Last month during a DOE Admissions Town Hall I listened to dozens of moms and dads advocate for the continued screening of NYC public school students, even though we have been given a unique opportunity to change course. Their arguments were old and uninspired: our kids have been led to believe, they say, that if they worked hard, they would be rewarded with access to the best public schools in the city. It’s not fair to change course now. Plus, screening students enables schools to develop rigorous curriculum otherwise impossible in a classroom of mixed-ability students.
What we parents need to understand, though, is that screening is an access issue, not an academics issue. When we screen kids, we’re not filtering for the smarter ones — we’re filtering for the ones whose parents have the time, energy, and networks necessary to navigate the screening process. I know, because my son now attends a screened middle school, and so many things had to fall into place for us to gain access to this process and for him to ultimately be accepted. I needed colleagues who had DOE insight, in particular, around the necessity of 8th grade Regents exams without which he could all but forget about higher level math and science classes and in turn, AP classes and college credit. I’d been living in NYC for ten years, working with and building programs for lots of teenagers from low-income homes, and even I didn’t know this crucial fact about Regents exams. How’s a parent supposed to know this? I’d been working in education for over a dozen years, and even I didn’t know to ask. Moreover, I needed to have a job that gave me the tools and flexibility I needed to tour over a dozen middle schools during work hours. I also drew upon my college education to dig up and make sense of the data I was looking at and leaned heavily on my whiteness to ask school leadership the probing, sharp questions. The inequity I’d been battling against in my professional life came face-to-face with the absolute privilege I held at each turn in the road.
Screening is not an academics issue. It is an access issue. I’d even go so far as to say that when we screen, we’re leaving the high-performing students out. After all, how hard is it to study and learn when you have vibrant books and state-of-the-art technology in the classroom and limited distractions at home? It’s not so hard. We miss the point when we argue that kids deserve screens. They don’t. Kids deserve doors. Just imagine what we can accomplish when we focus less on how to keep them out and more on how to bring them in.
Stephanie Fiorelli is the mother of a 7th grade public school student and the Deputy Director of Alumni Success at the Urban Assembly.