work ahead

With a bold school integration plan in place, Brooklyn parents begin to sweat the details

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
Families of fifth graders in Brooklyn's District 15 will go through a new process to apply for middle schools after an integration plan eliminated selective admissions criteria called screens.

The fall is often filled with anxiety for families in District 15, when a high-stakes admissions process kicks off for middle schools in this corner of Brooklyn.

This year, the application season is marked with an extra dose of uncertainty. On Thursday, the city approved an entirely new middle school admissions system in the hopes of spurring integration in a district that is sharply divided by race and class.

Even families who agree with the changes in principle have concerns about whether schools are ready to implement the plan and serve a wider range of learners, if diversity will really filter down to the classroom level, and whether the reforms will be enough to fix broader inequities that, research suggests, can take their toll on children before they’ve entered kindergarten.

“I feel positive about it, but I’m a little nervous,” said Lara Dicus, the mother of a fifth-grader at P.S. 10 in South Slope. “It’s about, how are the schools going to adjust?”

About a decade ago, District 15 began to let families apply to middle schools, rather than to assign students based on their address, provided students could also meet certain admission criteria. Most middle schools set their own rules, taking into account factors such a student’s report card grades and test scores.

The complicated and competitive process had a consequence: exacerbating segregation. Critics say parents with the time and savvy to navigate the system, or provide tutors or other enrichment activities outside of school, were able to lock in these advantages by helping their children secure seats in the highest-performing schools — which in turn helped the district attract or retain more middle-class families.

The new admissions plan completely eliminates selective admissions criteria, challenging the widely held belief that high-achieving students are best served in a school full of equally gifted or driven peers. While separating children by ability is not a unique idea in education, New York City sorts students on a scale unlike anywhere else: A quarter of the city’s middle schools and a third of the city’s high schools “screen” their applicants.

Beyond deciding to eliminate such screens, the education department has offered few specifics about how changes will play out in individual schools. For example, the city hasn’t shared projections for how the demographics at each school might shift.  

At Thursday’s celebratory announcement of the new admissions process in District 15, the the mayor and chancellor praised the grassroots nature of this bold new direction for the district. Parents, educators, and community leaders worked for a year to develop the plan and collect feedback. Yet even plugged-in parents remain in the dark about the nitty-gritty details and others appeared to be unaware of the changes afoot — challenging the notion that a critical mass of families has bought in.

One parent outside P.S. 10 thought the whole proposal, years in the making, had been scrapped. At a nearby park, another had incorrectly heard that the changes called for students to be bused across the district. Moms in Red Hook had no clue an admissions overhaul had even been proposed — let alone finalized.

“What I’m hearing is that parents are uncomfortable with the vagueness of the process,” said Jane Kotapish, a parent with two children in middle school and one in elementary school in the district.

About 3,000 fifth graders district-wide will go through the new admissions process starting this October. Officials will have to work quickly to spread word about the changes. For now, parents’ concerns have been mostly sotto voce, especially after a bitter integration battle on the Upper West Side captured national attention, discouraging many from speaking up.

For Anna Schietzelt, her worries are fueled by her own experience student-teaching in a city high school that struggled to meet the needs of its students, who often came to school sleepy, hungry, or coping with the trauma that the effects of poverty can sometimes inflict. She wondered whether district middle schools might get similarly overwhelmed.

“How do you get rid of poverty?” she asked. “It’s so hard to imagine here how that would work.”

The plan for District 15 aims for every school to enroll 52 percent of students who are from low-income families, learning English as a new language or live in temporary housing — a figure that reflects the district average. 

Poverty can have a profound effect on schools and students. Low-income students often start their education already lagging behind their peers in reading skills, have lower test scores on average, are more likely to have inexperienced teachers, and have less access to challenging coursework. Reform efforts across the country have consistently tried — and failed — to boost learning outcomes in high-poverty schools.

