Elana Shneyer and Adam Kaufman live a few hundred feet from Public School 165, the Robert E. Simon School, on West 109th Street, at the edge of Morningside Heights in Manhattan. When they started looking for a kindergarten for their son, who will start in the fall, the school was an early stop.
That made them unusual.
Although their neighborhood is diverse, the children who go to P.S. 165, its zoned school, are mostly Hispanic and low-income. Most of the white students who live in the area it serves attend school elsewhere.
But Ms. Shneyer and Mr. Kaufman, who are white, liked that the school had a Spanish dual-language program and that its kindergarten classes had only 10 to 15 students.
They also knew they had options. Community School District 3, where they live, has a long history of giving parents alternatives to their zoned schools. So the couple also looked at the Manhattan School for Children, a progressive school that is open to all children in the district. The couple loved the school’s approach, particularly its commitment to integrating children with physical disabilities. But there was one thing that made them uncomfortable: While most of the students in District 3 are black or Hispanic, nearly two-thirds of the students at Manhattan School for Children are white.
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“We noticed that, and honestly, to us it was less appealing,” Ms. Shneyer said.
She went to public school in District 3, at P.S. 75, the Emily Dickinson School, on West End Avenue between 95th and 96th Streets. Less than a fifth of the students were white, a percentage that hasn’t changed much over time. She went on to the Bronx High School of Science, one of the city’s most selective high schools.
“I think public school shaped me in a lot of ways — that I feel like I can relate and talk to and be with people who are different from me racially, economically, socially,” Ms. Shneyer said. “It was very valuable in that way.”
A look at the history of District 3, which stretches along the West Side of Manhattan from 59th to 122nd Street, shows how administrators’ decisions, combined with the choices of parents and the forces of gentrification, have shaped the current state of its schools, which, in one of the most politically liberal parts of a liberal city, remain sharply divided by race and income, and just as sharply divergent in their levels of academic achievement.
In 1984, two years before Ms. Shneyer started kindergarten, less than 8 percent of the district’s 12,321 elementary and middle school students were white. Not a single school was majority white, and the only school where white students made up the biggest group was P.S. 87 on West 78th Street. At the time, many white parents would not even consider their zoned schools. James Mazza, who served as deputy superintendent, and then superintendent of the district, from 1988 to 1997, recalled in an interview that parents would sometimes come into his office carrying a newspaper with the test scores of every school in the district and explain that they didn’t want to go to their zoned school because of its place on the list. Though scores are often used as a shorthand for quality, they correlate closely with the socioeconomic level of the children in a school.
“We tried to encourage people to make the decision about what school to attend based on more information than test-score results,” Mr. Mazza said, adding that that was often difficult. So the district pursued another strategy for attracting white, middle-class families: adding gifted classrooms, dual-language programs and schools that were open to all students from around the district.
Thanks to these options, more white families began sending their children to District 3 elementary and middle schools. Today, over a third of the roughly 14,000 elementary and middle school students in District 3 are white. But they are unevenly distributed. All but one of the zoned elementary schools below West 90th Street are now majority white. But because white parents elsewhere in the district take advantage of alternatives to their zoned schools, elementary schools in more ethnically diverse neighborhoods, like Manhattan Valley and Morningside Heights, remain largely black and Hispanic, and poor. Their test scores trail those of the district’s mostly white schools, and as the neighborhoods gentrify, their enrollment is declining.
The New York City Education Department has not put forward a plan to address the district’s growing disparities. Last year, the city withdrew a proposal to merge two elementary schools in Harlem because of low enrollment after parents protested.
P.S. 145, the Bloomingdale School, is on West 105th Street, four blocks south of P.S. 165. A quarter of its students live in temporary housing. Last year, just 15 percent of third- through fifth-grade students passed the state reading tests, and only 7 percent passed the math tests. In recent years, less than half of the kindergartners living in P.S. 145’s zone who attended public school enrolled there. Some go to P.S. 75, others to the Manhattan School for Children or to charter schools.
Scott Seamon, a lawyer who works in finance, lives in the area served by P.S. 145 and has twin boys who will start kindergarten in 2018. Given the school’s test scores, he said, “I feel like it would almost be malpractice to send my kids to school there, while the schools in the 70s and 80s have like a 70 percent passage rate.”
