UPPER MANHATTAN — The city is backing off a controversial plan to scrap elementary school zones in upper Manhattan.
The Department of Education had planned to put a new elementary school choice system into place in the fall of 2013, allowing kids in Washington Heights, Inwood and northern Harlem's District 6 to attend any school anywhere in the district, rather than being assigned a seat in their zoned school — but now, city officials say they want to spend more time working out the details with the community.
Unless uptown parents can reach an agreement on the plan within the next month, any changes will have to wait until at least 2014, a DOE spokesman said Friday.
"The DOE is generally interested in choice," the agency said in a statement. "We are working with the [District 6 Community Education Council] to respond to their questions and ideas."
The DOE backed off the elementary school choice proposal one day after a Community Education Council meeting on the topic drew several dozen concerned parents to P.S. 48 at Broadway and West 186th Street.
Bryan Davis, chairman of the CEC's zoning committee and the main advocate for the plan, argued that it would empower parents by giving them more options and would improve schools by encouraging them to create special programs to attract students.
"With choice, parents can ask, 'What is the best education environment for my child?'" Davis said.
Many parents at the meeting agreed with Davis that the district would benefit from more high-quality elementary school options, but some questioned whether the new choice model would achieve that. Some parents also worried that eliminating zoned schools would break up communities and could send children far from home for kindergarten.
"Where's the evidence that this is going to address the inequities in District 6?" Nancy Cauthen, a parent at Washington Heights' popular P.S. 187, said after the meeting.
"I understand that parents in District 6 feel like they don't have good options, and that needs to be addressed," Cauthen continued. "To me, the answer is to improve the zoned schools and give them the resources they need to be better, rather than implementing a choice system that hasn't really been tried.
Doug Harmsen, 47, an uptown parent and teacher, said it would be unfair to families to shut them out of their current zoned school, since many people bought apartments with a particular school in mind.
“People vote with their feet," Harmsen said. "They moved to where a good school is and now the rug is being pulled out from under them."
Davis has proposed several different options to give parents more elementary school choices, including total choice, with every family having an equal shot at getting into any school in the district, and choice influenced by geographic priorities, with families more likely to get into schools closer to their home.
District 6 already has a handful of "choice" schools that families can apply to in addition to their zoned school, but parents have to research the schools themselves and must fill out a separate application for each one.
Under Bryan's choice proposal, parents would be able to fill out a single application ranking all of the schools in the district, and there would be elementary school guides and school fairs to help educate parents on how to make a decision.
Caroline Stinson, a Washington Heights resident who has a 2-year-old son, agreed that the city needs to do a better job informing parents of their options — whether the new choice proposal goes into effect or not.
"It's very unclear," Stinson said of the information available on the DOE website. "It was only in reading the neighborhood listserv that I came to understand what school choice was. That's all fine if you know about the listserv, the [Yahoo] group, if you're connected to it. If you're not, you're at a disadvantage."
The District 6 Community Education Council has scheduled several public meetings on the proposed zoning changes. The CEC will meet Oct. 18 from 7 to 10 p.m. at P.S. 48, 4360 Broadway at 186th Street, and Oct. 19 from 8:30 to 9:30 a.m. at P.S. 278's library, 421 W. 219th St.
In addition, the CEC's zoning committee will hold public hearings on the proposal Oct. 17 from 6 to 8 p.m. at P.S. 192/325, 500 W. 138 St., Oct. 25 from 6 to 8 p.m. at P.S. 115, 586 W. 177th St., and Nov. 1 from 6 to 8 p.m. at P.S. 98, 512 W. 212th St.
The public can also submit comments and ask questions by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or calling 347-735-6486.
With reporting by Jordan Davidson.