No Quick Fixes for Island Middle School

January 21, 2018

Options exist for solving IS 217’s ongoing enrollment issues. But they all come with difficult compromises.

 

[PART 2: SAVING THE MIDDLE SCHOOL: This is the second in a series of articles about the Island’s middle school.]

 

In the early 2000s, in an effort to boost the performance of students stuck in struggling neighborhood schools, the New York City Department of Education (DOE), conceived a plan to give parents access to high performing schools regardless of where they lived.  

 

The policy had a tremendous, almost cataclysmic, impact on enrollment – and consequently funding – at IS 217, Roosevelt Island’s middle school. 

 

Over the course of the next decade, many of the Island’s top students, as well as those with interests in specialized areas, would be drawn off the Island by larger, more prestigious options. Meanwhile, the unusually small zone from which the school could draw students made it almost impossible to fill the increasingly empty seats. 

 

The result is that, a middle school that consistently supported two classes per grade when I was at the school in the late 80s, now struggles to fill just one. This year, the entire middle school enrollment comes to a mere 80 students. This is despite being connected to an elementary school whose enrollment and test scores are on the rise. 

 

And, as the school’s numbers have decreased, so has its funding, making it increasingly unable to offer many of the enticements that larger middle schools offer, including athletic teams. 

 

The question of what to do with the middle school isn’t a new one. But with Cornell Tech’s stated commitment to the school and steady interest in the elementary school, many wonder whether there may finally be enough momentum to enact change. 

 

The question is, what might that change look like? And what compromises would the community – and the school – be required to make? 

 

According to the DOE, PS/IS 217 can hold up to 720 students. At the moment, enrollment is at 625.  

 

Room to Grow? 

 

Although suggestions for fixing the problem differ, there is agreement on one central point: saving the Island’s middle school largely requires expanding it. 

 

At its current enrollment, IS 217 has enough students to fill just one class per grade, and many of those classes are far from full. While the sixth grade class is the largest it’s been in recent years with 32 students, the current eighth-grade class has just 22 students. In fact, the Island’s middle school is one of the smallest in the district. 

 

“The next smallest District 2 middle schools all have three classes [per grade],” says PS/IS 217 Principal Mandana Beckman. 

 

Although the DOE once paid schools according to the number of classes they offered, today, they pay according to the number of students in those classes. This means that a school’s funding may differ from class to class, despite still requiring the same expenses. 

 

“You need about thirty-five kids to pay one teacher’s salary,” says Beckman. “Technically, the middle school can’t stand on its own. We don’t have enough funding for all of the teachers. Growing us bigger would give us more staff.” But, she says, significant growth would be needed. “[Financially speaking], three [classes per grade] would be best.” 

 

But even if the middle school could triple its size, the question would be where to put them. 

 

According to the School Construction Authority, the group that manages the design, construction, and renovation of school facilities, the capacity of the entire school, including the elementary portion, is 720 students. Currently, the school holds 625 students, 545 of whom attend the elementary school. 

 

Growing the middle school to three classes per grade (assuming 35 students per class) would require the elementary school to trim its rolls by at least one class. Even growing less robustly would likely mean giving up some space currently used for specialty classes and enrichments at the school. 

 

“There are no classrooms in the school that sit empty right now,” says Erin Olavesen, president of the school’s Parent-Teacher Association. “Yes, there is room for growth; but at some point something will have to give.”

 

Idea #1: Do Nothing

 

Of all the ideas of what to do with the middle school, the simplest, it seems, would be to do nothing and hope that the school’s rising reputation as a quality elementary school eventually translates into a thriving middle school. Proponents argue that this approach has some precedent already. As proof, they point to the elementary school itself. 

 

Former PTA president Olga Seliger has called the elementary school’s Gifted and Talented (G&T) program transformational. “It made families stay [on the Island]. It changed the entire community.” 

 

Before the G&T program was introduced in the 2009-2010 school year, after significant lobbying by Island parents, Seliger says the elementary school similarly struggled to attract students. To ensure there would be enough bodies to fill the new G&T class, the DOE allowed students from Queens District 30 to also apply. The plan worked. Seliger says more Island parents started considering the school rather than looking off Island. With time, the school’s test scores began improving, as did its reputation.

 

Today, each grade from kindergarten through fifth has three classes – two general education classes and one for G&T students – aside from the school’s fourth grade, which supports four classes – two of each. 

 

Could this growing population not somehow be enticed to stay on? 

 

Some suggest taking a similar approach that worked for the elementary school by creating a separate program within the middle school for advanced students. 

 

Beckman acknowledges that one reason parents leave the school is because they want their kids tracked, meaning the school offers differentiated classes that work at a more advanced level. However, she disagrees with the idea as she believes it creates “a have and have not” environment. “For us mixing up [skills within each class] is the healthier place to be,” she says, explaining that this lets IS 217 teachers group students in different ways – at times with their academic peers and at other times not – to best encourage a flow of ideas from different perspectives. 

