Learning Curves: A New Generation of Parents and Educators Take on Change in Bed-Stuy’s District 16

Shaila Dewan, a reporter for the New York Times who covers the criminal justice system, moved to Bedford-Stuyvesant with her husband in 2012, when she was “very pregnant” with their first child. “I didn’t really know that much about the schools,” she said, “except that nobody I knew went to any of them. I asked everyone, every parent I talked to: Where does your kid go? I asked parents at the playground, I asked parents at stoop sales: Where does your kid go? And it was always someplace else outside the neighborhood.” Ms. Dewan, who describes herself as “pretty much white,” is relatively new to the neighborhood, but the exodus of families from Bed-Stuy’s traditional public schools began more than a decade ago. And since long before that, residents, educators, and policymakers have been debating the question of what ails Community School District 16, which includes the eastern half of Bedford-Stuyvesant, a section of northeastern Crown Heights, and a small portion of Brownsville.

The particulars of displacement, spiking real estate prices and cultural clashes in gentrifying Central Brooklyn are well-chronicled. What has remained under-examined, however, is how these changes have impacted District 16, and how a new generation of parent and school leadership is navigating shifting demographics, politics, and educational preferences.  

“Significant Challenges”

In January 2013, the Brooklyn Movement Center (Full disclosure: Brooklyn Movement Center is the corporate parent of Brooklyn Deep) released Raising the Stakes: Investing in a Community School Model to Lift Student Achievement in Community School District 16, the product of nearly a full year of research conducted among teachers, principals, parents, and students at the traditional public schools of District 16.  BMC reported at the time that in District 16, 98% of the district’s students were Black or Latino, with only 1% being white. Furthermore, a full 80% of the students were eligible for free and reduced school lunch. Raising the Stakes described District 16 as “a chronically low-performing district” with “significant challenges that severely undermine the efforts of Black and Brown families to provide opportunities for their children to thrive educationally.”

Much has changed in the nearly four years since BMC organizers published their investigation, starting with the election of Mayor Bill de Blasio in late 2013. De Blasio’s signature education initiative has been the Community Schools Strategic Plan, which aims to leverage civic infrastructure in neighborhoods like Central Brooklyn to create robust school-community partnerships — just as BMC’s 2013 report had recommended. However, enrollment in District 16’s traditional public schools — as distinct from charter schools, which are publicly-funded but privately-run — has continued to decline at an alarming rate.  

Troubling Numbers

As the school year began this fall, District 16 consisted of 26 traditional schools and 9 charter schools. Enrollment numbers are not finalized until the end of October, but as of October 2015 there were 11,411 students enrolled in kindergarten through 12th grade, including 7,017 in traditional public schools and 4,394 in charters. Last fall, as part of a Brooklyn Movement Center parent organizing initiative, this reporter looked at K-8 enrollment figures over the last 10 years. The research revealed that as traditional school enrollment has gone down, charter school enrollment has gone up, and the trending lines, at their current rate, will soon meet. As a whole, traditional public schools in District 16 were enrolled at just 53% of their total capacity to hold students during the 2015-16 school year.

This spring, when families of four- and five-year-olds in District 16 applied for kindergarten, only 56% applied to their zoned school. (Each elementary school has its own attendance zone, the defined geographic area from where they admit their students. The DOE stipulates that “zoned schools are obligated to serve all students residing in their zone, space permitting,” and “zoned students are entitled to attend their zoned elementary school subject to available seats.”) This was the lowest percentage of any of the 32 Community School Districts in New York City, according an April presentation from the DOE’s Office of Student Enrollment. Because schools are funded according to the number of students enrolled, under-enrollment can seriously threaten a school’s capacity to educate.

What is driving the enrollment decline in District 16? The most obvious answer would be population loss. The under-18 population has been in decline for decades in the area surrounding District 16; first as the overall population declined, then as smaller sized families began to replace those who moved. However, between 1980 and 2010, the population under 18 in the census tracts within or overlapping District 16 declined 19%, while the enrollment in traditional public schools declined by twice as much, or 39%. Data compiled from a few different archives (online and print) help pinpoint the moment when enrollment began to decline precipitously and consistently, as shown in the graph below. Gaps in the line indicate incomplete or unavailable data.

