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24 principals in Manhattan’s District 3 sign petition against middle school admissions screens

Two schools surrounded by cars and children in Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

P.S. 199 (left) and P.S. 191 (right) in Manhattan’s District 3, where 24 principals are urging the superintendent not to reinstate middle school admissions screens.

Patrick Wall

In a Manhattan district with a history of contentious battles over school admissions, two dozen principals have come out against the return of academic screens at district middle schools, according to a copy of a petition obtained by Chalkbeat.

The message to district leader Kamar Samuels from 24 out of 30 elementary and middle school principals in Manhattan’s District 3, which spans the Upper West Side and parts of Harlem, comes as superintendents across the city decide whether their middle schools will once again be allowed to select incoming students on the basis of academic performance. 

Admissions screens existed at hundreds of middle schools before the pandemic, but were paused the past two years because of COVID-19 and the shift to remote learning. Schools Chancellor David Banks has given superintendents until this week to decide if and how middle school screens will resume in their districts, with applications set to open for students Oct. 26. 

In District 3, where schools are sharply divided by race and class, the debate is particularly fraught. Proponents argue that screens help match high academic performers to schools that can meet their needs, but critics say the competitive admissions standards unfairly divide students at a young age and drive segregation.

“We know that reintroducing academic screens for a few of our middle schools will lead to inequities and a lack of student diversity,” wrote the coalition of 24 principals in a letter dated Oct. 14.

“Ranking and sorting our students goes against a celebration of the rich diversity of cultures and races our students bring with them to the schools across District 3,” the letter continued.

Before the pandemic, roughly 40% of all city middle schools used some form of selective admissions criteria for at least a portion of their students, with 112 schools screening all their incoming students, and 196 using screens for specialized programs, according to the education department.

But the metrics middle schools traditionally used to select kids, including grades, test scores and attendance records, went out the window during the pandemic, leading former Mayor Bill de Blasio to pause screens at all middle schools starting in 2020.

That led to a modest increase in the share of low-income students and English language learners admitted to the city’s 46 most selective middle school programs, according to the education department.

The removal of screens had the potential to make an even larger impact in District 3 because of a district-wide diversity plan adopted in 2018 that required each middle school to prioritize low-income students for 25% of their seats. The original diversity plan did not require middle schools to remove screens. Set-asides for underrepresented students generally have larger effects when they’re paired with the removal of screens, integration experts say. The education department didn’t immediately share how the removal of screens affected demographics in District 3 schools.

Late last month, Banks announced that superintendents could decide whether middle schools in their districts resume screening kids based on their fourth grade academic marks. The education department gave little guidance on how superintendents should make those decisions, other than engaging with the community first. 

“It puts the district office in the pressure cooker,” said Naveed Hasan, a parent of elementary schoolers and member of the Community Education Council for District 3. 

Education department spokesperson Art Nevins said this year’s process for deciding on middle school screens is an example of the agency’s “commitment … to engaging with families and communities around the types of programs and schools they desire.

“The intention of this process is not to get to any predetermined result, but to have a decision based on a thoughtful consideration of the needs of each district and school community,” he added.

Samuels, who is in his first year leading District 3 and previously oversaw a districtwide middle school integration plan in Brooklyn’s District 13, has held two public discussions with parents and has another planned for Tuesday.

Lucas Liu, the president of the District 3 Community Education Council, said the “vast majority” of parents who have responded to the CEC’s survey have expressed support for some middle school academic screens, though the CEC said the full survey results wouldn’t be shared until Tuesday’s meeting.

One District 3 principal, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the press, countered that the survey sample is likely not “representative of everyone … there are a number of parents in our communities who disagree with screens,” but who may have less “time and energy and agency to come together.”

Liu, who is also the co-president of the Parent Leaders for Accelerated Curriculum and Education, or PLACE, which supports academic screens, argued that the lottery system in place for the past two years has sent lower-performing elementary school students “into competitive schools they’re not prepared for.”

He added that he’s heard from some parents who say they will pull their kids from the district if they don’t find a middle school option they view as sufficiently rigorous. 

“You have your letter from the principals, but it’s the parents who decide whether their kids are going to enroll or not,” he said. “It’s the parents who we’re supposed to be serving.”

The principals also pointed out that, according to education department data, 97% of this year’s sixth grade class got into one of their top three middle school choices, and 76% got into their top choice.

The education department declined to make Samuels available for an interview. 

Final admissions rules will be made public by the time middle school applications open on Oct. 26.

Michael Elsen-Rooney is a reporter for Chalkbeat New York, covering NYC public schools. Contact Michael at melsen-rooney@chalkbeat.org.

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