Admissions Debate

New York City tweaks admissions at an elite middle school, sparking an uproar

PHOTO: Ashley Gunnis
Parents packed into the cafeteria of Medgar Evers College Preparatory School for a meeting in 2015.

A few weeks ago, the parent-teacher association at Medgar Evers College Preparatory School — a high-performing public school in Crown Heights, Brooklyn — caught wind of a plan that alarmed them.

The education department intended to seize control of the selective admissions process at the school and begin admitting more disadvantaged students, the PTA believed. It was only a matter of time, the group concluded, before the school would be forced to ratchet down its rigorous curriculum to accommodate the new students — in the process, they feared, undermining a successful, largely African American institution that has long been considered a neighborhood jewel.

The group dashed off a press release warning that officials planned to “dismantle” the school. (On Saturday, a state lawmaker who represents Crown Heights echoed that language in an op-ed opposing the plan, which he called “misguided and flawed.”) On Facebook, community members angrily noted that the city was trying to diversify a high-achieving predominantly black school, even as elite high schools like Stuyvesant remain overwhelmingly white and Asian.

When the PTA called an emergency meeting in the school’s cafeteria this month, hundreds of anxious parents attended. On Wednesday, the group staged a rally against the admissions changes that drew several elected officials.

“The educational aspect of our school will deteriorate” if the city takes over the school’s admissions, PTA President Norelda Cotterel told Chalkbeat last week. “It’s not going to be the same.”

In fact, the proposed changes are not as drastic as those feared by the PTA, education department officials say: By and large, the school will still get to choose whom to admit. But the city will oversee part of the admissions process, and the school will be expected to enroll more students with disabilities, as the Wall Street Journal first reported.

The education department is also imposing the new admissions requirements on other elite city schools, as part of a broader effort to standardize the admissions process and to spread students of different backgrounds and academic levels more evenly across the city’s schools, which are highly segregated by race, class, and academic achievement.

As a result of this campaign, high schools with selective admissions offered seats to three times as many students with disabilities in 2017 as they did five years earlier, according to the education department. Now, the city is setting its sights on the small number of middle schools — including Medgar Evers, which includes grades 6 to 12 — that run their own admissions systems rather than letting students use the city’s standard application form.

So far, this drive to diversify selective schools has centered on students with disabilities. But in the “diversity plan” the city released in June after persistent pressure from advocates, the education department also promised to eventually make selective schools enroll more students “with special instructional or support needs,” including those who are homeless or still learning English.

That goal has left Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration in a conundrum, underscored by the parents at Medgar Evers: Can the district promote school diversity while at the same time allowing students to be sorted into different schools according to academic achievement or artistic talent?

Some integration advocates say no and have called for the elimination of selective admissions, which is practiced in a quarter of New York City middle schools and a third of high schools. But many parents insist that high-achieving students can be pushed to reach their full potential only when surrounded by similarly strong classmates — a sentiment that has fueled the uproar at Medgar Evers.

Shawana Henry, whose daughter Madison is in the sixth grade at Medgar Evers, said she would gladly have the school enroll more disadvantaged students and ones with disabilities — as long as the coursework remains the same. Yet she also considers the school’s selectivity a vital component of its success.

“Changing the admission process would actually go against the legacy that the school has established,” she said in a text message. “There shouldn’t be any changes made to a school that is doing well unless it’s for further advancement.”

Medgar Evers College Prep, named for the slain African American civil-rights activist, complicates the usual critique of selective programs — that they often exclude low-income students of color. Its student body is 88 percent black and 71 percent from low-income families, and it rests in the city’s top academic tier. (Research has shown that grouping high-achieving black and Hispanic students into the same classes can greatly benefit them.)

Last year, the school achieved a 95 percent graduation rate, with 36 graduates leaving with an associate’s degree — the result of an early-college program that former President Obama lauded in a 2009 speech. The school pushes its students hard: They’re required to attend a six-week summer program each year until 10th grade, by which time most have earned all the credits necessary to graduate, according to the review website Insideschools.

But a big part of the school’s success can be traced to its admissions policy.

Administrators review middle-school applicants’ report cards, fourth-grade test scores, attendance records, and evidence of artistic or athletic talent; it also makes them sit for an entrance exam and interview. The result is that most incoming Medgar Evers students arrive with far higher test scores than the city average, do not have disabilities, and are proficient in English (less than one-half of one percent of students qualify as English learners, compared to 10.2 percent in its Brooklyn district).

