Families in Brooklyn’s District 15 are preparing for big changes to middle school admissions — but there could be ripple effects that go beyond a recently approved enrollment overhaul.
In an effort to integrate schools across neighborhoods such as Sunset Park and Park Slope, selective criteria such as report card grades and test scores will no longer count toward admissions decisions. Instead, the district will use a lottery that gives needy students priority.
Schools are delicate organisms, though, and changes in one area can have cascading effects on students, teachers, and how schools organize themselves. Here are a few potential consequences to look out for in District 15.
A reduction in test pressure
District 15 has been an epicenter of the city’s opt-out energy: 13 percent of students there chose not to take state tests in 2017. But the use of fourth-grade test scores in admissions decisions may have worked as a bulwark against an even higher opt-out tide. Some parents who are antsy about standardized testing likely made their children sit for tests anyway, thinking their results could help them get into middle school (though many local middle schools accepted students without scores). Now that test scores definitely won’t count towards middle school admissions, there’s little incentive for parents skeptical about testing to make their children take the exams — especially as the state has also softened proposed penalties for schools where a high percentage of students opt out.
Dialing down test pressure could have other effects. Some research has found that attaching high-stakes to tests can lead to gaming of the system, like a greater focus on material that will appear on state tests or putting more effective teachers in tested grades. So reducing the stakes could yield scores that are a better indicator of how much students are really learning. Less emphasis on test scores could also allow teachers to spend time on topics and skills that won’t be tested and make schools more welcoming for students who struggle under test pressure.
Already, at least one parent who had opted out of the city’s public schools entirely is considering making a return because of the admissions changes in District 15.
Juliette Adams lives in Boerum Hill, and her son is in fifth grade at Brooklyn Friends, a private school. She said she was turned off by the schools in her neighborhood partly because of the competitive middle-school admissions process, which makes students “feel like they’re taking these tests and that determines their future.”
She’s considering entering the lottery for middle school for a variety of reasons: to expand her son’s options, because she believes in diversity, and because she’s hopeful that removing tests from the equation lowers the pressure on students.
“I would want to support that and I think a lottery would be a win-win for him,” she said. “He wouldn’t have to go through the stress of applying and being rejected.”
High school admissions changes backfire
While the city is touting the changes in District 15, Mayor Bill de Blasio is also lobbying to change how students are admitted to specialized high schools, which are also deeply segregated. A small number of middle schools, including in District 15, feed an outsized share of students into the elite high schools. District 15’s integration push could have an unintended impact on de Blasio’s plan.
The mayor’s proposal to replace the specialized high schools entrance exam — and instead admit the top 7 percent of students in every city middle school — is based on a presumption that middle schools remain segregated.
But the hope in District 15 is that all middle schools will have many white and middle-class students — meaning that it’s plausible those students could make up the bulk of the top students, given that they tend to earn higher test scores. If they are truly distributed across the district, more affluent students could end up benefiting from the changes, and poor students and students of color could see a pathway to elite high schools blocked.
Of course, the hope is also that more diverse schools will help all students excel, but many factors out of schools’ control could work against that reality.
Any potential impacts are still purely theoretical: Changing admissions to specialized high schools requires the state legislature to act, which hasn’t happened yet. Even if they do, de Blasio’s plan would take years to fully phase-in.
Lazar Treschan, who has studied the city’s specialized high schools closely for the Community Service Society of New York — an advocacy organization for low-income residents — said there is some precedence for how things could play out. He noted that when Texas moved to a similar system that offered college admission to top high school students, some white families moved into neighborhoods where they thought their child would have a better shot at making the top rankings. But he said that’s no reason not to move forward in District 15.
“Let’s deal with the middle school problem and worry later if this messes up our plan” for high schools, he said.
Still, this potential wrinkle is a reminder of how complicated the city’s school system is.
“These things are all connected, and you can’t move one without another,” Treschan said.
Increased scrutiny of what happens inside schools
Under the old admissions process, some schools that admitted students with stronger academic skills gained positive reputations — with little scrutiny of what happens once students get in the door. Are schools that have served students who are mostly on track, or even advanced, prepared to help students who need to catch up? Will students who are academically prepared be challenged in schools that have historically admitted few students in that position?
School leaders in the district say the answer is a resounding yes.
“It’s a bit of a myth that any school has any one type of student,” said Lenore DiLeo Berner, the principal of M.S. 51. The school bills itself as a gifted and talented program, but DiLeo Berner said teachers “have been trained to teach all kinds of students, all kinds of learners.”
