debating admissions

Parents at a selective middle school fear an influx of ‘unscreened’ students

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
District 3 Superintendent Ilene Altschul, right, has proposed a middle school integration plan.

On a block wedged between Harlem and the Upper West Side, two middle schools share a regal building. The similarities largely end there.

Mott Hall II is “screened” — meaning students are picked based on their previous academic performance. Students outpace the district average on state tests, and the school receives seven applications for every available seat.

Mostly separated on a different floor, the middle school at P.S. 165 accepts students from the zoned elementary school. Only 8 percent of middle school students passed state math tests last year, and enrollment in the upper grades is shrinking.

The education department is proposing to close the middle school at P.S. 165, which could give popular Mott Hall II room to grow. But P.S. 165 students would be entitled to opt into Mott Hall II without meeting its academic criteria, which has Mott Hall II parents worried that the performance of their school could erode if it is flooded with students who struggle academically.

“Shouldn’t they earn it? My daughter earned her right into Mott Hall,” said Sophia Fofana, whose daughter attends the school, at a public meeting held Wednesday to discuss the possible changes. “Mott Hall II is a rigorous school and, no disrespect to the teachers at [P.S. 165], but obviously they’re not the same and these kids are going to have a hard time.”

The controversy is similar to many that have erupted over the years among parents who want to protect their selective schools from changes that they fear could make them less exclusive. The debates also raise the larger question of whether some public schools should be permitted to choose their students — as a quarter of New York City middle schools now do — while others must enroll anyone who applies.

Both the proposal to shutter P.S. 165 and subsequently expand Mott Hall II are in the early stages. Neither has been formally proposed, let alone approved.

If the middle school is closed, about 100 current students there are entitled to enroll in a higher-performing alternative. Those students would not have to go through the normal screening process, which allows schools to sort through applicants based on their grades, test scores, interviews and other criteria.

A shift in the student body could also have unintended consequences when it comes to diversity. Enrollment at Mott Hall II largely mirrors the demographics of District 3, where it sits — a rarity in New York City, which has among the most segregated school systems in the country. P.S. 165, meanwhile, enrolls more black and Hispanic students.

“It works because there is a balance. And that’s what we signed up for,” said Shanti Menon, whose daughter is in seventh grade at the school.

Advocates for integration have argued that allowing schools to select students based on factors such as their academic performance or attendance records exacerbates segregation. But Mott Hall II is a unique case in that the school has been able to enroll a mixed student body. An influx of students from P.S. 165 could throw that off.

Parents describe Mott Hall II as the most diverse middle school in District 3, and most reflective of its demographic and economic averages. About 37 percent of students are Hispanic, 26 percent are black, 23 percent are white and 6 percent are Asian. The poverty rate is about 47 percent.

At P.S. 165, meanwhile, 81 percent of middle school students are black or Hispanic. With a poverty rate of 74 percent, the school serves considerably more poor students than the district average of about 48 percent.

Raven Snook, whose daughter attends Mott Hall II, said she picked the school precisely because of its diversity. While Snook is white, her husband is Puerto Rican.

“It will radically change the diversity levels, at least temporarily,” she said.

If the closure is approved, education department officials say it’s not a given that P.S. 165 students would enroll next door. Superintendent Ilene Altschul pointed out that P.S. 165 has a dual language program, and families may want to enroll in another similar school. Department officials added that many students come from another school district entirely, so they may look for options closer to home.

Altschul said the education department would work with each family to find the best fit for their child.

“Not every child will go to Mott Hall II,”  she said at Wednesday’s meeting. “We are not taking the sixth and seventh grade and moving them to Mott Hall II.”

By December, officials expect to present a formal plan that would close the middle school at P.S. 165. The Panel for Education Policy, a citywide body, would vote on it in January. Any impacts on Mott Hall II should become clearer once that proposal is presented.

Still, the District 3 Community Education Council, which is made up of parent volunteers, has pressed the education department to start working with families who could be affected. Middle school applications are due Dec. 1, but the plans may not be finalized until well after families have made their decisions.

“They deserve to have an accurate picture of what the schools will look like,” said Kristen Berger, an education council member.

Education council members and parents have been frustrated with how quickly the changes could be approved, saying families in the Harlem area of District 3 have gotten short-shrift compared with their wealthier neighbors to the south. When the education department proposed to change the attendance zone at several elementary schools in the Upper West Side, parents dragged the debate on for more than a year.

“People in Harlem keep being told they’re not high enough of a priority to be afforded the depth of conversation that is afforded to white parents in District 3,” said Kim Watkins, the education council president. “It’s really disrespectful.”

on the air

De Blasio: No decision yet on ‘Chief Integration Officer’ or other diversity recommendations

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
At a September 2018 press conference at M.S. 51 in Park Slope, Mayor Bill de Blasio and schools Chancellor Richard Carranza approved an integration plan for District 15 middle schools.

