Why integrating middle schools in Queens won’t follow Brooklyn’s footsteps

There’s a battle raging in the heart of Queens over integrating middle schools.

It’s in stark contrast to the comparatively placid effort to tackle the segregated schools in northwest Brooklyn.

Brooklyn’s District 15 — which includes affluent brownstone areas like Park Slope and Cobble Hill, as well as lower-income areas like Red Hook and Sunset Park — approved a sweeping middle school integration plan last year after a lengthy public engagement process. That process has since been held up as a model to be followed across the five boroughs, and in fact, five other districts won grants to implement a similar engagement process. 

District 28 is one of those places. But the reaction so far in this Queens area, spanning from Forest Hills and Rego Park to Jamaica and Richmond Hill, reveals that it’s not so easy to replicate what happened in the borough next door.  

Not only is the parent pushback more intense in this effort, but the drivers of school segregation and potential solutions are not cookie-cutter either.

Here’s what to expect, and why the Queens fight is nothing like what happened in Brooklyn. 

Grassroots or top-down: Each district’s push to integrate has different roots.

In Brooklyn’s District 15, the process that eventually led to an integration plan grew out of parent advocacy. 

Frustrations had been mounting among families over the complicated middle school application process. Most schools selected students based on competitive criteria such as test scores and auditions. Parents sometimes sent their children to school sick for fear of jeopardizing their attendance records, which were also weighed in admissions decisions.

When it came time to find solutions for integrating schools, parents there pushed for a public process so that families from across the district could share their concerns and ideas. When the city finally agreed to help pay for such a process, it was seen as a victory.

District 28’s push has not been parent-led. Instead, the superintendent at the time applied to the city grant and won, but she has since been promoted to a new position outside the district, and a permanent replacement has yet to be named.

The same process that was heralded in Brooklyn has been met with intense backlash by parents in District 28. Opponents have tried to discredit the process as not being transparent or inclusive. At a recent public meeting, Jason Fink, a parent in the district, took aim at schools Chancellor Richard Carranza and WXY, the planning firm leading the public planning process. 

“It’s our assumption that Carranza and WXY is trying to ram through a de-zoning, forced busing, quota plan — and disguising it behind the smoke and mirrors of this false community involvement,” Fink said. 

Both areas also have starkly different activist communities. District 15 is at the epi-center of the movement opposing standardized testing, while District 28 is home to families who have been actively supporting the Specialized High School Admissions Test. The test is the sole determinant for entry to the city’s top eight schools like Stuyvesant and Bronx Science, and is often blamed for driving deep segregation in the schools, which enroll low numbers of black and Hispanic students. 

There are different forces driving segregation.

Most of District 28’s middle schools are zoned, meaning students are assigned a school according to where they live. That drives segregation based on where families can afford to buy or rent, or where they find tightly-knit enclaves that attract people from the same backgrounds — whether they are Chinese, Punjabi, Guyanese, Latino, or belong to one of the many other communities that make the district home. 

The area has a solid and diverse middle class, many of whom are immigrants — though the northern end of the district has a larger concentration of families who are higher-income and white, while the southern end has more low-income and black families.  

Despite the diversity of neighborhoods, not a single school in District 28 reflects the area’s student demographics. 

In District 15, schools were segregated not by geography, but by competitive admissions criteria called screens. Students could apply to any middle school in the district, so in theory, they could have already been traveling beyond their segregated neighborhoods. But widespread screening allowed schools to select students, separating them by race, class, and academic achievement. Very few children from the brownstone neighborhoods, for instance, were going to Sunset Park schools. 

The arguments supporting or opposing the plans also diverge.

In Queens, parents unhappy with the possibility of losing access to their neighborhood schools have focused partly on the difficulty of traveling across a traffic-congested district that’s poorly connected by public transit. 

“I don’t want them to go far from home,” one mom said of her children at a recent public meeting. “That’s the only reason I’m here — no other. I want my kids to go to their school.” 

The district covers a much larger geographic area than Brooklyn’s District 15, with more students, too. 

Some District 28 parents argue that the city would be better served by focusing on struggling schools. When segregation leads to extreme concentrations of poverty, schools often have teachers with fewer years of experience, crumbling infrastructure, and PTAs that can’t compete with more affluent areas.

“Instead of worrying about spreading out all the inequality, focus on the schools in the south. Build the schools up in the south with the basic, necessary tools that the students need,” Lorraine Reid, whose child attends Redwood Middle School in the southern end of the district, said at a recent public meeting. 

Some of the same issues were raised in Brooklyn, but the bigger argument was over student merit, and the best way to serve students with a range of academic abilities. Parents who defended screening, for instance, argued that students with high test scores had earned a place in schools that were widely regarded as better performing. 

The solutions will have to be unique to each district.

In Brooklyn, schools eliminated all screens. Now, families still apply to their choice of schools, but admission is based on a lottery with priority given to certain students.  The admissions changes were coupled with pledges to look at the resources available across schools, such as parent fundraising or the technology students have access to in classrooms.

City leaders and WXY Studio say that solutions in District 28 will be driven by what parents, educators, students, and community leaders say they want. 

The district could remove or redraw zone lines — but that is probably one of the most controversial moves to take, and it would likely require approval from the local Community Education Council. The council is a parent-body that oversees school issues, including signing off on attendance boundaries. Members have so far appeared split on the district’s push for integration, which could doom any chances of rezoning.

Another option might include opening new magnet schools or converting existing schools to magnets, which typically are considered “choice” schools that draw from a variety of neighborhoods. That would have the advantage of allowing families to opt-in because they are interested in the unique programming usually offered by magnets, whether it’s science and technology-centric or focused on the arts, for example. 

But the district has a number of magnet schools already, and they enroll very few white students. 

Given the pushback already, what happens in Queens could be much more modest than what was approved in Brooklyn — if it even happens at all.