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.”

universal choice

Denver’s window for choosing schools opens Tuesday

PHOTO: Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post
Sophia Camacena sits with classmates in kindergarten on the first day of school at McGlone Academy in Denver on Aug. 15, 2018.

The one-month window for Denver families to list their top school choices for next school year starts Tuesday and runs through Feb. 15.

Denver Public Schools expects to inform families of their school placement results in late March.

Denver Public Schools has a universal school choice system that allows families to use a single online form to request to attend any district-run or charter school in the city. Charter schools are publicly funded but independently run. This year, 60 of Denver’s 213 schools are charters.

While many school districts nationwide have a contentious relationship with charter schools, Denver is known for its collaboration with them, which includes the universal enrollment system. That collaboration has been the subject of criticism from parents, teachers, and community members who see the independent schools as siphoning students and resources from district-run schools.

The 93,000-student school district especially encourages families with children going into the so-called transition grades of kindergarten, sixth, and ninth grade to fill out a choice form. Families list their top five school choices, and the district uses a lottery system to assign students.

Schools can set their own enrollment priorities. Many district-run schools give high priority to students who live within their boundary and to siblings of current students, for example.

The district also has 15 “enrollment zones,” which are expanded boundaries with several schools in them. Students who live in zones are guaranteed a spot at one of the schools in the zone but not necessarily the school closest to them.

Denver has used zones as a way to increase school integration. Many neighborhoods in Denver are segregated by race and income, and the district’s reasoning is that widening boundaries provides the opportunity for a more diverse school population.

But a 2016 district analysis found that enlarging middle school boundaries had not decreased school segregation as much as district officials hoped it would.

The district also has a school integration pilot program that gives students from low-income families priority to enroll at schools that serve mostly students from affluent families. The results have been modest, and district officials are exploring ways to expand the impact.

how we got here

I’m a white teacher who chose a high-poverty school for my daughter. Here’s why.

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat

When I read Saratu Ghartey’s story last fall that beautifully and honestly captured her experience touring, searching for, and finally selecting a “good” preschool for her son, I recognized myself. I, too, have been consumed by tours and distraught by the inequity among schools across districts — for years as an educator and now as a parent, too.

I spent the first decade of my career teaching at Title I schools that served mostly black and brown students, many from immigrant families. The first was an ambitious small high school with unrealized dreams of inspiring community organizing, and the other a more established 6-12 progressive school nestled in an affluent Brooklyn neighborhood. Regardless of location, neither school was sought after by middle-class white families.

Some of my students came resistant, unconvinced that they had anything to gain from a white lady like myself. And in the beginning, their doubts won me over. So I sought out mentors, drowned myself in teacher books, and eventually learned how to lead with a stern, intentional, witty kind of love. I committed myself to crafting curriculum that was culturally relevant, to helping students see the ways that their stories, their histories, their voices mattered.

I was often disheartened by the apathy I saw, kids more interested in their cell phones than the texts I had presumptively selected. Often when I pushed disengaged students, I found that their minds were on a sick loved one, an anniversary of a death, a shooting in their building, the chronic discomfort of a shelter. My lesson was white noise floating above the soundtrack of their trauma. And, as teens do, they formed community around their traumas, taking on each other’s burdens so that the load would be dispersed. This meant that many of my students were often distracted, and I often found myself drained and ill-equipped to give each student’s crisis proper attention.

And yet, I was also energized by my students’ willingness to re-engage each day. Teenagers, though often grouchy, are refreshingly optimistic. Their resilience, brilliance, humor, and belief in possibilities fueled me. They were not hamstrung by crises, and some went on to win writing contests and earn competitive scholarships at prestigious colleges. I loved them fiercely, and we always made space for laughter. My colleagues were among the most dedicated, innovative humans I have met and they helped transform the lives of their students.

Because of these experiences, I am one of the white parents Ghartey describes: I have chosen to enroll my white daughter in a high poverty, mostly black and Latinx school because this school embraces and values the children of our neighborhood. Ghartey asserts that the stakes for her black son are too high to make this choice, and unfortunately, the stakes are different indeed. Though I worry that class and cultural differences may leave my daughter feeling out of the loop and efforts to fit in may present as cultural appropriation, I, unlike Ghartey, do not fear that assimilating to her school culture will lead my daughter to become entangled in the criminal justice system. Authorities will never view her skin color as inherently threatening.

So I share my own experiences more for families like mine, grappling with whether the benefits of a diverse school outweigh the perceived costs. I know that they do, for all students — a perspective informed in part by having worked for the past year at a more economically diverse school where addressing students’ socio-emotional needs is more manageable because fewer students live in poverty.

