Along a stretch of brick wall at P.S. 180 Hugo Newman, a massive mural proclaims “Young, gifted, and Harlem.”
The sunny new painting at the K-8 school, which was donated by a local artist, is not the typical volunteer effort. It’s part of a push by parent leaders and city officials to boost Harlem schools — the crucial next step toward making a new, contentious integration plan work.
The education department this summer approved changes to the way students are admitted to middle schools in District 3, an effort to spur diversity in a deeply segregated district that spans the Upper West Side and part of Harlem. The fight to get it approved captured national attention, but the admissions changes may have been the easy part.
Students there are still free to apply to their choice of middle schools, so demographics won’t shift at many schools unless families make different decisions about where to send their children. For Harlem, that means competing for students with schools that have far more resources and are in strong demand with middle-class parents.
That’s why, in the coming year, the district will undertake a “visioning” campaign for Harlem with the aim of floating plans to meet the schools’ needs while canvassing the community to find out what families want. There are also on-the-ground efforts, like those being led by parents at P.S. 180, to paint a more positive picture of Harlem schools.
“This isn’t just about what we’ve heard before: ‘Harlem schools are struggling,’ and that older narrative,” said Dennis Morgan, a parent on the local Community Education Council whose children attend P.S. 180. “There are actually really, really informed parents, [and] really, really, talented and gifted children here — that are more than what the narrative speaks to.”
District 3 families apply to middle schools rather than being zoned to one based on their address. Despite that wide degree of choice, the district is segregated: Booker T. Washington enrolls almost 70 percent white and Asian students; The district average is 40 percent. At P.S. 149 Sojourner Truth, a K-8 school, virtually all of the students are black or Hispanic.
Beginning next year, middle schools will give admissions preference for a quarter of seats to students with low test scores and poor report card grades, and who come from low-income families. That could result in more racial diversity in some schools since academic performance and poverty are often linked to race and ethnicity.
But the admissions priority will only make a difference if schools have a diverse group of applicants to pull from. Today, many do not.
Based on a simulation of admissions offers, patterned on how families applied to schools last year, many Harlem schools would remain essentially unchanged by the integration plan.
The projections show that P.S. 076 A. Philip Randolph, a K-8 school on 121st Street, would see its demographics remain basically the same. Wadleigh Secondary School for the Performing & Visual Arts, a Harlem school that narrowly survived an attempt to shut it down this year, would admit about one more high-performing student. Both would still serve mostly students who struggled on state tests and come from low-income families.
The biggest changes would be seen outside of Harlem, where more low-performing students would get admitted to some of the district’s most sought-after schools.
For parents on the local education council, which for years has pushed the education department to address segregation in its middle schools, the admissions changes alone were problematic: They mean that more Harlem students will likely be leaving their neighborhood schools, but the plan did nothing to address why parents aren’t picking those schools in the first place.
“That does nothing for investing in these schools,” said Genisha Metcalf, a parent on the education council whose daughter attends P.S. 180.
The work ahead
Harlem faces intense competition for students from the more selective schools to its south, and charters in its own backyard.
Students who passed state tests cram into a few schools on the Upper West Side that use tough admissions criteria. Meanwhile, Harlem is home to 10 of the district’s 11 charter schools. A recent report from the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School found that 63 percent of Harlem families enroll in schools outside the neighborhood.
When students leave, they take crucial funding with them since school budgets are based on enrollment. Three Harlem schools had fewer than 200 students last year.
“We have to focus on what it’s going to take for kids to enroll in these schools,” said Kim Watkins, a member of the Community Education Council. “We’ve got to start listening to the community and working with the various stakeholders… to make sure we understand what it is we need to offer.”
That’s the next phase of the district’s integration plans. With the middle school admissions changes in effect, the city is now weighing ways to boost enrollment in Harlem schools. Among the possibilities: Opening new pre-K classes in the neighborhood; eliminating the zoning around P.S. 241, a science and technology school; and opening a standalone middle school since Harlem is almost exclusively served by K-8 campuses.
The city is also looking at ways to make school offerings more equitable across the district, promising to implement more rigorous Regents math and science courses in every middle school and to expand tutoring options.
Before the city makes any moves, though, officials are fanning across the district to listen to parent feedback and partner with local organizations to hear concerns and collect new ideas.
“We know there’s real work to do to strengthen programming in Harlem and across District 3, and we’re excited to partner with the community, including principals, parent leaders, and families, on the Harlem visioning process,” education department spokesman Doug Cohen said in an emailed statement.
Already, some ideas are percolating among Community Education Council members.
Morgan wants to partner with local business and has called on the district to devise ways to share dramatically lopsided PTA fundraising — a move that has been met with fierce opposition elsewhere. While some Harlem schools struggle to raise budgets in the hundreds of dollars, the PTA at P.S. 87 on the Upper West Side was named the second wealthiest parent organization in the country in a report last year by the Center for American Progress. The school raised $1.6 million, according to the report.
“That’s the place where this resourcing gap gets closed,” Morgan said.
Perhaps the more difficult work ahead, though, is shifting parents’ perceptions so they’ll pick Harlem schools. The fight to approve the admissions changes shows how far parent leaders have to go.
In public meetings to float the integration plans, one concern was repeated over and over again: Middle class parents argued there were only a few “good” schools in the district, and they worried the city’s plans would make it harder for their children to enroll in those schools. None of the most sought-after schools, which receive a crush of applications each year, are in Harlem.
Metcalf sat in many of those meetings and was irked by the way her neighborhood schools were portrayed. It went against her experience at P.S. 180, a school where she said parents are involved and the staff are dedicated.
So when artist Ronald Draper donated his talent to produce an original work for the district, Metcalf brainstormed with Harlem parents and educators to come up with something that would send that message. The piece spans about 50 feet, with the neighborhood defined by the people who live there. In a corner, Draper described Harlem as an adjective: “to shine bright.”
“We wanted something that was loud and proud,” Metcalf said. “It was like: What’s something that’s really representative of every single student in not only this building, but in Harlem?”
In addition to their massive new mural, Metcalf has printed out postcards that tout the school’s hydroponics lab, dual language classes, and music program — another piece of a grassroots campaign to highlight what’s already working in the neighborhood’s schools.
Parent leaders have been calling for more attention to be paid to Harlem schools for some time now. A similar integration battle, over the rezoning of some district elementary schools, led the education council to plan a “Harlem Summit,” which turned into an annual informational event for the area’s parents.
This time, the district is armed with a state grant that provides training and guidance around school integration issues. There is another crucial difference: The local Community Education Council now includes parents like Metcalf and Morgan, who send their children to Harlem schools. For them, the work is personal.
“I care about all kids, but this is my kid’s future,” Metcalf said.