A system that is separate is not equal

by the Friends of PS 305

A merger between zoned school P.S. 305 and lottery school The Academy of Arts and Letters in the NYCDOE’s District 13 could soon become official. The Panel for Educational Policy will cast the deciding vote on January 29th. The plan has been celebrated as a model for integrating public schools but many believe that expanding selective enrollment options in the DOE represents a step backwards in its mission to bring equity and excellence to all. 

If the proposal goes through, Arts and Letters will move from its current site in Brooklyn’s Clinton Hill neighborhood into the site of P.S. 305 in Bed-Stuy. As an unzoned, K-8, lottery school, Arts and Letters is sought after for its progressive philosophy and arts-rich programming. Its study body is 40% White, 30% Black, 15% Latinx and 6% Asian; 28% of students are identified as having “Economic Need.” P.S. 305 is a traditional zoned school where all children in the neighborhood are promised a seat. Its student body is 70% Black, 14% Latinx, 7% White and 6% Asian; 93% of students are identified as having “Economic Need.” The merger proposal specifies that P.S. 305 will no longer exist as a distinct school and that its current zone will be no more.  The surrounding zones will be re-drawn to absorb future P.S. 305 students. They will attend nearby schools P.S. 3, P.S. 44, P.S. 93 and P.S. 256. By next year, neighborhood children will no longer be promised a seat at P.S. 305. Arts and Letters will accept students via lottery, reserving 40% of its seats for low income students and only a portion for students in the P.S. 305 zone. 

The merger proposal reads, “In accordance with the recommendation of the working group, the NYCDOE is proposing to merge Arts and Letters with P.S. 305 based on benefits students at both schools would derive from combining the strengths of both school communities, specifically with regard to robust enrollment and programming, diversity and space.” Arts and Letters is overcrowded and P.S. 305 is full of unused classrooms. P.S. 305’s low building occupancy is in part due to the DOE’s removal of Satellite East Middle School which had occupied the entire second floor until this school year. When the Satellite East re-sitting was announced last year families and teachers in P.S. 305 were unsure of their fate. A letter was circulated to parents stating that their children would be assigned to new schools at the end of the 2018-2019 school year. While it turned out to be erroneous, damage from the letter was done. Many felt uncertain of the school’s future and questioned if sending their children back was a good idea. Neglecting to mention these facts when discussing P.S. 305’s low building occupancy suggests that it could be due to a problem with the school’s staff or students. That is hardly the case.

It stands that P.S. 305 is under-enrolled and the addition of more students and resources are welcome. But, only the current generation will be grandfathered into Arts and Letters to benefit from those assets. The majority of future P.S. 305 students will be rezoned to neighborhood schools which also lack necessary resources to provide the type of programming Arts and Letters boasts. For this reason, the seats Arts and Letters will offer to low-income and neighborhood children feels more like a bargaining chip to avoid being labeled a gentrifier than a genuine attempt at integrating resources into a disadvantaged school zone.

To be sure, anyone can enroll in Arts and Letters, so long as they can manage the lottery process. While this is true, lottery schools enroll a disproportionately high amount of white and economically privileged families relative to the proportion within the entire district. Arts and letters is no exception. If this were not the case, lottery schools would not adopt quotas to ensure a minimum of low income students to occupy (or diversify) their rolls. The involved application process serves to filter parents with means from the rest. To apply, one must navigate information online, monitor deadlines, attend events and fill out forms. Clearing these hurdles requires a degree of free time, internet access, frustration tolerance and money that too many parents lack. For parents who do not have paid time off, who do not speak English, who do not have childcare, who lack reliable access to a computer, who have children with special needs or who shoulder an unfair share of New York City’s affordability crisis, these hurdles are too high.  Zoned schools like P.S. 305 automatically enroll neighborhood children. There are no special dates to mind, meetings to attend or applications to fill out on a deadline. This exemplifies the public school ideal. All schools should welcome all students within a reasonable distance with open arms and a mandate and the resources to provide a quality education. 

The lottery hurdles are by design; set up to attract families with greater means to choose public schools over private ones in hopes of spillover benefits for the system at large. Rather than fully funding all public schools, selective enrollment options placate families with relative privilege and political clout. Selective enrollment schools invite families to supplement budget shortfalls by pooling their private resources which in turn earns them greater control over the curriculum and educational ethos of their school. The flip side of this process is that zoned schools become concentrated with families who are unable to make up for the NYCDOE’s failure to fully fund public education and are less entitled to determine what goes on in their child’s school. 

All schools should welcome all students within a reasonable distance with open arms and a mandate and the resources to provide a quality education. 

It’s a tragedy that public schools are so under-budgeted that many are not able to provide art, dance and music programs or hire additional personnel without financing from the PTA. A recent report documents the significant differences in per-pupil spending between schools based on PTA fundraising. The PTA of Arts and Letters raised $1,287 dollars per pupil while P.S. 305 raised none. The schools where future P.S. 305 students will be going have PTAs with similar fundraising levels. Essentially, students attending schools with PTAs that are unable to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars are penalized. This is what an opportunity gap looks like– and why the term “achievement gap” is invalid. The city’s and state’s indifference toward the educational aspirations of low income communities is evident in the lottery school system. More funding for schools is so desperately needed along with a way to deliver it equitably. 

The NYCDOE serves a growing population of students with relatively advantaged backgrounds. Possibilities for sharing assets equitably across race and class divides are more ripe than ever. To expand selective enrollment schools now would be taking a step backwards. It’s a move that would further entrench our two-tier education system which places children on a hierarchy. Students in the upper tier enjoy enhanced academic experiences while those on the lower persevere with substantially less. The lottery system must ultimately be dismantled to raise an equal playing field for all children, as the mayor’s own School Diversity Advisory Group recommends.

It was not long ago that public schools legally practiced discrimination against children of color, ethnically diverse children and children with disabilities. The civil rights movements of the 1950’s and 60’s ended “separate but equal” public education. They spurred a disability rights movement that birthed Special Education as we know it today with a Supreme Court decision as recent as 1975.

Separate isn’t equal, that is beyond a doubt. As we continue to reform de facto segregation in our schools and shed the system’s legacy of discrimination the question must be raised: does expanding seats in selective enrollment schools align with that mission? 

The proposal to merge P.S. 305 and Arts and Letters was not made lightly, to the credit of the CEC 13 and the NYCDOE. They facilitated conversations and meetings between parents and employees of Arts and Letters, P.S. 305 and the district. Yet, they failed to solicit input from community members who will be negatively impacted by this down the line. Power dynamics, politics and marginalization conspired to bury the opinions and beliefs of those who stand in strong opposition to selective enrollment schools that become tools of gentrification by displacement. Our hope in voicing this opinion is to sway the PEP to reconsider expanding a lottery school option in District 13. We hope the PEP will recommend an amended proposal that merges P.S. 305 with Arts and Letters and remains a zoned school or moves to become one in the next few years.

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