Throughout the 1980s and 90s, total enrollment in District 16 fluctuated. Between 1980 and 2000, the largest single-year drop was in the 1996-97 school year, in the wake of Chancellor Rudy Crew’s controversial school ‘redesign’ plan and subsequent parent protests, including a boycott of J.H.S. 57. The most decisive and dramatic long-term decline, however, begins with the 2001-02 school year. The early 2000s marked two significant epochal changes. First, the election of Mayor Michael Bloomberg in late 2001 ushered in the current system of Mayoral Control, and along with it, the rapid expansion of charter schools. Depending on your point of view, these numbers illustrate either the debilitating effect of competition with charters on traditional public schools in District 16, or the success of the charter movement in expanding educational options for parents in Central Brooklyn.

But it was also in the late 1990s and early 2000s, according to sociologist Sharon Zukin, that upwardly mobile Black families began to take advantage of the down real estate market to buy and renovate brownstones in the historically Black neighborhoods of Harlem and Bed-Stuy, arguably opening the floodgates of gentrification. Even before this wave of so-called ‘Black gentrification,’ it was an open secret for decades that middle-class families in the neighborhood avoided the local schools. “It’s not just the new people coming in who don’t want to send their kids,” parent Carter Spurrier learned when she herself arrived six years ago. “It’s like a local tradition.” Bedford-Stuyvesant is now one of the most quickly changing neighborhoods in New York.

Between 2000 and 2010, the white population of Brooklyn’s Community District 3, which, boundary-wise, is widely considered to be the same as Bed-Stuy, increased by over 700%, while the Black population decreased by 10%. In the census tracts within or overlapping District 16, the white population increased by nearly 120% during the same period. This is a slower rate than that of the neighborhood overall, but as more white families move further east, these numbers are sure to be much higher in the 2020 census.

Meanwhile, the median home sale price in Bed-Stuy has nearly doubled since 2011, the average monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment as of this publishing is $2,209, and Bed-Stuy has become one of the most rent-burdened neighborhoods in the city: the average resident would need to spend 70.3% of their annual income to afford the neighborhood’s median rent. Population loss, the proliferation of charter schools, and rapid gentrification have recently been accompanied by highly impactful local shifts in education policy and parent activism.

  Mergers and Consolidations

For example, one of the Bloomberg administration’s most controversial school-reform tactics was to close struggling schools and replace them with multiple smaller schools, both traditional and charter. Citywide, Bloomberg’s DOE opened 654 new schools during his tenure. More than a decade on, however, many of these small schools are themselves struggling. The specifics of school leadership and culture aside, the problem is mathematical: a small school can’t support the variety of enrichment and after-school programming that a large school can. Instead of closing the Bloomberg-era small schools, as Bloomberg’s own DOE might have done, Chancellor Carmen Farina’s strategy is to merge them into more successful schools, ideally in the same building, retaining most of the original staff. In District 16, three mergers were proposed and approved last year:

Compared to closing schools outright, this “consolidation” strategy has been unusually popular with the teachers’ and principals’ unions, but not always with parents and school communities. Samuel Owens, a M.S. 385 parent, opposed the merger partly to preserve the educational priorities of his son’s school, but also in protest of how he and his fellow parents were treated during the process. District 16’s Superintendent at the time, Evelyn Santiago, presented the merger “as though it was written in stone” when it was technically only a proposal. “It was like we were force-fed,” Owens complained. Fabayo McIntosh, Founding Principal of Brighter Choice Community School — one of the Bloomberg-era small schools to survive and thrive — experienced the challenges of consolidation first-hand. “There’s a lot of emotion that goes with the merger,” she acknowledged. “The teacher challenge is, I am inheriting a group of teachers who don’t necessarily want to work for me. And not in a bad way, but ‘I didn’t apply for this school, I didn’t apply to work for this principal, I have to get to know this principal and this school and her goals and her vision.’” At the same time, with families, “especially when you have two schools in the same building that are merging, you kind of already have a little friction. Not intentionally, but you do.”