 

But she says a larger student body would make it possible to add more advanced options for some of the students. “If we had the capacity to pull kids out for earth science [a high school level course], we would. We would like to do small group-targeted work around skills, but we would need people to take the leap of faith and stay to allow us to develop a program where there are targeted classes, not tracking per se, but extra classes around something specific to their needs.” She describes it as a “chicken and egg” problem. “Parents need to know it will happen before it happens, but I’d need to know I have the money before I can commit.” 

 

Last week, in response to the first article in this series, a group of parents organized an online petition titled, “Pledge Now to Save Our Future." It asks parents to promise to send their child to the middle school. PS 217 parent Lisa Schwartz-Rodriguez says she believes parents are afraid to keep their kids at the middle school because they don’t want to be the first to induce change. 

 

“We need to take the time to educate our families here on Roosevelt Island that having their children attend our middle school will in no way diminish their chances at winning seats at the high schools of their choice in the future,” she says. 

 

The tide could already be turning. This year’s sixth grade, at 32 students, is its largest in years. And with an unusually large fourth grade class waiting in the wings, some believe the middle school’s enrollment has potential to gain momentum, particularly with the school’s growing focus on computer science and its partnership with Cornell Tech, an attractive bonus no other middle school offers. 

 

IS 217 students currently have four project-based computer science units per year, one in each subject for every year of middle school. Most of their peers at other middle schools in the district will only have one unit in their entire middle school career. IS 217 students also attend regular computer coding events led by graduate students from Cornell Tech. 

 

Beckman, however, is less optimistic about the school’s enrollment. She points out that the school had a full eighth grade two years ago, but then smaller classes once again in the following years. “The middle school is not growing,” she says.“More kids selected us last year. But then, not this year. Teachers are putting so much effort, time, and energy into it, but [the enrollment] is not consistent.” 

 

Diane Levitt, senior director of K-12 education for Cornell Tech says she sees all the elements needed for a strong middle school at PS/IS 217. “It’s a special environment there. In my setting, I don’t experience a difference [between students at 217 and other middle school students]. Some kids are doing more complicated work than others, or are more rambunctious than others, but that’s everywhere. The middle school students at 217 are bright, interested, and engaged.”

 

Beckman agrees. “The students have great opportunities because of everything coming together; Cornell Tech support, the teachers, and that they see themselves as one school. That is the voice we are spreading here.” She says she just needs the rest of the community to buy in. 

 

Idea #2: Develop a Niche

 

The fact is, even if every Roosevelt Island student at the elementary school chose to stay at PS/IS 217 for middle school, the numbers might still not add up. That’s because the school’s catchment zone encompasses only the Island. 

 

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. While that number may go up as new buildings are added to the Island, the population would need to grow significantly to fill multiple classes for each grade solely with Island residents. 

 

What this means is that any plan to grow the middle school’s class rolls will also likely need to attract students from beyond Roosevelt Island’s shores. At the moment, nearly all of the elementary school’s Queens students, comprising just over 20 percent of the school’s enrollment, leave for middle school.

 

One way to attract more students would be to leverage the school’s expanding computer science curriculum and its relationship with Cornell Tech to create a specialized middle school that would attract like-minded students from across District 2. 

 

“Being a small school is a benefit, but it’s not enough to attract students,” says second grade parent Irena Durkovic. “I think 217 should not strive to be a middle school for every Roosevelt Island child, but instead make itself a specialized middle school.” 

 

Olavesen agrees. She thinks the middle school’s best hope for improving enrollment would be to make it a small, specialized school that students compete to get into. “I’d like to see 217 ultimately be a selective middle school with a certain percentage of seats reserved for kids who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch and a certain percentage reserved for Island kids. The school needs to attract off-Island kids to make it work.” Olavesen references the Salk School of Science, located in Lower Manhattan, as a model. It was founded in 1995 as a unique collaboration between the New York University School of Medicine and the DOE.

 

The idea would require switching the Island’s zoned school to Upper East Side’s J.H.S. 167 Robert F. Wagner, a middle school with 1,348 students that already attracts a lot of Islanders. Although farther away, Olavesen, a former teacher, believes that being guaranteed a spot at the larger school could benefit those Island students who end up at IS 217 largely by default, by not getting a spot elsewhere. “The extras a school like that can offer might be especially valuable for the student who hasn’t shined academically,” she says. “They have more options to explore their talents.” 

 

According to Olavesen, who recently toured the school, students can participate in competitive sports, chess league, intramural sports, and more. She says about half of the students at Wagner participate in afterschool activities. According to last year’s state test scores, 72 percent of Wagner students scored as proficient in both math and ELA (English Language Arts). By comparison, 38 percent of IS 217 students scored proficient in math, while 42 percent were proficient in ELA. 

 

Changing the Island’s zoned school wouldn’t be easy. That process would need to go through the Community Education Council (CEC), which advises the DOE on school policies. Most of its members are made up of district parents who are elected by PTA presidents, treasurers, and recording secretaries from the elementary and middle schools they oversee. Two are appointed by the Borough president.

 

Asked about the idea of specializing the middle school, Beckman described the concept as “hopes and dreams and ideas.” 

 

“We are not in that conversation,” she says, “but I’d entertain the idea, because from ideas you can grow something. We are trying to solidify the computer science work in the whole building in a coherent sort of way.” 

