debating admissions

Parents at a selective middle school fear an influx of ‘unscreened’ students

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
District 3 Superintendent Ilene Altschul, right, has proposed a middle school integration plan.

On a block wedged between Harlem and the Upper West Side, two middle schools share a regal building. The similarities largely end there.

Mott Hall II is “screened” — meaning students are picked based on their previous academic performance. Students outpace the district average on state tests, and the school receives seven applications for every available seat.

Mostly separated on a different floor, the middle school at P.S. 165 accepts students from the zoned elementary school. Only 8 percent of middle school students passed state math tests last year, and enrollment in the upper grades is shrinking.

The education department is proposing to close the middle school at P.S. 165, which could give popular Mott Hall II room to grow. But P.S. 165 students would be entitled to opt into Mott Hall II without meeting its academic criteria, which has Mott Hall II parents worried that the performance of their school could erode if it is flooded with students who struggle academically.

“Shouldn’t they earn it? My daughter earned her right into Mott Hall,” said Sophia Fofana, whose daughter attends the school, at a public meeting held Wednesday to discuss the possible changes. “Mott Hall II is a rigorous school and, no disrespect to the teachers at [P.S. 165], but obviously they’re not the same and these kids are going to have a hard time.”

The controversy is similar to many that have erupted over the years among parents who want to protect their selective schools from changes that they fear could make them less exclusive. The debates also raise the larger question of whether some public schools should be permitted to choose their students — as a quarter of New York City middle schools now do — while others must enroll anyone who applies.

Both the proposal to shutter P.S. 165 and subsequently expand Mott Hall II are in the early stages. Neither has been formally proposed, let alone approved.

If the middle school is closed, about 100 current students there are entitled to enroll in a higher-performing alternative. Those students would not have to go through the normal screening process, which allows schools to sort through applicants based on their grades, test scores, interviews and other criteria.

A shift in the student body could also have unintended consequences when it comes to diversity. Enrollment at Mott Hall II largely mirrors the demographics of District 3, where it sits — a rarity in New York City, which has among the most segregated school systems in the country. P.S. 165, meanwhile, enrolls more black and Hispanic students.

“It works because there is a balance. And that’s what we signed up for,” said Shanti Menon, whose daughter is in seventh grade at the school.

Advocates for integration have argued that allowing schools to select students based on factors such as their academic performance or attendance records exacerbates segregation. But Mott Hall II is a unique case in that the school has been able to enroll a mixed student body. An influx of students from P.S. 165 could throw that off.

Parents describe Mott Hall II as the most diverse middle school in District 3, and most reflective of its demographic and economic averages. About 37 percent of students are Hispanic, 26 percent are black, 23 percent are white and 6 percent are Asian. The poverty rate is about 47 percent.

At P.S. 165, meanwhile, 81 percent of middle school students are black or Hispanic. With a poverty rate of 74 percent, the school serves considerably more poor students than the district average of about 48 percent.

Raven Snook, whose daughter attends Mott Hall II, said she picked the school precisely because of its diversity. While Snook is white, her husband is Puerto Rican.

“It will radically change the diversity levels, at least temporarily,” she said.

If the closure is approved, education department officials say it’s not a given that P.S. 165 students would enroll next door. Superintendent Ilene Altschul pointed out that P.S. 165 has a dual language program, and families may want to enroll in another similar school. Department officials added that many students come from another school district entirely, so they may look for options closer to home.

Altschul said the education department would work with each family to find the best fit for their child.

“Not every child will go to Mott Hall II,”  she said at Wednesday’s meeting. “We are not taking the sixth and seventh grade and moving them to Mott Hall II.”

By December, officials expect to present a formal plan that would close the middle school at P.S. 165. The Panel for Education Policy, a citywide body, would vote on it in January. Any impacts on Mott Hall II should become clearer once that proposal is presented.

Still, the District 3 Community Education Council, which is made up of parent volunteers, has pressed the education department to start working with families who could be affected. Middle school applications are due Dec. 1, but the plans may not be finalized until well after families have made their decisions.

“They deserve to have an accurate picture of what the schools will look like,” said Kristen Berger, an education council member.

Education council members and parents have been frustrated with how quickly the changes could be approved, saying families in the Harlem area of District 3 have gotten short-shrift compared with their wealthier neighbors to the south. When the education department proposed to change the attendance zone at several elementary schools in the Upper West Side, parents dragged the debate on for more than a year.

“People in Harlem keep being told they’re not high enough of a priority to be afforded the depth of conversation that is afforded to white parents in District 3,” said Kim Watkins, the education council president. “It’s really disrespectful.”