With parents and teachers alike, McIntosh focused on “taking time to honor people, to really see people, to listen to people, and to let people know that it’s going to be okay.” She actively engaged teachers from Young Scholars “so that when we come together that it’s not my original Brighter Choice staff that is in all the leadership positions.” She met with Young Scholars families to reinforce the message that, “I don’t think that my parents are better than you, I’m willing to listen to your voice and to listen to what you would want to see in the school…I will have a place for you as a parent leader in the school as well.”  

Leadership Matters

The fear and distrust that Principal McIntosh has encountered can be partly traced back to the culture of the Department of Education under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. As BMC concluded in its 2013 report:

The Department of Education’s restructuring of the school system, which focuses on individual schools rather than a coordinated network of local schools, has weakened the connective tissue between schools and their neighborhood institutions. Citing a weak superintendent structure, the use of city-wide school support networks, and competition for high-achieving students, CSD16 principals when surveyed said that they are often pitted against other school principals in the district and that they often compete with one another for scarce resources. They maintain that the Department of Education does not foster collaboration among schools in the district. Perhaps most importantly, there are few informal or formal structures that facilitate coordination and mutual support between schools in the district.

McIntosh confirmed that under Superintendent Evelyn Santiago, a Bloomberg appointee, “the Superintendent didn’t have that much power….Even though she was my Superintendent, I didn’t have much interaction with her.” The landscape of power and responsibility for school districts changed several times under Bloomberg, and McIntosh praised Santiago’s ability to “maneuver throughout the system” amid the instability. Superintendent Rahesha Amon first came to District 16 only a year ago, after serving as founding principal of Frederick Douglass Academy III in the Bronx for 12 years. Initially, she was appointed Principal Leadership Facilitator (PLF), but when Santiago resigned just a few months later, in the middle of the school year, Amon was tapped to succeed her.

She came in “guns blazing, in a wonderful way,” says McIntosh. “She has a focus, she took the time to study the neighborhood, [and] she’s very clear as to what she wants her schools to look like.” NeQuan McLean, President of the District 16 Community Education Council (CEC), confirms that the new Superintendent “met with every constituent: with elected officials, parents, PTA presidents…she started with listening.” As she listened, Amon was quickly impressed by Central Brooklynites’ “pride in their community and sense of connection to their schools.” But she also saw the enrollment trends, and she knew that “what people thought [about the schools] wasn’t what was happening.”

Accordingly, she has emphasized the need to “open those doors” and “rebrand” the traditional public schools of District 16. Some believe the district’s poor reputation was not entirely undeserved; McIntosh, a Bed-Stuy native who attended P.S. 243 The Weeksville School and started her teaching career at P.S. 308 Clara Cardwell, admits that eight years ago, when she had the opportunity to open a new school, “I felt that Central Brooklyn, for all of its richness and history, took a downslide…I don’t know if there was some systematic initiative to not pay attention to Central Brooklyn, but…I saw a lack of raising the bar to make sure, regardless of your circumstance, that you were given a shot at being successful.”

Echoing Chancellor Farina’s emphasis on professional development, one early achievement of Amon’s tenure is that every school principal in District 16 is currently taking part in the Urban Education Leaders Collaborative (UELC) at Columbia University’s Teachers College. But some feel not all of the “downslide” can be attributed to teachers and principals. “This is political,” says McLean, a lifelong Bed-Stuy resident and a parent at P.S. 262 El Hajj Malik El Shabazz. When McLean joined the CEC in 2014, “we had a council but the council was not operating. A lot of the work we do we can’t do without having six members,” and the council frequently could not meet this number.

