UPPER MANHATTAN — Applying to kindergarten in upper Manhattan could soon become a lot more interesting.
City officials and education advocates are weighing a plan to get rid of elementary school zones in Washington Heights and Inwood's District 6 — allowing families to send their kids to any school anywhere in the district, rather than giving them a seat in their local zoned school.
The goal is to give all families an equal shot at attending the most sought-after schools and to spread resources more evenly throughout the rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods, parents said.
"We want to create equal access to all our schools in our district and to empower parents," said Bryan Davis, chairman of the District 6 Community Education Council's zoning committee and a chief proponent of the plan.
But some parents worry that children could wind up going to kindergarten far from home, breaking up the sense of community that usually springs up around local schools.
"We just have no precedent, so I think it's a really big risk," said Kari Steeves, a Washington Heights mother of two. "Why do it? What's the benefit going to be?"
Washington Heights families zoned for the popular P.S. 187 are particularly resistant to the change because their children would no longer be guaranteed a seat in the high-performing school. Some residents are also worried that their property values could suffer, parents said.
The idea of giving Uptown families more school choice has been in the works for years, as Davis and others sought a way of curbing school overcrowding and encouraging each elementary school to pick a specialized focus as a way of drawing students.
City officials were receptive to the idea after parents presented it last spring, and over the summer the Department of Education proposed several ways of carrying it out.
One option is a pure choice system, in which every child would have an equal chance of attending every school in the district. Another possibility is a choice system with geographic preferences, in which children would be more likely to get into a school that is close to their home, according to DOE documents.
Now, the Community Education Council is holding a series of public meetings this fall to get feedback from residents. They will then hammer out the final details of the plan with the DOE, Davis said.
Davis thought the plan would likely not go into effect until the fall of 2014, but a DOE spokesman said the city is aiming to put it in place by next fall.
Either way, the plan would not have an impact on any current students or their younger siblings, who would still be guaranteed a seat in their current zoned school, Davis said.
Tory Frye, a CEC member, said she wants to see more evidence that increased choice would benefit families and school communities before she decides whether to support it.
"This could be a hugely fundamental shift," Frye said. "I'm concerned about the potential negative effect…on children's educational experiences and their experience of being connected to their communities and neighborhoods."
Tony Kelso, another CEC member, said he is concerned that some schools in the district currently struggle on standardized tests and other assessments — but he isn't sure that a new choice system would fix that.
"I just don't think choice it's going to solve anything," said Kelso, who added that he wanted to hear from more local parents about what they think. "It's just going to move things around."
Families in District 6 already have some elementary school choice. While all families are currently guaranteed a seat in their zoned school, they can also apply to one of six district-wide "choice" schools that have specialized programs, like the Amistad Dual Language School and the progressive Muscota New School, both in Inwood.
But each of those district-wide schools requires families to fill out a separate application. And many parents, particularly those who do not speak English, are not even aware that the options exist, putting them at a disadvantage, advocates said.
Under a broader choice system, Davis envisions all parents filling out a single application that would list all of the district's 25 elementary schools and would allow parents to rank the schools based on their preference. To help parents make an educated choice, the district would put out an elementary school guide and would hold school fairs, Davis said.
"The current model of zoning limits parents' options…to make choices about their child's education," Davis said. "We want to empower every parent to make those choices."
The CEC's zoning committee surveyed about 500 parents of preschoolers earlier this year and found that more than 80 percent of them supported greater elementary school choice, Davis said.
The District 6 Community Education Council has scheduled several public meetings on the proposed zoning changes. The CEC's zoning committee will meet with local principals Oct. 11 from 4 to 6 p.m. at P.S. 48, 4360 Broadway at 186th Street. Other upcoming CEC meetings include Oct. 18 from 7 to 10 p.m. at P.S. 48 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.