Here we go again! City will start screening students when it moves Vinegar Hill middle-school to Dumbo

TOMORROW: Learn more about the MS 313 relocation
Photo by Louise Wateridge

The city is bungling its high-stakes makeover of a struggling Vinegar Hill middle-school, just months after its tone-deaf attempt to integrate the neighborhood’s elementary school made national headlines.

Local parents say they were shocked to learn recently that the Department of Educations is adopting a screening process for the Dock Street School — its new name and look for MS 313, which it is relocating to a sparkling new Dumbo condo building this fall. And just days away from the deadline for applications, the city still can’t tell them exactly what its selection criteria will be, leaving families once again fearful they will be pushed out of a school that almost exclusively serves low-income minority students in the area.

“We’re asking questions and we’re not getting answers,” said Faraji Hannah-Jones, who is the co-president of the parents-teacher association at PS 307 in Vinegar Hill, which the city controversially rezoned in January to include future students from Dumbo. “I don’t think the DOE is being upfront and since the rezoning they’ve stopped engaging us.”

Hannah-Jones says Vinegar Hill parents had been demanding the department give priority to kids from PS 307 when it moves the co-located junior high in September. It is shifting the school to make space for the influx of newcomers the rezoning will bring — an abrupt change that came under fire for ignoring the opinions of local families, many of whom live in the neighboring public Farragut Houses complex, and ignited a city-wide debate over school segregation.

Nabbing a spot at MS 313 has not been a problem before — the school is under-enrolled with only 74 students, and is on the state’s “persistently dangerous” list due to reports of violence. But the city is making over the middle school with a new name, specialist science and arts curriculum, and fresh facilities in Brooklyn’s wealthiest nabe, which it unveiled to great fanfare last month.

The redesign appears to be a success — the “new” school has already received an influx of applications, according to David Goldsmith, the president of the local community education council.

And PS 307 parents say they were excited about the new look and digs, too — until they learned through an article published in Chalkbeat at the beginning of February that their offspring will not be given priority and those who are selected will be hand-picked from all applicants in the local school district — which also includes parts of Park Slope, Brooklyn Heights, Fort Greene, and Downtown.

The new school application handbook subsequently revealed the screening will consider test scores, attendance, and behavior — though not how.

“After the rezoning, DOE said ‘Don’t worry about it, it’s going to be fine,’” said Clifford Dodd, whose son attends kindergarten at PS 307. “Now to find out that there’s a screening process is really frustrating, they never really took any of our concerns into consideration.”

A rep for the department claims it did engage with the community, and based its decision to screen on discussions with locals and elected officials — though Hannah-Jones and Dodd say it was the first they had heard of it, and Council members Steve Levin (D–Dumbo) and Laurie Cumbo (D–Vinegar Hill) refused to comment on their involvement.

“The community decided this was the admissions procedure they felt was best and we are continuing to work with them to implement it,” said spokeswoman Toya Holness.

Those involved in designing the makeover insist screening does not mean the school will be overrun with rich white kids.

Goldsmith — who is part of an advisory group of locals and officials consulting on the new-look school — says it is exploring models in other schools that screen prospective students precisely to include kids who don’t speak English as a first language, or who work well in groups, rather than those who can ace tests.

“We want a school that could be a great fit for a kid who is high achieving but also students who are struggling,” said Goldsmith.

Nevertheless, the city is still months away from deciding on what the exact criteria will be, he said — and middle-school applications are due on Tuesday. Parents will find out where their kids have been accepted in April.

Reach reporter Lauren Gill at lgill@cnglocal.com or by calling (718) 260–2511. Follow her on Twitter @laurenk_gill
Lunch box: Plans for the cafeteria at the newly rebranded MS 313.