The city’s strategy to allow local communities to write their own “diversity and integration” plans got off to a rocky start in Queens last week.
In District 28 — which covers neighborhoods from Forest Hills and Rego Park south to Jamaica — parents, students and teachers are to map out a plan to bring greater racial balance to its middle schools.
The district is to serve as the test for the rest of the borough and a meeting last Thursday was billed as the first informational session of the deliberations.
But when scores of angry parents were locked out of the event because the meeting room — legal capacity, 112 people — was not big enough, tempers frayed.
“They were mad,” said Elizabeth Crowley, the former councilwoman and candidate for borough president who found herself among those locked out.
“How many times did we hear this meeting was about inclusion and community and democracy. And they locked people out?”
Meanwhile, inside the meeting room at a Department of Education building in Downtown Jamaica, parents made it clear they did not want to see their children forced to go to schools in other neighborhoods for the sake of what some called a “social experiment.”
“You’re pitting families in Queens against each other because there are not enough good schools,” said one parent, John Schaefer.
Emblematic of the mistrust between parents and the DOE was the announcement at the meeting that a community “working group” with the critical power of approval over the final proposal had been selected and held its first meeting the night before.
But the names of the members would not be made public because of “privacy issues,” said Akina Younge, a consultant with WXY Studios, which was hired by the DOE to coordinate the creation of the plan.
The DOE did not respond to emails asking for further information on the working group this week.
The initiative to bring more diversity to the city schools system has been a priority of Mayor de Blasio and Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza.
Both men have pushed for an end to the specialized test used to determine admissions to the city’s “elite eight” high schools which has resulted in student enrollments that are overwhelmingly white and Asian.
But state law and stiff parent resistance have thwarted those plans.
Now, their attention has turned to reforming admissions standards for middle schools, which feed high school enrollment, and eliminating gift-and-talented programs, which also require a test for admission.
Both changes are within the city administration’s power to do unilaterally.
District 28 has jurisdiction over 13 middle schools with success rates that range widely in terms of test score results. Five schools are rated as above the state average, according to the website greatschools.org. All are in Forest Hills, Rego Park or Kew Gardens.
Four are rated the same as the state average and four others are below.
About half the district is black or Hispanic. Just under one-third of students are classified as Asian and 16 percent as white.
Earlier this year, in District 15 in Brooklyn, which covers Park Slope, the DOE tried out a plan that eliminated academics and neighborhood zones as standards for admission.
Despite assurances from DOE officials at last week’s meeting, parents voiced deep concern that District 28 would end up with a similar plan — and that the process of sampling ideas from outside the school establishment was, as one parent put it, a “manipulation.”
“If we are going to say to the families in South Queens that the only way to get a good education is to send your kids to north Queens, that is an embarrassment,” said Schaeffer, who lives in Forest Hills.
“If we’re going to be honest here, most families in Rego Park, in Forest Hills, are not going to put their kids on extensively long commutes for the pleasure of attending a subpar school. It just doesn’t make any sense.”
Parents from the southern parts of the district appeared just as reluctant.
“Why aren’t we — instead of spreading out all the inequalities — focusing on the schools in the south, build the schools up in the south with the basic, necessary tools students need,” said Lorraine Reid, mother of a student at Redwood Middle School in South Jamaica.
“You cannot use a blanket diversity plan to educate all students. Our students are not cookie-cutter products.
“We’re from different cultures. My child does not learn like someone else’s child,” Reid said.