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As Two Districts Desegregate Middle Schools, DOE Chancellor Urges Parents To Think Beyond Test Scores

Outside P.S. 199 Middle School on the Upper West Side
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Outside P.S. 199 Middle School on the Upper West Side Jen Chung / Gothamist

New initiatives to desegregate the city’s middle schools are making headway in pilot districts in Park Slope and on the Upper West Side, according to admissions data released this week. Most of the middle schools in Brooklyn’s District 15 and Manhattan’s District 3, as well as a handful of schools that participated elsewhere in the city, offered admission to students with a broader range of academic performance and family income than in the past.

For example, West End Secondary School, which attracted mostly white, affluent families when it opened on West 61st Street in 2015, boosted its admissions offers to low-performing, low-income students from just 6 percent last year to 17 percent this year. Meanwhile, the Carroll Gardens School for Innovation increased its offers to students who are low-income, English language learners, or in temporary housing from 16 percent to 52 percent.

But parents—some of whom were outraged by proposals to integrate the most sought-after middle schools when they were announced last year—still have to choose which schools their children will attend based on the offers they received, and have until May 10 to appeal the decisions. Only then will the impact of the new admission rules on school segregation become clear.

Richard Carranza, chancellor of the city’s Department of Education, emphasized to an audience of parents and educators Tuesday evening that everyone needs to go beyond a school’s numerical rankings to re-evaluate what makes a school good or bad.

“We are all complicit until we change the narrative and we stop putting the emphasis on just test scores,” said Carranza, speaking on a panel on race and inclusion in education at the Wadleigh School for the Performing and Visual Arts on the Upper West Side.

Instead, he said parents should look at “how are we helping people, how are we providing wraparound services, how are we providing—get ready, clutch your pearls—how are we providing fine arts in our schools.”

Carranza made headlines last year when he derided Upper West Side parents who complained that letting lower-performing students into the most in-demand schools would deprive students who had worked hard in elementary school of the best education. It was parents in the pilot districts who designed the diversity initiatives and presented them to City Hall. But Carranza said Tuesday he is still seeing some pushback from parents who are disappointed with where their children were admitted.

“Even just this evening somebody came up to me and said, ‘My daughter couldn’t get into that school because it’s a good school and you’re going to send her to a bad school,’” Carranza told the audience. “I said, ‘Well, have you been to the school that she’s assigned to?’”

Many parents who attended the event, which looked beyond middle school admissions for ways to improve equity in education, said they were in favor of integration, though.

“When you have a school system where there’s only a couple of schools that are acceptable to certain parents, that by itself creates segregation and I think it’s a false construct of way the world works,” said Rebecca Weel, who has a 7-year-old and an 11-year-old. “I’ve never seen any other part of my life being that segregated and working successfully.”

After attending a charter school for elementary school, Weel’s daughter was just accepted to Mott Hall II, a public school in Manhattan’s District 3, “which we’re thrilled about,” she said.

In 2018, the school landed in 5th place out of 10 ranked middle schools in the district on the site SchoolDigger, ranking better than 81.5 percent of middle schools across the city.

“I don’t even know what its test scores were,” said Weel, a pediatrician by training who is now a stay-at-home-mom. “I might have a secondary sense of it based on reputation, and Mott Hall II has a very good reputation, but I made my own choices based on touring the school, meeting students and speaking to parents.”

Weel said she was drawn to the school’s “dynamic principal” and its “great balance between academics and other important pursuits.”

She said she also appreciated the school’s diversity: In 2017, the students were 23.5 percent white, 26.4 percent African American, 6.2 percent Asian, and 37 percent Hispanic.

Under the diversity plan that was approved for District 3, schools that enrolled disproportionately low numbers of students who qualify for free or discounted lunch and have low academic performance were supposed to increase admissions offers to those students, while schools that enrolled disproportionately high numbers were supposed to decrease offers, according to the Department of Education. Of the district’s 16 participating middle schools, 13 moved closer to the goal of reserving 25 percent of their seats for the target groups, the DOE said. Mott Hall II, where nearly half of the students already qualify for free or discounted lunch, reduced its admissions offers to those high-need students, from 42 percent last year to 31 percent this year.

In Brooklyn’s District 15, 10 of the 11 participating middle schools used tests, interviews, or other screening methods to admit students last year; this year they all dropped their screenings as part of the diversity initiative. Nine of the 11 schools met the goal of making 40 to 75 percent of their admissions offers to high-needs students, while a tenth school moved closer to the target range, according to the DOE. Last year, only four schools met the target.

“Our schools are stronger when they reflect the diversity of our city, and Districts 3 and 15 are showing how we can have the important conversations and take bold action on this issue,” Carranza said in a statement.

The integration efforts come at a time when the city is grappling with how to improve diversity at the city’s specialized high schools, where the number of black and hispanic students admitted is dwindling.

There is evidence that students benefit from integration. Research shows that low-income students have better academic outcomes in schools that are socioeconomically integrated, for instance. Still, the discussion at the Wadleigh school Tuesday evening focused on the fact that integration is not a panacea. Educators and education experts on the panel said things like curriculum, implicit bias training, and the flexibility teachers have to connect with students, rather than just prep them for tests, all factor into academic success and equity—not just the makeup of a school.

“You get the results you design the system for, and the current system is designed to privilege certain kids,” Carranza said.

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