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Some Brooklyn Parents Pull Kids Into Private School As Integration Plan Gets Underway

Dashed Arrow From the D15 presentation

Middle schools in Brooklyn’s District 15 may look very different next fall, as a result of the community’s new integration plan, and not everyone is happy about it.

Last year, the district got rid of selective admissions “screens” for all of its middle schools and switched to a lottery. Instead of granting admission based on grades and tests scores, it gave priority to students from low-income families and English Language Learners. When the new admissions numbers came out in April, demographics had changed dramatically. Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza praised the community for its “bold action,” and headlines declared the district’s desegregation plan might actually be working.

But over the past month, unhappy parents from this swath of brownstone Brooklyn have been lighting up local listservs with concerns about their assigned schools and questions about the process.

District 15 spans affluent Park Slope, Cobble Hill and Carroll Gardens, as well as lower-income areas including Sunset Park and Red Hook.

Rumors are swirling: Did more students from prized Park Slope elementary school PS 321 get into their first choice schools? (No. According to DOE statistics, fewer 321 students got into their top three choices than the district average.)

Will a cohort of mostly white French-speaking students from a Carroll Gardens French immersion school be taught separately at a largely Latino school in Sunset Park? (Not exactly. There will be a new French class at the middle school, but it’s open to any student who’s interested.)

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D15 Map (D15 Diversity Plan)

Parents have expressed concerns about sending their children to schools with metal detectors or in areas they feel are too far away. Multiple parents said they’re pulling their children out of the public school system altogether. Officials at private school Poly Prep said they saw a 24 percent spike in applications from the District 15 area this year.

“There are definitely people who aren’t happy but there definitely people who are happy,” said Community Education Council member Neal Zephyrin. He acknowledged that at least half of the parents at a recent community meeting were disappointed with their results, but he felt some were using racially “coded” language.

“There are going to be privileges that are spread out more,” he said. “That’s the result of equity.”

Meanwhile, parent Matt Welch said he resented that parents who raised questions were accused of being racist. “If you’re defending the status quo you’re [seen as] defending segregation,” he said. “People don’t move to Brooklyn because they’re afraid of mixing.”

He said his daughter was happy with her placement, but he has been critical of the plan.

At popular M.S. 51 in Park Slope, just a third of admitted students came from the three designated priority groups—free lunch (FRL), students in temporary housing (STH), and English Language Learners (ELL)—last year. This year, more than half did.

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M.S. 51 (From the D15 presentation)

In contrast, last year at I.S. 136 Charles O. Dewey in Sunset Park, 91 percent of admitted students received free lunches, lived in temporary housing or were English Language Learners. This year, that number went down to 67 percent.

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I.S. 136 (From the D15 presentation)

Parent Lisa Chamberlain said her complaint had nothing to do with race. She said her daughter wanted a school with a focus on art and music; the one she got into didn’t have as strong an emphasis on the arts.

“This is a sledgehammer approach to what is a very complicated problem of segregation,” Chamberlain said. “Schools spent 25 years developing a nuanced and rich curriculum [with] specific cultures the schools have created, and that’s going to be upended by the lottery process.”

Chamberlain said she has been equally disappointed in the appeals process, which officials said will be another lottery, but likely with fewer slots available. As a result, she plans to send her daughter to a Greek parochial school next year, which she emphasized, is also diverse. “We’re not leaving because of that,” she said.

According to New York City Department of Education statistics, 51 percent of students in District 15 got into their top choice this year, compared to 48 percent last year. The percentage of students who got into their top three was down, from 87 percent last year to 78 percent this year.

“We’re excited that more families in District 15 are receiving their top choices for middle school as we expand opportunity for all students with this diversity plan,” said DOE spokesperson Doug Cohen. “There are high-quality middle school programs across the district, and we’ll continue supporting families throughout this process.”

Parent Greg Selig said he wanted to raise his son in Brooklyn because it's so diverse. Now his son is headed for Sunset Park Prep, a middle school where the vast majority of students are low-income or learning English, and he’s excited about it. “When I went to visit I really knew almost nothing about it,” he said. “Our experience when we visited, we were delighted [by] the place.”

He said he sees diversity as a benefit, and is “disappointed” in some of his neighbors. “We're hearing a lot of concern and anxiety and I think that anxiety is born out of fear,” he said.

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Sunset Park Prep (From the D15 presentation)

At P.S. 88, admissions demographics also shifted considerably this year, with many more students who do not receive free lunches admitted than last year.

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J.H.S. 88 (From the D15 presentation)

J.H.S. 88 Principal Ailene Mitchell said that while an orientation this week looked a bit more diverse, the crowd was enthusiastic and the questions were the same.

“Parents are just asking the usual questions,” she said. “Curriculum, pedagogy, what does a middle schooler need to start middle school?”

Jessica Gould is a reporter in the newsroom at WNYC. You can follow her on Twitter at @ByJessicaGould.

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