Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Filling in the gaps of the new diversity plan for District 15 middle schools by Carrie McLaren

Student Demographics in District 15

A couple of years ago, I was watching a clip of Beavis & Butt-head with my 8-year old son. The MTV characters were sitting in the back of class cracking jokes during class. My son found this confusing, so he turned to me and asked: "But, Mom, how did they get into a good middle school?"

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I am a white parent of a 5th grader, and was a member of the District 15 Working Group that helped come up with the new D15 Diversity Plan.  There has been lots of news about the Mayor accepting this plan [see NYT, Chalkbeat, WNYC, NY Daily News, NY1, among others] but much has been left out of the reporting. I’d like to fill in some of the gaps. 
There's a reason most of the headlines about the District 15 Diversity Plan have focused on D15's ending of selective middle school admissions: 10 out of 11 our public middle schools are screened, fostering a climate where there are "good" schools are for "good" 10 year olds (mostly white) and "bad" schools for "bad" students (mostly black or Latinx). (Asian students tend to be "screened out" of the selective middle schools more often than white students but not as frequently as black or Latinx students.)
 With an average of 52% of its students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch, D15 has the most affluent student population in Brooklyn. But because of admissions screens it's also the most internally segregated. Ending screens will not only place different kids in different schools, it ends a system that feeds racial and socioeconomic stereotypes as well as self-serving notions of meritocracy among the privileged. The DOE could do anti-bias and anti-bullying workshops until the cows come home and it wouldn't mean a whit without unsettling core cultural assumptions about who deserves what when it comes to schooling.
But the screened system did more than feed racial inequity; it caused a lot of anxiety all around. Only children with straight 4s (including in behavior) could count on a spot at their top choice, while everyone else lived in fear of getting left behind by more successful peers. (One 5th grade teacher told me that, at her school, the Friday in spring when middle school assignments come out is known as “Cryday”.) Which is to say: many white people hated the old system too, irrespective of their concerns on racial justice.
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The D15 Diversity Plan, developed through a community process overseen by urban planners WXY and the DOE, and with significant parent participation, addresses much more than admissions screens and recommends other substantial changes for what happens inside of our middle schools. The full list of recommendations, and an impressive body of supporting charts, graphs, and background material are all posted on the website. 


