Just four weeks into his tenure as New York City schools chancellor, Richard Carranza has marched into one of the most intractable and divisive problems in New York City’s schools: the entrenched segregation of students by race and class.
Mr. Carranza has called attention to his own experience as “a man of color.” When asked about the political risks he might be willing to shoulder on segregation, he talked about the risk the Supreme Court took when, in Brown v. Board of Education, it ordered schools to desegregate. And he caused an uproar last week when he tweeted a viral video of a meeting of parents and educators erupting over a plan to make some middle schools more diverse.
“WATCH,” his tweet read. “Wealthy white Manhattan parents angrily rant against plan to bring more black kids to their schools.”
Mr. Carranza said in a partial apology on Monday that the language was not his — it had been automatically generated from the headline on the site hosting the video, a local news story that was first broadcast on NY1. But he did not back away from the issue.
“The video speaks for itself,” he said. “And the video of the comments that were made, I don’t know how anybody could be O.K. with that. I know that I’m not O.K. with that.”
To observers, after four years in which Mayor Bill de Blasio and his first schools chancellor, Carmen Fariña, took only small bore action on the issue, Mr. Carranza’s language sounded like a sea change.
“I’ve been having this conversation with everyone in my community — are we getting way too excited right now? We can’t get too excited,” said Matt Gonzales, director of the School Diversity Project at New York Appleseed, an advocacy group. “His remarks, from my perspective, have been entirely different in tone from those of former Chancellor Fariña and even Mayor de Blasio.”
On Tuesday, the education department said that “D.O.E. senior leadership, including the chancellor, would be involved” in deciding whether to let the plan at the center of Mr. Carranza’s tweet move forward. The decision could provide the first clue as to what path he will take.
The proposal came from the superintendent of District 3, a swath of Manhattan that includes the Upper West Side and a bit of southern Harlem. It incorporates families who live in expensive prewar apartment buildings, in shabby tenements and in a number of public housing complexes scattered throughout. While many districts in New York City have little racial diversity to speak of — in some districts, the vast majority of students are black, for example — District 3 is a mix. A little more than half the students are black or Hispanic, and about 40 percent of them are white or Asian.
They just don’t generally go to school together. All children must apply to a middle school and be accepted, and there is sharp disparity in performance between the district’s middle schools — which have different admissions criteria, often based on test scores — as well as a stark racial divide.
The sought-after Booker T. Washington school, Junior High School 54, a middle school on West 107th Street, looks at scores on the state exams, essentially requiring the passing grades of a 3 or a 4, and at a student’s performance on an in-house test. Sixty-nine percent of the students are white or Asian, and last year 88 percent of them passed the state English and math exams.
Two blocks away, at West Prep Academy, many students enter with 1s or 2s, failing grades, on the state tests, and 97 percent of the students are black or Hispanic. Just 14 percent of them passed the math test last year, while 30 percent scored on grade level in English.
The new plan would give priority for 25 percent of the seats at all the district’s middle schools to students who score below grade level on the state tests. Because test scores closely track socioeconomic status and race, the plan would likely increase the number of poor and minority students at schools that are now out of reach for many disadvantaged families.
The video in Mr. Carranza’s tweet captured a meeting about the plan that was held last week at Public School 199, a high-achieving elementary school, where most of the students are white or Asian. In it, some parents erupted at the idea that their children might be shut out of the most popular schools.
“You’re talking about telling an 11-year-old, ‘You worked your butt off and you didn’t get that, what you needed or wanted,’” a woman yells. “You’re telling them, ‘You’re going to go to a school that’s not going to educate you in the same way you’ve been educated. Life sucks!’”
But Irene Butler, who has four grandchildren in the district’s public schools, welcomed the idea. Her grandson is in sixth grade at West Prep, but she said she would have considered other schools if the plan had been in place for him.
“A lot of kids are struggling to get through their classes and need help, but are not getting the help they need,” Ms. Butler, who is black, said. Having an opportunity to go to some of the higher-performing schools, she added, “will also help children from getting frustrated and dropping out.”
Historically, in drawing school zones and allowing parents choice in which schools their children attend, the city has been seen as trying to keep white families in the public schools.
District 3 is now trying to redress some of its inequities, though this plan may not ultimately be adopted. Kimberly Watkins, president of District 3’s Community Education Council, a body of volunteers who oversee some local school policy, though not this decision, said that the council had questions, for example, about what it would mean for students in the district who score a 3 on the tests. And others have questioned how the schools will adapt their teaching to meet the needs of students who come in at such different levels.
Deborah Kross, who lives on 118th Street and is white, has three children at District 3 public schools, including one at Booker T. Washington. She shares some of those concerns. “A question I’ve asked twice in these meetings is, ‘What’s the plan for middle schools to bring together in the same classroom people with the very broad abilities?’ And there’s no response to that,” she said. “I think a plan needs to go into effect, but not this plan.”
Mr. Carranza has not said whether he will ultimately endorse the plan, though he has called it “well thought-out” and “very moderate.” On Tuesday, after meeting with legislators in Albany, Mr. Carranza said that while communities should be part of the conversation about integration, “at some point we have to act on our beliefs.”
He went on, “My belief is that schools should be integrated.”
For Tracy Alpert, a white parent who has one child at P.S. 191, which was at the center of an earlier desegregation debate in the district, the answer was clear. “They need more good schools. It’s a scarce resource,” she said. “We need more good seats at good schools.”
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