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Twain magnet status in question - Junked quota system opens school up to new ramifications

Now that racial quotas are gone from I.S. 239 Mark Twain, parents are left with many questions regarding the ramifications of the court order that could remove the school's magnet status. “Some of the comments have been answered tonight but a number of questions remained unanswered,” said Judy Garawitz, a member of the District 21 United Federation of Teachers, at a March 25 meeting with city Department of Education officials at I.S. 303 (501 West Avenue). “We thought we were coming here tonight for answers and that is a concern for all parents, teachers and administrators.” The Mark Twain School for the Gifted and Talented, located at 2401 Neptune Avenue within District 21, is a magnet school that serves middle school families throughout New York City. Students must test into the school at a certain level in order to be admitted. Last month, a federal judge overturned a quota system that held students of color to a higher testing standard than white students sending applications to the magnet school. The system, in place since 1974, mandated that 60 percent of Mark Twain students would be white and 40 percent would be minorities. Admissions standards were higher for students of color, who needed to score at least 84.4 on the admissions test for acceptance, while a white student needed to score a 77 or above. “Mark Twain is staying a gifted and talented school. Admission is not changing, but the sole exception is that the school will not be considering race anymore,” said Michael Best, General Counsel to the Chancellor of Education. “Fifth, sixth, and seventh graders will maintain the busing through their eighth grade year. I don’t want the audience or the Court thinking we came here without answers at all. We’re giving you the answers we can give.” Parents who attended the town hall meeting expressed less concern about the quota system and more anxieties about the quality of their school diminishing if its magnet status would be revoked. “It’s a wonderful school and I hope it continues as a desegregated school,” said Pam Kelter, a parent and PTA member at Mark Twain. “What is sad about this story is that the racial aspect of the case has received much attention but the magnet school funding, the way the school was set up, the busing, and the gifted and talented program were all designated in the court order but has received less attention.” Department of Education (DOE) officials were unable to answer whether the school would retain its magnet designation, despite several questions about the future of the school and whose children can attend that parents and administrators submitted to the moderator. According to Kelter, the school’s budget was already reduced $120,000 this year and will likely face additional cuts in the next year if the mayor’s proposed budget is approved. Losing magnet status would result in the removal of $300,000 in city funding. When asked for comment, the principal and admission officers from I.S. 239 declined to speak without DOE approval. “People should be confident in the short term that the school will remain a high quality desegregated magnet school that will remain gifted and talented,” said James Meyerson, an attorney on the original Mark Twain case. “My concern is the long term. Gifted and talented programs do drain off children from other schools and their families have a positive impact in their schools that could exist in other schools.” At the urging of parents who wrote to the Court last month, the Court asked for a letter from the Chancellor or Mayor Michael Bloomberg indicating that Mark Twain will continue to remain a superior magnet school, an integrated and desegregated school, and its admission policy will not change appreciably with respect to selection criteria. Parents were unaware whether the letter had been written and had questions about whether their children would be able to attend the school in the coming years. “Existing gifted schools are afraid of what the Chancellor will do in the future. We will lose one of the best schools,” said Mary Ann Russo, a parent at Mark Twain. “The Chancellor said it’s always been a citywide school and now there’s no guarantee that any of our children will get placement. We cannot believe they want to change a great school. We used to have priority, and now we don’t.” District 21 President Ronald Stewart emphasized that the DOE should be looking to improve all schools in the district and urged parents to continue their involvement in district schools. “If your child does not get into Mark Twain, whatever school they attend, make sure you are there working to improve the quality of the school and make sure you are involved,” Stewart said. “The panelists here represent the DOE and we represent our children.”

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