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.

School choice

Denver judge blocks school transportation provision added to Colorado law

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Sam Boswell, 7, all bundled up in his winter clothes, splashes his way to the school bus on May 12, 2010.

A Denver judge struck down a provision of a bill related to the education of youth in foster care that would have removed barriers to transportation for all students.

The transportation provision was an amendment added by Republican lawmakers late in the 2018 session. Soon after the bill was signed by Gov. John Hickenlooper, several Colorado school districts and the associations that represent them filed a lawsuit to block it.

In a ruling issued Friday, Denver District Court Judge David Goldberg found that the amendment violated rules in the Colorado constitution that require every bill to have a clear title that explains what the bill is about and to deal only with one subject.

The bill’s title was “Improving Educational Stability for Foster Youth,” and it seeks to improve graduation rates for foster youth by requiring child welfare officials and school districts to work out transportation to the student’s home district when that’s in the child’s best interest. It also creates flexibility around graduation requirements when students do change schools. Foster youth have the lowest four-year graduation rates in the state, much lower even than homeless youth and students whose parents are migrant workers.

The tacked-on language was added in the Republican-controlled State Affairs committee five days before the end of the session. It said that a school board “may furnish transportation” to students who are enrolled in the district but who live in another district. The provision applies to all students, not just those who are in the foster system. It also struck language from an existing law that requires the consent of the school district from which students are being bused.

The amendment language came straight from a separate bill about expanding school choice that had been killed by Democrats in the House the day before.

Many school districts opposed the transportation provision because they feared it would open the door for better-off districts to poach students and undermine the meaning of school district boundaries. Advocates for school choice argued the provision was good policy that would allow more students, especially those from low-income families, take advantage of opportunities. They also argued, apparently unconvincingly, that it was required for implementation of the foster youth portions of the bill.

The Donnell-Kay Foundation intervened in the case in defense of the law. (The Donnell-Kay Foundation is a funder of Chalkbeat. You can read our ethics policy here.)

In his ruling, Goldberg said this specific issue has never been litigated in Colorado before, and he relied in part on rulings from other states with similar requirements. Bills with broad titles, he wrote, can be construed broadly and encompass a range of issues as long as they have some connection to the title. But bills with narrow titles must be construed narrowly — and this amendment didn’t make the cut.

“The subject of House Bill 18-1306 is out-of-home placed students and efforts to ensure educational stability,” Goldberg wrote, while the amendment’s subject “is all students, with no qualifiers, conditions, restrictions, or reference to out-of-home placed students. … House Bill 18-1306 seriously modifies transportation for all students and is hidden under a title relating exclusively to out-of-home placed students.”

Goldberg ruled that the amendment is “disconnected” from the rest of the bill, and neither lawmakers nor the public had enough notice about its inclusion before passage.

That leaves the rest of the foster youth bill intact and advocates for expanded school choice facing an uphill battle in a legislature in which Democrats, who are more likely to give priority to school district concerns, now control both chambers.

This isn’t an abstract issue. In 2015, more than 150 students who lived in the Pueblo 60 district but attended school in higher-performing Pueblo 70 lost access to transportation when the city-based district ordered its neighbor to stop running bus routes through its territory.

Online Shopping

Jeffco launches universal enrollment site to make school choice easy

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat
Students in a social studies class at Bear Creek High School in Jeffco Public Schools read about Genghis Khan.

Starting Monday, parents in Colorado’s second-largest district will be able to shop online for schools and, once enrollment opens in January, apply to as many as they like.

The launch of Enroll Jeffco, following the path paved by Denver Public Schools, means some 86,000 students and their parents won’t have to go to individual schools during the work day and fill out paper forms if they want to apply somewhere other than their neighborhood school.

The online system cost about $600,000 to develop and operate for this school year. The district expects it to cost about half of that annually going forward.

Universal enrollment systems allow parents to compare and apply to traditional district-run schools, district schools with specialized programming or models, known in Jeffco as options schools, and charter schools with a single application on the same website. Universal enrollment systems are a key component of what some call the “portfolio model,” in which districts oversee a range of school types and parents vote with their feet. They’ve been controversial in places, especially when coupled with aggressive school accountability policies that lead to school closures.

