In 2016, New York City rolled out a small pilot project intended to address a problem that many in the city had long ignored or taken for granted: While New York’s public school population is one of the most diverse in the country, it is also one of the most starkly segregated by race and class.

The pilot — called the Diversity in Admissions initiative — is an attempt to begin a kind of localized, school-led balancing of the scales. Participating schools voluntarily give priority for a percentage of seats in their incoming classes to applicants who meet various criteria, such as coming from low-income families or qualifying as English language learners.

The initiative has grown quickly, from just seven schools in its first year to 19 in its second year to 42 in its third. As of this writing, a total of 81 schools and five Pre-K programs are signed up to participate for the 2019-20 admissions cycle, including three community school districts that have adopted cohesive, districtwide diversity plans.

In a new report, released today by the Center for New York City Affairs, we assess the promises and limitations of the Diversity in Admissions initiative, as well as its outcomes so far. Using school- and grade-level data for each of the pilot schools, we created interactive visualizations to understand all 86 schools’ goals in the context of recent trends in the demographic makeup of their student populations. We spoke with school leaders, DOE administrators, and academic researchers to learn how these schools designed their admissions priorities and the challenges they’ve faced in implementing them. And we analyzed results at the 19 schools that participated in the initiative’s first two years.

Our analysis revealed four main findings:

  • The initiative has achieved some promising successes: During their participation in the pilot, the schools that gave priority to low-income students increased their share of those students by an average of eight percentage points. Schools that gave priority to English language learners raised their share of them by four percentage points on average. The largest successes were concentrated among schools with student poverty rates that are significantly lower than those of their districts or the city as a whole.
  • While schools are not permitted to target race or ethnicity directly, many principals hoped that categories like income and language would serve as proxy measures, increasing racial diversity as well. That has not proved true: There was no statistically significant change in any race or ethnicity category on average across the first 19 schools in the pilot.
  • Thus far, there is no consistent strategy or standard for how schools have set their admissions targets. The schools with the most ambitious goals, relative to their recent student demographic trends, were the most successful in enrolling more diverse incoming classes after joining the pilot. Other schools set goals near or below their current enrollment levels of targeted students, and thus were able to meet their goals with little change to the status quo.
  • Despite its rapid expansion, the initiative’s scope remains very small: The 86 schools and Pre-K programs currently enrolled in the project serve just three percent of public school students citywide. If all of those schools were to meet their enrollment targets for the coming year (an outcome that is far from guaranteed), the initiative would affect the placement of some 4,000 applicants, or just one percent of all students admitted to Pre-K, kindergarten, 6th, or 9th grade across the city.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has made it clear that he intends to see the Diversity in Admissions initiative grow. The project remains a central piece of his administration’s school diversity plan, and is arguably its most concrete strategy to redistribute students.

As the City moves forward, however, it’s important to note that the strategy behind the Diversity in Admissions initiative can only be applied to one piece of New York City’s school segregation problem. A voluntary plan that works through school admissions lotteries might make access more equitable to highly sought-after schools in mixed-income districts. But unless admissions priorities become significantly more ambitious, they will do little to open the doors wider in affluent districts. Nor is this approach alone likely to have much impact in the poorest parts of the city, where many schools struggle to fill their seats at all. And of course, more diverse student bodies, alone, do not ensure that low-income students and students of color are treated equitably and well.

As the mayor and the DOE proceed with their plans for school diversity, this report offers a close-up look at what the Diversity in Admissions strategy can — and cannot — accomplish. Our early assessment of this approach suggests that it can, in fact, boost socio-economic diversity, at least at some City schools — and that the DOE should therefore put policies in place that ensure the program grows. It is also an approach with limitations, and must be just one part of a comprehensive, systemwide plan to dismantle segregation across the New York City school system.

Nicole Mader is a Senior Research Fellow at the Center for New York City Affairs (CNYCA) at the New School and a PhD Candidate in public and Urban Policy at the Milano School of Policy, Management, and Environment at the New School.

Abigail Kramer is an editor at CNYCA specializing in policy issues impacting low-income children, families, and youth.

Angela Butel is a research assistant providing data support for CNYCA’s work on economic policy and child welfare. She is currently pursuing a Master’s in Public and Urban Policy at the New School.

This article was originally published by Urban Matters