Parents in Brooklyn’s District 20, including Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights, Borough Park, Sunset Park, and parts of Bensonhurst, have called for a return to merit-based middle school admissions.
In 2020, former Mayor Bill de Blasio cut the number of specialized programs in these districts known for producing high-achieving students from eight to three. The reduction was part of a move to diversify student bodies. However, parents argue that the current system, which de-emphasizes grades and test scores, is unjust to talented students.
Parents held a rally at PS 170 in Bay Ridge to voice their concerns. They criticized the district leadership’s decision to switch from a system based on academic performance to a lottery system for students with average grades above 90.
District 20 is notably one of the city’s highest-performing districts.
They claim the changes have led to lengthy waitlists of up to 800 students for top schools and forced many students to attend schools outside their district, with parents alleging that school officials are ignoring their concerns. Steve Stowe, a parent present at the rally, said, “We need more action, less talk.” Stowe, who is the Community Education Council president for the district, organized the rally.
Critics of the new system argue that it has adversely affected diversity and integration, while supporters maintain that it upholds academic standards. Many parents, including a significant proportion of first-generation immigrants, have voiced a preference for a merit-based admissions process. Yi Feng Chen, a parent that moved her child to another district after he was waitlisted, said, “Parents, myself and the large, first-generation immigrant community within the district, we want admissions based on merit.”
Previously, District 20, which has more than 50,000 students, offered eight of these specialized programs. However, the current policy has reduced that to three while reducing the number of sixth-grade seats from 800 to 600. Advocacy groups estimate that the district needs close to 2,000 seats based on student test scores.
The debate over this issue is not limited to District 20, with a citywide survey by the Parent Leaders for Accelerated Curriculum and Education group revealing that 85% of respondents oppose reducing middle school screens.
Meanwhile, District 20 Superintendent David Pretto showed readiness to address the parents’ concerns after complaints that he was ignoring them, saying he is keen to discuss plans to expand accelerated learning to benefit all students. Pretto stated, “I look forward to discussing plans to make sure the expansion of accelerated learning that warrants academic screening is implemented in a way that is lasting and works for all kids.”