Going to court

Memphis charter school sues former principal at center of student protests

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Students say Memphis Academy of Health Sciences High School has been uneasy since the principal was fired in August.

A Memphis charter high school is seeking $300,000 in damages — alleging that its former principal has been encouraging students to transfer from the high school and that he has violated his severance agreement.

In recent weeks, many students and parents have insisted that Memphis Academy of Health Sciences High School’s’ former principal, Reginald Williams, was fired unfairly. Parents who support Williams and Patricia Ange — another educator, who was recently let go — crowded into a recent school board meeting to register their disapproval of the school’s decision. And earlier this week, students led a walkout in support of both educators.

Florence Johnson, the lawyer for Memphis Academy, argued in the complaint filed late Wednesday that Williams “conspired” to “disrupt the operations of the school, to lure students away from the school, and to cause financial harm and public embarrassment to [the academy’s] standing in the educational community.”

Williams said he has neither been on campus since he was fired Aug. 10, nor has he spoken with Memphis Academy parents since then.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Reginald Williams
Reginald Williams

“All of this is embarrassing to me,” he told Chalkbeat, calling the lawsuit “baseless” and “frivolous.” “I haven’t, nor will I ever, impede students’ progress.”

In the court filing, the charter network noted it “allowed Williams to retire early rather than fire him outright for poor performance,” which differs from what school leaders had told parents and students. Parents were told Williams resigned and did not know his departure was about poor results on the state’s test this spring. But in internal emails obtained by Chalkbeat, the network’s executive director explicitly tied Williams’ departure to the scores. Using state test scores to fire teachers is illegal this year in Tennessee after major technical glitches to computerized testing, but it is unclear if the law applies to principals.

Under Williams’ severance agreement, the charter school gave him about $40,000 in exchange for assurance he would not speak ill of his former employer or speak about the agreement. Johnson argues Williams violated that during an Oct. 16 board meeting.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Parent advocacy organization Memphis Lift was at Memphis Academy of Health Sciences High School to protest firing a beloved principal and teacher.

Ange, a vocal supporter of Williams, had called the former principal and put him on speakerphone during the meeting as parents demanded answers. Williams said at the meeting that he did not have a problem with the decision to let him go.

“My only concern was how it was done,” he said. “If I’d known in the summertime, I could have found another place.”

Markayla Crawford, a senior at the high school who was among those who led protests after Williams and Ange were fired, said Williams did not ask her to protest on his behalf and had not heard of Williams contacting other students.

School leaders are “still not giving us answers about what happened,” she said. “All the kids are basically saying the same thing. The school is falling apart and no one knows what’s going on.”

A hearing is set for 10 a.m. Tuesday, Nov. 20 in Memphis chancery court.

money matters

Haven’t heard of participatory budgeting? Voters approved it on Tuesday — and here’s how it can bring millions to New York City schools.

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
Sunset Park Prep Principal Jennifer Spalding, left, and Assistant Principal Lauren Scott, right, sit in the school auditorium, which was renovated with funds won through participatory budgeting.

When a city councilman told Laura Espinoza she could win thousands of dollars for her local schools through a process called participatory budgeting, the mother of four was skeptical it could be true.  

Then she thought about a recent experience volunteering in her daughter’s Sunset Park school, where she watched the deep disappointment of a boy who lost a class project on an outdated laptop that abruptly died.

Espinoza decided to put together a proposal, working with teachers and administrators, to fund technology upgrades for P.S. 24, as well as other schools in the district, including her son’s middle school at the time, Sunset Park Prep. She was amazed when her son’s assistant principal called to say their project had won a share of almost $700,000 to be divided among schools.

“I said, ‘Wow! That’s what we were able to do?’” Espinoza remembers.

More New York City parents could have similar experiences at their schools after voters on Tuesday passed a ballot referendum that calls for participatory budgeting to expand to every council district. It’s a concept many New Yorkers may never have heard of but allows everyday parents and even students to steer millions of dollars to their communities, including their schools.

As it stands now, council members choose to participate in the process, dedicating at least $1 million of their discretionary budgets for the public to spend. Residents gather ideas through a formal process, and the proposals are put to a vote. Children as young as 11, or those who are in at least the sixth grade, can cast ballots — as well as anyone else who lives in the district. Projects with the most votes get funded.

Participatory budgeting has been a lifeline for Sunset Park Prep, a school that serves mostly children from low-income families and is nestled on a few floors of a 100-year old building. Principal Jennifer Spalding estimates the process has pumped $1.8 million into her school over the past five years.

“There’s no single source of money I can think of that would replace that amount,” she said. “It’s allowed us to do projects I never thought would be possible.” 

