have specific plans to serve diverse populations, the city plan says.

“This plan is an important step forward with concrete goals, and I am looking forward to hearing from students, families, educators and community members through the School Diversity Advisory Group and community school districts, who will drive the ongoing work,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a statement.

City Council members Brad Lander, who represents neighborhoods including Carroll Gardens, Red Hook and Park Slope, and Richie Torres, who represents Central Bronx, praised the setting of concrete targets as a “bona fide breakthrough,” according to a joint statement.

But the councilmen — who were sponsors of the School Diversity Accountability Act requiring the DOE to release detailed demographic data of schools, along with a report on integration efforts — said the city failed in not referring to the current climate in schools as "segregation."

“We will not break the cycle of segregation if we cannot even name it,” the lawmakers wrote.

They remained hopeful the plan would “sow the seeds of even deeper change.”

Matt Gonzales, the school diversity project director at New York Appleseed — a social justice nonprofit that advocates for equity in city schools — praised the plan's inclusion of “robust community engagement” and the DOE's offer to serve as a technical advisor for communities.

But Gonzales said the announcement provided more of a framework than an actual plan.

“The specifics of the actual goals that were articulated were underwhelming,” he said.

He also wished the DOE included more details on how students with disabilities and English Language Learners fit into the efforts.

“I think a lot of this is about kicking the can to this advisory group and giving them another year to think about this and do the work,” Gonzales said.

David Bloomfield, professor of educational leadership, law and policy at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center, called the effort “more than a day late and a dollar short,” and raised questions about the political motivations of the timing.

“What took so long to assemble a laundry list of aims with little immediate consequence?,” he asked. “An advisory commission stacked with supporters and a limited movement away from apartheid schools will not substantially change the segregation equation. The mayor seems to be saying, ‘Get off my back, I care,’ as he gears up for re-election.”