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Controversy Lingers Over City's Admissions Criteria at New UES School

 Parents and education activists disagree with the Department of Education's proposed admissions method for a new middle school slated for empty space at P.S. 158, 1458 York Ave.
New Middle School Controversy
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YORKVILLE — The city is moving forward with plans to place a new middle school in P.S. 158's vacant space — but public forums and meetings have done little to ease concerns and confusion among parents and education activists.

Under the Department of Education's current admissions plan, half the students gain admission by meeting somewhat stringent admissions criteria — such as good attendance records or test scores — while the others would have to meet lower standards like taking a school tour or signing up for information at a fair.

This proposal has prompted protest from area parents since it became public about a month ago because they believed the admissions model is an "unprecedented" hybrid with uncertain chances of success.

At both a recent public forum and Community Board 8 education committee meeting, it again became clear that neighborhood residents either wanted a purely "screened" or "unscreened" school — but not an untested mix.

Parent Maryann Leung, for instance, worried that admissions processes at "selected" schools can be unfair to many children.

"What options do students have who are not accomplished test takers to attend a small middle school?" Leung, who is on two area school leadership teams, asked.

She added that the process reminded her of elementary school where athletic children being captains in gym class and choosing others to be on their teams. Students who score poorly, she said, may similarily feel like "the last one always picked."

"If you go with a screened school," Leung added, "that's what you're going to have."

Proponents of screening, however, reiterated concerns that selective admissions would be thwarted by the DOE's plan.

"I've been fighting for this middle school for five years," said Andy Lachman, head of Parent Leaders of Upper East Side Schools. "I don't want it done the wrong way."

Matthew Chook, a proponent of screening and P.S. 267 co-president, said the city's proposal was "extremely rushed."

"We would like to see the [proposal] withdrawn until further data proves this admissions process will succeed," he said.

These conflicting views over the school's future spilled over into a CB8 meeting Monday night.

"Even though most of the people were for screened schools, none of them could articulate what kind of screening they wanted — except that they did not want it to be based on test scores," said Michael Hoffman, a longtime neighborhood education activist.

Judy Schneider, chair of the board's youth and education committee, agreed, but again returned a recurring motif in this discussion — parents' disappointment in the DOE.

"They all unanimously said that the program put forth by the DOE was not satisfactory to anyone," she said.

The department has rebuffed these criticisms, maintaining that the proposed admissions set-up would be best for the community — and not just favor children who get high test scores.

"If you turned back the clock a decade ago, our school system was broken, so equity and access for all kids was limited," said Devon Puglia, a DOE spokesman, said in an e-mail. "But our policies — through opening new schools and allowing for choice among them —  have brought our school system into the 21st century while ensuring fairness.

"That’s just what this new middle school option will do: deliver high quality instruction that is available to all Upper East Side neighborhood students,” Puglia added.

A Panel for Educational Policy panel is scheduled to vote on the school's admissions process on June 19 at Prospect Heights High School, 883 Classon Ave., at 6 p.m.