A Brooklyn middle school is at the center of a revived debate over using auditions in middle school applications at the risk of disfellowshipping local students.
After strong backlash from some of Sunset Park’s parents, attorneys and local leaders, the Department of Education held a forum Tuesday night with more than 150 participants to seek selective admissions to MS 936, a performing and visual arts school known as “Arts Off 3rd.” to reconsider.
Families who prefer the more demanding application process said it offers aspiring art lovers an accelerated program – while opponents believe it excludes low-income students who lack access to art classes and resources.
Stephen Stowe, president of the parent-led Community Education Council 20, said there are steps the DOE can take to ensure all students have a fair chance at audition-based admissions.
“We believe that as with any selective program, the answer is to evolve and cultivate, not abolish,” Stowe said.
“Let’s also try to find a way to help students who may be disadvantaged when they apply but have the talent and ability to do well at this school,” Stowe said. “Maybe they haven’t had paid private piano lessons for six years, but there are ways to identify students who have a natural ear for music.”
MS 936 opened its doors in 2020 and accepted students on a random basis – up until this admissions cycle, when applicants were invited to audition for programs in arts, dance, theater and music. The deadline for submitting videos and materials for the virtual audition was March, according to the school’s website.
The lottery brought about two-thirds of the bids to students at Sunset Park elementary schools, according to city data released Tuesday night. Figures showed that 83% and 74% of admissions letters in 2020 and 2021, respectively, went to students from low-income families.
Since switching to an audition-based process, 61% of offers have gone to local students and 71% to poorer children, city data showed.
One mother who said her daughter “worked super hard to get accepted,” added that as a parent, she has “mixed feelings” about the admissions process.
“There are so many kids who have incredible talent,” she said at the gathering, “and when they get the opportunity, they can really show it, and sometimes they need to be shown the art to really grasp it.” So it almost sounds like we need more schools or more schools to learn art.”
“Validated” admissions were suspended during the pandemic when then-Chancellor Richard Carranza told parents nearly 200 middle schools would not use academic records, auditions, attendance or other benchmarks to evaluate applications.
The controversial application process has come under fire from some advocates who say screens disadvantage certain students in accessing well-resourced schools.
“There are many claims that these are different, there are different children of screeners,” said councilor Alexa Avilés, whose office urged the DOE to engage with the parents and asked the superintendent to meet with nearby elementary schools, what a spokesman said he did.
“Screeners are screeners — they filter out people,” Avilés said, adding that applicants who were elementary school age may not have been exposed to the arts.
In an email to parents received by The Post, council member Justin Brannan, who also represents families in the school district and has campaigned for arts education, took a different approach.
“Yes, I support – and have always supported – MS 936 as it should be: District 20’s premier middle school dedicated to the arts, with a district-wide, audition-based admissions process,” he wrote.
District 20 Superintendent David Pretto said at the meeting that the DOE may consider changes for future approval cycles, citing some improvements his team has already made, from removing technical music terms from the approval process to removing a graphics component for Children who did not have access to technology.
“These components of the arts audition were not considered to ensure that the auditions were fair,” he said, “and that everyone had an opportunity to showcase their talents accurately.”
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