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UWS Parents Weigh Eliminating School Zoning Lines Through Controlled Choice

By Emily Frost | March 16, 2016 5:37pm
 CEC 3 member Kim Watkins, District 1 parent Lisa Donlan and District 3 parent Rene Kathawala led a discussion on controlled choice Tuesday night at P.S. 87.
CEC 3 member Kim Watkins, District 1 parent Lisa Donlan and District 3 parent Rene Kathawala led a discussion on controlled choice Tuesday night at P.S. 87.
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DNAinfo/Emily Frost

UPPER WEST SIDE — Education leaders are exploring new options for determining where local students attend elementary school — including an option called "controlled choice" that would do away with zoning lines altogether, given the failure of last fall's rezoning attempt.

At a meeting Tuesday night, many parents said they feared that removing school zoning lines would rob families of the ability to attend neighborhood schools within walking distance. 

Others argued that tossing out zoning lines and using different methods to determine enrollment was the best way to ensure equality across schools and that school populations mirrored the entire district's makeup.

This coming fall, Community Education Council 3 members will take another go at alleviating overcrowding, boosting diversity and determining who attends a new school, goals that prompted the initial reevaluation of current zoning lines. 

This process could lead to redrawing the zoning lines or creating a super zone that pairs schools together in a shared zone, among other recommendations.

CEC members, who have the final say over the placement of school district lines, are also considering controlled choice, that would eliminate the zoning lines, they said. 

Under controlled choice, which has been rolled out in places like Cambridge, Mass., and San Francisco, a community decides which "controls," it wants to use to determine enrollment — such as socioeconomic and special-needs status, race and proximity to schools. 

Using an algorithm the community decides on together, a parent who lived across the street from an elementary school could end up going to a school farther away, in order to even out that school's diversity, for example. So, where a student lives would no longer be the only determining factor in elementary school placement. 

Reaction to the proposal was mixed, with one mother saying Tuesday that even mentioning the elimination of zoning lines made her "nauseous." 

"I don’t want to have to walk up to 122nd Street [for school]," said Theresa Carrigan, a parent with young children who said her family has stayed in their cramped one-bedroom apartment to be close to P.S. 87 on West 78th Street. "If that happens for kindergarten, why am I here?" 

Though advocates of controlled choice — including Lower East Side parent Lisa Donlan, who is working to introduce the system in her neighborhood — reassured parents that proximity to schools could be factored into the algorithm, skepticism persisted. 

Jonathan Arkins, a P.S. 87 parent, described how much he loves seeing his daughter encounter her classmates around the neighborhood outside of school hours.

"It’s a wonderful thing to have that connection," he said. "I would be wary of anything that damages the notion of a neighborhood school."

But CEC member Noah Gotbaum said P.S. 87 is the perfect example of how a sense of community can be created no matter where students are coming from. 

Back in 2007, when Gotbaum sent his first child to P.S. 87, the school served more students from outside the district because fewer local parents were sending their kids to public schools.

The fact that people were traveling to get there didn't hamper the school community, he said. 

"It’s always been a great feeling," Gotbaum said. "Every parent and child has always felt welcome."

Many of the parents attending the meeting spoke of the sacrifices they'd made to live in Manhattan near a certain school and the work that went into creating a community there.

For one parent, the random assignment component of controlled choice alarmed her. 

"It is so stressful to go through this with our kids for middle school," she said. "If I had to go through this for elementary school, as well, I would just leave the city."

Other parents echoed the worry that controlled choice would drive parents to the suburbs or from the public school system. 

Former CEC 3 member Barbara Denham said the size of the district had to be considered. District 1, which encompasses the Lower East Side and the East Village and where controlled choice is in the works, is much smaller, she said. 

"The number one quality-of-living asset is walking your child to school. You’re asking far more people to commute with strollers on the subway or the bus," she said.

"If it was a smaller contained geographic area, I’m sure it would work. I just don’t think the logistics of this program would work."

Parents also spoke of the urgent need to have an open mind when it came to controlled choice, given the widening racial gap at local schools. 

Emmaia Gelman, a P.S. 75 parent, said fixing the issue wouldn't require much uprooting of students.

"District 3 does look different from other places, but it doesn’t take that much travel to integrate the schools," she said. "I just want people to not panic about questions that can be raised and answered [about controlled choice]."

Rene Kathawala, a P.S. 163 parent and PTA leader, said controlled choice was the best route for elevating the performance of all the schools in the district.

“Diversity should be viewed as an element of a great district, [but] it‘s not going to be simply issued from headquarters at the DOE," he said, noting that parents had to use tools like controlled choice to achieve it.

While Tuesday's session brought up a lot of questions, CEC 3 member Kim Watkins said that was the point.

"There is not a proposal on the table," she said of the controlled choice option.

The information session served as a vehicle so "we can really focus in on where we want to see the district move forward in the next five to ten years," Watkins added.

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