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Adams: NYC Middle School Screening — the Great District Divide

Majority white, wealthy schools seem to think using grades for admission is racist. Schools that are majority Black/Hispanic and low-income don't

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After two years when all New York City middle schools accepted students strictly by lottery, Chancellor David Banks allowed individual districts to decide which schools would reinstate screening and which would keep the status quo.

The results proved quite surprising. Taking grades and test scores out of the admissions equation was supposed to give a leg up to low-income and minority students and make it easier for them to secure a spot in a “top-performing” middle school. (This, of course, assumes it’s impossible for poor and minority students to earn high grades and test scores.)

But last month, when each of the city’s 32 community school districts released admissions rubrics for 2023, it was the wealthier districts, especially in Manhattan and Brownstone Brooklyn, that opted to keep their schools unscreened. The lower-income areas, including parts of Harlem, Washington Heights and South Brooklyn, reinstated admissions screening at a handful of their schools. 

Why did this happen?

In no district was the decision unanimous. All superintendents swore they’d engaged with their communities before issuing their verdict, though some members of those communities begged to differ.

In District 3 on Manhattan’s affluent Upper West Side, Superintendent Kamar Samuels, wrote: I recommend that all District 3 Middle Schools… institute a lottery for middle school admissions for the 2023 admissions cycle. Yet angry families pointed to his district’s official poll, which yielded 205 votes for “Yes, schools should be screened,” 113 votes for “No, schools should not be screened” and 32 “maybe” votes. 

In Manhattan’s District 2, which encompasses wealthy enclaves on the Upper East Side and downtown, Superintendent Kelly McGuire wrote: We have listened to families and also collected feedback in written surveys provided in a variety of languages. … My admissions proposal for Fall 2023 is in alignment with feedback from the community.

District 2’s plan — despite objections from some families — is to continue to accept students by lottery, like District 3’s. One member of the District 2 Community Education Council accused the superintendent of abandoning the district’s advanced learners.

At the same time, Superintendent Sean Davenport of Manhattan’s District 5, located in Harlem, communicated to his families that: After careful consideration and community engagement, it is my pleasure to share the outcomes of our processes. Community School District 5 will … resume the existing screens for Columbia Secondary School, Thurgood Marshall Academy for Learning and Social Change, and Frederick Douglass Academy.

Because Columbia Secondary School gives admissions priority to all families who live above 96th Street, students from East Harlem in District 4 will benefit as well. Thurgood Marshall, as an unzoned school, is open to kids citywide.

In addition, Mott Hall, a school also physically located in District 5 but which prioritizes students even farther uptown, in District 6, received its own permission to resume screening.

Nearly three-quarters of Mott Hall students are Hispanic and qualify for free or reduced-price school lunch, reflecting the demographics of their greater community — and 72% perform at grade level, as opposed to the city’s overall passing rate of 40%. Columbia Secondary School, which has students in grades 6 to 12, is 36% Latino, 29% white, 19% Black, 8% Asian and 8% Other, with 45% qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch and a 91% college readiness rate. The 6-12 Thurgood Marshall Academy is 64% Black, and 81% of kids qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Eighty-eight percent of its students take a college course or earn a professional certificate prior to graduation. Frederick Douglass Academy, also a 6-12 school, posts very similar demographic numbers and has an 84% high school graduation rate.

They have all managed to become some of the most diverse, and highest-performing, middle schools in the city without eliminating academic screening. So why is it that schools which are majority white and wealthy seem to believe that using grades to admit students is racist, while those that are majority Black/Hispanic, and with large numbers of low-income students, do not?

Could it be that majority non-white schools with high-achieving kids know that their students can earn exemplary grades without needing to have standards lowered — or completely eradicated? 

Could it be that these schools see the benefit of grouping students by academic level, which, once, was the ticket to having large numbers of minority students being accepted into NYC’s top high schools? Could it be that they’ve read the research that shows wealthy “high-performing” schools often fail to educate their low-income and minority students? Could it be that they’ve also read the research that indicates low-income and minority students benefit the most from self-contained accelerated classrooms? Could it be that they simply believe in their students in a way that Districts 2 and 3 do not? 

Districts 2, 3 and Brooklyn’s District 15, among others, seem convinced that the only way non-white and low-income students can do well is if they’re surrounded by white and wealthy peers. No one has said what putting low-achieving students into high-achieving schools is supposed to do, exactly. Are they supposed to be inspired? Enlightened? Educated via osmosis? And, certainly, no one has talked about what support will be in place for students who arrive in sixth grade unprepared for the rigorous academics of a formerly screened school.

Every admissions change implemented by NYC over the past decade has been justified as being in the interests of minority and low-income students. And yet, the changes have mostly been made in districts where they are not the primary demographic. This seems to embody a rather patronizing vision of those students, which does not match the one held by districts where low-income and minority kids are the majority.

Maybe before anyone speaks for those students, those in charge of making the decisions should listen to input from the schools that actually have been successfully serving them for a great deal longer than the last two mayoral administrations combined.

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