Since her first foray into the process, Espinoza has dedicated countless hours to drum up ideas and voters to support projects for schools in her community. She’s not alone in council District 38, which is overseen by Councilman Carlos Menchaca. Spanning immigrant enclaves such as Sunset Park, Red Hook, and other Brooklyn neighborhoods, the district last year tallied the most votes for participatory budgeting projects.

Many of those voters are school parents like Espinoza, who have turned to the process to fill resource gaps in their children’s classrooms — raising the kind of money that would be the envy of PTAs in more well-off schools but also challenging stereotypes about how involved immigrant parents and those of more modest means are in their neighborhood schools. Across the city, surveys show that participatory budget voters are more likely to be among the very poor, Hispanic, or come from communities who can’t participate in regular elections.  

“For me participatory budgeting, as a Hispanic, as an immigrant, as someone who feels like she doesn’t have a voice in this country, changed my life,” Espinoza said. “Though we can’t vote, though we can’t give money that families and professionals in Park Slope can, we can give something too — and it’s not a small thing. They are things that change the lives of children.”

Principal Jennifer Spalding speaks fondly of the century-old building that houses Sunset Park Prep middle school, which features long windows and soaring ceilings. But with age comes plenty of capital needs — and not always the kind that are a top priority in a city where the average school building was constructed in 1948.

Rich red curtains hang in the auditorium, where the sound system will soon get a makeover. The gym sports a shiny wood floor and freshly painted walls. In science classrooms, there are brand new cabinets and the sinks now work. A metal cart houses dozens of sleek MacBook Air laptops in a multimedia room stuffed with new tables and a smart board. All were paid for through participatory budgeting.

The process is especially important for schools like Spalding’s, where the parent organization is focused more on building community than raising dollars. The school relies on $3 tickets to dances to help fund field trips, while other nearby schools throw fancy galas and pull in hundreds of thousands of dollars. (A new city council bill will track those disparities by requiring the education department to collect and report PTA fundraising.)

For Spalding, the value of these badly-needed infusions goes beyond dollars. Students get their first taste of civic engagement by participating in voting during a school day. They feel a sense of empowerment when their school benefits. And they see the tangible benefits of their votes — and that they’re worth investing in.

“It adds so much value to our students’ lives,” she said. It sends a message that, “this is a place worth being, and a place of value.”

Not everyone supported expanding the process — at least not in the way the city ballot measure calls for. It creates a commission that would oversee voter initiatives, including a wider roll-out of participatory budgeting. A majority of members will be appointed by the mayor, prompting some to call the initiative an unnecessary expansion of mayoral power. Others have cautioned that participatory budgeting may not be as inclusive as it appears.

After seeing its power in his own district, Menchaca lent his support to the ballot initiative.

Before Menchaca was a city councilman, he worked in the Brooklyn borough president’s office managing capital projects. Though he saw many positive improvements being made, he was confounded by how opaque the process was, and how removed projects often seemed from what people really wanted. Then he became a city councilman.

“Participatory budgeting was like this ‘aha’ moment —  this eureka moment where it shifts the balance of power,” Menchaca said.

He made the process the centerpiece of how he does city business. When Menchaca meets a new constituent, he starts the conversation with participatory budgeting: “Do you have an idea about how to make your community better? Great,” he says.

His open invitation was met by organized and motivated parents who saw deep needs in local schools, but sometimes lacked the ability to give from their own pockets. Through countless public meetings, with steady translation services to reach the many Chinese and Spanish speakers in the district, parents were quickly won over.

“This was the first time parents had an idea for a concept and could fund it themselves,” Menchaca said.

Last year, more people voted for participatory budgeting projects than they did in the district’s primary election. Menchaca dedicated $2.5 million to the process last year — and often ends up spending most of his discretionary budget on other ideas that just missed the cut.

But the process is also a reminder of the scale of need that parents see in their neighborhood schools. It’s a challenge the district will have to overcome if a new school integration plan is to succeed. Approved in September, the plan changes the way students are admitted to middle schools in District 15, which overlaps Menchaca’s district. Advocates say the diversity push will have to go beyond attempts to simply move students around, and also to tackle inequities that continue to exist within individual schools.

While many in his district see participatory budgeting as a game-changer for schools, it can only go so far to fill resource gaps. The process only divvies up money for capital projects like building repairs and park renovations. It can’t pay for programming like an arts class or after-school robotics club or fund salaries for extra helpers in the classroom.

Those are the kinds of holes that Espinoza says will need to be filled if the district is to meet its integration goals. The city is dedicating $500,000 to implement the plan, part of which will go towards new resources for schools. Advocates also called for an analysis of available programming.

“We’ve been alleviated a little with these projects,” Espinoza said. “But more is needed”