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.

ready for prime time

Four ways Amazon’s arrival in New York City could impact public schools

PHOTO: Reema Amin/Chalkbeat
John Schoettler, Amazon's vice president of global real estate and facilities, (left) sits with Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio at a press conference about Amazon's announcement to open part of its new headquarters in Long Island City.

After months of speculation, Amazon announced Tuesday that it picked Long Island City for one of its two new headquarters.

Details about the new Queens hub are still emerging, and some of the particulars are already raising eyebrows — including billions in incentives Amazon was offered to locate here. The deal, which officials claim will create as many as 40,000 jobs over 10 to 15 years, will undoubtedly affect New York City’s public school system.

The formal agreement between Amazon and New York City lays out several direct ways that the deal could impact city schools. The company agreed to house a 600-seat intermediate school on or near its Long Island City campus, replacing a school that had already been planned in a residential building nearby. Amazon also plans to offer “career exploration activities” and internship opportunities to high school students. And there is a proposal to relocate some Department of Education offices in Long Island City to make way for the tech giant.

If Amazon’s impact on Seattle, its primary headquarters, is any guide, there could be reverberations felt in New York City classrooms, especially those districts in or adjacent to Long Island City. Still, given New York City’s size and economy, Amazon’s arrival may not create the same sweeping changes — and officials are already trying to reassure New Yorkers.

“The city and state are working closely together to make sure Amazon’s expansion is planned smartly, and to ensure this fast growing neighborhood has the transportation, schools, and infrastructure it needs,” de Blasio said in an Amazon blog post announcing the move.

Here are four potential issues to look out for.

Overcrowded schools

Amazon has pledged to donate space for a new middle school — space that parents say is desperately needed. De Blasio said Tuesday that the school will replace another that had been proposed for the area. “There is no loss of school seats,” he said.

But Meghan Cirrito, a member of the Gantry Parent Association, an education advocacy group in Long Island City, is skeptical that the school will ease the crunch for classrooms. Queens parents have long fought for more school space in the borough. In the Long Island City neighborhood, schools that serve grades K-8 are already at 102 percent capacity.

“It will absolutely not relieve the overcrowding. They will keep up with their own development,” she said. “We’re already behind school seats.”

Deborah Alexander, the co-president of Community Education Council 30, which includes Long Island City, echoed that the school plan feels like “a pittance.”

“We’re still playing catch up for the city’s lack of infrastructure in Long Island City,” she said.

The need for more classrooms could also have consequences for de Blasio’s push to make pre-K available to all the city’s 3-year-olds, an effort the city is rolling out slowly in part because of existing space constraints.

But even if thousands of students arrive with new Amazon employees, they will still represent only a drop in the bucket of the city’s 1.1 million public school students. De Blasio cautioned at Tuesday’s press conference that while some employees will live in the neighborhood, not all will move to Long Island City and some may commute from other areas. Still, the neighborhoods around Queens are some of the most crowded school districts in the city.

Concerns about the city’s record student homelessness

Seattle has struggled to address a surge in homelessness as home prices have soared more rapidly in the city than anywhere else in the country — an increase that many have attributed to its booming tech sector.

As the number of high-earners there has shot up, so has student homelessness, which has increased threefold between 2011 and 2017. But when the city tried to pass a new tax dedicated to boosting services for the homeless, Amazon led a campaign against the measure, which eventually died.

Amazon is promising to pay an average salary of $150,000 in New York City. In the school district that will host the tech giant’s new hub, about 72 percent of students come from low-income families.

In New York City, the number of homeless students is already at an all-time high. More than 114,000 students here lack permanent housing, which poses challenges for schools that may struggle to meet the needs of children who often lag behind their peers on academic measures.

Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza recently announced the education department would hire 100 new employees to help schools with high concentrations of homeless students.  

De Blasio said the arrival of large companies such as Amazon could exacerbate homelessness in other cities that “don’t have substantial affordable housing, are not building a lot of new affordable housing,” specifically calling out San Francisco.

But, he said, the impact of tax revenue from Amazon’s move will be “central” for supporting existing affordable housing in New York City.

