A Brooklyn Middle School Shift

photo by A. Ferraro

I recently spoke to parent-teacher coordinators and guidance counselors from various elementary schools and discovered a promising opportunity for District 15 parents. This year there has been a shift in 5th-grade students placed at several schools I term “Options for All.” Such schools offer parents a chance both to reform our segregated middle schools and create more “choice.” But I’m afraid even parents who want reform might not seize the moment. This shift could begin a greater trend toward integrating District 15—if only parents embrace universally designed middle schools as quickly as they’ve bought fidget spinners. What do fidget spinners have to do with integration? What do I mean by “Options for All?” How do I know there has been a placement shift and why is it a great opportunity? Let me explain.

“Options for All”

If you are a 5th-grade parent in NYC, you probably bought at least one fidget spinner in the past month and appealed your child’s middle school placement. If you did this, it was likely because fidget spinners are an example of universal design or design for all, and our middle schools are largely not. Universal design is the method by which environments and products are conceptualized to naturally serve all. This is in contrast to methodologies that create specialized designs for different users, which can divert more resources to advantaged “popular” users at the expense of underserved less popular users, “the other.” Fidget spinners were initially developed for kids with ADHD, but everyone can benefit from a little extra focus. As a result, non-ADHD kids have fidget spinners in every color and children with ADHD do not feel stigmatized because everyone is enjoying them.

NYC middle schools are the antithesis of universal design. The middle school system largely promotes customized solutions through a variety of specialized schools. This is particularly evident in District 15 where parents compete for placement in a few highly selective “popular” middle schools, turning many schools into underserved “others.” This is a product of our system of school choice, which has ironically led to fewer choices for parents—three gifted and talented (G&T) schools to be precise: MS 51, MS 447, and New Voices. While District 15 has no official G&T middle schools, MS 51 refers to itself as such, MS 447 selects for gifts based on its own test, and New Voices selects for talent through auditions. As a result of this specialization, even parents who want a diverse education for their child, limit themselves to those “popular” middle schools because the lower resource “others” are so segregated parents won’t put their child in an environment where they might be the only fidget spinner. Parents who desperately want to broaden their “choice” are left without an option for all. So they comply with choice by ranking the school that is the best “fit.”

However, there is a crop of middle schools I term “Options for All” to contrast with the highly selective G & T model. They are committed to diverse learners, committed to integration and as a result, have been designed for all. To my knowledge, conversations about middle school reform have not considered restructuring middle schools to meet the needs of all by eliminating selectiveness. However, promising discussions throughout District 15 have been taking place around solutions such as controlled choice and expanding admissions set-asides to all schools to lessen income disparities across the district. These solutions could have the effect of sprinkling groups of high performing students, IEP students, and ESL students around the district rather than concentrating them. This year two District 15 middle schools, MS 447 and MS 839, introduced set-asides. District 15 is also testing blind ranking for the first time. But the closest anyone has come to suggesting a universal design approach, has been Jill Bloomberg, principal at Park Slope Collegiate. In a town hall about integration, I asked her what her ideal middle school admission process would look like. She replied, “Just place the kids.” Just placing the kids requires middle schools designed for all learners.

The Placement Shift

If you agree with Principal Jill Bloomberg, you’ll be excited to know a promising shift occurred in this year’s placement to “Options for All” schools. Speaking to three elementary schools, I found increased placement to MS 88, The Boerum Hill School for International Studies (SIS) and Park Slope Collegiate (PSC), that could correlate to growth in diversity. This doesn’t demonstrate that these middle schools are in fact becoming more diverse because I don’t know the demographics of the individual students. However, based on the historic preference of District 15 parents for three middle schools, any increased utilization of other public choices is an encouraging trend toward a more universally designed school system.

In the table below I highlight MS 88, SIS (MS 497), and PSC as “Options for All” Middle Schools, but this is not to say that growth in diversity isn’t happening at other schools. This is also not to say that other schools aren’t “Options for All” as well. I requested information from several other District 15 elementary schools, but they declined. The following data was all obtained from school administration and the NYC Department of Education School Quality Snapshots.

2016-17 5th Graders Placed in “Options for All” Middle Schools in District 15

The next table compares the percentage of students placed at “Options for All” schools this year with last year. In the final column, I totaled 5th grade placement in all 3 middle schools for both years. Data was not available for some of these middle schools because students are not widely placed there, but school administration confirmed that this year’s numbers are similar to previous years. To clarify, each elementary school had an “Options for All” middle school that was not popular (e.g. SIS is not as popular with PS 321 students) because there are closer options. The information for these schools was not reported. This led to my approximate totals.

