Saving the Middle School

January 6, 2018

The elementary school on the Island has waiting lists of parents hoping to get a spot. So why, then, are so many parents fleeing the same middle school? How an effort to increase choice has left our neighborhood school fighting to survive.


[This is the first in a series of articles about the Island’s middle school.. See Part 2 here. ]


At the beginning of December, fifth graders across New York began the mysterious and nerve-wracking process of applying for a spot at one of the City’s hundreds of middle schools, each submitting a list of up to a dozen schools where they’d like to spend the next three years. 


If recent history serves, however, only a handful of those lists will include PS/IS 217, the public middle school on Roosevelt Island. 


Despite its connection to an elementary school that, by all metrics, is on the rise – with surging enrollment and rising test scores – the Island’s middle school, which is housed in the same modern building and run by the same administration, perpetually struggles to fill a single class per grade. In fact, a mere 75 students are currently enrolled in grades six through eight (the grades that comprise the “IS” portion of “PS/IS 217”). 


At a November meeting of the Roosevelt Island Community Coalition, City Council Member Ben Kallos announced that, although the NYC Department of Education has decided to phase out and eventually close Life Sciences Middle School, another District 2 school, located on East 96th Street, they declined to do the same for our middle school, IS 217. That comment marked the first time a City official has publicly acknowledged the often-whispered idea of closing the Island’s chronically under-enrolled middle school. 


I grew up on the Island and graduated from IS 217 back in 1990, when the school was considered the jewel of District 2. Back then, there were two classes per grade, for every grade, from kindergarten through eighth. (At that time, the grades were grouped together in a series of mini-schools spread around the Island.) While there wasn’t a gifted and talented (G&T) program in the elementary school when I was there, there was an accelerated program in place for seventh and eighth graders in math and science. Students in the program were eligible to take Regents examinations in both of those subjects, effectively taking ninth grade math and science in eighth grade. In short, it was largely assumed that a fifth grader at PS 217 would continue on to sixth grade at IS 217. 


From my eighth grade IS 217 yearbook.


But when I moved back to Roosevelt Island a few years ago with my own family, I was shocked to find the school in a vastly different position. Today, most Island parents, even those who champion the elementary school, don’t consider it for their own rising sixth graders. I was told by almost everyone I met that I should plan to send my three kids, all currently students in PS/IS 217’s elementary school, off the Island for middle school. 


So what had changed (besides everything) since 1990?


The Choice System


When I was entering middle school in 1987, most students attended the school that was assigned, or “zoned,” to their home address. This is still the system used by most school districts across the country. 


In 2002, citing the stark disparity between the quality of schools in different parts of New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg took over the Department of Education (DOE) and began a series of reforms, including changing the method by which students get placed in the City’s middle schools. His solution was to force schools to compete for students while allowing students a shot at accessing the best schools, regardless of their home address. 


As a result of this new “choice system,” most students are no longer guaranteed spots in their local school, but are guaranteed a spot somewhere in their district. 


In late fall, every fifth grade student must apply to middle school, even if they want to stay at their current school. Students rank their choices based upon programs offered at the school (some schools offer more than one program; for example, a school may have both international studies and technology programs) and different programs at the same school may have different admission priorities or requirements, including auditions, test scores, and interviews. Students can apply for up to 12 programs in total. 


Ideally, a student is matched by an algorithm to one of the programs they selected on their application, but a match is not guaranteed. If you do not match to one of the programs ranked on your application, you are placed in a school you are eligible to attend within your district.


Which is where IS 217 comes in. 


The Island’s school theoretically serves as both a choice school and a more traditional zoned school. Anyone living within its zone – which includes only Roosevelt Island – can attend the school, with priority given to existing students. Students from off-Island can choose to rank the school as one their preferences; however, that very rarely happens.


One result of the new choice system is that, in an effort to attract the best students possible, many middle schools in the district have sought to brand themselves with specialties.


“In the past ten years, the DOE created more middle schools [in District 2] and they added choice,” says PS/IS 217 Principal Mandana Beckman. “The new middle schools all have some kind of attraction. You’ve got East Side Middle (a STEM school), Salk School of Science, Clinton School for Readers and Writers – all of these schools with these niches.”