“Bring it on,” she said.
But serving a range of learners can be difficult to do well, and city data suggests that some local schools are more effective than others in propelling forward students. Plus, research shows that if skills gaps are too large, students on both ends of the academic spectrum do not benefit when they are taught together. Other research shows that struggling students can have a negative impact on their peers.
Sorting students into classes based on their existing academic achievement, a practice known as “tracking,” can negate the benefits of otherwise integrated schools because students of color are more likely to get stuck in lower-level classes, while white students take advanced and honors courses in greater numbers.
In Montgomery County, Maryland, a recent effort to make gifted programs more diverse came with a commitment to creating accelerated classes in individual schools, in part to placate families whose children would have been admitted to the special programs under the old system.
City officials say they won’t let that happen in District 15. Parents and educators who worked on the integration plan asked that no tracking take place within any new programs.
District Superintendent Anita Skop said separating students by ability level would “go against” the vision of “meaningfully” integrating schools.
“We believe all our students have the potential to succeed academically with the right supports,” she said in an emailed statement. “I’m going to be closely monitoring the diversity plan as it goes into effect and working with all our principals to expand opportunity to accelerated work for all students.”
And more pressure for schools to sell themselves
The previous admissions system required a hefty investment of time and effort from school leaders, who interviewed, tested, and auditioned a crush of applicants. That will no longer be the case in District 15. But the new admissions system doesn’t necessarily free up time for teachers and administrators.
Parents will still be free to apply to the schools of their choice, which means district leaders will have to devote effort towards recruiting a diverse applicant pool. They’ll have to figure out why certain families aren’t already considering their schools and help break down those barriers — whether they are transportation concerns or questions about the programs offered. Without an intense focus on these issues, the push for integration could fall flat.
And advocates say that even if schools succeed, they will need to pay extra attention to making sure all students are treated fairly and that their cultures are respected so that families will want to stay.
“I think that if the schools don’t do any kind of active recruitment and also don’t pay attention to changing demographics in the school and what that will mean, then it won’t necessarily be as successful as people are hoping,” said Michele Greenberg, a District 15 parent who is working on diversity and outreach efforts in local elementary schools.
Plus a potential budget squeeze
If the integration plan succeeds, it could shut schools out of federal Title I funding — a pot of money that gets funneled to schools where many students are needy.
To qualify for Title I in Brooklyn, at least 60 percent of a school’s students must come from low-income families. The funding is all or nothing: either a school qualifies for the budget boost or gets nothing.
In District 15, the goal is for each school to serve a share of needy students that falls in line with the local average of 52 percent. The loss of Title I could put schools in a serious bind as they continue to serve many students who may have extra needs, but parents are often unable to make up for the funding gap through PTA fundraising, or by paying out of their own pockets for services such as afterschool programming.
Parents, educators, and community members who developed the District 15 integration plan asked the city to consider new ways to disperse Title I money, and to create a stopgap for schools that fall below the threshold. Last year, four middle schools in the district benefited from Title I.
But since the funding comes with federal strings attached, it may be difficult to change how Title I gets handed out. Plus, the pot of money has already been stretched thin as more New York City schools qualify for Title I, but less money is poured into the program.
Parents fed up with the system leave?
The selective admissions system was created in the early 2000s, the same time as brownstone Brooklyn embarked on a process of rapid gentrification. The rise of selective schools offered middle-class families a clear pathway to stay in the city for the notoriously challenging middle school years.
While the district remains a desirable place to live, and more of its neighborhoods are continuing to gentrify, there is no guarantee that families will remain committed to sending their children to local schools. In San Francisco, another district schools Chancellor Richard Carranza has run, many affluent families move to the suburbs rather than enter into a school system where admissions is fully lottery driven.
District 15 will retain neighborhood admissions for elementary schools, giving affluent families a long runway to get invested in the city’s schools. But uncertainty about middle schools could tilt some families away from choosing to reside or remain in the city. If the admissions changes are perceived as working against their children, that possibility could increase.
“I don’t think it’s fair they’re going from zero to 60 on this plan,” one mother of a fifth-grader told the Wall Street Journal. “It’s completely untried, untested, and our kids are the ones they’ll work out the kinks on.”
Parents might also be more likely to consider citywide middle schools such as Mark Twain, a competitive school in Coney Island that bills itself as offering a gifted program, or even local charter schools like Success Academy, which would require parents to opt-in early since the network doesn’t accept students past fourth grade. Success recently opened a middle school nearby and has so far attracted a decent number of white families.