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In praise of the District 15 diversity plan

New York Teacher

Middle school is an important pivot point in the life of a child. It can be the place where they establish the habits of mind and heart that last a lifetime. Or it can be the place where children go off track — academically and emotionally — with potentially serious consequences for their success in high school and beyond. How can we ensure that the middle school experience benefits and uplifts every New York City public school student regardless of race and income level?

The District 15 Diversity Plan, which the city approved on Sept. 20, is an important step toward that goal. The ambitious plan addresses the economic segregation that persists in the middle schools of Park Slope, Sunset Park and Red Hook in Brooklyn.

These neighborhoods encompass everything from brownstones to public housing, and are home to white, African-American, Asian and Latino families. Yet students have been funneled into middle schools that reflected little of that diversity.

Most children attend schools with children who look just like them and have similar family incomes. Access to opportunity has been closed off for too many students in District 15.

Under the new plan, screening in District 15 middle schools will be eliminated. No longer will grades and attendance determine who enters a particular middle school. By eliminating screening, District 15 hopes to create a system that doesn’t concentrate struggling students in particular middle schools while reserving the most successful schools for the high achievers.

Fifth-grade students applying now for 2019 admissions in District 15 will rank their middle schools by choice; the city will attempt to place every student in their first choice but if more applicants exist than seats, entry will be decided by lottery.

About half the seats in each middle school will be reserved for low-income students, English language learners and students in temporary housing.

Care has been taken throughout the plan to consider the needs of all students. For example, 5th-graders in a dual language program will be automatically eligible for middle school dual language programs; students with disabilities will get priority in schools that are barrier-free.

Our classrooms should look like the diverse world we live in, and there is ample research documenting how diversity benefits all students, no matter their race or economic background.

A 2016 report by the Century Foundation found a growing body of research that indicates “the benefits of K–12 school diversity indeed flow in all directions — to white and middle-class students as well as to minority and low-income pupils.” Enhanced creativity, openness to new information and better decision-making are just some of the benefits that have been documented among students who learn in a diverse, integrated setting.

Just as important, the District 15 plan calls for an assessment of all middle schools to address disparities in resources and provide programming to address the range of learning abilities in the classroom. Every middle school should have the ability and resources to work with any student. The city has promised $500,000 to support the plan’s implementation.

District 15’s plan was developed from the ground up. It was initiated by parents and shaped through a collaborative process that involved dozens of meetings throughout the district to ensure that as many voices as possible were heard. This kind of grassroots commitment to change is different from top-down government plans of the past that placed the burden on students of color and their families to be pioneers in majority-white districts.

The city has granted $2 million to encourage other school districts to create their own diversity plans. District 15 could very well be the model for how we deliver fairness and greater opportunity to all middle school students throughout New York City.