One of the few interventions that has worked, however, is increasing integration. Both racial and economic diversity can lead to higher graduation rates and better test scores. The benefits aren’t just for low-income students or those of color. Studies show more diverse school settings can help reduce prejudice and even spur more creative thinking.

But serving a range of different learners can be difficult to do well. When the learning gaps are too large, some research shows no benefits for students on either end of the academic spectrum. Other research shows that struggling students can have a negative impact on their peers.

One mom at P.S. 10 in South Slope wondered whether District 15 middle schools would just resort to sorting students into classes based on their existing academic achievement — a common practice that goes by the name of “tracking,” and can negate the benefits of an otherwise integrated schools. Students of color are more likely to get stuck in lower-level classes, while white students take advanced and honors courses in greater numbers.

“I think that’s a huge challenge,” she said, declining to be named because of her profession. “It’s good in theory. I wonder how it’s going to end up.”

She and other parents asked why the city doesn’t start its integration push sooner — at the elementary school level or even pre-K — before gaps in opportunity accumulate into disadvantages that become harder to address. Meanwhile, middle schools are often seen as paving the way towards competitive high schools, which often admit students based on their academic performance.  

“The problem is in the elementary schools,” said Laura Espinoza, a mother in Sunset Park who helped develop the integration plan, She is supportive of the changes but worried that they don’t solve what she sees as the underlying problem: that some schools don’t have the resources to serve their students well.

Diversity advocates say that it doesn’t have to be an either-or proposition, and work can be done to address disparities in the lower grades while also moving forward with integration efforts. They also caution that concerns about school performance are often a backhanded way to suggest that black and Hispanic students aren’t as bright as the students who already fill sought-after schools. At Thursday’s press conference, schools Chancellor Richard Carranza batted down any suggestion that the quality of teaching or learning would suffer for those who currently benefit from the status quo.

“I’m going to very respectfully push back on the notion that diversity waters anything down,” he said to applause. “We are going to make sure that all students have what they not only need to learn but flourish in our schools.”

School leaders were also quick to say that they’re ready, and in fact already cater to vastly different students in the classroom.

“Teachers not only in our district but all over our city are truly amazing,” said Lenore DiLeo Berner, the principal of M.S. 51, a school that bills itself as a gifted and talented program. “It’s a bit of a myth that any school has any one type of student. Our teachers have been trained to teach all kinds of students, all kinds of learners.”

She pointed to her own school, where students with disabilities take Regents exams in environmental studies and algebra.

“We can find success with all of our students,” she said. “So, bring it on.”

That’s not to say it will be without new challenges. City data shows that some of the district’s most sought-after schools do well when it comes to boosting the test scores of low-performing students too — but other District 15 schools have struggled to push students to show gains.

That ability to move kids forward is what some parents in Red Hook said they will be looking for when it comes time to pick a middle school for their children.

Vickie Marcial said her grandson has struggled to learn how to read at P.S. 15, a school where more than 70 percent of students come from low-income families. But upon hearing about the new plan for the strict, Marcial said she will look, when her grandson is in fifth grade, for a middle school that can give him the kinds of supports she feels he lacks now — like more rigorous one-on-one tutoring after school. Although she hadn’t heard about the admissions changes before Thursday, she said giving more students a shot at their top-choice schools is a positive move.

“I think everyone should get a chance,” Marcial said. “Everything should be fair.”

School choice

Denver judge blocks school transportation provision added to Colorado law

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Sam Boswell, 7, all bundled up in his winter clothes, splashes his way to the school bus on May 12, 2010.

A Denver judge struck down a provision of a bill related to the education of youth in foster care that would have removed barriers to transportation for all students.

The transportation provision was an amendment added by Republican lawmakers late in the 2018 session. Soon after the bill was signed by Gov. John Hickenlooper, several Colorado school districts and the associations that represent them filed a lawsuit to block it.