Other changes in student demographics

School leaders in Seattle say the number of students who are learning English as a new language has jumped with Amazon’s growth, opening the need for teachers and curriculum to serve those students.

New York City has rapidly expanded its language programs under de Blasio, which are often seen as a tool to help spur more diverse schools. But the education department has also historically struggled to serve English language learners well.

Amazon’s move could have other effects on school diversity at a time when advocates have put increasing pressure on the the city to step up integration efforts. New York City schools are among the most segregated in the country, an issue that Carranza has pledged to tackle.

But with more higher-income families potentially lured to Queens by Amazon jobs, Cirrito worries about gentrification in a borough and neighborhood known for its diversity, and the effect that could have on classrooms.

“How can we say we welcome new Americans here if they can’t afford to live in Long Island City and they can’t afford to live in neighborhoods where their kids have good schools?” she asked. “At the time we have a chancellor in place calling for the desegregation of schools, this seems to be a move that will completely undermine his efforts.”

Even if low-income families live side-by-side with Amazon’s workers, it’s not at all clear their children will learn together. Long Island City is home to the New York’s largest housing project, and whether high-earners would opt into schools where many students are poor is an open question.

A philanthropic boost?

New York’s agreement with Amazon doesn’t offer many details about how the company will interact with the nation’s largest school system, but it does include a promise to create internships and “work-based learning opportunities” — including activities such as career days and mock interviews.

What that will look like, and whether a bigger stream of philanthropic support could follow, is unclear. Amazon has offered some support for public education in Seattle, including supplies for needy students. And its founder, Jeff Bezos, recently announced a $2 billion investment to launch a network of preschools in low-income communities.

Kathryn Wylde, the president and CEO of the nonprofit Partnership for New York City, which serves as the business community’s lobbying group, said she hopes Amazon’s presence helps fuel career and technical programs in city schools.

“The frustration has been a lack of employer engagement in opportunity for [career and technical education] and workplace opportunities,” Wylde said. “Obviously this is a bonanza in providing those opportunities.”

She added that Amazon could support schools similar to Brooklyn’s P-Tech, a high school that partners with IBM to offer students opportunities in the tech sector. (Wylde said there were no concrete plans in place yet for Amazon to participate in such a partnership.)

Others were less optimistic.

Alexander, the co-president of Community Education Council 30, said she hopes the city would partner “as much as possible” to harness any investments Amazon is willing to make in public schools.

Still, she added, “It sticks a little in my craw —  the richest person in the world getting billions of dollars in money from New York State when New York State owes schools so much money.”

“It’s hard to see what internship or guest speakers or whatever could make that balance.”

Chalkbeat live

Education for all? Let’s talk about that, Chicago.

Since Chalkbeat Chicago launched in June, we’ve convened small gatherings of parents, educators, school council members, and community leaders to talk about city schools.

On December 12, we’re hosting our biggest public forum to date — with pie! — on the topic of Chicago’s next mayor and the future of schools in the city.

  • Which items should top the next mayor’s schools agenda?
  • How do we build on successes like the district’s record-high graduation rates?
  • And how do we grapple with persistent challenges such as declining enrollment and equity gaps in performance and resources?

We are inviting educators, students, advocates, policy makers, and more to join us for this critical conversation. Taking part in the centerpiece panel will be Chicagoans with experience in and around schools including:

  • Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, founder of the Little Village Community Development Corporation and newly elected congressman from the 4th District
  • Elizabeth Swanson, vice president of strategy and programs at the Joyce Foundation and the former deputy chief of staff for education for outgoing Mayor Rahm Emanuel
  • Daniel Anello, CEO of Kids First, which produced a new report that examines school access and capacity on the city’s South and West sides
  • Jitu Brown, national director of the Journey for Justice Alliance

Guests will be encouraged to record a message to the city’s next mayor in our storybooth and to network with other people who care about public education and Chicago youth. The evening also will feature student performances and a coffee-and-pie reception with treats from Justice of the Pies and Dark Matter Coffee.

The event is free and open to all ages, but space is limited and registration is required. RSVP here.