In District 2 – which encompasses Roosevelt Island, as well as Manhattan south of East 96th Street and West 59th Street, but excludes the Lower East Side – there are 28 public middle schools to choose from, as well as charters and schools that are open to students citywide and boroughwide. Among them, there’s a specialty for just about every interest. 


M.S. 255 Salk School of Science, for example, is a collaboration between District 2 and the NYU Medical Center. Students can visit an anesthesiology lab or learn about cloning cows from an expert. Teachers can access a database with over seventy research scientists, professors, and doctors willing to give a presentation or assist with lesson planning. NYU graduate students volunteer as mentors, offering homework help and social support for struggling students. 


In addition to an academic focus on science and technology, East Side Middle offers students a robust afterschool program. It includes debate, Model UN, robotics, computer coding, theater production, and sports teams, such as basketball, track, girl’s softball, boy’s baseball, soccer, volleyball, and fencing. Applicants must interview to be accepted; a writing sample and math test count for 40 percent of the total grade. 


Artistically inclined? In addition to its academics, Ballet Tech trains dancers, many of whom have gone on to perform professionally with Alvin Ailey, American Ballet Theatre, and Dance Theatre of Harlem. 


The result of these expanded offerings, say administrators and educators, is that many high-performing students, as well as students with interests in specialized areas, have been drawn off the Island by larger, more prestigious options. At the same time, the school’s unusually small catchment zone leaves it scrambling to make up the difference. According to the DOE, Roosevelt Island had 149 middle school-age kids attending a New York City public school for the 2015-2016 school year. Only 60 of those were enrolled at IS 217. 


And as the school’s numbers shrank, so did its ability to offer many of the enticements that larger middle schools could offer, including athletic teams and afterschool clubs.  




Generally speaking, schools are funded according to the number of students in each class, not by the number of teachers it requires. Therefore, a school gets less money for a class of 24 students than it does for a class of 32, despite still having to pay the same amount for the teacher’s salary. 


“Technically, the middle school can’t stand on its own,” says Beckman. “We don’t have enough funding for all of the teachers.” 


Although the middle school has four teachers – one each for English, math, science, and social studies – as well as a guidance counselor and gym teacher, Beckman says that the middle school’s low enrollment means it really only brings in enough money for three. 


This means that the elementary school’s robust numbers are needed to keep the middle school afloat financially. Additional help comes from the school’s Parent-Teacher Association (PTA), which fundraises throughout the year to support the school’s enrichment programs.


“From the biggest stuff to the littlest stuff, the PTA has been helpful,” says Kim Eldridge, the middle school guidance counselor. Beckman also points out that the older students get, the more expensive they are. “You spend more per pupil on middle school students than elementary ones.” 


Middle school guidance counselor Kim Eldridge, left, and principal Mandana Beckman.


Beckman says the middle school’s tight purse strings force her and her staff to be creative with the school’s resources. “We want clubs and interesting things for the kids to explore, so we’ve embedded clubs during the day based on teacher talent and interest,” she says. “We want kids to have a larger peer group, so we mix grade levels for gym, music class, and advisory. We provide the middle school experience on a smaller scale. But there are services we want to provide, such as sports teams, that we just don’t have enough staff – or students – to provide.” 


In an effort to understand what draws Island parents away from IS 217, the school’s PTA president, Erin Olavesen, says she tours other middle schools in our district to observe what the different schools’ approaches to teaching and learning are. “I try to figure out what is literally selling these schools to parents.” 


Recently Olavesen toured Upper East Side’s J.H.S. 167 Robert F. Wagner, a middle school with 1,348 students that attracts a lot of Islanders. She noted that Wagner offers its students a long list of extracurriculars, including competitive sports, a chess league, and intramural sports. “The list went on and on,” she says.


The enrichments IS 217 does provide include wrestling, weightlifting, and band. The school also partners with organizations such as Cornell Tech, Main Street Theatre & Dance Alliance, and the Salvadori Center to provide additional residencies for the students. Additionally, for the last two periods of the week, students participate in a rotating roster of teacher-led clubs, including the art of filmmaking, forensics, tennis, sustainability, coding and robotics, and art. The school also has a yearbook committee.


Still, Beckman acknowledges that the school can’t compete with all of the extras a large middle school can offer. “There’s only so much I can ask from these teachers. They work incredibly hard.” 


