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.

insider talks

Signal Mountain leaders just visited Shelby County to learn about school secession. Here are five things we heard.

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Signal Mountain Mayor Chris Howley speaks with Valerie Speakman, general counsel for Arlington Community Schools, during three days of discussions with leaders of Shelby County's suburban school systems.

Leaders from a mountain town near Chattanooga spent much of this week learning how to follow in the footsteps of suburban town leaders near Memphis to create their own small school system.

Calling their trip to Shelby County a fact-finding mission, the mayor of Signal Mountain and a small committee of citizens met with leaders from the towns of Arlington, Bartlett, Collierville, Millington and Germantown, all of which just completed their third year of operating their own school systems.

Signal Mountain is in its second year of discussions about a possible pullout from Hamilton County Schools and is home to three of the district’s higher-performing schools. If the town opts to exit, it would do so under the same state law used by Memphis-area suburbs to leave Shelby County Schools in 2014.

The law, which was pushed by the suburban leaders, allows towns with 1,500 or more students to form a district if the majority of its citizens vote in favor of the change. It doesn’t require the approval of the district left behind or consideration of the impact on racial or socioeconomic equity.

For Signal Mountain, the circumstances are somewhat different than for Shelby County in 2014, which followed the 2013 merger of the mostly black and low-income Memphis City Schools with the whiter and more affluent county school system.

“We don’t have that impetus for change,” Signal Mountain Mayor Chris Howley said Wednesday about the Shelby County merger. “(This exploration) started with a group of parents expressing concern about the way our schools are going.” 

The committee will take their findings back to Signal Mountain, just in time for a public meeting next week. A full report of the committee’s findings will be released in the fall.

Chalkbeat sat in on all three days of this week’s discussions. Here are five takeaways:

1.  Signal Mountain leaders are asking how — not if — the town should secede.

While they stressed that they were on a fact-finding mission to decide whether even to pursue a pullout, much of the exchanges focused on the nuts and bolts of how to take that path.

Committee members were eager to hear what exactly the process was for the Shelby County de-merger and what it looked like to start their own districts — from teacher rights to employee benefits to transportation services.

Committee Chairman John Friedl specifically wanted to know about how to retain teachers should Signal Mountain exit the Chattanooga district. In Shelby County, each municipality kept all teachers who wanted to stay in order to avoid potential lawsuits. Their leaders encouraged Signal Mountain to do the same.

The committee was appointed in January by Signal Mountain’s Town Council and has invested months into figuring out if a new school district is viable. One parent member, Amy Wakim, has crafted a hypothetical budget that Howley said has gotten positive feedback from the State Department of Education. 

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
From left: Signal Mountain committee members Tom Cullough, John Friedl and Melissa Wood listen to municipal leaders.

While committee members focused on getting into the nitty gritty of forming Signal Mountain’s own district, Howley stressed that the town is far from heading toward a vote.

“This is a huge, huge decision,” he said. “… The minimum thing that comes out of this is that we can go share what we found with (Hamilton County school leaders).”  

2.  They heard glowing reviews of Shelby County’s 3-year-old municipal districts.

From academic gains to expanded course offerings to wider community support, the positives of local schools under local control were touted by a parade of municipal leaders.

“Education has become much more personalized,” said Arlington Superintendent Tammy Mason. “And buy-in from the local community has had a direct impact on student achievement.”

“The housing market in Collierville is going nuts,” added James Lewellen, his town’s manager. “The way people look at Collierville has changed. … We’re not doing this just to govern our own schools, but to change the way children are educated in Collierville.”

Other leaders described spikes in population and home prices as a result of the locally controlled school systems.

“This is a pristine example of if you build it, they will come,” said David Pickler, the long-time chairman of the county’s legacy schools who helped to lead the exodus of towns from the new Shelby County Schools.

After the first year of operation, five of six municipal school districts welcomed mostly positive state test scores. Districts in Arlington and Millington also saw their ACT scores go up, although college entrance scores in Germantown, Collierville and Bartlett stayed stagnant or decreased slightly last year.

Each municipality was represented at this week’s talks by their school superintendent and a town leader such as the mayor or city manager. No one from the Memphis-based urban district was invited.

3.  Local control comes with a price tag. Every municipality has raised taxes since the breakaway.

Starting a school district from scratch isn’t a cheap endeavor, municipal leaders acknowledged.

“Every one of the municipalities has raised their taxes … with tremendous support from community because people see dollars going directly into their schools,” Pickler said.

Most of the increases have been for property taxes, but some towns have upped their local sales taxes too. Bartlett recently approved a 35-cent property tax increase, in part to fund expansion and renovation of Bartlett High School at a projected cost of up to $60 million.

Facilities have proven to be one of the more expensive, and contentious, issues between the municipalities and the district they broke away from. In Shelby County, the facilities followed the students, meaning that new districts inherited school buildings in their city limits if a majority of its students lived in that city. That meant inheriting some aging buildings with significant maintenance needs. (Shelby County Schools is also dealing with deferred maintenance needs that total about $500 million.)

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
From left: Signal Mountain committee members Amy Wakim and Tom Petterson and attorney Phillip Noblett.

“We inherited a high school where the roof had leaked so badly for so long, there was mold was growing inside building,” said David Roper, superintendent of Millington Municipal Schools, the most socioeconomic diverse and cash-strapped municipality. “It wasn’t like we took over sparkling clean buildings … and (their condition) had not sat well with Millington for some time.”

4.  Leaders bristled at any suggestion that their pullouts are racially motivated.

The breakaway movement has taken a beating this month from researchers at EdBuild, who released a long-awaited national report labeling the breakaways as secessions and characterizing the trend as a new form of school district segregation.

