“I’m a data person,” says Pamela Mills, a brisk Hunter College professor with a Ph.D. in theoretical chemistry. Back in 2000, test-score data led Mills and her wife, Eda Kapsis, to buy a two-bedroom co-op in the P.S. 321 zone in Park Slope. More recently, as Owen Kapsis reached fifth grade, the data drove the family somewhere else—into the general panic over competitive middle-school options in District 15, which stretches from the Slope and Cobble Hill to Sunset Park and Red Hook. On paper the district is more mixed than most: 40 percent Hispanic, 26 percent white, 16 percent black, and 16 percent Asian. But as Mills could readily see, the balance failed to translate to individual schools.
By the late 1990s, District 15 had replaced neighborhood middle schools with “choice,” a process with deep roots in New York City. It’s a yearlong gauntlet that kicks off in fourth grade with the state’s make-or-break standardized tests. Fifth grade is swallowed by tours, open houses, forums, and fairs in autumn; applications, more tests, and interviews in winter; assignments and appeals in late spring. Children and schools are aligned by algorithm via the city’s Department of Education. It’s like the matching program for medical residents, but for 10-year-olds.
As Mills began crunching her numbers in 2012, they just didn’t add up. A growing population within the district targeted three high performers: M.S. 51, the Slope’s traditional mainstream choice; Math & Science Exploratory, a younger, smaller, hotter entry; and New Voices, an audition-based school. In aggregate, they enrolled one child for every seven applications. (To make the squeeze even tighter, students could apply to only two of the three; it’s unheard of to get an interview unless you rank them first or second.) Based on Mills’s calculations, there were almost 1,500 proficient readers in Owen’s cohort in the district, but only about 900 desired seats. Even after the perennial exodus to private schools, one in five P.S. 321 families could be without a spot they wanted.
Marge Keiser, the parent coordinator at P.S. 321, has guided ten classes of parents through the middle-school process, “and it’s more agonizing every year.” But most Park Slope parents lived in “an elementary-school bubble,” she says. Surely their child was too bright and well behaved to get passed over.
Mills, however, was trained to weigh contingencies. She began hunting for a plan B.
If the city’s narrative du jour is the race and class divide, it is nowhere more pointed than on Seventh Avenue in the heart of Park Slope. Here you will find Owen’s alma mater, ultrahigh-performing P.S. 321, a bland, tan, boxy brick building that lifts real-estate values in its zone. A powerhouse PTA budgeted close to a million dollars last year to fund enviable programs in the arts and keep class size manageable. Three of four students are white; barely one in ten gets free or reduced-priced lunch.
Three blocks down the street sits a century-old, five-story French Renaissance monument: dark brick, gray sandstone, terra-cotta trimmings. It’s the building that once housed John Jay High School, a.k.a. “Thug School,” a.k.a.—in the casual racism of the day—“Jungle Jay.” In the 1970s, as the Slope’s more prosperous residents flew from it en masse, the school began to gain a reputation as a crime-ridden dumping ground for high-needs, underserved children. In 2001, as John Jay was phased out, District 15 merged three existing schools onto its campus. Bill de Blasio was a member of the district’s school board; Carmen Fariña, the superintendent tasked with making the hybrid work. Board president Mark Peters promised “a world-class high school, a local high school that we can all send our children to.”
The reality was chaos in the corridors and paralysis at the top. By 2004, the three schools were split again. Few high-performing students of any color were assigned to them. Two principals say the DOE failed to disburse the start-up money they had coming. (The DOE disputes this.) The aging edifice continued to decay; the middle-class-retrieval campaign was aborted. The biggest obstacle, Peters says, was “to get a community that’s fearful of John Jay into John Jay.”
Today the campus remains notorious as a land of low test scores and high police presence. The top-floor occupant, Park Slope Collegiate, serves grades 6 through 12 and is 79 percent black and Hispanic. Four of five Collegiate students get a subsidized lunch; the great majority live outside Park Slope, in more affordable precincts.
As the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education nears this May, the dichotomy on Seventh Avenue mirrors a national trend. After three decades of high-stakes testing and market-driven federal education policies, according to Gary Orfield of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, classrooms in the United States are less integrated today than they were in 1968. Last month, Orfield’s think tank found that public schools in New York State are the most segregated in the country. In New York City, more than half the school districts are categorized as “intensely segregated,” with a white enrollment of less than 10 percent. Thanks in part to the expansion of charters—most of them classed as “apartheid schools” (less than 1 percent white)—black elementary and middle-school students in the city are more racially isolated today than they were in 2001, the year before Michael Bloomberg took office.