Last month, the New York City Department of Education committed to a long-awaited plan for comprehensive school integration in the Lower East Side’s Community School District 1. District 1 community leaders, Superintendent Daniella Phillips, and individual school leaders deserve hefty praise for their persistence and vision in the work of diversity and equity. As someone who has been privileged to be a part of this process over the last year and a half, I am extremely encouraged by this plan.
As families in District 1 and across the city begin to apply for kindergarten, it’s an important time to talk about our belief that integrated and equitable schools are best for all children. It is clear that this initiative represents meaningful progress in the work towards equitable schools in District 1 – and the city as a whole:
A model for the city: This plan is a model for the city in many respects: The plan is districtwide (a first in New York City), applies to both pre-k and kindergarten enrollment, and it allows schools to reflect the district with respect to family income, language, students in temporary housing, and students with disabilities. The plan provides equitable access to all schools while respecting parent choices, and has the potential to encourage and inspire other community school districts to start thinking big. Yes, this effort can pose challenges for community school districts with zoned schools, but, for a district that has already done the hard work of building community support, zones are less of an obstacle than is commonly understood. Finally, with the State’s recent announcement of a second round of the Socioeconomic Integration Pilot Program, districts across the city can look to the leadership of District 1 as they design their applications.
Family Resource Center (FRC): At the FRC, parents have access to consistent information in their home language about every school, receive direct support enrolling their children in Pre-K and kindergarten, and have access to a range of other helpful resources. The superintendent has already devised a long-term and sustainable staffing plan that will ensure each school has representation and investment in the FRC.
The principals are on board: The success of any educational policy relies on the educators tasked with implementation. This plan has the buy-in of every elementary-school principal in the district. This fact significantly increases the chances that each school will work internally and with neighboring schools to make this plan successful.
Balancing different perspectives: We commend the DOE for reconciling the priorities and concerns of differing stakeholder groups in this process. Listening to the voices of parent and community leaders who seek school diversity, educational leaders on the front lines, and parents for whom integration may not be a priority (sometimes for valid reasons), is not an easy task. My organization New York Appleseed believes that integrated schools are best for all children, but we recognize that there are many parents of color and low-income parents who are not convinced, and their choices need to be respected as well. This plan allows parents in these categories to fill up two-thirds of the seats in the district’s most popular schools but does not force them to.
Room for growth: Perhaps most importantly, this plan is not the end, but the beginning: the DOE made changes to the initial proposal they released in September, and has committed to continual monitoring of the initiative to identify ways to improve it.
To demonstrate its good faith in this commitment, the DOE should develop an implementation team to ensure the success of this plan. This team should include national student-assignment and integration expert Michael Alves, who has already been consulting on the project. The DOE should also commit to the development of a transparent process for community planning and engagement to ensure accountability of all stakeholders in future discussions in and out of District 1.
In just five months, the nation’s largest school district (which is not under a court-mandated desegregation order), released a citywide diversity framework, put out a job announcement for a new director of student enrollment with the intention of implementing diversity initiatives as a primary responsibility, and has announced a first districtwide integration plan. Supporters of school diversity can continue to make headway by seizing the advocacy opportunities presented by these developments, holding the DOE accountable, and accepting nothing less than success.
Matt Gonzales is Director of the School Diversity Project for New York Appleseed, a nonprofit social justice center working for integrated schools and communities in New York City and State.