A seven-year struggle to build a middle school in Greenwich Village is nearing its end, but two key questions remain that could affect not just the students of the new facility but all families that face the confusing, maddening system that is middle-school enrollment in New York City.
One is whether the NYC Department of Education will listen to parents’ ideas on how to streamline that process. The other is whether parents will agree on an answer.
After years of hard work driven by a grassroots group of parents and community activists who formed the 75 Morton Community Alliance to advocate for it, 75 Morton Street school is scheduled to open its doors in the fall of 2017.
Parents and advocates know the new school – after a $98 million renovation project – will have a state-of-the art gymnasium; rooms dedicated to music, art and science, floor to ceiling windows in the cafeteria and a healthcare center for the students on site. They know the site will also share space with a school for 100 children with special education needs.
But big unknowns remain. For example, no one knows how many seats will be in the new school – numbers from 600 to 900 have been mentioned – and no one knows yet who the new principal will be.
More important, there has been no decision on whether the school will be a zoned middle school—drawing from a nearby geographic district—or whether it will be a choice school, where children will be admitted based on interviews, or a test, or a portfolio of work and recommendations or some combination of those.
A headache for parents and kids
For any parent who has navigated a child through the blood sport of middle-school admissions, the lack of transparency and cohesion in the process is enough to send the most placid parent banging on the doors of the DOE for relief.
The problem is exacerbated in Manhattan’s District 2, which runs from Battery Park City at the southern tip of Manhattan and up the West Side to just south of West 59th Street, and then over to the Upper East Side up to East 96th Street. The district includes some of the wealthiest neighborhoods in Manhattan—including Tribeca, Greenwich Village, Chelsea, Flatiron, and the Upper East Side—as well as significant tracts of poverty. The district also includes Chinatown and Midtown, but does not include the Lower East Side.
According to Community Board 2, there are 36 elementary schools in the district, with roughly 2,400 fifth graders needing a middle school seat – according to data supplied by CB2 and the Community Education Council for District 2. Right now, according to the CEC, the district has five zoned middle schools, for which admissions are based on the child’s home address, and 16 other middle schools that operate a selective admissions process.
For years, across the city, parents have complained bitterly over the middle-school admissions process, which they liken in stress and complexity to the college application process. Not only do fifth graders have to rank their choices of middle schools, the schools get to see the ranking and often reject middle-school applicants based on how the children have ranked the school.
The whole approach is nuts, says Matthew Horovitz, a father of twins in fourth grade at PS 41 in District 2, and chair of the District 2 Community Education Council’s 75 Morton Street School Committee. “Jobs and colleges don’t get to see” how applicants rank them, he says. “The pitting of nine- and 10-year-olds against each other like they are getting into Harvard or Yale is a societal wrong turn.”
When to talk?
The DOE has said it would start to discuss the admissions process for the school in the spring of 2016, and that a new principal would be named sometime before the fall of 2017.
Shino Tanikawa, president of the District 2 Community Education Council (CEC) and the parent of an eighth grader in public school, has been in ongoing meetings and phone calls with DOE officials about the school’s opening. Tanikawa says the focus now should be on an early selection of the principal – at least a year, she believes, before the school’s slated opening of fall 2017 – public engagement and discussing what sort of theme the school should embrace.
“Right now, to me, really, the most important issues are first and foremost to get the District 2 community, parents and educators together to start talking about what kind of school we envision for the building?” says Tanikawa. “Is it going to have a theme, is it going to have creative programming or science and techie – or a more general liberal arts school?”
For Tanikawa, proceeding in an orderly fashion according to the DOE’s timetable is paramount, given what she says is the “unprecedented opportunity to start a school that meets the needs of the community”—a real break, she notes, from how schools were created under the Bloomberg administration.
Last week, on the 75 MCA email listserv, an argument of the politest kind broke out among some of the members over the DOE’s timeline to discuss admissions policy. According to the Aug. 27 minutes of a phone conversation with DOE officials and members of the Community Board and CEC, the DOE estimates that it will establish admission criteria for the school in late April of 2016, and that the 75 Morton Street Community Alliance could have one or two meetings on the criteria beginning in January of 2016.
But some parents like Horovitz think the conversation about admissions should be happening now, among all the different groups involved in the creation of 75 Morton Street. And other parents agree with him.
“A lot of groups, including the CEC, are really examining whether the whole middle school admissions process is tenable; whether it is unnecessarily complicated and disadvantageous to some students,” Maud Maron, a member of Community Board 2’s schools and education committee. The whole process needs to be looked at with fresh eyes and that’s a conversation that should be happening now, says Maron. “Maybe this would be a perfect opportunity to explore better alternatives.”
What to say?
But parents aren’t unified on what kind of process they want to see.
If the school is a zoned school, than that will relieve some parents’ concerns about overcrowding and assure another choice for students, despite their grades. But other parents feel 75 Morton Street school should be a “choice” school, where students are admitted from across the district based on a portfolio of accomplishments.
The disagreement over the admissions policy goes into deeper waters of where students will come from, what parts of District 2, and what the socio-economic and cultural background of the students will be.
“I think admissions is where parents get really excitable and really freak out a little bit,” says Emily Hellstrom, a member of the 75 MCA. “What I have also heard is that a zoned school can be really exciting and be really cool for some kids,” but making a zoned school can also potentially “really sink a school.”
Hellstrom says some parents have expressed concern that if the school doesn’t have some sort of admissions criteria, it will simply become a school for those who couldn’t get into a choice school.
Maron, however, feels the choice approach is simply inappropriate. “I do think it’s a little bit nuts that children as young as fourth grade are feeling pressure on standardized tests because it will affect their entrance into middle school,” says Maron. “Maybe this would be a perfect opportunity to explore some better alternative.”
The school’s coming. So are the details.
Members of the 75 MCA have been visiting elementary schools in the district over the past year to tell parents about the planned new school, and the visits and the admissions process, yet to be decided, have opened up a host of questions about the school’s proposed diversity, culture and programming.
The next meeting for the 75 MCA will be held on Monday, Nov. 2, at the new middle school, Clinton School for Writers and Artists at 10 East 15th Street, in the gym at 6:30 pm. But parents will also have a chance to ask Chancellor Carmen Farina her thoughts, when she speaks at the next CEC meeting on Wednesday, Oct. 14th, from 6 pm to 7 pm, again, at Clinton middle school.
The 75 Morton Street Committee is planning to hold a series of four meetings throughout the district to garner community sentiment around the issue of admissions for the new middle school. The first meeting will be held at P.S. 41 at 116 West 11th Street on October 20th from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m.
In email comment, a spokesman for the DOE wrote, “The school will open on schedule in 2017. We have committed to consult with families, the Community Education Council and other stakeholders, including 75 Morton Community Alliance, as we determine the admissions method.”
Ruth Ford covers education for City Limits. Got a tip? Send it here.