Drawing the line

Drawing the line

Plan aimed at diversifying West Harlem schools would do away with zoning

Published on February 10, 2015


t a meeting of local education administrators on the Upper West Side Wednesday night, a group of advocates presented a plan for de-zoning School District 3, which encompasses most of the Upper West Side and West Harlem.

Advocates of the plan think that allowing students in District 3 to apply to attend any school in the district, instead of those near their homes, would create more diverse student bodies in a district that some characterize as effectively segregated on the school level despite being diverse on the whole.

The plan was proposed by the District 3 Equity in Education Task Force—a group of parents, teachers, and administrators that formed in 2012. To the Task Force, the problem of de facto segregation is in its effect on school budgets, which they say are more generous at predominantly white schools.

De-zoning is not the first plan that has been proposed to integrate District 3 schools, where racial and socioeconomic isolation have persisted despite decades of demographic change in the neighborhood.

According to a UCLA study, gentrification of large parts of the city since the 1990s has increased the proportion of whites enrolled in public schools. This pattern, which followed decades of so-called “white flight” from the city and its schools, strongly affected District 3. District 3 and District 2 are now the only two Manhattan school districts with proportions of white enrollment that are above 20 percent.

Still, District 3 is home to a host of racially homogeneous schools. In 2014, 80 percent of white students in District 3 attended schools in which fewer than 15 percent of students were black. Citywide, over half of public schools serve student bodies that are over 90 percent Black and Hispanic.

“Letting the status quo remain shouldn’t be tolerated,” said Lizabeth Sostre, a member of the District 3 Equity in Education Task Force, the group that presented at Wednesday night’s meeting. “The disparities are shocking.”

‘A new school with a new name’

In 2010, District 3 became part of a federal grant program which gave the district over $11 million over a three-year period to turn eight of its schools into magnet programs. These public schools, which organize their curriculum around a specific theme, are open to students throughout the district.

While the grant provided funding for technology and professional staff development, the language of the grant focused specifically on desegregating schools. Programs in District 3 include elementary schools with curricula focused on design and engineering, environmental stewardship, and youth and media.

According to Ellen Darensbourg, who served as the magnet resources specialist at P.S. 241, the grant was intended to rebrand schools whose poor reputations complicated efforts to attract diverse applicants. P.S. 241, an elementary school on 113th Street and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard, used magnet funds to strengthen education in science, technology, and math. The school is now known as the STEM Institute of Manhattan.

“The people who saw us as a new school, with a new name, were more willing to take it as a new school,” Darensbourg said. “The benefit of the grant has nothing to do with whether we reached number goals in terms of enrollment and ethnicity.”

Still, the demographics of the magnet schools in District 3 ultimately changed little throughout the grant period, which ended last year.

“While we didn’t hit all the targets in terms of racial integration, I think that’s just a matter of time,” said Noah Gotbaum, the vice president of the Community Education Council District 3, said.

Proponents of de-zoning the district said they were less optimistic about the possibility that magnets would eventually desegregate local schools.

“Despite best efforts, the plan had limited impact,” the Task Force’s written proposal states.

‘The local administration was undercutting’

According to several educators, the federal magnet grant coincided with a wave of education policies at the city level that ran counter to its goals.

To Gotbaum, the expansion of charter schools that went on in Upper Manhattan under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg had a negative effect on magnet schools’ ability to attract diverse applicants.

Charter schools, which are privately operated and receive public funding, proliferated rapidly in Upper Manhattan throughout the 2000s. The state’s first charter school opened in Harlem in 1999, and by 2010, 24 of Manhattan’s 29 charter schools were located north of 96th Street.

While state and city authorizers can approve new charter schools, the schools relied on the support of the Bloomberg administration to gain access to school space in the city. Until last spring, there was no formal law that requiring the city to find space for approved charters, but the Bloomberg administration regularly provided space inside already functioning public schools to charters rent free.

“Money was invested to ensure that our schools were better integrated and all schools were strong,” Gotbaum said, referring to the federal magnet grant. “The local administration was undercutting that by providing space and money to charter schools, to essentially suck non-minority families and the most highly involved families from these magnet schools.”

Ann Powell, a spokesperson for the Success Academy Charter Schools—which operates 10 schools in Harlem and on the Upper West Side—said their schools admit students by random lottery.

Citywide, charters have also received complaints about segregation within schools. The UCLA report called attention to charter schools’ segregation rates, which are higher than those of typical city public schools.

According to Powell, those rates are the result of charters’ focus on educating underserved students in racially homogenous neighborhoods.

“Some of our schools, like SA Upper West, SA Union Square, SA Cobble Hill, SA Hell’s Kitchen, and SA Williamsburg, are located in mixed-income neighborhoods and student enrollment there reflects the diversity of those neighborhoods,” she wrote in an email to Spectator. “Likewise, in less diverse neighborhoods, such as the Bronx and Harlem, the demographics of our students also reflect that of the neighborhood.”

But for areas like District 3, which encompass both underserved and well-resourced neighborhoods, the incoming charters served as competition, according to Darensbourg.

P.S. 241 began sharing its building with Harlem Success Academy IV in 2009, just a year after the city attempted to close the public school due to its poor performance on standardized tests. Darensbourg said proximity to the charter made attracting diverse applicants “much, much harder.”

“Competition is fierce in the Harlem area,” she said, adding that Harlem Success Academy IV “talked to our parents at every chance they got.”

