Segregation is a calcified, decades-long problem in New York City’s public schools. Over the years, politicians have implemented various measures to make the system fairer, but many of them (including elementary school choice and algorithmic screening) haven’t made much difference. In some cases, they’ve actually worsened segregation.
But one Brooklyn school district is trying something different. District 15—which includes Boerum Hill, Carroll Gardens, Cobble Hill, Fort Greene, Gowanus, Kensington, Park Slope, Sunset Park, Red Hook, and Windsor Terrace—is implementing a new integration strategy, going into effect for sixth graders in the 2019-2020 academic years, for its 11 middle schools. It incorporates school choice (a program that lets parents pick where they want to send their children), a lottery system, and setting aside a certain percentage of seats for students in need. The new approach does away with “screens”—like the number of tardies, absences, and test scores—that are currently used as admissions criteria. Additionally, there are recommendations for making classrooms more inclusive for students from different racial, ethnic, and economic backgrounds, and for students with special needs.
What makes this strategy significantly different from previous integration efforts is how it was developed: by parents, school administrators, teachers, community groups, and advocacy groups. In the past, there hasn’t been as much engagement with the public. The Department of Education (DOE) decided to take a bottom-up approach to desegregation in District 15. It enlisted the architecture and urban planning firm WXY—which works frequently with New York City officials, and has both education policy expertise and experience facilitating community engagement—to design a process that would yield the recommendations, which were presented in August and adopted September 20.
“The District 15 work is unique in how it engaged the community around [school integration] in a way that hasn’t been done so intentionally,” says Christopher Rice, a senior urban planner at WXY. “If we’re going to try to engage people around school diversity, who needs to be at the table? How are we going to frame those conversations? Who is going to help us think through framing those conversations? To my knowledge, it hasn’t been done before.”
But can a plan developed for just one of dozens of school districts in New York City actually make a difference?
Segregation in the era of systemic bias
Studies show that integrated schools help minority students growing up in poverty achieve greater academic performance, earn more money as adults, and have better health outcomes. All students benefit by learning from one another and could potentially become less prejudiced. But despite this knowledge, schools remain segregated.
Over the past decade, District 15’s demographics have changed dramatically. The number of white students in District 15 doubled between 2007 and 2017. Additionally, New York City schools began applying screens in the 2000s to influence enrollment, which further impacted the demographics of individual schools.
“In essence, you had three middle schools that went through a lot of change in a fairly short amount of time,” Adam Lubinsky, a principal and managing director of WXY, says. “The schools have wound up being majority white students in a 10-year period. And so that is coupled with a lot of white students coming back into the district. It’s a complicated story, but it also speaks to the displacement that has occured in those schools.”
Today in District 15, 12 percent of middle-school students in are Asian, 12 percent are black, 42 percent are Latino, 32 percent are white, and two percent are classified as “some other race.” Nine percent of students are English Language Learners. About 50 percent of middle school students in the district are low-income, using the metric of who qualifies for a free or reduced-price lunch.
But when the DOE examined District 15, it found troubling data about school segregation. While the district as a whole—which includes about 6,000 students in grades 6–8—is diverse, the middle schools were highly segregated. Schools in District 15 have the city’s fourth highest dissimilarity index for poverty, a measure of how different the demographic composition of a school is compared to the entire district. The student body at some of the district’s middle schools was 80, 96, and 97 percent low income; meanwhile, other schools were just 20 or 29 percent low income.
Segregation persists in District 15’s schools for complex reasons, as WXY’s quantitative research and interviews with parents and community groups revealed. Some systemic policy practices lead to stratified schools as did parent choices.
Let’s start with the screens, which are used to weight a student’s application to a school. District 15 screen students on their report card grades; whether or not they have fewer than six tardies; if they have math and language arts test scores of three or above; and suspensions. The screens in place disproportionately remove Latino and black students from the middle school applicant pool and pose a significant barrier to access. While 42 percent of white students and 62 percent of Asian students passed the screen for test scores, absences, and tardies, just 17 percent of black and 16 percent of Latino students did.
These screens, and competition, made applications a grueling process. Over 900 students selected one middle school as their first or second choice and the school was only able to make offers to 169 childrend. “We’re talking fierce, fierce competition in a way that parents feel like it’s affecting children,” Lubinsky says. “There’s a perception that who they are depends on what school they get into.”
Parents were concerned about discrimination, which impacted where they sent their children. Residential housing segregation also reinforced homogenous schools.
“I don’t want to send my kids to school in a predominantly white neighborhood,” one respondent to a community survey wrote. “My kids get racially profiled and stopped by the police.”
Another community member wrote: “Historically, students of color have always had to travel when integration initiatives are implemented. How do we ensure we don’t place that burden on students of color in District 15?”
To make sure the Diversity plan yielded recommendations that would advance integration and satisfy parents, students, and educators, the DOE decided to go straight to them for suggestions and enlisted WXY to develop the process.
Designing an inclusive policy-making process
A longstanding frustration with public policy is that it often happens behind closed doors with little transparency or input from the people who will be most affected by it. In the context of school placement, parents and students were frustrated with opacity around how the process worked.
