Parents and advocates mull admissions options for new Morton St. school

Sara McPhee, from the D.O.E. Office of Student Enrollment, left, and Bonnie Laboy, superintendent of School District 2, at the Oct. 20 meeting on admissions at 75 Morton St.  Photo by Sara Hendrickson

Sara McPhee, from the D.O.E. Office of Student Enrollment, left, and Bonnie Laboy, superintendent of School District 2, at the Oct. 20 meeting on admissions at 75 Morton St. Photo by Sara Hendrickson

BY SARA HENDRICKSON  |  In keeping with the ongoing deep community involvement in the 75 Morton St. middle school, opening in fall 2017, a meeting at P.S. 41 in the Village on Oct. 20, hosted by Community Education Council District 2, was well attended by about 50 parents hoping to shape the new school’s admissions process.

Since District 2 is such a huge school district (running from the southern tip of Manhattan to 59th St. on the West Side and 96th St. on the East Side), C.E.C. 2 is hosting three more meetings on 75 Morton admissions in various locations during November to engage parents across the district.

75 Morton, an existing building that is currently being renovated at the corner of Morton and Hudson Sts., is planned as a state-of-the art facility for up to 1,000 students, according to School Construction Authority capacity formulas. However, many parents are advocating for a smaller, “right-sized” school of 600 to 700 students. The school will have one floor dedicated for about 100 District 75 students who need extra support due to autism spectrum disorder (A.S.D.) and other learning challenges.

After welcoming remarks and introductions of several Department of Education officials present, C.E.C. 2 member Matthew Horovitz, who chairs the 75 Morton Committee, got the crowd’s attention.

“The D.O.E. might consider whether 75 Morton should be a zoned school for the West Side,” he said.

But as parents quickly learned from their admissions crash course that followed, a zoned school can mean many different things.

In an instructive power point presentation, C.E.C. 2 President Shino Tanikawa explained the basics. All New York City middle school students must apply to multiple schools through D.O.E.’s standard application and rank their chosen schools in order of preference. They are accepted by only one school, although appeals can change assignments on occasion.

Admission methods vary widely among individual schools, and are often complex and nuanced, and can appear opaque to families.

In preparation for their breakout discussion groups to follow, Tanikawa implored parents not to “get too bogged down in terminology of what exists.”

There are 23 middle schools in District 2, but only four zoned middle schools, with the largest and most well known being Robert Wagner on E. 76th St. and Simon Baruch on E. 21st St. Both of these have more than 1,000 students and have large zones. Wagner and Baruch, however, use multiple admission methods and offer multiple programs, such that only a portion of their students are admitted solely based on living in the zone. A significant portion of both zoned and unzoned students are admitted on a “screened” basis, using criteria such as the student’s rank choice for the school, state test scores, report cards, attendance, interviews and other metrics.

All screened middle schools create their own customized set of screening criteria, but virtually every District 2 middle school uses school rank in the mix. This universal practice sparked parent angst during the meeting’s Q&A and breakout sessions. East Side, Salk and Lab middle schools are widely known to only consider students who rank them as their first choice. Other schools might only consider students that ranked them in the top three.

“This does lead to an element of gaming the system,” said Sara McPhee from the D.O.E. Office of Student Enrollment.

Tanikawa said that C.E.C. 2 had been working for months on making recommendations to improve the middle school admissions maze, especially to address school ranking, but could not come to consensus.

“That is a massive undertaking, so we decided to just focus on 75 Morton admissions for now,” she said.

There are alternative methods to screening, such as “limited unscreened,” in which students must attend an open house, tour or middle school fair to demonstrate interest in a particular school.

Outside of District 2, there are completely “unscreened” middle schools where a randomized computer lottery matches students to their highest ranked school. But in District 2, there are no purely unscreened schools.

“There is a lot of testing and student interviewing that takes place in District 2,” McPhee commented. “The D.O.E. has tried to diversify admissions methods, but the district has a history of screened schools.”

She encouraged parents to “broaden your horizons and take a look at what goes on outside District 2.”

McPhee said some schools in Brooklyn and Queens and a few in Manhattan use a “composite score” method where students receive one numerical score out of a 100 scale based on weighting grades, test scores, attendance and other benchmarks. This “streamlined process” eliminates interviews and other pressures of screened admissions.

City high schools employ a method not yet used by middle schools called Educational Option (Ed Opt) designed to create a range of academic performers within a grade. Based on English Language Arts (E.L.A.) and state test scores, schools create a class, or some portion of the class, with a distribution of scores: for example, 20 percent, 60 percent and 20 percent at the low, middle and high reading levels.

The core question of whether 75 Morton should be zoned, unzoned or a hybrid, loomed large on parents’ minds throughout the evening. Bonnie Laboy, superintendent of District 2, had boiled it down in her earlier remarks.

“Do families want a safety net, a guarantee, that their child can attend 75 Morton?” she asked. “Or do they want to open the school up to families outside the zone? It really comes down to those options.”

The question of how to preserve a community feeling for an unzoned or “choice” school with families living outside the zone came up frequently in breakout groups. Aaron Travis, who attended the meeting with his wife, even though their son is still in diapers, reflected on growing up in the Midwest.

“We want to be sure that creating a neighborhood of families for 75 Morton is translated into the admissions process,” he said. “Middle schoolers shouldn’t be traipsing to the Upper East Side as 10-year-olds.”

Many parents felt that an admissions process based on zone without the stress of screening and school ranking would make the application process more kid-centric. Maud Maron, the mother of a fourth grader and a member of Community Board 2, on which she sits on the Schools and Education Committee, thought that “zoning might be the fairest process for 10-to-11-year-olds.”

A concern on some parents’ minds was articulated by C.E.C. 2 member Eric Goldberg.

“Right or wrong, zoned schools are often not the most sought-after, but how do we make this a student-centered versus school-centered process?” he asked.

One breakout group with parents from elementary schools outside the Village looking forward to 75 Morton being one of their choice schools came up with the idea of forming a de facto zone by creating a list of feeder elementary schools.

If 75 Morton is to become a zoned school, C.E.C. 2 would have to start deliberations this coming January to allow enough time for meetings and public hearings. Whereas C.E.C. 2 has full authority to make zoning decisions, D.O.E. will ultimately decide the admissions process for 75 Morton.

“But the methods are really determined by the districts,” McPhee emphasized. “D.O.E. is really interested in community input, although I’m not sure we could implement something entirely new.”

Her D.O.E. colleague Drew Patterson from the Office of District Planning assured, “We are not sitting on a decision that we are waiting to unveil.”

Decisions on zoning and admissions process will have to be made by April 2016, when D.O.E.’s Middle School Directory goes to print for fall 2016 publication. In addition, there are more big decisions parents are already working together on.

The 75 Morton Community Alliance, a volunteer group to develop community consensus on 75 Morton — often through professionally facilitated sessions — is hosting an envisioning meeting with parents and community members to discuss the new middle school’s theme and educational philosophy. The meeting will take place on Mon., Nov. 2, at 6:30 p.m. at the Clinton School for Writers and Artists, at 10 E. 15th St.

What comes out of that session will likely inform the profile of the desired principal for 75 Morton, who must be selected no later than fall 2016, in order to champion the school to prospective families during the admissions season.

Superintendent Laboy gushed, “Any principal would just about die to run a District 2 middle school! If community input is any sign of what a wonderful school this will be, we only have great things in store for the children who will attend.”

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