In the case of P.S. 165, only two in five of the kindergartners who lived in the school’s zone and attended public school were enrolled there in 2015, according to Education Department data. White families disproportionately shun the school: Roughly a third of the public school students who live in the school’s zone are white, but only 13 percent of the school’s students are white. Its test scores, like those at the other district schools where black and Hispanic children are a majority, lag behind.
Brett Gallini was the principal of P.S. 165 from 2010 to 2012, when he left to lead a charter school. Mr. Gallini said the school was underrated by many middle-class families in its zone. “I spent a lot of my time when I was a principal of 165 just advocating for the school, saying, ‘You know what, I can’t just tell you it’s a great school — come see it,’” he said. He said the school started offering more tours and parents would host meet-and-greets at their apartments for prospective parents.
Mr. Gallini also asked parents in the neighborhood what they were looking for. The school was phasing out its gifted program when he arrived. Based on interest from parents, he decided to revive it, which proved popular, though many of its students come from elsewhere in the district.
The current principal, Aracelis Castellano-Folk, attended the school in the early 1970s, and has moved to improve P.S. 165’s instruction, with two full-time teacher coaches for English language arts and math, and a new math program. Her efforts have paid off in higher test scores: Last year 47 percent of third- through fifth-grade students passed the state English exam, and 42 percent passed the math exam, up from 24 percent and 35 percent the year before. But Ms. Castellano-Folk seems to be less effective than Mr. Gallini was at selling the school to prospective parents. Enrollment, after rebounding under Mr. Gallini, has again declined.
Some of the school’s Hispanic parents have complaints of their own.
Fatima Ortiz, 40, attended P.S. 165 and has sent three children there. Two have already graduated, and one, a son, is currently in fourth grade. She said she didn’t feel the school was safe, adding that there was bullying and children were inadequately supervised. One of her older children attends Mott Hall II, a middle school in the same building, and she said that at that school, parents were welcome to walk into the office anytime. But she said that was not true at P.S. 165. “From my point of view, I think, ‘What are they hiding?’” she said.
(Ms. Castellano-Folk said that the students’ safety was her highest priority and that parents were invited to an informal meeting with her once a month.)
Ms. Ortiz didn’t think having more white or upper-middle-class parents in the school would necessarily improve it, since she thought that they would mostly push for programs that benefited their own children. She said it seemed that Ms. Castellano-Folk already gave parents in the gifted program preferential treatment.
Others expressed positive feelings about the school.
Milagros Bueno, whose son is in second grade in the dual-language program, said that the teachers were wonderful, and that her son was thriving. Unlike Ms. Ortiz, she thought that having more racial diversity and more wealthy families would be good for the school.
“More affluent families mean that the school gets a better rating and also that we get more funding, because they definitely advocate,” she said. “As people of color, unfortunately we don’t do as much advocating as them.”
On a tour for prospective parents in January, Ms. Castellano-Folk answered a query about the construction that had taken over the school’s play yard for younger students by saying she was not sure when it would end. “I don’t know that it’s a plan,” she said of the Education Department’s oversight, adding that it was supposed to be a two-year project but “things come up.” When another parent asked how the school celebrated religious holidays, she said curtly, “We can’t use that term.”
On the morning that Ms. Shneyer and Mr. Kaufman visited the school, Ms. Castellano-Folk joined their tour at the end, walkie-talkie in hand. Ms. Shneyer asked several questions: Could the principal talk about the school’s approach to discipline? How did the school challenge students who were advanced? What was the interaction between the upper grades and lower grades?
The couple were satisfied with Ms. Castellano-Folk’s answers, but the school’s falling numbers were evident. That morning a dual-language kindergarten class had only five students present. A second-grade class had fewer than 20 students. Several of the schools in the district’s southern portion have kindergarten waiting lists.
Ms. Shneyer said later that she was impressed with the math program and liked the small class sizes, though Mr. Kaufman expressed concern about what low enrollment might mean for the school’s budget.
“That was a surprise,” he said.
“It seems like a benefit, smaller classes,” Ms. Shneyer said, adding, “People pay a lot of money to send their kids to places with low student-teacher ratio.”
The couple’s kindergarten application was due Jan. 13. Though they remained concerned about Manhattan School for Children’s demographics, they had decided to rank it first on their application.
“There’s a coherent vision for the school,” Mr. Kaufman said. “You can see that articulated through small and large decisions that are enacted through the school, and that really appealed to me.”
But the odds seemed to be against them — 989 children entered the lottery for 90 seats — so they figured their son was most likely destined to attend the dual-language program at P.S. 165, their second choice.