“Across the city, we want to create new high-performing options in areas where we see low enrollment. The enrollment change affects just a handful of schools and a small number of students,” said Department of Education spokesperson Devon Puglia. “Families should be able to choose the school that’s right for them. That’s just what we’re offering.”
The changes will affect what DOE characterizes as a “tiny fraction” of students—roughly, about a thousand high-schoolers.
School Choice: Who Chooses?
A generation before mayoral control, the Board of Education divided the city into 32 school districts, each of which served a particular community. Historically, each individual district office provided support to the schools in their geographic zone.
Those lines of support have been largely erased in the era of mayoral control, as the DOE eradicated removed school management and support structures from the 32 district offices, replacing them first with regions and eventually with affinity networks not linked to geography at all.
Each district had grade schools, middle schools and high schools. Students who lived in each school’s “catchment” area – a geographic boundary line imposed on different neighborhoods – were assigned to zoned schools, which were, in turn, bound by law to accept all students who sought to enroll.
One signature Bloomberg reform, school choice, was first installed for high-school applicants: The city closed dozens of large, struggling zoned schools and replaced them predominantly with small schools of 400-600 students that shared existing buildings – and accepted students by application, not based on geography. (Some middle-schools also use a system of applications rather than zones, while most elementary schools are zoned.)
Today, of the city’s 400+ high schools, less than 10 percent are zoned schools, offering automatic enrollment for local students. No high schools in Manhattan are zoned, for example, although Queens and Staten Island continue to offer a mix of zoned and “choice” school options. Year by year, as DOE shutters high schools, it’s predominantly zoned schools that close, regularly constricting local options.
Zoned schools face an additional, significant challenge when they are asked to absorb students new to city schools over the course of the academic year. These "over-the-counter" students may be new arrivals from overseas. They may be homeless or recently released from incarceration. Others are part of transient families – unsteady housing means instability everywhere, including school – or minors in foster care; still others are overage for their assigned grade, or those who did not participate in the school-choice process.
A recent study by the Annenberg Institute for School Reform showed that some high schools – often, the very zoned schools that are struggling with low achievement and organic or DOE-enforced low enrollment – absorb outsize populations of over-the-counter kids, the highest-need children in the public schools.
For example, at Jamaica High School in Queens, one in three students are over-the-counter enrollees; at Brooklyn's Midwood High School, a strong school in steady demand, one in thirty are OTC.
Citywide, 12 percent of students arrive over-the-counter every year, but low-performing schools enroll 20 percent OTC students, on average.
Practically speaking, this means that schools enroll a handful of new students – young people who may not speak or read English, or whose education was interrupted in their home country by poverty, war, famine and political unrest – every week, a disproportionate burden.
Later this month, the Panel for Education Policy will vote on the DOE’s newest proposal, to limit enrollment at specific zoned high schools, so that the students who would have been guaranteed seats are no longer guaranteed enrollment. Though it’s hard to believe that this was the administration’s intent when they promoted school choice, this could force some locals into distant schools.
Lehman High School in the Bronx, and Flushing, Newtown and Queens Metropolitan High Schools in Queens will not guarantee enrollment to local students. Although DOE says it does not anticipate an overflow, it does say that zoned students will have a priority over out-of-zone applicants, if not an outright guarantee.
It’s not clear how enrollment decisions will be made: Will there be a lottery for open seats? Will there be waiting lists? Will students be ranked by ability, or demographics, or expressed interest, as is the case for hundreds of small high schools that pay special attention to applicants who have attended an open house? DOE has declined the opportunity to answer these specific questions.
What’s more, DOE intends to open new schools in the zoned school buildings, according to DOE’s Puglia—despite the fact that Bloomberg will be out of office well before the 2014-15 school year, when the new schools are slated to open.
But it might not get that far. David Bloomfield, a professor of education law at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Grad Center, notes a pesky bit of state education law, Sec 2590-h(2-a)(a), which requires that “significant changes in school utilization” set in motion a lengthy process, including environmental impact statements and public hearings.
“I don’t think they have enough time,” Bloomfield told City Limits. “Even if they did,” Bloomfield added, ”it could be reversed by the next administration,” once the new mayor is sworn in.
DOE says the changes will improve the options for high-school students, and maintains that denying enrollment guarantees to local students does not amount to eliminating the guarantee of zoned school seats. It’s hard to understand how limiting enrollment doesn’t potentially exclude local students—or how that exclusion can be recast as a zoned school.
Maybe the “tiny” fraction of 1,000 potentially excluded students will have some insight into the question.