According to the principal, even if the school were to retain all of its fifth graders, it still would be unable to offer many of the programs that people leave for. To afford to do that, says Beckman, the school would need three classes per grade in the middle school. However, that sort of growth would require a significant reduction at the elementary school, a compromise Island parents may be unwilling to make. 


Test Scores


Another factor that often works against IS 217 when it comes time to select middle schools, is the school’s state test scores. 


While the elementary school’s third and fourth graders score on par, if not better, than many other elementary schools in the district, the scores drop precipitously in middle school. 


Last year, 42 percent of the middle school’s students scored at grade level or higher in the state English Language Arts test (a significant increase from the previous year’s average of 25 percent). That puts them above the state average of 40 percent, but below the District 2 average of 68 percent. 


In math, 38 percent of the students scored proficient (up from 35 percent). The state average in math was 34 percent, which the district average was 65 percent.


Diane Levitt, senior director for K-12 education at Cornell Tech thinks the middle school’s test scores have become a self-fulfilling prophecy.


“The potential for a great middle school is there;  it’s the same leadership that’s giving you this great elementary school experience. It will give students a great middle school experience if they stay.” 


Eldridge agrees. The counsellor says she sees the impact the Island talk and student flight has on the middle schoolers’ perceptions of themselves. The students who have stayed begin to internalize that rumor, she says. “There’s a lot of, ‘We’re not as smart as …’ going around the building. But there are a lot of amazing kids here.” 


One factor, Eldridge explains, is the school’s high population of foreign students. Thanks in part to the Island’s proximity to the United Nations and its reputation as a safe neighborhood, PS/IS 217 has a large number of English-learners. They make up over 11 percent of the school population. “That doesn’t mean they’re not bright kids,” she says. But tests can be hard for them. Because the school is so small, students new to the country or who are going through other issues in their life have a larger impact on the school’s perceived performance. 


“We don’t have the numbers to buffer against those students, and the threes and fours [the higher achievers] get overshadowed,” she says. With a lot of students, the effect of English language learners on standardized test scores can be buffered a bit. In a small school, they have a significant impact.


Cornell’s Lab


“Test scores don’t give you the whole picture of a school,” Olavesen says. “They don’t necessarily reflect what’s happening in the classroom.” 


Something often missing from the picture of the school’s academic offering is PS/IS 217’s growing relationship with Cornell Tech, and the fact that, unlike any other school in the City, computer science is embedded in every classroom at the school.


As part of Cornell Tech’s community commitments, the graduate school located at the southern end of the Island has been working with PS/IS 217 to build a computer science curriculum with the teachers. As Cornell Tech’s lab, PS/IS 217 offers computer science (CS) throughout the entire school at a rate and in a way that far exceeds the DOE mandated CS for all, says Levitt . Computer science at the school is embedded in every subject, instead of offered as a stand-alone course only offered once during the three years of middle school.


In the middle school, each teacher works with Cornell Tech in some way and computer science is embedded in every subject, including english and social studies. Social studies teacher Andrew Buttermilch, for example, recently worked with Cornell Tech associate professor (and elementary school parent) Tapan Parikh on an Island history project that relied on computer science tools. Their students created an oral history project regarding immigration to show the cultural evolution of Roosevelt Island. Of the PS/IS 217 community Buttermilch said, “We are fortunate to have such a diverse community. It’s such an asset, such a value.” 


“A variety of constraints have conspired against the middle school, none of which is the leadership,” says Levitt. “After nearly four years of working with Beckman and [Vice Principal Jennifer] Allen, I am moved and impressed by their commitment and their deep affection for every one of those kids.”


Strength in Community


For all the drawbacks the school’s size presents, its teachers say there’s one thing IS 217 can offer that most other school can’t: attention. 


“We get to see what it is that lights [a student’s] fire because of our small size,” says Eldridge. 


Because there are only four teachers, the same instructors take on all three grades. For math teacher Alisa Sorokurs, this means she has an opportunity to build on what she’s learned about each student, rather than just passing them on to another teacher. “You know what works with a student, and can be more effective,” she says. “You have them for sixth grade, and see what works. Then you can be that much more successful with a student in seventh and eighth based upon actual experience with each student.”


IS 217 middle school teachers are (l-r) Emily Wong for science, Nicole Andrade for ELA, Andrew Buttermilch for history, and Alisa Sorokurs for Math.


