A parent leader is calling upon the City’s Department of Education (DOE) and the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio to increase diversity in Manhattan’s District 2, which includes Lower Manhattan, as well as the East Side south of 97th Street (with the exception of the Lower East Side) and the West Side south of 59th street.
Shino Tanikawa, who serves as vice president of the District 2’s Community Education Council (CEC) — a panel responsible for advising and commenting on educational policies, and providing input to the Department of Education (DOE) on matters of concern to the district — wants each middle school in District 2 to be required to accept a broader spectrum of students, representing a wider range academic achievement levels.
Throughout District 2, students are welcome to apply to any middle school they choose. But almost all of these academies fall into one of two categories: selective schools that accept predominantly high-achieving students, and those that primarily serve students with less-stellar academic records.
The first group has a record of sending their graduates to “elite” public high schools, with graduation rates that approach 100 percent, and a pattern of almost all of their students going on to college. Alumni of second-tier middle schools in District 2 are statistically much more likely attend public high schools with lower graduation rates, and a significantly lower rate of university acceptance.
This divide correlates very closely to income, class, and zip code, with children from more affluent neighborhoods enjoying a statistical advantage for acceptance at District 2’s selective middle schools, and pupils from economically disadvantaged communities more likely relegated to schools where lower academic achievement is the norm. Ms. Tanikawa notes that District 2 middle schools appear to cleave between poverty rates among students that hover near zero, or else hosting a student population where the vast majority come from families living at or below the poverty line.
Within the District’s 24 middle schools, 18 are “screened,” which denotes an evaluation process that focuses on criteria such as grades, interviews, and scores on standardized tests. In almost all cases, such benchmarks redound to the advantage of students from more affluent backgrounds. Several more are “limited unscreened” schools, which means they rank applicants based on other metrics, such as attendance, punctuality, or the number of times they have toured a school. But even these yardsticks translate into a subtle benefit for pupils whose families are able to arrange for them to tour desirable middle schools, or whose comparatively greater access to healthcare minimizes absenteeism.
This disparity is illustrated by statistical snapshots of four middle schools in District 2, using data supplied by the DOE and InsideSchools.org.
At the Spruce Street School, 12 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch (an indicator that strongly corresponds to poverty), only five percent of students are chronically absent, and more than 70 percent of students score in the 3 and 4 category on State Math and English Language Arts (ELA) tests. The picture is similar at the Battery Park City School (I.S. 276), where eight percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, nine percent are chronically absent, and more than 70 percent scored in the top two tranches on State tests. The schools are so in demand that Spruce is operating at 99 percent of design capacity, and 276 is bursting at 118 percent of its capacity. More tellingly, both can afford to be very selective about which applicants they admit, because Spruce attracts five applicants for every available seat, while 276 draws three fifth-graders for each spot in its middle school. And both fall into the comparatively less rigorous category of “limited unscreened” schools.
The numbers are far less encouraging at the City Knoll Middle School, on the far West Side of Midtown. Poverty rates there are much higher, with 74 percent of students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch. Truancy is also much more pronounced, with more than one-quarter of the student population chronically absent. Slightly more than one quarter of all students at City Knoll score in the top two categories on State math and ELA tests.
At the Life Sciences Secondary School on East 96th Street, 72 percent of the student population are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, 45 percent are chronically absent, and eight percent score in the top categories on standardized tests. Both City Knoll and Life Sciences attract few enough applicants that there are seats to spare in each school.
To remedy this divide, Ms. Tanikawa (who also serves as the co-chair of the NYC Kids PAC and co-president of the Education Council Consortium) said at a recent CEC meeting, “we need an admissions system that does not judge students or value some students more than others.” She proposes phasing out the consideration of attendance records in middle school admissions, and mandating for middle schools the “ed opt” system currently used in many New York City public high schools. This approach explicitly aims to recruit students with varying levels of academic achievement, thus spreading around and mixing together both high- and low-achievers, and breaking the statistical segregation at both ends of spectrum.
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