5th Grade Placement at “Options for All” Schools

Comparing the placement data, we a see a clear increase in placement at MS 88, SIS, and Park Slope Collegiate from schools that typically don’t send many kids. PS 321 more than doubled the total students it will be sending to “Options for All” schools. PS 261 gets a silver medal, coming close to doubling its placement at schools striving for diversity. And PS 58 gets the bronze for its effort to utilize these under-appreciated middle schools.

Perhaps the recent introduction of blind ranking and set asides is having some small effect on improving middle school diversity. It is also possible that more parents were comfortable ranking “Options for All” schools now that school admissions can’t see the order in which applicants ranked them. At a recent District 15 CEC meeting, Anita Skop stated that the DOE would be examining the affect of blind ranking on diversity in particular. This data is likely to shift when charter lotteries and the appeals process is completed. Nevertheless, this is a step forward, albeit, a very tiny step towards undoing our very segregated system.

What’s at Stake? The Opportunity to Reform.

While I don’t know the precise cause of this year’s middle school placement shift, I do know a good opportunity when I see one. Parents who want to reform the middle school process, can in larger numbers this year simply by accepting their child’s seat in an “Options for All” school. By doing so you will be building better, more sustainable schools and informing the DOE that integrating the most segregated school system in the nation is a priority for District 15. The G&T system is a system designed to segregate and that is a problem in a district that is quite diverse. The most recent DOE demographics show District 15 is comprised of 16.3% Asians, 14.2% Blacks, 37% Hispanics, and 29.3% Whites. We can no longer have elite G&T middle schools like MS 51 where the White/Asian population approaches 70% and underserved “others” like MS 88, where the Hispanic/Black population is 70%.

By embracing schools committed to integration, you will also be increasing District 15 choices beyond the highly selective G&T model, thereby simplifying the stressful, time-consuming middle school process we all hate! I see this as a win/win that I hope we don’t squander because better integration leads to better and more choices—universal choices that could one day lead to a system naturally designed to serve all.

Further, utilizing an “Options for All” school is ultimately an opportunity to protect public education from privatization. It gives the DOE the political will to tackle bolder integration policies, leading to greater utilization, and stemming the movement to charters. When schools are segregated, parents flee to other options. This happens in District 15 as often as West Harlem. Clara Hemphill of Inside Schools recently described the mass exodus of parents of all races to schools out of zone at a discussion entitled How to Make Our Schools More Integrated. “If you ever stand on the corner of 116th and Lenox at 8 o’clock in the morning you will see hordes of families waiting for buses to go south.”

Segregation bolsters the school “choice” movement that threatens to divert funds to vouchers and “creative” corporate run models of education that Betsy DeVos touts as inspired by Uber?! When you cut through her glossy Silicon Valley reference, the end game of privatization becomes frighteningly clear—turn public education into U.S. healthcare! If we don’t integrate, support for public education will continue to dwindle and public schools may cease to exist for large swaths of people. Accepting your child’s seat in a public middle school is just as much an act of resistance as any march or phone call to Congress because in the age of DeVos—if we don’t use it, we just might lose it!

I’m Afraid Because You’re Afraid

Will District 15 parents support this step toward “Options for All” schools? I’m afraid you won’t because you’re afraid. I see it in the reaction of upset parents at PS 321, who incorrectly suspect the DOE is trying to redistribute students away from their top choice schools this year. Rest assured the rumor is false and school administration has been going to great pains to explain to parents exactly why this is false. The middle schools themselves have their own lists of who they ranked high enough for admission. DOE Middle School Enrollment has also confirmed the rumor is false.

I understand the fear of parents at PS 321. The disappointment when middle school letters come home is overwhelming and it’s hard to keep perspective. Two years ago, when my son received his middle school placement letter, it was a depressing day. He quickly polled his class to find only three other students who would be joining him and none would be traveling his train route. Because the process is selective, my son also incorrectly perceived his placement as a rejection of his academic capabilities. While other students internalized validation, he cried. In that moment, just one friend with the same placement would have made a world of difference.

Middle school is a scary transition for parents and kids. My son made the transition without elementary school friends. The first few months required tremendous growth in maturity and responsibility. My son learned train etiquette and to be aware of his surroundings (a.k.a put away the phone). He made new friends and “fits-in” at school where most of the kids are from different backgrounds (socially, economically, and ethnically). And kids from his school do succeed. Despite not being one of the elite three District 15 Middle Schools, an alumni from my son’s school was valedictorian at Brooklyn Tech last year.

But this year, parents weighing their middle school options have far less to fear because their child will have company. More students will have that friend to ease the scary transition. So I encourage you to accept your child’s seat in a public middle school not for integration; not for easing the dreaded middle school application process; and certainly not for reimagining universally designed middle schools or battling privatization. I encourage you for no other reason than your child won’t be the only “fidget spinner” from PS 321, PS 261 or PS 58 at “Options for All” schools this year.

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