Middle Schools Face Concentrated Poverty and Gaps in Opportunity, Report Finds

Students at the Christa McAuliffe Intermediate School 187 in June. A report released on Wednesday shows just how challenging it will be for New York City to address middle school segregation.

As New York City’s middle schools emerge as the focus of desegregation attempts, a report released Wednesday highlights just how much work there is to be done.

About a third of the city’s roughly 600 middle schools serve overwhelmingly poor students, and more than half of the city’s low-income adolescents are clustered in just a quarter of middle schools, according to the study from the New York City Independent Budget Office.

Low levels of academic achievement in schools with highly concentrated poverty have long plagued urban school districts, and decades of interventions have not produced clear solutions. Studies have shown that breaking up those clusters of poverty could help improve schools across the board.

Over the last year in particular, parents, activists and city officials have pointed to segregation in middle schools as a contributor to the persistent achievement gap between white, Asian and middle class students and their poorer peers, who are often black and Hispanic.

Parent groups in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and on Manhattan’s Upper West Side have proposed new middle school admissions policies in the hopes of curbing segregation before students enroll in sixth grade. Parents in Upper Manhattan and central Brooklyn are experimenting with similar plans of their own.

But the report shows just how challenging it will be for the city to address middle school segregation across the school system.

The Independent Budget Office studied more than 158,000 students from 279 middle schools between 2013 and 2014. It considered students low income if they live in poor parts of the city, in neighborhoods with above-average levels of violence, or in neighborhoods where adults have low levels of education and have low incomes.

The researchers found significant opportunity and achievement gaps between students at schools with high levels of low-income students and those with a wealthier population. Several of the 25 middle schools identified as having the lowest numbers of poor students — schools where fewer than 17 percent of the student body come from low-income homes — send a sizable portion of their students to the city’s specialized high schools, which require a test for admission. At least 20 percent of students at five of those schools were offered admission to a specialized high school.

Just over half of eighth graders at one of the schools with the fewest poor children, the Salk School of Science in Manhattan’s Gramercy Park, received an offer to a specialized school.

None of the schools with the smallest populations of poor students are in the Bronx, but 22 of the 25 middle schools with student bodies that are at least 93 percent poor are there.

Several of those schools are among city’s worst-performing: eight are in the city’s Renewal program for struggling schools, and two have been closed by the Department of Education for poor performance since 2014.

A more integrated school system could help combat the ills of housing segregation, activists say, by offering children early opportunities to travel outside their neighborhoods and meet peers from other parts of the city.

Even opponents of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s proposal to scrap the specialized high schools exam in favor of a system based on class rank and test scores that would admit more black and Hispanic students have called on his administration to address segregation and uneven academic performance in the middle schools.

The schools chancellor Richard A. Carranza, has already approved the desegregation plan on the Upper West Side and has indicated that he will approve one for District 15, which includes Park Slope.

When told of the report’s findings, Will Mantell, a department of education spokesman, said that the city was “investing in a comprehensive equity and excellence for all education agenda to provide students with high-quality instruction at every New York City school. Working towards more diverse and inclusive schools is a key part of that agenda.”

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