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.