Selective middle school admissions return to one Manhattan district after fierce debate

Three people sit around a table with pictures on a wall in the background
Academic screens will return for some middle school programs in District 2 for the first time since the start of the pandemic, according to a letter its superintendent sent to families this week. (Allison Shelley for EDUimages)

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A Manhattan school district is reversing course, allowing some schools to screen middle school applicants for accelerated programs in the upcoming admissions cycle, according to a letter its superintendent sent to families this week.

It’s the first time middle schools in District 2 will screen applicants based on their fourth grade academic performance since the onset of the pandemic, when the city paused academic screens for middle schools.

Selective admissions for New York City’s 10-year-olds were later reinstated for this year’s incoming sixth graders in some districts, but at dramatically reduced rates.

Instead of a blanket approach across the city, schools Chancellor David Banks last year tasked superintendents of the city’s 32 local school districts to work with their communities to decide their middle school admissions guidelines. Manhattan’s District 2, along with about nine other districts that previously used selective admissions at some of its middle schools, opted to ditch screens. 

This year, once again, the chancellor tapped superintendents to choose their admissions policies. The Education Department has yet to share the decisions of districts across the five boroughs.

Changes to middle school admissions have sparked debate across the city, particularly in District 2 — one of the city’s most affluent school districts, spanning such neighborhoods as TriBeCa, Greenwich Village, Gramercy, and the Upper East Side. Some families argue the elimination of screens reduces academic rigor in some classrooms, while others say practices like screened admissions harm integration efforts in a school system that remains among the most segregated in the nation.

District 2’s decision to drop screens last year spurred some ire in the area, where the group Parent Leaders for Accelerated Curriculum and Education, or PLACE, has a foothold on the district’s parent-led Community Education Council — with endorsed candidates winning seven of the 10 elected seats. The group advocates for test-based and other selective school admissions. 

For this year’s admissions cycle, which starts next week, District 2 will offer programs that select students based on grades at four zoned middle schools, Superintendent Kelly McGuire said in the Oct. 3 letter to families.

The four schools are the Sun Yat Sen Middle School (M.S. 131), Wagner Middle School (M.S. 167), 75 Morton (M.S. 297), and Baruch Middle School (M.S. 104), according to the letter.

“Over the past several months we have spoken with District 2 parents and families about middle school admissions,” McGuire said in the letter. “While there is a wide diversity of perspectives across our district, we have developed a plan that offers pathways for accelerated learning through screened programs, maintained sibling priority, and ensured that all students have access to every District 2 middle school.”

The programs would offer accelerated learning in core subjects, McGuire said. Several non-zoned schools in the district also offer accelerated academics and a pathway to Regents-level coursework, he added.

Students applying to the four schools can include the general program and/or the screened program on their child’s middle school application, according to the letter.

Schools using academic screens in admissions rank 10-year-olds based on their fourth grade GPAs in core subjects.

Parent council pushes for more academic screening

During a September meeting, some members of the district’s Community Education Council urged the district to reinstate academic screens at middle schools that had used them prior to the pandemic. About 18 out of 23 middle schools in the district screened at least some segment of their applicants for the 2020-21 school year, according to city data.

Leonard Silverman, president of the council, called the district’s decision “a good start.”

“If it comes down to four over nothing, we’ll take four,” he said. “This was the culmination of a lot of advocacy, and fighting, and pushing, and prodding, and parents letting their voices be heard.”

Some details about the screened programs remained unclear, he said, like how many seats they’ll have.

“I hope we’ll continue to expand these types of programs to meet the needs of all students — not just the higher performing students, but to slot kids into where they are academically,” Silverman said.

Silverman said he wished there had been more engagement with families in the district, adding he worried some parents had left district schools over a lack of screened middle school options. 

A letter the education council sent to the superintendent last month also called for state test scores to be considered in the admissions process, arguing grades are too subjective a measure. But others contest the claim that state test scores are an objective measure.

Nyah Berg, executive director of New York Appleseed, an organization that advocates for integrated schools, said the district’s decision was “disappointing.”

“You’re talking about judging the educational attainment of students that are as young as 9 years old,” she said. “To narrowly put them on a track at that age, I think, is just fundamentally inappropriate for learning, for teaching — and it’s essentially a gatekeeping tool that can create haves and have-nots.”

Though just four schools in the district will see academic screens reinstated in this year’s admissions cycle, Berg remains concerned about its potential impact, particularly as it can take years to understand the effects of a policy change.

“I’m very wary of chipping away at progressive policies,” she said. “Whether we’re going backwards at a lightning speed or at a slower pace, it still means that we’re going backwards.”

The city’s Education Department has said middle school admissions will broadly operate the same as last year, though this week declined to provide specific information for each district. 

Applications open on Oct. 11, giving families until Dec. 8 to submit. Offers are expected to be released in April.

Julian Shen-Berro is a reporter covering New York City. Contact him at jshen-berro@chalkbeat.org.

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