behind the scenes

Why some principals say screening students can actually help schools hang onto diversity

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

The news caused a stir when it emerged last month: An overhauled middle school opening soon in the chic Dumbo neighborhood would start handpicking its students rather than admitting anyone who applies.

The decision upset some parents who feared that their children could be shut out, and alarmed advocates of school integration who say that selective admissions often disadvantage low-income students of color. And while district leaders insisted that the Brooklyn school would enroll a diverse mix of students, no one could tell parents exactly how that would work.

“They’re just pulling this out of a hat and telling us that everything is going to be fine,” said Clifford Dodd, the parent of a kindergartener at P.S. 307, which feeds students into the Satellite West Middle School, the struggling middle school that was redesigned.

But the notion that a school could sort through applicants with an eye toward diversity is not unprecedented. In fact, the redesigned school, known as The Dock Street School for STEAM Studies, is hoping to follow the lead of a handful of progressive-minded principals in New York City who have taken a screening system designed to make schools academically selective and bent it toward their aim of diversity.

The principals run popular middle schools in gentrifying neighborhoods where an influx of new middle-class families could potentially crowd out low-income families of color. To prevent that, the principals have used the discretion afforded them by the screening process to try to enroll students from different backgrounds — by seeking out students from elementary schools with many black and Hispanic students, for example, or by giving a boost to applicants whose families are staying in homeless shelters.

“We know that for the most part screening means segregation,” said Mark Federman, the principal of the East Side Community School, a public grades 6-12 school in the East Village. “So let’s reverse the purpose of screening — let’s use it for the purpose of serving all kids.”

Screening for diversity

District 13 Superintendent Barbara Freeman at presentation on the Dock Street School.
District 13 Superintendent Barbara Freeman at presentation on the Dock Street School.

Dock Street is still figuring out how it will pick its applicants, even though the admissions process is underway. But a few middle schools that have tried to maintain a mix of students in the face of swift gentrification offer a possible playbook.

At Brooklyn’s Park Slope Collegiate, the school’s incoming sixth-grade class has gone from having no white students to being more than half white in just the past four years, according to school officials.

To try to slow that shift, the school screens for students from local elementary schools where the white population is close to the district average, rather than disproportionately white. (It still gives top preference to students who rank the school first or second on their applications, regardless of their elementary school.)

The Academy of Arts and Letters in Fort Greene, whose free-lunch-eligible population has shrunk by 20 percentage points since 2010, screens incoming sixth-graders by grades, surveys of their former teachers, student interviews, and a writing task.

In choosing among applicants, Principal John O’Reilly said he tries to pick a few students from each elementary school in the district to maintain some socioeconomic diversity. He said he also makes sure to pick some applicants who have disabilities.

East Side Community School considers applicants’ grades, attendance, and an essay about why they believe they are a good match for the school. Like the other schools, it resists factoring in test scores, which tend to be higher among affluent students.

When weighing applicants, the school gives preference to siblings of current students — one way of preserving the current mix of students from different backgrounds. The school also takes into account whether an applicant’s family has experienced an economic hardship, such as living in a homeless shelter or in public housing.

The city does not provide screened schools with information about applicants’ socioeconomic status, so principals seeking a mix of students from different income levels must rely on other indicators, such as the elementary school a student attended, or make an informed guess based on information provided by students or their families.

Education department spokeswoman Toya Holness said that the city has begun providing information about whether students qualify for free or reduced-priced lunch to seven elementary schools in a pilot program that lets those schools reserve some seats for low-income students. The city is studying the results of the program as it considers expanding it, she added.

At the city’s screened middle schools, principals are given wide latitude to decide what criteria to use to evaluate incoming students and then how to use those criteria to rank them. It’s that ranking process, where principals have nearly sole discretion, that allows some schools to pick only top-performing students.

Asked whether schools may use their screens to foster a school that is academically, racially, and socioeconomically diverse, Holness said in an email: “If a principal has sufficient applicants and seeks a diverse population, he or she has the discretion to do so through the way students are ranked for selection.”

The process for applying to middle school varies widely by district and school. An official middle-school directory lists the factors that screened schools consider, but the process they use to rank students is notoriously opaque — schools must share the rubrics they use to evaluate applicants only if families ask to see them.

In effect, some principals have taken advantage of that arcane system to try to make their schools diverse. Some experts question whether individual school leaders should have so much authority to define diversity and set targets, but others say that flexibility is worth the cost in transparency.

