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.”

school closures

Board approves merging two Whitehaven schools into K-8 amidst parent division

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
A community group proposed combining Manor Lake Elementary and Geeter Middle School, but elementary parents aren't convinced.

Two Memphis schools are combining into one kindergarten through eighth-grade school next year.

Manor Lake Elementary School will close and students will be assigned to Geeter Middle School, which is about a half-mile away. The name of the new school will be Geeter K-8.

The decision from the Shelby County Schools board Tuesday came after a community group charged with overseeing a group of low-performing Whitehaven schools proposed the consolidation to prevent an outright closure that would have scattered the elementary students.

That proposal was opposed by elementary school parents who were worried about the influence of older students in the building. School leaders assured them at a meeting last month that the children would be housed on separate floors.

A few parents spoke at the meeting against the merger.

“That’s not acceptable,” said Laura Ross. “Our area is dying and you’re not helping us.”

Both schools held far fewer students than their capacity and the district considered Manor Lake’s building in poor condition. Combined, the K-8 school could have about 600 students. The decision means that Manor Lake Elementary would be the district’s 22nd school closure since 2012.

The schools are slated to enter the district’s Whitehaven Empowerment Zone, a cluster of four low-performing neighborhood schools that is adding five more next year. The Empowerment Zone is a district program that seeks to increase collaboration across schools and grade levels, and offers extra support for teachers and administrators. It is neighborhood specific to Whitehaven and a less expensive turnaround model for schools in danger of appearing on the state’s “priority list” of lowest performing schools.

Part of that transition to the Empowerment Zone means that teachers will have to re-apply for their jobs. Teachers with evaluation scores below a 3 on the district’s five-point scale will be reassigned to other schools.

Geeter Middle School was one of the first in the district’s Innovation Zone, a program that adds an extra hour to the school day and offers support services for students, most of whom live in poverty. Schools in the Innovation Zone — also known as the iZone — are located all over the city and cost about $600,000 extra to operate per school per year. Unlike Empowerment zones, schools in the iZone are already on the state’s list of lowest performing schools.

Manor Lake Elementary was one of 20 schools that exited the state’s list of lowest-performing schools in 2017 and is currently not in danger of appearing on the list again.

When Geeter switches to the district’s Empowerment Zone, the middle school will be the first to leave the iZone to go into a different district program meant to raise student test scores.

MERGE AHEAD

Wadleigh middle school is safe — for now — after Harlem community rallied to stop its closure

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
A Wadleigh graduate addresses the crowd at a rally outside the school. Students, parents and community leaders spoke against the city's plans to close the Harlem performing arts school.

Supporters scored a partial victory in their fight to keep the middle school alive at Wadleigh Secondary, a politically connected and historically important performing and visual arts school in Harlem.

Marking one of Richard Carranza’s first major moves as chancellor, the education department on Monday pulled its proposal to cut Wadleigh’s middle school grades — just days before the Panel for Educational Policy was scheduled to vote on the school’s fate. But the department also announced that it will begin laying the groundwork to combine Wadleigh with another district middle school in the building.

The school, which was saved from closure once before after a public outcry, will continue to serve students in grades six through 12 for the next school year.

“After listening to extensive feedback from Wadleigh families and community members, the chancellor is withdrawing the proposal to truncate the middle school grades at Wadleigh Secondary School,” the education department confirmed in an email.

The fight for the school, which is part of the city’s high-profile Renewal turnaround program, is likely not over. Saying the middle school’s academic performance is “not acceptable,” the education department announced it will begin a planning process to combine Wadleigh with Frederick Douglass Academy II. For school communities, such mergers can feel just like a closure, with one school often retaining its name, keeping the same leadership, and preserving its unique approach to teaching.

“We still have a lot of work to do,” said Gigs Taylor-Stephenson, president of the Wadleigh PTA. “The whole idea was to maintain our identity as an arts school with an strong academic component. It doesn’t seem like that’s the case, and we’ve argued time and time again that we don’t want to be a separate middle and high school.”

Education department spokesman Michael Aciman stressed that the plan to combine the schools is still in the early phases and said “the community will help shape and decide what the proposal looks like.”

The decision marks Carranza’s first foray in the controversial school closure process since becoming chancellor earlier this month. Kim Watkins, president of the Community Education Council in District 3, which includes Wadleigh, said the chancellor met with parent leaders and elected officials to hear their pleas to save the middle school.

“Something wasn’t right, and it was very reassuring to our council and to the community in Harlem that our chancellor took an interest,” Watkins said. “His fresh eyes, in conjunction with the hard work of community leaders, led us to the update we’re hearing today.”

Monday’s about-face marked at least the second time supporters beat back a proposal to shut down the middle school at Wadleigh, which has long struggled academically but enjoys a remarkable constituency. When it was targeted for closure in 2011, the famed philosopher Cornel West was among those who rallied to keep it open — and so did Mayor Bill de Blasio, who at the time served as the city’s public advocate. A new principal was installed but Wadleigh landed on the city’s list of struggling schools just two years later, and officials drew up an “action plan” to help turn things around.

After de Blasio was elected, Wadleigh became a part of the city’s latest improvement efforts: the Renewal program, which infuses schools with added resources and tacks on extra time to the school day. Still, the school has continued to struggle. In December, the education department recommended shutting down the middle school, citing low enrollment and three years without a single student scoring “proficient” on state math exams.

The latest battle to keep Wadleigh alive drew support from the NAACP, the local Community Education Council, elected officials including a state senator and the city comptroller, along with countless parents, students, alumni and school staff. Many argued the school still hasn’t received the help it needed to boost test scores. City data shows Wadleigh enrolls students who are usually the toughest to serve: Many enter middle school already lagging behind their peers, almost all come from economically needy families, and a disproportionate number have special needs.

“How about you just help us and keep this school together,” one student asked at a rally on Friday outside Wadleigh. “I don’t want this school to close down.”

This time around, the education department says it will appoint an assistant principal to focus on the middle school grades in both Wadleigh and Frederick Douglass. Starting next school year, the middle school grades will begin working together on math instruction and share arts resources, and staffers will train together, according to the education department.

Planning for combining both schools will start this year, with the merger set to take effect for the 2019-20 school year.

The announcement could deepen a clash between city officials and the popular but controversial Success Academy charter network, which also runs a school in the same building. Just last month, Success founder Eva Moskowitz stood outside the school and said the city has ignored Success’s requests for more room there. The network has filed a complaint asking state education officials to intervene.

A spokesman for Success declined to comment Monday, but the network’s leaders have said the charter school enrolls one-third of the students in the building, with only a quarter of the space.