Admissions Debate

New York City tweaks admissions at an elite middle school, sparking an uproar

PHOTO: Ashley Gunnis
Parents packed into the cafeteria of Medgar Evers College Preparatory School for a meeting in 2015.

A few weeks ago, the parent-teacher association at Medgar Evers College Preparatory School — a high-performing public school in Crown Heights, Brooklyn — caught wind of a plan that alarmed them.

The education department intended to seize control of the selective admissions process at the school and begin admitting more disadvantaged students, the PTA believed. It was only a matter of time, the group concluded, before the school would be forced to ratchet down its rigorous curriculum to accommodate the new students — in the process, they feared, undermining a successful, largely African American institution that has long been considered a neighborhood jewel.

The group dashed off a press release warning that officials planned to “dismantle” the school. (On Saturday, a state lawmaker who represents Crown Heights echoed that language in an op-ed opposing the plan, which he called “misguided and flawed.”) On Facebook, community members angrily noted that the city was trying to diversify a high-achieving predominantly black school, even as elite high schools like Stuyvesant remain overwhelmingly white and Asian.

When the PTA called an emergency meeting in the school’s cafeteria this month, hundreds of anxious parents attended. On Wednesday, the group staged a rally against the admissions changes that drew several elected officials.

“The educational aspect of our school will deteriorate” if the city takes over the school’s admissions, PTA President Norelda Cotterel told Chalkbeat last week. “It’s not going to be the same.”

In fact, the proposed changes are not as drastic as those feared by the PTA, education department officials say: By and large, the school will still get to choose whom to admit. But the city will oversee part of the admissions process, and the school will be expected to enroll more students with disabilities, as the Wall Street Journal first reported.

The education department is also imposing the new admissions requirements on other elite city schools, as part of a broader effort to standardize the admissions process and to spread students of different backgrounds and academic levels more evenly across the city’s schools, which are highly segregated by race, class, and academic achievement.

As a result of this campaign, high schools with selective admissions offered seats to three times as many students with disabilities in 2017 as they did five years earlier, according to the education department. Now, the city is setting its sights on the small number of middle schools — including Medgar Evers, which includes grades 6 to 12 — that run their own admissions systems rather than letting students use the city’s standard application form.

So far, this drive to diversify selective schools has centered on students with disabilities. But in the “diversity plan” the city released in June after persistent pressure from advocates, the education department also promised to eventually make selective schools enroll more students “with special instructional or support needs,” including those who are homeless or still learning English.

That goal has left Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration in a conundrum, underscored by the parents at Medgar Evers: Can the district promote school diversity while at the same time allowing students to be sorted into different schools according to academic achievement or artistic talent?

Some integration advocates say no and have called for the elimination of selective admissions, which is practiced in a quarter of New York City middle schools and a third of high schools. But many parents insist that high-achieving students can be pushed to reach their full potential only when surrounded by similarly strong classmates — a sentiment that has fueled the uproar at Medgar Evers.

Shawana Henry, whose daughter Madison is in the sixth grade at Medgar Evers, said she would gladly have the school enroll more disadvantaged students and ones with disabilities — as long as the coursework remains the same. Yet she also considers the school’s selectivity a vital component of its success.

“Changing the admission process would actually go against the legacy that the school has established,” she said in a text message. “There shouldn’t be any changes made to a school that is doing well unless it’s for further advancement.”

Medgar Evers College Prep, named for the slain African American civil-rights activist, complicates the usual critique of selective programs — that they often exclude low-income students of color. Its student body is 88 percent black and 71 percent from low-income families, and it rests in the city’s top academic tier. (Research has shown that grouping high-achieving black and Hispanic students into the same classes can greatly benefit them.)

Last year, the school achieved a 95 percent graduation rate, with 36 graduates leaving with an associate’s degree — the result of an early-college program that former President Obama lauded in a 2009 speech. The school pushes its students hard: They’re required to attend a six-week summer program each year until 10th grade, by which time most have earned all the credits necessary to graduate, according to the review website Insideschools.

But a big part of the school’s success can be traced to its admissions policy.

Administrators review middle-school applicants’ report cards, fourth-grade test scores, attendance records, and evidence of artistic or athletic talent; it also makes them sit for an entrance exam and interview. The result is that most incoming Medgar Evers students arrive with far higher test scores than the city average, do not have disabilities, and are proficient in English (less than one-half of one percent of students qualify as English learners, compared to 10.2 percent in its Brooklyn district).

To bring the school closer in line with its district’s demographics, the city has been sending it more students with disabilities who did not go through the usual application process; under the new proposal, the school will be expected to recruit and admit even more such students. (Currently 6.4 percent of Medgar Evers students have disabilities, versus 17.3 percent of students in its district.)

Parents, however, fear that eventually the school would have to “realign” its curriculum to meet the needs of a broader range of students — a fear that department officials tried to calm last week, in a visit by Deputy Chancellor Dorita Gibson, who insisted that the focus now is only on boosting the school’s share of students with disabilities.

At the same time, the city has a broader goal to standardize admissions for most middle schools so that families can apply to any school using the city’s standard application form — rather than having to apply directly to certain schools. That has fueled their push to incorporate Medgar Evers and the few middle schools that still manage their own admissions into the education department’s central application process.

Some 13 selective middle schools where students previously applied directly to the school — including the Anderson School and the Institute for Collaborative Education, two popular schools in Manhattan that admit students from across the city — are switching to the centralized system this fall. Medgar Evers will make the change next year for students applying to sixth grade (ninth-grade applicants already use the city’s common application form).