In a ruling issued Friday, Denver District Court Judge David Goldberg found that the amendment violated rules in the Colorado constitution that require every bill to have a clear title that explains what the bill is about and to deal only with one subject.

The bill’s title was “Improving Educational Stability for Foster Youth,” and it seeks to improve graduation rates for foster youth by requiring child welfare officials and school districts to work out transportation to the student’s home district when that’s in the child’s best interest. It also creates flexibility around graduation requirements when students do change schools. Foster youth have the lowest four-year graduation rates in the state, much lower even than homeless youth and students whose parents are migrant workers.

The tacked-on language was added in the Republican-controlled State Affairs committee five days before the end of the session. It said that a school board “may furnish transportation” to students who are enrolled in the district but who live in another district. The provision applies to all students, not just those who are in the foster system. It also struck language from an existing law that requires the consent of the school district from which students are being bused.

The amendment language came straight from a separate bill about expanding school choice that had been killed by Democrats in the House the day before.

Many school districts opposed the transportation provision because they feared it would open the door for better-off districts to poach students and undermine the meaning of school district boundaries. Advocates for school choice argued the provision was good policy that would allow more students, especially those from low-income families, take advantage of opportunities. They also argued, apparently unconvincingly, that it was required for implementation of the foster youth portions of the bill.

The Donnell-Kay Foundation intervened in the case in defense of the law. (The Donnell-Kay Foundation is a funder of Chalkbeat. You can read our ethics policy here.)

In his ruling, Goldberg said this specific issue has never been litigated in Colorado before, and he relied in part on rulings from other states with similar requirements. Bills with broad titles, he wrote, can be construed broadly and encompass a range of issues as long as they have some connection to the title. But bills with narrow titles must be construed narrowly — and this amendment didn’t make the cut.

“The subject of House Bill 18-1306 is out-of-home placed students and efforts to ensure educational stability,” Goldberg wrote, while the amendment’s subject “is all students, with no qualifiers, conditions, restrictions, or reference to out-of-home placed students. … House Bill 18-1306 seriously modifies transportation for all students and is hidden under a title relating exclusively to out-of-home placed students.”

Goldberg ruled that the amendment is “disconnected” from the rest of the bill, and neither lawmakers nor the public had enough notice about its inclusion before passage.

That leaves the rest of the foster youth bill intact and advocates for expanded school choice facing an uphill battle in a legislature in which Democrats, who are more likely to give priority to school district concerns, now control both chambers.

This isn’t an abstract issue. In 2015, more than 150 students who lived in the Pueblo 60 district but attended school in higher-performing Pueblo 70 lost access to transportation when the city-based district ordered its neighbor to stop running bus routes through its territory.

Online Shopping

Jeffco launches universal enrollment site to make school choice easy

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat
Students in a social studies class at Bear Creek High School in Jeffco Public Schools read about Genghis Khan.

Starting Monday, parents in Colorado’s second-largest district will be able to shop online for schools and, once enrollment opens in January, apply to as many as they like.

The launch of Enroll Jeffco, following the path paved by Denver Public Schools, means some 86,000 students and their parents won’t have to go to individual schools during the work day and fill out paper forms if they want to apply somewhere other than their neighborhood school.

The online system cost about $600,000 to develop and operate for this school year. The district expects it to cost about half of that annually going forward.

Universal enrollment systems allow parents to compare and apply to traditional district-run schools, district schools with specialized programming or models, known in Jeffco as options schools, and charter schools with a single application on the same website. Universal enrollment systems are a key component of what some call the “portfolio model,” in which districts oversee a range of school types and parents vote with their feet. They’ve been controversial in places, especially when coupled with aggressive school accountability policies that lead to school closures.

In Jeffco Public Schools, which is more affluent than many Denver metro area districts, officials see the move to a single, online enrollment system as a valuable service for parents.

