Reforming the District 15 “Hunger Games”

The Mural at New Voices

The Mural at New Voices

Every September, the parents of New York City fifth graders begin the dreaded middle school process.  The process is commonly likened to “The Hunger Games” by disillusioned parents for its Darwinian system of reshuffling and categorizing 10-year-olds.  If you read The Brooklyn Middle School “Hunger Games”, Part 1, you understand that this application process is truly grim.  Now, I will introduce you to District 15 Parents for Middle School Equity (D15PMSE), a group of parents and educators, who are trying to change all that.

I met D15PMSE recently in Greenwood Heights to discuss diversity and reform in the middle school system.  The group was preparing to present their case for reform to District 15’s Community Education Council (CEC).  When I entered the small conference room, I was greeted by the core members Amelia Costigan, Miriam Nunberg, Melissa Moskowitz, Reyhan Mehran, and Liz Rosenberg, as the room quickly filled to capacity with other parents, DOE employees, education policy advocates and even Joyce Szuflita, of NYC School Help.  What followed was an honest, constructive, action-oriented discussion and plan to change our current DOE admissions policy for middle schoolers in District 15.

Last year D15PMSE conducted a survey that showed 91.2% of respondents in District 15 favored exploring alternatives to the middle school placement process. D15PMSE’s goal is to develop solutions to create a middle school admissions process, that is:

•Fair for all of our district’s children

•Developmentally appropriate for our district’s 5th graders

•Less stressful and time-consuming for families and schools, and

•Inclusive of all backgrounds and abilities

D15PMSE intends to create a “parent engagement lab” to capture the concerns of the entire community and brainstorm a parent-led district-wide middle school admissions process proposal. In so doing, they hope to create an admissions process that leads to a better balance of diversity across our middle school system.

D15PMSE is currently circulating a petition throughout the district and online if you would like to participate.

What is a parent engagement lab?

D15PMSE does not have any pre-conceived solutions to the issues that have been raised by parents in District 15. They know that it will be challenging to find a process that resolves all of the concerns that they have heard over the past year in response to their survey and other outreach events. However, an engagement lab is a way to work with a community to explore a variety of district-wide options. It’s about exploring the problems and the possible solutions. It is the belief of Miriam Nunberg, herself a middle school parent, civil rights attorney, and co-founder of BUGS, that, “Parents should be a part of that discussion.” Liz Rosenberg, parent, and founder of will conduct these labs, the results of which will be used to press officials for change. Rosenberg notes that when a community is involved in the process of creating a solution together, officials are often compelled to implement it.

Is the current middle school process inequitable?

Yes. The current system of school choice actually contributes to segregation. D15PMSE’s data points out that 76% of white students get sorted into the top 3 middle schools. In fact, New York City has one of the most segregated school systems in the nation. Reyhan Mehran, parent and NOAA scientist, notes, “As we all know, separate is not equal in so many ways and access to financial resources is just one part of that difference; but, in the case of District 15, (it is) a striking one.” To that point, Nunberg offered data highlighting the difference in PTA fundraising capacities between two sample middle schools in District 15. Between 2013-2014, MS 51 raised $132,000 while MS 88 raised $878.  This is an example of the differences in access to resources between a middle school that serves a large percentage of economically-advantaged students and one that does not.

At this point, the meeting became an open forum, perhaps much like a parent engagement lab. I had become particularly concerned with the idea that 3 middle schools have developed reputations as feeder schools for supplying high percentages of students to the top city high schools. And those top high schools are gateways to the best colleges. Are 3 middle schools feeders for the best city high schools? Is it possible my child’s future had been decided at age 10?

Szuflita asserted, “No. These are not feeder schools. High school principals have no incentive to take children from only 3 middle schools. They receive applications from a certain type of parent who wants a certain type of school, but they would much rather take kids from all over the city.” Adding to my great relief, “Would you rather be average at MS 51 or valedictorian at MS 88?”

However, Nunberg explained that the real problem the group is trying to point out is the perception that high schools might preferentially select children from only a few middle schools in our district and that adds to the stress and anxiety District 15 elementary school families feel as they explore middle school options. This perception further narrows a family’s choices and adds to segregation.