“The middle school teachers get to know the kids really well,” agrees Beckman. “When you talk about how challenging those years are – and they are – our teachers make those relationships and build upon them from year to year.” 


Comfort with the school’s administration and small setting was a major reason parent Janine Shaefer decided to stick with IS 217 when it came time to choose a middle school for her daughter, Olivia, who is now in eighth grade. 


“She was still such a little girl to me; I didn’t want to send her off the Island to another school,” says Schaefer. “I thought, ‘Why not keep her here? This is her community.’ In sixth grade, there were 22 kids in the class. That’s like private school. If I were to send her to Wagner, I thought she would just get lost in the shuffle.”


Shaefer’s daughter was part of the first G&T class to go all the way through the elementary school from kindergarten through fifth grade. “That was a wonderful experience,” says Schaefer. “I couldn’t have been happier. I really felt she was challenged.” 


In middle school, however, without as many high-performing peers to compete with, Schaefer worries that her daughter hasn’t been pushed to her fullest. Still, she says Olivia has seen the benefit of having a longer relationship with the teacher. “Her social studies teacher and English language arts teacher, in particular, are amazing. They know what the kids need. They are giving more to the kids who can handle more. They really work together.”


According to Eldridge, the school’s small scale also lets students feel like an integral part of the community, giving them opportunities to take on responsibilities they may not get in a larger setting. In IS 217’s case, it gives middle school students an opportunity to “give back,” and “go back.” Some middle school students work as teacher assistants, while others volunteer at the elementary school. “Our kids want to be part of something,” says Eldridge. “They are smart kids. They are good kids.”


For Sorokurs, who has a third grade child at PS 217, the social aspect of a small school is essential. “The community that is part of a middle school is so important when so much is changing for the children themselves. Parents don’t always think about that, but it affects their learning. The more community and comfort you have with your teachers, the better. It’s a big plus.”


“When you only have 75 kids, you’re meeting the needs of kids in a different way,” agrees Beckman. “You can meet your needs in a small school or a big school. We have to get away from ‘this is the one model’, or ‘the right model’; the kids are happy here.”


Although the school doesn’t offer a separate track for accelerated students, Sorokurs says that all of the teachers track within the classroom to make sure they are meeting students where they need to be academically. She says some of her students do take the algebra Regents Examination, the statewide standardized examination taken, and that 85 percent of those who take it, pass it. 


Still, Shaefer wonders if it’s enough. Now at the end of middle school and applying for high school, Schaefer admits that she second-guesses her decision. “For G&T students who are used to being challenged and pushed, I think maybe they’d be better served somewhere else,” says Schaefer. “One class can’t meet every students needs.” 


Beckman, however, sees a benefit to keeping the classes as diverse academically as possible. “I think there is a benefit for kids to learn from each other. And studies have shown that, in middle school, you need the greatest academic diversity – and that’s what we have here, for kids to excel and learn from each other.”


Beckman says, “The families that do believe in our middle school and stay here, those families have a great experience.” Beckman says that being part of a small school can give motivated students a leg up in high school admissions. “The competition is different here. Kids typically get into their top five choices of high school.” Students from last year’s eighth grade class saw students move on to schools like the Bard High School Early College, Brooklyn Technical High School, New Design High School, and Urban Assembly School of Design and Construction.


In the end though, says Olavesen, it’s about perception. “Parents want ‘the best.’ We can’t be everything to everyone.” 


Status Quo


By all accounts, solving the issues at the Island’s middle school will be no easy feat. Stuck in a choice system without the resources it needs to compete aggressively with neighboring schools, change is unlikely to come without active lobbying from parents and, most likely, some tough decisions by the community. 


According to the numbers, PS/IS 217’s elementary school enrollment has risen steadily over the last ten years. Most elementary classes are close to capacity, and there’s a wait list for many of the school’s G&T classes. 


Could this growing population not somehow be enticed to stay on? Some point to this year’s sixth grade, which has 32 students – its largest in years – as proof that things may be changing. But any significant growth in the middle school, could come at the expense of the elementary school, because of space, and funding. 


Detractors ask whether, with an in-demand elementary school, it makes sense to maintain an underfunded middle school. Or should the school remain small but switch entirely to a specialized school – perhaps with a computer science focus – to better compete for students across District 2? 


Are Islanders willing to make a choice? 


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