Standing before a classroom of parents crammed into child-sized chairs, Principal Claudia Aguirre launched into her pitch for P.S. 149 Sojourner Truth, a kindergarten through eighth grade school in Harlem. She had just five minutes to try to convince her audience to consider applying to her school, which serves mostly students from low-income families and has some of the lowest math test scores in the city.
In a gentle tone, Aguirre promised the parents gathered for the middle school kickoff event that she would know every child by name and highlighted laptops for each student, arts programming, and coding classes.
“I’m guessing we may not be on your list right now,” she said. “You might be pleasantly surprised by what we offer.”
When her time was up, no one had raised their hand with questions. All that one mother had written in her notebook was “no Regents,” a reference to the fact that P.S. 149 does not offer its middle school students a chance to take courses that can count towards high school graduation credits. Aguirre headed to the next classroom of waiting families to give her speech again.
Aguirre’s sales pitch— and its lukewarm reception—may be indicative of the tough road ahead for education leaders eager to integrate middle schools in District 3, which spans the Upper West Side and Harlem.
Families there apply to middle schools and hope their children are accepted, a time consuming and competitive process that has led to stark segregation.
This fall marks the first application cycle since District 3 approved a controversial plan to spur diversity by giving some students priority in admissions. But along with that headline-grabbing admission change, parent and school leaders are trying a different strategy: arming families with more information about a broader range of schools.
The kick off event to the application season — the annual principals forum where Aguirre spoke — has been tweaked to give parents face time with each school leader, and the district has changed the way schools market themselves to encourage parents to look beyond test scores.
Efforts such as those may be crucial to moving the needle: School demographics will shift only if parents are willing to take a chance on a broader range of schools than they already do. In a typical year, stacks of applications pour in for just a few of the district’s most sought after schools, which set their own strict entrance criteria.
“That’s the tipping point that we’re at now, is actually trying out and actually attending schools where you don’t know anybody else,” said Kristen Berger, a member of the local Community Education Council who helped spearhead the admissions changes. “The first step in being comfortable is knowing what’s going on in the school.”
Encouraging parents to have an open mind may prove to be a challenge, with school reputations reinforced through word-of mouth on the playground, and studies that suggest parents consider race, alongside test scores, when it comes to picking a school for their children.
Every fall, the application process in District 3 gets started with a principals forum. In previous years, school leaders would line up on stage and face questions from the audience, a process that often led to the district’s most sought-after schools hogging the spotlight.
This year was much different. A record crowd of about 350 parents crammed into the muggy auditorium of P.S. 180 Hugo Newman for the forum. The district superintendent, Ilene Altschul, rattled off “fun facts” about local middle schools.
“You will see now how much you don’t know about our middle schools, and what they offer,” the superintendent said as the night kicked off.
Parents were parceled out into groups of about 25 and settled into classrooms to meet with every school leader. They were handed pale yellow booklets with mini profiles of each middle school. Unlike the city’s handbooks, which highlight test scores and how many hopeful students applied to each school, the profiles allowed schools to list the curriculum they use, opportunities to take advanced courses, and extracurriculars such as dance and cooking.
Osei Owusu-Afriyie, the principal of Frederick Douglass Academy II, walked into a class full of parents with fliers advertising his school. He touted courses in computer science, robotics, and engineering, as well as seven advanced placement classes, before pivoting into a frank commentary on the city’s selective admissions process.
“What many schools will do is they will just screen out the students they have to teach,” he said. “But at our school — no matter where you come in at — we move you forward.”
City data shows teachers at Frederick Douglass drive students to make learning gains beyond even the district’s more sought-after schools. That progress is masked, however, in the number of students who come to the school already performing well below grade level and continue to earn low scores on tests. The school’s test scores hover right around the city average, but fall well below the district’s most selective schools, which serve mostly middle-class students. At Frederick Douglass, more than 80 percent of students come from low-income families.
Among the questions Afriyie faced was from a white woman who wanted to know: “How diverse is your school?” He encouraged her to look beyond the racial breakdowns, which show that only two percent of students are white.
Another parent followed up by asking whether Afriyie expected the makeup of the school to change much in the coming year with the district’s diversity plan in place.
“It all depends on whether people are willing to take chances,” he said. “Sitting within this community are really strong school options that if they take a chance to see, you’ll see it meets your needs and more.”
By the end of the night, parents had heard from leaders at each of the schools that will pilot admissions changes this year. Many parents approached at the event were leery to speak publicly after news footage of a heated debate over the district’s integration plan went viral this summer.
As they poured into the hallways, one mother said she was “surprised” that her interest had been piqued in more schools than she had expected.
“I did learn that you have to go and see them, and know the culture” of each school, another mom added.
Jason Abramson said afterward that he felt a sense of relief.
“It was like I could breathe deeply,” he said. “There are plenty of people who are going to be looking after your kids.”
Abramson has been stressing over school options for his twin sons, and the new integration plan only adds more questions to the process. Is he willing to allow his sons to commute on the subway? Will they be comfortable if they’re an extreme minority? Will they even get accepted to their top choices?
He called the desegregation efforts “long overdue,” even if it has added angst to the process of finding the right middle school.
“Something had to be done,” he said. “But as a parent, you want your child to get the best.”