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Tensions high as NYC soon starts middle and high school admissions season

Students sit at a table with laptops.

Middle school students use online research to answer questions during a lesson in history class. New York City families are eagerly awaiting news about how admissions to middle and high schools will work this year.

Allison Shelley for EDUimages

Tensions are rising ahead of an anticipated announcement about whether New York City middle and high schools will fully bring back selective admissions for the first time since the pandemic.

Removing test scores, attendance, and other “screens” from the selection process helped move the needle on desegregating the nation’s largest public school system, integration advocates said.  

But families who support selective admissions thought the changes — sparked by pandemic-related learning disruptions — unfairly cost their children their top school choices. 

Schools Chancellor David Banks is expected to unveil selection criteria next week, an education department spokesperson said, offering no other details. The Adams administration has not highlighted school integration as a priority. Instead, the mayor has embraced screened programs that have long been segregated by race, class, and academic performance: He expanded “gifted and talented” programs and signaled a desire to open more specialized high schools. 

Families across the five boroughs are already mounting letter-writing campaigns and petitions for and against schools that use screens in sorting the city’s 10- and 13-year-olds into sixth and ninth grade. Some parent councils are calling for the removal of selective admissions, while others are calling for the opposite. 

“We expect nothing less than the permanent elimination of middle school screens,” said Nyah Berg, executive director of New York Appleseed, which advocates for removing screened admissions at middle and high schools. “It was unjustifiable before the pandemic, and it’s just as unjustifiable now to measure a child as young as 9-years-old’s educational attainment, and to judge them by that for access to public middle school.”

PLACE NYC, a group that has pushed to preserve strict admissions screens to public middle and high schools, is circulating a petition that calls for removing lottery admissions, arguing that “academically advanced students need programs that meet their needs.” 

Black and Latino students, as well as those from low-income families, with disabilities, or who are learning English as a new language are less likely to meet admissions requirements for selective schools, leaving such schools unrepresentative of the school system as a whole.

Research has found that diverse schools can lead to a slew of academic and social benefits for students, including better test scores, an increased likelihood of attending college, boosting leadership skills and confidence, and combating racial bias or stereotypes, according to The Century Foundation. 

A temporary change?

For this year’s incoming sixth graders, city officials paused screens for the second year in a row, instead admitting students through a lottery system. 

After the city removed middle school screens the year before, its 50 most selective school programs offered an average of 48% of its seats to students from low-income families, up from 41% the previous year, according to education department data. The department has not shared demographic information on offer data for this school year. 

Three-quarters of middle school applicants this year received offers to their first choice, an increase of four percentage points from 2021, according to department data. Ninety-one percent landed a spot in one of their top three choices, up three percentage points from 2021. 

About a quarter of the city’s 400 high schools use screens to admit students. Ahead of this year, the city centralized the admissions process and eliminated the use of attendance and state test scores, but still allowed some selective schools to keep their own screens, including their own admissions exams, interviews, and essays. (Admissions to the city’s specialized high schools remained separate and unchanged.) About half of roughly 74,000 high school applicants got their first choice, up four percentage points from the previous year. Three-quarters of all applicants were placed at one of their top three choices, up two percentage points from the previous year. 

The department didn’t release data for all high schools, but highlighted notable demographic shifts at some of the city’s most coveted high schools. Nearly a quarter of admissions at Townsend Harris High School went to Black and Latino students, up from 16% the previous year. And at Millennium Brooklyn High School, Black and Latino students received 43% of offers, an increase of 23 percentage points. (Those schools participate in the city’s Diversity in Admissions program, which allows them to give preference to underrepresented students.) 

Debates heat up at parent councils

Brooklyn’s District 15 — which encompasses wealthy neighborhoods like Cobble Hill and Carroll Gardens along with working-class ones such as Sunset Park and Red Hook — is often viewed as a test case for dropping middle school screens. For the past four years its diversity plan admitted students to middle schools through a lottery system, prioritizing 52% of seats for low-income students, those living in temporary housing, and English learners.

In the plan’s first year, Black and Latino enrollment jumped at some schools that were largely white, while white enrollment increased, albeit at smaller rates, at overwhelmingly Black and Latino schools.

The local parent council, in partnership with New York Appleseed, drafted a resolution calling to permanently remove middle school screens. The resolution also calls for the city to keep recent changes to high school admissions instead of introducing more stringent requirements or changes. (Nathaniel Styer, an education department spokesperson, said officials are not considering dismantling District 15’s diversity plan.)

A discussion on Tuesday about District 15’s resolution laid bare some of the historic arguments for and against screened admissions that will likely surface when the city announces its plans. 

Most people spoke in support of the district’s diversity plan and unscreened schools, recounting tales of stressed children who felt pressured as early as first grade to maintain perfect attendance to get into the middle school of their choice. One parent noted that her child, who was part of the inaugural sixth grade class chosen by lottery, attended a more racially diverse middle school than elementary school. Her daughter grew “academically, socially, emotionally,” and even became involved with a youth integration advocacy group.

“Families are much more relaxed and confident about the process once we explain how it works, how the lottery works, what their options are,” Amy Sumner, parent coordinator at the Brooklyn New School, said at the District 15 parent council meeting. “It’s removed so much of the tension and anxiety that the families go through every year.”

In arguing for screens, parent council member Vincent Lu argued that enrollment “dropped tremendously” in District 15 because of admissions changes. 

“Families vote with their feet,” Lu said.

However, District 15’s enrollment changes are similar to citywide trends. 

District 15’s enrollment last year in traditional public schools was about 88% of its pre-pandemic numbers. That’s in line with the citywide average of 89%, according to data from the Independent Budget Office. (The data excludes preschool for 3-year-olds or alternative programs, such as programs for overage and under-credited students).

As enrollment has dropped in public schools across the nation, there is little evidence showing that admissions changes pushed families to leave district schools. Since the onset of the pandemic, the largest enrollment declines across the city have not been in middle or high school grades, but rather in prekindergarten for 4-year-olds, followed by second grade, kindergarten and third grade. 

But other districts, such as Brooklyn’s District 20 and Manhattan’s District 2, are also citing enrollment in their resolutions in support of reinstating screened admissions, based on what they’ve heard from families. Manhattan’s affluent District 2, in fact, has about 91% of its pre-pandemic enrollment, while that figure is 90% for District 20, according to IBO data, both slightly higher than the citywide average.

That district’s parent council has not yet met to discuss the resolution. 

“D2 students face these unequitable and demoralizing admissions results despite demonstrating excellent academic proficiency via grades and state test scores that consistently outperform state-wide,” the resolution said. 

Though middle and high school applications were delayed the past few years, previously they were due in December. 

Reema Amin is a reporter covering New York City schools with a focus on state policy and English language learners. Contact Reema at ramin@chalkbeat.org.

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