Hoping to attract gentrifiers, a troubled school gets a makeover and new admissions policy

Parents and community members attended a presentation last month to learn about The Dock Street School, a redesigned and relocated version of Satellite West Middle School.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Parents and community members attended a presentation last month to learn about The Dock Street School, a redesigned and relocated version of Satellite West Middle School.

Come September, Satellite West Middle School will have disappeared.

By then, the troubled school will be moved from its shared brick building in Vinegar Hill, Brooklyn, into a sparkling glass condominium building at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge. Nestled in the heart of chic Dumbo, the redesigned school will focus on science and art, enlist the neighborhood’s tech workers as mentors, and even go by a new name, The Dock Street School for STEAM Studies.

And, instead of using an admissions lottery, the school will begin handpicking its students.

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The transformation is one answer to a vexing riddle for New York City: How can middle-class families in gentrifying areas be convinced to send their children to local schools with less-than-stellar reputations?

But it also raises some prickly questions of its own: Must a struggling school become selective before middle-class families will give it a chance? And is the cost of wooing those families excluding others?

The potential rewards are high, since the influx of students and funding could help revitalize the district’s middle schools, keep the newcomers from decamping to private schools or moving, and create newly diverse classrooms, which research shows is beneficial to students. And Satellite West, which serves just 74 students, needs more applicants to stay afloat.

Because families can apply to any middle school in District 13, the swiftly gentrifying Brooklyn district where Satellite West is located, the city can’t just redraw zone lines to nudge more families into certain middle schools — the schools must entice parents to apply. So the district hosted forums and focus groups to ask families exactly what they are looking for in a middle school, and modeled the new school according to their tastes.

District leaders say the community-driven redesign process could provide a blueprint for other floundering middle schools.

Satellite West Principal Melissa Vaughan waved a flyer for The Dock Street School during a public presentation about the soon-to-open school.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Satellite West Principal Melissa Vaughan waved a flyer for The Dock Street School during a public presentation about the soon-to-open school.

“This is a unique, beautiful way to design a school,” Satellite West Principal Melissa Vaughan told parents at a recent presentation on the redesigned school.

That makes The Dock Street School a window into what some middle-class families seek in a school — in this case, a trendy theme, modern facilities, and a progressive bent. But perhaps even more consequential than how parents wanted the school to look and feel is who they wanted it to serve.

During the planning process, many parents said they wanted the new middle school to screen its applicants. The redesign team consented: While students who apply to Satellite West now are randomly selected, Dock Street will pick its students based on several criteria, including prior academic performance, officials said.

“If I stick around and take a leap of faith on a District 13 middle school that doesn’t have great test scores, I at the very least want to make sure there’s a peer group for my kid,” said Maggie Spillane, a P.S. 9 parent and redesign team member, summarizing parents’ remarks to the planners.

An image from the marketing website for The Dock Street School.
An image from the marketing website for The Dock Street School.

While the new admissions policy could help attract more of the district’s middle-class families to the school, it could also shut out other families.

Halley Potter, a fellow at the Century Foundation who studies school diversity, said that middle school programs that screen students can disadvantage those who attended less rigorous elementary schools. In practice, this often means that students end up sorted by class and sometimes race.

“I’d be really cautious” of screening students, she said, “if integration is one of the potential goals.”

A district of choice, in flux

In more ways than one, District 13 runs on choice.

An ever-growing number of middle-class families are choosing to settle in the district, which stretches from the rapidly redeveloping neighborhoods of Bedford-Stuyvesant and Fort Greene to solidly upper-class Dumbo and Brooklyn Heights. And many are choosing to send their children to increasingly popular local elementary schools, such as P.S. 9 and P.S. 11.

Yet most of the district’s dozen middle schools have not caught on in the same way. Most serve primarily low-income students of color and earn test scores far below the city average. (The two highest-performing schools — Academy of Arts and Letters and M.S. 8 — mainly admit students who attend the lower grades at their schools.)

While families can apply to any middle school in the district, many choose not to. Instead, those who can often send their children to private middle schools or selective citywide programs, or move to nearby District 15.

“Many parents don’t perceive a path to middle school,” said Gib Veconi, chair of the Prospect Heights Neighborhood Development Council. “So they leave the district or sometimes the neighborhood altogether.”

Satellite West, or M.S. 313, epitomizes the challenges facing most District 13 middle schools. It has a dwindling enrollment, low test scores (though they are comparable to those at other schools with many high-needs students), and a spot on the state’s list of most dangerous schools. Nearly 90 percent of its students come from low-income families, and not one is white.

