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How One School Is Leveling the Playing Field for Middle School Admissions

By  Amy Zimmer and Leslie Albrecht | September 30, 2016 8:41am 

 Families looking to learn more about Park Slope's New Voices middle school check out its booth at a previous middle school fair for District 15.
Families looking to learn more about Park Slope's New Voices middle school check out its booth at a previous middle school fair for District 15.
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DNAinfo/Amy Zimmer

BROOKLYN — Parents and educators from a South Slope elementary school are trying to level the playing field when it comes to the middle school admissions process.

P.S. 10 has been piloting a school-sponsored middle school tour program so fifth graders whose parents can't take off of work to bring them on tours during the school day will not be at a disadvantage.

The model could be expanded to other schools in District 15, which stretches from Boerum Hill to Sunset Park, Department of Education officials said.

Many parents complain that helping their kids apply to middle school is like taking on a second job. Just to tour one of the city’s highly selective middle schools — and see it in action during the school day — requires savvy parents who are able to be at their computers, ready to pounce when the limited number of tour spots go online. 

“It’s like trying to get ‘Hamilton’ tickets,” P.S. 10 mom Jody Drezner Alperin said.

There are also many parents who are unable to take time off to go on tours — or even know that they have a choice of where to send their kids to middle school. 

That’s why Drezner Alperin, along with other parents, have been working with teachers and administrators at her neighborhood school on Seventh Avenue and 17th Street on the school-sponsored middle school tours.

In their pilot two years ago, the parents worked with teachers to identify which fifth graders went on no middle school tours. (The teachers were able to figure this out because going on tours is considered an excused absence.) The teachers compiled a list of about 20 students, most of whom had parents who were not English speakers. So the P.S. 10 parents working on the program brought interpreters on board to help them call the students’ families.

“We spoke to a lot of parents on the phone, with an interpreter, and found out a lot of them didn't know they had a choice at all for middle schools,” said Drezner Alperin, an arts educator who cares deeply about social justice and recognizes that while she’s able to navigate the system “just fine,” many others are unable to do so.

“If any kid is going on a tour during the school day then every kid should have the opportunity to do so,” she said.

One parent they reached out to came on the school-sponsored trip to M.S. 51, a highly regarded Park Slope school that the parent hadn’t known about. His son subsequently ranked it first and got in, Drezner Alperin said.

While middle school tours aren’t required, they’re a key step in the middle school selection process because they allow students and their parents to see the schools in full swing during the day and get a sense of the school culture. Schools also host open houses at night. (M.S. 51 got rid of its school tours and is only hosting evening open houses this year. The open houses, however, are filled and more than 330 families are on the wait list, according to the school’s website.)

The daytime tours are an important part of the middle school selection process because they’re the only chance for prospective students and parents to see what it really feels like to attend that school, said Gary Nusser, P.S. 10’s assistant principal, who previously was a teacher and assistant principal at nearby M.S. 88.

“The tour gives you an overall sense of what your child will experience in the building every day,” he said. “At open houses you’re spoon-fed information, but at tours you see with your own eyes.”

The tours — which are among several methods P.S. 10 has been using to help parents better navigate the middle school selection process — let the kids “process the experience through their own lens,” Nusser noted. School staffers then lead a post-tour discussion.

The middle schools themselves have been very “gracious,” Nusser added — for example, M.S. 51 arranged a special 5 p.m. tour after parents couldn’t make it to a daytime tour.

“What you’re seeing is the schools in the area coming together to take away what has been a constant source of stress and make the process, if not an enjoyable one, then at least one that’s accessible and open to all,” he said.

Some parents at the school have also volunteered to take other parents kids' on middle school tours, Nusser pointed out.

The work that P.S. 10 parents are doing fits into a larger grassroots movement taking hold in District 15, focusing on integrating their middle schools. While larger changes require systemic policy shifts, Drezner Alperin said, the pilot’s goal was to focus on relatively simple steps to make an immediate impact on the lives of kids going through the process.

Seventy-six percent of District 15’s white students are concentrated in just three schools — the popular M.S. 51, M.S. 447 and New Voices, according to an analysis from a group called Parents for Middle School Equity.

These three schools, meanwhile, enroll a fraction of the district’s neediest students, with just 14 percent of the district’s students who qualify for free or reduced lunch.

District 15’s Superintendent Anita Skop has been taking measures to make the middle school process more inclusive. This year, she is adding three mini-fairs — in Sunset Park, Kensington and Red Hook — in addition to the main middle school fair at on Oct. 5 at P.S. 88, DOE officials said.

Middle school fairs take place across the city this month and next. Open houses and tours will take place in October. The application will be due to guidance counselors in December.