Medgar Evers and the other schools will continue to screen and rank their own applicants, but now they will submit their rankings to the enrollment office, which will notify students who have been accepted.

The department says the shift is mainly a technical change to simplify the application process for families. But it will also allow the city to monitor admissions at selective schools — and, perhaps, intervene if schools appear to be excluding certain groups of students.

Hello Again

Debora Scheffel chosen by acclamation to fill State Board of Ed vacancy

State Board of Education member Debora Scheffel at a campaign event in 2016. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

A Republican vacancy committee unanimously selected Debora Scheffel to fill the opening left by Pam Mazanec on the State Board of Education.

Mazanec, a staunch defender of parental rights and school choice who represented the 4th Congressional District, resigned at the end of January to focus on her other obligations. Scheffel previously represented the 6th Congressional District on the board but lost that seat in 2016 to Democrat Rebecca McClellan.

McClellan’s narrow victory gave control of the board to Democrats for the first time in 46 years. Scheffel, who serves as dean of education at Colorado Christian University, moved to Douglas County, and ran unsuccessfully for school board there in 2017.

Scheffel’s selection does not change the balance of power on the state board because she replaces another Republican. Scheffel faced no opposition at the vacancy committee meeting, which took place Saturday in Limon.

Scheffel has said she wants to continue Mazanec’s work on behalf of rural schools and in support of parent and student choice, as well as work to protect student data privacy, a cause she previously championed on the board.

The district takes in all of the eastern Plains, as well as the cities of Longmont, Greeley, and Castle Rock.

Future of Schools

Indianapolis struggles to balance how much money schools need with what people will pay

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Lewis Ferebee

Without a massive influx of cash from taxpayers, Indianapolis’ largest school district could be in dire financial straits. But the fate of the referendums asking voters for more money is in limbo.

Even as the Indianapolis Public Schools board revealed plans to reduce how much money it is seeking from voters, the administration portrayed the district’s financial future as precarious. During a board discussion Thursday, officials underscored how critical it would be for the tax increase to pass. It’s unclear, however, whether the district will get the extra cash it needs to avoid making painful cuts.

Critics have suggested the request — $936 million over eight years — is too high and that the district has not offered enough detail on how the money raised would be spent. With only tepid support for the tax plan, district leaders appear poised to reduce the amount they are seeking. That move could win over new allies, but it could also undercut their efforts to gain support.

Next year, the administration is expecting spending could outpace income by more than $45 million. The plan for filling that gap hinges on raising more than $46 million from a referendum that will go before voters in May.

Without that extra money, Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said, the district would have to burn through its savings or make vast cuts that could include freezing teacher pay, cutting school budgets, and reducing transportation.

The district would need to begin making cuts immediately, said board member Kelly Bentley. “It’s just going to get worse the next year, and the next year,” she added.

The district’s future will look brighter if leaders are able to win public support for more funding, although it’s no longer clear how much money they will ask for. The original plan, which was approved by the board in December, includes two referendums to raise property taxes. One would ask voters to give the district as much as $92 million more per year for eight years for operating expenses such as teacher pay. Another measure, which the district is not expected to change, would pay for $200 million in improvements to buildings.

Ferebee said the amount he originally proposed was based on what the district needs rather than what would be politically feasible. In the face of community feedback, however, the district is crafting a plan that would have a lower price tag. Next, the district will need to explain what services will be cut to keep down costs, he said.

“I anticipate people will want to know, ‘what are the tradeoffs?’ ” Ferebee said. “We owe it to the community to provide that explanation, and we will.”

Indiana districts have pursued more than 160 property tax referendums since 2008, when state lawmakers created the current school funding system. About 60 percent of those referendums have been successful, according to data from Indiana University’s Center for Evaluation and Education Policy.

Stephen Hiller, who has been studying referendums with the center for nearly a decade, said that it’s likely that many districts have had to reconcile how much money they would ideally want with how much taxpayers might be willing to pay. But that conversation likely happens before a referendum is announced and approved by the board.

“I think IPS has it a little more difficult here that it’s happening in the open after they’ve approved it in a very public way,” he added.

School board president Michael O’Connor said that the district’s willingness to change the plan is a sign that local government works.

“We live in the community within which we serve, and all of us have heard pretty plainly and clearly, ‘we think that number might be too big,’ ” he said. “We are being responsive to our constituents.”

Reducing the referendum could be enough to win over many supporters. Several groups that have supported the current administration in the past have not yet taken a stand.

Tony Mason of the Indianapolis Urban League said in a statement that the district needs more money to pay high-quality teachers and meet the needs of its diverse students. But he raised concerns about the potential impact of the tax increase on residents with fixed- or low-incomes.

“IPS will still need to continue in its efforts to make the case for the substantial amount it is requesting,” Mason said. “The IUL is an avid supporter of education, particularly for urban schools that struggle with unique challenges.”

Chelsea Koehring, who taught in the district and now has two children at the Butler Lab School, shares the view that the district needs more money. But leaders have not offered enough details about how the money would be spent, she said, and changing the request raises red flags.

“People, you should’ve had this together before you asked,” she said. “Lowering it at this point — I don’t know that that’s going to instill confidence in anyone that they have any clue what they are doing.”

Correction: February 17, 2018: This story has been corrected to reflect that Indiana districts have pursued more than 160 property tax referendums since 2008. Some districts have held multiple referendums.