behind the scenes

Why some principals say screening students can actually help schools hang onto diversity

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

The news caused a stir when it emerged last month: An overhauled middle school opening soon in the chic Dumbo neighborhood would start handpicking its students rather than admitting anyone who applies.

The decision upset some parents who feared that their children could be shut out, and alarmed advocates of school integration who say that selective admissions often disadvantage low-income students of color. And while district leaders insisted that the Brooklyn school would enroll a diverse mix of students, no one could tell parents exactly how that would work.

“They’re just pulling this out of a hat and telling us that everything is going to be fine,” said Clifford Dodd, the parent of a kindergartener at P.S. 307, which feeds students into the Satellite West Middle School, the struggling middle school that was redesigned.

But the notion that a school could sort through applicants with an eye toward diversity is not unprecedented. In fact, the redesigned school, known as The Dock Street School for STEAM Studies, is hoping to follow the lead of a handful of progressive-minded principals in New York City who have taken a screening system designed to make schools academically selective and bent it toward their aim of diversity.

The principals run popular middle schools in gentrifying neighborhoods where an influx of new middle-class families could potentially crowd out low-income families of color. To prevent that, the principals have used the discretion afforded them by the screening process to try to enroll students from different backgrounds — by seeking out students from elementary schools with many black and Hispanic students, for example, or by giving a boost to applicants whose families are staying in homeless shelters.

“We know that for the most part screening means segregation,” said Mark Federman, the principal of the East Side Community School, a public grades 6-12 school in the East Village. “So let’s reverse the purpose of screening — let’s use it for the purpose of serving all kids.”

Screening for diversity

District 13 Superintendent Barbara Freeman at presentation on the Dock Street School.
District 13 Superintendent Barbara Freeman at presentation on the Dock Street School.

Dock Street is still figuring out how it will pick its applicants, even though the admissions process is underway. But a few middle schools that have tried to maintain a mix of students in the face of swift gentrification offer a possible playbook.

At Brooklyn’s Park Slope Collegiate, the school’s incoming sixth-grade class has gone from having no white students to being more than half white in just the past four years, according to school officials.

To try to slow that shift, the school screens for students from local elementary schools where the white population is close to the district average, rather than disproportionately white. (It still gives top preference to students who rank the school first or second on their applications, regardless of their elementary school.)

The Academy of Arts and Letters in Fort Greene, whose free-lunch-eligible population has shrunk by 20 percentage points since 2010, screens incoming sixth-graders by grades, surveys of their former teachers, student interviews, and a writing task.

In choosing among applicants, Principal John O’Reilly said he tries to pick a few students from each elementary school in the district to maintain some socioeconomic diversity. He said he also makes sure to pick some applicants who have disabilities.

East Side Community School considers applicants’ grades, attendance, and an essay about why they believe they are a good match for the school. Like the other schools, it resists factoring in test scores, which tend to be higher among affluent students.

When weighing applicants, the school gives preference to siblings of current students — one way of preserving the current mix of students from different backgrounds. The school also takes into account whether an applicant’s family has experienced an economic hardship, such as living in a homeless shelter or in public housing.

The city does not provide screened schools with information about applicants’ socioeconomic status, so principals seeking a mix of students from different income levels must rely on other indicators, such as the elementary school a student attended, or make an informed guess based on information provided by students or their families.

Education department spokeswoman Toya Holness said that the city has begun providing information about whether students qualify for free or reduced-priced lunch to seven elementary schools in a pilot program that lets those schools reserve some seats for low-income students. The city is studying the results of the program as it considers expanding it, she added.

At the city’s screened middle schools, principals are given wide latitude to decide what criteria to use to evaluate incoming students and then how to use those criteria to rank them. It’s that ranking process, where principals have nearly sole discretion, that allows some schools to pick only top-performing students.

Asked whether schools may use their screens to foster a school that is academically, racially, and socioeconomically diverse, Holness said in an email: “If a principal has sufficient applicants and seeks a diverse population, he or she has the discretion to do so through the way students are ranked for selection.”

The process for applying to middle school varies widely by district and school. An official middle-school directory lists the factors that screened schools consider, but the process they use to rank students is notoriously opaque — schools must share the rubrics they use to evaluate applicants only if families ask to see them.

In effect, some principals have taken advantage of that arcane system to try to make their schools diverse. Some experts question whether individual school leaders should have so much authority to define diversity and set targets, but others say that flexibility is worth the cost in transparency.

“At some point you have to have a little faith in human discretion, even if we can’t make that absolutely transparent,” said Laura Zingmond, a member of the city’s Panel for Educational Policy and a senior editor at Insideschools.

The scene in Dumbo

Carl King with his son, Josh, a pre-kindergarten student at P.S. 307.
PHOTO: Fabiola Cineas
Carl King with his son, Josh, a pre-kindergarten student at P.S. 307.

