When Nicole Feliciano wrapped up a lesson this week on civil rights, she asked her eighth-graders at West Prep Academy to write down their questions about racism on multi-colored notecards. The social studies teacher was heartbroken when she came across one response in particular.
“What kind of person was that lady that talked about our school?” one student wanted to know.
The note seemed like an obvious reference to the viral news footage that has inflamed a present-day school integration debate on the Upper West Side. In the clip, a crowd of mostly white, middle-class parents protest a desegregation proposal that could mean their children are elbowed out of the most sought-after schools in District 3. One particularly angry mother said the plan was akin to telling hard-working students, “You’re going to go to a school that’s not going to educate you in the same way you’ve been educated. Life sucks!’”
The footage doesn’t directly mention West Prep, a tiny school on the cusp of Harlem where most students are black, Hispanic, and poor. But the implication was clear to parents, teachers, and school leaders there: Schools like theirs would not be acceptable to parents like those.
“You hear these things about our school, and that we’re a bad school — at the end of the day, you’re talking about the children who are here,” Feliciano said. “And there’s nothing bad about our students.”
The superintendent in District 3 has proposed to offer a quarter of seats at every middle school to students who earn low scores on state tests. Since test scores are tightly linked to race and class — 84 percent of the district’s lowest-scoring students are black or Hispanic — the plan could integrate schools racially, financially and academically.
The plan is still being debated so the outlines could change. As it stands, the proposal has plenty of backers. But it has also faced pushback from parents who worry that high test scores — achieved most often by the district’s middle-class students — will no longer guarantee families their top choice of middle schools.
Those parents have largely shunned schools like West Prep, clamoring instead for just a handful of others that reliably feed students into the city’s most competitive high schools. Compared to those schools, West Prep has much lower test scores and therefore doesn’t have a track record of sending students to in-demand high schools.
As far as Principal Carland Washington is concerned, those statistics don’t paint a full picture of what’s going on at West Prep. He acknowledges the school has challenges, but says the staff has been set up for those challenges through an admissions process that filters students into two tiers of schools: those that almost exclusively enroll top scorers, and those that enroll everybody else.
“I would much rather everybody call it for what it is: This is a school for the students who are lower performing because we took all the other ones, and put them somewhere else,” he said. “We serve whoever shows up at the front door.”
There’s no getting around it — West Prep’s scores are far lower than more competitive middle schools. Only a third of West Prep students passed state English tests in 2017, compared with 60 percent across the district. In math, 13 percent of students passed, compared with 54 percent districtwide.
Their unimpressive test scores, though, don’t show the progress many West Prep students have made since arriving there. Washington said about 90 percent of students start sixth grade already behind grade level. City data shows that 43 percent of students who entered West Prep with low test scores improved their performance on state math tests — about double the results of schools with similarly needy students. In English, 83 percent of students showed progress, compared to 53 percent.
“I’ve heard things like, ‘Well, they didn’t work hard. And my kid did.’ That kind of stuff, it really breaks my heart,” said Cidalia Costa, who helps recruit for the school. “Because we see our kids, and we see our parents, and we see them working hard. And they’re more than just a number that we attach to them.”
That’s why, when a recent New York Times story referred to West Prep by little more than its test scores, Feliciano dashed off a four-page defense of the school where she has taught for about six years. She is the social studies department chair and proud of her national board certification, which hangs on her classroom wall along with her degrees.
A main question from concerned parents is whether schools like West Prep can serve students with a range of academic abilities well in the same classroom. Feliciano says that’s already happening.
In her eighth grade social studies class, Feliciano is using a high school curriculum to teach students about the Little Rock Nine, who integrated an Arkansas high school back in 1957. The class moves briskly, with a large red countdown clock constantly buzzing: There are three minutes to brainstorm definitions of racism, another three minutes to write examples of how it remains embedded in society, and five minutes for students to discuss their ideas with each other. The students don’t need to be coaxed to raise their hands or contribute.
“Isn’t racism based on fear?” one student asked. “It’s, like, the fear of the unknown.”
Some of the students in Feliciano’s class are strong test takers and perform on grade level. Others have been placed there after showing enough progress in isolated special education programs to join their peers in a mainstream classroom. Everyone is learning the same content, but with little tweaks built into each lesson to help push the struggling students along. She may flash a checklist of instructions on the electronic board to help them stay on task, or give some a chart to organize their work while others tackle assignments independently.
“We’re not just showing up here, babysitting kids, and watering down the curriculum, and teaching the alphabet and phonics,” Washington said.
School staff say it’s unfair to divorce student performance from the way students are sorted into middle school. In District 3, there are no attendance zones assigned by address. Instead, families apply to the schools of their choice. Most middle schools in District 3 are screened, meaning they admit students based on factors such as test scores, attendance, or even a personal interview. West Prep is one of the few schools that is unscreened, meaning it accepts anyone who applies.
Every year, West Prep puts on a show at middle school fairs, where parents come to learn about their options. Costa brings fistsful of balloons and hauls in computer screens that flash the school’s selling points: It’s small and offers a full marching band, performing arts program, and Regents coursework to give students a headstart on their high school classes and credit towards graduation. And because many of its students come from poor families, it does this on a shoestring budget compared to schools that have powerhouse parent organizations — like Booker T. Washington, which raised about $600,000 last year, according to tax forms.
Costa sees that the district’s most selective middle schools don’t have to put nearly as much effort into recruitment. West End Secondary School, one of the district’s most sought-after, had almost 600 applications last year for about 70 seats. West Prep could take in 100 more students, if only they would come. The school serves about 200 students, taking up two hallways in a building shared with a pre-K and elementary school.
“It’s really hard to change or shape people’s hearts and minds when we have a population that’s really, very needy,” she said. “It just seems like we had the cards stacked up against us.”
Despite all the controversy, the District 3 proposal is not likely to change much for West Prep or most of the other local middle schools. A simulation of admissions offers, based on last year’s application data, shows that West Prep would admit three more students who passed state tests. Most of its new students, 74 percent, would still come with low test scores. Similarly modest changes are expected across the District, with most high-scoring students still packed into just a few schools.
That doesn’t mean it’s not worth a try, said Shamel Flowers, whose son is in seventh grade at West Prep. Overwhelmed by the middle school application process, Flowers settled on West Prep almost immediately after the principal welcomed her for a tour. She was looking for a place that would challenge her son academically, but also support him during what can be a tough transition in adolescence.
Since the debate has unfolded in District 3, Flowers said her son has come to her with questions.
“He’s wondered if this is a race issue. He’s wondered is it a class issue,” she said.
This year, 88 percent of District 3 students with top scores on state tests got one of their top three middle school choices. That was true for students with the lowest scores only 55 percent of the time. Taking the first step towards giving students more options would send a powerful message, Flowers said.
“Every child should have the right to choose a school where they want to be and that school should be open to having them,” Flowers said. “We need to break down the wall that’s there.”