My view of the District 15 Diversity Plan for Middle School

I am white and middle class. This blog was written with many of my clients in mind who are anxious about these changes. If you are excited about these changes, I applaud you.

District 15 has gone through a long and public process to work toward a plan to bring more balanced diversity to district middle schools. They have engaged parents in the planning process in many ways over years. You can read the plan here.

Why do I care? First, parents come to me very fearful about what the future holds for their students and I want to explain what they may be able to expect. Second, it is personal.

My kids began attending MS 447 in its second year (2004-2005) when it was still called "Upper Carroll". I distinctly remember the racial breakdown: 50% Hispanic, 25% Black, 25% White and Asian. It was around 80% economically disadvantaged. We picked the school on purpose because of the educators, and before there were any demographics or test scores. We averaged a PA fund of $3000. All our computers were stolen the summer before 7th grade and not replaced until after my kids graduated. I am no paragon. If I had known the demographics I would have been as fearful of the unknown as any 5th grade parent, but happily, I didn't know. And once I did know, I didn't want to leave. It was our first choice. 'Friends' came up to me on the street and told me that I had just ruined my kids chances to get into a good high school or to attend a good college (neither of those things were true). My kids were safe, happy and challenged. There was a pregnant girl in the 7th grade class. Do you know what that taught them? DON'T GET PREGNANT. They didn't become 'fast' or cynical. They developed compassion  (if you think your kids don't know everything about sex at 7th grade, you have your head in the sand). Their 'Science and Math' school didn't offer Science or Math Regents at 8th grade. They both tested into Specialized High Schools and completed Calculus in Senior year (one is currently crushing big data -literally and figuratively- in Seattle). They are not geniuses. They are hard working, curious kids from a home that places education as the #1 priority. I was NEVER worried about their outcome because I had faith in the foundation of skills and habits and values that we had laid. Math and Science Exploratory School (I designed the mathematically inaccurate logo) slowly grew and thrived and gentrified, but for a lot of its short history it was filled mostly with poor kids of color. When families ask me if the set asides in this plan that will balance its population will harm the quality of education or success of kids coming from affluent homes. I can say with authority, "NO."

So what is this diversity plan? There are many very important details and you should understand all of them, but for the sake of the length of this blog, essentially, the mission of the Plan is to develop a simpler and less fraught process, to remove barriers of access for students of color and low income students and to actively support the quality of teaching, resources and programming in the historically less popular schools.

#1. Remove all screens - attendance, grades, test scores, auditions, admissions tests, etc. Gone.
#2. Create an admissions priority, currently 51.6% (that may change to reflect current data within the district) for students who qualify as low income, English Language Learners and/or students in temporary housing.
#3. Students who have completed DL programs will be prioritized to DL MS programs and students with physical disabilities will be prioritized to barrier free programs. (There will also be lots of assessing of the equity of DL programs locations etc.)

  • There will also be support for programing to improve equity between the schools, cohorts of students will be connected to ease their path socially to a new school, and the appeals process will be designed to be clear and easy to navigate among other things.

So what does that mean? - and my snapshot of the District.
District 15 had 2100 6th graders last year (including general ed and special needs students and it is unclear if these are residents of D15 attending school elsewhere). The numbers of public 5th graders has been edging up over the last four years (around 100 kids a year), but there is also a steady, stable gap of about 800 kids that leave the system between 5th and 6th grade each year. Maybe they go to private school or another district or citywide programs. When you add up the gen ed and special needs seats and the charter schools in the district there is a moderate surplus of seats.

Of the 11 DoE schools in the district only 4 fall below the criteria of 51.6%. MS 51, 447, 443 and 839. Big surprise. By my very rough calculations (including the economically disadvantaged kids who already attend at these schools), there would be around 70 additional seats set aside at 51, 45 at 447, 35 at 443, and 10 at 839. That is about 160 affluent kids district wide who would be going elsewhere. This might be a shock or a challenge if there hadn't already been a robust parade of affluent college bound kids going to most of the other schools in the district - but there have! for over 4 years there have been happy and enthusiastic high performing, college bound students attending at Boerum Hill and 88 and Innovation and Brooklyn Collaborative and Park Slope Collegiate... You can certainly find stories of problems at those schools, but you can find those stories at every single school in the district, including the popular ones. It is middle school, after all. The hard work has already been done there! seriously. I am not lying. The first successful affluent students have attended and achieved there. Don't be afraid. Embrace the opportunity. It is not an easy pill to swallow, but it is not a bad one and it will accelerate the process of developing diverse schools that has already begun. MS 447 is the same quality school today that it was in 2004 when my kids attended. The learning and teaching was the same even though there were low scores then (and they were kinda in the toilet school wide). Middle school quality isn't reflected by the scores (particularly in a district where there is so much Opt Out, yall!). That represents the testing ability of the kids who enter at 6th grade. When high performing kids enter, the scores will go up. My kids where not 'dragged down' by their less academic peers. They were enriched by them. They saw how hard it was for them and it galvanized their work ethic and broadened their world view. When they went to their fancy fancy colleges, all their friends were kids of color (even though all those kids came from Phillips Andover). They are socially active and outspoken as adults. Middle school did that for our whole family.

The algorithm remains in place. You will still rank schools in the order that you like them. It will remain a blind process. On the school's side, there will be a lottery with priority for 51.6% economically disadvantaged and whatever requirements the individual schools have for special needs seats. This process is probably being put in place for the 2018 fall admissions season (2019 6th grade entry).

This is my call to action for the parents of college bound students attending the less popular schools: Your mission is to the spread the word about your experiences - on inside schools reviews, on Parents of NY Teens, on the Park Slope Parents Tweens/Teens group, at your local elementary MS info night - anywhere fearful parents are collecting information about middle school. Help your neighbors understand what is out there. Be brave and reap the rewards. We did.

Read Kelly Bare who walks the walk.