Finding the Right School · School Choice

Who Will (And Won’t) Benefit From Unscreened NYC Schools

Last month District 15 in Brooklyn announced the elimination of all screening processes for admission to middle school.  (Yes, even the performing arts one).)

Instead of taking into consideration grades, test scores and more, Park Slope’s 11 middle schools will assign seats by lottery, with 52 percent of slots in every school set aside for kids qualifying for Free Lunch, living in temporary housing, English Language Learners, and those with special needs.

“I don’t know why any family would want a screened school,” said NYC Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza, whose own daughter attended San Francisco’s top public screened high-school. “Screens are immoral.”

“I wanted my children in diverse schools,” said NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio, whose daughter and son went to a screened and an SHSAT high-school, respectively.

“I wish we had implemented the plan before my kids had gone to middle school,” said City Councilman Brad Lander, whose children were apparently forced to attend the District’s most selective, whitest, and most affluent middle school at gunpoint, alongside Mayor de Blasio’s children. (Psst, Brad, do you not know how the application process works? If you wanted your children in a more diverse school, you could have ranked it ahead of the above.)

So now we know that the unscreened plan won’t affect their kids (pshew, can you imagine if politicians had to live by their own decrees, how awkward would that be? Why, Cynthia Nixon might have had to pull her kids from their selective schools, and the Deputy Mayor would have been treated like a regular citizen!), let’s take a look at who will really be helped – and who won’t be – by its implementation!

Who Won’t Benefit: Families who aren’t aware of their options, and how to take advantage of them, as well as ones who have their own opinions about what’s best for their children.

The new plan calls for extensive outreach so that underserved Brooklyn families can be informed that they can now apply to schools previously unavailable to them. But that is exactly what the Mayor said about his Universal Pre-K. Except that, despite years of canvassing, literally going door to door and accosting parents in the streets, the program he claimed was desperately desired is undersubscribed, and serving less poor families than any others. The same thing is likely to happen here. There are only a few months left in the 2019 application season. Is that enough time to get the word out in any meaningful way?

The program also calls for making sure that schools which previously only accepted already high-achieving (and highly prepped) kids are equipped to work with those coming from K-5 schools which left them woefully unprepared.

How will that happen? Uh… we’re working on it. But don’t worry, the current teachers are more than capable of differentiating instruction for students at all levels, even within a single class. In spite of what you may have heard.

And if that doesn’t work, we can always sort them. Just like we do in elementary schools with Gifted & Talented programs. That sure does lead to integrated school buildings… with segregated classrooms.

When I wrote about the above happening in response to the Upper West Side’s middle school integration plan, which doesn’t go as far as the one in District 15 in that it will keep its screened schools but also set aside 25 percent of seats in every school for students who scored a 1 or a 2 on their state tests, Henry Zymeck, principal of the much-coveted Computer School, wrote to object to my characterization.

I responded by asking how, if his school, which is considered among the best, already has 40 percent of students not performing at grade level in math, they’ll be able to help those coming in even further behind?

As I didn’t receive an answer from Mr. Zymeck, I now open the floor to any school in District 15 with similar stats: How exactly will you be helping these students if even the ones you accepted using academic screens are struggling?

Finally, because I, unlike Councilman Lander, do understand how the ranking system works, I have yet another question for the Department of Ed: In theory, kids are supposed to be assigned to their first available choice school. But, now that you have quotas to fill, will that algorithm change?

Take, for instance, a student who qualifies for free lunch and ranks, as his first choice, the school closest to him, the one his siblings and his friends attend. The one he feels most comfortable at.

But this school has no trouble filling its 52 percent Free Lunch quota. Meanwhile, the school he ranked fifth because, despite the aggressive outreach, he doesn’t think it’s all that great, didn’t receive enough low-income applicants. Will this student be placed against his will in a school he doesn’t want to attend, because the city believes it knows what’s best for him? Or, at least, best for the stats it wants to see? Will this be another case where choice is just an illusion?

Who Will Benefit: Kids like my daughter.

My daughter has many wonderful qualities. She is sweet, generous, thoughtful, and very, very social. But she is a weak, careless, indifferent student. Proofreading her essay or checking over her work on a math problem gets in the way of her socializing.

As things stand now, my daughter has a very low probability of getting into a screened school. But, with screens removed, it’s a whole new ballgame.

I am a college-educated, middle-class mom. With screens gone, I know how to maximize her chances of getting into the school I want. And I doubt I’m the only one who fits that description.

This might extend into high school admissions, too. Remember, there is also a proposal on the table that would eliminate the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT), and, instead, distribute seats to the top 7 percent in every public middle-school.

As it stands now, that means that kids who go to particularly competitive schools might be shut out in favor of kids from weaker schools with much less competition.

But with the District 15 plan, it will actually be easier for savvy families to game the system. Historically strong schools will admit weaker students, leaving more room and less competition at the top. At the same time, students who might have been at the middle in a top school will end up at the top in weaker schools, pushing down students who earlier might have been at the top of the class.

It’s a win-win… for middle-of-pack, privileged students.

Of course, as always, the current plan fails to address how to make K-5 education better so that no kids are getting 1 or 2s on their state test. It insists on continuing to treat education as a zero sum game, when it doesn’t have to be! Kids succeeding in one school doesn’t prevent kids from succeeding in another. A good education isn’t a limited resource!

But, with the attitude that it actually is, and that it needs to be rationed out since there can never be enough to go around, no plan will manage to avoid the Have’s and the Have Not’s.


What do you think?

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