Education

What happened when Brooklyn tried to integrate its middle schools


Angel Angon Quiroz and Sophie Rivas, both 11, navigate their opening days in middle school in Brooklyn. This is the first year of a diversity plan, meant to better balance the schools demographically, which affected both students and the middle schools they’re attending. (Yana Paskova/For The Washington Post)

NEW YORK — On the first day of sixth grade, at his new school in a new neighborhood, Angel Angon Quiroz, 11, sat by himself in the corner of the cafeteria, wondering if he had made a mistake.

Students at Angel’s old elementary school overwhelmingly come from poor and Hispanic families. Now, a new integration plan in Brooklyn had placed him at a middle school called the Math & Science Exploratory School. It was popular with affluent families, but would he fit in?

“Everyone else knows each other, but I know none of them,” he said. “We are all puzzles, and I’m the only puzzle who doesn’t fit.”

Sophie Rivas, who comes from one of those affluent white families, badly wanted to attend Math & Science or one of her other top choices. Like Angel, she ranked Math & Science first on her school lottery application, but because Angel’s family is low-income, he had priority. Sophie did not.

Instead, Sophie traveled to Sunset Park, where Angel lives, to a school she had not heard of until she found out she was placed there. She arrived to find she was one of the only non-Hispanic children in her class.

Better days would follow for Sophie and for Angel, too. But on the first day of school, she came home and collapsed in tears. “It was just overwhelming,” she said.

The racial makeup of middle school students in

District 15

Sophie Rivas lives in predominantly white Cobble Hill and attends Charles O. Dewey Middle School. Angel lives in majority Hispanic Sunset Park and goes to Math & Science Exploratory School.

Students, grades 6 to 8

White

Hispanic

Black

Math & Science

Asian

Cobble Hill

Other

Red Hook

BROOKLYN

Park Slope

Prospect Park

Sunset Park

Charles O. Dewey

Green-Wood Cemetery

Borough Park

0.5 miles

The racial makeup of middle school students in District 15

Sophie Rivas lives in predominantly white Cobble Hill and attends Charles O. Dewey Middle School. Angel lives in majority Hispanic Sunset Park and goes to Math & Science Exploratory School.

Students,

grades 6 to 8

White

Hispanic

Black

Math & Science

Asian

Cobble Hill

Other

Red Hook

BROOKLYN

Park Slope

Prospect Park

Sunset Park

Charles O. Dewey

Green-Wood Cemetery

Borough Park

0.5 miles

Coast to coast, America’s urban schools remain divided by race, 65 years after the Supreme Court declared segregated schools inherently unequal. Schools in many small towns are now more integrated than in most big cities.

New York City, with more than 1 million students, is far and away the nation’s largest school district — and one of its most segregated. Resistance to integration dates to the 1950s, when mothers in Queens staged an early demonstration against busing.

Now, in fits and starts, the city is becoming a laboratory of experimentation, examining whether it’s possible to tackle the stratification that courses through urban districts.

First, Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) tried — and has so far failed — to overhaul the admissions process for eight elite specialized high schools, which admit few black or Hispanic students. He is now considering a recommendation for a citywide plan to eliminate most gifted and talented programs, which attract a disproportionate number of white and Asian students.

In Lower Manhattan, an integration plan for elementary schools is in its second year, and another diversity plan is under discussion for seven elementary schools in Brooklyn. The schools chancellor says tackling segregation is a priority. And on Thursday, the New York City Council approved a measure requiring every school district in New York City to create an integration plan.

“New York City is really at the forefront of the school integration discussion,” said Richard D. Kahlenberg, an expert on integration at the Century Foundation, a think tank that promotes integration. Kahlenberg, who serves on a city panel appointed to look at the issue, said the sheer number of ideas under discussion or in development is encouraging. “That’s unusual in a country where separate but equal is the primary education strategy.”

Now, all eyes are on the middle school plan in Brooklyn and a more modest version that took effect this fall in Manhattan. Success could buoy the chances for other, more ambitious efforts. Failure will surely set them back.