From the outset, the DOE envisioned the diversity plan to be public facing—a choice informed by Mayor Bill de Blasio’s belief in grassroots policy efforts and his own work as a parent in the district. (During a press conference about the plan he mentioned receiving “the coldest shoulder you’ve ever seen” when a parents’ group brought their integration proposal to the DOE 15 years ago.) To create a new grassroots policy-making process, WXY used strategies often found in the design world: user-driven research and participatory design.
WXY’s first step was ensuring that all stakeholders were at the table. They established a 16-person working group that would make the recommendations and present them to the community and DOE. It included representatives from the Coalition for Equitable Schools, IntegrateNYC (a student group), the Red Hook Community Justice Center, the Center for Family Life, Parents for Middle School Equity, the Community Educational Council 15, the Chinese-American Planning Council, and the DOE District 15 office; a PTA president; literary coach; teachers; and principals.
“A lot of these connections didn’t exist,” Rice says about the working group members, who had all been working to advance integration and equity but not always in coalitions. “The Sunset Park groups felt disconnected from the conversations happening in the other part of the district, and we wanted to be intentional about bringing folks together.”
To help make the collaborative process more productive, all members of the working group completed anti-bias training from the Center for Racial Justice In Education before beginning their work. Some of the meetings were held bilingually with simultaneous translation.
Using information from the surveys and three public workshops, the working group created six different options for its recommendations that involved lotteries, weighted preferences, removing all screens, keeping some screens, and letting DOE make assignments.
The community felt very strongly about retaining choice. Additionally, they overwhelmingly approved of giving priority placement to low-income students, English language learners, and students in temporary housing. The issue of using screens varied from neighborhood to neighborhood: 62 percent of Park Slope residents favored them compared to 42 percent of Sunset Park.
“Some people really have a notion of hard work and merit and people on the other side of the argument will talk about the access to information and privilege that many people have,” Lubinsky says. “That was a clear fault line in this discussion.”
Ultimately, the working group recommended setting aside a certain number of seats at each school for low-income students and using a lottery for all seats. Screens will no longer be used.
In the new process, students will rank their top 12 school choices and enter into a lottery. If there’s a spot, they’ll be accepted. If there isn’t a spot, then they’re entered into the lottery for their second choice and so on down the list until they’re placed.
At every middle school, 52 percent of seats will be set aside for English Language Learners, students receiving free and reduced lunch, and students in temporary housing. If there are more priority students that apply to a school than there are seats, the students who do not receive a priority seat will automatically be entered into the general lottery for the school. If there aren’t enough priority applicants at a particular school, the remaining seats are entered into the general lottery.
Applying District 15’s lessons elsewhere
Changing the composition of of the student body at each middle school is only part of the challenge for District 15. Inclusion—or how welcoming and accommodating a school is to students from different backgrounds and abilities—is the other half. While the lottery-based integration plan is only possible in District 15, the inclusion recommendations are applicable everywhere.
“You can have diverse schools, but the classrooms in that school can still be segregated,” Neal Zephyrin, a member of the District 15 Community Education Council said in the report. “Lunchrooms can still be segregated. Curriculum and content can still not be inclusive.”
Some of the key challenges are addressing higher discipline rates for Latino and black students: While black students represent 13 percent of the student body, they account for 33 percent of suspensions. Bridging the gap between teacher demographics and student demographics is another concern: 67 percent of teachers in the district are white compared to 32 percent of students, and 12 percent of teachers are Latino compared to 42 percent of students.
Communicating available resources at each school and beefing them up is another priority. The report suggests anti-bias, anti-racist, anti-disability bias, and cultural sensitivity training for all students, faculty, and administration in District 15. It also recommends increasing multi-lingual emotional and mental health services within each school and creating a Restorative Justice Coordinator for the district.
Rewriting the curriculums at schools to be reflect a more culturally responsive education is also recommended. For example: more focus on the contributions of African, Latinx, Asian, Middle Eastern, and Native people, as well as teaching the intersections with gender, religion, and disability. Working toward equal arts, tech, music, and sports programming at each school is another priority.
“Something that came up in the process is: Do you make policy changes—and ambitious policy changes—to support integrative schools if you don’t have the [supportive programs] needed at the school?” Rice says. “We have a whole section of recommendations on inclusion and creating welcoming environments for different types of learners. That’s applicable across all schools in New York: creating spaces where different types of student feel welcome and safe. For a lot of parents we talked to, that was most important to them.”
Moving toward “school-oriented development”
Schools affect where people live today, how they travel through the city, and long-term mobility. But despite the huge impact schools have on a city, they’re often afterthoughts in planning. The District 15 plan process reflects a new way of thinking about schools in the context of their communities. By centering them in conversations about how to make New York more equitable, they become catalysts of new urban policy.
“Essentially, rather than schools sort of being an integral part of growth and community formation, they sort of come through pressures: A place starts to grow because of density around transit or a rezoning then it’s, ‘Oh my god we need schools here,’” Lubinsky says. “We’re pitching an idea: Instead of transit-oriented development, it’s school-oriented development. How do you shape an approach to planning that’s related to schools?”
Correction: A previous edition misstated the competitiveness of some District 15 schools.