Hoping to bring a diverse mix of students to a new Upper West Side high school, parents and neighborhood activists are jumping at the chance to write rewrite its admissions rules.
Frank McCourt High School, which will have a writing and communications focus, is highly anticipated by middle and upper-middle class families on the Upper West Side who want a selective school close to home. But McCourt is also one of the small schools replacing Brandeis High School, a large school that has served needy students from Harlem. Some advocates fear these students will be displaced as the school phases out.
The challenge, those who’ve been involved in the school’s development say, is building a school that attracts both sets of students.
“You can’t change the quality of the program and not offer it to the same kids who have always gone to Brandeis High School; it’s a cruel joke,” said Michelle Fine, a professor of urban education at the City University of New York.
Fine is part of a group of parents, activists and academics who arrived at a meeting for the school on Tuesday night armed with ideas for a new kind of admissions policy that they say will not give preference to either set of students.
Fine and several neighborhood parents have spent the past few months working on a draft vision statement outlining a proposed admissions strategy. Chief among their suggestions is that a writing sample carry significant weight in the school’s admissions.
Fine said the goal would be to find students with “a spark for writing,” but that an admissions committee must consider students with talents for writing in a variety of forms. “So we’d be looking for students who do scientific writings and journalism as well as students who write poetry and hip-hop,” she said.
Equally important, Fine said, is that applicants be judged on a range of criteria, with no one standard like test scores trumping all others. Fine said that rather than admitting all students who score above a certain bar on a numerical scale, students could be considered in a more holistic fashion.
Donna Nevel, an Upper West Side parent and advocate at the Center for Immigrant Families, emphasized that an equitable and inclusive admissions process was just one part of a plan for building a diverse school. A plan for recruiting students from the neighborhoods that Brandeis High School historically served is also crucial, she said.
“You need both,” she said. “If you do the outreach, but admissions policy isn’t equitable, then the kids don’t get in. And if you have the policy but not the outreach, then you don’t get the applicants that you’re looking for.”
Nevel stressed that school planners and activists need to ensure that once a successful admissions process is created, it stays that way over time.
“We have all seen schools that begin in a positive way and, before too long, end up privileging white, upper income families over others,” Nevel said.
City Councilwoman Gale Brewer, who organized this weeks’ school planning meeting, said that she was gratified that the school’s principal, Danielle Salzberg, attended and jumped into the conversation about what the student body should look like. In an interview last month, Salzberg said that she was eager to incorporate community feedback into the school’s planning and was already working on ways of getting neighborhood groups involved in outreach.
Ultimately, the design of the school’s admissions process will be up to Salzberg, said DOE spokesman Will Havemann. Brewer said that neighborhood activists and elected officials are still working with the DOE to determinze the size of the school and whether or not admissions preference will be given to students who live on the Upper West Side.
Meanwhile, word of the school is spreading. Several members of the summer planning committee reported fielding phone calls from parents asking how their children can apply.
“There’s just a real buzz around this school, which makes me happy,” Brewer said. “I heard students leaving the meeting saying, ‘I want to go to McCourt. I want to go to McCourt.'”
Havemann said that students can apply to McCourt during the second round of the high school admissions process. Students who apply and are accepted to other selective schools in the first round will not be forced to commit to another school before hearing from McCourt, he said.
The next meeting on Frank McCourt High School is a space utilization hearing at Brandeis, scheduled for December 8, Brewer said. The Panel on Educational Policy will then have to grant the final approval for the school to open on the Brandeis campus.