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Middle School Seats as Hard to Get as Rolling Stones Tickets, Parents Say

By Amy Zimmer | May 27, 2015 7:30am
 Families looking to learn more about Park Slope's New Voices middle school check out its booth at a  middle school fair for District 15 in October.
Families looking to learn more about Park Slope's New Voices middle school check out its booth at a middle school fair for District 15 in October.
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DNAinfo/Amy Zimmer

BROOKLYN — The insanity of the city's middle school admissions process hit home for Boerum Hill mom Rosalyn Scaff when she tried to register online for an open house tour — and found the 500 slots were snatched up in less than an hour.

"It was like getting Rolling Stones tickets, but you didn't get to go to a concert," said Scaff, who was only able to score a chance to tour the coveted M.S. 51 this fall by sitting in front of her computer and hitting "refresh" enough times to get through.

"My friends in other states are amazed at what we do to get into public school."

Many parents in Scaff's District 15 — which also includes Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens, Park Slope and Sunset Park — say they've had it with the complicated and stressful process of middle school applications.

 Middle school fairs are often crowded and chaotic, parents said. After having to wait on line to get into Park Slope's M.S. 88 for the District 15 middle school fair in October, families had to wait on another line to get into the gym to hear more about the programs.
Middle school fairs are often crowded and chaotic, parents said. After having to wait on line to get into Park Slope's M.S. 88 for the District 15 middle school fair in October, families had to wait on another line to get into the gym to hear more about the programs.
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DNAinfo/Amy Zimmer

The issue — and ways to address it — will be the subject of a public forum Wednesday night hosted by City Councilman Brad Lander and his colleagues, District 15 Superintendent Anita Skop and the district's Community Education Council.

Though each city district has a different middle school process, the "choice" system in District 15 favors those parents who can take time off work to attend middle school fairs, tours and auditions, according to a grassroots group, Parents for Middle School Equity.

The group surveyed more than 400 families and found that 91 percent of them want the Department of Education to explore how to reform the current system, according to co-founder Amelia Costigan, a mom of twin sixth-graders.

Parents are tired of the "competitive sorting" of 10 year olds, the segregation of middle schools and the general stress on families the process causes, Costigan said.

Her group is expected to present its findings at Wednesday's event.

Across the East River, families in Manhattan's District 2 — which includes TriBeCa to Greenwich Village, Chelsea and the Upper East Side — have also discussed ways to change its current choice-based middle school admission process.

Many parents are upset that schools often tell them they have to rank that institution as first choice in order to be considered. That's also a common complaint among District 15 parents, where parents fear alienating their top choice.

In District 15, 51 percent of applicants got their first choice school, 75 percent got one of their top two and 84 percent got one of their top three, according to DOE data obtained by DNAinfo New York. In District 2, 59 percent got their first choice, 80 percent got one of their top two and 88 percent got one of their top three.

These numbers are slightly higher compared to the city's notoriously challenging high school admissions process, where 48 percent of students got their first choice and 76 percent were matched to one of their top three, DOE officials explained.

Scaff's son got his second choice — the prestigious New Voices — but she's still sour on the process.

"The selection process in the district schools allows schools to pick and choose kids, asking them to interview, and test, but not really explaining what they look for," said Scaff, who is not part of Parents for Middle School Equity.

"Many, many people jump ship and go to private schools because this is such a mess, and so unnecessarily stressful. Maybe the public school would simply lose kids to private schools anyway, but this process definitely pushes people in that direction."

In fact, one respondent to the Parents for Middle School Equity survey told the group that the "horrific" process propelled them to apply to private school when her daughter was in fourth grade.

"At age 10, our kids have to apply to schools, prepare for tests and interviews, worry about their talents and, worst of all, wonder if they are good enough to be chosen for a school," she said.

"I knew that no matter where she was matched, the process would stress and worry my daughter. Even though we are in a bad financial situation as a result, we put her in private school to avoid the process of 'choice.'"

Joyce Szuflita, of NYC School Help, a school consultant who works with Brooklyn families, believes the lack of data released by the DOE about the process makes it hard for families to figure out what to do.

"There is a toxic combination of the schools knowing too much about the ranking and the families being in the dark about the results. It only adds to the level of anxiety for the children," she said.

DOE spokesman Harry Hartfield said the department's goal is "to make it as easy as possible for families to find the school that best fits their child’s unique needs."

"We look forward to listening to families and students around how to continue to strengthen the admissions process for the whole District 15 community," he said.

The event, "Reimagining the Middle School Admissions Process in District 15," will take place Wednesday, May 27, 6:30 – 8:30 p.m. at the John Jay Campus auditorium, 237 Seventh Ave. in Park Slope.