In Jeffco Public Schools, which is more affluent than many Denver metro area districts, officials see the move to a single, online enrollment system as a valuable service for parents.

“Regardless of how people feel about it, we operate in a competitive school choice environment, both inside the district and outside the district,” Superintendent Jason Glass said. “That compels us to make thinking about that transaction, making people aware of the options and enrolling in our schools, as frictionless and easy as possible.”

Colorado law requires schools in any district to admit any student for whom they have room and for whom the district can provide adequate services, after giving priority to students who live in the district. But many districts still require paper applications at individual schools, and schools in the same district might not have the same deadlines. A recent report by the conservative education advocacy group Ready Colorado found that parents who use school choice are more likely to be white, middle- or upper-class, and English-speaking than the state’s student population. The authors argue that districts should streamline the enrollment process and consider providing transportation to make choice more accessible.

Jeffco isn’t rolling out new transportation options yet, but it might use data from the enrollment process, including a parent survey that is built into the website, to see if that’s desired or feasible. And officials believe strongly that the new online enrollment system will open up more opportunities for low-income parents and those who don’t speak English.

The website will provide information in the district’s six most commonly spoken languages and should be optimized for use on mobile phones. All parents will be required to use the system to express their preferences, including the majority of parents who want to stay in their neighborhood school, and the district is planning significant outreach and in-person technical assistance.

We believe that if all parents are participating, it improves equity,” Glass said. “One of the things we struggle with is that upwardly mobile and affluent parents tend to be the ones who take advantage of school choice. We want all of our schools to be available to all of our families. We think being able to search through and make the enrollment process as easy as possible is an equity issue.”

But critics of universal enrollment systems worry that the ease of application will encourage parents to give up on neighborhood schools rather than invest in them.

Rhiannon Wenning, a teacher at Jefferson Junior-Senior High School, said the link between charter schools and open enrollment systems makes her distrustful, even as many of her students are using the choice process to stay at the school after rising home prices pushed them into other parts of the metro area.

“I understand parents want what is best for their child, but part of that as a citizen and a community member is to make your neighborhood school the school that you want it to be,” she said, calling the universal enrollment system an attack on public schools.

Joel Newton of the Edgewater Collective, which provides community support for lower-income schools in the eastern part of the district, said Enroll Jeffco will give the district much better data on which to base decisions, but he worries that Title I schools, which serve large numbers of students from low-income families, won’t be able to compete.

“With an online system like this, it really needs to be a level playing field,” he said. “And in my area, I’d much rather have resources going to curriculum and instructional aides to catch kids up than going into marketing support. But other areas can do that and they have these big, well-funded PTAs.”

Until now, parents have had to seek out information on each school’s website. The online portal starts by asking parents to enter their address and the grade in which they’re enrolling a student. It then displays the parents’ neighborhood school, with an option to explore alternatives. Each school page has extensive information, including a short narrative, descriptions of special programs like math, arts, or expeditionary learning, the school mascot, and the racial and economic breakdown of the student population. The intent, district spokesperson Diana Wilson said, is to let schools “tell their own story.”

Parents can select as many schools as they want when enrollment opens Jan. 22, and they’ll learn in mid- to late February where they got in. However, they have to commit within five days to one school, ending a practice by which parents in the know kept their options open through the summer months. District officials say this will help them plan and budget better.

Kristen Harkness, assistant director for special education in Jeffco, served on the steering committee that developed the system, and she’s also a parent in the district. Even as a district employee who thought she knew the process inside and out, she managed to miss a deadline for her son to be considered at another middle school.

She said that choosing between schools isn’t a matter of which schools are better but which are a better fit for a particular student. In her case, her son could have stayed at a K-8 or transferred to a combined middle and high school, with each option presenting a different kind of middle school experience. He’s happy at the K-8 where he stayed, she said, but parents and students should have the chance to make those decisions.

The new universal enrollment system is poised to give more families that chance. In the course of the rollout, though, there may be a few glitches.

“We’re doing all we can to look into the future and foresee any technical problems and design solutions to that proactively,” Glass said. “That said, this is our first time, and we ask for people’s patience.”