sorting the students

Brooklyn’s middle schools are highly segregated — but they don’t have to be. How a series of choices has deepened the divide

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
M.S. 51 in Park Slope is one of its district's "Big Three" middle schools: coveted and highly competitive, they are also whiter, more affluent, and higher performing than other schools in the district.

In leafy, liberal Park Slope and the Brooklyn neighborhoods nearby, many parents divide the local middle schools into two tiers: the “Big Three” and the rest.

First among the Big Three is M.S. 51 on Park Slope’s bustling Fifth Avenue. One of a dozen middle schools that families can choose from if they live within a four-mile-long stretch of west Brooklyn known as District 15, M.S. 51 is where Mayor Bill de Blasio sent his children and where students find a well-traveled path to the city’s most elite public high schools.

Next on the Big Three list are M.S. 447, a Boerum Hill school that specializes in math and science, and New Voices School of Academic and Creative Arts, a performing arts school in Sunset Park.

In theory, any student who lives in District 15’s borders — which include not only the well-heeled Park Slope and Carroll Gardens neighborhoods, but also working-class Red Hook and Sunset Park — can attend the Big Three. In practice, the schools are dominated by a subset of families: At the Big Three, over 50 percent of students are white, and less than 30 percent come from low-income families. At the other nine middle schools, just 10 percent of students are white, and more than 80 percent are poor.

That divide highlights a harsh truth about the sources of school segregation in New York City.

Many people, including Mayor de Blasio, point to segregated neighborhoods as the cause of separate schools. In fact, many of the city’s school zones and districts encompass a mix of families. And by opening up every school to any family in a district, “school choice” systems like the one in District 15 offer a golden opportunity to override divided neighborhoods and make schools integrated.

Instead, district parents, schools, and officials have made choices that reinforce segregation.

Parents on each end of the district tend to choose separate middle schools, with affluent parents on the north end often choosing to exploit their networks and their savvy to cram into the highest-performing ones. Those schools choose to expend considerable energy handpicking students: M.S. 51 pores over the academic and behavioral records of its 10- and 11-year-old applicants, M.S. 447 interviews students and gives them a math or science test, and New Voices requires an audition. And finally, officials choose to allow a system where high-performing students attend one set of schools, and high-needs students attend another.

Recently, as school segregation has come under fire in New York and across the nation, one of the Big Three middle schools crafted a plan to boost its own diversity. But an official plan to collapse the district’s two tiers into one is nowhere in sight.

Getting into the ‘Big Three’

In the whiter, wealthier northern half of District 15, competition is fierce for a seat at a Big Three school. Last year, nearly five families vied for every open seat at M.S. 51.

“You have to battle for your so-called choice,” said Antonia Martinelli, a Gowanus parent and blogger who put M.S. 51 and 447 at the top of her son’s application. Otherwise, “there’s a fear that your child won’t get into a good enough high school.”

Some parents pay a private consultant $400 for a two-hour consultation about the district’s admission process. Others rely on their social circles, sending out group emails and texts about changes to the entry requirements at the sought-after middle schools and the dates when they offer tours.

Because parents believe that attending one of the school tours will increase their odds of admission, many wait at their computers for the exact moment when online registration begins. The spots are usually snatched up within hours. (One parent compared the process to scoring Taylor Swift tickets; another said Radiohead.)

Then they must take off many hours of work to attend the tours, which typically happen during the school day. Some said they also called and emailed the schools’ principals or staffers to introduce themselves, hoping that might give their children a boost.

“It’s almost a full-time job,” said Rhonda Keyser, whose child attends M.S. 51.

Who attends District 15’s “Big Three” middle schools?

Note: The "Other District 15 middle schools" are: M.S. 442, School for International Studies, Brooklyn School for Collaborative Studies, Park Slope Collegiate, M.S. 88, Brooklyn School for Global Studies (phasing out), Sunset Park Preparatory, I.S. 136 and M.S. 839 (which did not have low income or test score data available).
Data source: NYC Department of Education, Credit: Sarah Glen/Chalkbeat

Ultimately, the competition is within a narrow group of parents.

Eight of the district’s 25 elementary schools send half or more of their students to one of the Big Three, according to city data. Those elementary schools are on average 64 percent white and just 17 percent low-income. (Districtwide, 31 percent of students are white and 65 percent are considered poor.)