As a result, despite the work of many parents “trying to get things implemented or trying to get things done” at individual schools, “we were not represented at the table for years” because the CEC was not functioning properly.“ My first couple of months, it was just trying to get the name out there. When you heard District 16, you laughed.” Community Education Councils were created in early 2002 along with the current system of Mayoral Control, replacing the school boards which had previously governed each district. The defunct school boards had some power over hiring and firing, expenditures, and curriculum, but a CEC’s only formal power is to approve or reject school attendance zones. “We don’t have the power of the school boards,” McLean admits, “but we have the bully pulpit of the school boards.” This “bully pulpit” includes the ability to submit an annual evaluation of the Superintendent and the District, which the District 16 CEC plans to do for the very first time this year.

Meanwhile, by McLean’s estimation, the council has debated and passed more resolutions in the past year than in all the previous years of its existence combined. For example, when McLean first joined the CEC, his first assignment was to chair the Gifted & Talented committee. In the beginning, “I really was just trying to get a tap on what Gifted & Talented was, try to find out why our district didn’t have it.” What he discovered was that there had been a Gifted & Talented program at P.S. 308, but it was created by the defunct school board and “dismantled” by the Bloomberg administration. This fall, thanks to the efforts of local leadership, District 16 will once again have a Gifted and Talented program, this time at P.S. 26. “We’re here to hold the DOE accountable,” says McLean: “Call them out when they need to be called out and praise them when they need to be praised.”

In the last few months, the Superintendent’s office and the CEC have collaborated on several events to create a more welcoming environment for parents, including a Community Health Fair, Literacy Fair, and Science Fair. “Under the former Superintendent we did not have these things,” says McLean. Both the CEC and the District have new websites and are more active on social media. And not a moment too soon, says McIntosh. As a district, she believes there are now “a lot of people watching us, and wanting us to succeed — or watching to see if we will succeed.”  

Charter, Charter Everywhere

Charter schools are often a flashpoint for angry debates among families and educators, in District 16 and across the city. Under Bloomberg, new charters were often “co-located” alongside traditional public schools either shrinking or in the process of being closed. Parents at these district schools see charters as a threat, draining limited resources, space, and attention. On the other hand, many parents who choose charter schools have first-hand negative experiences with traditional public schools, and themselves feel threatened by any attempts to limit their ability to choose alternatives. In January, the CEC sent a letter to the Panel for Education Policy (PEP) requesting a temporary moratorium on the siting of new charter schools in the district—and in an unprecedented move, the request was granted.

McLean is quick to clarify that the CEC asked for a two-year moratorium on new charter schools “not because we didn’t want students to have choice, but to give the Superintendent the opportunity to work with principals, to work on what we can put in place and how we can rebrand this district.” Charter boosters often argue that competition with charter schools forces traditional public schools to up their game. But many traditional public school leaders maintain that the competition is rigged; charter schools, especially large charter networks, have access to corporate and foundation funding that a traditional public school in a poor neighborhood like Central Brooklyn can’t hope to match. Meanwhile, traditional public schools tend to have higher numbers of students with greater needs, including English Language Learners and homeless students.

In fact, District 16 was recently found to have the highest proportion of homeless students in Brooklyn, and the third-highest citywide, at 15.2%. Just before Brighter Choice reopened this fall after merging with Young Scholars, Principal McIntosh estimated that 35% of her students would be from local shelters. Though District 16’s ninth charter school — its first Success Academy, part of the city’s largest (and most controversial) charter school network — opened this fall, the district under the new leadership of Superintendent Amon now has two years to prove itself to local parents without the pressure of additional charters vying for the space left by under-enrollment and under-utilization of school buildings. Perhaps counterintuitively, one of Superintendent Amon’s strategies is to increase collaboration…with charter schools.