And Darensbourg said that not all of the District 3 students who were admitted to Success Academies were allowed to stay for the whole year, and were instead asked to transfer back to public schools like P.S. 241.

“At one point, we had 10 percent of our population that was kicked out from Harlem Success Academies and other charters,” said Darensbourg, referring to the student body at P.S. 241. Often, she added, these students needed the most support from the school.

Magnets also faced space constraints from charters, as several of them opened in school buildings already occupied by existing public schools. According to Darensbourg, P.S. 241 lost a medical office, an art room, a science lab, and a space for special education providers when the charter moved in.

Current Mayor Bill de Blasio has attempted a turnaround from Bloomberg’s policies, reversing several approved charter co-locations last year.

de Blasio introduced his plan in November of this year to turn around the city’s lowest performing public schools. Called the “School Renewal Program,” his initiative aims to bolster wraparound services at over 90 low-performing schools across the city, including two in District 3.

But far from an innovation, local education activists said the plan sounds more like a return to the kinds of policies that existed before the Bloomberg administration.

Sonya Hampton is the former Parent-Teacher Association president and a current parent at P.S. 149, on 117th Street and Lenox Avenue, which will be one of de Blasio’s revamped community schools.

At P.S. 149, which did not enter the magnet program, the student body is less than one percent white. It is one of the most racially homogenous schools in the district.

To Hampton, the new program sounds a lot like what her children’s school used to look like, before it was co-located with two charter schools in 2006.

Since then, she said, P.S. 149 has struggled through the space crunch. And, she said that while she was hopeful about the School Renewal Program, the relationship between her children’s school and the charter schools in the building remains antagonistic.

When a bathroom broke recently in P.S.149, Hampton said the co-located charter would not allow her students to use its facilities.

“They gotta walk around the whole building to use the bathroom,” she said.

Past de-zoning attempts

Members of the District 3 Equity in Education Task Force say that the persistence of racial and socioeconomic isolation in District 3 mean that demographics will remain the same until the link between where students live and where they go to school is broken.

District 3 would be the fourth school district in the city to abandon school zoning.

District 1, on the Lower East Side, has been fully dezoned since 2007, although its elementary schools had been dezoned since the early 1990s. In November 2013, District 7 in the South Bronx and District 23 in Brownsville, Brooklyn also dezoned, although District 7 remains divided into “priority zones,” which retain some of the link between students’ home locations and their assigned schools.

When de-zoning was first implemented in District 1, schools adopted admissions policies that encouraged diversity, including race and gender quotas in schools that were in high demand.

Then, in 2007, the nature of District 1’s de-zoning model changed. As the Bloomberg administration’s attempts to standardize school admissions with a single, citywide test, measures that in place to encourage diversity were removed.

According to a 2013 report commissioned by parents in District 1, racial and socioeconomic isolation increased dramatically in District 1 schools over the next several years, as a result of full de-zoning. The report found that compared to neighborhoods undergoing similar gentrification that retained school zones, the Lower East Side’s increased separation was significant.

By 2013, six years after their district had fully dezoned, District 1 parents were coming to uptown meetings to actively discourage other districts from making the switch. City officials under Bloomberg brought proposals about de-zoning to District 5 and District 6 in Upper Manhattan that year, receiving backlash from parents who interpreted de-zoning as part of the city’s plan to expand charters and shut down public schools.

But the plan the Task Force is proposing looks different from the ones spearheaded by the city under Bloomberg.

A different kind of de-zoning

Members of the Task Force are aware that de-zoning would pose complications.

The group that presented Wednesday night, which argues that only the most organized families apply to charters, has developed a plan for a staffed and computerized, multilingual family resource center to help families apply for dezoned schools.

The plan “doesn’t abandon proximity,” Donna Nevel, a member of the Task Force, said at Wednesday’s meeting. Instead, it considers geography as one factor along with students’ socioeconomic status, special needs, or English Language Learner status. She added that no current students would have to switch schools.

According to the Task Force, 85 to 90 percent of District 3 families would be able to send their children to their first- or second-choice school under the plan, and the algorithms that would decide enrollment would be made available to parents.

Joe Fiordaliso, a member of Community Education Council District 3, raised concerns at Wednesday’s meeting about the mathematical likelihood of providing both choice and diversity. Nevel responded that the Task Force’s plan—which is known as “controlled choice,” rather than de-zoning—pushes the city to take responsibility for all schools in a district.

Controlled choice means a “decision to work on schools as a whole,” Nevel said. “We want more schools that parents feel good sending their kids to.”

Still, some believe that persistent disparity in school quality would ultimately continue to sort the children with the best resources into the best schools.

“I’m not sure that that’s a great way of organizing American education,” Stephan Brumberg, an education historian at the City University of New York, said of de-zoning. He added that he is “much more interested in what goes on inside of schools,” referring to the quality of teachers.

According to Gotbaum, the School Renewal Program is a hopeful sign that the city has once again turned to investing in local public schools, whether or not those schools serve students who are socioeconomically disadvantaged or who belong to racial minorities.

“If you ask these parents at charters why they’re there, most of them are there because they are concerned about their local public schools,” he said. “Real choice is that no matter where you live, your local schools are solid, and you wanna send your kids there.”

news@columbiaspectator.com  |  @ColumbiaSpec

Correction: An earlier version of this story said that Nevel referred to the Task Force’s plan as de-zoning. The Task Force refers to the plan as “controlled choice.” Spectator regrets the error.


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