Monica Kipiniak’s son attends the School for International Studies, one of several district and charter schools where families who did not make it into the Big Three are starting to venture. She said the fight for Big Three seats favors wealthier parents with the time and ability to navigate the process and to ensure their students are strong academically.

“There’s no question,” she said, “that for many reasons, kids who come from more affluent families end up going to the more desirable schools.”

Who doesn’t get in

Just a few subway stops away, the southern end of District 15 can seem worlds apart from that frenzy.

In Sunset Park, an immigrant-filled neighborhood home to many Hispanic families and its own Chinatown, many parents are daunted by the application process and opt to apply only to local middle schools they already know, said Julie Stein Brockway, co-director of the Center for Family Life in Sunset Park. In addition, many are reluctant to let their young children travel to schools outside the neighborhood.

Still, she said many would consider applying to northern-end schools if they were encouraged to. But even though her social-service agency works with hundreds of local families, she said only charter schools have asked her for help recruiting Sunset Park students — never one of the Big Three.

“I’ve been at this agency for 34 years and nobody’s reached out to me,” she said. “It’s not like we don’t have access to families — we could certainly be helpful.”

M.S. 88 sits just 15 blocks from M.S. 51, yet it has one-sixth as many white students and nearly four times as many who are low-income.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
M.S. 88 sits just 15 blocks from M.S. 51, yet it has one-sixth as many white students and nearly four times as many who are low-income.

Even when schools in the northern end have been invited to meet with Sunset Park families, some have declined. Several people at P.S. 172, a high-performing Sunset Park school, said many district middle schools failed to send representatives to an information session for parents that the school hosted last fall.

“There was a lot of disappointment,” said Alexa Aviles, P.S. 172’s parent-teacher association co-president. “It just begs the question: What’s the responsibility of middle schools to do outreach across the district?”

Meanwhile, guidance counselors and parent liaisons at some northern-end elementary schools share limited information about middle schools beyond the Big Three and a few other options that are considered acceptable, several people said.

“Some of the guidance counselors are stuck in their ways — they promote the same three schools,” said Jessica Forman, a guidance counselor at M.S. 88, which sits just 15 blocks from M.S. 51 but has one-sixth as many white students and nearly four times as many who are low-income. “It’s a frustrating experience.”

And then there are the “screens” — the criteria that selective schools use to rank applicants.

The Big Three release the factors they consider — class grades, test scores, attendance, behavior marks, interviews, or auditions, depending on the school — but not the cutoff levels for any of those categories. Whether M.S. 51, for instance, only seeks “A” students with sterling attendance records who aced the state exams, or a greater mix, is a secret. (The principals of M.S. 51 and New Voices did not respond to interview requests. M.S. 447 Principal Arin Rusch simply said: “It’s a ranking system.”)

Advocates say an even greater problem than the lack of transparency is how the system allows a handful of schools to cream the highest-performing students — which then floods the remaining schools with the neediest ones.

The data show that last year’s average incoming student at the Big Three had performed at a level 3.4 out of 4 on the state math exams when they were in fourth grade. By contrast, the average student at the district’s other schools entered at a level 2.3, considered below passing.

“We don’t think there’s any legitimate justification for sorting kids like that,” said Reyhan Mehran, a member of a group called District 15 Parents for Middle School Equity. “Clustering children who are high-needs and low-needs into different schools doesn’t help anybody.”

Calls for change

In October, District 15 Parents for Middle School Equity distributed paper and online petitions calling for an admissions system “that does not promote sorting and segregating our District’s 10-year olds.” Among the roughly 500 people who signed on was a mother named Magaly Morales.

Her son is “a kind, quiet and shy boy,” she wrote, who will likely be shut out of the district’s competitive middle schools “with all the screenings and limited seats.”

“It is so unfair and sad,” she wrote. Still, “I am glad I am not alone in this matter and do hope one day there will be change.”

Reyhan Mehran and Miriam Nunberg, members of the group District 15 Parents for Middle School Equity, want to reform the district's enrollment system.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Reyhan Mehran and Miriam Nunberg, members of the group District 15 Parents for Middle School Equity, want to reform the district’s enrollment system.

The handful of parents at the core of the equity group have surveyed their peers about the current admissions system and given presentations on the segregation they say it leads to. Without endorsing a particular solution, they have said one option is “controlled choice” — a district-wide enrollment system that uses demographic information about families and their school preferences to assign students to schools. The system is typically used to spread poor and affluent students evenly among schools, and avoid the type of tiered system like the one in District 15.