 

However, she questions whether narrowing the school’s focus is the right approach. “We don’t want to limit our kids to just one track. What do they like? What are their interests? They’re still sponges, putting themselves together. In high school you begin to narrow your interests.”

 

“I think a computer science middle school would be great for our school and for our Island but it is a very narrow interest, and not everyone will choose it,” agrees Olavesen. “But if you’re looking to pull from all of District 2, it could potentially be amazingly successful and even competitive.” 

 

Of course, for Island parents who feel strongly about keeping their middle schoolers close to home, or who flinch at the idea of sixth- and seventh-graders riding the subway into Manhattan every day, a selective middle school that draws enough interest from off-Islanders to become competitive could mean there’s no spot for their student at their neighborhood school. 

 

Idea #3: Shut It Down

 

If a successful way to grow the middle school’s numbers can not be found, is the school’s current situation sustainable? 

 

It’s one question no one seems to have a clear answer to. 

 

At the moment, the elementary school’s robust numbers keep the middle school afloat financially. Additional help comes from the school’s PTA, which fundraises throughout the year to support the entire school’s enrichment programs. For the past ten years, they have also applied for, and received, public purpose funds from the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation to pay for programming from the Salvadori Center, which focuses on project-based exploration of the arts and sciences. 

 

Still, some parents point out that, while the middle school struggles to attract students, the elementary school is in demand. Not only are there waitlists for most Gifted & Talented classes, but the general education program is also almost at capacity. Does it makes sense then to maintain an underfunded and under-enrolled middle school at the expense of the lower grades? These parents advocate the nuclear option: truncating the middle school, and shifting the focus to growing the elementary school.

 

A truncated school doesn’t immediately disappear. Instead, it simply stops accepting new classes, slowly getting smaller with each year until there is no one left. 

 

Truncating a school, though generally an unpopular option, is far from unheard of. This year, the DOE announced it would be truncating another small District 2 middle school, Life Sciences Middle, which it deemed underperforming. 

 

Life Sciences Middle had 62 students in the 2017-2018 school year, and had seen a 47% decline since the 2011-2012 school year. Additionally, Life Sciences’ middle school grades have consistently performed well below the district- and statewide averages. In 2016-2017, Life Sciences’ Middle School had proficiency rates of just 11 percent and 10 percent, respectively, in ELA and math, compared to the District 2 averages of 69 percent and 70 percent, respectively. 

 

For comparison, the current enrollment of our middle school is 80 students. In 2016-2017, our middle school had a proficiency rate of 42 percent in ELA, and 38 percent in math (www.data.nysed.gov). This puts them just slightly above statewide results, though still significantly below the District 2 average. 

 

Beckman says that truncation is not an option that is currently on the table. 

 

“The middle school is staying. It’s not going anywhere,” she says emphatically. “The superintendent supports the middle school. Yes, there are challenges. Depending on who your mayor is, you don’t always know what the DOE will ask you to do tomorrow. But we are dedicated to the school.” 

 

Community Dialogue

 

Everyone I spoke to about solving the middle school’s enrollment problems agreed on one important point. In the DOE’s current culture of competition and “educational branding,” there are no easy fixes for IS 217. 

 

“I genuinely believe it is a systemic problem, given how District 2 has structured middle school choice and the limited capacity of our school to offer what other District 2 middle schools offer,” says Olavesen. 

 

Are Island parents willing to collectively take a leap of faith in IS 217, ignoring the siren call of specialized or more prestigious middle schools elsewhere? Are middle school parents willing to invest not just their children, but financial resources, in the school to fill in gaps left by funding shortages? 

 

Or are we willing to let go of the idea of a neighborhood middle school – a place residents know their children are guaranteed a spot – to turn it into a competitive program with a top-notch computer science focus that could draw students from elsewhere? Could that even work? 

 

Or do we, as a community, choose to focus our resources on further expanding an elementary school that is already attracting students from the Island and beyond? 

 

It’s a conversation many would like to see started in earnest. 

 

Former PTA President Nikki Leopold recalls how the community banded together to add the elementary school’s G&T program. 

 

“To accomplish that vision, we had to stand as a group. The PTA had to stand firm. The G&T program was a PTA-driven initiative. There was a petition we had signed by 300 parents. We really put pressure on the DOE. It was one of the first times I had seen the school be so politically active. “My thought was the G&T, because the school was at a crossroads, would legitimize the general education program, which I think it has. Now we have to turn kids away from it.”

 

“If parents want something different for 217, active lobbying and tough decisions by the community about what we want will be necessary,” says Olavesen, who says she feels frustrated by comments that assume someone else will solve the problem for us. “It’s all pie in the sky, but no one seems to have a solid plan,” she says. “Is it money they are offering? The PTA puts as much money as we can toward the middle school. The DOE isn’t committing to money and neither is Cornell Tech.

 

"Other parents and I have gone directly to the superintendent (Bonnie Laboy) and (Councilmember) Ben Kallos to bring these issues up," says Olavesen. "It takes a lot of work to keep the needs of 217 in the conversation of those in power. No one is concerned about our school but those of us at the school.”

 

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