To bring the school closer in line with its district’s demographics, the city has been sending it more students with disabilities who did not go through the usual application process; under the new proposal, the school will be expected to recruit and admit even more such students. (Currently 6.4 percent of Medgar Evers students have disabilities, versus 17.3 percent of students in its district.)

Parents, however, fear that eventually the school would have to “realign” its curriculum to meet the needs of a broader range of students — a fear that department officials tried to calm last week, in a visit by Deputy Chancellor Dorita Gibson, who insisted that the focus now is only on boosting the school’s share of students with disabilities.

At the same time, the city has a broader goal to standardize admissions for most middle schools so that families can apply to any school using the city’s standard application form — rather than having to apply directly to certain schools. That has fueled their push to incorporate Medgar Evers and the few middle schools that still manage their own admissions into the education department’s central application process.

Some 13 selective middle schools where students previously applied directly to the school — including the Anderson School and the Institute for Collaborative Education, two popular schools in Manhattan that admit students from across the city — are switching to the centralized system this fall. Medgar Evers will make the change next year for students applying to sixth grade (ninth-grade applicants already use the city’s common application form).

Medgar Evers and the other schools will continue to screen and rank their own applicants, but now they will submit their rankings to the enrollment office, which will notify students who have been accepted.

The department says the shift is mainly a technical change to simplify the application process for families. But it will also allow the city to monitor admissions at selective schools — and, perhaps, intervene if schools appear to be excluding certain groups of students.


Colorado schools are getting a major bump in the state’s 2018-19 budget

Students waiting to enter their sixth-grade classroom at Kearney Middle School in Commerce City. (Photo by Craig Walker, The Denver Post)

Colorado’s strong economy has opened the door for state lawmakers to send a major cash infusion to the state’s public schools.

As they finalized the recommended budget for 2018-19, the Joint Budget Committee set aside $150 million, an additional $50 million beyond what Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper had asked for, to increase funding to schools.

“We believe this is the most significant reduction in what used to be called the negative factor since it was born,” said state Rep. Millie Hamner, the Dillon Democrat who chairs the Joint Budget Committee.

Colorado’s constitution calls for per pupil spending to increase at least by inflation every year, but the state hasn’t been able to meet that obligation since the Great Recession. The amount by which schools get shorted, officially called the budget stabilization factor, is $822 million in 2017-18. Under state law, this number isn’t supposed to get bigger from one year to the next, but in recent years, it hasn’t gotten much smaller either. 

But a booming economy coupled with more capacity in the state budget created by a historic compromise on hospital funding last year means Colorado has a lot more money to spend this year. In their March forecast, legislative economists told lawmakers they have an extra $1.3 billion to spend or save in 2018-19.

The recommended shortfall for next year is now just $672.4 million. That would bring average per-pupil spending above $8,100, compared to $7,662 this year.

Total program spending on K-12 education, after the budget stabilization factor is deducted, should be a little more than $7 billion, with the state picking up about $4.5 billion and the rest coming from local property taxes.

The budget debate this year has featured Republicans pressing for more ongoing money for transportation and Democrats resisting in the interest of spreading more money around to other needs. The positive March forecast reduced much of that tension, as a $500 million allocation for transportation allowed a compromise on roads funding in the Republican-controlled Senate. That compromise still needs the approval of the Democratic-controlled House, but suddenly a lot of things are seeming possible.

“We knew we were going to have more revenue than we’ve ever had to work with,” Hamner said of the status at the beginning of the session. But that presented its own challenges, as so many interest groups and constituencies sought to address long-standing needs.

“The fact that we’ve been able to reach such incredible compromises on transportation and K-12 funding, I think most members will be very pleased with this outcome,” Hamner said. “Where we ended up is a pretty good place.”

The big outstanding issue is proposed reforms to the Public Employees Retirement Association or PERA fund to address unfunded liabilities. A bill that is likely to see significant changes in the House is wending its way through the process. The Joint Budget Committee has set aside $225 million to deal with costs associated with that fix, which has major implications for teachers and school districts budgets.

The Joint Budget Committee has also set aside $30 million for rural schools, $10 million for programs to address teacher shortages, and $7 million for school safety grants.