It won’t be easy, chiefly because the status quo has worked for the most affluent, powerful families by giving them considerable control over where their children attend school. Changing the rules is a fraught and emotional proposition that pits the societal imperative of giving all children access to high-quality schools against parents who are seeking the best education for their own kids.

Under the old system, criteria set by each school played a big role in deciding who went where. Certain middle schools required high test scores and excellent behavior ratings from elementary school, and affluent families gravitated to them. Over time, various schools won reputations for excellence, and with each passing year, their incoming classes grew whiter and wealthier.

Take Math & Science, the school Angel entered this fall. Last year, 33 percent of incoming sixth-graders were English-language learners or came from poor families, and it was that high because the school had begun a version of the diversity program two years earlier.

Meanwhile, at Charles O. Dewey Middle School in Sunset Park, where Sophie is enrolled, that figure was 95 percent.

Last spring, Angel and Sophie were among about 3,700 fifth-graders who entered the middle school lottery and were affected by the new diversity program in District 15, one of 32 districts in the New York City school system. Their situations are very different, though. Both children were allowed to rank their choices for middle school, but Angel’s choices were given more weight as the district worked to balance each of the school’s populations.

Under the new plan, family preference still matters, but 52 percent of sixth-grade seats at each school are reserved for children from poor families or for those learning English, reflecting the demographics of the district as a whole. The city’s goal is for each school to include 40 percent to 75 percent priority-group students by the program’s fourth year.

Preliminary enrollment data released Thursday showed that eight of the district’s 11 middle schools hit that target this fall. The portion of children from priority groups increased at Math & Science and other schools that have been most popular with affluent families. The portion of priority-group students fell at some other schools, including M.S. 88, which Angel’s sister attends. At Dewey and another Sunset Park middle school, the numbers barely changed.

Changing enrollment patterns as district seeks better integration

Before the 2019 school year, New York City District 15 set a goal for each middle school to enroll 40 to 75 percent priority-group students by fall 2021.

2018

2019

Charles O.

Dewey

95% priority-group

92%

Sunset Park Prep

Charles O. Dewey

89%

Sunset Park

Prep

83%

M.S. 88

Goal range

60%

M.S. 88

56%

M.S. 51

Math & Science

48%

M.S. 442

34%

M.S. 51

33%

Math & Science

26%

M.S. 442

Priority-group students are low-income, English-language learners

and/or living in temporary housing.

This data is unaudited and likely to change.

Changing enrollment patterns as district seeks better integration

Before the 2019 school year, New York City District 15 set a goal for each middle school to enroll 40 to 75 percent priority-group students by fall 2021.

2018

2019

95% priority-group

92%

Charles O. Dewey

Sunset Park Prep

89%

Sunset Park Prep

Charles O. Dewey

83%

M.S. 88

Goal range

60%

M.S. 88

56%

M.S. 51

Math & Science

48%

M.S. 442

34%

M.S. 51

33%

Math & Science

26%

M.S. 442

Priority-group students are low-income, English-language learners and/or living in temporary housing.

This data is unaudited and likely to change.

Backers say the change is an improvement for everyone and note that the plan was developed with extensive community input.

In Park Slope, Liz Phillips, principal of the elementary school P.S. 321, said children used to feel enormous anxiety about where they would be admitted. Some parents, she said, spent every parent-teacher conference lobbying for higher grades in hopes of getting their kids into the most selective middle schools.

Her counterpart at Sunset Park School, principal EuJin Tang, said that under the old system, many of her fifth-graders would not even consider applying to the district’s highest-ranked schools. Two years ago, Tang said, her school sent 10 students to M.S. 51, which some consider the most elite middle school in the district. This year, she said, 55 were admitted.

“I had families in tears [of joy] when they looked at where their children were going,” she said.

This sort of plan is possible only because a significant number of middle-class and wealthy families live in the area covered by the integration plan, Kahlenberg said. If there are too many poor kids, he said, meaningful integration is not possible. By Kahlenberg’s calculations, integration is possible in nine of the city’s 32 school districts.

