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Plan Would Send Kids to Schools Based on Family's Income, Not Location

By Emily Frost | February 6, 2015 7:49am
 In order to have more diverse schools, local districts need to change their admissions criteria. 
Leaders Push for School Zoning Changes
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UPPER WEST SIDE — A proposed new school zoning plan would place kids in schools based on factors like socioeconomic status, special needs and English language skills rather than where they live.

Supporters of the controversial new system — called "controlled choice" — are working to get the support to roll out pilot programs on the Lower East Side in District 1, on the Upper West Side and Harlem in District 3, and in Fort Greene, Clinton Hill, Bed-Stuy and Brooklyn Heights in District 13. 

But other education leaders are pushing back against the idea.

On the Upper West Side, CEC 3 members said the system would mean more parents failing to get into their top choice schools, while giving up proximity as the key admissions criteria would force long commutes.

Under the current system, in every district except a few, students who live in a geographical zone are given priority for schools in that area.

If a school has extra room after accommodating those children, students from other zones in the district can apply. Often parents buy property or move into an area, or even use the address of a relative, just to secure a spot in a zone that includes a coveted school. 

But this system has resulted in inequitable distributions in terms of race, class and economic needs, the advocates of controlled choice say.

"Everyone says they want diversity and then our schools are highly segregated," said Lisa Donlan, the president of CEC 1. 

In District 3 the divisions between schools are stark. While 66 percent of the district is made up of black and Latino students, at many schools less than 30 percent of the population are students of color, said Donna Nevel, a parent activist and local resident who has been pushing for controlled choice through a two-year-old task force, the District 3 Equity in Education Task Force. 

Similarly, about 60 percent of the district's students have high economic needs, qualifying for free lunch and housing assistance. However, at some local schools, like P.S. 87, only 6 percent of the population has high socioeconomic needs, while at P.S. 76, 97 percent of the population does, the task force pointed out.

The same trends persist in the distribution of English language learners and students with special needs, they said. 

Controlled choice has been adopted by school districts across the country, in Cambridge, Mass., Montclair, N.J., and San Jose, Calif. among others. The results lead to diversity, but also to an across-the-board improvement in the schools, advocates said. 

"With controlled choice it becomes like a community investment in all the schools in the district," rather than just a select few, said District 3 task force member Teresa Arboleda.

Parents who are likely to be heavily invested in their children's school, and have resources, are spread throughout all the schools, she explained. 

Students with low socioeconomic status are shown to have higher achievement and those already in a higher socioeconomic bracket benefit from diverse cultural perspectives, task force members said. 

Utilizing an algorithm, criteria like a student's socioeconomic, English Language Learner and special needs statuses are weighted equally alongside their home address.

As a result, a more equitable mix of these factors can be achieved at all district schools.

Geography could still be a deciding factor, just not the main or only one, they said.  

In District 1, the CEC is hosting a series of nine lengthy and "intense" workshops to decide what diversity means to the community and what kind of diversity the community values. Then, once they've collectively agreed on the metrics, the CEC will start organizing controlled choice, Donlan said. 

They're applying for a multi-year New York State grant that would help that process along by funding a family resource center where parents could learn more about local schools and their options. 

On the Lower East Side, the heart of District 1, this kind of redistribution is not such a heavy lift and "there's a lot of political will" to bring controlled choice to the district, Donlan said.

Schools that are traditionally not as diverse — P.S. 363 or M.S. 315 — are actively seeking ways to have their representation more accurately mirror the neighborhood, she said. 

Education leaders uptown, however, voiced serious concerns about controlled choice at a recent Community Education Council 3 meeting in which the District 3 task force shared its vision.

"Under this plan there would be a pretty significant uptick in the number of parents who are traveling ... If you de-zone you invariably are going to have some reliance on busing," CEC 3 President Joe Fiordaliso said. 

Fiordaliso and others said they recognized that the district has a segregation problem, with white students mostly in schools Downtown and black and Latino students mostly in Uptown schools, but they said they weren't convinced controlled choice was the solution.

Controlled choice advocates said that in other areas where it had been adopted, about 85 percent of parents get their first or second choices for schools under the system, but CEC 3 members doubted the results could be replicated here. 

For example, currently zoned parents hoping to send their children to P.S. 199, known as an all-star school in the district, would likely be turned away because the student body is only 2 percent black and only 8 percent of its students receive free lunch — proportions that would have to rise under controlled choice, members noted.

"The numbers would never jive at a school like P.S 199...Just because of the sheer volume of applicants," he said. 

But parents' first and second choices would change once every school had the same parental investment and student achievement was more evenly spread out, said Arboleda, one of the local task force members. 

"You would have to re-indoctrinate parents so they can see the advantage of this," said CEC member Olaiya Deen. 

While in District 1 downtown and in Brooklyn's District 13, task forces already have a lot of community buy-in, District 3's task force is at the beginning of that road. 

CEC 3 members have authority over zoning but would ultimately also need the DOE's approval, Superintendent Ilene Altschul said. 

And while CEC 3 members heard the proposal at a recent meeting, they have yet to formally consider it, Fiordaliso said.