The tension between trust and transparency is playing out at the Dock Street School.

The school was not able to screen its first round of 139 applicants, who applied by the December deadline. But it will screen students who applied by the March deadline for new middle-school programs based on their fourth-grade report cards, test scores, and attendance.

What remains unclear is how the school will use those criteria to pick a diverse mix of students, and what type of diversity it will try to achieve.

Dock Street’s principal, Melissa Vaughan, did not respond to an interview request.

David Goldsmith, the president of District 13’s Community Education Council and a member of a 30-person team that helped develop the plans for Dock Street, said the system for choosing applicants has not been finalized. But he insisted that a mix of students would be admitted, and he urged families to consider the fact that the district has undertaken a years-long campaign to increase socioeconomic integration in its schools.

“You know the players here and the history of the district,” he said. “The commitment to diversity is very strong — that’s a fact.”

The district superintendent, Barbara Freeman, said the screening process would give the school more information about applicants in order to enroll a “mix of diverse learners.” She insisted that it is not, as some parents suspect, a way to admit only high-achieving students in a bid to make the school attractive to the district’s newer, more affluent residents.

“We never said that the school wants to screen for high-performing students only,” she said. “This is not a school just for gentrifiers.”

Still, some parents remain unconvinced.

Outside of P.S. 307 in Vinegar Hill, which is down the street from Dock Street’s soon-to-open building, several parents last week said they had heard few details about the new school’s admissions method. A few worried that the screening process would result in some long-time district residents losing spots to newcomers.

“It hurts my heart because it seems to be a kind of segregated style and creaming process,” said Carl King, whose son attends pre-kindergarten at P.S. 307. “By the time our children get to the screening, they might not make it in.”

Fabiola Cineas contributed reporting.

head count

Colorado’s student population is growing — but not so fast

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Paris Elementary School teacher Elizabeth Rodriguez checks in with students on Aug. 28 2015.

Colorado’s student population this school year grew at its slowest rate since 1989, further evidence that shifting demographics are having a significant impact on public schools.

The state added fewer than 6,000 students in kindergarten through 12th grade, an increase of 0.7 percent, according to a report released Thursday by the state education department.

That is lower than the 1.1 percent growth rate in 2015-16, and shy of the average growth rate of 1.3 percent in the past 20 years, the department said.

Colorado has not seen a decrease in enrollment since 1988.

The slower growth comes as Colorado’s population is booming. The state added 100,986 people between 2014 and 2015, making it the second-fastest growing state in the U.S.

The department did not speculate on why the growth slowed. But districts across the state have already begun to notice effects of a low birth rate among millennials, who are fueling much of the state’s population gains. A higher cost of living also is driving some poor families out of the Denver metro region.

Some school districts, including Aurora and Jefferson County, have begun to grapple with budget cuts because the state funds its schools primarily on how many students they educate.

The state reported the greatest enrollment growth in a region came from outside metro Denver — evidence that higher housing costs are causing families to uproot themselves. Districts in Colorado Springs, Fort Collins, Grand Junction, Greeley and Pueblo, grew by 1.4 percent, an increase of 3,513 students.

Meanwhile districts in “outlying towns,” an official department term to describe places such as Alamosa, Canon City, Roaring Fork, saw growth of 2.3 percent, an increase of 1,626 students.

Denver metro area schools grew by only 459 students for an increase of 0.1 percent.

The fastest growing district with more than 100 students was not a district in the traditional sense, but the state’s Charter School Institute. The institute, which opens and supervises charter schools across the state, grew by 1,352 students, a 9 percent increase from 2015. One reason for the growth: four new institute-chartered schools opened in 2016.

Denver Public Schools saw the second largest growth of a district with more than 100 students this year with an increase of 897 students, representing a 1 percent increase. That’s a slower rate than in recent years.

Hispanic students accounted for the largest increase of any racial or ethnic minority in raw numbers. Their numbers grew from 300,107 to 303,573 — 1.2 percent increase. However, Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander students showed the greatest percentage growth — 7 percent.

The Adams 12 Five Star Schools district had the largest drop in enrollment, from 39,287 in 2015 to 38,818 in 2016, a decrease of 1.2 percent.

The largest 15 districts and their current student enrollments are:

The state counts how many students are in its public schools every October.

Wanting the ball

Updated: Why one Memphis charter operator thinks it can save an ASD school from closing

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Frayser Community Schools CEO Bobby White makes his pitch to run Humes Preparatory Academy Middle School before community members and leaders of the state's Achievement School District.

Bobby White believes his charter organization has what it takes to save one of the state’s sinking turnaround schools in Memphis.

White says his Frayser Community Schools managed to grow enrollment of MLK College Preparatory High by 24 percent since taking charge of the Memphis school in 2014. He believes he can do the same for Humes Preparatory Academy Middle, another state-run school whose enrollment shrank by 13 percent last year alone.