Despite Mayor de Blasio’s anti-charter reputation, one goal of his Chancellor’s “Equity and Excellence for All” agenda is District-Charter Partnerships, and in June, Amon hosted the first District-Charter Partnership meeting in District 16. “Our thinking basically was: We are all public schools and we are all servicing the children of Bed-Stuy. How can we best leverage our resources?” She describes the event as “very spirited” and promises a number of collaborative projects moving forward. M.S. 267 Math, Science & Technology will share an urban garden with the two charter schools in its building, and there are plans to partner with charter schools on professional development for teachers as well as parent and community engagement activities.  

Power to the Parents

NeQuan McLean believes that what drives parents out of traditional neighborhood schools is not only quality of instruction, but also parents’ ability to make their voices heard and shape their children’s education: “I think it all goes to customer service,” he says. “I believe sometimes, when parents are upset at schools, or have situations and they feel like they’re not getting the answers or the response they want, instead of fighting, they pull their kids out. The system has been set up so that parents, what is our recourse?” This role of advocate and intermediary between parents and the system is the role McLean believes the CEC is meant to play, but until now has not had the capacity. As a result, “the DOE has lost credibility with this community. We don’t trust them. We don’t believe what they say.” As parents notice that “we’re not only talking, but we’re walking the walk and we’re making things happen,” the CEC has seen a “tremendous jump” in participation, says McLean. The CEC’s public meetings now attract a minimum of 40-50 parents each month, exceeding the capacity of the council’s small office and held instead in school auditoriums throughout the district, where they frequently feature student performances.

But McLean is far from satisfied. He makes a distinction between parent participation — ‘when we need you, we want you here” — and parent engagement — “parents really really making decisions, making their voices heard.” There are still too few opportunities for true engagement. Though the defunct school boards were chronically under-resourced and gained a reputation for corruption and incompetence, McLean says it is “ridiculous” that the CEC has so little formal power and such a small budget. Elsewhere in the state, school districts are governed by school boards; “Why can’t we have that? Why can’t the parent voice be really heard like it should be? There’s corruption everywhere. They can have more oversight, but we should have more power… not Albany.” But the face of “the community” is changing, he acknowledges. “Families are moving! They can’t afford it!” As a member of the Education Committee of Community Board 3, NeQuan is trying to start a conversation about the relationship between income, housing, and what happens in schools.  

New Kids on the Block

In years past, well-educated and well-resourced parents might have applied to under-enrolled, but relatively well-regarded, schools in nearby Districts 13, 15, and 17. But as gentrification in those neighborhoods has accelerated, popular targets like P.S. 11, Brooklyn New School, and P.S. 705 grew to have waiting lists. “What are people doing living here and not sending their kids to the local schools?” wondered Carter Spurrier, an artist who grew up on the Lower East Side and moved to Crown Heights with her husband when they were priced out of Bushwick. “You’re seeing a giant wave of gentrification happening, so what’s going on that these schools are still suffering and still under-enrolled and under-funded?” Many newly arrived middle-class parents in District 16 were asking the same questions.

They found each other at playgrounds, on the sidewalks, and through a Yahoo Group, and began to organize as the Bed-Stuy Parents Committee (BSPC) in the spring of 2015. Consciously bucking the stereotype of the restless, transient gentrifier, “we see ourselves as part of the community,” says Anthony Shaw, a founding board member who worked most recently as an education policy adviser to State Senator Jeff Klein. “We care about the kids. “We care about the community. We’re going to stay here for a while.” Nevertheless, there was a steep learning curve for many parents. “We started this group before I had even gone into any of the schools,” confesses Shaila Dewan, “which is stupid and arrogant, right? That’s just an example of the kind of thinking that we had to educate ourselves out of.” As their thinking evolved, so did their work. “At first, it seemed like [the members of the Committee] were thinking of starting their own school,” says Spurrier, “which then everyone decided was not a good idea. It became very clear after we started touring schools and talking to people that supporting our [existing] public schools was the priority, and Bed-Stuy doesn’t need more schools.” After that, the group was “focused on finding a way to support the district as much as possible,” says Shaw. But after touring schools and talking to a variety of local stakeholders, the group chose to focus on supporting two specific schools: P.S. 309 and Brighter Choice Community School.

