Park Slope Collegiate Confronts the Unintended Consequences of a Brooklyn Diversity Plan

Photo credit: Keith Williams

When Park Slope Collegiate opened 16 years ago in the old John Jay High School building in Brooklyn, its founders vowed to make sure race and class integration would become a deliberate part of its mission. Even as more white, affluent families from the surrounding Park Slope neighborhood began enrolling in recent years, its student body resembled the city’s public school population, three-quarters of which is low-income.

But this fall, more white, middle-class students enrolled in the sixth grade than any other year in the school’s history. Ironically, the changing demographics come in the wake of a new parent-driven initiative to eventually bring more racial equity to every District 15 school in Park Slope.

As a result, the school may be in jeopardy of losing its eligibility for federal Title I poverty funds. “That’s going to significantly impact schools like ours,” said Principal Jill Sandusky. “We are predominantly working class.”

The district includes neighborhoods that range from affluent, predominantly white areas in Park Slope and Carroll Gardens, to poorer communities of color in Red Hook and Sunset Park. There are also mixed-income neighborhoods, such as Kensington and Gowanus. Overall, District 15 had the third lowest percentage of poverty citywide last year, behind Districts 2 and 3 in Manhattan, according to city data.

The new plan calls for students in the district to apply to its 11 middle schools, rather than be assigned by their addresses. Selective screening criteria has been abandoned, replaced instead by an open lottery. Fifty-two percent of the seats are reserved for needy students. Priority would be given to children who speak English as a second language, who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, or who live in temporary housing.

The result this year was a more even distribution of the district’s increasing population of white and affluent children across its schools. But for Park Slope Collegiate, the plan meant to boost diversity ended up making its entering sixth grade class less diverse.

The middle school’s student government advisor, Michelle Orchard, spotted the difference immediately. “The first day of school, it was very” — she paused — “noticeable.”

In 2018, over two-thirds of Park Slope Collegiate’s student body was low-income, according to the most recent state data. Of this year’s sixth graders, less than a third are considered underprivileged, according to school records.

This surprising drop in low-income students poses a new and unexpected problem for Park Slope Collegiate. It is now in danger of losing its federal Title I poverty funding. To be eligible for these funds in Brooklyn, a school must serve a population where 60 percent or more families qualify as low-income.

Park Slope Collegiate has met this threshold every year, but is now at risk of not qualifying. Students are counted based on October’s roster, which the school no longer has access to. Half of a million dollars, the equivalent of eight teachers with funds leftover, are on the line, said Sandusky.

To hold onto this critical Title I funding, the principal and parent coordinator scrambled to make sure every family filled out the appropriate income eligibility forms, which the city uses to assess need.

“We’re pulling them out of their classes to get in touch with their parents,” said Sandusky, “It’s really disruptive to the learning process. You’re in the middle of algebra and your principal’s coming in, and then you think that you’re getting in trouble because the principal’s there.”

Plus, going child-to-child “isn’t the best use of my time,” added Sandusky, who in addition to her administrative duties also has lunch with students every day and converses with them in the halls.

Meanwhile, the parent coordinator was still calling parents and scanning forms on the last day of school in December, when they were due. “I was hoping they’d count,” said Steffen Nelson. School administrators agreed that Nelson bore the brunt of the headache.

After months of constant reminders via email and phone calls, the education department has been silent since the family income forms were due. “They’re in a hurry to get the information from us,” said Nelson, “but not to relay the information to us.”

School budgets are released in March, so Park Slope Collegiate anticipates hearing from the department by the end of this month. If the school ceases to qualify, the department could extend the funding for a one-year grace period.

While Park Slope Collegiate waits for answers, the school’s leadership is questioning the configuration of the Title I program.

Title I funds are absolute; grants are either given, or they are not. “I don’t know why it’s all so all-or-nothing,” said Sandusky.

Also in question was the percentage of students who must be low-income for a school to qualify for the program. Eligibility varies based on family size.

For this school year, the federal education department requires that in all states except Alaska and Hawaii combined incomes need to be beneath $39,461 for a household of three or $47,638 for a household of four. “Which we know in NYC will not even pay your rent,” added Nelson.

These cutoffs were decided when Brooklyn was a very different place. The cost of living was more affordable; demographics have changed. 

The federal standard is that children from low-income families make up at least 40 percent of enrollment. “They should probably lower the number here in Brooklyn,” said Nelson.

If the funds are lost, Park Slope Collegiate will have to adjust its budget, find other sources of money, or a combination of the two approaches. A proposed substitute is PTA funding, but Park Slope Collegiate has a unique policy for donations.

 “We’re probably one of the few schools that says we don’t care how much you donate,” said Sandusky. “We care about everybody participating in some way.” Sandusky is wary of a couple families donating large sums of money and then expecting different treatment.

Alongside Park Slope Collegiate, other schools might also be affected, including the three other middle schools in the district that benefited from funding last year. 

“Integration costs money,” said Nelson. “The government should be funding these integration efforts.”

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