Why is diversity important?

D15PMSE feels the issues of a fair placement process and creating a better balance of students across our middle schools are inextricably linked. There are real positive educational impacts to diverse schools.  D15PMSE member, Melissa Moskowitz, has 16 years experience both teaching and working within the DOE. In a presentation entitled, How Do You Have Successful Impact Around School Integration? she states, “diversity consistently increases math and science scores for all students including whites students.” She also cites increases in critical thinking, problem-solving capacities, and cognitive complexity when students are exposed to diversity. D15PMSE also points to studies of the benefits of attending diverse schools in the Why Integration Matters section of their website.

In spite of these studies, some parents still say, “Why mix it up?  Why can’t all these kids just go on to the same middle school together like in the suburbs? All these kids just want to be with their friends anyway.”  In response to this common refrain, Joyce Szuflita is adamant that breaking up the cliques at the middle school level is imperative. She believes that experiencing a diverse social environment in middle school is “Teflon for becoming a New Yorker.”

Will diversity end enrichment programs?

By ending our current admissions process, will schools lose their unique cultural bents in terms of specialized programs; arts, performing, French immersion, STEM? Do these programs exist only because the school can attract a critical mass of kids with certain interests? Will all that be neutralized?

In response to this Mehran pointed out,

“The majority of parents surveyed in our district last year were not interested in specialized programs. Parents are not necessarily ranking specialized schools high on their child’s middle school applications because those schools are the best ‘match’ for their child, but because of a perception that those are ‘good schools.’  Most parents in District 15 send their children to audition for ‘talent’ areas, for example, simply because it has become an almost unavoidable part of the middle school application process in our district. For those families who may want specialized schools, changing the way our district places children in middle schools should not necessarily be a threat to a school’s ability to maintain a unique character. Might a school that usually takes only students that have high test scores change a bit under a different approach? That’s possible, but a new system could also help more students that relate to a particular theme, find the right match because there will be more people applying to schools beyond the few that are perceived to be the strongest. And adding a mix of students to all the schools, if done well, would by necessity increase the supports and resources available across the board.”

Will diversity sideline low-income needs?

Increasing supports across the board is key to D15PMSE’s goals. While the current process for these specialized schools has the effect of selecting for affluence because wealthy children can afford things like piano lessons, there are other programs, such as ESL and free after-school, that can have the effect of selecting for poverty. These programs are vital to parents. These parents fear that if schools are diversified the priorities of poor communities will be ignored. This is the debate taking place around re-zoning in District 13; where black and white families have shown resistance to integrating PS 8 and 307.

Some worry integration could cause schools to lose Title 1 funding. The common counter to this concern is PTA fundraising will make up the difference. However, looking at D15PMSE’s data on the demographics of District 15, loss of Title 1 funding isn’t necessarily the inevitable result of diverse schools. If schools reflected more closely the fact that 67% of students district-wide are eligible for free or reduced school lunch, there might actually be an increase in Title 1 schools.  How will D15PMSE address Title 1 funding?

Mehran responded,

“There are many really important variables that our district will need to keep in mind as we explore options and Title I funding is just one of them. Once our community has some possible solutions in mind, we can run simulations so things like loss/gain of Title I funding don’t take us by surprise.”

Regardless of where resistance to integration may come, New York City, as one of the most segregated school systems in the country, should be obligated to end a system that fosters it, as the middle school application process does. D15PMSE believes that we can do better by developing a community-wide plan where parents are part of the solution to creating schools with increased diversity. District 15 offers an opportunity that other homogenous districts can’t. It is diverse, and D15PMSE believes that is a blessing.  Sitting in the conference room, I became convinced that the group’s inclusive inquiry-based approach just might be successful. Other attendees seemed convinced as well. So much so, that at the close of the meeting, Joyce Szuflita, enthusiastically proclaimed it to be, “one of the most substantive discussions” around the issue of middle schools she’s been to; and she’s been to a lot! D15PMSE plans to keep the discussion going.

Stay tuned for Part 3, The “Hunger Games” vs. The “Hunger Banquet.


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