Feature stories

Fostering diversity

PROSE helps melting pot return to Boerum Hill school

MS 447 8th-graders spend one day a week working on a project-based interdiscipliErica BergerMS 447 8th-graders spend one day a week working on a project-based interdisciplinary program, something staff would like more children to have the chance to experience. Here, paraprofessional Shirley Lyle listens to a student explain a Cause Marketing Campaign project about lobbying.

School counselor Star Corvinetti looks at students’ work.Erica BergerSchool counselor Star Corvinetti looks at students’ work. Commitment to diversity has always run deep at Brooklyn’s MS 447, the Math and Science Exploratory School, where there is tremendous respect and appreciation for the unique experiences each student brings to the school community.

“I firmly believe every child deserves to have the highest quality education,” said Kristel McKanna, an art teacher at the school since its inception 13 years ago. Diversity, she said, “provides an authentic experience of living in the real world.”

Using the Progressive Redesign Opportunities for Excellence program (PROSE) created in the 2014 UFT-Department of Education contract, the MS 447 faculty is doing something concrete to foster that diversity in their school.

In recent years, gentrification in the school’s Boerum Hill neighborhood has resulted in a steady increase in the number of wealthier, white students applying to the school. And as the school has built its considerable reputation, said English teacher Deborah Ward, seats have “become more coveted” and are being taken by more affluent students with higher test scores. It’s a demographic, Ward observed, that isn’t representative of Brooklyn or New York City.

“It’s artificial when you look around classrooms and the students don’t reflect the diversity of the district,” Ward said.

So MS 447 saw an opportunity to address its dilemma through PROSE, a joint UFT-DOE program that creates an opportunity to go outside normal work rules and experiment at the school level. MS 447 decided to use PROSE to change the way it screens applicants, with the goal of giving a wider range of students access to the school.

“I would never have assumed this was even a possibility if not for PROSE,” said Principal Arin Rusch.

Students get feedback on their projects from their teacher, Cheryl Grau.Erica BergerStudents get feedback on their projects from their teacher, Cheryl Grau. MS 447 was in the process of applying for changes within the PROSE framework when the DOE announced a diversity-in-admissions pilot program that, in effect, validated the school’s dream. MS 447 applied for and will use the pilot program to foster inclusivity beginning with students entering 6th grade in September.

Unlike the screened admissions method that historically picked applicants from top down in ranking, and then only if they put MS 447 as their first or second choice, the school now will actively seek and rank students across all performance levels. It will categorize students as low, middle and high performers, based on 4th-grade report cards and the school’s own “homemade” assessment, and a percentage of students in each group will be admitted. The school will not learn how it was ranked by students in their applications.

The DOE will make the final matches, giving priority for 30 percent of MS 447’s seats to those eligible for free or reduced-price lunch; remaining applicants who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch will become part of the larger pool. And students with disabilities will be admitted at a percentage equivalent to their district representation.

What about after admission? The school wants to end tracking the math program to avoid taking a diverse population and immediately segregating it. “Sorting is devastating,” said a former teacher. “Parents cry, kids cry, teachers cry.”

The English language arts department is making an effort to incorporate literature from other countries and writers of color into its formerly all-white canon.

Theila Smith, a science teacher and the school’s diversity coordinator, described projects designed to help students talk about diversity. “It’s important for them to hear different ideas and voices,” she said.

The projects include a take-home survey Smith will use to make a visual representation of the school’s “melting pot,” and a #itooam447 wall, where students share something hurtful that was said to them, promote something positive, or dispel a stereotype. For example, one student posted that there’s not just one way to be black.

Staff committees are looking at ways to support incoming students and to create affinity groups.

Classroom culture, Ward said, already has students learning tolerance and acceptance. “They get to know people for who they are and don’t judge them on appearances,” she said. “It’s good training for life.”

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