Sunset Park parents, community speak out on MS 936 screened admissions controversy

exterior of ms 936 in sunset park
Parents and community members are speaking out about a Sunset Park middle school’s decision to continue using screened admissions. Students must send in an audition or other materials if they wish to attend the school.
Megan McGibney

City and school officials offered Sunset Park parents a chance to voice up their opinions local middle school’s controversial choice to continue using screened admissions after the city’s education department chose to stop using academic screens for middle schools.

MS 936 Arts off Third announced in January that it would continue to have audition-based admissions, following two years of open admissions per the DOE’s decision to not use screened admissions back in December 2020. But some parents say the relatively new school, which opened in 2020, was never meant to have audition admissions and believe the switch was made without any community input.

“There’s a chance that there could’ve been an audition school in the works,” says Jovita Sosa, a Sunset Park parent and education activist. “But it wasn’t here, it wasn’t meant to be here. It was meant to be somewhere else. This entire process happened in a matter of weeks … Superintendent Pretto approved it without any community input or consideration of Sunset Park and their circumstances.”

On Tuesday, May 24th, the DOE hosted a virtual Community Engagement Session with Superintendent David Pretto, who gave a presentation on M.S. 936’s admissions and led a discussion on the community’s concerns over the decision. More than 100 people attended the session.

A new school’s resolution to require auditions

MS 936 was built to provide arts-centered education while relieving overcrowded schools in the southern section of Sunset Park, which is part of D20. According to a presentation by the Office of District Planning, there were plans for the new building, which also houses an elementary school, to serve District 75 students. For the past two years, MS 936 has used an admissions lottery to enroll its two inaugural classes.

But there was a change in December 2021 when Community Education Council 20 passed a resolution for MS 936 “to fulfill their original mission and begin auditioning incoming 6th-grade students for their respective disciplines.” In February, district Superintendent David Pretto announced the school will have audition-based admissions.

The announcement was met with outcry by parents and education advocates who are still furious over the decision.

Alan Aja, a former CEC20 member says he would’ve opposed the school back in 2019 if it was clear it would have audition-based admissions.

“The CEC’s resolution was approved on December 21st, 2021,” Aja said. “It was pushed through without any community input. It’s unconscionable. There’s already a disparity in the district with economic levels and race, and this will make it worse.”

Opponents like Sosa and Aja point out that the location of MS 936 means it is meant to serve an area of Sunset Park that is largely immigrant and low-income. By having audition-based admissions, they say children will not have the same opportunity to show their artistic skills as those who come from higher-income families and are able to afford lessons and classes to develop their talents in time for the auditions.

Pretto’s presentation showed the school’s enrollment numbers since its 2020 opening. In its first year, 169 students entered the building through a lottery; the same system was used in 2021, with 176 students admitted. For this coming September, 178 are enrolled. But only 61% of the students starting in September came from nearby Sunset Park elementary schools — compared to 66% in 2020.

students at MS 936
Students at MS 936 raised funds for victims of the Twin Parks apartment fire earlier this year. Some parents and community members are unhappy with the school’s decision to require auditions in order to be admitted to the arts school.File photo courtesy of MS 936/Arts off 3rd

The upcoming class also has fewer students with individualized education programs, disabilities, and other learning differences — in 2020, 83% of M.S. 936 students were eligible for free lunch and 28% were English Language Learners, according to Pretto, in the coming school year, 71% are eligible for free lunch and 22% are ELL.

The superintendent also discussed the auditions for the school’s art programs: music, theater, dance, and visual arts; the latter allowed students to submit a portfolio while the other three had to be done on video. 

For music, prospective students were required to use instruments including the flute, clarinet, violin, piano, and saxophone. Vocal auditions required students to perform Broadway, pop  and even folk songs. For theatre, reciting a monologue chosen by the school from plays such as “Fences,” “A Little Princess,” and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” was required. Auditions for the fine arts asked students to do a still-life drawing, a made-up drawing following a prompt, and then a brief composition comparing and contrasting a painting by Frida Kahlo and the Mona Lisa. Proper grammar was a must. As for dance, a minute or two of the prospective dancing to the style of their choice.

