going 'blind'

Some of Brooklyn’s most sought-after middle schools will no longer see how applicants rank them

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty / © 2013

When middle schools in a brownstone Brooklyn district with a hyper-competitive admissions process consider prospective students next year, they will no longer be able to factor in how families ranked them on their applications, officials said Wednesday.

Parents and experts have long lobbied for that change because they say the current system forces families to fill out their applications strategically, while often penalizing those who list their true preferences. Because the top middle schools in District 15 — which includes Park Slope, Carroll Gardens, and Sunset Park — each receive hundreds of applications, they generally only consider students who rank them first or second.

“For years, families have felt as though their options were limited to two top schools on their applications,” District 15 Superintendent Anita Skop said in a letter to parents Wednesday announcing the change. They “have felt as though they need to be strategic, rather than honest in their ranking of choices.”

The middle school admissions process varies across the city, but most districts currently use “blind ranking” systems that do not show schools where they were listed on a student’s application. The citywide high school admissions process also works that way.

Beginning next school year, District 15 will join the three-quarters of districts that do not show middle schools how applicants ranked them. (Seven of the city’s 32 school districts will continue to share the rankings with middle schools.)

“I am pleased to announce that we are making positive steps toward a more inclusive, equitable and family-friendly middle school admissions process for all of the District 15 community,” Skop wrote in the letter to families.

The district’s current process can be torturous for parents.

The odds of making it into one of the district’s most sought-after middle schools are dauntingly low: M.S. 447, The Math and Science Exploratory School, for instance, had slots for fewer than 10 percent of its 1,448 applicants last year. Yet parents must rank those schools first or second to be considered.

That means many families apply to those top schools and are rejected, only to find that schools they listed lower on their applications have filled up with students who ranked them first.

“If you don’t get into your first choice, in some cases you’re just screwed,” said Pamela Wheaton, managing editor of the website Insideschools. “People have been protesting this for years.”

The district’s more affluent parents often turn to their social networks, email groups, or paid consultants to help them rank their choices in a way that maximizes their odds of getting into top schools. Meanwhile, lower-income parents with less time to make sense of the process may list schools in a way that reduces their odds.

“A process in which schools see who ranks who further entrenches already entrenched inequities,” said said Neil Dorosin, executive director of the Institute for Innovation in Public School Choice, who helped design New York City’s high school admissions system. “That’s just fundamentally unfair and wrong.”

M.S. 839, a new middle school in the district, uses a random admissions lottery. For that reason, some parents automatically rank the school third so that they can save their top slots for schools that consider ranking, said principal Michael Perlberg. He said some parents have received their first ranked choice but appealed that decision because they actually preferred M.S. 839.

The policy change to blind rankings “is going to allow parents to sit down with their kids and do a ranking that’s really authentic,” Perlberg said. “We’re really excited about that.”

The change could complicate the screening process for district schools that attract large numbers of applicants.

For instance, New Voices School of Academic and Creative Arts, which received 1425 applications last year, requires applicants to sit for an interview and an audition. However, it only invites students who ranked the school first or second to go through that process. Now, it may be forced to invite in many more applicants.

A district spokesman said the policy change was made in partnership with the local principals. He added that individual districts decide whether or not to allow middle schools to see how families ranked them, and that District 15 could serve as a model for districts considering moving to a blind-ranking system.

Superintendent Skop also informed parents that middle schools cannot consider letters of recommendation during the admissions process. That rule has already been in place, but district leaders say that parents continue to submit letters to schools.

Correction [May 12, 2016]: An earlier version of this story misstated when District 15 middle schools will stop receiving information about how applicants ranked them. That change will happen when schools review applications in early 2017, not fall 2017.

SCOTUS on IDEA

U.S. Supreme Court, in landmark decision, strengthens rights for students with disabilities

In a landmark decision, the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday better defined the federal standard public schools must meet for its special education students.

Students with learning disabilities are due “appropriately ambitious” education plans that ensure they will advance through public schools similarly to other students, a unanimous court said.

The court’s decision stems from a lawsuit filed by a suburban Denver family who enrolled their son, known as Endrew F. in court documents, in a private school after they felt the Douglas County School District failed their son, who was diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder.

The family sued the district seeking reimbursement for the private school’s tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The school district argued it met the minimum standard in the federal law that defines the rights of special education students.

While the state education department and lower courts agreed with the school district, Chief Justice John Roberts, who wrote the court’s opinion, did not.

“When all is said and done, a student offered an educational program providing merely more than ‘de minimis’ progress from year to year can hardly be said to have been offered an education at all,” Roberts wrote.

Federal law, he continued, “requires an educational program reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.”

The decision stops short of defining what progress should look like. Instead, that should depend on each student, the court said.

In a statement, the Douglas County School District said it was confident the district was already meeting the higher standard and would prove so when a lower court takes up the Endrew F. case again.

