Charlie Tolan’s offer letter for sixth grade, a seat at Charles O. Dewey Middle School, initially left him deeply disappointed.
It was 2019, the first year his Brooklyn district removed selective admissions in favor of a lottery. None of his friends from P.S. 10 in south Park Slope had been matched to the school in Sunset Park, and he understood it had a “bad reputation” in his community. State test scores were lower than at the schools he preferred, and there were rumors of discipline problems.
But Charlie’s attitude, and his family’s, changed when September rolled around. He quickly made friends, he liked his teachers, and he found the classes engaging and just the right level of challenge, said his mom, Lisa Raymond-Tolan.
Charlie, now in ninth grade, was in the inaugural class of the New York City education department’s effort to better integrate District 15’s middle schools through overhauling admissions. The process came after years of parent advocacy but was also met with trepidation from some families. Still, Charlie didn’t see himself as a participant in some kind of virtuous social equity experiment.
“Charlie just got absorbed into Dewey,” his mother said. “It’s not like there were all these diversity and inclusion things happening overtly at the school. It was just middle school—and that’s what it should be.”
The district’s middle schools now enroll a more demographically mixed group of children than they had before. The share of low-income students at most of the schools has shifted closer to the average figure across the district (though shifts in some schools have been larger than in others). But some diversity advocates suggest that’s just the first step.
“It’s not just about moving bodies,” said Lena Dalke, a school integration advocate at New York Appleseed who works with middle school student activists. It’s about “how to create welcoming spaces in all schools for all students.”
Now, proponents of the District 15 plan—including educators, advocates, parents and students—are considering what happens after a school becomes more racially, ethnically, and economically mixed, and how to foster schools that are supportive of students and families from different backgrounds.
What has worked and what hasn’t in District 15’s plan, which took effect for rising sixth graders in the 2019-20 school year, might be worth a closer look as many other districts across the city recently announced they are dropping selective admissions for next year’s incoming students after a two-year pandemic-related pause on screens for all middle schools. Ten of the city’s 32 districts with schools that previously selected students based on grades or other measures opted to ditch screens, though unlike District 15, few of them had explicit diversity goals with seats set aside for certain children.
One outcome is evident as the students in District 15’s first class of the diversity initiative have gone on to high school this year: Attitudes about schools have begun to change in some corners of Brooklyn, but other patterns around the desirability of certain schools remain hard to break.
For Raymond-Tolan, Dewey offered “a tremendous amount of support” when her son needed help with social concerns; she found the principal, Amanda Bueno, to be “truly amazing.”
Over the past two years, she and Charlie represented Dewey at Park Slope forums for fifth graders and their parents considering their middle school options. Their attendance was itself evidence of a change: “I don’t think Dewey would have been even invited in years past,” Raymond-Tolan said. “I do think there was a shift in the narrative, that Dewey is a good place to go.”
A quick turnaround in a highly segregated district
District 15, which runs from Boerum Hill to Sunset Park, is one of the most racially and economically diverse in the city, but its schools have also been segregated. At M.S. 447 in Boerum Hill, about 27% of students were from low-income families in the 2018-19 school year; at Sunset Park’s Dewey, the share was 93%.
Geography accounts for some of that, as families from more affluent and whiter neighborhoods like Park Slope and Windsor Terrace favored nearby schools, and lower-income and immigrant families living in the south part of the district clustered in Dewey and Sunset Park Prep.
But advocates for equity in education say that academic screens were a significant factor: All but one of the 11 schools in the district used screens in their admissions decisions, and students from families with fewer resources were far more likely to be excluded from well-resourced, sought-after schools due to missing the necessary grade and test score cutoffs.
Under the new system, middle schools would no longer use screens such as grades, state test scores, auditions, or attendance records to select sixth graders. Instead, admissions would be by lottery, and priority would be given to students who were English language learners, low-income, or lived in temporary housing, with a goal of filling 52% of spots in each school with priority applicants (matching the ratio of families in the district who qualified for free or reduced-price lunch). In lively public meetings, some parents argued that retaining screens ensured a merit-based process; others suggested that affluent families needed to stop hoarding privilege.
Resistance to the diversity initiative trickled down to some students as well. Melanie Rosas-Reyes, now an 11th grade activist with IntegrateNYC from Sunset Park, Brooklyn, first heard about the plan from classmates at their well-resourced middle school in Boerum Hill who opposed the idea. Implementing a lottery instead of screening applicants, these students reasoned, would reduce the chances their high-performing younger siblings would get their top choice.
“The idea of meritocracy, that some students deserve certain things because they worked hard—it was really harmful for me to internalize that,” Melanie said. “I would have appreciated having a wider frame, because I was just hearing what privileged people thought about the admissions plan, and not the people who would benefit from it,” such as children from families like hers in Sunset Park.
When admissions results were released in 2019, even advocates of the plan were surprised by the results: Nine of the 11 middle schools reached the planners’ target range of 40% to 75% of offers to low-income students, up from four schools the year before, according to education department data.
In 2018, the last year when screens were used, just 16% of offers to M.S. 442 in Windsor Terrace went to priority group children. In 2019, the first lottery year, the rate jumped to 52%. In the south end of the district, at Dewey, 91% of offers went to students in the priority group in 2018; in 2019, that number fell to 67%.
“The plan had a big impact on the composition of schools,” said Adam Lubinsky, managing principal at WXY Studio, the urban planning firm that helped design the new system. “It was really encouraging to see.”
