By Michèle De Meglio
Are Brooklyn’s middle school students being shortchanged? A report released by the Coalition for Educational Justice (CEJ), an alliance of parent organizations, found that city schools offering grades six to eight are failing to produce academically successful students. According to the findings, which were compiled with data from the city and state Education departments, the majority of the city’s eighth-graders cannot read at required state levels. Students attending schools in low-income areas are more than twice as likely to be unable to read at the state standard than their wealthier counterparts. When kids get to high school, only 25 percent of African-American and Hispanic students graduate with a Regents diploma. These findings were unsurprising to Brooklyn parents who said that local middle schools have long needed work. “It didn’t surprise me at all,” said Brownsville resident Zakiyah Ansari, who has two children enrolled at I.S. 78, 1420 East 68th Street. “Overall, our schools are really failing our kids, especially in the high-poverty areas.” Carmen Colon, president of the Association of New York City Education Councils, which represents all of the city’s Community Education Councils (CEC), asserted that “it’s an issue of class” that has led to the poor performance of many schools in low-income neighborhoods. And middle school students have it the worst. “Middle school children have always been the low ones on the totem pole in getting what they need. All you hear about is universal pre-K and theme high schools,” Colon said. “Unfortunately, a lot of kids didn’t have what they needed in middle school to get to high school,” Ansari said. “The equation is high poverty leads to low-performing schools, leads to kids dropping out.” Ansari said that many schools in Brooklyn’s low-income communities lack necessary resources, such as enough textbooks and Internet connections, which hinder students’ chances for success. The CEJ report notes that eighth-graders attending Brooklyn schools without science labs have a harder time meeting science standards than students at schools with labs. The findings in CEJ’s report mirror standardized test results released just a few months ago. On the 2006 state English Language Arts (ELA) exams, the number of children who met or exceeded standards by scoring in the top two levels on the tests steadily declined from grades three to eight. Citywide, 61.5 percent of third-graders excelled on the ELA exam but in the eighth grade, just 36.6 percent of students placed in the highest brackets. Last year’s math exams were no different. Approximately 75.3 percent of the city’s third-graders scored in Levels 3 and 4. Of the city’s eighth-graders, just 38.9 percent met or exceeded standards. Schools Chancellor Joel Klein has acknowledged that middle schools need improvement. “That’s an area where we need to do some work,” he said at a meeting of District 20’s CEC last October. He went on to say that the eighth grade “is really the place where we’re not achieving as a city.” In response to CEJ’s report, the city Department of Education released a statement noting, “We have added an extra $40 million annually to fund academic interventions and improve instruction, closed failing schools, widely reconfigured grade structures to support instructional and social cohesiveness, and created small learning communities in large middle schools.” The DOE is also opening more schools serving grades kindergarten to eight with the belief that kids will excel if they remain in one school building.