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 the most selective middle schools in District 15.

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.”

Busing Ban

As school districts push for integration, decades-old federal rule could thwart them

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post
Several districts across the country want to use federal money to pay for school buses as part of their desegregation plans. A federal spending restriction could get in the way.

In Florida, officials plan to use federal money to shuttle students across vast Miami-Dade County to new science-themed magnet programs in a bid to desegregate several schools.

In South Carolina, a tiny district west of Myrtle Beach intends to spend federal funds on free busing for families who enroll at two predominantly black schools, hoping that will draw in white and Hispanic students.

And in New York, state officials want to deploy federal school-improvement money to help integrate struggling schools, believing that may be the secret to their rebirth.

But each of these fledgling integration efforts — and similar ones across the country — could be imperiled by obscure budget provisions written during the anti-busing backlash of the 1970s, which prohibit using federal funding for student transportation aimed at racial desegregation. The rules have been embedded in every education spending bill since at least 1974, as Rep. Bobby Scott of Virginia pointed out in September when he tried unsuccessfully to remove the provisions from the latest appropriations bill.

The rules are “a relic of an ugly history when states and school districts across the nation resisted meaningful integration,” said Scott, the top Democrat on the House education committee, during a floor speech where he called the persistence of the rules “morally reprehensible.”

After Scott’s amendment to eliminate the provisions was blocked, advocates are now working behind the scenes to convince members of the Senate from both parties to strike the rules from the latest spending bill during negotiations. More than 40 integration advocates and experts have signed onto a letter to lawmakers calling for the anti-busing language to be removed, and members of that coalition plan to meet with lawmakers in the coming days.

Advocates are especially worried about funding for magnet programs, like those in Miami and the South Carolina district, which rely on special science or art offerings or rigorous academic courses to draw students of different races into the same school — a choice-based approach that has become the primary way districts now pursue desegregation.

This is the first year districts that receive federal magnet-school grants are allowed to spend some of that money on transportation, after Congress changed the rules as part of its education-law overhaul in 2015. Among the 32 districts that received a total of nearly $92 million in magnet grants this year, at least six plan to use some of that money for transportation, according to their applications.

Now, just as those funds are about to flow to busing — which many families insist upon before they will enroll their children in magnet schools across town — the decades-old spending restriction could cut them off, advocates warn.

That could create a major problem for districts like Miami-Dade County.

It hopes to attract students from across the district to three heavily black and Hispanic schools by launching magnet programs that focus on zoology, cybersecurity, and mobile-app development, according to its application. To pull that off, it requested $245,000 for buses next year since, as the application notes, the “most limiting factor” for many families is “the cost associated with transporting their child to the magnet school.”

The district in Lake City, South Carolina wants to pull new families from different neighborhoods into an elementary school and a middle school that suffer from sagging enrollment and intense poverty. Previous recruitment efforts that didn’t provide transportation amounted to “failed attempts,” the district said in its application.

However, if the anti-busing provisions are not removed from the next federal spending bill, they would cancel out the new rule allowing those districts to spend some of their magnet money on transportation (though districts could still use local funds to fill in the gap). As such, magnet-school representatives are pushing hard for lawmakers to remove the provisions during budget negotiations.

“We’re hoping this doesn’t see the light of day,” said John Laughner, legislative and communications manager at Magnet Schools of America, an association of magnets from across the country. He plans to discuss the issue with lawmakers next week.

Beyond magnet schools, other desegregation efforts could be undercut by the anti-busing provision, which was included in a spending bill for fiscal year 2018 that the House approved and one the Senate has yet to vote on.

At least one state — New York — listed socioeconomic and racial integration among the ways it could intervene in low-performing schools under the new federal education law. In addition, New York officials announced a grant program this week where up to 30 districts will receive federal money to develop integration plans.

Advocates fear the anti-busing rule could disrupt any of those plans that require transportation and aim to reduce racial segregation. (New York education officials said they did not want to speculate on the impact of a spending bill that hasn’t been approved.)

A Democratic Congressional aide who has studied the issue said the provision could even block federal funding for planning or public outreach around desegregation programs that involve busing, not just busing itself.

Either way, advocates say the provision could dissuade districts from using the new education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, to pursue integration — even though research suggests that student achievement on tests and other measures improve when they attend less segregated schools.

“We shouldn’t have this,” said Philip Tegeler, a member of the National Coalition on School Diversity, which is leading the charge to remove the restriction. He added that the provision stemmed from mandatory desegregation busing of an earlier era: “It’s clearly an anachronism that doesn’t really fit any more with what states and districts are doing voluntarily.”

A U.S. education department spokeswoman said Secretary Betsy DeVos would be bound to enforce any funding prohibitions that Congress approves, though she noted that state and local funds are not subject to the same restrictions.