Perhaps the greatest concern going forward is that the integration push will lead to ability grouping or “tracking,” which could mean segregated classes inside integrated schools. The research is clear that this does not help kids learn and would sustain the stratification that we would like to eliminate. Anticipating this, the Working Group called for language explicitly prohibiting tracking in any new programs. In addition, the diversity plan includes a recommendation to "Provide support for D15 educators in adopting best practices for academically, racially & socioeconomically mixed classrooms."
Unfortunately, the recommendations do not address tracking that is already in place in schools—or provide specific mechanisms for assuring that tracking does not arise. Monitoring all forms of ability-grouping and establishing best-practices to assure that all students are academically challenged and not segregated into rigid tracks will be crucial to successful integration.
Those of us crafting the recommendations did not want to be too prescriptive, however. We felt it is important for school administrators and teachers to be able to foster heterogeneous learning environments in ways that make sense for their own schools. If the plan was seen as force-feeding an end to all tracking, we feared, it wouldn't get educator buy-in.
There are also three key recommendations in the Diversity Plan that the DOE hasn't yet settled on. One has to do with expanding transportation for 6th graders. Details remain to be worked out in consultation with the MTA, the Mayor's office, and the Office of Pupil Transportation. One area that merits targeted concern is Red Hook. This relatively isolated neighborhood lacks subway access and, according to Red Hook families, the problems with school bus service elsewhere are amplified here.
The second issue is class size: The recommendations ask for decreases in class sizes across all D15 middle schools (which average class sizes up to 32) and to ensure that class sizes of historically disadvantaged students do not increase. There seems to be an acknowledgment of the importance of class size by the new Chancellor, but resources remain a substantial barrier. The DOE can't very well decrease class sizes in this relatively affluent district without decreasing class sizes where there is even greater need. Many Working Group participants considered class-size decreases a "must have"; but at the same time, we didn't want a class-size demand to sink the whole effort.
The third issue is the Title I cliff: If this plan works as intended, every middle  school in the district would dip below the 60% threshold of students eligible for free and reduced lunch [FRL] currently needed for Title I federal funding in Brooklyn schools. [more on Title One funding here: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1rlWeVB5W9jqRSu6v0MUlyfE4eaMM5bCI/view] Schools with FRL rates of 52% to 59% still have a significant amount of poverty and not enough parent fundraising ability to make up the gap. Title I funding has helped some D15 middle schools to provide lower class sizes; the impact of losing that funding would be substantial. But, like class size, this issue cannot be solved in an isolated district; it demands a citywide approach.
While the DOE wrestles with these questions, District 15 parent and student activists are now contemplating next steps:
      Connect the dots between high-stakes-testing and school inequity. The DOE middle school guides sent out to parents now highlight average ELA and Math scores of every school. These scores show a clear majority of schools in D15  "failing" their students, some more than others. So either most of the D15 schools suck (they do not) or the test score results are lousy measures of school quality. But however you look at it, highlighting these scores discourages parents from across the socioeconomic spectrum from attending different schools. I spoke to a black parent from Red Hook who pointed out that according to the DOE middle school guide, there are only three schools out of eleven in our district that are "good" (meaning  60% or more students passing the state tests).  She said she would send her child to one of those  schools but is wary of risking traveling outside of the neighborhood otherwise.  Many white parents feel similarly, so it is uncertain how well the new admissions system may work to diversify and integrate our schools, given the overemphasis on test scores in the guide.  Revising the middle school guides to replace state test scores with other quality indicators would be a step in the right direction.
  • Beef up translation services for ELLs and parents. This is included in the plan but I’m mentioning it here to underscore the point: If we want to involve more parents in their children’s education, we need to do more to assure school materials and PTA are accessible. And with a student population that is 42 percent Latinx, we need more Spanish-speaking staff members in classrooms and offices. 
  • Address existing tracking in D15 middle schools. As mentioned above, we know that tracking is socioeconomically biased and results in segregation within schools. The new District 15 Diversity, Equity and Integration Coordinator needs to work directly with school leaders and community members to develop plans to differentiate learning without sorting children. Anti-bias training alone cannot solve this problem.  Smaller classes would help of course to differentiate learning, and are even more important in diverse classrooms. 
  • End G&T elementary programs in D15. The removal of screens in the district's middle schools should make jettisoning screens at even younger ages a no-brainer, particularly given the stark racial divisions in two out of the three of our G&T schools. A few years ago, these programs were relatively diverse but, with gentrification, the gifted programs have become almost entirely white and Asian, especially in the earlier grades, while general ed classes are almost entirely black and Latinx. 
  •  Promote anti-racist, inclusive practices throughout school communities. Last year,  Superintendent Anita Skop started requiring all schools to establish diversity committees under the aegis of SLTs. This freed diversity groups from seeking approval by PTA leaders, which haven't always been responsive to the needs of parents of color, non-English-speaking, or low-income families. District 15 needs some mechanism for connecting these diversity groups, facilitating their development, and encouraging them to share  best practices. We don't want this integration effort to result in white parents blaming problems that may arise in schools on "diversity," nor do we want them coming into Title I schools and taking over PTAs.

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 I am grateful to have been a part of the D15 Working Group and taken part in what felt like a truly democratic, community process. Our formal work with the DOE and WXY has ended, yet our work has only just begun! 
If you are a parent or teacher in D15 who would like to be involved in furthering the goals of this plan and helping ensure its success. please check out https://www.d15schools.org, or contact me at district15schools@gmail.com or on twitter: @_carriemclaren

--- Carrie McLaren is the parent of a 5th grader at PS 261 and co-founder of the Coalition for Equitable Schools.


Anonymous said...

Could you please post links to research studies that prove that ability tracking hurts all students?

Flerp said...

You write that "we don't want this integration effort to result in white parents blaming problems that may arise in schools on 'diversity,' nor do we want them coming into Title I schools and taking over PTAs."

Are there any concrete practices or policies that will be proposed to ensure that white parents don't take over the PTAs at Title I schools?

Anonymous said...

When you say you want to remove all tracking, will that mean removing Regents Algebra from all the middle schools where it currently exists? That is where the biggest amount of tracking occurs as students have to excel at math in order to be eligible for that option.

MS 51 Parent said...

"The research is clear that this does not help kids learn and would sustain the stratification that we would like to eliminate"

You're pretty much stating a personal opinion. You have no scientific evidence that tracking hurts students.

You also do not provide any specifics on what other criteria would replace tracking other than "best practice". I think you and the mayor/chancellor are no better than the people in the WH for implementing your own personal agenda.

What you have done is basically destroyed the middle schools in D15 and made these kids your own personal experiment. It works well for the DOE schools that are failing kids. Anti-tracking makes no one accountable because there are no standards to meet. How convenient?