The budget will be introduced in the House on Monday. Many of the school funding elements will appear in a separate school finance bill.

Going forward, there is a question about how sustainable these higher funding levels will be.

“It does put more pressure on the general fund,” Hamner said. “If we see a downturn in the economy, it’s going to be a challenge.”

outside the box

Program to bring back dropout students is one of 10 new ideas Jeffco is investing in

File photo of Wheat Ridge High School students. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Jeffco students who drop out will have another option for completing high school starting this fall, thanks to a program that is being started with money from a district “innovation fund.”

The new program would allow students, particularly those who are older and significantly behind on credits, to get district help to prepare for taking a high school equivalency test, such as the GED, while also taking college courses paid for by the district.

The idea for the program was pitched by Dave Kollar, who has worked for Jeffco Public Schools for almost 20 years, most recently as the district’s director of student engagement.

In part, Kollar’s idea is meant to give students hope and to allow them to see college as a possibility, instead of having to slowly walk back as they recover credits missing in their transcripts.

“For some kids, they look at you, and rightfully so, like ‘I’m going to be filling in holes for a year or two? This doesn’t seem realistic,’” Kollar said. “They’re kind of defeated by that. As a student, I’m constantly looking backwards at my failures. This is about giving kids something like a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Jeffco’s dropout rate has decreased in the last few years, like it has across the state. At 1.7 percent, the rate isn’t high, but still represents 731 students who dropped out last year.

Kollar’s was one of ten winning ideas announced earlier this month in the district’s first run at giving out mini-grants to kick-start innovative ideas. Kollar’s idea received $160,000 to get the program started and to recruit students who have dropped out and are willing to come back to school.

The other ideas that the district gave money to range from school building improvements to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act at Fletcher Miller Special School, from new school health centers to a new district position to help work on safety in schools. One school, Stott Elementary, will create a “tinker lab” where students will have space and supplies to work on projects as part of the school’s project-based learning model.

The Jeffco school board approved $1 million for the awards earlier this year. It was an idea proposed by Superintendent Jason Glass as a way of encouraging innovation in the district. This spring process is meant as a test run. The board will decide whether to continue investing in it once they see how the projects are going later this spring.

Officials say they learned a lot already. Tom McDermott, who oversaw the process, will present findings and recommendations to the board at a meeting next month.

If the board agrees to continue the innovation fund, McDermott wants to find different ways of supporting more of the ideas that educators present, even if there aren’t dollars for all of them.

That’s because in this first process — even though educators had short notice — teachers and other Jeffco staff still completed and submitted more than 100 proposals. Of those, 51 ideas scored high enough to move to the second round of the process in which the applicants were invited to pitch their ideas to a committee made up of Jeffco educators.

“We’re extremely proud of the 10,” McDermott said, but added, “we want to be more supportive of more of the ideas.”

McDermott said he thinks another positive change might be to create tiers so that smaller requests compete with each other in one category, and larger or broader asks compete with one another in a separate category.

This year, the applicants also had a chance to request money over time, but those parts of the awards hang on the board allocating more money.

Kollar’s idea for the GED preparation program for instance, includes a request for $348,800 next year. In total, among the 10 awards already granted, an extra $601,487 would be needed to fund the projects in full over the next two years.

Awards for innovation fund. Provided by Jeffco Public Schools.

The projects are not meant to be sustained by the award in the long-term, and some are one-time asks.

Kollar said that if that second phase of money doesn’t come through for his program, it should still be able to move forward. School districts are funded per student, so by bringing more students back to the district, the program would at least get the district’s student-based budget based on however many students are enrolled.

A similar program started in Greeley this fall is funded with those dollars the state allocates to districts for each student. So far, eight students there already completed a GED certificate, and there are now 102 other students enrolled, according to a spokeswoman for the Greeley-Evans school district.

But, having Jeffco’s innovation money could help Kollar’s program provide additional services to the students, such as a case manager that can help connect students to food or housing resources if needed.

And right now Kollar is working on setting up systems to track data around how many students end up completing the program, earning a high school equivalency certificate, enrolling in a college or trade-school, or getting jobs.

Helping more students on a path toward a career is the gold standard, he said, and what makes the program innovative.

“It’s not just about if the student completes high school,” Kollar said. “It’s are we making sure we are intentionally bridging them into whatever the next pathway is?”