In fact, the 99 total white students enrolled at Arts and Letters and M.S. 8 is more than double the number of white students at the district’s other 10 middle schools combined, according to an analysis of state data by Rob Underwood, a member of the district’s community education council. In a blog post, he said many white and non-white families are opting to send their children to middle schools out of the district.

“What is being done to create better options to retain kids in D13,” he wrote, “as they transition from elementary to middle?”

A new option, or a repackaged one?

For parents worried about the district’s dearth of high-performing middle schools, a new high-rise at 60 Water Street in Dumbo offered a glimmer of hope.

The building’s private developer included space for a 300-seat public middle school, which parents expected to house a new school. But in September, officials announced that they would relocate Satellite West into that space.

Satellite West Middle School shares a building with P.S. 307 in Vinegar Hill, Brooklyn. The middle school is set to move into a new high-rise in nearby Dumbo this fall.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Satellite West Middle School shares a building with P.S. 307 in Vinegar Hill, Brooklyn. The middle school is set to move into a new high-rise in nearby Dumbo this fall.

Because the announcement came during the debate over the rezoning of P.S. 307, which shares a building with Satellite West, some parent leaders assumed the move was meant to free up space for the elementary school to expand. But officials said the district did not need new middle schools — instead, it needed to draw parents into existing ones.

“The challenge was not that we didn’t have enough middle school seats, but that the schools were not meeting the needs of the community,” said Deputy Chancellor Elizabeth Rose, who oversees school facilities, in an interview.

Some parents saw the move as merely repackaging a struggling school, especially since the redesigned school would keep the same principal and teachers. Partly to quell those concerns, the district superintendent convened the redesign group with education department staffers, educators, parents, and students to survey the faculties and families at several local schools, and use their ideas to plan Dock Street.

Barbara Freeman, the district superintendent, said she wanted to assure parents that this was not just a move, but a “reimagining.” And the lessons of the redesign could also benefit the district’s other middle schools, she added, which are struggling to capitalize on the influx of new families.

“As the district continues to go forward with gentrification and the changes, how are we equipped to answer these big questions?” she said.

A decision to screen

One indication of what the redesign team would like to see The Dock Street School become is a middle school it visited during the planning process and held up as a model: M.S. 255 Salk School of Science, a prestigious school in Manhattan’s Gramercy neighborhood.

Salk screens applicants based on their test scores, grades, writing samples, and a science exercise, among other factors. The city asked Salk’s principal, Rhonda Perry, to serve as Vaughan’s mentor.

Cynthia McKnight, a P.S. 11 parent and member of the redesign team, said her older son attended Salk. While she loved the first-class education he received there, she said it came at the expense of diversity: He was the only black boy in his class, she said.

Last year, 85 percent of Salk students were white or Asian and only 10 percent received subsidized lunch, a measure of poverty. In District 2, where Salk students must live, 72 percent of students are white or Asian and 42 percent receive free or reduced-priced lunches.

Satellite West Principal Melissa Vaughan gave a presentation in that school's gym about the soon-to-open Dock Street School.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Dozens of people attended a presentation at Satellite West last month to hear about its relocation and rebranding as The Dock Street School.

While Dock Street plans to strive for greater diversity, McKnight said, many parents also made clear that they would not consider the school if it continued to admit any student who applied.

“A lot of parents wouldn’t send their children here if they didn’t have a screen,” she said.

Other parents said the desire for a selective school reflects the scarcity of District 13 options for high-performing students. In addition, it could help assuage concerns that Dock Street is just Satellite West rebranded, some said.

Officials are still finalizing the criteria that Dock Street will use to screen students, but Freeman said it would likely include students’ test scores, grades, attendance records, and their performance on a group project. The aim is to assess students “holistically,” she said.

Dock Street’s admissions criteria will be included on a new-school application form to be released next month, according to officials. But for now, it appears that some parents are still unaware of Satellite West’s pending transformation into a selective school.

Faraji Hannah-Jones, a P.S. 307 parent and outspoken critic of that school’s rezoning, said he was surprised to learn about the change, which he called a “recipe for disaster.” He said that in attempting to draw in more middle-class families, the policy risked excluding the neediest ones.

“If you’re going to have something like this that’s supposed to be special,” he said about the revamped school, “it should benefit the kids who need it most.”

Graphics produced by Stephanie Snyder.

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.