This story was originally published on Jan. 29, 2020 by THE CITY.
A citywide educational panel on Wednesday night unanimously approved a proposal to move the Academy of Arts & Letters, a disproportionately white school in Fort Greene, into P.S. 305, a majority-black elementary school in Bedford-Stuyvesant.
Some Arts & Letters parents and education experts praised the consolidation of the two District 13 schools, which will take effect next school year, calling it a positive move toward school integration.
The merger is likely to be closely watched as the city struggles with the huge ongoing challenge of desegregating its school system.
“I’m still taking it in, it’s taken months to get here,” District 13 President Ayana Behin, an Arts & Letters parent herself, told THE CITY shortly after the final vote. “There’s a lot of work to be done next: getting the communities in the merged school to get to know each other and to really start to blend the communities thoughtfully.”
Arts & Letters is currently housed in a building shared with P.S. 20 on Adelphi Street — a building operating at 145% of capacity, according to the city Department of Education. Arts & Letters will relocate to P.S. 305’s Monroe Street building, which is currently at 16% capacity.
While P.S. 305 Principal Pilar Ramos was at the meeting, she did not speak, and no parents from the school made any public comment.
P.S. 305 is a neighborhood pre-K through fifth grade school for kids living within a specific area near it.
Arts & Letters is a highly sought-after, lottery-based kindergarten- through eighth grade school drawing from students across the district, which also includes Downtown Brooklyn, Prospect Heights and Clinton Hill.
Arts and Letters’ student body is 42% white — far above the 19% district-wide average for public schools. At P.S. 305, 66% of students are black, versus 50% district-wide. Some 94% of students enrolled at P.S. 305 are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, compared to 22% of Arts and Letters students, according to the DOE.
🔗‘More of a Takeover’
The new school will just be called Arts & Letters and PS 305 will no longer exist as an option beginning in the 2020-21 term.
For the first two years of the new combined school, children from low-income families currently zoned for P.S. 305 would get priority for half of the 40% of Arts and Letters’ seats already reserved for low-income students. After that, nearby residents would no longer get priority for those seats.
The P.S. 305 zone will be redrawn, with its blocks added to other nearby local schools, officials said.
According to a Dec. 19 educational impact statement, all teachers and administrators at Arts & Letters and P.S. 305 should be able to keep their jobs. The DOE will also seek to have the merged school run jointly by both the former school’s principals, in response to concerns from parents and other stakeholders.
The proposal didn’t address the impact on future students who reside within the new zone lines, which District 13 approved in mid-December.
That was a concern one P.S. 305 parent raised at a Dec. 3 hearing, who said the proposal felt like “more of a takeover than a merger,” according to minutes of that meeting.
“It’s something that I think needs attention so that parents in the P.S 305 zone have access after the merger,” said Arlen Benjamin-Gomez, the senior director at the Center for Public Research and Leadership at Columbia University, which has been advising the state Department of Education on school integration efforts.
“Without really thinking that through, then the merger can be an expansion of Arts & Letters rather than an effort to increase integration in this district, and to make sure students in that old zone have access to high-quality schools.”
Discussions about the merger began last June at the DOE’s instigation. District 13 officials facilitated a series of community meetings involving principals from the three schools and parents to discuss how to best use P.S. 305’s space. By the fall, the DOE officially announced the merger proposal, as Chalkbeat previously reported.
The months-long engagement process that followed involved parents at all three schools along with administrators and faculty.
“This is a product of a lot of engagement in District 13 that they’ve done with parents and teachers,” said Benjamin-Gomez. “That was the right strategy, to refine the merger plan based on community feedback.”
Behin told THE CITY that district leadership is aware of the zoning concerns and will address them moving forward: “It’s a problem that we’re going to work to address in a working group, and it’s a problem that I think can be addressed through open and real conversation.”
🔗‘Not Just Moving Bodies’
Parents and stakeholders who spoke at the meeting Wednesday patted themselves on the back for the “open and transparent” public review process, as described by Arts & Letters PTA President Darius Charney.
“We believe that by merging Arts & Letters and P.S. 305 we will be taking meaningful steps toward ending student segregations in our schools,” Charney told the panel.
The proposal also includes $200,000 in additional funding “to support the merged school’s integration efforts,” according to the educational impact statement.
The merger vote was tucked into a Panel for Educational Policy meeting with a packed agenda, including new regulations for pregnant and parenting students. Also at the meeting were a group of protesters calling on Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza, who was present, to fire a school board member who called publicly referred to Asians using a racist slur.