cause and effect

Six unintended consequences that could result from the District 15 middle school admissions plan

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
Students start the school day at M.S. 442 in District 15. The school lost federal Title I funding after the number of needy students enrolled there declined, an issue that more schools in the district could face now that an integration plan is in place.

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.

Sticker shock

In Illinois, child care costs eclipse rent, making it one of least affordable states  

The average annual cost of child care now outpaces what families spend on a year of rent in Illinois, according to a new report that examines child care costs nationwide.

Illinois is one of the 15 least affordable states in the country, according to the report from the Virginia-based nonprofit Child Care Aware of America. The nonprofit examined costs across the United States and adjusted them for median income and cost of living.

“Families are seeing that child care is a significant portion of the bill they have to pay,” rivaling the cost of college tuition, rent, and even sometimes mortgage payments in some areas of the country, said Dionne Dobbins, senior director of research at Child Care Aware.  

The average annual cost of center-based care for an infant in Illinois has reached $13,474 — which is a staggering 52 percent of the median income of a single-parent family in the state and nearly 15 percent of the state’s median married couple’s income.

That figure put it 13th among the least affordable states, which were ranked by the percentage of a single-parent family’s income spent on child care. Massachusetts topped out at nearly 65 percent of a single-parent family’s median income for center-based infant care.

In Illinois, care for toddlers and older children before and after school also consumed a greater percentage of a family’s income compared with other states. Illinois ranked 14th for toddler care as a percentage of median income, with an average cost of $11,982 for full-time toddler care at a center.

The state was among least affordable for the cost of three months of summer care.

 

Illinois offers a child care subsidy intended to offset the costs of care for low-income working families, but that program has been rocked by shifting eligibility requirements and compliance issues. Participation in the program has dropped by a third since 2015, when Gov. Bruce Rauner’s administration changed eligibility requirements.

Dobbins said that, across the United States, child care subsidy programs are under pressure as states tighten compliance and lower reimbursement rates. In some states like Illinois, rising minimum wages have rendered some families ineligible for subsidies or staring down co-pays that they can’t afford.

Dobbins said that nationally, only one in six children eligible for subsidized child care actually ends up using it.

 

words of advice

Here’s advice from a social worker on how schools can support transgender students right now

PHOTO: Getty Images
A flag for transgender and gender noncomforming people is held up at a rally for LGBTQ rights at Washington Square Park.

Soon after news broke that the Trump administration could further roll back civil rights protections for transgender students, one New York City teacher sent an email blast to her fellow educators.

She was searching for materials to use in biology class that reflect people of different gender identities, but couldn’t find anything.

Many city educators may similarly grapple with how to support transgender students after it was reported that the Trump administration is considering whether to narrowly define gender based on a person’s biology at birth — a move that could have implications for how sex discrimination complaints in schools are handled under federal Title IX.

Olin Winn-Ritzenberg — a social worker at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center — has some tips for navigating the questions and emotions this latest proposal might surface. He runs a support group for transgender teens and their peers who want to be allies, and says the most important advice is to just be willing to talk and listen.

“I don’t think it’s the kind of thing that you want to wait until somebody is in crisis,” he said. “By bringing it up ourselves, we’re modeling support.”

Here’s what he had to say about recognizing transgender students, the protections that New York City and state offer, and some mistakes to avoid.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What are your tips for how to explain the news to students and young people?

If it’s news like this, that’s hard to maybe pin down what it exactly means (this was a memo, and does it have teeth? What does it mean?) I would look to them for the feeling of it. That’s what’s really important and a lot of what’s going on is just fear mongering, and a denial of trans existence. And that is something our young people will be able to speak to, to no end, and that they’re not strangers to — especially under this administration.

I would want to help ground things and offer some reassurance that a memo doesn’t have teeth and that we can look to our local New York City and state protections — that we’re lucky to live in a place that has such strong protections, especially for students.

What kinds of protections should New York City students expect to have in schools?

A student in New York City could expect to use the facilities that align with their identity, and could expect to possibly see all-gender facilities in their schools — as there are more and more of those being converted. They can expect to be able to file or register a complaint of discrimination against other students or even staff, and can expect to have an LGBT liaison within the Department of Education. They can expect to have their name and pronoun respected and utilized, and come up with a plan with a staff member around, if they’re transitioning socially or in any form at school, how they would like to be supported and how that looks in each unique situation.

It doesn’t always happen. But the fact that we do have it in policy means that there’s a means to pursuing it and that the institution is on the side of the trans or gender non-conforming student and would help to rectify any situation that’s feeling unsafe or unsupportive.

How can teachers and adults show support for their transgender students right now?

I don’t think it’s the kind of thing that you want to wait until somebody is in crisis. It shouldn’t be necessarily on any student to bring it up. By bringing it up ourselves, we’re modeling support. Even though this is a memo and we’re all waiting to see what they’re going to try to do with it, we know the intentions behind it…

I think we can speak directly to that and not make the debate about, ‘Is there or isn’t there a trans experience?’ That’s maybe one of the most powerful things. Yes, we exist. And if you’re an ally: ‘I’m a witness. You exist. You’re valid and as valid as anybody else.’

What would that validation look like in a school setting, say, if you’re a math teacher?

I think that making things visible is powerful. So if there’s a public bulletin board in a hallway and it says, ‘We stand with our trans staff and students,’ and then people have an opportunity to sign it.

I really think it can be an individualized response by a school depending on that school’s culture and if there is leadership by students, say, ‘We would like to be vocal and explicit in our support. You come up with the idea.’ Or, not to put it on them but say, ‘We’d love to be guided or get input from you on how to do that,’ so it is, wherever possible youth and trans-led.

Say, ‘What do you need and what can we provide?’

What should teachers and adults avoid saying or doing at a time like this?

I think a common, misguided mistake — that’s not necessarily hateful, but is really harmful nonetheless — is propping up a debate that’s going to hinge on ‘Do trans people exist?’ Or, ‘Defend or argue against sex being a binary, scientific, biological basis to view narrowly.’  

If a teacher wanted to engage with this but the assignment were more like, ‘What are your thoughts,’ there is so much education that needs to be done first — and that can put a person’s very identity and being up for debate in a classroom setting.

Another really bad thing would be just to ignore it because people are maybe scared of going there or don’t know what to do.