“The Court did not hold that Douglas County School District failed to meet the new standard, or say that DCSD can’t proceed to prove that it met that standard,” said Douglas County School District Legal Counsel William Trachman in a statement. “Indeed, in this case, the Douglas County School District offered an appropriate Individualized Education Plan and we look forward to proving to the lower courts that the IEP meets the new, higher standard.”

The Colorado Department of Education also released a statement:

“The Colorado Department of Education is firmly committed to providing quality educational opportunities to students with disabilities.  We are pleased to see the that the Supreme Court’s decision seems to give greater clarity by saying an Individualized Education Program  must be ‘reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.’  We also appreciate the Court’s reminder that courts must defer to the expertise and judgment of school officials.”

The department will not take a position when the Tenth Circuit Court retries the case in light of the Supreme Court’s clarification of the legal standard.

Achievement School District

The enrollment problems that plagued ASD schools in turmoil? They’re not unique.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Kirby Middle School's band performs during the Memphis charter school's opening ceremony last fall. Kirby, which is operated by Green Dot Public Schools, is one of 17 schools in Tennessee's Achievement School District with enrollment under 70 percent.

When leaders of Gestalt announced they were backing out of running two Memphis schools in Tennessee’s turnaround district, they pinned the decision on low enrollment — and some charter operators were quick to paint the problem as unique.

Then KIPP told the same story a month later when it announced plans to exit University Middle, another Memphis school in the state’s Achievement School District.

“Due in large part to its remote location in Southwest Memphis, KIPP Memphis University Middle has been under enrolled since it opened in the summer of 2014,” KIPP leaders said in a statement last December.

But the two charter operators hardly faced unusual enrollment pressure. A Chalkbeat analysis found half of the ASD’s 33 schools have faced deep enrollment challenges.

Seventeen schools — 15 in Memphis and two in Nashville — enroll fewer than 70 percent of the students they were designed to serve. Fifteen of the ASD’s 25 takeovers also have fewer students today than when they were controlled by the local district.

The findings suggest that overhauling struggling schools by giving them new management, the ASD’s high-stakes turnaround strategy, does little to counteract local demographic pressure. Across much of Memphis, home to the bulk of the ASD’s work, the school-age population has been falling for years.

“The cloud over the work in Memphis is there are too many buildings for the number of students,” said Bobby S. White, the ASD’s chief of external affairs. He noted that Shelby County Schools faces similar challenges.

But that realization was still in the future in 2011, when the ASD was laying the groundwork to take over its first low-performing schools and assigning them to charter operators who promised to boost test scores dramatically.

At the time, the assumption was that improving a school would draw more neighborhood families to enroll. But that has happened in only about 40 percent of the ASD’s schools in Memphis. Most have seen their enrollment decline.

At Westside Achievement Middle School, for example, the number of students dropped from 535 to 339 after its takeover in 2012 as part of the ASD’s first portfolio of schools.

The trend was the same at Wooddale Middle, which has gone from 714 to 473 students in the two years that the school has been under management by Green Dot Public Schools.

The outlook was better at Memphis Scholars’ Florida-Kansas Elementary School, which has had a slight increase in enrollment since 2014, the last year of local governance by Shelby County Schools. Even so, the elementary school is operating at just 40 percent capacity.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
ASD Superintendent Malika Anderson listens to parents’ concerns in January at Gestalt’s Klondike Elementary, which will close this spring due to low enrollment.

ASD officials say they are paying closer attention to the school-age population in Memphis. They now plan to scrutinize enrollment projections when charter operators submit their budgets, with an eye toward census data and neighborhood housing trends. They also have a clear message for operators: “Don’t bank on a huge enrollment growth to sustain your model,” White said.

Charter operators are generally accustomed to recruiting students from across school zones. But in Tennessee, the challenges posed by demographic shifts have been exacerbated by strict enrollment rules for the ASD’s schools and turf battles with the local district.

State law limits to 25 percent the number of students who can come from outside their neighborhood to an ASD school. Until 2015, the schools weren’t allowed to admit any out-of-neighborhood students, while schools run by Shelby County Schools can accept students from anywhere in the district if they have extra space.

Allison Leslie, superintendent for Aspire Public Schools in Memphis, said her schools could attract more students if the state allowed them to.

“That is limiting for us, something I would like to see change,” she said about enrollment restrictions under state law. “Students and families in Memphis should be able to select whatever school they want to attend in Memphis. Currently it is really confusing for families based on the enrollment restrictions that exist for ASD schools specifically.”

ASD schools aren’t the only ones fighting for students. In the last five years, Shelby County Schools has closed 20 under-enrolled schools, and the district plans to shutter more in the near future. Low enrollment is spottier in Nashville, where the city’s population is booming.

