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.”