Not your father’s middle school: MS 51 may see most-radical changes in plan to diversify Slope-area classrooms, expert says

Not your father’s middle school: MS 51 may see most-radical changes in plan to diversify Slope-area classrooms, expert says
Photo by Brianna Kudisch

A plan to desegregate middle schools in Park Slope and its surrounding neighborhoods that city officials signed off on last week will most dramatically shake up the student body that fills coveted seats at Fifth Avenue’s MS 51, according to a local parent who blogs about education.

Mayor DeBlasio’s initiative to desegregate learning houses in District 15 — where he once served as a school-board member, and also includes classrooms in Fort Greene, Boerum Hill, Carroll Gardens, Cobble Hill, Gowanus, Red Hook, Kensington, and Sunset Park — calls for eliminating admissions standards that reserved spaces for high-performing students who stood out in screenings, and instead setting aside more than half of desks for low-income or vulnerable pupils.

And administrators at MS 51, where DeBlasio sent both of his kids, placed the most emphasis on the screenings axed in new policies that will take effect in the 2019-20 school year, according to the mom, who said its hallways will likely look the least familiar come next fall.

“MS 51 will be very, very different,” said Joyce Szuflita, a District 15 parent who blogs for NYC School Help. “It was the one school that had a very distinct academic screen.”

For decades, all but one of District 15’s 11 middle schools — which are not zoned for specific areas, giving families some choice in where to send their kids — screened pupils based on criteria that included attendance, grades, test scores, and other factors, yielding segregated student bodies with most youngsters coming from families with means to bolster their education outside the classroom, according to a report officials released in announcing their new plan on Sept. 20.

MS 51 educators held the screenings’ specific categories in high regard when determining its admissions, according to Szuflita, who said leaders at other schools, such as MS 443 New Voices Middle School, favored other, self-designed criteria that allowed for more diversity.

But now, those screenings are no more at the schools, which will all reserve 52 percent of incoming sixth graders’ seats for children from families that are low-income or homeless, or speak English as a second language.

Parents will still be able to choose their kids’ preferred schools by ranking them, but now a lottery factors slightly higher than choice, or merit, under the new plan — which was tailor-made for the district’s middle schools, but can be a blueprint for diversifying classrooms citywide, according to DeBlasio.

“This is a ripe moment,” Hizzoner said. “Now, we have to execute and deliver on it to show parents across the city this approach can work.”

District 15 is among the city’s most socioeconomically and racially segregated, according to the report, which shows the ethnicity of student populations grow disproportionate over the last decade.

At MS 51, for example, white kids accounted for 36 percent of pupils in 2007 — roughly the same percentage as Latino students — before shooting up to 56 percent in 2017, when Latinos fell to just 19 percent.

And over in Greenwood Heights, the number of Latino pupils at MS 433 took a similar dive, falling from 53 percent in 2007 to 33 percent in 2017, as the amount of white students rose from 21 to 49 percent in that time.

And in general, the district’s middle schools skewed to socioeconomic extremes, according to the report, which noted that more than 90 percent of students enrolled at Sunset Park Prep MS 821 and nearby MS 136 qualified for no-cost or reduced lunches before the city started handing out free lunches regardless of income last year, while less than 30 percent of children at MS 51 and MS 447, the Math and Science Exploratory School, qualified for the subsidized-lunch program before it became universal.

A working group of local educators, parents, city officials, and policy experts crafted the new diversity plan after months of discussions and public meetings with residents, who were invited to no less than three sessions to weigh in on the scheme.

And because District 15 is chock full of high-performing schools in addition to MS 51, incoming middle schoolers will likely get the same quality of education no matter where they land under the new plan, according to Szuflita, who said kids in other districts may not be so lucky if the policies take effect on their turf.

“I would have sent my own child to the vast majority of the schools in this district without reservation,” said the mom, whose kids graduated from Dean Street’s MS 447. “This just happens to be a very good clump of worthy middle schools that just haven’t been discovered by more affluent families.”

Reach reporter Colin Mixson at cmixson@cnglocal.com or by calling (718) 260-4505.