That notion riled leaders from the Shelby County municipalities, who say the 2013 merger left many of their residents concerned that their schools would get lost in Tennessee’s largest district.

“It’s not about white or black, rich or poor,” said Pickler. “It’s about a community saying we want something better and are willing to invest our time, our talent, our energy.”

Lewellen of Collierville urged Signal Mountain to record and document every proceeding, in case charges of racism or classism arise.

“People try to rewrite history, and tell you why you did what you did,” Lewellen said. “People say there are underlying motives for it. No there wasn’t. … We wanted to self-govern.”  

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
“If you build it, they will come,” said David Pickler, the long-time chairman of the county’s legacy schools who helped lead the exodus of towns from the new Shelby County Schools.

When the municipalities first announced plans to break off, the newly consolidated Shelby County Schools sued, charging that race was the motivation for leaving. A federal judge dismissed the suit and a settlement was negotiated.

Friedl expressed concern that a pullout by Signal Mountain would further isolate the community from the rest of Hamilton County, which is poorer and more racially diverse than the mountain.

“Our kids will have a better educational experience if they are exposed to more diversity than they currently are,” Friedl said. “We can’t reach down off mountain and pull kids up. … We can’t manufacture diversity.”

Shelby County leaders suggested open-enrollment policies as a way to avoid the perception of “walling yourselves off.” Any student living in the county can apply to attend a municipal school district free of charge. But there are caps on how many out-of-district students that municipalities can take, and those open-enrollment policies could change.

5.  Messaging is key.

Concerns about perception and communication strategies reverberated throughout the meetings, but a two-minute litany of advice from Collierville’s Lewellyn especially perked the ears of Signal Mountain leaders.

“Control your message,” he told them. “And get the hell off social media. Social media will kill you. If you lose your message, it will kill you.”

PHOTO: EdBuild
Six suburban towns pulled out of Shelby County Schools in 2014 to start their own districts in the wake of the 2013 consolidation of city and county schools.

Lewellen warned that the message can get lost if people who aren’t involved in the process begin to speak in behalf of your town.

“We had to get dirty and say, ‘You don’t speak for us; shut up. That’s not our motives or what we’re trying to accomplish,’” Lewellen recalled.

When Collierville elected its first school board, Lewellen hired consultants to coach members about the importance of messaging and how to speak with the news media. He called it “the best thing (we’ve) ever done.”

“We talked about the importance of acting presidential, not acting like dysfunctional bunch of spoiled children. Show some leadership because the world’s watching right now. When you go in a public meeting, sit up straight, act presidential. Don’t fight it out in a public meeting; fight it out elsewhere. Be good leaders in this.”

Reporters Laura Faith Kebede and Helen Carefoot contributed to this report.

fact-finding mission

Signal Mountain leaders look to Shelby County as model for school district secession

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
From left: Bartlett City Schools Director David Stephens and Lakeland School System Director Ted Horrell update state legislators on their new districts in 2015.

A cluster of towns that broke off from Shelby County Schools to create their own school systems in 2014 is about to host visitors from another Tennessee town looking into the viability of leaving Hamilton County Schools.

A committee from Signal Mountain, on the outskirts of Chattanooga, is scheduled next week to visit with leaders from Arlington, Bartlett, Collierville, Millington and Germantown. Along with Lakeland, the six towns have just completed a third year of operating their own school systems, just outside of Memphis.

Signal Mountain is in its second year of discussions about a possible pullout from the Chattanooga-based district. The community has three of Hamilton County’s higher-performing schools, as well as fewer poor and minority students. Its Town Council created the committee in January to look into the feasibility of creating a separate district, which would siphon off both students and revenue from Hamilton County Schools.

As part of their visit, the seven-member panel will hold open meetings with municipality leaders at Arlington High School. Signal Mountain Mayor Chris Howley and Councilwoman Amy Speek are scheduled to join the sessions.

“We felt it was valuable for us to meet with board members and school officials to gain insight on how the process went, what they learned, what they might do differently,” said committee chairman John Friedl.

“We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel,” he added.

The visit will come days after Shelby County’s secessions were spotlighted in a national report on the trend of wealthier and whiter communities to splinter off from larger school systems that are poorer and more diverse. The report was crafted by EdBuild, a nonprofit research group that focuses on school funding and equity. The report also listed Signal Mountain among nine towns across the nation that are actively pursuing pullouts.

The town of Red Bank, which is just east of Signal Mountain, also recently announced it will investigate launching a separate district.

If Signal Mountain residents vote eventually to create their own school system, they would use the same Tennessee law that allowed municipality voters in Shelby County to exit Tennessee’s largest district. The law, which EdBuild calls one of the most permissive in the nation, allows a town with at least 1,500 students to pull out without the approval of the district it leaves behind or consideration of the impact on racial or socioeconomic equity.

Signal Mountain leaders will focus next week on lessons learned by leaders in Shelby County.

After breaking off in 2014, the municipalities gained about 30,000 students, 33 schools and all of the challenges that come with launching new school systems. That includes funding, staffing and facilities. “We all started out with a central office staff of one … and we had to build from there,” Millington Municipal Schools Director David Roper said during a 2015 presentation to state lawmakers.

The Shelby County breakaway also ended up in court over charges that the exit was racially motivated. But a federal judge eventually dismissed that lawsuit by Shelby County Schools.

The Signal Mountain exploration also has been met with some community resistance. A group called Stay with HCSD is advocating staying with Hamilton County Schools.

You can view the full schedule of Signal Mountain leaders’ visit below: