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.

democrats for school integration

Want to reduce racial segregation? Elect a Democrat to school board, study says

PHOTO: Matt Detrich

When Republicans won control of the Wake County, North Carolina school board in 2009, they promised to eliminate the district’s racial integration program in favor of “community schools” closer to students’ homes — and they did. By 2012, Democrats had retaken control and were trying to change course.

The shifts caught the attention of Duke professor Hugh Macartney, who wondered whether party labels predict how school boards will address — or fail to address — school segregation.

Now, a new study released by Macartney and John Singleton of the University of Rochester suggests that Wake County was not unique. Electing Democratic school board members, they found, leads to less-segregated schools.

The results are substantial: Electing at least one Democrat leads to students being “reassigned in such a way that the school board is now 18 percent closer to achieving the district [average racial breakdown] for each school,” said Macartney.

The first-of-its-kind paper, which is set to be released through the National Bureau of Economic Research, examines hundreds of school board elections in North Carolina between 2008 and 2012. The researchers compared districts that narrowly elected Democrats to those that narrowly elected non-Democrats — largely Republicans, but including independents. (Like most school board races, the North Carolina elections were technically nonpartisan; the researchers later matched school board candidates to the party they were registered with.)

Racial segregation was likely reduced, Macartney and Singleton show, by changes to school attendance zones. Non-Democrats made fewer changes, “potentially allowing residential sorting to increase segregation without substantial intervention,” the paper says.  

“The reductions in segregation with the change of the school board are really interesting and line up with, anecdotally, what we’ve seen in some school districts that have made strong moves on this front,” said Halley Potter a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a progressive think that that backs school integration.

Democratic efforts to reduce segregation may have caused one unintended — albeit unsurprising — consequence: “white flight,” the migration of white families out of a district in order to avoid integration efforts.

The study shows that electing a Democrat leads to a reduction in the share of white students attending the public school district, though the research can’t definitely identify the cause. This effect does not wipe out the integration gains, though.

Potter notes that some of the departing families may have left heavily white districts, which would not hamper integration efforts. She also points out that the effect may have been caused by families of color entering the district as opposed to white families leaving.

The paper has not been formally peer-reviewed. But David Deming, a Harvard economist who has examined segregation in North Carolina and briefly reviewed the study, said the authors used a well-established research approach.

The study highlights the importance of school board elections, given the ability of one policymaker to ameliorate segregation — as well as the diverging education agendas of different parties.

“Policymaking is all about trade-offs, and we should expect Republicans to prioritize different things than Democrats do. Like achievement and choice, for example,” said Mike Petrilli of the Fordham Institute, a conservative education think tank.

But a number of studies have shown that more integrated schools improve the achievement of low-income and black students. Deming’s research found that the end of busing-based integration efforts in Charlotte led to higher crime rates and lower achievement among students of color.

Macartney’s study doesn’t look at the effect of a board’s partisan makeup on student outcomes. He also found no link between changes in economic — as opposed to racial — segregation in schools and a board’s political leanings.

In addition to the changes in enrollment zones, one possible explanation for the results is Republican support for school choice policies. Other research has found that North Carolina’s charter schools have increased segregation.

However, Potter says one way to make integration more politically tenable is to include some parent choice in assignment systems designed to prioritize diversity.

Wake County, she said, is one example of the power of school board elections to derail such integration plans. The study, Potter said, “reveals some precariousness that we want to think about — how to set up enrollment plans and priorities that can’t be unwound with one election.”

Indianapolis schools divided

Admissions changes are diversifying Indianapolis Public Schools most popular magnets. Now, the district may go further.

PHOTO: Provided by Indianapolis Public Schools
The magnet priority admission boundaries adopted by Indianapolis Public Schools in 2016.

New rules designed to make Indianapolis Public Schools’ most sought after schools more accessible for low-income families and children of color appear to be working. But with admissions still skewed, the administration is proposing going even further.

Across IPS, just one in five students are white and nearly 70 percent of students are poor enough to qualify for meal assistance. But at three of the district’s most sought after magnet schools, white students fill most of the seats and the vast majority of students come from middle class or affluent families.

At a board meeting last month, district staff highlighted School 60 (the Butler University lab school), School 84 and School 2 (both Center for Inquiry schools) as three schools where seats fill up fast and enrollment doesn’t reflect the demographics of the district.

In a bid to make those schools more accessible for low-income families and children of color, the board changed the admissions rules for magnets last fall. They shrank the boundaries that give priority to families who live near the schools, which is important because the three most popular schools drew from areas with more white, affluent families. And they changed the timeline for magnet admission to allow families to apply later.

“Magnet schools were born out of the civil rights movement and were intended to help school districts to re-integrate,” former-board member Gayle Cosby said at the time. “We want to make sure that magnet schools are not actually serving a different purpose in our district.”

The changes appear to have opened Schools 2, 84 and 60 to more students of color, according to data from the first admission cycle under the new rules. Next year, 32 percent of kindergarteners are expected to be children of color. That’s more than double last year, when just 14 percent of kindergarteners were not white.

But those demographics don’t come close to matching the district, where 72 percent of kindergarteners are children of color.

IPS director of enrollment and options Patrick Herrel said the goal should be for admissions at the most popular magnet schools to reflect district demographics.

“All kids, regardless of background, (should) have an equal chance of accessing some of our highest quality schools,” he said. “We moved in the right direction, but we are absolutely not there yet.”

The changes also aim to make the schools more economically diverse, but the data on income diversity among kindergarteners won’t be available until students complete enrollment and income verification paperwork, according to an IPS official.

District staff say IPS could do more. Last month, they presented the board with a plan to reserve more seats for students who apply late in the cycle. IPS data shows that students who apply later in the spring are more likely to come from low-income families and to be children of color.  

The move would double down on a change made last year, when the district switched from a single admissions lottery in January to three lotteries. Last year, 70 percent of seats were available in the January lottery, but 30 percent were held for lotteries in March and April. The new proposal calls for going further by reserving half the seats at magnet schools for the March and April lotteries.

When the board voted on the change to admissions rules last fall, there was strong momentum behind the move to change magnet lottery rules, following a Chalkbeat and IndyStar series on segregation in schools that found the district’s most popular programs primarily served privileged students. But there was also resistance from some parents, many of whom came from neighborhoods that lost their edge in gaining entry to popular schools.

It’s unclear whether board members will be willing to risk more backlash from parents who have the means to travel to other districts or pay private school tuition. The board did not vote on the latest lottery proposal, and it received mixed feedback.

Board member Diane Arnold said she supports holding more seats for later lotteries when more children of color apply.

“I like the fact that we are looking at playing with those percentages … connecting that to equity and trying to get more children engaged in those programs,” she said.

But board member Kelly Bentley was more skeptical. Equity is important, she said, but if parents don’t know whether their children are admitted to their top choice school until late April, they might choose another school.

“That’s a … loss of a student and a loss of revenue to the district,” she said. “I think we need to be very careful on making any changes.”