Negotiators from the House and Senate must still agree on a single spending bill, which would go before the full Congress for a vote. Until then, lawmakers have voted to temporarily extend 2017 spending levels through December. It’s possible Congress will pass another extension then, meaning a final deal — and a decision on the anti-busing language — may not arrive until early next year.

In the meantime, advocates are pressing lawmakers like Sen. Lamar Alexander, the Republican chairman of the Senate education committee who helped craft ESSA, with the argument that the anti-busing provision limits the flexibility and local control the law was meant to provide districts.

Margaret Atkinson, a spokeswoman for the senator, would not say whether he is open to removing the provision, but said he would continue working to ensure ESSA “is implemented as Congress intended.”

The anti-busing language — found in two sections of the current appropriation bills — prohibits using federal funds for transportation “to overcome racial imbalance” or “to carry out a plan of racial desegregation,” or forcing students to attend any school other than the one closest to home. (A separate education law contains a similar restriction, but ESSA exempted magnet schools from it.) The provisions emerged in the early 1970s, just after the Supreme Court ruled that busing students to schools outside their own racially isolated neighborhoods was an appropriate tool for school desegregation.

At the time, many white parents raged against what they called “forced busing.” In response, the U.S. House of Representatives passed at least one law annually from 1966 to 1977 meant to curb school integration, according to historian Jason Sokol, and in 1974 the full Congress voted in favor of an anti-busing amendment to an education bill. The restrictions in the current spending bills appear to have originated around the same time.

The attacks on busing reflect how crucial free transportation is to school desegregation, said Erica Frankenberg, a professor at Pennsylvania State University who studies segregation. Busing was included in guidelines outlining how districts should comply with desegregation requirements in the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and later upheld by the Supreme Court, she pointed out.

More recently, studies have shown that non-white parents are more likely to opt into magnet schools when they provide transportation, and that magnets that don’t offer busing are more likely to enroll students of a single race, Frankenberg said. Yet, many politicians remain reluctant to endorse busing for desegregation — which may reflect a deeper ambivalence, she added.

Resistance to busing, she said, “is a very politically acceptable way to be opposed to integration.”

Student recruitment

How common is it for districts to share student contact info with charter schools? Here’s what we know.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Staff members of Green Dot Public Schools canvass a neighborhood near Kirby Middle School in the summer of 2016 before reopening the Memphis school as a charter.

As charter schools emerge alongside local school districts across the nation, student addresses have become a key turf war.

Charter schools have succeeded in filling their classes with and without access to student contact information. But their operators frequently argue that they have a right to such information, which they say is vital to their recruitment efforts and gives families equal access to different schools in their area.

Disputes are underway right now in at least two places: In Tennessee, school boards in Nashville and Memphis are defying a new state law that requires districts to hand over such information to charters that request it. A New York City parent recently filed a formal complaint accusing the city of sharing her information improperly with local charter schools.

How do other cities handle the issue? According to officials from a range of school districts, some share student information freely with charters while others guard it fiercely.

Some districts explicitly do not share student information with charter schools. This includes Detroit, where the schools chief is waging an open war with the charter sector for students; Washington, D.C., where the two school sectors coexist more peacefully; and Los Angeles.

Others have clear rules for student information sharing. Denver, for example, set parameters for what information the district will hand over to charter schools in a formal collaboration agreement — one that Memphis officials frequently cite as a model for one they are creating. Baltimore and Boston also share information, although Boston gives out only some of the personal details that district schools can access.

At least one city has carved out a compromise. In New York City, a third-party company provides mass mailings for charter schools, using contact information provided by the school district. Charter schools do not actually see that information and cannot use it for other purposes — although the provision hasn’t eliminated parent concerns about student privacy and fair recruitment practices there.

In Tennessee, the fight by the state’s two largest districts over the issue is nearing a boiling point. The state education department has already asked a judge to intervene in Nashville and is mulling whether to add the Memphis district to the court filing after the school board there voted to defy the state’s order to share information last month. Nashville’s court hearing is Nov. 28.

The conflict feels high-stakes to some. In Memphis, both local and state districts struggle with enrolling enough students. Most schools in the state-run Achievement School District have lost enrollment this year, and the local district, Shelby County Schools, saw a slight increase in enrollment this year after years of freefall.

Still, some charter leaders wonder why schools can’t get along without the information. One Memphis charter operator said his school fills its classes through word of mouth, Facebook ads, and signs in surrounding neighborhoods.

“We’re fully enrolled just through that,” said the leader, who spoke on condition of anonymity to protect his relationship with the state and local districts. “It’s a non-argument for me.”

A spokeswoman for Green Dot Public Schools, the state-managed charter school whose request for student information started the legal fight in Memphis, said schools in the Achievement School District should receive student contact information because they are supposed to serve students within specific neighborhood boundaries.

“At the end of the day, parents should have the information they need to go to their neighborhood school,” said the spokeswoman, Cynara Lilly. “They deserve to know it’s open.”