What Happened When Brooklyn Tried to Integrate Its Middle Schools

Seeking to solve a problem that has vexed public schools around the country for decades, one progressive section of New York undertook an ambitious plan to better integrate middle schools that were among the most homogenous in the city.

Selective admissions were scrapped. Every child got a lottery number instead. Schools adopted targets to admit certain numbers of disadvantaged children. And unlike in many places where integration attempts faced fierce opposition, parents led the effort.

Now, five years later, the plan appears to be working.

Middle schools in a section of northwest Brooklyn that stretches from Sunset Park to Cobble Hill went from being the second most socioeconomically segregated to 19th out of the city’s 32 local districts. Teachers and students say friendships are emerging across income lines.

And while opposition to integration efforts is often focused on concern that middle-class and white families will abandon public schools, the area — District 15 — has not seen a major exodus. The city’s public school enrollment has dropped as families leave New York or move to charters, but the district’s declines have been less extreme than elsewhere.

Across American public schools, more than a third of all students attend a school where most of their peers share the same race or ethnicity. But the Supreme Court has also limited how schools can use race to sort students among schools, and efforts to address racial segregation have mostly stalled.

Instead of using race, the district employed other categories to diversify student bodies and bring students with different life experiences and resources together. Specifically, schools prioritized students who are homeless, learning English or from low-income families — factors that are often correlated to race but that do not pose the same legal challenges.

The question of how to integrate schools has prompted heated debates across New York. In northwest Brooklyn and across the city, some Asian American families in particular have fought efforts to overhaul admissions that they say could lead to their children losing access to prime educational opportunities that they have worked hard for.

The plan in Brooklyn’s District 15 is a rare of example of progress on desegregation that has prompted less public conflict.

District 15 is home to a diverse group of students: middle-class white families clustered in Park Slope, Hispanic and Asian immigrants in Sunset Park and Black children in Red Hook.

Before the plan, roughly two-thirds of the district’s white children enrolled in its highly sought-after “Big Three” middle schools, a statistic that led local parents to begin a push to integrate the schools. Today, though, most schools are meeting goals to enroll between 40 to 70 percent students from the disadvantaged groups, a sign that more families are considering new options.

“We’ve managed to debunk this ‘good school-bad school’ narrative’,” said Antonia Martinelli, a mother in the district who helped push for the plan, and who also serves as a parent leader. “Parents understand that they’re all great schools.”

Since 2019, all middle schools have set aside seats for students who are low-income, live in temporary housing or are still learning English. Schools now build their incoming classes through a lottery, rather than weighing metrics like grades and attendance.

Admissions season in New York can be unusually competitive, and district leaders said it was previously fraught with emotion. “The day students get their results, it’s like ‘Who’s crying?’” Nicole Lanzillotto, the district’s deputy superintendent and a former principal, said in an interview.

The new approach feels “more developmentally appropriate” for students who are just 10, she said, and guidance counselors report a significant drop in their stress and anxiety.

About 85 percent of fifth-graders got offers to one of their top three middle school choices, for example, a similar rate to before the plan.

The schools chancellor, David C. Banks, said in a letter that the plan offers “a roadmap and model for other districts to follow.”

Other findings were laid out in a 118-page report from WXY, an urban planning firm that surveyed 1,900 people in the district and held dozens of listening sessions. The report acknowledged that some parents have frustrations. At a listening session held in Mandarin in Sunset Park, many said they preferred a merit-based admissions system that rewards hard work.

The desegregation plan began months before the coronavirus pandemic, making it tough to tell how the effort affected academic performance.

But the district’s children had higher test scores — before and after the plan — than comparable students in other areas, according to an analysis in the report. A more diverse set of middle-schoolers are taking state algebra exams, a sign that they have access to higher level math.

Change has been slower at two historically high-poverty schools in Sunset Park, where more than 91 percent of students still fall into the disadvantaged categories. It could reflect a number of forces, including the difficulty of attracting new students to the lowest-income institutions.

Rafael Alvarez, the district’s superintendent, said some Sunset Park families simply prefer to stay near home.

“They just want better schools in their community,” Mr. Alvarez said.

The district faces other hurdles. Many teachers say they could use more support in leading academically and racially integrated classrooms. Some educators in Red Hook, where many children live in public housing, worry that families are not always informed of their full menu of school options — or can’t reach them because of transportation issues.

And as schools that have typically served poorer students enroll higher income children, they could lose hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal Title I funding. To qualify, at least 60 percent of children must be low-income. The potential loss feels like “a punishment for diversifying,” administrators told authors of the report.

Northwest Brooklyn’s elementary schools also remain the most socioeconomically segregated in the entire city, in part a reflection of housing segregation and parents’ desire for younger children to have a short commute.

At a meeting about the report on Tuesday night, Michael Perlberg, the principal at Middle School 839, said he was proud of the progress his district has made. His school has always been nonselective. And yet, parents still used to mail him letters of recommendation for prospective students, or write messages in an effort to secure their child a seat.

“That process is gone,” Mr. Perlberg said. “It’s completely gone.”

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