“Regardless of how people feel about it, we operate in a competitive school choice environment, both inside the district and outside the district,” Superintendent Jason Glass said. “That compels us to make thinking about that transaction, making people aware of the options and enrolling in our schools, as frictionless and easy as possible.”

Colorado law requires schools in any district to admit any student for whom they have room and for whom the district can provide adequate services, after giving priority to students who live in the district. But many districts still require paper applications at individual schools, and schools in the same district might not have the same deadlines. A recent report by the conservative education advocacy group Ready Colorado found that parents who use school choice are more likely to be white, middle- or upper-class, and English-speaking than the state’s student population. The authors argue that districts should streamline the enrollment process and consider providing transportation to make choice more accessible.

Jeffco isn’t rolling out new transportation options yet, but it might use data from the enrollment process, including a parent survey that is built into the website, to see if that’s desired or feasible. And officials believe strongly that the new online enrollment system will open up more opportunities for low-income parents and those who don’t speak English.

The website will provide information in the district’s six most commonly spoken languages and should be optimized for use on mobile phones. All parents will be required to use the system to express their preferences, including the majority of parents who want to stay in their neighborhood school, and the district is planning significant outreach and in-person technical assistance.

We believe that if all parents are participating, it improves equity,” Glass said. “One of the things we struggle with is that upwardly mobile and affluent parents tend to be the ones who take advantage of school choice. We want all of our schools to be available to all of our families. We think being able to search through and make the enrollment process as easy as possible is an equity issue.”

But critics of universal enrollment systems worry that the ease of application will encourage parents to give up on neighborhood schools rather than invest in them.

Rhiannon Wenning, a teacher at Jefferson Junior-Senior High School, said the link between charter schools and open enrollment systems makes her distrustful, even as many of her students are using the choice process to stay at the school after rising home prices pushed them into other parts of the metro area.

“I understand parents want what is best for their child, but part of that as a citizen and a community member is to make your neighborhood school the school that you want it to be,” she said, calling the universal enrollment system an attack on public schools.

Joel Newton of the Edgewater Collective, which provides community support for lower-income schools in the eastern part of the district, said Enroll Jeffco will give the district much better data on which to base decisions, but he worries that Title I schools, which serve large numbers of students from low-income families, won’t be able to compete.

“With an online system like this, it really needs to be a level playing field,” he said. “And in my area, I’d much rather have resources going to curriculum and instructional aides to catch kids up than going into marketing support. But other areas can do that and they have these big, well-funded PTAs.”

Until now, parents have had to seek out information on each school’s website. The online portal starts by asking parents to enter their address and the grade in which they’re enrolling a student. It then displays the parents’ neighborhood school, with an option to explore alternatives. Each school page has extensive information, including a short narrative, descriptions of special programs like math, arts, or expeditionary learning, the school mascot, and the racial and economic breakdown of the student population. The intent, district spokesperson Diana Wilson said, is to let schools “tell their own story.”

Parents can select as many schools as they want when enrollment opens Jan. 22, and they’ll learn in mid- to late February where they got in. However, they have to commit within five days to one school, ending a practice by which parents in the know kept their options open through the summer months. District officials say this will help them plan and budget better.

Kristen Harkness, assistant director for special education in Jeffco, served on the steering committee that developed the system, and she’s also a parent in the district. Even as a district employee who thought she knew the process inside and out, she managed to miss a deadline for her son to be considered at another middle school.

She said that choosing between schools isn’t a matter of which schools are better but which are a better fit for a particular student. In her case, her son could have stayed at a K-8 or transferred to a combined middle and high school, with each option presenting a different kind of middle school experience. He’s happy at the K-8 where he stayed, she said, but parents and students should have the chance to make those decisions.

The new universal enrollment system is poised to give more families that chance. In the course of the rollout, though, there may be a few glitches.

“We’re doing all we can to look into the future and foresee any technical problems and design solutions to that proactively,” Glass said. “That said, this is our first time, and we ask for people’s patience.”