The students at my current school often produce more, take their thinking further, and perform better on state tests not because I have magically become a better teacher or because they have greater aptitude — it is because a majority of them come from middle-class homes. A majority of them trust that school will help them succeed (as it helped their parents) and enter the classroom with their personal needs satisfied. Their investment fuels an atmosphere where learning is the main focus.

This dynamic allows me as a teacher to dedicate more time to students whose skills are lagging or who need additional emotional support to deepen their thinking. Last year, one of my students lived in temporary housing and entered with a vendetta against books. I was able to give him the extra attention he needed — access to headphones, a laptop, a school Audible account, new books by the brilliant and relatable Jason Reynolds — and this reader jumped three grade levels by June. I could do that because the majority of the other students in his class could make progress with greater independence.

In another class, I was able to offer individualized attention to a student whose home language was Montenegrin, and whose struggles with English syntax barred her from comprehending grade-level texts. In collaboration with our dynamic special educator and speech teacher, I helped this student gain confidence and make progress. We discovered midway through the year that another student, whose parents were embroiled in a divorce, was contemplating suicide. Because his crisis was not competing with many others, we were able to get him the immediate attention, support, and resources he needed.

I also witnessed the powerful benefits classroom diversity had on my white, middle-class students. One boy learned through his interactions with a Latinx classmate who lived in public housing that the phrase “all lives matter” was offensive, and a girl found inspiration in a black peer who boldly shared her critical insights with peers but who privately struggled with writing mechanics. In his final evaluation of the class, a white student, who flaunted his wealth and openly ridiculed his less affluent peers, reflected that his experience that year taught him how to listen more to people and be kinder. “You never know what someone is going through,” he wrote.

This isn’t just the beauty of a diverse school — this is the reason public schools exist. When we pool our resources and allow everyone to access to rich, joyful learning and high expectations, we allow public schools to be the great equalizers that they ought to be. Yet, in a city where we have the unique opportunity to bring kids of various backgrounds together through school, we usually decline. When middle class parents flock en masse to specific schools, they deplete others of the opportunity to realize public education’s equalizing potential. And even as individual families make difficult choices to integrate schools, the system remains hypersegregated.

As I weigh K-5 options for my daughter, I am not immune to that sinking feeling that my daughter is going to miss out if I don’t fight for entry into the schools that get all the buzz. I’m drawn to more progressive options outside of our neighborhood where children learn more through exploration, teachers have the luxury to draw out their natural creativity and curiosity to deepen learning, where success on the state test feels more like an afterthought than the driving mission.

PHOTO: Contributed by Stumpf
Alie Stumpf and her family

Yet these schools are already oversaturated with white upper to middle class kids — demographics that stand in stark contrast to our beloved neighborhood. As Ghartey wrote, many families of color choose schools with a more traditional approach when possible. I could also throw our hat in the ring at the “unicorn” school and others like it. But I think the unspoken requirement to beg for admission into a public school disqualifies the institution from truly being for the people.

As I consider these possibilities, I recall what journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones said at a recent event I attended for parents and advocates seeking a less segregated school system: “If you make the choice only for your child, you’re choosing to sacrifice someone else’s.” I know true equity means giving up privilege so that others may also enjoy it. It means making myself vulnerable to the “rocks” Ghartey mentions that are inevitable whenever a community changes. It means that my daughter’s classrooms may not look as flashy as the most coveted elementary schools because her teachers are using their prep periods to respond to the social-emotional needs of their students. It may mean that some of her peers come to school distracted, or that the presence of the state test looms over too much of the work they do.

But let’s get real: my daughter will carry her whiteness and its privileges into this setting and will be just fine; the rocks for her are never going to be as sharp as they are for Ghartey’s family. Throughout most of history, we’ve left it to black families to be the pioneers of integration. It’s long past time for white families to step up in New York City.

And they should because it’s best for us, too, on the merits: at an economically and racially diverse school, my daughter will grow up as part of a vibrant, resilient community, among classmates who live both a few blocks away and a whole world apart, broadening her perspective and enfolding her in a real neighborhood. The attractions of diversity played a big role in my and my husband’s decision to settle in the city rather than the suburbs. But that’s only window-dressing if we don’t insist that this diversity be reflected inside schools and not just outside them.

Though I am hopeful about Chancellor Richard Carranza’s initiatives to increase school diversity, I think school integration will only be achieved when white families like mine commit to integrated schools in their own neighborhoods. It may take hard work — more PTA involvement, more fundraisers, more listening and understanding — but most things worth having do.

Alie Stumpf has been teaching reading and writing in New York City public schools since 2006. She lives in Brooklyn and currently teaches sixth-grade humanities in Manhattan.