Shelby County Schools hasn’t taken the ASD’s expansion in Memphis lying down. In recent years, the local district has aggressively recruited and rezoned to stem the tide of students and funding moving to the state-run district. In the most high-profile case, an entire school was reconfigured to retain students bound for the ASD. Charter operators, including Gestalt, also have complained that the local district withheld student information, hampering their efforts to sign kids up.

“I think what ASD operators have faced is being the new kids on the block in their mission to serve those neighborhood schools,” White said. “They have essentially had to build out from scratch in terms of communication with students and building community partnerships that assist in family and student outreach.”

Enrollment challenges in Memphis shouldn’t have been a surprise to charter operators, according to Dirk Tillotson, founder of Great School Choices, which supports community-based charter school development.

“That is something that is fairly predictable,” said Tillotson, who is based in Oakland, Calif., another urban school district with declining enrollment. “You’ve got to be financially sustainable in this work. If you don’t get that basic step down, you won’t be able to serve your kids.”

Below are two tables detailing enrollment at the ASD’s 33 schools. The first compares each school’s 2016-17 enrollment to its “programmatic capacity,” or the number of students that academic programs were designed to serve.

The second table compares enrollment this year to enrollment before their ASD takeover. Schools that were not takeovers but started from scratch are noted as “new starts.”

ASD enrollment and capacity

SCHOOL ENROLLMENT CAPACITY
Klondike Preparatory Academy 196 30.7%
Memphis Scholars Raleigh-Egypt 205 32.2%
Wooddale Middle 473 39.7%
Neely’s Bend College Prep 255 39.9%
Memphis Scholars Florida-Kansas Elementary 271 39.9%
Humes Preparatory Academy 315 41.2%
KIPP Memphis University Middle 147 43.2%
Brick Church College Prep 338 48.3%
Promise Academy-Spring Hill 281 50.9%
Martin Luther King Jr. College Preparatory High 625 52.5%
Libertas School at Brookmeade** 220 53.9%
Fairley High 565 55.4%
Hillcrest High 483 55.5%
Kirby Middle 407 58.2%
Pathways in Education-Memphis in Whitehaven 183 59.8%
Corning Achievement Elementary 224 59.9%
Westside Achievement Middle 339 66.5%
Freedom Prepatory Academy Charter Elementary 567 72.5%
Whitney Achievement Elementary 376 73.7%
Frayser Achievement Elementary 296 75.7%
Pathways in Education-Memphis in Frayser 234 84.4%
Memphis Scholars Caldwell-Guthrie Elementary 447 92.6%
Cornerstone Prep Lester campus* 756 94.6%
Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary 324 95.3%
KIPP Memphis Academy Elementary 448 95.8%
GRAD Academy Memphis 536 100.9%
Aspire Coleman Elementary 548 111.2%
Aspire Hanley campus* 820 113.4%
KIPP Memphis Preparatory Elementary/Middle* 611 115.9%
Cornerstone Prep-Denver 616 151%

Change in ASD enrollment since takeover

SCHOOL ENROLLMENT CHANGE
Memphis Scholars Raleigh-Egypt 205 -59.5%
Neely’s Bend College Prep 255 -53%
Westside Achievement Middle 339 -36.6%
Wooddale Middle 473 -33.8%
Promise Academy-Spring Hill 281 -33.6%
Libertas School at Brookmeade** 220 -30.4%
Frayser Achievement Elementary 296 -30.2%
Corning Achievement Elementary 224 -27.5%
Kirby Middle 407 -26.7%
Fairley High 565 -18.8%
Klondike Preparatory Academy 196 -15.9%
Memphis Scholars Caldwell-Guthrie Elementary 447 -13.4%
Brick Church College Prep 338 -10.8%
Whitney Achievement Elementary 376 -8.7%
Hillcrest High 483 -8.2%
Memphis Scholars Florida-Kansas Elementary 271 1.9%
Cornerstone Prep-Denver 616 3.4%
Humes Preparatory Academy 315 7.9%
Aspire Coleman Elementary 548 10.3%
Martin Luther King Jr. College Preparatory High 625 13.6%
Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary 324 17.4%
Cornerstone Prep Lester campus* 756 21.5%
Aspire Hanley campus* 820 32.7%
Freedom Prepatory Academy Charter Elementary 567 59.7%
KIPP Memphis Academy Elementary 448 78.5%
KIPP Memphis University Middle 147 new start
Pathways in Education-Memphis in Whitehaven 183 new start
Pathways in Education-Memphis in Frayser 234 new start
KIPP Memphis Preparatory Elementary/Middle* 611 new start
GRAD Academy Memphis 536 new start

*Three campuses within the ASD house two schools. For purposes of these tables, their enrollment figures are combined.

** Libertas is still phasing in grades at the elementary school. Currently, the school serves preK-2nd grade.