Even after choosing the focus schools, it was far from clear what role an independent group of parents should play among the various players in District 16. For now, in addition to recruiting volunteers for district-wide events like the recent Science Fair, the Committee’s primary function is fundraising. “Why?” Dewan wrote to her fellow Committee members in May. “Because in contrast to PTAs in wealthier parts of Brooklyn that raise hundreds of thousands or even a million a year, our PTAs are lucky if they raise hundreds of dollars a year.” “Sometimes lack of services in a school is not because the school doesn’t want to provide those services,” explains Brighter Choice’s Principal McIntosh. “They might not have the funding to provide it, or they might not have the star power to help them get that funding. [Bed-Stuy Parents Committee] has, so far from what I’ve seen, they have some star power, they have connections, they can go out and connect you with different organizations to help enhance your school.” “Overall, most folks have been very open and receptive to us,” says Anthony Shaw, who is Black. But some established stakeholders are leery of the group’s emergence on the Bed-Stuy education scene. “We welcome any parent group that wants to help make our schools better,” says CEC President NeQuan McLean, but with with a caveat: “Don’t come in as you’re trying to start a fight. We’ve been fighting this fight for years.”

Members of the BSPC are trying to overcome the perception that the group sees itself as pioneering in the way McLean describes. “I really want to emphasize that we are just one part of a whole equation,” Dewan says. “When we formed, we didn’t know there was going to be a new Superintendent. When we formed, we didn’t know the CEC had finally reached a quorum after not having one for weeks or months. There was a bunch of energy, and we’re just part of it.” In this spirit, BSPC has co-sponsored events with established civic groups including the Brownstoners of Bedford Stuyvesant, a predominantly Black, middle class homeowner association established in 1978, and Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation, the nation’s first community development corporation and Bed-Stuy’s most recognizable non-profit. “I’m not about coming into a place and changing it,” echoes Spurrier, who is white. “I’d just move someplace else if I didn’t appreciate the culture, if I didn’t appreciate my neighbors and what they think they want their schools to look like.” Still, though the group is conspicuously multi-racial, Dewan admits, “one of our biggest challenges is how to expand our membership to include parents of other socioeconomic levels.”

This challenge was highlighted by the group’s initial focus on prospective District 16 parents with pre-school-age children, rather than families currently enrolled in the district. Now that the first handful of Committee members’ kids has started kindergarten, nowhere is this challenge more urgent than at Brighter Choice Community School. “When Brighter Choice started eight years ago,” Fabayo McIntosh remembers, “our population was really students from the local shelters and students from public housing. I would never want to have a school where that population of people don’t have space in the school. So I’m all for diversifying, I’m all for gentrification. What I don’t want is the school to not look like the neighborhood that it originally served…I’m very mindful of making sure that my Old Bed-Stuy parents feel welcome in the school, feel that their voice is valid also…Before Bed-Stuy got trendy, you were here, in the gutters, doing what you needed to do.”

Changes to a neighborhood can transform a school, a process which McIntosh hopes to manage to everyone’s benefit. But a revamped, middle class-friendly school can itself a determine the course of change in the wider neighborhood. When a school’s public profile improves among the best-resourced and most mobile class of New Yorkers — which seems almost destined to happen to the BSPC’s focus schools — demand and property values in that school’s zone eventually rise along with it. “Any fights about overcrowding, zoning lines, or displacement are a long way off,” Shaila Dewan wrote on the Committee’s blog in January of this year, but she’s less sanguine now. In the last few months, the Department of Education approved socioeconomic diversity plans for seven schools in gentrifying neighborhoods to try to stem the tide of demographic change, then opened the door to similar initiatives citywide. “It’s hard to think that you need that when a school is already 90% [students who qualify for] free lunch,” Dewan told me. “I was like, My kid’s going to a school that’s zero-percent white, what do I have to worry about? But things can change so fast.”


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