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.

Achieving Diversity

Does gifted education help pave the way to specialized high schools? Here’s what we know

Students take an AP exam at Bronx Science, one of the city's specialized high schools.

The way Sam Adewumi sees it, the lack of diversity in New York City’s elite specialized high schools is largely a pipeline problem. And it starts with gifted education.

It worked for Adewumi, a black alum of Brooklyn Technical High School (class of ’84) and now a teacher there. Growing up in the Bronx, he attended gifted programs through middle school, which paved the way for his admission to one of the city’s elite specialized high schools, and later, to Cornell University.

“This is the legacy, to me, of the gifted and talented program,” said Adewumi, who also runs a test prep program to help students prepare for the specialized high schools test. “There’s not another generation of us coming forward. So right now, we lost a generation.”

While 70 percent of New York City students are black or Hispanic, they comprise less than 30 percent of the city’s gifted students. And black and Hispanic students received only 10 percent of offers to specialized high schools in the latest admissions round.

A new task force is attempting to address both deficits, but that raises a question not fully answered by Adewumi’s anecdote: Is gifted education really a pipeline for specialized high schools?

Based on a small analysis, the answer seems to be yes — and no.

Of the 357 fifth-graders in citywide gifted schools in 2011-12, about 33 percent ended up attending a specialized high school last year. That’s according to numbers crunched for Chalkbeat by Nicole Mader, a senior research fellow at the Center for New York City Affairs at The New School.

But the numbers don’t break down evenly: Of the white and Asian students, 40 percent went on to specialized high schools. Of the black and Hispanic students, only 14 percent did.

Another 14 percent of the black students ended up at other highly-selective high schools, as did 8 percent of the Hispanic students.

Mader only analyzed students in citywide programs for this project, a fact that could skew the numbers since admission to citywide gifted programs is more competitive, requiring a near-perfect test score. Seats in citywide gifted schools, which only enroll students who are gifted, represent about 13 percent of the total fifth-grade seats in all gifted programs, according to data from the city.

Although limited, the data is in line with previous findings that black and Hispanic students — even those who are high achieving — are less likely to attend competitive high schools.

To Adewumi, the results of Mader’s analysis are not surprising. Rather, they point to a bottleneck that begins with a lack of options for high-achieving students once they reach middle school.

“The pipeline breaks in the whole middle school process,” he said, rattling off middle schools in Brooklyn that once had gifted programs, but no longer do. “How do you create access?”

His hunch is confirmed by research. A cadre of elite middle schools send an outsized number of students to specialized high schools, according to a separate report co-authored by Mader.  That report found that about 60 percent of seventh-grade students who went on to specialized high schools came from only 45 middle schools — out of more than 530 total in the city.

That echoed the findings of a study by researchers at New York University, which found that “more than half of the students who were admitted to a specialized high school came from just 5 percent of the city’s public middle schools.”

Of the students in those top “feeder” schools, 58 percent were in programs, including gifted programs, that required tests for admission.

However, Sean Corcoran, who co-authored the NYU report, says the role of gifted education in preparing kids for specialized high school is unclear. Corcoran and co-author Christine Baker-Smith did not study whether there’s any consistent difference in gifted programs that gives students a leg up. Those feeder schools may just sort out students who are already high-achieving, he said.

“The kinds of kids who do well on the admissions tests, in general, are kids who would do well at other schools,” Corcoran said. “So it’s not like starting another gifted program will all of a sudden make a lot more kids more competitive.”

There are a number of factors that contribute to low representation of black and Hispanic students in specialized high schools, said Clara Hemphill, editor at the school review website InsideSchools. Although she has qualms about New York City’s gifted programs starting in kindergarten and basing admission on a standardized test score, she doesn’t necessarily oppose the creation more gifted programs.

“Anything that would increase the academic rigor for talented black and Latino kids is a good thing,” she said

“What you need is exposure to a demanding curriculum and a peer group of academically successful kids,” Hemphill added. “In the middle class neighborhoods, most of the ordinary zoned elementary schools have that. In poor and working class neighborhoods, not many do.”

losing ground

‘Harlem diaspora’ sends local children to 176 different public schools, report finds

PHOTO: Center for New York City Affairs at The New School

Harlem elementary schools are “hemorrhaging” students, according to a new report by the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School.

Just 37 percent of students who live in the Harlem portion of District 3, which also includes the Upper West Side, attended their zoned elementary schools last year. Meanwhile, 36 percent attended charter schools and 27 percent attended other public schools.

Even more striking, perhaps, is the breadth of public schools the area’s 2,447 elementary school-age children attended — roughly 176 in all, according to the Center’s analysis.

With so many children in Harlem attending charter schools or Upper West Side district schools, enrollment in the area’s zoned elementary schools has withered, the report found. Five of the seven zoned schools in the Harlem part of the district now have fewer than 300 children, and three have fewer than 200. Declining rosters mean smaller budgets, the authors note, and the higher-need children are the ones more likely to stay in the neighborhood.

A tense rezoning debate shook the Upper West Side last fall, as parents fought a decision to move some students from the coveted but crowded P.S. 199 to P.S. 191, a lower-performing school. Some residents of District 3 felt that a close look at Harlem’s schools got lost in the shuffle.

The District’s Community Education Council recently held a summit to focus specifically on Harlem.

“This is a door-opening,” said Kim Watkins, a CEC member who organized the event. “This is a cultivation of parent activism and community bridge-building so that we can figure out how to level the playing field.”