How to stop the middle school ‘Hunger Games’

A bus driver finds that a change in pay policy will cut take home pay and wants to know what's legal and what's not.
A bus driver finds that a change in pay policy will cut take home pay and wants to know what’s legal and what’s not. Photo Credit: Amtrak

I’ve written in this space about NYC’s “Hunger Games” middle school process because it’s needlessly stressful for 10-year-olds to compete for spots in decent schools. Are the preteen years the best time to learn to “interview well”? Worse, it produces staggering levels of segregation and inequality. But there are solutions.

District 15 includes wealthy neighborhoods like Park Slope, the projects of Red Hook and Gowanus, and the immigrant areas of Sunset Park. Most of the district’s students are poor (meaning, they qualify for free or reduced school lunch) and not white. Yet 76% of the white students are concentrated in just three of the district’s 11 middle schools. Those three schools enroll only 14% of the district’s poor students, according to Department of Education data.

A group of parents in District 15 — where my son attends school — calling itself Parents for Middle School Equity, is working to change that. When the Department of Education told them that parents are happy with the existing process, the group conducted a survey of more than 400 parents and found that it wasn’t so: All but 3% of parents wanted change.

Some possible solutions include the creation of more neighborhood middle schools (but drawing the zones to ensure diversity rather than mirroring residential segregation), controlled choice (allowing some family choice but using district-wide policies to obligate all schools to achieve and maintain a demographic balance), weighted lotteries or an end to the screening process.

The District 15 group isn’t demanding any specific policy yet, though it has petitioned the DOE and the district to explore alternatives. Group members have asked their Community Education Council to fund a session in which experts would explain what has worked in other cities and discuss best practices. So far, district leaders haven’t agreed.

Even if the parents can prod their council into action, Chancellor Carmen Fariña may drag her feet. She has done that when other Community Education Councils, district-level elected bodies representing parents, have settled on middle school reforms.

It’s past time for our city’s leaders to take this problem seriously.

Liza Featherstone lives and writes in Clinton Hill.