“It’s easy to pretend to be colorblind when your head is buried in the sand. It’s easy to say you know what the community wants when your ‘community’ is meticulously curated.”

Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office

A scene from the first day of school in New York City in 2021.

New York City’s District 2 Community Education Council (CEC2) held its September meeting inside Manhattan’s PS 77 Lower Lab School, which for at least three recent school years did not enroll a single Black student. Lower Lab is not a zoned school, drawing students solely from its neighborhood. Rather, it is one of the city’s many “screened” public schools, selecting students from across the district, which ranges from Tribeca to the Upper East Side.

After years of basing admissions on a test administered to students as young as 48 months, Lower Lab and other screened elementary schools shifted to a system of admissions based on preschool-teacher recommendations in 2020. From 2015 to 2020, there was just one Black student enrolled in Lower Lab, and the school did not enroll any Black students from 2021 to 2023 (the only elementary school in Manhattan without a single Black student enrolled in those years), according to the city’s most recently available data.

One of the meeting’s topics was whether middle schools in District 2 should revert to admissions screens for students entering in the 2024-25 school year. Prior to 2020, District 2 had a system of screened and zoned admissions for its middle schools, using test scores, attendance, grades, and essays. For 2021-22, with state tests canceled during the pandemic, middle schools were unscreened. Families ranked their top choices and admission was by lottery.

Last year, NYC Schools Chancellor David Banks announced that district superintendents would be free to select their own middle school admissions systems in consultation with the community. In District 2, Superintendent Kelly McGuire declined to reinstate screens, instead introducing honors math in some schools. These changes addressed demand for accelerated programs, while also, according to McGuire, being designed to “reduce stress” and create “continuity across the district.”

With Chancellor Banks again leaving the decision about reinstating screens up to superintendents for the 2024-25 school year, Community Education Councils, including CEC2, rushed to weigh in. Community Education Councils are elected bodies established under state law to give families “a public forum to air their concerns.”

Many of the elected members of CEC2 were endorsed by an organization called Parent Leaders for Accelerated Curriculum and Education (PLACE), which advocates for screened admissions.  Its officers, some of whom serve on CEC2, have ties to Moms for Liberty, which was named an anti-government group by the Southern Poverty Law Center and is known for espousing right-wing ideology around race, gender and LGTBQ+ rights.

District 2 enrolls a lower percentage of Black and Hispanic students and has fewer students living in poverty than most of the city’s 32 school districts. The district has de facto admissions screens in place just through the high cost of housing in its neighborhoods. Yet District 2 has built even higher walls around some schools, with screens at one time in place in 18 out of 23 middle schools. Those screens resulted in schools that were richer and whiter than the already rich, white district around them.

As the superintendent considered what admissions would look like for the coming year, CEC2 leaders brought him to Lower Lab—a school where they knew he would hear from the parents most invested in maintaining screens. However, this is also a school where he could see screening’s ugliest side.

When one CEC2 member said, “We’re no longer in 1950,” so we no longer need to worry about the racial demographics of our schools, I could not help but point out that Lower Lab did not welcome a single Black student to its classrooms for at least three recent school years. In response, another CEC2 member exclaimed: “People don’t want to report their race, but there are Black students in this school!”

Yet the city records data on race for all its students, even if parents don’t volunteer that information. The Black students that my fellow CEC2 member sees outside Lower Lab are students from the zoned school, PS 198, housed in the same building. PS 198 more accurately reflects the diverse demographics of District 2, which is to be expected of a school that admits all students living in its zone. Screened schools create these stark contrasts.

In the end, District 2 added screened programs in all core subjects (English, math, social studies, and science) to the four schools that had introduced a screened math program the year before. While CEC2’s president stated that this change was about “parents letting their voices be heard,” it’s clear which parents CEC2 chose to hear and which parents it chose to ignore.

It’s easy to pretend to be colorblind when your head is buried in the sand. It’s easy to say you know what the community wants when your “community” is meticulously curated. And it’s easy for some parents to hide behind a desire for “acceleration” when what they want is control over which kids get to go to school with theirs. 

Gavin Healy is an elected member of New York City’s District 2 Community Education Council.

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