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.

Behind the brawl

Three things to know about the Tennessee school behind this week’s graduation brawl

PHOTO: Arlington Community Schools
Arlington High School is a 2,000-plus-student school in suburban Shelby County in southwest Tennessee.

Arlington High School is considered the crown jewel of a 3-year-old district in suburban Shelby County, even as its school community deals with the unwelcome attention of several viral videos showing a fight that broke out among adults attending its graduation ceremony.

The brawl, which reportedly began with a dispute over saved seats, detracted from Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance and the more than $30 million in scholarships earned by the school’s Class of 2017. No students were involved.

“It was unfortunate that a couple of adults in the audience exhibited the behavior they did prior to the ceremony beginning and thus has caused a distraction from the celebration of our students’ accomplishments,” Arlington Community Schools Superintendent Tammy Mason said in a statement.

Here are three things to know about the 13-year-old school in northwest Shelby County.

With more than 2,000 students, Arlington is one of the largest high schools in Shelby County and is part of a relatively new district.

It’s the pride of a suburban municipality that is one of six that seceded from Shelby County Schools in 2014 following the merger of the city and county districts the year before. (School district secessions are a national trend, usually of predominantly white communities leaving predominantly black urban school systems.) More than 70 percent of Arlington’s students are white, and 6 percent are considered economically disadvantaged — in stark contrast to the Memphis district where less than 8 percent are white, and almost 60 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

The school’s graduation rate is high … and climbing.

Last year, after adding interventions for struggling students, the school’s graduation rate jumped a full point to more than 96 percent. Its students taking the ACT college entrance exam scored an average composite of 22.5 out of a possible 36, higher than the state average of 19.9. But only a fifth scored proficient or advanced in math and a third in English language arts during 2015-16, the last school year for which scores are available and a transition year for Tennessee under a new test.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits with students at Arlington High School during a 2016 tour.

The school was in the news last August when Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visited its campus.

The commissioner spoke with students there to kick off her statewide listening tour that’s focused on ways to get students ready for college and career. McQueen highlighted the school’s extracurricular activities and students’  opportunities to intern for or shadow local professionals. She also complimented Arlington for having an engaged education community. 

poster campaign

How one Memphis student is elevating the conversation about school discipline

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Posters created by junior Janiya Douglas have amplified student voices about the culture of White Station High School in Memphis.

Now in her third year of attending a premier public high school in Memphis, Janiya Douglas says she’s observed discipline being handed out unevenly to her classmates, depending on whether they are on the college preparatory track.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
From left: Janiya Douglas and Michal Mckay are student leaders in Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

“We’re heavily divided in an academic hierarchy,” said Janiya, a junior in the optional program for high-achieving students at White Station High School. “It’s obvious students are treated differently if they are in traditional classes.”

Janiya also has observed racial disparities in how students are disciplined, and the state’s data backs that up. White Station students who are black or Hispanic are suspended at significantly higher rates than students who are white.

Frustrated by what she’s seen, Janiya took her concerns last Friday to the hallways of White Station and hung 14 posters to declare that “our school doesn’t treat everybody equally.”

By Monday morning, the posters were gone — removed by school administrators because Janiya did not get prior approval — but not before other students shared images of some of the messages on social media.

Now, Janiya is seeing some fruits of her activism, spawned by her participation in Bridge Builders CHANGE, a student leadership program offered by a local nonprofit organization.

In the last week, she’s met with Principal David Mansfield, a school counselor and a district discipline specialist to discuss her concerns. She’s encouraged that someone is listening, and hopes wider conversations will follow.

The discussions also are bringing attention to an online petition by the education justice arm of Bridge Builders calling for suspension alternatives across schools in Memphis.

White Station often is cited as one of the jewels of Shelby County Schools, a district wrought with academic challenges. The East Memphis school is partially optional, meaning some students test into the college prep program from across the county.

But Janiya and some of her classmates say they also see an academically and racially segregated school where students zoned to the traditional program are looked down upon by teachers. Those students often get harsher punishments, they say, than their optional program counterparts for the same actions.

“Our school doesn’t treat everybody equally. A lot of groups aren’t treated equally in our school system,” junior Tyra Akoto said in a quote featured on one poster.

“If we get wrong with a teacher, they’ll probably write us up. But if a white student was to do it, they’ll just play it off or something like that,” said Kelsey Brown, another junior, also quoted in the poster campaign.

A district spokeswoman did not respond to questions about disciplinary issues raised by the posters, but offered a statement about their removal from the school’s walls.

White Station is known for “enabling student voice and allowing students to express their opinions in various ways,” the statement reads. “However, there are protocols in place that must be followed before placing signs, posters, or other messages on school property. Schools administrators will always work with students to ensure they feel their voices are heard.”

PHOTO: @edj.youth/Instagram
Members of the education justice arm of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program

To create the posters, Janiya interviewed about two dozen students and had been learning about about school discipline disparities as part of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

State discipline data does not differentiate academic subgroups in optional schools. But white students in Shelby County Schools are more likely to be in an optional school program and less likely to be suspended. And statewide in 2014-15, black students were more than five times as likely as white students to be suspended.

White Station reflects those same disparities. About 28 percent of black boys and 19 percent of black girls were suspended that same year — significantly higher than the school’s overall suspension rate of 14 percent. About 17 percent of Hispanic boys and 7 percent of Hispanic girls were suspended. By comparison, 9 percent of white boys and 2 percent of white girls were suspended.

Shelby County Schools has been working to overhaul its disciplinary practices to move from punitive practices to a “restorative justice” approach — a transition that is not as widespread as officials would like, according to Gina True, one of four specialists implementing a behavior system called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, or PBIS.

“The whole goal is to not get them suspended, because we want to educate them,” said True, who met this week with Janiya and several other students from Bridge Builders. “When students are cared for emotionally, they perform better academically. As counselors, that’s what we’ve been saying for years.”

Janiya acknowledges that she didn’t follow her school’s policy last week when hanging posters without permission at White Station. But she thinks her action has been a catalyst for hard conversations that need to happen. And she hopes the discussions will include more student input from her school — and across the district.

“Those most affected by the issues should always be a part of the solution,” she said.

Correction: April 10, 2017: A previous version of this story said Janiya put up 50 posters at her school. She designed 50 but actually posted only 14.