“At some point you have to have a little faith in human discretion, even if we can’t make that absolutely transparent,” said Laura Zingmond, a member of the city’s Panel for Educational Policy and a senior editor at Insideschools.

The scene in Dumbo

Carl King with his son, Josh, a pre-kindergarten student at P.S. 307.
PHOTO: Fabiola Cineas
Carl King with his son, Josh, a pre-kindergarten student at P.S. 307.

The tension between trust and transparency is playing out at the Dock Street School.

The school was not able to screen its first round of 139 applicants, who applied by the December deadline. But it will screen students who applied by the March deadline for new middle-school programs based on their fourth-grade report cards, test scores, and attendance.

What remains unclear is how the school will use those criteria to pick a diverse mix of students, and what type of diversity it will try to achieve.

Dock Street’s principal, Melissa Vaughan, did not respond to an interview request.

David Goldsmith, the president of District 13’s Community Education Council and a member of a 30-person team that helped develop the plans for Dock Street, said the system for choosing applicants has not been finalized. But he insisted that a mix of students would be admitted, and he urged families to consider the fact that the district has undertaken a years-long campaign to increase socioeconomic integration in its schools.

“You know the players here and the history of the district,” he said. “The commitment to diversity is very strong — that’s a fact.”

The district superintendent, Barbara Freeman, said the screening process would give the school more information about applicants in order to enroll a “mix of diverse learners.” She insisted that it is not, as some parents suspect, a way to admit only high-achieving students in a bid to make the school attractive to the district’s newer, more affluent residents.

“We never said that the school wants to screen for high-performing students only,” she said. “This is not a school just for gentrifiers.”

Still, some parents remain unconvinced.

Outside of P.S. 307 in Vinegar Hill, which is down the street from Dock Street’s soon-to-open building, several parents last week said they had heard few details about the new school’s admissions method. A few worried that the screening process would result in some long-time district residents losing spots to newcomers.

“It hurts my heart because it seems to be a kind of segregated style and creaming process,” said Carl King, whose son attends pre-kindergarten at P.S. 307. “By the time our children get to the screening, they might not make it in.”

Fabiola Cineas contributed reporting.

Education on screen

School segregation at center of new documentary from collective founded by Ava DuVernay

PHOTO: ARRAY

Sixty years to the day after the Little Rock Nine integrated a high school in Arkansas, a documentary chronicling how many of America’s school systems have segregated again is set to debut at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis.

PHOTO: ARRAY
Sonia Lowman

The film, “Teach Us All,” is the basis of what first-time filmmaker Sonia Lowman hopes will be a national student-led movement to integrate schools. The film is being released with a social action curriculum meant to help students gather information about their own school systems and push for change.

“We are at a point where we are regressing, where we’re at risk of eroding the gains of the civil rights movement,” Lowman said.

In the film, Lowman looks at Little Rock schools separated by race and class, both when the Supreme Court cut down school segregation laws and more recently. But it’s not just the South: the film explores segregation in New York City and Los Angeles by race, class and language.

PHOTO: ARRAY
Central High School in Little Rock, Ark. where nine students integrated the then all-white school in 1957.

It also touches on the challenges schools face in attempting to integrate, and the complicated choices parents have to make about where to send their children for school.

Read our Q&A with Ruby Bridges, who at six years old was the first black student to integrate New Orleans schools.

The documentary is being distributed by ARRAY, a collective founded in 2010 by producer Ava DuVernay, an award-winning filmmaker who produced the movie “Selma” and the documentary “13th.” “Teach Us All” will be shown in 12 cities and be released on Netflix on Sept. 25.

The National Civil Rights Museum, where the film will premiere in Memphis, has taken an active role this year in hosting events that delve into issues of educational equity. Museum President Terri Freeman recently said she sees education-focused programming as a key part of their mission.

“For the museum not to have conversation about education, with the museum being an institution of education in an informal way, would be for the museum to not do what it’s supposed to,” Freeman said at a panel discussion on school segregation. “If people come to look at photographs, but there’s no change involved, then in my estimation we failed as an institution.”

You can watch the trailer below. RSVP to register to attend the Memphis screening:

pick a school

Denver Public Schools making changes to choice process meant to benefit low-income parents

PHOTO: Karl Gehring/Denver Post
A Lincoln Elementary student practices her writing skills in this 2008 file photo.

Denver Public Schools is making changes to its nationally recognized school choice system, in part to make it easier for low-income parents to navigate and to assuage fears of undocumented families wary of providing personal information given the national political climate.