But even people who are sympathetic to the group’s message question whether controlled choice would stand a chance in the district.

Affluent parents buy homes in the high-priced neighborhoods around coveted elementary schools, like P.S. 321, expecting that this will give their child an edge in getting into a Big Three middle school and then a top high school. It’s hard to imagine such parents backing a plan that would restrict their access to the Big Three.

“Are they willing to give up their seat in 51 for a child in the southern part of the district?” said Naila Rosario, president of the district’s community education council and a parent at P.S. 172. “That has yet to be seen.”

If parents strongly oppose a plan like controlled choice, that could doom it. Mayor Bill de Blasio has said the city must respect parents’ choice to live near desired schools, and Chancellor Carmen Fariña has said the city should not mandate integration — it must happen “organically.”

That has left advocates like the parents in District 15’s equity group trying to rally enough support for an alternative system to convince the city to act.

“I don’t know what kind of ‘organic’ process they’re looking for,” said Miriam Nunberg, a district parent and equity group member, “short of some sort of professional, full-time advocacy organization.”

City Councilman Brad Lander, who represents the district and whose own children attended M.S. 51, said he has grown wary of watching average and top-performing students end up in separate middle schools.

“Achievement sorting deeply accretes race and class privilege,” he said. “I don’t think we gain enough from this high-stakes sorting for what it costs.”

He said he wants the district to work towards adopting a controlled-choice system for its middle schools, which it can do by continuing to build the reputation of schools beyond the Big Three and by requiring every school to serve at least 30 percent low-income students.

A plan to move immediately to an integrated system “would have no chance and it would fail,” Lander said. “A better approach is something that recognizes the moral urgency of equity, but takes steps to make things better.”

The district superintendent, Anita Skop, recently announced a new policy that will keep middle schools from seeing how parents ranked them on their applications. That should make the process less stressful for parents, but it was not designed to undo the district’s deep segregation.

More promising on that front is a plan at M.S. 447 — one of the Big Three — to adopt a new admissions policy designed to help it enroll more poor students and students with a broader range of academic abilities. “We want to make sure that it feels like kids have access to our school across income and academic lines,” said Principal Rusch.

Meanwhile, a new middle school, M.S. 839, has adopted an admissions lottery that does away with ability screening, while Park Slope Collegiate only looks at the elementary school applicants attended — not their grades or test scores — in an effort to enroll a representative mix of students.

But even proponents of those school-level changes say they don’t go far enough to overcome the district’s deep divisions. That, they say, would take a system-wide solution.

“There is nothing ‘organic’ about school segregation,” said Park Slope Collegiate Principal Jill Bloomberg. “If we’re serious about undoing it, then we have to make it a policy.”

diversity push

Denver Public Schools is identifying more students of color as highly gifted, but big disparities remain

PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons

In the second year of an effort to provide students of color greater access to Denver Public Schools’ magnet programs for highly gifted students, white and Asian students continue to be over-identified and Hispanic and black students continue to be under-identified.

The district did see a small bump in the percentage of black students identified as highly gifted after testing this year. But the percentage of Hispanic students identified — after a sizable jump in the first year of universal testing — stayed flat.

In short, while Hispanic and black students make up 69 percent of students districtwide, they make up just 29 percent of the population identified as highly gifted by the district’s new universal testing system. Highly gifted students are a subset of gifted students, and in DPS are eligible for nine specialized magnet programs, including one at the highly sought-after Polaris at Ebert Elementary.

The lack of diversity in Denver’s highly gifted program reflects the difficulty school districts nationwide face in trying to ensure their gifted programs reflect the complexion of their populations.

In January, New York City officials launched a task force to investigate persistent inequities in gifted education there and last year debate sprung up in Maryland’s largest school district after a report on school choice recommended controversial changes to promote greater racial equity in its highly gifted magnet programs.

While experts say that gifted students are found among all racial and ethnic groups, schools’ identification practices have historically favored upper-income white students. Until recently, Denver’s identification system typically required in-the-know parents who could seek out special testing for their kids.

“We’re kind of digging out of having that application-driven process,” said Rebecca McKinney, director of the district’s gifted and talented department. “It’s going to take us quite a few years.”

Last year, DPS launched a universal screening program that tested every kindergarten, second- and sixth-grade student for giftedness.