Others caution that it won’t work anywhere if affluent parents leave the public schools. When Mike Bloomberg was mayor, he worked to attract and keep these families by giving them considerable control over school placement. If you take that power away, these parents may choose private schools or to move, said Joel Klein, schools chancellor under Bloomberg.

“If you look at many urban school districts, you will find they are overwhelmingly minority because the middle class has already moved out,” Klein said.

In Brooklyn, many families, affluent and poor, were happy with their placements when they were announced last spring. But 45 children were assigned to Charles O. Dewey, the middle school Sophie is attending, who had not included it anywhere on their ranked list of choices. Enrollment figures indicate most of those students did not show, moving to private or charter schools, or perhaps leaving the district. The percent of kids from priority groups enrolled in Dewey’s sixth grade class went from 95 percent last year to 92 percent this year.

Anita Skop, the district’s superintendent, acknowledged the numbers at Dewey fell well short of the goal, but she said she hopes they will improve. “Do I think it’s all going to happen in one year? No, it’s not,” she said. “That doesn’t mean it’s not working.”

Preliminary enrollment data show the overall racial makeup of District 15’s sixth-grade class this year barely changed, with no sign of heightened white flight from the public system. White children made up 31 percent of all kids last year and this year.

Didier Louvet’s son was assigned to Dewey but opted not to go. He had participated in a French immersion program during elementary school, and the family was devastated he was not placed at the middle school with a French program they were expecting him to attend.

Soon after receiving news of his son’s placement, Louvet, like all other parents whose children had been unexpectedly placed at Dewey, received a call from Dewey’s principal at the time, Eric Sackler. Louvet was not persuaded by the principal’s promise to create a French immersion program at Dewey. Rather, based mostly on test scores, he saw Dewey as an unsuccessful school.

His concerns were not related to race or ethnicity, he said. But he said he wanted his son educated with kids more like him in other ways.

“It’s not a question of just the color of your skin. Some kids are driven. Some kids are less driven. Some kids are smart. Some kids are less smart. Some kids are going to make the effort, and some kids are not going to make the effort,” he said.

Louvet enrolled his son in a private school.


Sophie Rivas, 11, and her mother, Carolyn Rivas, initially were concerned when they learned where Sophie had been assigned for middle school. (Yana Paskova/For The Washington Post)

Tears and then a decision

When she was in fifth grade, Sophie Rivas and her parents debated which of the most popular middle schools to rank first on her application that would be used in the lottery. Sophie, a quiet girl with straight blond hair and braces, really liked M.S. 51, the school many of her friends were ranking first. Her parents preferred New Voices School of Academic & Creative Arts, the school her older sister attended, or Math & Science, where her other sister went.

They considered which schools would best nurture her love of reading and writing, what sports were offered, whether uniforms were required. Sophie visited seven or eight schools before ranking Math & Science as her top choice.

On April 15, Sophie’s friends were excitedly texting about where they had matched. Sophie began frantically calling and texting her mom to find out her result. Carolyn Rivas, Sophie’s mother, had logged into the system from work and saw her daughter was placed at Dewey, a school they knew almost nothing about.

Carolyn went home to share the news, and when she walked into their Cobble Hill apartment, Sophie burst into tears.

Carolyn then met her husband, Andrew, at a bar to talk through the situation. She feared his emotions might unsettle Sophie even more. They wanted to present a unified front and decided the message to their daughter would be: “You’re a great kid, you’re a great student and you’re going to be fine.”

Carolyn was also a mess. A first-grade teacher at Sophie’s elementary school, she began calling anybody she could think of to try to get Sophie into a different middle school. She investigated the appeals process. She put Sophie’s name on the waiting list for a charter school. Her husband, Andrew Rivas, grew concerned. “You have to stop emailing people, and you have to stop crying,” he told her.

Then, Carolyn got a call from Sackler, the principal, who addressed some of her preliminary concerns. Sackler also came to their elementary school and met with the parents of kids who had been placed at Dewey. He told them about Dewey’s international travel program and its arts and photography classes. He explained that test scores were low because so many families were juggling complex lives in poverty, often with parents who don’t speak English.

