Volume 22, Number 18 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | September 11 - 17, 2009

Four school zones are better than one

By Eric Greenleaf

This week, due to the hard work of many parents and elected officials such as Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, in cooperation with the New York City Dept. of Education, the two new Downtown schools, Spruce Street and P.S. 276, opened as incubators in the Tweed Courthouse, preventing intolerable school overcrowding Downtown. However, there is still no zoning plan to assign students to what are now four Downtown elementary schools (P.S. 150, another Downtown school, has traditionally been an option school). The process eventually used last spring, which literally based school assignment on the luck of the draw, was roundly criticized as being arbitrary and poorly planned and communicated.

The D.O.E. recently floated two zoning alternatives and is expected to present one or both this month to the Community Education Council for District 2, which must approve any school zoning plan and can amend them or create its own proposals. The “four zone” option creates separate geographic zones for each school, while under the “one zone” option parents would rank their preferences for the four schools, and geographic proximity would be used to assign children to any schools with excess demand.

I urge adopting the four-zone option, while at the same time allowing switches among schools if space permits. A specific zone for each school creates a certainty and clarity that parents felt were lacking in last spring’s registration process. With four zones, parents will be assured that if they live in the zone, their children are guaranteed a seat in that school. Under this approach, the communities of children and parents that form when the kids are toddlers, so valuable to their early social experience, can continue into elementary school.

Parents are more likely to become involved in a school and support it, even in the preschool years, if they know that their child is assured of a seat there. Thus, a zoned elementary school can become a point of community focus for all of the families in the zone. The four-zone plan also sends the important message that all four of the schools will be excellent and desirable, continuing the tradition established by P.S. 89 and P.S. 234.

At first glance, the one-zone option has market appeal — wouldn’t all parents prefer to choose from a set of four schools instead of being confined to one? However, the notion that this option provides “market choice” is misleading. Market choice in, for instance, the computer market, means that consumers can choose from several computer brands and are guaranteed to get the brand or model they decide they want. However, the one-zone fallback of using geographical proximity to assign students if any schools become oversubscribed (oversubscription occurred in spring 2009 and would likely recur) means that parents will not be guaranteed their first choice.

Furthermore, the concept of geographical proximity is difficult to implement consistently. Would students who live a quarter mile south of a school be given the same chance to attend a school as those who live a quarter mile north? This solution isn’t practical Downtown, since all four schools are located near the edge of population concentrations rather than in the center. The geographical proximity needed to secure a seat in a school would also shift from one year to the next, and wouldn’t even be known until after registration is over, creating further uncertainty. Since younger siblings are entitled to attend the school that the oldest child attends, entire families will again be subject to the “luck of the draw” in the year that the eldest first enrolls. Thus, the uncertainty and arbitrariness that plagued this spring’s school enrollment is likely to become a permanent hallmark of any one-zone plan.

Parent requests to switch among the four schools should be allowed if space permits, however, because although all are expected to be academically excellent and have similar curricula, only students attending P.S. 276 and Spruce are presently guaranteed first priority in the middle schools located there. If some parents in the P.S. 234 or P.S. 89 zones prefer that their child have continuity from kindergarten through eighth grade, while some in the Spruce or P.S. 276 zone do not need continuity and instead prefer that their children attend P.S. 89 or P.S. 234, there may be sensible opportunities for switching, but these opportunities cannot be guaranteed to parents.

To help make the best zoning decisions, the C.E.C. will need accurate, detailed data to forecast school demand under different zone configurations, perhaps using computer mapping techniques that are widely used in urban planning. This information includes not only data on where students attending each school currently live, but also on the location of babies who have been born in the last five years, as well as the proportion of students who attend public school, to project future enrollment trends. Representatives of the D.O.E. have expressed a welcome willingness to provide this data. Their help may be needed to break administrative log jams with the various city agencies that have these data, such as the Department of Health. All parents, regardless of which zoning option they support, should follow the zoning process with interest and make their opinions known.

Eric Greenleaf is chairperson of the P.S. 234 Overcrowding Committee and the father of two students at the school.



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