New York City's Great Middle-School Divide
How a series of choices has deepened the segregation of Brooklyn’s schools
M.S. 51 in Brooklyn's Park Slope neighborhood is one of its district's "Big Three" middle schools: coveted and highly competitive, they are also whiter, more affluent, and higher performing than other schools in the district.
In leafy, liberal Park Slope and the Brooklyn neighborhoods nearby, many parents divide the local middle schools into two tiers: the “Big Three” and the rest.
First among the Big Three is M.S. 51 on Park Slope’s bustling Fifth Avenue. One of a dozen middle schools that families can choose from if they live within a four-mile-long stretch of west Brooklyn known as District 15, M.S. 51 is where Mayor Bill de Blasio sent his children and where students find a well-traveled path to the city’s most elite public high schools.
Next on the Big Three list are M.S. 447, a Boerum Hill school that specializes in math and science, and New Voices School of Academic and Creative Arts, a performing-arts school in Sunset Park.
In theory, any student who lives in District 15’s borders—which include not only the well-heeled Park Slope and Carroll Gardens neighborhoods, but also working-class Red Hook and Sunset Park—can attend the Big Three. In practice, the schools are dominated by a subset of families: At the Big Three, over 50 percent of students are white, and less than 30 percent come from low-income families. At the other nine middle schools, just 10 percent of students are white, and more than 80 percent are poor.
That divide highlights a harsh truth about the sources of school segregation in New York City.
Many people, including Mayor de Blasio, point to segregated neighborhoods as the cause of separate schools. In fact, many of the city’s school zones and districts encompass a mix of families. And by opening up every school to any family in a district, “school choice” systems like the one in District 15 offer a golden opportunity to override divided neighborhoods and make schools integrated.
Instead, district parents, schools, and officials have made choices that reinforce segregation.
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In the whiter, wealthier northern half of District 15, competition is fierce for a seat at a Big Three school.
“You have to battle for your so-called ‘choice,’” said Antonia Martinelli, a Gowanus parent and blogger who put M.S. 51 and 447 at the top of her son’s application. Otherwise, “there’s a fear that your child won’t get into a good enough high school.”
Some parents pay a private consultant $400 for a two-hour consultation about the district’s admission process. Others rely on their social circles. Because parents believe that attending one of the school tours will increase their odds of admission, many wait at their computers for the exact moment when online registration begins. The spots are usually snatched up within hours.
“It’s almost a full-time job,” said Rhonda Keyser, whose child attends M.S. 51.
But ultimately, the competition is within a narrow group of parents.
Eight of the district’s 25 elementary schools send half or more of their students to one of the Big Three, according to city data. Those elementary schools are on average 64 percent white and just 17 percent low-income. Districtwide, 31 percent of students are white and 65 percent are considered poor.
Monica Kipiniak’s son attends the School for International Studies, one of several district and charter schools where families who did not make it into the Big Three are starting to venture. She said the fight for Big Three seats favors wealthier parents with the time and ability to navigate the process and to ensure their Why Brooklyn's Middle Schools Are So Segregated - The Atlantic: