Two Brooklyn schools prepare for merger that would further student integration

December 11, 2019 Claudia Irizarry Aponte, THE CITY
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This story was originally published on Dec. 11 by THE CITY. 

District 13’s Community Education Council held a public meeting Monday night on its proposal to merge Fort Greene’s disproportionately white Academy of Arts and Letters with P.S. 305, an under-enrolled and majority-black elementary school in Bedford-Stuyvesant, starting in the 2020-2021 school year.

“We see this as an important moment to potentially create a model for integration for the district and the city writ large,” said Ennis Addison, an Arts and Letter parent who backs the merger. “To have frank conversations in the spirit of integration, that feels good.”

The Academy of Arts and Letters is currently housed in a building shared with P.S. 20 on Adelphi Street — a building operating at 145 percent of capacity, according to the city Department of Education.

Arts and Letters’ student body is 42 percent white — far above the 19 percent district-wide average for public schools.

P.S. 305, meanwhile, has space to spare: While it can hold up to 667 students, only 102 are currently enrolled — 66 percent of them black, versus 50 percent district-wide.

Under the proposal, set for a vote next week by the citywide Panel for Education Policy, Arts and Letters would relocate its more than 500 students to P.S. 305.

As for P.S. 305, its students, staff and resources would shift to Arts and Letters. P.S. 305 would “no longer exist as a distinct school option,” according to an Educational Impact Statement released by the DOE on Nov. 1.

Parents at Monday’s meeting cheered calls for desegregating the schools and increasing racial and socioeconomic diversity. Still, concerns persist about funding, teachers’ jobs and other details yet to be ironed out.

Cheers and questions

Parents and other players hope that airing those questions early will prevent the kind of high-profile controversy that greeted an integration plan for P.S. 307 in the district four years ago. Meanwhile, CEC 13 is bracing for a districtwide desegregation effort.

“We have kept this goal at the center of all of our plans and initiatives,” CEC 13 President Ayanna Behin said Monday night. “Our mission is to advocate for all of our schools, striving for equity for all of our children.”

Behin added: “We don’t want to just move bodies from one school to another — we want a full, fair merger.”

Ayanna Behin, Community Education Council District 13 President in Brooklyn, Dec. 10, 2019. Photo: Claudia Irizarry Aponte/THE CITY

Merger-related discussions began in June, with a series of community meetings headed by the DOE — and attended by District 13 members, principals from the three schools and parents — to discuss how to best utilize P.S. 305’s space.

By the fall, DOE officially announced the merger proposal, as Chalkbeat previously reported.

The merger would bring together school communities separated by income as well as race. Some 94 percent of students enrolled at P.S. 305 are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, compared to 22 percent of Arts and Letters students, according to the DOE.

Arts and Letters admits students by lottery and gives admissions priority to low-income students for 40 percent of its seats.

While parents, teachers and staff at all three schools favor the merger, they want “pointed requests for assurance” on a myriad of issues — including staff retention, funding, early childhood education, special education, enrollment and class sizes, and transportation, according to a Dec. 4 letter addressed to the DOE.

Parents also raised questions about how to best meld the school’s educational philosophies: Arts and Letters has a progressive bent focused on project-based learning rather than test prep, while P.S. 305 is a more traditional school.

One idea floated by the Arts and Letters school leadership team, which drafted the letter, is to host social events to bring the school communities together before classes start in September.

Deputy Chancellor Karin Goldmark announced at the meeting that the merged school would be be headed by two principals.

‘The right spirit’

Monday night’s mellow hearing contrasted sharply with fiery school integration discussions elsewhere in the city.

Among those pleased with the plan are parents at P.S. 20, who say a merger would relieve overcrowding at their school.

“We have the right spirit and the right energy,” Lawrence Watford, a member of P.S. 20’s parent-teacher association. “I think there’s a lot to be gained.”

While the DOE announced that $200,000 would be set aside to fund integration efforts, parents are eager to read the fine print — including how long the money will be available. A representative for the DOE declined to give details at Monday’s meeting, saying the specifics are still under discussion.

“My hope is that this will become a funding pilot for integrating schools … that we’re really thinking about this on a policy level,” said Eva Ruiz, an Arts and Letters parent.

The panel will vote on the proposal on Dec. 18, at Prospect Heights High School.

This story was originally published by THE CITY, an independent, nonprofit news organization dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.

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