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.

changing city

The thorny problem of segregated schools and Denver’s newest plan to address it

Denver schools are more racially segregated today than they were a decade ago, even with the district’s share of white students growing over that time.

That finding, from the KIDS COUNT report released by the Colorado Children’s Campaign today, highlights a problem that has dogged officials in Denver and across the nation for decades and will soon draw the attention of a new Denver Public Schools committee charged with addressing school diversity in the gentrifying city.

Denver Superintendent Tom Boasberg said he doesn’t necessarily agree that Denver schools are more segregated today, citing some city schools such as Skinner Middle School that are better integrated today than 10 years ago. Still, he acknowledged that race- and income-based segregation is a major challenge for the district.

“We have very significant housing separation and segregation in this city as we see in so many communities across the country … so then you also see that in our schools,” he said.

Data provided by the Colorado Children’s Campaign — but not included in the 2017 KIDS COUNT report — shows a slight downward trend in Denver Public Schools “segregation index” since the measure’s high-water mark in 2014-15. Even so, that index today is higher than it’s been in the district for most of the last 13 years and higher than in any other Colorado district.

Despite a surge in the city’s population, enrollment growth is slowing in DPS and low-income families are being pushed out. This year, about three-quarters of students districtwide are students of color and two-thirds are low-income — both lower figures than five years ago.

In Colorado, segregated schools aren’t unique to Denver. Suburban and rural districts, including St. Vrain Valley, Eagle County and Greeley, also have highly segregated schools, according to the KIDS COUNT report.

Highly segregated schools, where poor children of color are often concentrated, typically lack the financial resources and more experienced teachers that can be found in less segregated schools. The report also cites recent landmark research from Stanford University that shows segregation is a significant predictor of achievement gaps — differences in achievement levels associated with students’ race or socioeconomic status.

Boasberg said the district’s new “Citywide Strengthening Neighborhoods” committee, which will have about 30 members and kick off in June, will discuss possible changes to the district’s school boundary, enrollment and choice systems “to drive greater integration in our schools.”

He acknowledged that race, class and segregation can be highly sensitive topics.

“Will there be concerns on all sides? Yes,” he said. “Will there be any one set of proposals that will make everyone happy? No.”

Still, he noted that he hears both parents and students say they want to see Denver’s diversity reflected in their schools.

Plus, he said, “There’s lots of research that says integrated schools are win-win for all kids, for all economic backgrounds and races.”

Lisa Flores, a school board member who represents the rapidly gentrifying northwest Denver, said she hopes the committee will focus not just on crafting policy but also examining the public perceptions that accompany ideas like desegregation and integration.

“We have in many ways evolved as a community and in many ways face some of the cultural challenges that we faced 40 or 50 years ago,” she said. “I’m hoping for some short-term wins and I’m aware that this is long haul work.”

The district has made some efforts to increase integration, including the use of enrollment zones. Students living in such zones are guaranteed enrollment at one of several schools within the zone’s boundaries but not necessarily the one closest to their home. The idea is to pull students from a larger, more diverse area, thereby lessening the effects of highly segregated neighborhoods. So far, the zones have had mixed success. 

Seven of the district’s 11 enrollment zones focus on middle schools and two on high schools. Two others, one encompassing the upscale Stapleton neighborhood, and a smaller one in far southeast Denver, target elementary schools.

Still, segregation at the elementary level can be stark. For example, the KIDS COUNT report highlights two schools with vastly different demographics: Valverde and Steele elementaries.

At Valverde, which has the lowest of five quality ratings, 95 percent of students are children of color and 96 percent qualify for free or discounted meals, a proxy for poverty. Two miles away in the pricey Washington Park neighborhood is Steele, which has the second highest quality rating. There, just 17 percent of students are children of color and 6 percent qualify for free or discounted meals.

But evening out such imbalances is a tricky proposition given the fraught history of integration efforts. In Denver, court-ordered busing in the 1970s sparked massive white flight to neighboring suburbs and more recently, enrollment zones have stirred worry among some parents. Contentious battles over integration are in full swing elsewhere, too, including in New York City where wealthy white parents have relentlessly fought school boundary changes that would lead to integration.

Despite the potential for acrimony, Flores draws optimism from her own experience as a Denver student during the era of court-ordered busing.

Her white, affluent classmates “were children of progressive parents who wanted to walk the talk around integration,” she said. “You will still find those parents today that share the value of socioeconomic and racial integration and want their children to experience that type of learning environment.”

Newcomers

With students arriving every day, Memphis seeks to join other cities with newcomer programs for English language learners

PHOTO: Meghan Mangrum
A teacher leads class at a newcomer academy that opened in 2016 in Indianapolis for students who recently arrived in the United States. Leaders of Shelby County Schools want to open a similar program for high schoolers in Memphis in the fall of 2017.

Responding to an influx of students from Central America and a federal investigation into how Shelby County Schools is treating them, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson wants to create a “newcomer program” for high schoolers new to the U.S.

The program for English language learners would be housed at Wooddale High School and would accept 100 students this fall. A second location is planned for the following year.

The $750,000 program is part of Hopson’s proposed budget, which the school board is expected to approve in May.

Newcomer programs have been in place for years in cities with a long history of educating immigrant students. Others like Nashville and Indianapolis have added them in recent years as their immigrant populations have swelled.

In Memphis, English learners are the district’s fastest-growing subgroup and make up about 8 percent of the student population. Most are from Spanish-speaking countries, but many are refugees from elsewhere.

Under Shelby County’s plan, core classes such as math, science, history and language arts would be infused with English language learning for up to two years. Students would join the rest of the student population for elective classes.

Currently, the district places newcomers in two class periods of English language learning before they join core classes alongside native English speakers — an approach that officials say contributes to the achievement gap between subgroups.

The school-within-a-school model would be more intensive. “What we want to do … is to help them fill in those gaps while they are developing a foundation in English,” said ESL adviser Andrew Duck.

The program would create a new option for English language learners in Memphis following the 2016 closure of Messick Adult Center. Before the state pulled its workforce development contract with Shelby County Schools, Messick was the district’s only ELL program for adults and students ages 16 and older.

The newcomers program also would help address concerns raised by a federal civil rights investigation launched last year into how the district treats English learners and communicates with their parents. The Associated Press reported that Shelby County Schools was among several districts nationwide that discouraged unaccompanied minors from Central America from enrolling in its schools and encouraged them instead to attend an adult learning center.

“We’ve seen kids get turned away from schools when they try to go register without any real explanation,” said Casey Bryant, legal director for Latino Memphis, a nonprofit organization serving the city’s Spanish-speaking population. “The closure of Messick meant that those high school-aged kids who were being turned away didn’t have any place to attend school.”

The federal investigation is ongoing and, if the district is found in violation, Shelby County Schools would have to negotiate a resolution with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights — or face a lawsuit.

Duck said the investigation offered “a kick in the pants” for launching the newcomers program — but that the influx of students from Central America is the bigger motivator. “… We had actually been working on this off and on since 2007 in the Memphis City Schools system,” he said.

And Tennessee’s new schools plan, submitted under the new federal education law, places a higher emphasis on how schools serve English learners, giving Memphis leaders one more reason to step up services for those students.

Officials say Wooddale High School was chosen as the program’s first site because of available space there and its proximity to Hickory Ridge, an area with one of the city’s largest populations of English learner students. The school is now at 70 percent capacity.