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Nibbling at the Toes of the Emperor: High School Admissions Policy

If you wanted to fill a school auditorium for a parent meeting, just put “zoning” on the agenda. For parents the ideal zoning would be Pre-K through Medical School in the same building, about three blocks from their house.The NYTimes reports on how a coalition of City Council members derailed a plan to build an educational campus that included small high schools, in the Mott Haven section in the Bronx.

The imperial Bloomberg/Klein administration doesn’t take the time to “create” policies with input from all stakeholders. They “rule” by ukase and determined, focused press campaigns. The Klein High School Admissions program is a prime example.

In the seventies the BOE created a complex high school zoning pattern. Neighborhood schools could create educational option programs, basically schools within schools to attract youngsters from outside of their zones. Other schools also created theme programs to keep students who lived within their zones. It turned into an entrepreneurial system: some schools did it well and received thousands of applicants while others attracted few applicants.

Unfortunately it was a “leaky” system, the BOE didn’t monitor it closely, “deals” were made, and, High School Superintendents were allowed to “dump” low achieving and/or discipline problems into “less favored” schools.

We now have 200 small high schools with another 200 in the pipeline. The encyclopedic High School Directory is virtually incomprehensible. The High School Fairs are bazaars with each school flacking it’s wares.

The Klein High School admissions system is based on the premise that kids should be able to chose the school that they want to attend: a noble goal, however, there is no advantage to local parents. The system does allow parents to “rank” schools, however, the plan is a lottery. If you live across the street from a school you have no advantage, you have to take your chances with everyone else. The small high schools are limited to entering classes of 100 students.

If a parent calls their local City Council person and asks whether they can help them to get into a local school the answer they get is: “The DOE doesn’t acknowledge the existence of local legislators.”

The new admissions plan could have carved out seats for local kids, but the plutocracy at Tweed knows better, and, they are deaf to the lessons of history.

When Morrow high School opened after over a decade of parent advocacy the school had a creative three-tiered zoning plan. Kids who lived in a small area around the school had first priority, the school district that surrounded the school had the next priority and then kids from the borough. It was the result of many meetings with the stakeholder community and was accepted by all the “players.”

Democracy is a lengthy and ofttimes fractious process, (I can show you my scars!) but it’s worth the effort. Crafting policy from the bottom up builds constituency. For Tweed it’s a lot easier to hire “experts,” aka consultants, and release the “policy” with fanfare and a well designed public relations campaign.

The anger is bubbling in homes around the city. Parents are increasingly angry. Elected officials are tired about being “taken for granted.”

It will be fascinating to see whether the emperor realizes that for many parents, he has no clothes.