UPPER WEST SIDE — Black and Latino students in the district applied to a new middle school at a lower rate than their white and more affluent counterparts — due in large part to the fact that minority students aren't being encouraged to do so by their schools, local education leaders said.
The majority of the district's K-8 schools serve largely black and Latino populations, as well as students receiving free lunch, so their low application rate at the brand-new West End Secondary School (WESS) made the population there less diverse than desired, Community Education Council 3 members said.
CEC members, who helped craft the admissions policy and goals of the school, didn't want WESS to screen applicants based solely on test scores, like some other neighborhood options. Instead, they wanted it to feel like a viable option for students throughout the district, whose boundaries run as far north as West 122nd Street.
But a combination of factors — from WESS' location in the southern part of the district to a K-8 model that doesn't compel students to consider moving to a new middle school — has made the school a "failure" in terms of attracting a diverse applicant pool, one CEC 3 member said.
WESS, which opened this school year with only a sixth-grade class, will grow by one grade each year until it eventually serves students up to the 12th grade.
At each of the district's zoned K-8 schools — P.S. 149, P.S. 165, 180, P.S. 191, P.S. 76 and P.S. 333 — fewer than 20 students applied to WESS. In the case of P.S. 149 and P.S. 165, that number was fewer than 10, Department of Education data showed.
However, students from predominantly white K-5 schools, like P.S. 87 and P.S. 199, applied at much higher rates, with 148 and 115 applicants to WESS, respectively.
There was also a pattern of more applications coming from students at elementary schools located closer to WESS, which sits in the former Beacon High School building at 227 W. 61st St., near West End Avenue.
With the exception of P.S. 163 on West 97th Street, students at elementary schools located above West 96th Street applied in very small numbers. There were fewer than 20 applicants from P.S. 208 and P.S. 145, and fewer than 10 applicants from P.S. 242, and none from P.S. 241, DOE data showed.
These elementary schools also have higher populations of black, Latino and low-income students.
It makes sense that fifth-graders already enrolled in a K-8 school don't apply outside their school at the same rates, noted Department of Education Superintendent Ilene Altschul.
"[K-8 students] don’t have to worry about middle school. They don’t have that urgency. They might be happy," she said.
They think "'I don’t need to reach out to see what else is out there.'"
But K-8 schools aren't doing enough to guide families through the stressful and confusing middle school application process, members said.
"What I hear anecdotally from [K-8] parents is that information flow from a guidance perspective and an exmissions perspective is not as robust as it is from a K-5 [school]," said CEC 3 member Nan Mead.
"Parents really have to go out of their way to get information about middle schools," she added.
Altschul agreed that it's essential for students — whether they attend a K-8 school where they can just continue on, or attend a K-5 school — to know what their options are for middle school.
The result of not knowing what's out there or being encouraged to apply elsewhere could mean that a student stays at a lower-performing school by default, thereby "disadvantaging themselves...in terms of getting into a higher quality high school," Mead explained.
With WESS specifically, Principal Jessica Jenkins did not visit K-8 schools in the district to talk up the new school the year before it opened, Altschul said.
But Jenkins worked extremely hard to promote it as an option throughout the district, she added.
However, not fully considering the barriers keeping minority students at K-8 schools from applying to other schools has resulted in a "failure" in terms of the diversity of WESS's applicant pool and thus "created another segregated school," CEC 3 member Noah Gotbaum said.
But Gotbaum, as well as other members and PTA reps from WESS, were quick to characterize the school as a success so far. The fact that 677 students applied to a brand-new school, without even the ability to tour it, is remarkable, they noted.
During the 2014-'15 school year, WESS' building was still operating as Beacon High School and didn't convert to the new school until a month before school started in August 2015.
"No one has seen numbers like that for a school that hasn’t opened," said Altschul of the overall number of applications to WESS.
The location of the school has also impacted its diversity, with few options for overcoming that hurdle, CEC members said.
While Jenkins counted her visit to P.S. 145 as an "open house" at which students could apply to the school, only 11 of the school's 56 fifth-graders ultimately did.
The lack of applications could stem from the distance of P.S. 145, located on West 105th Street, from WESS, members said.
In talking to parents, "the transportation issue is paramount," said WESS PTA co-president Eric Shuffler, noting it was a bigger issue than he initially anticipated.
"It is a pain in the ass to get there if you live in the [West] 100s or the 120s," he said. "To me that is our biggest obstacle moving forward, and I don’t know if it is solvable."
A bus taking students to WESS leaves from West 118th Street, but that's only available to sixth-graders and will remain that way even as the school adds more grades, Altschul said.
Jenkins has shown she's committed to increasing diversity at WESS and that and the situation will improve, said CEC 3 president Joe Fiordaliso.
"I’m extremely confident that these numbers — that are good for year one — are going to continue to get better," he said.
Though they didn't apply to WESS in high volumes, black and Latino students and those receiving a free lunch were accepted at a higher than 50 percent rate, the data showed.
Nearly all of the Latinos who applied to WESS were accepted, while just over half of the black students and those receiving free lunch were accepted.
At the same time, more than half of the applicants were white, with 66 percent of that total being accepted.
"Clearly we have to work on being more diverse," said WESS co-president Christine DiPasquale. "I don’t think the numbers are that far that we need to sound alarm bells."