As Pretto moved through the the slides, the chatroom was active with attendants voicing their thoughts. One woman expressed dismay over being “gaslit” over being told there were always going to be auditions when that is not what the community was initially told. Some wondered if the school was under-enrolled. Some wondered what resources students would have to prepare for the audition process, and added the auditions were not culturally inclusive enough for a neighborhood that has a large Hispanic population. 

Kevin Zhao, CEC20’s borough appointee, said he leans towards the audition process.

“I’m not against open admission,” he said. “But I feel audition is more meaningful. Let them go through the audition, and the teachers will know that the kids have an interest in it. Let’s see if they have passion or talent.”

DOE says MS 936 is still ‘open to all students’ in the district

CEC20 President Stephen Stowe said that MS 936 was always intended to have auditions and it was what former Superintendent Karina Costantino wanted. He points to a few documents on the CEC’s website, but the words “audition” does not specifically appear in any of them. 

What does appear is the term “open admissions method” and according to the DOE’s website, it does indicate auditions may be used as part of the application process, depending on the school’s program. 

Nathaniel Styer, press secretary for the DOE, said the school remains open to all students who live in District 20.

“The school has always been and still is open to all students and residents of District 20,” the representative told Brooklyn Paper. “It previously used an ‘open’ admission method, in which applicants were admitted through random selection; it currently is using an “audition” admissions method, in which applicants are admitted based on their audition score.”

Sosa said education officials are being intentionally opaque.

“The DOE uses vague terminology to push through and support policies that are not equitable,” Sosa says. “The CEC has complicity in this, but the DOE has ultimate responsibility. The CEC has no power in and of itself to impose the screen, that was done by the DOE and Mr. Pretto.”

City Councilwoman Alexa Avilés, whose district covers D20, agreed. 

“[It] is general guidance with enough space for people to make shifts,” she says. “I think it was clear that this was an open choice, that D20 would be able to apply to this without audition. Even though the criteria says it can include, that does not mean to be an audition school.”

She adds that while the audition-based admissions were always the intention of some, the process of switching it from choice to audition was not transparent nor responsible as it disregarded parents’ voices. 

But Avilés’ colleague, City Councilman Justin Brannan, whose district covers a large part of D20, claims the school was always meant to have auditions. 

“Going back to 2017, I’ve supported MS 936 as District 20’s first middle school dedicated to the arts with a district-wide audition-based admissions process,” he said, in a statement. “As someone who has always sought to remove barriers to the arts and get more public school students exposed to the arts – be it music, theater, or the visual and performing arts – I am dedicated to working with the Department of Education and District 20 parents to explore expanding the MS 936 admissions process so that it is as inclusive and as accessible as possible to students interested in the performing or visual arts.”

One way Brannan wants this to be done is by increasing funding to give all public school students in the city core arts instruction and programming. Back in March, he created a resolution that will require all kindergarten through fifth-grade students to get three hours of art and music education per school week.

Stowe also says he would like to see more arts programs in D20 and wants to work with local leaders to make that happen for children from low-income families, immigrant families, or who have learning disabilities. 

“I do think there’s a lot of stuff we can do,” he says. “We put this in (the resolution,) let’s try and find a way to keep the audition system but also make sure we’re getting representation from these different communities in a way that makes sense, that can take advantage of the arts school itself.”

But Aja said the policy is in direct opposition of the goal of educating children equitably and providing equal opportunity.

“If they truly believe in educating all children, why they would push through such an economically and disability exclusive policy?” he said. “That Mr. Stowe and the CEC would back a school administration to push through an economically, racially and disability exclusive admissions policy is simply unconscionable, and speaks of the lack of confidence many district families have in their ability to best represent the needs of the community.

When asked what the DOE plans to do in regards to the complaints from many in D20, Styer said the department will continue to engage with the community as it has been since the new school was first proposed.

There was a robust parent engagement of the community when this school was originally being planned in 2017,” he said. “As concerns are being raised now, we are committed to continuing to listen and examine the feedback given in a recent community town hall.”