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Controversial Plan to Ax School Zones Suddenly Back on Agenda Uptown

By Nigel Chiwaya | May 24, 2013 9:08am
 A special meeting on school choice will be held at P.S. 48 Michael J. Buczek on May 28.
A special meeting on school choice will be held at P.S. 48 Michael J. Buczek on May 28.
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DNAinfo/Nigel Chiwaya

WASHINGTON HEIGHTS — The controversial plan to eliminate school zones in Washington Heights and Inwood, which was shelved last fall after parental outrage, will be back on the table at a special Community Education Council Meeting next week, DNAinfo New York has learned.

The agenda for the May 28 CEC meeting at 4360 Broadway lists a presentation by the Department of Education's Division of Portfolio Planning on school choice.

The shift comes after three PTA members made a request at a CEC meeting last week, CEC secretary Anthony Kelso said. The PTA members, one of whom represented Mott Hall Middle School in Manhattanville, requested the CEC to ask the Department of Education to formally revisit the zoning proposal, Kelso added.

Some CEC members said they were blindsided by the revival of the de-zoning debate, Kelso said.

"Can one person stand up in the audience and ask the superintendent to do this very serious thing?" Kelso asked. "And the superintendent's going to do it?"

CEC member Victoria Frye said council leadership skirted existing protocols in order to get the contentious proposal back on the agenda.

"This meeting was called with no vote or consensus within our CEC to invite these proposals or hold this meeting," she said via email. "Some members noted that adding another meeting is difficult at this time of year."

She added that there was already a meeting scheduled on June 3.

Parents have criticized the CEC for failing to properly notify the community about last week's meeting when the request was made to resurrect the de-zoning plan.

"Typically the email goes out via the parent coordinator of the schools," said Washington Heights parents Lori Uysal, whose three children attend P.S./I.S. 187 Hudson Cliffs. "There was no notification. I checked with the PTAs in five schools. Nobody got notification."

Eliminating school zones would allow parents and students to apply to any school within District 6, regardless of where they live. Advocates of the plan have said it provides more choices to families, especially those who live in less affluent parts of the district. But opponents argue that the district is already home to eight choice schools to which any family can apply.

Critics also assert that the plan would amount to a lottery system that wouldn't guarantee students acceptance into any of the top schools and could force elementary students to commute long distances every morning.

The plan drew fierce opposition from parents when it was introduced last October, prompting the DOE to back off plans until at least 2014.

When reached by DNAinfo New York, District Superintendent Elsa Nunez's office did not confirm that the meeting was taking place, instead referring questions to the DOE's press office. A DOE spokesman also could not confirm the meeting, and claimed there was no formal date for a presentation as of Thursday morning.

But the agenda for Tuesday's meeting, a copy of which was obtained by DNAinfo New York, shows that de-zoning will be up for discussion again.

Parents, who formed an anti-de-zoning coalition in response to the last threat, were quick to mobilize again. More than 20 concerned parents contacted state Sen. Adriano Espaillat during the week, prompting Espaillat to send a letter to Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott expressing his concern with the process.

"With significant concerns about the implementation of this system still unaddressed, I am disappointed that DOE has quietly resurrected a divisive plan our neighborhoods have already rejected," Espaillat said in a separate statement. "Previous versions of this plan excluded community input, and parents are alarmed by the potential confusion and anxiety this radical change will bring.

"The department has not learned from its own experience with changes with high school and middle school selections, and shouldn't repeat its mistakes with our youngest students."