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Park Slope's P.S. 321 Wants to End District's Screened Middle Schools

By Amy Zimmer | June 28, 2017 12:09pm | Updated on June 28, 2017 4:15pm
 Strollers outside P.S. 321 on the first day of school in 2014.
Strollers outside P.S. 321 on the first day of school in 2014.
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DNAinfo/Leslie Albrecht

BROOKLYN — As the city recently announced a plan to improve the diversity of schools across the city — leaving many of the details to be filled in later by a newly formed advisory group — one school elementary school in Park Slope is taking the issue head-on.

The School Leadership Team at the highly regarded P.S. 321, which includes the school’s principal, parents and teachers, posted a letter Wednesday calling for the elimination of screened middle schools in District 15, which also includes Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens, Red Hook and parts of Sunset Park.

Instead, the SLT advocates for a lottery-based system or an “ed opt” model, which is when schools reserve spots for students performing at different academic levels.

The school — which acknowledges it currently has an affluent, overwhelmingly white student body — is hoping to use its perch of privilege to speak out about making more systemic changes to the district's highly segregated middle schools.

“Screened schools perpetuate the very inequities that Mayor De Blasio referenced when he described New York City as a ‘Tale of two Cities’ and this is not the story we want for our children,’” stated the letter addressed to District 15 Superintendent Anita Skop, Chancellor Carmen Fariña and Mayor Bill de Blasio. “We feel school choice is no longer working in our district and hope that we might work with you on a plan to change it.”

The SLT team added, “However, [the lottery-based system] only works if all schools in the district adhere to the same admissions policy and if the process is completely transparent.”

Currently 76 percent of white students in District 15 are concentrated in just three screened middle schools in the district, and these same middle schools serve just 14 percent of the district’s economically disadvantaged students, the letter stated.

Research shows that diverse classrooms are a benefit to all students, the letter noted, as exposure to students from different backgrounds leads to new ideas and improved critical thinking.

There are already efforts underway in the district to address the middle school admissions process, including shifting to a “blind” ranking system so students’ order of preference is now unknown to the schools they apply to. Under the previous setup, the most sought-after schools — M.S. 51, M.S. 441 and New Voices — often wouldn’t consider a student who didn’t rank them first or second, which many parents say led to high anxiety on how to game the system.

The city is expected to shift to a blind ranking system in efforts to boost diversity in middle schools in several other districts, including Manhattan's districts 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5, covering from the tip of Manhattan to Harlem, and Brooklyn's district's 13 (Brooklyn Heights, Dumbo, Downtown Brooklyn, Prospect Heights, Fort Greene, Clinton Hill) and 14 (Williamsburg and Greenpoint).

Parents in District 15, however, said the change did little to change the advantage in the admissions process of more savvy parents who could take time off from work to visit schools. And it did not change the screening process.

A handful of schools, including M.S. 447 and M.S. 839 are setting aside a certain percentage of seats for low-income students, but the 321 team would like to see a district-wide initiative, they said.

“When middle schools are allowed to screen and select students by academic performance, attendance, and behavior grades, the result will always be ‘selective’ schools siphoning off a majority of the higher performing students, largely correlating with white, wealthier students,” stated the letter, which was posted on Facebook. “Maintaining the status quo feels untenable.”

The SLT team at P.S. 321 did not shy away from the elite school’s own reality, where nearly 77 percent of students are white and only 7 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch. P.S. 321, long considered one of the top schools in Brooklyn, is known for its active — and deep-pocketed — parent body, which tends to raise about $1 million a year.

“We must acknowledge that our own elementary school is deeply segregated,” the letter stated. “We wish that were not the case and believe that all students would benefit from a more representative demographic. We welcome discussion about how to integrate elementary schools, and also understand that as a neighborhood zoned school we have less direct control than we do with the middle school choice plan that is currently in place.”

The Department of Education said it planned to involve the community as it takes next steps to boost diversity.

"As part of the school diversity plan, DOE will kick off a community stakeholder engagement process in District 15 – working alongside school leaders, parents, community and elected leaders," DOE spokesman Will Mantell said. "As part of this process, we’ll review this letter and other recommendations from the District 15 community."