Top Middle Schools Must Take Struggling Students, City Says

Second from right, Kimberly Watkins, president of the District 3 community education council, a parent advisory group. She said the “recalibration” was “a first step toward meaningful change in our long-term District 3 segregation problem.”

New York City is moving ahead with a desegregation plan for middle schools that has drawn an outcry from some Upper West Side parents and heightened tensions over race and equity in one of the city’s most diverse and highly segregated school districts.

Middle schools in District 3, which stretches from the Upper West Side to Harlem, will be required to set aside a quarter of their sixth-grade seats for low income students with low test scores and grades beginning next spring, Richard A. Carranza, the schools chancellor, announced Wednesday.

The plan is intended to increase diversity in selective, high-performing middle schools like Booker T. Washington, where black and Hispanic students are underrepresented. The diversity effort has been part of a larger citywide debate about desegregation, including a plan by Mayor Bill de Blasio to change the admissions process for the city’s elite specialized high schools, that are disproportionately Asian and white.

“Students benefit from integrated schools, and I applaud the District 3 community on taking this step to integrate their middle schools,” Mr. Carranza said. “I hope what we’re announcing in District 3 will be a model for other districts to integrate schools across the city, and I look forward to working with parents and educators as we implement this plan and strengthen middle schools across the district.”

The middle school desegregation plan is the first of its kind to cover an entire district, and it grew out of months of meetings with parents, schools and community leaders.

Parents and diversity activists across the city have criticized the academic screening process used in the most selective middle schools and high schools to admit top students, leaving other schools filled with struggling students.

“The demand, and the effort to be admitted to high-performing middle schools has driven a chasm between largely white and Asian and affluent families and economically struggling black and Latino families,” said Kimberly Watkins, president of the District 3 community education council, a parent advisory group. She added that the “recalibration of the middle school admissions system” was “a first step toward meaningful change in our long-term District 3 segregation problem.”

But the effort has also drawn a backlash from some white, middle-class parents — captured in a video shot by NY1 that went viral — who contend that it is unfair when there are not enough seats for all the qualified applicants at high-performing middle schools and could lower the quality of education. Other parents and school leaders have said that the plan does not go far enough to address the deeply rooted causes of segregation, and it does not help struggling schools.

The plan was chosen over three other options, which all aimed to give priority to low performing students but used different criteria. District school leaders initially unveiled a plan to focus on students who scored a 1 or 2 — the lowest grade on a 1-to-4 scale — on state standardized English and math tests, but that was later rejected because of concerns that it could violate state education law, which prohibits student placements based solely on state test scores.

Other plans considered factors in addition to low test scores, such as course grades and the income level of the students at an elementary school.

The plan that was selected will set aside 25 percent of the seats at middle schools for students who qualify for free and reduced lunches, a widely accepted measure of poverty, and who are considered low performing based on their final fourth-grade English and math course grades and their scores on state English and math tests.

City education officials said that they would support the change in admissions with new outreach efforts, including more middle school tours and training in academic intervention strategies for middle school staff. City education officials projected that about 300 families would be affected in the first year.

This is not the first time that District 3 has dealt with segregation in schools. Two years ago, it redrew some neighborhood school zones to reduce overcrowding and increase diversity at a group of elementary schools.

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