Among the concrete suggestions that Mayor Bill de Blasio’s diversity task force made when it delivered its report earlier this month was one for a new executive at the city education department.

But de Blasio hasn’t yet decided whether to hire a “Chief Integration Officer,” the mayor said Friday during his weekly appearance on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show. The radio show marked at least the third time since the School Diversity Advisory Group released its report Feb. 12 that de Blasio publicly said he planned to review the recommendations, without committing to any of them.

“Chancellor [Richard] Carranza and I are going to meet with the task force. I’m looking forward to carefully reviewing what they’ve come up with,” de Blasio said. He added, “I’m not ready to say yet what specific actions we’ll take.”

The comments echo similar ones he made last week during a weather briefing and at a press conference kicking off parent council elections.

But de Blasio signaled that he could take up at least some of the recommendations, which include setting local integration targets and adding ethnic studies courses. “Obviously, you know, I named them,” he said about the task force. “I wanted to see them do this work.”

The mayor also said again that changes could be coming to the city’s screened schools, which choose students on the basis of grades and test scores in a practice that has contributed to extreme academic and racial segregation. In September, also to Brian Lehrer, de Blasio said the city was “in the process of coming up with a series of changes around the screened schools.”

On Friday, more than five months later, he suggested that that process remained in the future. “We’re going to be reevaluating the whole approach to screened schools,” he said.

Here’s a list of five things the city could do to tackle screening. And here’s Lehrer’s entire exchange with de Blasio from Friday morning:

Lehrer: Also, on education, your school desegregation task force issued its report last week. I was going to ask you about that last Friday but then the Amazon deal broke down and that kind of took over from everything else for a few days. And your task force recommended among other things every school see if its population represents the district-wide and borough-wide population, and it recommended you name a Chief Integration Officer for the school system. Will you or Chancellor Carranza order that all schools take that inventory and will you appoint a Chief Integration Officer?

Mayor: We’re going to – Chancellor Carranza and I are going to meet with the task force. I’m looking forward to carefully reviewing what they’ve come up with. Obviously, you know, I named them. I wanted to see them do this work. I’m not ready to say yet what specific actions we’ll take until we have that meeting to have a chance to really to think about. I do think what’s important here is to recognize we are in a much stronger place today than fine years ago because we have found a variety of ways to encourage diversity, to integrate our schools better, that many of which are grassroots based and therefore I think the ones that will work the best.

Look at what happened in School District 1 in Manhattan, District 3 in the West Side of Manhattan – 1 is Lower Manhattan – District 15 Brownsville, Brooklyn, where the solutions came from the grassroots. And this is what we want to replicate. We’re working with a number of other districts to do that.

While we’re working on the big citywide issues, obviously I put forward the idea to Albany of changing admissions for the specialized high schools which I think are one of our worst examples of segregation that can be fixed straight away by better policies. And I think the proposal we put forward would do that and would end the overreliance on a single standardized test.

We’re going to be re-evaluating the whole approach to screened schools. There’s a lot going on but in terms of what the next steps will be I want to really sit down with the task force and talk it through with them.

Sorting the Students

New Memphis charter school guidelines would help decide if there are too many schools in a single neighborhood

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Children at Riverview walk home from school. (2015)

Shelby County Schools is developing guidelines that would determine if a neighborhood has too many charter schools, addressing a longtime concern of school board members.

The charter school guidelines, called the Educational Priorities Document/Rubric in a proposed district policy on charter schools, would also prioritize what the district wants charter schools to focus on, such as early literacy.

Board members would be able to systematically slow the growth of charter schools in Memphis, which has swelled to 54 since the state legislature approved their creation in 2002.

“We need to defend ourselves through policy if we’re not expanding in Frayser,” for example, said board member Kevin Woods about the neighborhood during a meeting on the proposed policy Thursday afternoon. “We shouldn’t let another day go by that it’s not addressed in policy.”

The district’s charter school office has used a prototype of the guidelines to inform board members about the number of schools in neighborhoods and how they were doing. But the information was never used to make final decisions. (See appendix here.)

The state does not require districts to determine if there are too many schools in a neighborhood when considering charter school applications. (See map of schools by type in Memphis.)

But as more students choose charter schools, district buildings are left with fewer students and more overhead costs, school board members have said. Plus, a portion of state funding follows every child that enrolls in charter schools, which are run by nonprofits. About 14 percent of Shelby County Schools students attend a charter school.

The policy comes more than a year after charter and district leaders came up with compromises on thorny issues such as charters leasing district buildings and paying for district oversight, and the process for revoking charters. Former superintendent Dorsey Hopson urged the school board to come up with a policy to address neighborhood saturation over the summer when the board approved its latest round of charters.

“No surprise, we have too many schools in Memphis,” Hopson said in August. “If you got 12 schools in a three-mile radius… and all of them are underenrolled, we’re not serving kids well.”

The proposed policy is due for the second of three readings with some changes during the school board’s March meeting, said board member Miska Clay Bibbs.