The district plans to roll out a new, mobile-friendly school information website, as well as eliminate a requirement that families show “proof papers” to participate in the choice process.

This year will be the seventh that DPS has used a unified enrollment system for all of its schools, including district-run, innovation and charter schools. Families fill out a form listing their top five school choices. The district especially encourages families with kids moving into so-called transition grades — kindergarten, 6th and 9th grades — to fill out a form.

If they don’t, students will be assigned to their boundary school or to a school in their enrollment zone, which is essentially a bigger boundary that includes several schools.

District leaders believe that if families are informed about their choices and can enroll their students in the schools that are the best fit, those students will be more successful.

But not all families are participating. Last school year, district statistics show 87 percent of kindergarteners, 87 percent of sixth-graders and 73 percent of ninth-graders filled out the form. Participation has historically been lower among low-income families than wealthier families.

Remaining barriers include a low awareness of how to research different school options, district officials said. The fact that the choice process takes place in January, seven months before the next school year starts in August, also makes picking a school difficult for families experiencing housing insecurity who may not know where they’ll be living in the fall, officials said.

To make it more accessible, the district is planning to change three things about the upcoming school choice process, which will determine where students enroll in 2018-19. The changes were revealed at a school board work session Monday night by Brian Eschbacher, executive director of enrollment and planning for DPS. They are:

1. Moving the choice process from January to February

In past years, the district has given families a weeks-long window in January to fill out their school choice forms. That means families must research their options — and schools must ramp up their recruiting — in December, a busy time of year filled with holidays and travel.

Plus, asking families to make school choices so far in advance of the next school year can be hard for those who don’t have stable housing or easy access to transportation, Eschbacher said.

To remedy both issues, the district is pushing the choice window back this year. It will open on February 1, and families will have until February 28 to turn in their forms.

Eschbacher said the district also hopes to have the results back sooner. He said his team is aiming in future years to tell families their school assignments in three weeks instead of six. This year, they’re hoping to release results in early April.

2. A new user-friendly, mobile-friendly school search tool

The district plans to debut a new online tool in late October or early November that will allow families to more easily find and evaluate DPS schools. The tool, called School Finder, is made by a California company called SchoolMint and is already being used by several large urban districts, including those in Oakland, Calif., Chicago and Camden, N.J.

The current DPS online tool is not mobile-friendly, which Eschbacher said presents a problem for families whose only internet access is through their smartphones. School Finder “looks slick” on a smartphone, Eschbacher said, and will allow families to look up a school’s rating, test scores, information about the programs it offers and even take a virtual tour.

The district hosted several forums with DPS school secretaries, community groups and non-English-speaking parents to get their thoughts on what information is most important to families choosing a school. Eschbacher said district staff are committed to providing that information to families free of jargon and in several languages.

“We’re trying to translate that into parent-speak, not buzzword-y speak,” he said.

Grants from the Walton Family Foundation and the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation are paying for the project, Eschbacher said. (The Walton Family Foundation also supports Chalkbeat.)

3. Eliminating “proof paperwork” as a requirement to participate in school choice

To participate in the process, the families of the thousands of students who are new to DPS each year have in the past been required to provide proof of their address, such as a utility bill, and proof of their child’s birthdate, such as a birth certificate.

But Eschbacher said district officials are worried that at a time when President Trump has taken a hard line on immigration enforcement, requiring proof paperwork will dissuade undocumented families from participating because they fear it will prompt government action.

According to Eschbacher, internal DPS research suggests between 6,000 and 8,000 of the district’s 92,000 students are undocumented. District leaders have been vocal about protecting those students. The school board passed a resolution in February assuring the district would do everything “in its lawful power” to protect students’ confidential information and ensure “students’ learning environments are not disrupted” by immigration enforcement actions.

This year, families who want to participate in choice only will have to tell DPS their child’s name, address and birthdate, Eschbacher said. Families eventually will have to produce proof paperwork but not until they register their children for school in the late summer, “when there is a longer window available and more community resources to help,” according to the board presentation.

School board members on Monday praised the changes, and lauded Eschbacher and his staff for proposing improvements to a system that’s earned national praise (and also criticism).

“To rethink the structure of what we’ve done in the past is a breakthrough and it will mean a lot to our families,” said school board member Happy Haynes.

Correction: A previous version of this story mischaracterized when district officials estimate choice results will be available this year.