This year, it has formalized a program called the “talent pool” that gives kids who weren’t identified as gifted — but could be later — access to gifted services.

With gifted services set aside for about 10 percent of students at a school, talent pool students are added at schools where smaller percentages of students are designated as gifted. The idea is to ensure that each talent pool reflects the racial and ethnic diversity of the school.

McKinney said while the talent pool concept has existed in some form for years, now for the first time, students in the pools will be formally tracked to see how much growth they achieve and whether they end up getting officially identified as gifted.

Unlike highly gifted students, who are eligible for special magnet programs, gifted students in DPS receive extra services at their home schools.

Last year, after the first round of universal screening, district officials were heartened by increases in the proportion of Hispanic students identified as highly gifted. About 25 percent of students in that category were Hispanic, double their percentage in the highly gifted population the year before.

For black students, who make up about 13 percent of students districtwide, the first round of universal screening made almost no difference. They comprised 3 percent of the highly gifted pool — almost exactly the same as before universal screening began.

But things improved a bit this year, with about 5 percent of black students identified as highly gifted in the screening last fall.

“We’re still definitely not where we want to be,” McKinney said.

She said certain factors, such as low-income status or English-language learner status, can mask giftedness when students are screened. District officials have looked into having classroom teachers instead of gifted and talented teachers give the screenings because research shows students do better when they are familiar with the adult administering the assessment.

The district is also investing more in training for teachers and parents. Last August, the district brought in Joy Lawson Davis, a prominent advocate of diversity in gifted education, to provide teacher training.

Lawson Davis, a board member with the National Association for Gifted Children, will return in March for a training at Greenlee Elementary and an evening event focused on engaging parents as advocates for gifted children.

While Lawson Davis’s parent night will focus on black parents, McKinney said she plans to seek out speakers who can lead similar events for Hispanic parents.

Shrinking

It’s official. Achievement School District will close a second school in Memphis

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
KIPP Memphis University Middle is closing after three years of operation under the state-run Achievement School District. The school operates in a former school building operated by Shelby County Schools.

In the months since KIPP decided to pull out of one of its state-run charter schools, officials with Tennessee’s turnaround district have been publicly mum about what happens next, leaving most to believe the Memphis school will close at the end of the school year.

A top official with the Achievement School District now confirms that’s the plan.

The ASD is not seeking a successor to KIPP for Memphis University Middle School and “is not obligated to look for another operator,” said Bobby White, the ASD’s chief of external affairs.

White noted that the South Memphis school was started from scratch — and is not an existing low-performing school taken from the local district with the charge of turning it around.

University Middle thus becomes the second ASD charter school that will close under the 5-year-old turnaround district. Klondike Preparatory Academy Elementary, a turnaround school also in Memphis, is already slated to shut down this spring after its operator, Gestalt Community Schools, pulls out of the ASD completely. KIPP will continue to operate three other ASD schools in Memphis and four other charters through Shelby County Schools.

The confirmation of a second closure comes as state leaders are reexamining the ASD’s structure and purpose and proposing to curtail its ability to grow — even as the state-run district struggles with sustainability due to a lack of students in Memphis, where the bulk of its schools are located. A bill filed recently in the legislature would stop the ASD from starting new charter schools such as KIPP’s University Middle, rather than just overhauling existing schools that are struggling.

The ASD was created as a vehicle to dramatically improve schools in the state’s bottom 5 percent but began authorizing charter organizations to start some new schools as well. The pending legislation, which is supported by leaders of both the State Department of Education and the ASD, would return the district to its original purpose.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Bobby White is the ASD’s chief of external affairs.

KIPP’s Memphis board cited low enrollment and a remote location when voting last December to pull out this spring from University Middle, which it opened in 2014. Its leaders have told parents they plan to merge the school with KIPP Memphis Preparatory Middle, another ASD school located about nine miles away.

Even with KIPP’s departure, ASD officials had authority to continue to operate University Middle with another manager. However, the challenges with enrollment and location made that option highly unlikely.

The middle school is housed in the former White’s Chapel Elementary School building, which Shelby County Schools closed in 2013 with 181 students — more than KIPP was able to attract under the ASD.

Under-enrollment was also cited by leaders of Gestalt, a Memphis-based charter organization that announced last fall plans to pull out of both of its ASD schools. The state-run district has since found a new operator for one Gestalt school and confirmed last month that it plans to close the other.