As the meeting concluded, Andrew texted his wife: “Maybe we shouldn’t appeal.” They toured the school and were impressed with the teachers. They still had concerns but decided that unless the city granted their appeal, which seemed unlikely, Sophie was going to Dewey. She had one friend, Anna Leale, going with her.


It didn't take long for Sophie Rivas, 11, center, and her friend Anna Leale, 10, to settle into their new school, Charles O. Dewey Middle. (Yana Paskova/For The Washington Post)

“We started to think, ‘Why are we living in New York City?’ ” Carolyn said over the summer. “She has an opportunity to have friends who aren’t from her neighborhood, whose lives are different from hers. I want her to see not everyone in New York City lives the way she lives.”

On the first day of school, Sophie dressed in her black polo with the Charles O. Dewey crest in the corner and a khaki skirt, the required uniform she had dreaded, and waited with Anna for half an hour for the school bus the district had promised. It never came. Anna’s mother, Allison Leale, took the girls to school by subway.

That evening, Sophie was unsettled but didn’t have specific complaints. She was still anxious about a Spanish immersion program her parents chose, in which science would be taught in Spanish some days. Her class appeared to be filled with native Spanish speakers, but she knew no Spanish.

Sophie said she wasn’t sure how she felt about being one of the only non-Hispanic white children in her class. “I think it was a new feeling for you, and that may be why it’s hard to name,” Carolyn said to her daughter. “New York City is actually majority black and Hispanic.”


An adolescent ritual at Charles O. Dewey Middle School in Brooklyn: comparing shoes. (Yana Paskova/For The Washington Post)

On the third day of school, the bus still had yet to come. (It came on day four.) Waiting in a drizzly rain, Sophie’s stomach was hurting. She didn’t want breakfast; she was confused about which bathrooms were open when, and she feared not having one available when needed. Her mom brought her a Tums and an umbrella to the bus stop, and promised to email the guidance counselor to straighten things out. “Have a good day,” she said. “I love you so much.”

On the subway ride to school that morning, Allison Leale ran into a father from the neighborhood who railed against the diversity program. “How about focusing on making those schools better as opposed to doing a social experiment?” he volunteered.

Like Sophie’s mom, Allison had toured Dewey and had come around. After confirming Sophie was attending Dewey, she gave up a last-minute seat she had secured for her daughter at a charter school. “Dewey is a superior school,” she said. “I was just blown away by it.”

In math class, Sophie shot her hand into the air with the right answer. In science, she seemed as befuddled as everyone else by the question of whether all of them eat plastic every day. (Answer: Yes, inadvertently.)

By lunch, Sophie was sitting with Anna and a small group of other sixth-grade girls, munching and smiling. The guidance counselor, having received Carolyn’s email, pulled Sophie aside and made her promise she understood where the bathroom was. “Do you pinkie promise?” the counselor asked Sophie. With a big smile, Sophie nodded yes.

Then, Sophie, Anna and their new friends headed to the playground. They chased each other around in a vigorous game of tag, dodging wayward basketballs along the way.


Angel Angon Quiroz, 11, and his father, Alfonso Angon, arrived in September at Angel's new school, Math & Science Exploratory. They came with hopes and a question: Would he fit in? (Yana Paskova/For The Washington Post)

A journey begins

When Angel Angon Quiroz was in fifth grade, his father suggested he apply to the same middle school his sister attended, known as M.S. 88. Last year, 8 in 10 sixth-graders at M.S. 88 came from low-income families or were learning English. His sister also wanted him to go there, “so she can take care of me,” Angel said.

But Angel had been told there were other schools he might like, and he was determined to learn more. Touring them was hard for his father, Alfonso Angon, 39, who works six days a week for a furniture store and speaks limited English. Angel’s mother, who works in food preparation for a restaurant, speaks almost no English. “We don’t use the Internet too much, you know,” his dad said.

He moved to the United States from Mexico around 2002 and met his wife soon after. They decided to stay after two children were born, hoping to give them a better life.