Across the district, economic segregation in sixth grade decreased by 55% and racial segregation decreased by 38% compared with the previous year.
‘No quick fixes’ in building inclusive school communities
The proponents of the District 15 diversity plan understood that redistributing students among the 11 district middle schools would not be the end of the job. (This year a 12th middle school opened in the district.)
“As hard as that demographic shifting piece is, it is relatively easy compared to the inclusion and equity work,” notes Carrie McClaren, who served as a parent representative on the working group for the diversity plan. “There are no quick fixes, unfortunately.”
That proved true for some students who were in the minority at their new schools. Melina Mays made the long commute from her home in Red Hook to Sunset Park Prep, which she had ranked first on her application, impressed on the tour by the warmth of the principal and the enthusiasm of the students. But Melina, who was one of just a handful of Black students in her class, encountered hostility from a group of boys who harassed her and her friend with racial slurs. Although the school did contact the ringleader’s parents, according to Melina, she says the behavior continued. (Sunset Park Prep did not respond to a request for comment.)
Neither Melina nor her mother, Dorothy Mays, felt the school community was especially welcoming to people from “outside.” Because Melina had injured her foot, Mays took her daughter to and from school during her eighth-grade year, but she rarely interacted with other parents when she was there. “The person I spoke to the most was the school crossing guard,” she said. Mays says she understood there was often a language barrier — some of the parents did not speak fluent English, and she doesn’t speak Spanish — but she added, “They really need to work on making you feel welcome.”
Mays summed up her thoughts on her daughter’s middle school years: “I hope other people have a better experience than she did. And that they really work on diversifying the whole school system.”
The planners had outlined an ambitious range of proposals to reinforce the diversity plan, including an ethnic studies curriculum, the hiring of more teachers of color and bilingual school counselors, attention to racially disproportionate suspension rates, and collaboration among PTAs to encourage “cross-cultural community building.”
But then came the pandemic, which sent the first cohort of the diversity initiative home to learn by Zoom in the spring of their sixth-grade year. The challenges of remote learning, and then of recalibrating for in-person classes, consumed educators, parents, and students for the next two years.
Some diversity support programs did get under way: The D15 Community Education Council arranged for implicit bias training for principals and assistant principals, and created an “equity team” in each middle school, composed of “teachers, parents, and anyone at the school who wants to participate in creating a welcoming school environment,” Camille Casaretti, D15’s CEC president, wrote in an email.
Some middle schools organized events to highlight diversity. One had a “peace and diversity day,” for example, and another recently held a Latinx Heritage Teach-in.
Now that the new school year has begun with some semblance of normalcy, plans are in the works to “identify inequities in resources and program offerings” among schools and to address those inequities, Casaretti wrote.
Students have also taken an interest in advancing conversations around diversity. With the help of Dalke, from Appleseed, and Sarah Stone, a middle school coach from IntegrateNYC, students formed Integrate clubs in each middle school, which provide a hub to discuss topics such as building relationships and restorative justice. The clubs from different schools also meet up to share perspectives. For one such meeting, the students visited Park Slope Collegiate, the only school in the district where students must enter through metal detectors, and discussed why the scanners might make some people feel targeted or fearful rather than safe.
‘All good schools’ but some still have more high-needs students
Four years ago, when families were first grappling with the new admissions system, “there was apprehension from parents about applying to or attending schools that were unfamiliar,” said Nyah Berg, Appleseed’s executive director.
Nevertheless, fifth graders that first year placed many more schools on their lists than their older peers had in previous years, and that trend has continued. “Students and parents were looking around the district a lot more,” said Lubinsky at WXY, rather than treading the same worn paths to the same few familiar schools. “That was really healthy for the district.”
Berg also believes attitudes have changed: “One parent said we used to have three ‘good schools’ and now we know they are all good schools.”
The application data back that up: More white families are applying to Sunset Park Prep and Dewey, and more immigrant families are applying to the schools that historically enrolled a large majority of white students, according to Dalke.
Nevertheless, some patterns of segregation have persisted. At Dewey, the share of offers that went to low-income students has crept up again after the initial decrease to 67%. Last year, 86% of offers went to children in the priority group, according to data shared by the district’s Community Education Council.
In the 2021-22 school year, nearly 90% of children at Dewey and Sunset Park Prep were living in poverty, according to DOE records — less than before the lottery but still well above the other District 15 schools.
Breaking those patterns, it seems, requires more than a lottery that gives a boost to historically marginalized students: It requires affluent families who recognize the value of a small, nurturing school like Dewey or Sunset Park, and who are willing to ignore entrenched assumptions about what a “good school” really means, advocates said.
Raymond-Tolan, the Dewey parent, has revised her own thoughts in that regard, in comparing the experiences of Charlie to that of her older son, who had attended M.S. 51, in Park Slope, which positioned itself as a school for academically gifted students.
“Is the school going to take care of my kid and help them when they need it, whether academically or socially?” Raymond-Tolan wrote in an email. “At Dewey, they knew Charlie well and were there for him — and us — when we needed it.”
WXY has begun an evaluation of how well the District 15 diversity initiative is working so far, which may illuminate why some habits and attitudes have been resistant to change.
With about a third of the city’s districts deciding to embrace lottery admissions, advocates and planners involved with District 15’s initiative will be watching closely.
“It’ll be interesting to see how these other districts respond,” Lubinsky said. “District 15 has been a useful precedent.”
Tracy Tullis is a freelance journalist based in Brooklyn.