The Memphis-based charter organization founded by White is the only operator that’s stepped forward and applied to succeed Gestalt Community Schools as overseer of Humes.

The state’s Achievement School District held a community meeting Wednesday night at the school to examine the application and ask questions of White and his team. About 40 people attended, and most questions centered around whether Frayser could bear the expense of running a second school, especially with Humes’ low enrollment.

If the ASD approves Frayser’s bid, the organization will have to grow the school’s enrollment while also turning it around academically — a challenge that Gestalt leaders said they had not been able to meet in five years of operating Humes.

Humes has just over 300 students in a space meant for 900 and is located in North Memphis, where the school-age population has decreased in recent years and forced Shelby County Schools to shutter Northside High School last year.

But White, a former Memphis City Schools principal, believes he can use the same recruitment strategies at Humes that helped his organization grow MLK to 640 students. Those include recruitment booths in grocery stores and community centers, targeted phone calls, and home visits.

“Representatives from the school will conduct promotional activities by speaking at those elementary schools that will feed into Humes,” according to Frayser’s application. “As a follow-up, FCS administrators, staff and volunteers will make neighborhood visits to areas likely to have high school aged children and knock on doors, distribute flyers and have informal conversations about the school.”

Currently, MLK is the only school operated by Frayser Community Schools, but White has said he wants to grow the organization. MLK’s state test scores have not improved, especially in math, but the school received an overall composite achievement score of 4 out of 5, and raised its ACT average by 1.6 points to 16.

Although Frayser is the only operator to apply, ASD officials say it’s not guaranteed a match. Leaders hope to have a decision by Feb. 1 after gauging public opinion and looking at Frayser’s application and data.

There’s also a chance that Humes could close. ASD Superintendent Malika Anderson announced earlier this week that Gestalt’s other state-run school, Klondike Preparatory Academy Middle, will close at the end of this school year. Anderson said that, just as with Klondike, the ASD would work with Shelby County Schools to reassign students to nearby schools if it decides to shutter Humes.

Here are some of the biggest takeaways from Frayser’s application for Humes, and the public hearing:

Building a neighborhood school.

White expects Humes would see an initial decrease, from 310 to 265 students, during the transition. But within five years, enrollment is projected to grow back to 300.

Humes would be marketed as a neighborhood school, which historically has been a pillar of the city’s public education system. Under state law, ASD schools also are allowed to recruit up to 25 percent of students from outside of their neighborhoods. But Frayser’s recruitment focus would be on students in the traditional zone, similar to its approach at MLK.

“What we did, in year one (for Humes), was we decided we were not going to count anything other than students that are currently zoned in the community,” White told Chalkbeat. “As we build a brand, two things will happen. When you start to build pride in community schools, the children who are currently in the neighborhood who are attending other schools will notice. We’re counting on that. We’re also counting on keeping kids who are current 5th graders in the neighborhood.”

Cut expenses, seek philanthropic support.

Gestalt leaders said their impending pullout is necessary because Humes’ student enrollment and related funding can’t pay for the supports needed to turn the school around. Frayser says it can run a leaner machine, albeit one that relies heavily on foundation dollars.

Frayser expects to receive $100,000 in philanthropic support from local organizations and foundations such as Pyramid Peak, Hyde Family and Poplar, according to its financial summary.

White said his team has run the numbers based on an enrollment ranging from 260 to 300 students, and that his charter operation could stay in the black.

ASD officials asked the Frayser team about their plan if philanthropic dollars fall through.

“We do depend on philanthropy and have done so in past,” said Jeffrey Gayhart, who is in charge of finances for Frayser. “We do feel very confident that the $100,000 in the budget is understated. If philanthropy doesn’t come through, Mr. White and I would comb through the budget and prioritize items that could be cut, especially those that don’t affect student outcomes.”

Teachers and staff

Humes principal John Crutchfield would be retained, which would help ease the transition and community-building process. Teachers would have to reapply for 24 positions expected during the first year, but any teacher recommended by Crutchfield would get priority.

Those not coming on board would be provided the information for next steps as well but would be expected to stay for the duration of the current school year,” according to Frayser’s application. “Although we do not anticipate teachers not returning, we do have a pool of qualified substitutes to ensure proper coverage in case there is a number of folks who resign and capable replacements cannot be secured before the year ends.”

Teacher pay at Humes would take a hit — a projected decrease that prompted Anderson to ask how Frayser planned to retain highly effective teachers when “the proposed salaries look very different than what’s currently at this school.”

“When people apply, that’s when we’ll have a better understanding of what we’ll be able to do,” White answered.

The meeting allowed people to ask questions of both ASD and Frayser leaders. Several spoke in support of Frayser Community Schools, including Shelby County Schools board member Stephanie Love, who has children who attend MLK.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with details from Wednesday night’s community meeting.