His living quarters grew larger as his family grew. He first lived in one small room, then a larger room. Now, the family rents one half of an apartment in Sunset Park, up a steep staircase. They have two bedrooms — one for the parents, one for the kids — and share the kitchen and bathroom with tenants on the other side of the unit. Money is always tight, he said. “You need to pay for everything over here."

Most Saturday mornings, Alfonso takes Angel to the transit museum in Brooklyn, nourishing his son’s granular knowledge of the New York subway system.

As he considered his middle school options, Angel was a little scared to go to M.S. 88, saying his sister’s phone had been stolen in elementary school and that he feared the culprits were now at her middle school. He also suggested other far less likely scenarios. “What I’m worried about is people are drug addicts and there’s a lot of kidnappers and a lot of kids near schools. I don’t want to get kidnapped.”

Angel decided his first choice was M.S. 447, the Math & Science Exploratory School, the same school Sophie had ranked first. He was admitted.

Over the summer, Angel said he was most excited about students there getting their own lockers and about learning more math.

“Math is a thing that people use throughout their lives,” he said. “When you go to work, everyone will tell you you need to use math to be a cashier, or those tax people who do taxes and all that stuff.”

On the first day of school, Angel woke up at 5 a.m. to shower, comb his hair just right and pack his backpack with binder, notebook, pencil case, two pencils, an eraser and keys to the apartment. Clad in new jeans, new navy dress shirt with white polka dots and new sneakers, he bounded out of his apartment and confidently walked to one subway line and then transferred to another.

But as he waited for the teachers to divide incoming students into classes, he could hear his new classmates chatting and laughing, and he realized he didn’t know anybody. He wondered if he should have chosen M.S. 88.


On his first day at Math & Science Exploratory School, Angel Angon Quiroz was scared. Before long, he was laughing along with other kids in his class. (Yana Paskova/For The Washington Post)

Another sixth-grader, a white girl, saw Angel by himself and approached. “Hey, how are you doing?” she asked. He shook his hand to indicate he was shaky but also smiled.

In his classroom, there was evidence the diversity plan was working: 14 of the students appeared to be white, and 14 were students of color, mostly Hispanic and Asian. Angel was quick to raise his hand with answers, and within the first hour was chatting happily with the boy seated next to him.

When a teacher asked the class how they can each ensure a positive experience for everyone, Angel had a ready answer.

“If someone’s looking down, I’ll go up to them and I’ll ask them if they need a friend,” he said. “If they say yes, I’ll be that friend.”

Angel’s class filed into the auditorium to listen to the principal address all the new sixth-graders. She talked about the book students were supposed to read over the summer (“The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind”) and how there would be group discussions. Angel had missed orientation and had not read the book; he would later catch up.

Then, it was time for lunch. Angel was sitting with a group of boys when suddenly they rearranged seats in a way that left Angel momentarily at a table by himself. Some of these nearby boys had opinions about the new middle-school assignment plan. They mentioned friends from elementary school who didn’t get into schools they wanted even though they had worked hard and received top grades.

“You can work hard and it doesn’t matter at all,” complained Reed Magliano.

Isaac Lazaroff said one of the smartest kids in his fifth-grade class was assigned to Dewey but decided to go to a Catholic school instead. “And she worked really hard,” Henry Bardfeld added. “She won the spelling bee in our class.”

Others had joined Angel’s table, but he was mostly quiet, looking out the window. He had not packed a lunch but said he wasn’t hungry.

“Third Avenue is right here,” he said, orienting himself to the building. “I’m trying to figure out where we are.”


“If someone’s looking down, I’ll go up to them and I’ll ask them if they need a friend,” Angel Angon Quiroz said. “If they say yes, I’ll be that friend.” (Yana Paskova/For The Washington Post)

Moriah Balingit contributed to this report.

Reporting by Laura Meckler. Story editing by Stephen Smith. Graphics by Kate Rabinowitz. Photos by Yana Paskova. Photo editing by Mark Miller and J.C. Reed. Copy editing by Rachael Bolek. Designed by J.C. Reed.

Data comes from the New York City Department of Education.


Credits: Laura Meckler

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